Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Miami's biggest question mark, Cincinnati's glaring need & more from Matchday 10

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Matchday 10 has come and gone, and we’re starting to get a really, really good feel for what’s what in this thing of ours.

Let’s dive in:

Touch the Sky

It’s been a long time – two months! – since I led this column with Inter Miami. Back on Matchday 1 it was a lot of “if this works, then that’ll work, and if that works, then this, this and this are less of an issue, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it all plays out.”

After Matchday 10, which saw them take a 3-1 win over visiting Nashville SC on Saturday, it’s more “can they hold this thing together and keep finding answers?” The Herons technically sit atop the Eastern Conference table with a bit more than a quarter of the season in the books, which is good, but they’ve done it despite a raft of destructive injuries, which is bad and getting worse.

Somewhat shockingly it’s mostly not the old guys who are dinged up. Lionel Messi’s missed time, as has Jordi Alba, but both guys have been more available than not. Young Facu Farías, meanwhile, is essentially out for the year, and young Federico Redondo is out for a couple of months, and young Diego Gómez looks like he’ll be joining him after getting carted off against Nashville. Young Benja Cremaschi is just returning to the lineup, and youngish Leo Campana is out a bit with a hammy, as is, er, middle-aged (by soccer standards) Robert Taylor.

That’s a lot. That would knock most teams on their collective rear ends. But Miami have Messi and Luis Suárez, and Sergio Busquets has always been properly rated as a midfield genius but underrated as an innings eater, and Julian Gressel’s done everything that’s been asked, and they struck gold twice in the SuperDraft (Leo Alfonso and Yannick Bright are both keepers), and they’ve scrounged enough depth at both fullback spots. It might be duct tape and toothpicks, but duct tape and toothpicks have kept more than one ship afloat.

So, what is the next step, then? How does this team turn into the type of thundering juggernaut Messi teams are supposed to be?

  1. Step one: Get healthy.
  2. Step two: Fix the backline.

No, I’m not talking about the backline’s weakness in the air or on set pieces (though they still need obvious work on that). Rather, it’s that their distribution hasn’t been incisive enough to create the type of positional dominance via possession that we saw from, for example, last year’s Crew team. 2021 New York City FC. Or Tata Martino’s Atlanta United sides in 2017 and 2018. Or, obviously, the very best Messi teams.

Miami are still really good anyway, and they might not need to hit the in-possession heights of those teams in order to win stuff this year. They have Messi, after all, and that alone means they’re liable to win anything. Nonetheless, the best version of this team doesn’t just win stuff: they win stuff by overwhelming teams with the ball.

We have seen only bits and pieces of that throughout this young season. We got a good taste of it on the equalizer on Saturday:

I love this clip because it starts with Mo Edu talking about how, for the first time all game, Miami had been able to move their lineup – they’d been pinned in their own end for the first 10 minutes with the center backs unable to find the kinds of outlets that could lead to sustained attacks. And since this particular sequence starts with a throw-in to Busquets (in other words, since it doesn’t involve the center backs) it works well for Miami.

Note, however, that the key pass in the sequence, which comes at the 18-second mark of the clip and elicits a “what a ball!” from Mo, comes from center back Nico Freire. He has that club in his bag, and as he’s gotten fit and gotten into the XI more often, he’s been more comfortable using it. That, on Saturday, was to Nashville’s detriment.

So where are we on Miami, then? We’re here: The best, most important players on the team are obviously Messi, Suárez and Busquets. The swing players – the guys who will determine whether Miami go into Leagues Cup and the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as “this team has a shot because of Messi” vs. “this team are huge favorites and it’ll be shocking if they lose” – are Freire and Tomás Avilés. Their ability to create both rhythm and space with their distribution is the differentiator.

As for Nashville, they’re caught in a nosedive that looks headed for a tailspin that might turn into a death spiral. The two pillars of their success over the past half-decade were their ability to defend in their own area and their ability to punish teams on the break, and right now they are poor at both of those things.

Know You Better

It’s a measure of how quietly competent everything about FC Cincinnati is these days that we, collectively, barely batted an eye at the fact that they replaced five starters from last year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning side this winter. In retrospect we all clearly underappreciated how much of a lift that much turnover requires from the team, and it explains some of the struggles we’ve seen from the Garys to start the season.

Following their 2-1 win at Atlanta, however, it seems fair to say they’re figuring some of this stuff out.

The biggest part of it is obviously the defense. Investing in the backline and deep-central midfield the way they have keeps the floor high. But it was the two-headed playmaking monster of MVP Lucho Acosta and the since-departed left wingback Álvaro Barreal that raised last year’s ceiling.

Here’s Lucho with Barreal’s replacement, Luca Orellano:

Even beyond that goal, this partnership is starting to look good. You can see it in how often Lucho is shading out to the left, not because he’s frustrated and wants to get on the ball, but because he wants to combine with Orellano in order to unlock the opposing defense. There is power in getting on the ball in spots where you are comfortable, and where you have dynamic superiority. Lucho’s always been comfy out in the left half-space, and as he and Orellano spend more time out there together, they know each other better. And that’s creating a dynamic superiority similar to what this team had last year.

There appear to be other changes coming soon. First, the buried lede: DP forward Aaron Boupendza lost his starting spot for at least this week. The Gabonese is a true forward in a lot of ways, but one way in which he’s not is that he does not want to battle central defenders. He wants to drift away from the play and pick his spots, much like Corey Baird.

Which is to say that Cincy have missed Brandon Vazquez. The big man was more than just a reliable goalscorer – he was a battling, physical fulcrum whose presence in the central channel meant that the rest of the attackers had to do less of the grunt work. Neither Boupendza nor Baird have been able to pick up that slack, and Vazquez’s absence has been something close to glaring in recent weeks. Now there are reports that 19-year-old Venezuelan target forward Kevin Kelsy is on the way. This is a player Cincy have been interested in for a bit – I talked about him a few weeks ago on This is MLS:

What does this do for the Garys when he arrives (which, to be clear, is still if he arrives)? I think the ideal answer is he allows them to just return to what they were last year on both sides of the ball. He’s a mobile target forward in the mold of Vazquez, and with Orellano starting to do his best Barreal impression, the big void right now for Cincy is “guy who does the stuff Vazquez did the past two years.”

Is that enough to return Boupendza to the level he hit down the stretch in 2023? They’ll need it to be if they’re going to add to their trophy cabinet.

Atlanta are ostensibly a team after more trophies for their own cabinet, but after going up 1-0 they looked like the worst version of themselves. I’ll analyze this the same way we analyze it every time it happens to them:

  • They have too much talent to lose in this manner.
  • They have enough talent to win a trophy of some sort.
  • They won’t win anything if they keep dropping points like this.

There’s no tactical or strategic master plan to prevent these kinds of losses. This is just a matter of executing on things like short corners and offside traps.

A few more things to ponder…

12. I think it’s pretty clear that the Concacaf Champions Cup burden is starting to weigh on Columbus, whose winless skid in MLS play ran to five games, and seven games across all competitions following Saturday’s 2-2 home draw with Portland. I can’t bring myself to be concerned about that, however, because two of those games were draws with – and a PK shootout win over – Tigres UANL in the CCC quarters, which is the real measuring stick for the Crew side.

What I’m saying is they’re one of the best teams in the region. I can’t wait to see them vs. Monterrey in the semis this week.

As for Portland, they’re now winless in six and Phil Neville is still searching for the right defensive mix. They’re 28th in goals allowed, and 27th in expected goals allowed. Evander continues to cook and the attack is both fun and multi-faceted, which keeps them in games. But any sort of slump in front of goal would be fatal for this team right now.

11. Orlando City pushed their unbeaten run to four games with a 2-2 draw up in Montréal, and the attack is starting to come around: they’ve scored eight goals in those four games after scoring just twice in the first four matchdays of the season.

About a month ago Taylor Twellman made a point when watching Duncan McGuire, that too often his movement both in possession and attack was to get himself chances, and not enough of what he did was to work for the team. I agreed with him. But McGuire’s improvement curve is basically a diagonal line to the top right corner, and has been since day 1:

One note: Facu Torres again played inside as a No. 10, this time with Nico Lodeiro as an inverted right winger. And once again Torres didn’t generate much – just 0.03 xA off of one chance created. At the moment, Oscar Pareja looks married to this personnel switch regardless.

These were tough points dropped for Montréal, but overall another promising performance (especially when you factor in their missing pieces). Laurent Courtois’ got them heading in the right direction.

10. D.C. United’s missing pieces have them heading in the wrong direction, as their 2-0 loss at NYCFC has them with just one win in their past eight. Plain and simple: they haven’t been able to turn that press into enough goals, and when they do come upfield in search of turnovers, they’ve left themselves vulnerable on the counter.

NYCFC exploited that well:

NYCFC are now four unbeaten. Nick Cushing gave what I thought was a pretty enlightening postgame presser.

“I thought from [minutes] 35 to 45, we dropped our intensity and we dropped our standards a little bit. We started to allow them to throw the ball in the box,” Cushing said. “We started to allow them too much possession. We weren't really pressing the passes, which were not only denying them goal chances, but we were creating moments. We were regaining and creating moments from them. The goal is from this moment, but when you don't do it, you give teams a chance to get back in the game and build confidence and build momentum.

“With a guy like Christian Benteke, balls in the box are incredibly dangerous. So, I thought the most positive part of our performance tonight was how we gained control and we became assertive and we were dominant in the second half.”

9. Toronto FC beat the reeling Revs 1-0 up in Toronto. I’ll turn this blurb over to chief correspondent Calen Carr, who was on the scene:

The biggest thing I got was Toronto returning to what made them successful at the beginning of the year. They were compact and conceded possession. New England had two big chances. Giacomo Vrioni’s breakaway was the biggest, but for a striker with low confidence too much time to think showed and Sean Johnson made an excellent save. That was the formula for TFC for the first five matches before losing Lorenzo Insigne.

Prince Owusu’s goal was outrageous and proved that even without Insigne, Herdman might be able to trust that someone can find a special moment. Since conceding only two in their first five, they gave up 10 goals in their previous three games, largely due to stretching themselves to search for goals without Insigne. It’s a big win for Toronto to move to fifth place. They had four wins all of last season and already equaled that mark.

With TFC missing a number of players and the big chances New England had, they will feel they let themselves down again. With an in-form Messi & Inter Miami coming to Gillette next weekend, I fear things could get ugly.

Calen soft-sold that: things are already ugly for the Revs. Caleb Porter’s four points through eight games is the second-worst eight-game start in history for a new manager, behind only Terry Dunfield’s interim reign in Toronto last season.

Nothing’s done yet – New England are just seven points below the red line with a game in hand – but there’s no evidence suggesting this team’s about to figure it all out.

8. Chicago are another team that don’t look like they’re about to figure anything out, either, and are back in their customary spot at 13th in the Eastern Conference table after taking a 4-0 hiding at home vs. Real Salt Lake. Federico Navarro gets our Face of the Week for his inadvertent helper on the first of Chicho Arango’s two goals:

RSL took care of business against a side that was asking for it. The end.

7. The good news for the Dynamo: They got Héctor Herrera back and he looked good. Not great – there was some rust evident – but good enough in his first action of the year.

The bad news for the Dynamo: They gakked up a late counterattack to Emiliano Rigoni for a painful 1-0 loss to visiting Austin.

Everything about the game played out as you would expect it to, with the Dynamo doubling up Austin’s total passes, and possession, and shots, and xG. Even without an actual center forward available, these are the kinds of performances that Houston’s been able to turn into points.

Not this time. Austin did a nice job of bend-don’t-break and got rewarded with all three points and finished the weekend above the playoff line.

6. Also above the playoff line: THE RAPIDS!! ALL CAPS BABY!!!

They followed up last week’s 3-0 win at San Jose with a fairly comfortable 2-1 home win over Dallas, one in which they generated constant danger by overloading the left side and letting right winger Calvin Harris run free up the right.

This graphic, courtesy of Sebastian Bush, tells us a lot about how the Rapids play when they’re cooking:


Notice the passing threat comes almost equally from the No. 10, Djordje Mihailovic, as well as the right back and the left winger? That’s built from the Rapids’ possession model: hold the ball to make the opponent compact, then spread the field attacking either from width (the right back, Keegan Rosenberry) or attacking into the depth (finding the left winger, Kévin Cabral, though the lines).

You can also look at that network passing graphic and see that homegrown central midfielder Oliver Larraz (No. 18) has developed into a pure backline shield, and is doing a good enough job of it to allow Cole Bassett (No. 23) to release early and often into the attack.

If Cabral could finish, this would’ve been a blowout.

Dallas are in big, big trouble. Petar Musa got a late goal, and that’s nice, but this team looks broken.

5. Another very good road result for the Red Bulls, who dropped their lines deep and pushed their unbeaten streak to five with a 2-2 draw across the country in LA. I’m gonna borrow another of Sebastian’s graphics here:


The ghosts of Red Bulls past never defended that deep, even on the road. But Sandro Schwarz has committed to changing the club’s meta, and the early dividends have been tangible.

LAFC got a pair of badly needed goals – including an equalizer at the death – from Denis Bouanga, who may be snapping out of his slump to start the season. But the loss of Aaron Long in central defense is a major concern, and a potentially devastating blow for a team that’s struggled to post zeros this season.

4. A controversial red card marred what I thought was turning into a pretty fascinating tactical matchup between the Sounders and the Whitecaps. Give credit to the ‘Caps for burying the hosts once they had a man advantage.

Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini spelled it out in the postgame.

“I told the guys to be extremely, extremely, extremely, extremely, focused [up a man] in the second half, and to do basically something that was counter-intuitive: that is, keep possession a lot and have a lot of patience when we have the ball, and being extremely aggressive when we don’t have the ball, and that’s the reason why we scored the two goals,” Sartini explained. “Being aggressive when we didn’t have the ball, we won twice the ball up high so, I’m really happy.”

The Sounders are now just 1W-4L-3D through their first eight games and will play next week without half their starting backline.

That’s not the concern, though. The concern is simple: they are not finishing the chances they create from open play. Thus far this season they have five non-penalty goals on 9.2 npxG. That is, in a word, terrible.

Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz are the main culprits, just like last year. It might be time to get Danny Musovski and/or Dylan Teves a run of games.

3. Our Pass of the Week goes to Rasmus Alm for this definitely-not-intentional-but-still-completely-gorgeous helper on João Klauss’ early equalizer in what turned into another thrilling edition of the Dar-B-Que:

Look at Alm’s initial reaction. Hilarious.

This was a good point for St. Louis (a road point is, by definition, good) and a bad point (they were the better team throughout, but couldn’t protect the 2-1 lead they took into halftime). That duality – where nothing is totally good, and nothing is totally bad – kind of encapsulates the first couple of months of the season for CITY.

For Sporting… they took a 3-2 lead into second-half stoppage at home and only came away with a point. They’ve now dropped 14 points from winning positions this season, an absurd number from a team that’s only played nine games. They went 0W-1L-2D on a three-game homestand with nine goals conceded.

Manager Peter Vermes was defiant afterward.

“I think you guys are all focused on that, and I think you missed the game,” he said when asked about his team’s weekly habit of dropping points. “You guys are worried about it, I’m not.”

Boy, I dunno.

2. Minnesota went to Charlotte and battered the Crown, repeatedly creating danger in transition en route to a 3-0 win. Usually it was off of midfield turnovers, but often it was real box-to-box stuff, including on the game’s opening goal.

I thought this observation was on point:

Robin Lod was outstanding, and is the very obvious reason why the Loons have been just fine in attack even without the still-absent Emanuel Reynoso. Lod isn’t a No. 10 by trade, but he’s in the top 10 in MLS in shot-creating actions (as per FBRef, a shot-creating action is any of the two offensive actions leading to a shot, including passes, take-ons or drawing fouls), and in the top 10 of shot-creating actions per 90, and in the top 10 of shots created from passes in open play. And he’s in the top 10 of xA, so maybe he actually is a No. 10 by trade, now? He’s already played as a right winger, a left winger, a No. 8 and a false 9 during his time in St. Paul, so how about giving him Reynoso’s number? Seems worth it.

Charlotte were punchless. I will be surprised if we haven’t seen the last of DP No. 9 Enzo Copetti as a starter.

1. And finally, a team that does stuff like this won’t win many games:

Because of how the Quakes have positioned their CMs, they have no chance of winning the second ball. Because of how they've positioned the CBs, they have no chance of playing an offside trap. All you can do is pray the Galaxy screw it up.

(By the way, if you’re a USMNT fan and watching that triggered something in you, it’s because Matt Turner did this exact same thing in Canada in 2021 during World Cup qualifying, and Tim Howard did the same thing vs. Costa Rica in 2018 World Cup qualifying. The US gave up a back-breaking goal in both instances).

LA won 4-3. I give the Quakes credit for not laying down and dying once they were down 3-0, but honestly, they were begging to get blown out in this one. They are a mess.

The Galaxy are still the Galaxy though: fun in a lot of ways, but so vulnerable in the air in general and on set pieces in particular that it’s impossible to take them seriously as any kind of contenders.