Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Minnesota on the rise, Revolution may be in trouble & more from Matchday 5

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The final weekend of winter produced some debate at the studio on Saturday night. It centered around one question: was the goal explosion more a product of questionable defending, or more to do with teams finally knocking off the early-season rust and getting better with the ball?

I tend towards the latter camp. In large part that’s because I trust when my eyes and the data tell me the same things – typical passing sequences this weekend were the longest of the season – and in a smaller (but still significant) part it’s because we saw the same pattern last year.

Food for thought as spring arrives. And so, while I wait for things to settle a bit, we’re going to skip the deep dives with this week’s column and just take a look at the games themselves in chronological order.

In we go:

D.C. United 1-3 Inter Miami CF

I am officially convinced that D.C. United are good. I wrote, after Matchday 2, about why I’d been on the fence about it (the overall talent level pretty clearly isn’t as high as the elite teams in MLS) but also why I was bullish (the pieces fit and the blueprint Troy Lesesne is using is a reliable one).

They played a 4-4-2 diamond in this one, which was a little bit lopsided with Jared Stroud getting further up the right side than Mateusz Klich did as a pseudo No. 10 or Gabriel Pirani as the left shuttler. It’s a pretty common shape from a pressing side, and I’m going to drop in here a note Andrew Wiebe sent me as he was watching:

They wanna route possession via the forwards to fullback, then press with fullbacks and shuttlers. Forward on that side and the 10 back press the release ball back to the middle. D-mid\] [Matti Peltola plays centerfield. It’s super narrow in midfield, so a big switch or bad rotation/over-pursuit leads to transition moments.

The story of the first 20 minutes of this game was that above pressing pattern, and D.C. getting only one goal out of it. The story of the next 70 minutes was Miami cracking the code, finding switch after switch, and making their overall talent decisive.

Three quick things:

  1. Remember when Luis Suárez complained about his knee and barely moved in preseason and all y’all bought it? 4g/3a in 264 minutes in the league, and 6g/5a in 441 minutes across all comps.
  2. This team couldn’t create without Messi last year. This year they have Suárez, Julian Gressel and Federico Redondo (not a pure chance creator but an excellent pass-before-the-pass guy), while Diego Gómez has leveled up. Plus Robert Taylor continues to be reliably effective in transition.
  1. They went back to the 4-3-3 after playing mostly a 3-5-2 since the DeAndre Yedlin trade, and it worked very well. It's pretty clear that David Ruiz is a right back now.

I’m still feeling good about this team being my pick for the Supporters’ Shield. If there’s a reason to be bearish on Miami it’s not the age of their stars or Tata’s refusal to rotate (we can put that in the bin, pretty clearly, though I do think he hangs onto his subs 10-15 minutes too long). Rather, it’s their set-piece defense. It cost them the game last week vs. Montréal and they were hanging on for dear life – literally in one instance when Sergio Busquets grabbed a handful of Cristian Dájome’s shirt – at D.C.

Anyway, if you’re going to choose one game to rewatch in full, I think this is it. It felt like an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs-level game.

Chicago Fire FC 4-3 CF Montréal

Or you could choose this game for the pure, uncut MLS stuff.

Do not cite the deep magic to Kellyn Acosta, witch. He was there when it was written.

I am not sure what you can take away from this on a tactical level, given it was played in a wind tunnel and given the penalties, non-red cards, questionable offside given (or not) and wind-whipped, 99th-minute winner were all top-of-mind for everyone in the postgame. Montréal manager Laurent Courtois was in a particular frenzy, and I can’t really blame him. I think his team was hard done by.

Even with the loss they deserve credit for getting out to 2-0 and 3-1 leads. Part of this was self-inflicted by the Fire – they gave away two penalties in the first 12 minutes that Matías Cóccaro dispatched – but in every single game thus far Courtois’ men have come out flying. He has them executing from the first whistle and giving full effort to the last. The pretty, ball-dominant soccer isn’t there yet, but any coach who can elicit this level of buy-in is putting his team in a good spot.

As for the Fire, I’ll just let Acosta take it away:

“I mean, I don’t know what to tell you, to be honest. I think that was Chris Brady’s first assist, so congrats to Chris. I mean for me it was just about getting the ball in the mixer basically and creating some things. I had some balls that I found in the back post and, if I’m being fully transparent, that’s what I tried to do again,” Acosta said in the postgame.

“This time though I had some St. Patrick’s Day luck, the wind was able to take it and, for me, it was one of those things that when it left my foot I was almost upset with myself like ‘Dang I kind of blew an opportunity.’ Then I realized this might have a chance, I saw the ‘keeper take two steps and I’m like 'This really might have a chance.' And yeah, I mean, he came out and it went over his head and the rest was history.”

The Fire finished the game with three center forwards on the field playing 11v10 in, as mentioned, a wind tunnel. I’m not sure how translatable what we saw will be for upcoming games, but they were due for a little bit of luck. And sometimes three very strange points are all you need to get the ball rolling.

Seattle Sounders FC 1-1 Colorado Rapids

The Sounders could use that kind of luck and those kinds of points as they limped through what continues to be one of the more disappointing starts of any team in the league. The scoreline was actually a bit flattering to the hosts, as the Rapids nearly tripled Seattle’s xG, as per Sportec (the final tally was 3.2-1.1 in Colorado’s favor).

This speaks to both Seattle’s inability to create high-leverage chances via the run of play (their only goal came via a Raúl Ruidíaz PK) and their inability to limit opposing chance creation by dominating both the ball and where on the field it’s being used, which was the secret sauce last year’s team had. The continued absence of João Paulo, Albert Rusnák and Yeimar Gómez Andrade (the latter two made their season debuts with second-half cameos; their rust was apparent) goes a long way in explaining that, but so does Brian Schmetzer’s insistence upon playing with a 4-4-2.

That two-man midfield puts Seattle at a simple numerical disadvantage in central midfield against most teams. That includes Colorado, who started and mostly stayed in a 4-2-3-1.

As a result, Djordje Mihailovic easily had his most influential game of the year (though it’s a safe bet he won’t take PKs anymore). He didn’t exactly run the show from his No. 10 slot, but he put his stamp on the game in ways Colorado’s other opponents thus far had prevented.

With Rusnák back, my wager is the 4-2-3-1 will be back with him for the Sounders. The simplest thing, to me, would be to install Jordan Morris in his old left wing spot and keep Ruidíaz as the No. 9. But we shall see.

Ruidíaz, along with Cristian Roldan, gave us our Face of the Week:

Columbus Crew 3-0 New York Red Bulls

I know it didn’t show up in the 2023 standings because of their snakebitten finishing, but the Red Bulls were actually a very good team in most ways. And the biggest one was they were maybe the best in MLS at taking any game they played in and turning it into their kind of game. Endless pace, endless verticality, no time to put a foot on the ball and spread the game out. Everything came down to life-and-death 50/50s, 40/60s or even 30/70s.

You didn’t really beat the Red Bulls: you survived them. Even when they lost, they almost always did it on their own terms.

There was not even a whiff of that in their trip to Columbus on Saturday night. The Crew, through 30 minutes, were completing 90.7% of their passes. By full-time that had climbed to 91.3%.

In their games vs. the Crew last year, they allowed 80% and 81% passing passing accuracy. Those were two of just seven times they allowed better than an 80% pass completion rate across all of last year, and none of those seven was higher than 84%. You have to go back further than I care to look – I made it to 2019 before I gave up – to find the last time the Red Bulls allowed over 90% pass completion in a game.

Which is to say Columbus exercised a level of control over the proceedings that made this feel like men vs. boys. They opened the scoring with a pure Crew goal:

That’s 13 passes, back-to-front and side-to-side (notice how Steven Moreira twice dribbles into the teeth of RBNY’s defense to compress them to one side, which set up the whole play?) before Malte Amundsen hits roughly the same pass to Yaw Yeboah that he played in MLS Cup. Just gorgeous soccer.

They then made it 2-0 by pressing RBNY into a mistake on the ball in central midfield to spring Jacen Russell-Rowe in behind – a very RBNY-style direct goal – before finishing the game off on a set piece.

“Better in all phases of play” is the descriptor that comes to mind. Just utter dominance from the champs.

New York City FC 2-1 Toronto FC

Not dominance from the Pigeons, by any stretch, but maybe the most necessary win of the weekend. And honestly, coming back from a 1-0 deficit might be better for NYCFC than straight dominance would’ve been. Coming into this game, if you’d told me they were going to win, I’d have said “Yeah I could see it.” Coming into this game, if you’d told me they were going to give up the first goal and not only not crumble, but actually take control of the game and collect all three points, I’d have called you a liar.

It ended up being their best match of the season in just about every way. Even playing 10v11 for the final 22 minutes after Keaton Parks’ deserved red card, they registered a season-high in shots, shots in the box, shots on goal and xG, and limited the Reds to a whole lotta nothin’ from minutes 8 to 68.

A big part of this was just slowing down and using the skill they’ve got all over the field. Coming into this game, the Pigeons were averaging just 3.1 passes per possession with a direct speed of 1.4 meters per second (both numbers per Opta), which is faster than they have ever been comfortable going. Coming out of it, their passes per possession had jumped to 3.4, and their direct speed had dropped to 1.27 m/s.

They need to be comfortable in who they are and in embracing their identity, and that identity for this team has always been “control the game with the ball.” For the first time all year, they managed it.

Toronto need some of that as well, even though I doubt that’ll be as solidly their identity as it maybe could be. In this one, though, they were so determined to play against the ball after going 1-0 up that they eventually sort of played themselves out of the game by letting NYCFC get a rhythm. And with a rhythm comes more confidence, and more runners bombing forward, and that’s how you get a left back running onto a trivela cross to head home from six yards.

“When this team gets into rhythm they are a tough team to play,” TFC head coach John Herdman said afterward. “I thought, all in all, the effort was there. We were just starting to manage, particularly in the second half, their midfield numbers. We had a few square pegs in round holes, but we shifted tactically and sort of matched them in the midfield.

“I think, all in all, we needed to handle the ball better tonight to get more control into the match.”


Austin FC 2-2 Philadelphia Union

Austin have continued to morph from a ball-dominant, tempo-dependent team to one that tries to hit almost exclusively in transition. And I think you could argue that, relative to expectations, it’s working pretty well – just one loss and just six goals conceded through four games. Granted, they haven’t won a game yet. But they are holding up better defensively because 1) they are trying to do less with the ball, which means they’re less exposed on turnovers, and 2) they are defending lower, which is probably the best way to maximize veteran center backs Matt Hedges and Julio Cascante.

It’s a far cry from what this team seemed to be pointing at in 2022. But given the state of the roster, I think the pragmatic choice is the correct one.

I felt like the pragmatic choice for the Union was to keep this group together and count on both cohesion and internal improvement from the likes of Quinn Sullivan, Jesús Bueno and Jack McGlynn to elevate the collective to trophy-worthy heights.

Sullivan, and to a lesser extent Bueno and McGlynn, have held up their ends of the bargain.

The veterans, however – most of whom were among the very best players in the league at their respective positions two years ago – have almost uniformly regressed. In the midweek Concacaf Champions Cup humiliation at Pachuca it was Andre Blake, Kai Wagner, José Martínez and Jakob Glesnes who had to put their hands up and take the blame. On the weekend it was the No. 10, Dániel Gazdag, who was repeatedly in positions to give the Union three points:

This, in second-half stoppage time of a tied game, is a gift. Gazdag does less than nothing with it.

Every single player on the Union who’s old enough to shave is playing below their level. Right now, it doesn’t look like keeping them together gave them an extra dose of cohesion and hunger to make one last run at silverware. Instead, it looks like it made them soft, slow and stagnant.

At any other point in the past five years, any sort of humiliation for this group served as fuel for a bounce back. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens next week in Portland.

FC Dallas 1-3 Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Nico Estévez switched his team’s shape from the 3-4-2-1 they’d been using to more of a 4-2-2-2, with Patrickson Delgado and Sebastian Lletget holding deep in central midfield, Dante Sealy and Paul Arriola on the wings, and Jesús Ferreira playing off of Petar Musa up top.

Since the 4-4-2 remains a relatively intuitive and stable formation, and Dallas had struggled with their field balance over the past few weeks, I understand the decision-making process behind the move. There is, of course, a risk of dislocation between the central midfield and forward line, but Ferreira dropping in should, in theory, take care of that, and when Ferreira wasn’t dropping, Arriola could pinch in to blunt counterattacks and win second balls (Arriola’s always been really, really good at that part of the game).

It didn’t work, though. Vancouver were able to get their difference-makers into spots with multiple runners, and any time this team gets multiple runners they get chances, and sometimes when you get chances, this happens:

Mathías Laborda got himself the goal, and we’re also gonna give him our Pass of the Week for that little rabona slip-pass to find Brian White for the pullback (it was a rabona in a world of trivelas this weekend).

Defensively Vancouver played out of their typical 3-4-3 shape, though in possession it morphed more into a 3-4-1-2 with the right winger, Ryan Gauld, coming underneath to playmake behind White and Fafa Picault. Meanwhile, the right wingback, Ryan Raposo, would get forward much more often than the left wingback, Alessandro Schöpf.

Nothing they did was symmetrical, but for what felt like the first time all year, it was very balanced. And it’s probably not a surprise that balance arrived during the week in which White was spearheading the attack rather than being shunted out into a low-usage role on the wing.

Houston Dynamo FC 1-0 Portland Timbers

The Dynamo got their first win of the regular season (they did beat St. Louis at home in the CCC) with a 1-0 over the visiting Timbers on Saturday thanks to a Coco Carrasquilla trivela and Ibrahim Aliyu making a brave run that put Portland off just enough to cause a loose ball in the box.

The shot chart (Houston are attacking the goal at the right) tells a big chunk of the story here:

dynamo v timbers shot chart

In short: Houston capitalized on their only truly good chance of the match, while Portland generated a bunch of good looks inside the box they’d probably like to have back. This is the type of game that could’ve changed if their DP No. 9 deal had already been done, right?

And Houston… the win masks just how rough of shape they’re in up top. Right now they’re playing Amine Bassi and Sebastian Kowalczyk as co-false 9s, with Carrasquilla as a false right winger and Aliyu coming off the left wing to provide the primary goalscoring threat. If Héctor Herrera was healthy and dealing like he was down the stretch and into the playoffs last year, you could argue for something like this as a pitch control tactic. But as it is, Ben Olsen’s going into every game with at least one hand tied behind his back.

The Latif Blessing acquisition should help. And I reported a couple of weeks ago that a move for a Young DP attacker was coming soon, but man they’re taking their time. This team hasn’t fallen apart without Herrera; they deserve the chance to thrive. But they won’t do that until they can get an actual forward into the XI.

Sporting Kansas City 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

I thought Lloyd Sam did a nice job on the commentary of calling out the pattern of play on Sporting KC’s game-winner, a 17-pass sequence that took nearly a minute off the clock and ended with Alan Pulido one-timing home his first goal of the year. This is champagne football, folks:

Notice that as central midfielder Erik Thommy drops back to receive Dany Rosero’s third-line pass with his back to goal, forward Pulido drops into what’s nominally the playmaker’s spot, and then when quick interchange between Pulido and left wing Dániel Sallói puts Sallói into the central channel and pushes Pulido toward the left channel, it’s actually right back Jake Davis who pushes forward on the underlap to provide the wall pass for Johnny Russell.

There is an element of freelancing to all of this, but it’s freelancing within a really well-drilled and ruthlessly regimented structure. And, when it comes off, it is just the most beautiful thing to watch.

“It was a beautiful goal. It's the kind of thing that you work on tirelessly and then when you see it happen like that, you're pretty pleased,” manager Peter Vermes said. “When I turned around, the entire staff was like, ‘Now we're talking.’

“It was a great goal. It was as if at those moments, through that sequence, they were chasing shadows, just because we were moving off the ball. Our timing was very good. The weight of the passes were great. Johnny plays a good ball in and Alan always has a really good sense of finding that space for that kind of ball. It’s a great finish by him."

San Jose just do not generate passages of play like that. They now have zero points and just three goals from four games, and are down to 26th in xG/90.

It’s hard to imagine much will change this season.

Minnesota United FC 2-0 LAFC

Eric Ramsay got to hear Wonderwall in his Loons debut, as his side pretty comfortably handled LAFC in St. Paul. He also got to welcome Emanuel Reynoso back, as the Argentine made his season debut when he came on for the final 30 minutes (a move that came in conjunction with a formation switch from a single-pivot 4-3-3 to a double pivot 4-2-3-1 with Reynoso as the No. 10).

Robin Lod opened the scoring when he pounced on a poorly cleared set piece, while Bongi Hlongwane closed it when he pounced on a failed clearance. Everything is going right for Minnesota right now.

But this is also a case of “you make your own luck” as the Loons have become a relentless, high-pressing team in 2024.

• Last year they were 11th in high turnovers forced. This year they’re first.
• Last year they were 26th in opponent progress per possession (i.e., how many meters towards goal possession was advanced). This year they’re 12th.
• Last year they were 24th in passes allowed per defensive action, which is a rough measure of how hard teams press. This year they are sixth.

I’m not sure how much of this will or even should continue now that Reynoso is back – he’s not much of a defensive presence, and to be honest, I’m not sure I saw a ton wrong with Adrian Heath’s game model the past few years. Their failings last season were more around bad luck with injuries and poor development of players.

Well, they have already survived a strong dose of injury-related bad luck, and with the likes of Hlongwane, Tani Oluwaseyi, Sang-Bin Jeong and Caden Clark all contributing, it seems like the player developmental issues that have plagued them are also in the rearview.

And through four weeks, that’s got them tied with the Crew atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. Couldn’t ask for much more than that.

LAFC can ask for a lot of things right, as they look very much like a team with two unfilled DP slots and a bunch of player development issues of their own.

• It’s been over 300 minutes since they scored, yet they’re still playing with a false 9.
• After massively overperforming his xG last year, Dénis Bouanga is now massively underperforming it this year.
• Their parsimonious approach to roster management meant they had only six players on the bench for this game.

I’m going to keep harping on xG for a minute here: their expected goals differential has dropped from +0.81/game in 2022, to +0.52/game last year, to -0.24/game this year. And all the other underlying data – passes per possession, the types of passes they hit and where – all suggest they’re becoming more and more one-dimensional.

Boy, I dunno.

Nashville SC 2-1 Charlotte FC

Nashville, with both Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridge healthy, and Tyler Boyd out there on the wing supporting them, and the CCC in the rearview mirror, actually did not look one-dimensional this weekend. After going up 2-0 they… continued to have the ball! They ended up with 54% possession, and it didn’t really tail off until Charlotte threw the kitchen sink in for the final 20 minutes.

Look at this:

Nashville possession v charlotte

And honestly, while they didn’t extend their lead (they were up 2-0 by the 40th minute, with Charlotte pulling one back before the break), they did a very, very good job of taking the sting out of the Crown’s attack. Charlotte, from the time the second half kicked off until the 87th minute, managed exactly one shot in the box – a no-hoper via center back Andrew Privett from the far corner.

This was really good game management from the ‘Yotes, especially since with Walker Zimmerman out they probably can’t rely upon being as dominant in their own area late in games. They needed to play more, and they did.

Charlotte have had a promising start to their season in some ways, but are bumping up against the limitations of this roster.

LA Galaxy 3-3 St. Louis CITY SC

I think this one played out exactly as you would expect: the Galaxy used the ball a ton, created chances with it and were especially dangerous when St. Louis would throw numbers forward in search of a goal and risk getting countered. Joseph Paintsil’s speed and smarts running in behind combined with Riqui Puig’s through-ball artistry made that pattern of play almost inevitable (though it was actually Mark Delgado rather than Puig who was carving out through-balls on the night).

Meanwhile, the Galaxy’s improved rest defense is still not impervious, so there were bound to be moments when they lost the ball in bad spots and St. Louis capitalized. And so it was on the first goal. And then there were bound to be moments where CITY – one of the best in the league on attacking set pieces – battered the hosts. And so it was on the second and third goals.

What I didn’t really account for was Maya Yoshida playing the late hero by knocking home a set piece of his own. That was not in the script.

This game is an example of how two diametrically opposed playstyles (the Galaxy wield possession like a blade; St. Louis lean into changes of possession as their weapon of choice) produce similar results. To that end, in American Soccer Analysis’s all-in-one goals added metric, they’ve got the Galaxy as the second-best team in the league in the final third and St. Louis at seventh. And in both cases, it’s because they’re so good at getting the ball to the sides of the box and hitting pullbacks across the face of goal.

I thought this quote from LA head coach Greg Vanney kind of summed it up for both teams:

“The majority of our success tonight came when we built off of the outsides and we got them in their rotations and pulled them apart and ran through the channels and opened them up and squared the ball back across. That's where the vast majority of it – you still have to use the middle of the field, but the middle of the field is to connect you to each of the slides. You don't need to play straight through the middle of the field; they are asking for big problems.”

When the Galaxy played straight through the middle, they got gashed. When they played wide, they pulled St. Louis apart. That’s how the game worked.

New England Revolution 1-2 FC Cincinnati

The Revs are officially in some trouble. They’ve now dropped to 0W-4L-0D, and in the history of the league, there are only three teams who started pointless and made the postseason:

• 2020 NYCFC and Inter Miami during the Covid-shortened year when 10 of 14 East teams made it (Miami made the play-in and were thumped by Nashville; NYCFC made the playoffs proper).
• 2021 Minnesota United during another weird, Covid-impacted season.

That is the whole of it. And while yeah, CCC duties provide some excuse, this weekend the Revs were hosting a team, in Cincinnati, who’d had CCC duties of their own this past week, and were limping in without their starting d-mid and with a selection of key players resting for the first half.

In the second half, though, Pat Noonan brought on Lucho Acosta and the MVP went to work, almost single-handedly pushing the Revs back into goalkeeper Henrich Ravas’ lap. And look, there are clearly structural things at play with New England’s struggles right now – “It’s crazy how as soon as Lucho came on they just give up chance after chance from driving runs down the middle” is how my buddy Anders put it – but the biggest difference between this version of the Revs and previous years' versions of the Revs is the quality of the goalkeeping.

Ravas has been, if not quite a disaster, at the very least “not very good.” This time last year it was Djordje Petrovic in goal. The year before that it was Matt Turner. Those are the two best, most consistent shot-stoppers of the past decade.

From 2018 to mid-2023, how many goals like this did New England concede?

It’s not a lot.

Cincy haven’t been great – I think there’s a clear difference in depth and top-end quality between them and the Columbus/Miami duo – but they’ve survived the start of their schedule with two wins, two draws and just two goals conceded through four games.

They’re in good shape to start stringing together comprehensive performances rather than just trying to survive.

Atlanta United 2-0 Orlando City SC

Here is the formula: Get good players at every position who fit together. Atlanta United’s front office had more or less ignored the clause comprising the second half of that sentence since 2019. They got a lot of good players, mind you – Marcelino Moreno could ball, and while Santiago Sosa was slow I still think he could’ve cooked in this league with the right guys around him, and there were a bunch of others who could’ve been very good MLSers who came through those doors – but for a half-decade it was like they didn’t give a single thought about how those players would work with each other.

Would their strengths amplify each other? Would their weaknesses overlap in destructive ways? Could they be as good off the ball as they were on it?

None of that seemed to factor into transfer maneuvers at all. And we all saw what happened.

That has very obviously changed over the past three windows. They got a true No. 9, and then got two true wingers – one more of a playmaker, the other more of a vertical goalscorer – and then they got a rangy box-to-box midfielder, and then they got a true No. 6 to sit and protect the backline, and then they got two veteran center backs to just not make mistakes.

I don’t think Atlanta are, as constructed, more than the sum of their parts. I think they are merely equal to the sum of their parts. But when all the parts are good-to-great, and all the parts fit together, and nobody on the sideline is trying to be too clever about the way they’re playing, “equal to the sum of their parts” means a top-five-ish team in the league. Whether they can crack the top three or not depends on a few things that we’ll have to see unfold over the course of the year (can they be a little cleaner with the ball in possession, and can Thiago Almada stop over-playing/pushing too hard? It looks like he’s trying to secure a $30 million transfer with every touch).

But I am bullish because everybody on the field is in their best spot. They don’t just know their roles, but they own them in a very real way. And so you get DPs making other DPs even better:

Orlando played better than they have been, but they’re lacking the kind of collective fit that has been so evident for the Five Stripes over the past two games. The stat Taylor Twellman cited at halftime, that Pedro Gallese had completed as many passes to Duncan McGuire as Luis Muriel had (Muriel and McGuire started up top together in a 4-4-2), tells a lot of the story there.

Still, with CCC done, I expect the Lions to start bouncing back as early as next week.