Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Nashville SC go boss mode, St. Louis lose their luster & more from Matchday 10

Doyle 5.1.23

Onward we march. Let’s dive in:

The Truth Has a Ring to It

I spent last week’s Nashville blurb writing about how much better they were/are when they at least sometimes are patient in possession, at least sometimes use the ball to methodically build intricately from the back, and at least sometimes do more than just dump the ball into the channels as soon as the opponents pull their line upfield.

Then Atlanta came calling and just… look, the Five Stripes were asking for it. Their sloppiness through midfield, those high fullbacks, and the overall struggles with rest defense are all open invitations to literally any opponent to just dump the ball into the channels, find space and find goals. So, naturally, the ‘Yotes obliged en route to a 3-1 win:

That’s the original Nashville hot chicken: go ahead 1-0 on a set piece (Fafà Picault opened the scoring in the 36th minute), then kill the game off on counters. If it’s there for the taking they will always take that, and they are obviously right to do so.

I do want to point out, though, that Nashville didn’t come out from the whistle and default to this look. They were meeting Atlanta’s possession-heavy 4-2-3-1 with a possession-heavy diamond, and Gary Smith deserves credit for recognizing that, at about the 20-minute mark, Atlanta’s fullbacks were getting so high that changing shape into a 4-2-3-1 would give his wings acres to run into.

“There have been a couple of little shifts and tweaks to the group that we've looked at to try and be a little more aggressive from the opening exchanges. They've worked,” is what Smith said afterward. “What it means is, beyond that, we have the ability with someone like Fafà (who started as a forward) on the field to maybe drop him slightly deeper into those wider areas. But I think what the group has done very, very well is adapt to any of those shifts and changes, and it doesn't affect, enormously, what we're after in terms of possession and build out.”

Yeah, I think I’d agree with all of that. And it was necessary to see them pull it off at home against one very good team (LAFC) and one pretty good team (Atlanta) in back-to-back weeks because Nashville have often been too passive and/or too creatively bereft at GEODIS Park. They just haven’t looked comfortable carrying the game when teams make them do that.

As I said, they didn’t really have to in this one, but I do think the opening exchanges, in which they were trying to meet Atlanta pass for pass, sequence for sequence, did a good and important job of setting the tone. And I’m much higher on the ‘Yotes than I was a month ago because of it.

Teal Bunbury getting on the board helps as well. He’s had a career-long habit of going on one or two-month-long hot streaks, and if he can do that as a 9 right now, that gets Nashville to the summer transfer window. At which point I presume they will finally do what’s necessary to open up a DP slot and bring in the high-level center forward that’s eluded them since Day 1.

As for Atlanta, the past two weeks have been rough and I don’t think I’m breaking any news that deep central midfield remains a work in progress. There’s just not much chemistry between the current starters:

Atlanta, when whole, remain a pretty good team. But there are weaknesses opponents can exploit, starting with the most valuable real estate on the pitch.

Starting Now

St. Louis officially followed up a record-setting expansion month with a “yup, they are in fact an expansion team” month as a 5W-0L-0D February/March gave way to a 1W-3L-1D April. Yes, the one win was super impressive – a 5-1 win over Cincy on Matchday 8 – but that’s CITY’s only win since Adrian Heath cracked the code on April Fool’s Day. St. Louis in fact scored just twice all month outside of that blitz of the Garys two weeks back.

That’s the final tally following a 2-1 home loss to the Timbers, one that is probably the worst outing of the new team’s MLS life. What made it so bad (worse, I would say, than the 3-0 hammering they took in Seattle on Matchday 7) was that other teams can copy Portland’s homework, since Portland themselves were mostly just copying Minnesota’s. Very few, on the other hand, can copy Seattle’s.

Here’s the recipe for cooking St. Louis these days:

  • Concede possession. Make CITY carry the game with the ball.
  • Avoid simple, stupid mistakes at the back.
  • Any time you win a 50/50, give St. Louis a dose of their own medicine and play direct.

That first point set the tone for Saturday night. That second point explains how the Timbers, who have not been good defensively this year, conceded just once. And the third explains both their goals, as winning a midfield 50/50 led to Evander’s PK opener and to Yimmi Chara’s late winner:

“I thought we managed things very, very well,” Portland head coach Gio Savarese said. “I think we found our moments, we had very good opportunities, we managed the ball very well, and then we managed their transitions and long balls also with a lot of maturity. We had a plan in place, and the guys executed.”

Related: Portland dominated in duels on the night, winning the battle 57-47. Against a team like St. Louis, that means a ton.

Those lost duels didn’t only come in midfield for CITY, but up top as well. There was a distinct lack of attacking thrust, one that is pretty easy to connect to the absence of DP striker João Klauss. The big Brazilian got a lot of praise for Jedi mind tricking opposing defenders into ridiculous back-passes to start the year, but his real power for this team was as a fulcrum – an attacking focal point whose ability to dominate center backs, win possession high and create attacking patterns off his knockdowns made everyone around him better.

Niko Gioacchini, who’d been playing off of Klauss as a second forward all year, couldn’t replicate that. As a result the hosts generated just seven shots, with only two of those coming from inside the box.

“We got what we deserved tonight,” St. Louis head coach Bradley Carnell said in the postgame. “Unfortunately we couldn't match the physical output that they put out on the day. And I'll reflect myself for this result because, yeah, this was not up to my standards.”

Life as an expansion side is not supposed to be as easy as it looked in March. And it turns out that, well, it isn’t.

So with the first bit of turbulence, the time for St. Louis to adjust has come.

A few more things to ponder…

11. RSL learned their lesson from way back in early March when, on Matchday 2, they went up to Seattle and got paddled by the Sounders (the 2-0 scoreline on that day absolutely flattered the Claret-and-Cobalt). They were much more compact during Saturday’s scoreless draw in Sandy, refusing to let João Paulo et al control tempo through midfield, and doing their level best to keep Jordan Morris, Léo Chú and Héber out of transition.

They took seven points out of three home games over the past four weeks to, at least for now, stabilize a season that seemed headed for the garbage chute in early April.

10. Inter Miami had their best week of the year, surviving a massive midweek US Open Cup scare from local rival Miami FC of the USL Championship, then going to Columbus and breaking their six-game in-league losing streak with a pretty surprising 2-1 win at the Crew.

I’m giving young Ben Cremaschi, the 18-year-old homegrown dual-national (he’s been in camps for both the US and Argentina) a half-share of our Pass of the Week for that cushioned header into Leo Campana’s run:

Winger Nicolás Stefanelli gets the other half share, because 1) that diagonal is perfect, and 2) the little move he makes to shake Mo Farsi before even receiving the pass from Franco Negri is even better.

Even with the loss, this counts as a good weekend for the Crew, though, because they got Cucho Hérnandez back and he got on the board. I will be zero percent surprised if the floodgates start to open.

9. It was, on the other hand, a bad weekend for the Revs, who dropped home points in a 1-1 draw against Cincy and, more importantly, lost Dylan Borrero to what looks like a bad and probably long-term injury on that Foxborough turf. (We’ve all seen injuries like that before and, while the specifics aren’t yet confirmed, I think we’ve all got a pretty good idea of what the diagnosis will be).

No Borrero means the Revs have no threat to run in behind among their attackers, and it means they lack a winger who can break defenders down 1v1. I suspect this marks the end of the 4-2-3-1 as a viable formation for them, and I expect to see more of the 4-4-2 tight diamond they started the year in.

I don’t think anyone at Cincy will be complaining about the road point, but they have looked defensively fragile over the past few weeks. My money is on “this is just a blip” – I still think they’re in the Supporters’ Shield contender tier. They need to start playing like it at some point, though.

8. C.J. Sapong made his debut for Toronto and helped his team in two obvious and predictable ways:

For the first, C.J. always gets on a hot streak when he moves to a new team, so TFC fans should enjoy the influx of goals over the next few months. For the second… that’s the real reason they went out and got him. Sapong is a veteran who understands the angles of the game, and more importantly, he understands (and embraces) the dirty work center forwards have to do in order to open up space and opportunities for the creative types.

Which is the whole deal, really. Both Insigne and Bernardeschi can be the Landon Donovan MLS MVP of this league, but neither have remotely looked like that in 2023 because there’s been zero attacking balance.

There will be now, and my guess is the Reds will begin climbing the standings.

As for NYCFC…


The False 9 gambit didn’t work so great this week. I truly think they missed an opportunity by not going out and using a U22 Initiative slot on a true No. 9 before the Primary Transfer Window closed last week, but I guess they felt good enough about what they’ve got to keep the powder dry until summer.

7. Orlando City’s DPs finally showed up, as Ercan Kara got himself a goal and an assist (his first of either this season), Facu Torres – playing underneath Kara as a No. 10 – got a goal (just his second this year, and Martín Ojeda, who was playing in Torres’ old spot inverted on the right, picked up his third MLS assist.

It all spelled a pretty comprehensive 2-0 win over the visiting, Riqui Puig-less LA Galaxy. I think we’ll see more of the 4-2-3-1 with Torres as a 10 and Ojeda on the right in the weeks to come, even if it means midfield metronome Mauricio Pereyra gets turned into a super-sub.

The Galaxy… well, it’s hard to go on the road and win without your best player. With Riqui back next week and three of the next five at home, though, now’s the time the Galaxy have to make a push.

6. D.C. United’s push began a couple of weeks ago when they switched to a 3-5-2 and embraced being a direct, long-ball team that relies upon creating width in the attack and the dominance of DP center forward Christian Benteke in the box. Their 3-0 win over visiting Charlotte was ruthless and comprehensive, and punctuated by Benteke’s full-on bike to make it 2-0:

Over the past three games D.C.’s passes per game have dropped from 406 per game (22nd in MLS) to 342, which is dead last as per TruMedia. At the same time, their xG per 90 has grown by nearly 25%, and Benteke is now getting more touches in the box.

Sometimes the simplest strategy is the best one.

It is, of course, a super-small sample size, and none of the three teams they’ve beaten during this run (Montréal, Orlando or Charlotte) look like contenders. But beating up on the bottom half of the table is a rock-solid way of climbing into the top half, and that’s what United are doing right now.

5. Vancouver ‘keeper Yohei Takaoka played the hero, saving a late penalty from Diego Rubio to preserve a scoreless draw at BC Place that I’m pretty sure left both the ‘Caps and the Rapids furious at themselves for letting yet more points get away. The story for each was the same story it’s been all year:

  • Vancouver played really well, created a ton of shots and couldn’t finish anything.
  • Colorado mostly defended well and countered well, but lacked the final-third quality to put their few chances away.

This was just every game these teams have played this season on repeat.

4. Also on repeat was a late breakdown in Chicago. This time it was RBNY’s Cory Burke heading home a late corner kick to cancel out Kei Kamara’s opener in what finished as a 1-1 draw.

The big issue, to me, is that Chicago just stopped attacking after going up 1-0 in the 34th minute. They went from over 60% possession at that point in the game to under 40% for the final 50 minutes. They generated only one more shot for the rest of the match.

Sitting back and trying to survive doesn’t work for the Fire. They’re not built like that.

A road draw is a good result for RBNY, but they remain bottom of the East and have just one win from their first 10.

3. Austin got much-needed contributions from DP attackers Emiliano Rigoni (his first goal for the club in any competition) and Sebastián Driussi (just his second goal of the year in MLS play) to claw back from two separate one-goal deficits in a 2-2 home draw against visiting San Jose.

I will say that Rigoni looked a lot more comfortable on the left wing than he has on the right side, which is where he’s played almost exclusively since he was acquired last summer. When he plays inverted he seems to want to overthink everything and has a tendency to slow play down and let defenders get set. Playing on the left side he was more direct and decisive, simplifying his game and reaping the rewards for it. And for the first time in a long time, I walked away from a game feeling like the Verde & Black were, in fact, the better team.

But credit to the Quakes for going on the road and hanging on for a point despite not controlling the game. They haven’t consistently gotten results from this type of performance for a decade.

2. Dallas went to Minnesota on Sunday night and got themselves a point via a scoreless draw. By definition, any road point – an in-conference road point, that is – is a job well done, and Dallas will rightly be pretty pleased with that, especially given they spent so much time walking the knife’s edge with the Loons getting out on the break.

With almost a third of the season gone, they’re on pace for 51 points and are fourth in the West. They are clearly a good team:

That, right there, is the difference between being a good team and actual contenders. The central midfield duo of Paxton Pomykal and Sebastian Lletget are very good defensively, and very good at not giving the ball away cheaply, and very good at getting into the right spots in attack.

Then they smoke the bunny. It’s hard to see Dallas’s ceiling rising appreciably if those guys don’t level up.

The lack of final-third quality is even more pressing for Minnesota, who are now winless in four overall and have yet to win at home this year in four tries (0W-1L-3D).

Taylor Twellman said on the broadcast that he expects this team to make a big move for an attacker in the summer window. If you’re a Loons fan, then, July can’t come fast enough.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell. Sporting lost 2-0 at home to CF Montréal and they are now anchored snugly to the bottom of the table. It’s jarring to see Russell this broken:

Alan Pulido came back several weeks ago. Gadi Kinda returned this weekend. Sporting are still winless and on track to set every record for single-season futility in the MLS record books. It’s catastrophic.