Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Neville finds a scapegoat in Higuain, Rapids find a No. 9 in Rubio, Charlotte find a goal & more from Week 3

Three weeks in the books, and nearly 10% of the season complete. It’s too early for stuff to be written in stone, but there are certainly some takeaways from what we’ve seen thus far.

To this weekend’s action we go:

The Hardest Cut

LAFC’s 2-0 win in Fort Lauderdale was not remarkable in and of itself. If we’re writing headlines out of the 90 minutes on the pitch, it’d be something like “Carlos Vela back in the XI for the Black & Gold,” or maybe a bit on how pretty fierce winds made parts of the second half nigh unplayable, or – and we’ll touch on this in greater detail in a minute – “Brek Shea is still not a defender.” All that is stuff worth noting but none of it really clocks at a level beyond “ok, noted.”

No, the real stuff to come out of this game came after the game, via Inter Miami head coach Phil Neville’s postgame presser which revealed, perhaps, some growing drama between Neville and Gonzalo Higuaín.

“For us to be successful, he has to perform,” Neville said of his DP forward, who this year has been shifted to DP attacking midfielder, and who was subbed off on 63 minutes with Miami down a goal and a man. “That’s the challenge. For me, and I’m really strong on this, his role hasn’t changed. He is the one that is our best finisher. He is the one that we demand the most goals from. He is the one that we demand the most assists from. Period.”

Those are some strong words, and many of them are true. For Miami to be successful Higuaín really does have to perform at something close to a Best XI clip, and he really is their best finisher and best playmaker. I don’t think anyone can rationally look at this roster and argue otherwise.

However, some of the other stuff Neville said is debatable, at the very least, and other stuff is obscured by missing context, to the point that it’d be irrational not to examine it and, frankly, push back a little bit. And so let’s just start with the most obvious number: At the end of three weeks, Higuaín is tied for third in the league in chances created. You may say “that’s not assists!” and you’re right but, well, it takes two players for a chance created to become an assist. Get what I’m saying?

As for Higuaín not scoring goals, Neville is technically correct, which is the best kind of correct. And the underlying numbers are grim, as Pipita’s managed just two shots for a whopping .08 xG through three weeks, as per TruMedia. One would hope that he’d be able to find more.

But this brings us to the part that I feel was obscured by de-contextualizing Pipita’s role: he’s the only remotely creative player regularly in the starting XI. The central midfield he plays in front of has two actual d-mids and one more box-to-box guy – just an ultra-defensive set-up, one in which nobody but the center forward-who’s-now-an-attacking-midfielder has shown the ability to create… anything. It all has to come through Higuaín or there will be nothing at all to speak of, and it’s hard to blame a guy playing a new position – but not, I guess, in a new role? – for not being entirely comfortable with the above.

It absolutely is a new position for Higuaín, by the way. The past two years, and the 15 before that, he was a center forward. Thus far through three games in 2022, he’s clearly playing in a free, playmaking role underneath the center forward. This, I imagine, was not the plan when he was signed two years back.

And all of the above is kind of a red herring, I think, because Higuaín hasn’t remotely been the problem over the past two weeks. For Miami, the issue is the team selection! For one, there’s that ultra-defensive midfield that has created almost nothing, and for two, Neville keeps shoehorning Shea into the XI on the backline, which has worked out in the most predictable fashion. Austin feasted in their 5-1 win last week, while this week it was Kwadwo Opoku getting behind Shea for the game’s first goal, and then a garden variety brain fart from Shea led to him getting sent off just before the half, effectively ending the game.

We’ve seen all this before. Shea is 32 and a million managers have tried to convert him into a defender over the past decade. A million managers have eventually stopped tilting at that particular windmill. Neville apparently rode Rocinante to the past two matches.

Anyway, back to the press conference. Here’s another quote:

“I just wanted more quality from my quality players.”

That part is absolutely fair.

“Every team we’ve played against, their quality players stand up and score. Ours don’t, and they need to."

This part is not! This wasn’t one of those “Vela dropped a hattie and there was nothing we could do about it” games – LAFC’s goalscorers were Opoku and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. And the goalscorer in Week 1 against the Chicago Fire was… nobody. Miami shut Xherdan Shaqiri out. It’s not the other team’s stars that have been killing Miami; it’s Miami that’s been killing Miami.

Anyway, I usually write about tactics in this space rather than narratives/drama, but when the tactics lead to narratives and drama of the sort that seem to be pitting a coach against a DP – a DP who had a very respectable 12g/9a last year, it should be noted – it’s worth covering.

Feels Alright

Colorado Rapids have bounced back from their February of discontent with their second straight dominant March outing, dispatching a short-handed Sporting KC side with considerable ease in their 2-0 win in Commerce City. They took advantage of a catastrophically disorganized SKC backline on the first goal, which Diego Rubio slipped home, and then got their first set-piece goal of the season on the second.

This is Rapids soccer. Over the past few years Robin Fraser has been able to slowly add a layer of quality and creativity on the ball, both via new personnel and the principles of play he’s built into his system. But underneath all of that is a side that can really, really punish you on the break and on set pieces. And so they were second in MLS, last year, in xG via the counter as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and first in set-piece goals (not counting PKs). Even if their talent isn’t overwhelming – and it’s not – they can still beat you up and take you out.

But let’s go back to Rubio for a second: One thing I’ve harped on all offseason, and that Rapids fans have (justifiably) harped on, is the lack of a go-to No. 9, a guy who can get this team 15 goals. In this critique is an implicit criticism of Rubio, who has been more of a false 9 in the most recent iteration of his MLS career, and at times seems more comfortable 60 yards from the goal than he is when he’s six yards out. We saw that last week in his brilliant display, carving up Atlanta United with a pair of typical false 9 assists in addition to a goal of his own.

So then on last week’s Power Rankings show, which you can listen to either live on Twitter spaces or later on the new MLS Today podcast feed, we had Marcelo Balboa on and we asked him about that Rubio performance. What ‘Celo said is that Fraser has been telling Rubio specifically to spend more time going forward, getting into the box and being goal dangerous.

And so, then, here’s Fraser after the game. I’m going to give you the full quote so that neither the context nor the caveats are lost.

“I think all of last year, Diego was struggling with injuries, and as a result, we never saw the best of Diego last year,” Fraser explained. “He had a good preseason this year. He's trained extremely hard, he's very fit, and because he's playing well, he's very confident.

“And the thing is, Diego helps us in so many areas of the field. He helps us build out. He helps us hold the ball. He's a good passer. But the thing that he's really determined to do this year is to do all of that and get back in front of the goal. Over the last two games we've seen a really, really good version of Diego where he helps all over the field, but is still a goal threat constantly, whether he himself or putting passes into dangerous areas, so he’s in very good form right now.”

Emphasis mine.

For your own reference, here’s the goal he scored on Saturday:

There is nothing particularly special about that – it’s just a No. 9’s goal. And for the past couple of years, it’s felt like Rubio just doesn’t know how to score those.

Except he does! Or he did; he used to and is now remembering how again. From 2017-19 he scored 25 goals, most of them of the poacher’s variety, in about 3,900 minutes for Sporting and then Colorado. You won’t win a Golden Boot at that rate, but extrapolate that goals per 90 down to 2,500 minutes or so, and you end up with… about 15 goals over the course of a season. You end up with the type of No. 9 who can do the things that were so painfully missing in February when Colorado crashed out of the Concacaf Champions League and got blown out in their season opener.

It’s clearly Rubio’s job to lose. He seems to know as much, and seems bought in on the general idea of what it’ll take for him to not lose it.

“We talked in preseason that we need to go more forward. We need to attack more of the box. We need to have more people in the box and that’s going to open spaces,” he said on Saturday. “It is like that. Sometimes you get one opportunity and you need to score. Of course, I’m trying to be more focused to be closer to the goal this year.”

I still think the Rapids need to make an addition if they want to climb any higher than they went last year. I remain skeptical that Rubio can be, over the next 31 weeks, the guy he’s been over the past two.

But there’s no denying that the past two weeks have been hugely encouraging for the Rapids. All the stuff that got them to 60 points last year remains in place, and if Rubio is remembering the type of goalscorer he used to be on top of that, well… maybe the ceiling’s a little higher than I thought for this team, whether they bring in a DP No. 9 or not.

A few more things to ponder…

12. NYCFC, in their third of as many as five home openers this season, hoisted a massive new banner to mark their MLS Cup win from last December, then went out there and celebrated in style, battering dead-legged CF Montréal by 4-1. There was nothing particularly fancy about it, and at times the Pigeons looked pretty dead-legged themselves. But ruthless application of Ronny Deila’s principles of play, along with superior talent, is a pretty reliable formula.

As for CFM, they had themselves a 10-minute spurt in the first half and about a 15-minute spurt in the second, but beyond that…

This was a team that was plain out of gas. They keep their shape, but no pressure gets to the ball out of midfield; the step off the backline comes late, and the rotation to close the gap after that step barely comes at all.

Nothing takes it out of you like playing at the Azteca – Victor Wanyama in particular was a ghost. Montréal, who lost just 1-0 at Cruz Azul on Wednesday, have a real shot to go through if they play as well as they did vs. Santos. If they play like they did at NYCFC, though, it’ll be a very painful home loss.

Either way, it’s starting to look like a prolonged CCL run would come at the expense of a step forward in the regular season.

11. A shorthanded Toronto side gave a good account of themselves in Columbus, putting the hosts under pressure early, taking a lead, and stringing some absolutely lovely sequences together before eventually breaking down. The Crew equalized through yet another Lucas Zelarayan banger, and then won it with a set-piece goal through Derrick Etienne Jr. for the 2-1 final.

The bad news for Toronto, aside from the loss: young Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty had to be subbed off inside of 15 minutes with what looked like a non-contact knee injury. No word yet on how severe.

The Crew have seven points through three games despite not playing particularly well, I don’t think. It just comes down to the fact that when Zelarayan is playing like this, they don’t need to play particularly well in order to inflict pain.

10. It really seemed like Nashville were going to battle their way to another road point, but give credit to FC Dallas for continuing to play with energy, pouring the pressure on and using that 4-3-3 to pull the Yotes’ diamond apart and create the types of gaps that Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United never even sniffed in Weeks 1 & 2, wearing the visitors down and grabbing a pair of goals in the final 10 minutes.

The second one of which was really nice!

Obviously this one didn’t come from Nico Estevez’s system – this was just a bit of individual brilliance from young Alan Velasco, the 19-year-old Argentine Young DP who made his debut in style. I’m going to stress, again, how many folks around the league have told me that this kid is legit, and that there are no red flags like there are with many of the other young imports entering MLS this season.

You could see why in this one. He hit this game like a thunderbolt.

9. Paulo Nagamura put Darwin Quintero and Coco Carrasquilla into the XI for Saturday’s 2-1 win over visiting Vancouver, and it worked. Darwin had himself a Team of the Week-caliber masterclass, while Carrasquilla is just excellent in the No. 8 role in a 4-2-3-1. Few No. 8s in the league are as good as he at shuttling the ball forward and the type of pass-before-the-pass work that gives an attack its connective tissue.

That formation shift was significant because it really is the only way to get Quintero (No. 23 in the graphic below) onto the field:

dynamo network passing graph vs. vancouver

There is no place on the field for him in the 4-3-3 that Nagamura had brought out the past two weeks, and for the second straight year if Darwin’s not on the field, there is no attack on the field for the Dynamo. It is worth it, for them, to build the teamsheet around him.

Nagamura seems to think so, too. “[Quintero] was awesome,” he said. “I think with the game plan that we had and the strategies going into this game I think he did really well, for Darwin's game, it paid off on the field."

Vancouver took a lead and constantly threatened, and the hope is that young Caio Alexandre will eventually get healthy and provide the type of connective tissue work in central midfield that Carrasquilla gives to Houston. The knock-on effect is that improved play from deeper in midfield can help Ryan Gauld discover last year’s form – the Scot has been missing through three games.

8. Three shutouts in three games for young Gaga Slonina and the Chicago Fire, who went to D.C. and came away with a 2-0 win, taking three points out of Audi Field.

Ezra Hendrickson’s got his side lined up in a boilerplate 4-2-3-1 that gives Shaqiri the same type of support that the Dynamo’s 4-2-3-1 gave Quintero on Saturday, and while Shaqiri hasn’t quite been unlocked yet, he’s managed to be influential and is among the league leaders in both chances created and touches in the attacking half. Chicago’s first goal came from a through-ball that he couldn’t quite weigh properly, but that nonetheless fell to Stanislav Ivanov to open the scoring.

It was that kind of game, and Hendrickson enjoyed what he saw from his gang. “It was good to see that we are a team that can battle when we need to, and we're not just a nice, pretty soccer-playing team,” the rookie head coach said. “We're a team that if it calls for it, we can fight. So that was good to see from the guys tonight.”

Hernan Losada’s still tinkering with his lineup for the Black-and-Red. One thing to note through three games is that he has not figured out how to use DP No. 10 Edison Flores in any truly effective way. The Peruvian international has no goals, no assists and just one chance created.

7. Philly pumped San Jose in the way that just about everybody pumps San Jose these days. It finished 2-0 but my god could it have been worse:

phi v SJ xg

Single-game xG can be a fickle thing but in this case it’s telling the truth: Philly created tons – much of it by going directly at Jackson Yueill, who is not a center back and I just have no idea why Matias Almeyda is playing him there – and the Quakes created absolutely nothing.

So overall it was a pretty solid advertisement for why the Philadelphia Union are good, and also for why the Union front office went out and got two DP center forwards this offseason. One of those guys, Julian Carranza, was suspended, while the other, Mikael Uhre, was nursing a knock, and therefore neither played.

6. The Sounders got all three of their goals off of set pieces in Saturday afternoon’s 3-2 home win over the visiting LA Galaxy. In a lot of ways this game was a reprise of their midweek CCL win over Club Leon: once again they sat deep, conceded over 60% possession and were mostly only dangerous on counters and set pieces. They also won their duels in a way they weren't earlier in the season which, of course, is a good way to get out on the counter and to win valuable set pieces.

So I’m not sure there's anything tactical to it for the Sounders. They’re just playing better.

For the Galaxy, here is the question: was this a regression to last year’s miserable defense, or a blip based upon the catastrophic individual performance of Julian Araujo?

My hunch is that it’s the latter (and this is no knock on Araujo, who’s generally been very good-to-excellent since finally winning the starting RB job last year), and some early underlying numbers agree. To that point: In 2021 the Galaxy were 21st in the league in xG conceded in transition, as per the Second Spectrum tracking data. In 2022, through three games, they are second. Only the Dynamo have conceded less.

5. Austin FC came off their back-to-back five-goal performances and gave the Timbers hell in Portland, out-possessing the hosts, out-shooting them and allowing just one shot on goal.

Of course, that one shot on goal was the only shot either team allowed on net all game, and it proved to be the game’s only goal as Bill Tuiloma headed home a set piece from six yards and then showed us all how much work his Griddy needs.

4. Face of the Week had to come from New England’s 3-2 home meltdown against RSL on Saturday night:

I don’t know how to analyze this game, and tend to lean toward Carles Gil’s postgame sentiments. I do know that RSL have surprised the hell out of me not only with this comeback, but with the fact that they’re now 2W-0L-1D with seven points through three games despite a very incomplete roster.

3. Dayne St. Clair, who has spent most of the past year on the bench after a rough start to the 2021 season, got his first crack at it in 2022 and put in just a monster performance. The Canadian international saved a PK to set the tone – and change the flow – early in the game, then made a handful of other top-drawer saves to keep the zero and get the three points for Minnesota United in a 1-0 win over RBNY in Harrison on Sunday night.

Everything about how the Red Bulls wanted to approach this game worked. They created danger on set pieces, they won midfield 50/50s, Patryk Klimala opened up space with his movement, and the midfield basically swarmed Bebelo Reynoso out of the game.

Didn’t matter, though, because of DSC. He was immense.

On the other side of the field, the Loons only really generated a couple of chances, and for the second week in a row, Luis Amarilla had a hand in their only goal. This time he just volleyed it home himself off a nice cross from Hassani Dotson for his first goal of the year.

2. I told you Alec Kann was going to be one of the acquisitions of the season. FC Cincy’s new ‘keeper stood on his head down in Orlando, keeping his side in the game at the start and then helping to seal the deal at the end in a 2-1 road win over the Purple Lions.

That snapped a 14-game losing streak dating back to last season. Cincy have now taken three out of the past 45 points on offer. They’re on a roll!

Center forward Brandon Vazquez, who had a brace in this one, actually is on a roll. His pair of goals give him 6g/2a in his last seven games worth of minutes dating back to last season, and 1) there’s nothing at all fancy about him, and 2) that’s fine. He just gets himself in front of net and one-touches it home:

That’s a hell of a run and a hell of a ball from Dom Badji, who sent Ruan off to the weight room.

Orlando have one win and three goals in three games. It’s not clicking for them yet, but I think the subset of fans currently banging the panic button are a little too early, no matter how dispiriting this loss was.

1. And finally, I’m giving our Pass of the Week to Atlanta midfielder Marcelino Moreno, who ripped it away from his center back teammate Alan Franco (as opposed to Charlotte midfielder Alan Franco… no relation) for this Kevin De Bruyne-esque bender into Jake Mulraney’s run for a fairly dramatic late winner in the Five Stripes’ 2-1 win over visiting Charlotte FC:

Two teams that are this geographically close and play this hard will eventually become a rivalry. Cry about it if you don’t like it.

Anyway, that kind of magic from Moreno and Mulraney was needed. Atlanta had been ball-dominant but struggled translating that into chances until those two got on the field.

Charlotte, meanwhile, once again defended resolutely and actually came into the game pretty well right around the 40-minute mark. They were rewarded with about 35 minutes of high-quality play – their press was giving Atlanta fits – and their first-ever goal, when local kid Adam Armour headed home a Ben Bender corner kick in the 66th minute.

For those of you keeping score at home after all the discussions of Charlotte’s approach to roster building this past week: that’s the SuperDraft pick out of college to the former USL Academy product for the club’s first goal. Meanwhile, MLS journeyman Brandt Bronico has been keeping Young DP d-mid Jordy Alcivar on the bench through three games.

Things are strange in the Queen City, and given that they’ve got zero points through three games, they’re obviously not great. But honestly, we’ve seen a number of expansion teams look much worse than this to start their existence.