Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

NYCFC's future is bright, Minnesota's problems are self-inflicted, Rapids finding their way & more from Week 11 

Matchday 11 is in the books. In we go:


NYCFC are the defending MLS Cup champions. For the first part of the year, as they were juggling MLS regular-season play, and their CCL ambitions, and no fewer than five separate homefield debuts, they mostly did not play like it. They mostly played like a team that was logging too many miles and too many games in too many different stadiums.

Things since their CCL elimination against the Sounders have changed, and I will go so far as to say that they are now playing the best ball in the league. They only showed it for discrete segments of Saturday’s 2-0 home win over Columbus (this time home was the Bronx), but when you’re as deep, complete and experienced as the Pigeons, discrete moments of excellence and opportunism are usually enough.

Undergirding all of this is NYCFC’s approach to player acquisition, as they are perhaps the best example of a team that’s embraced the ideas behind the U22 Initiative. Their cadre of young imports – Santi Rodriguez, Thiago Andrade, Gabriel Pereira, even Nico Acevedo a little bit, and especially Talles Magno – are starting to blossom into starters and even match-winners. It happened too late to save their CCL campaign, but it’s right on time to turbo-charge what seems set to be another 60+-point regular season.

Understand that these types of acquisitions have been very, very hit-and-miss for other teams. Paying eight figures for a highly-touted South American doesn’t guarantee anything (just look at Brenner or Ezequiel Barco), but for NYCFC they’ve been crucial. That speaks, I think, to Ronny Deila’s best attribute as a coach: he clearly has a knack for getting the best out of young players. Remember, Taty Castellanos was miscast as a winger who liked doing too many stepovers before Deila got him, put him at the 9 and simplified his game.

That ability to put young players into spots where they can develop and succeed has led to wins, including last December in Portland, and it’s a very beneficial blend of a club philosophy with a given manager’s skillset.

But it shouldn’t overshadow just how good of a problem solver Deila has shown to be. It’s usually less with overarching tactical adjustments, and more often simply with how he sets his team up.

The latest example is that, on Saturday, we all got a taste of veteran No. 10 Maxi Moralez as a regista. Predictably that made it harder for the Crew to press, and subsequently much easier for NYCFC to find open space on the run.

“I didn’t see anything bad at all,” Deila said of Moralez in the Pirlo role. “I think he’s the smartest football player on the pitch, he can play any position except for maybe goalkeeper. He organized the team, he can run and on the ball he is really good. That’s one positive of playing him in that role. When he plays in the No. 10 he comes down to get on the ball, so he is often in the position. We need one more player up front to create more and now when he is down there we have something in the No. 10 or even two eights. There is more power forward, but the big thing is if he can do the defensive work and be smart in his positioning. I think he did that really well today.”

Here is the predictable thing in all of this, whether Maxi’s playing as a No. 10 or a regista or isn’t even on the field: NYCFC are still doing all the stuff that they’ve been great at for a while. As per Second Spectrum, they’re leading the league in chances created, chances created per game and expected goals. They’re second in possession and passes allowed per defensive action (a measure of how high and hard a team presses), and they’re third in xG generated off of high regains (i.e., from the press).

These are all the things that have been at the core of NYCFC’s very goodness-to-greatness since 2016. Principles of play within the system, first under Patrick Vieira, then Dome Torrent and now Deila, have shifted here and there, but underneath it all is that the Pigeons have been a team that wants the ball. They press to win it back as soon as possible, and then when they have it they use it. It’s not just about driving as fast as they can into the 18.

Here is the unpredictable thing in all of this: The Pigeons have become a vicious counterattacking team on top of everything else. It’s another adjustment from Deila, who’s only too happy to have his team go over the top when it’s on:

Yes, Columbus’s backline was asking for it with that kind of positioning (they had come up too high for a free kick that was then taken too quickly). That’s a little taste of how and why the Crew have won just once in their past eight outings.

But it’s also a taste of how NYCFC have taken 13 of 15 points since CCL ended, posting a whopping +12 goal differential in that span. They are still the team they have been since 2016 – they play some of the prettiest and most effective soccer in the league – but they’re also a team that’s pragmatic enough to take what the defense gives them. Leave the door open for a counter like that, and Maxi the Regista and Taty the Golden Boot pres. by Audi winner will put you to the sword.

So yeah, it was a disappointing spring for this NYCFC team, a group that was good enough to win the CCL had a few things gone differently. But that’s in the past, and even with a summertime departure for Taty seemingly inevitable, the future seems bright as hell.

Divide and Conquer

One of the common refrains among MNUFC fans is that manager Adrian Heath is too inflexible, and that’s it’s gotten to the point where teams don’t even have to gameplan for his Loons anymore. They already know precisely what's coming.

There is probably an element of truth to that; Heath trots his team out in a 4-2-3-1 every week, and rarely deviates from that in the game itself. He also subs less frequently than almost any other manager, and tends toward like-for-like substitutions. And so when Minnesota go behind, as they did in Sunday’s eventual 3-1 loss at Seattle, there’s not really a Plan B. There’s just “let’s throw the kitchen sink at it” and, as Pumas learned two weeks ago, when you toss the kitchen sink at the Sounders you’re much likelier to concede than to come back.

And yet, I think Heath is being done a disservice by the conventional wisdom here, because he’s actually been very flexible regarding the attacking principles of play he sends his side out there with from season to season. Sure, it’s always going to come from a 4-2-3-1, and sure, it’s probably not going to change all that much from game to game, but these are the same things that have been said about Brian Schmetzer in the past. And that guy’s pretty successful!

So with Minnesota, look at this progression, via Second Spectrum’s tracking data: In 2020 they pressed 99.7 times per game outside their defensive third. In 2021 it climbed to 102.6 times per game and in 2022 they’re at 117.5 presses per game outside their defensive third, which is third-most in the league. And while their pressure has jumped an eye-catching amount in the middle third (last year: 79.5 times per game; this year: 94.3), it’s actually their front-foot pressing of opposing backlines that Heath has really leaned into this year.

They are third in the league in pressing opposing backlines, and do so almost 25% more often than they did last year. That’s not the mark of an inflexible manager! That’s a guy who’s trying something new to get his group in good spots in order to get the ball in the damn net.

Another way of looking at it is that they are no longer purely a counterattacking team. They still do that a lot, mind you, but Heath has clearly worked very hard to weaponize the press over the past 18 months.

Here is the problem:

No matter who’s out there, these moments aren’t really turning into goals for the Loons. In this instance Abu Danladi just doesn’t have the patience to let the overlapping run unfold – that is the perfect place to slip a fullback into the box for a pullback from the optimal assist zone – and instead settles for a low-percentage shot from outside the box. Against Stefan Frei, that is damn near a no-hoper.

This is a self-inflicted wound, and the fact that the roster’s largely been rebuilt over the past couple of years but is actually less dangerous in these situations… look, I’m not sure Heath, the manager, is the problem here. I think Heath’s work as a GM is a more serious issue (please pay no attention to the pair of DP forwards sitting on the bench).

Yikes. Anyway, my point is that Minnesota are disappointing, but maybe not in the way you think, and that Heath absolutely is trying to fix it. He might just have handcuffed himself with how he built his team.

As for the Sounders, I’m turning the floor over to Producer Anders, who has changed his name to “CCL Champion Anders Aarhus” in every group chat and is super obnoxious right now, but has earned a blurb:

I'm kinda worried about Cristian Roldan from the perspective of he plays 100%, every minute of every game. But his style is also so, so physical, he's getting beat up out there every game. They need to make sure he's not dead by the end of the year – they have the pieces to rotate (Leo Chu, go to 3-5-2, etc).

Obed Vargas was really good once again. He's the starter at that spot for the rest of the year unless he does something to lose it.

They need to sort out a little bit of their spacing and counter-pressing because there were too many times where they turned the ball over and got caught with no midfielder holding to help defend a counter. I'm sure that's just Albert Rusnak and Vargas getting used to one another's rotations and the fact neither is really a true 6. That organization / soccer IQ / field awareness is a big part of what I think they miss with Joao Paulo out.

I think that about sums it up. Both these teams are who we thought they were – kinda, anyway, in Minnesota’s case – and I fully expect Seattle to start stomping a hole in the rest of the league, now that their CCL run is over, in the same way NYCFC and Montréal have.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Orlando City, who finished the weekend second in the East (though, to be fair, fourth in points per game) left it very late up in Toronto, but eventually found the winner when Kyle Smith headed home a corner two minutes into second-half stoppage for the 1-0 win.

The Lions have truly been feast or famine this season – they barely showed up to losses against RBNY and Montréal in recent weeks. But they exerted a level of midfield control in this one that’s largely been missing in 2022, and turned that into a pretty sterling defensive performance. Pedro Gallese just didn’t have much to do.

Of course, lots of folks are doing that against the Reds, who’ve now lost five straight and have been shut out in the past three of those.

This is why we pay attention to the underlying numbers, right? Even when TFC went on that four-game unbeaten run in late-March/early-April, all the advanced stuff was saying that they were getting results they shouldn’t and that they were actually in some trouble. Now the results are aligning with the data, and Bob Bradley’s got some work to do to figure out how to point things in the right direction.

11. No problems with that for Montréal as they ran their winning streak to three and their unbeaten run to eight, climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference table with a 2-0 win down in Charlotte.

Joaquin Torres gets our Pass of the Week for this lovely flick to undress the Charlotte backline on the game’s first goal:

You can see the built-in, structural issues Montréal’s 3-4-2-1 causes against a back four. Neither Torres nor Djordje Mihailovic, the attacking midfielders on that “2” line, operate in spaces that are comfortable for the opposing center backs, but there are times (like when the Charlotte midfield gets strung out, or when Montréal center forward Romell Quioto pulls wide, both of which happened here) when the center backs actually do have to pick those guys up and mark them like they’re center forwards.

Christian Makoun realizes that a half-step too late. That means Torres can angle himself to play Kamal Miller’s third-line pass one-touch into space for Quioto, and the break is on.

Montréal’s a really clever, well-drilled team, and you can see that they’ve become more comfortable breaking lines when playing from the back. Neither this eight-game streak, nor their perch atop the East are accidents.

10. It’s Philly they’ve been chasing, and it’s Philly that they caught (on PPG; they passed them on wins, which is the first tiebreaker) this weekend. The Union are now winless in four after a 1-1 draw against the visiting Red Bulls.

While both goals came from typical Energy Drink Soccer builds – long ball to the top of the box, win the second ball, some sort of quick combo play and finish – the Union didn’t settle for pure sufferball, especially after going up a man in the 55th minute. They actually possessed and turned it into chances.

But the same old story was the same old story: Philly’s forwards couldn’t finish what fell to them. Julian Carranza, Sergio Santos and Cory Burke (Mikael Uhre missed the game via injury) all had chances to win it, and each spurned them.

This is a story the Red Bulls are familiar with themselves, and to a greater degree. In the season opener, back in February, their center forwards combined to score two goals. In the 10 games since, they’ve combined for three.

Still, they’re third in the East (PPG) and nobody will be complaining after a point in Chester.

9. No one in Commerce City will be complaining, either, after the Rapids pretty thoroughly handled a fairly rotated and very flat LAFC side, winning 2-0 behind a pair of PKs. The first, from Gyasi Zardes, was his first goal in burgundy.

The win came after their midweek US Open Cup tilt at Minnesota had to be pushed back a day to Thursday because of torrential thunderstorms. The Rapids then proceeded to lose in heartbreaking fashion, and watching his team bounce back from that left the normally taciturn Robin Fraser feeling unusually effusive.

“I am so f------ proud of this team because we have been dealt the worst, not the worst, but the amount of adversity we've had to deal with this week, extremely, extremely challenging circumstances,” Fraser said in the postgame presser. “And on the heels of what we've done – I mean, we were playing 48 hours ago. That's unprecedented.

“And I assumed that the assumption would be that we'd come in here and sit back, we’re tired, we're going to wait and see how the game goes, but I said to the team that I like – I love – being tested, I love being tested because then you really see the character of the group. And the character of the group that I've talked about for almost three years now.”

When the Rapids acquired Zardes I thought it’d sort of directly lead to a 3-5-2 with Gyasi and Diego Rubio up top, and I was half right, as Fraser did, in fact, trot his team out in that formation. But Rubio was in the hole as a true No. 10, while Jonathan Lewis paired Gyasi on the front line.

It’s an attack that’s made to run, and so they did. That drive to get out into space didn’t birth any of the game’s most important moments, but I think it’s pretty clearly going to be Colorado’s identity this season.

8. Cincy’s got themselves an identity, and more importantly, they have themselves a structure. That’s allowed them to pick up points even when they haven’t played great, as was the case on Saturday when they got a late goal from MVP candidate – maybe the MVP frontrunner, to be honest – Lucho Acosta to win 2-1 at Chicago.

Granted, it took a calamitous touch from Gaga Slonina (officially in his first professional slump, and the second of two calamitous goals the Fire conceded) to gift Cincy the win, which was their club-record fourth in a row. But the difference this year is that the Knifey Lions are actually in position to take advantage when the opponents are determined to give them a gift:

As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Acosta’s getting more touches per game in the attacking half and more in the attacking third compared to last season. That is because he’s getting way, way fewer in Cincy’s own defensive half, having cut the amount of time he spends dropping deep and progressing the ball upfield by a touch over 40%.

This is simple stuff. Lucho’s an attacking midfielder and they now have him attacking, and in midfield, instead of dropping deep to shuttle from the backline. Responsibilities are clearer and more focused, and it’s working.

Chicago are now 0W-5L-2D in their past seven, and have scored just three times in that span. Chris Mueller, making his first start, helped some – this was the most dangerous the Fire have looked all year, I think. But the good vibes from the good start to the season are long gone.

7. Nothing but good vibes out of Houston following their 2-0 win over visiting Nashville thanks to an early goal from Coco Carrasquilla (whose loan was thankfully made a permanent transfer this past week) and a Darwin Quintero PK early in the second half, which came after the Dynamo were down to 10 men. The win snapped a four-game winless skid.

Nashville, meanwhile, have won just once in their past five, and Gary Smith unloaded after this game, saying: "I'm having a conversation with you guys tonight that I don't normally have, and it's not enjoyable. ... Today was the first time I've seen a group of players that we've put on the field who have been nowhere near the task at hand."

He also lamented his team’s lack of depth (which is at least a little bit debatable), all but subtweeted Ake Loba, and generally sounded like the fans that felt this was the worst ‘Yotes performance since they’d moved up to MLS.

Nashville’s not falling apart or anything, but they don’t look like the type of team that’s about to explode and go on a massive run now that most of their remaining schedule is at home, either.

The fact that Loba looks nothing like a starting-caliber center forward (let alone a club-record DP signing) even when he gets more than a few minutes is a huge driver of that lack and, I imagine, of Smith’s frustration.

6. San Jose’s 3-3 draw at Vancouver on Saturday afternoon had real #MLSAfterDark energy once it got to the second half. The ‘Caps took a 1-0 lead just after the break, but still had to come from behind twice, with the final goal coming from center back Erik Godoy off a corner kick in the 90th minute.

The Quakes will be upset with themselves for that, because they had spent the whole second half just gashing Vancouver (who seemed to revert to a back three after starting the game in a 4-4-2). I have to imagine this is exactly what Chris Leitch hoped to see when he added Jeremy Ebobisse and Jamiro Monteiro over the past two windows, setting up a front four with those guys at the No. 9 and 10, respectively, and Cade Cowell and Cristian Espinoza on the wings:

There’s a lot to be said for having an attack composed of guys who just naturally fit together – whose skillsets amplify one another, rather than overlapping. That’s what these four do, and new head coach Alex Covelo has done well to just simplify, roll ‘em out and let ‘em work. They have now lost just once in six games (all competitions) since he replaced Matias Almeyda.

The ‘Caps missed playmaker Ryan Gauld (health & safety protocols), so between that absence, the injury to Caio Alexandre and the wait for Andres Cubas's paperwork to clear, they were without their entire starting midfield.

Rallying back twice for a late point is nice obviously. But just as the back half of 2021 was blessed for this team, the first half (at least) of 2022 seems to have been cursed.

5. No curse for Inter Miami, though Phil Neville was understandably miffed to see his team squander a 2-0 lead in what eventually became a 2-2 home draw against visiting D.C. United.

Neville’s had to cycle through formations over the past year-and-a-half, but looks to have settled comfortably into a 4-3-3, one that accentuates the strengths of big center forward Leo Campana, who picked up his sixth goal of the season to open the scoring.

D.C., though, deserved their draw and created most of the best chances in the second half.

4. FC Dallas didn’t create much in the second half largely because they took care of work in the first 23 minutes of their thumping 3-1 win at the Galaxy on Saturday night. Jesus Ferreira had a brace to give him a league-leading nine goals on the season, and if it’s not Acosta or Mihailovic atop the MVP race, then it’s Ferreira. His movement off the ball is a nightmare, and Dallas have weaponized it*.

(*) I think Nico Estevez might’ve weaponized Paxton Pomykal by changing the midfield shape a bit and moving him more central, but it’s hard to tell from a road game in which they controlled the game state for 80 minutes so I want to see more before I say whether or not this is a thing.

LA, who’d only conceded one open-play goal all season heading into this game, couldn’t keep up, and compounded it by making the kinds of errors that end up on the season-ending lowlight compilation. About the only good news for them out of this game is that Douglas Costa finally got himself back on the scoreboard, though once again it came from a set piece rather than something carved from open play.

“We’re in the dangerous areas, but we’re really not dangerous enough yet,” head coach Greg Vanney said afterward. “And that continues to be one of the things that we have to continue to grow at as a group. Because we can’t win every game 1-0, and we got ourselves behind in this one early. So, we’ve got to continue to get more opportunities [and] more chances on goal.”

3. Portland smashed the hell out of a Sporting KC side that just seems ready to fall apart, winning 7-2 on Saturday night and enjoying the first Sebastian Blanco masterclass of the season. He had two goals and two assists, and looked like the elite, match-winning No. 10 he’s been for most of his MLS career.

He’ll share our Face of the Week with Eryk Williamson – another guy who had his first truly superb outing in his return from injury – and young Nathan Fogaca, who had a brace in his first MLS start:

Look at how happy those guys are!

I don’t know if this means, as color commentator Jake Zivin suggested, that the Timbers are back, because getting Sporting at home is what Andrew Wiebe might call a “bonus game” these days (KC are 0W-6L-1D on the road). But if Blanco and Williamson are fit then it’s a good bet that they’ll be significantly improved, even if not quite all the way back to last year in the postseason.

2. RSL rallied from an early 1-0 deficit to beat Austin 2-1 in front of yet another sold-out Rio Tinto crowd. They buried the visitors in the second half after Austin had gone down to 10 men following a Danny Pereira red card on a Bobby Wood breakaway.

Both Claret-and-Cobalt goals came from sustained periods of build-up, which is not their usual modus operandi, but which suits them given the amount of tricky wingers and attack-minded fullbacks they have. Given the absences and the injuries (Damir Kreilach hasn’t played in a month), as well as the presumptive roster retool coming this summer (open DP slots and U22 slots, maybe some TAM to use as well?), it’s difficult to know exactly what RSL are planning to be. Almost everything about how they’re lining up, week after week, is changing.

1. And finally, two teams that have been short on chemistry thus far in 2022 are starting to show more of it in spurts, and did so again in Sunday’s super-entertaining 2-2 draw between Atlanta and the Revs at Mercedes Benz Stadium. For both teams, it showed up much more in attack than in defense.

For the Revs, we’ll let the boxscore do the talking, as Adam Buksa had a pair of pure striker’s goals. Buksa’s not the type of guy who gets chances all by himself, but when his team is stringing passes together and moving well on and off the ball, there isn’t a more dangerous No. 9 in the league.

For the Five Stripes, let’s have the clip do the talking:

That movement between Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo? That’s what attacking chemistry looks like.