Happy holidays to all who celebrate!
There was a small but loud and persistent batch of LAFC fans who were not happy with Dénis Bouanga last September. The Frenchman had come to downtown LA on a DP deal and, over the course of his first five appearances, couldn’t find the goal with a map.
What he did find, however, were chances. Lots of them. And in a way that made it worse, because the guy wasn’t finding half-chances.
No, Bouanga was constantly getting into the box, living at the back post and somehow managing not to convert what were essentially tap-ins. It got to the point that through the first 350 minutes of his MLS career, he was underperforming his expected goals by more per 90 than anyone in the American Soccer Analysis database, which goes back more than a decade.
I tweeted about it, of course:
And, well, Bouanga has turned out to be fine in the long run, hasn’t he? Austin were the latest side to get an eyeful of that, as Bouanga pumped home a hat trick – one in the first, two in the second – in LAFC’s 3-0 win on Saturday.
Amusingly, Bouanga is now overperforming his G-xG in 2023 (+0.68 per 96) by more than he underperformed it last year (-0.49 per 96). That, of course, brings us to the overall point: These models are robust, and thus over a large enough sample size, the vast majority of players (and teams… hey there, Austin fans) won’t appreciably over or underperform their underlying numbers.
And in my opinion, the number one takeaway we have from all the advanced data breakthroughs we’ve seen over the past dozen years is to trust attackers who find good chances to eventually put them away. Everyone can go through a slump in front of goal now and then; not everyone can be in the right spot to put the ball into the net on the regular.
Those LAFC fans are, for obvious reasons, singing a different tune today about Bouanga than they were ~7 months ago. Hopefully they’ll be more patient next time.
And hopefully Vancouver fans are learning the same lesson with their center forward, Brian White. White is not going to be at the same level as Bouanga (we’re talking about a 12-goal scorer here, not a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate) but he’s proven, and he found chance after chance after chance to start the year.
He responded with miss after miss after miss. The fans grew restless.
We’ve all heard what goalscorers say in those situations, though, right? “Just need one to hit the back of the net and then the floodgates will open.”
White got his one a month ago, and after slamming home Julian Gressel’s cross with his bellybutton in Vancouver’s 1-0 win over the Timbers on Saturday night, he’s now got four goals in his past seven games across all competitions. The floodgates opened a little bit slowly, but now he’s looking like the guy who’s scored a goal every 180ish minutes throughout his MLS career (all comps), and whose underlying numbers line up with the boxscore numbers almost exactly.
For what it’s worth, it seems like the ‘Caps and the Timbers are both regressing to their own means as well. I don’t trust the numbers completely with Vancouver as of yet – they’ve played the easiest schedule in the league – but I do with Portland. And it’s not just the underlying stats:
This team is adrift.
Triangles everywhere. Perfect spacing everywhere. Numbers to immediately press and win the ball back off a turnover. Overloads. The courage to break lines and hit third-line passes.
They didn’t score off of that, obviously, though they did force a nice save on the subsequent corner. What’s more important, however, is the comfort with which they pushed St. Louis back and pulled them side-to-side. Make any team chase and you’re in good shape as a ball-dominant side, and Seattle really have become a ball-dominant side in 2023.
That comfort dictating things from the backline forced St. Louis to take more chances with their press as the game wore on, and when that happened Seattle were smart and ruthless enough to ping long diagonals to the flanks. Even when those passes didn’t connect, they were useful for causing dislocation between the CITY SC backline and midfield.
Because of that dislocation, the Sounders were able to 1) win second balls in the attacking third, and 2) get Nico Lodeiro on the ball in the half-space with plenty of time to pick a retreating defense apart.
“Seattle is a team that can weigh you down. So, I mean, I don't say we got worn down, but I felt that we lost our way a little bit in our principles,” is how St. Louis head coach Bradley Carnell, who had his side in a 3-5-2 for this one, put it after the match. “So, when that starts to get away from us, we know we don't rely on one player, we rely on the team to function because we know that we have to be a lot more connected. We know we have to be a lot more compact. And yeah, when players don't start, you know, applying those principles or being true to them, then spaces and gaps appear.”
There are spaces and gaps everywhere for CF Montréal, who got taken apart to the tune of 4-0 by the Revs in Foxborough on Saturday night. Their -13 goal differential through six games is amongst the worst in league history, and their three goals scored equals the amount scored by Kei Kamara, who (smartly, it turns out) forced a trade in February.
They obviously miss Kei, and they miss Ismaël Koné, Alistair Johnston and especially Djordje Mihailovic as well. The real issue, though, is that new head coach Hernan Losada has been unable to either institute his own system – Losada’s Maximum Overdrive approach is very similar to an Energy Drink Soccer philosophy – or to approximate the methodical, controlled possession approach we saw for the past two years under Wilfried Nancy.
So Montréal have no identity, and less talent than they used to, and the margin for error is so small it might as well not exist, which is tough for a team that has shown, week after week, an inability to deal with simple long balls:
As for the Revs – who came out in a surprise 4-3-3 with Gustavo Bou as a narrow left-winger – they’ve shown all year their margins are larger, and over the past few weeks have started to play really well. Here’s a report from our Foxborough-based correspondent, Calen Carr, who provided color commentary on Season Pass:
“I think they knew Montréal couldn’t threaten them and wanted to be aggressive matching up with the Montréal back three and put them under pressure. [Dylan] Borrero was great (including the goal), and [Latif] Blessing was probably Man of the Match. Before he came off he was everywhere.”
10. FC Cincinnati scratched out another 1-0 win, beating reeling (and, it should be said, heavily rotated) Philly Saturday night on a Lucho Acosta penalty kick. The Garys are one of two remaining unbeatens, along with LAFC, and currently top the Supporters' Shield race.
I’ll borrow the point Sacha Kljestan made on MLS 360: These types of wins are often more important and more indicative of championship mettle than the ability to go out there and drop a 4-2 on someone. When games get tight and trophies are on the line you’re, by definition, only playing against good teams, and chances are you’re not dropping many 4-2s in that situation.
So it’s been a big step forward in that regard this season for Cincy, though it’s been a step backward in almost every other way. And with Lucho possibly out for the next two weeks as per Pat Noonan, the difficulty level is ratcheting up.
9. The Crew are right there with the Sounders in the “most aesthetically pleasing soccer of 2023” race:
They went right at poor Victor Palsson, who is very much not a fullback, all night in a 2-0 win. D.C. had all sorts of trouble figuring out who was supposed to be stepping to the Columbus wingbacks, and when, and if you give Nancy’s guys that much time to pick their passes, they will ball.
8. Also balling were FC Dallas, though unlike the Crew they were unable to turn a 1-0 into 2-0, and had to hang on for dear life in stoppage time yet again. This time they were bailed out by a (correct IMO) Video Review, which overturned a potential Miami PK in the 98th minute to preserve the 1-0 final.
You can tell that Nico Estévez badly wants to figure out how to get more attacking output from his side, and in this one his answer was to try a 4-4-1-1 with Jesús Ferreira as a shadow striker under Jesús Jiménez. I think it has potential, but don’t expect it to displace the default 4-3-3.
Phil Neville trotted out a 4-4-2 of his own, a diamond with Josef Martínez and Leo Campana up top. In Campana’s 58 minutes, he completed just one pass to Josef, and Josef completed zero passes to Campana, so it’s fair to say things are a work in progress.
Five straight losses for Inter since Gregore got hurt.
7. What’s happened to Sporting KC? They were good down the stretch last year, brought back most of that team, and you’d think they would be better this year because of that!
Sporting have just two goals in seven games, which ties the league record for futility they set in 1999. Maybe the return of Alan Pulido – he started and went 65 minutes – will help, but the real issue is they just aren’t playing with the type of urgency, pace and decisiveness they showed over the final third of last season. If you want a crude number for that: 10 of the 18 shots they attempted against the Rapids were blocked.
They’ve had 39 shots blocked so far in 2023, which is most in the league outside the Galaxy. Nobody else has more than 29. They move the ball slowly, they let the defense get set and they suffer for it.
The Rapids aren’t great, but they’re now unbeaten in three and are nowhere near the disaster they looked like way back in Matchday 1.
6. There could be only one Face of the Week:
The Galaxy went to Houston and got pumped 3-0. Once again they started in a 4-3-3, and once again it didn’t work. Once again they switched to a 3-5-2 at halftime and immediately started creating chances, though any hopes of a comeback were snuffed out by Martín Cáceres’s moment of madness above.
Like Sporting they were good down the stretch last year. Like Sporting they are winless this year. They have scored just three goals and keep finding fun new ways to lose.
The Dynamo are a happier story. I’ve already written a bunch about them tactically this year, so let’s turn it over to Ben Olsen to talk about what the real work is: overhauling the culture of a team that’s been a doormat for a decade.
“Three more points at home. That's the most important thing and it’s been something we continue to harp on and continue to understand; that that’s going to be a real big part of this culture shift and taking care of this building,” Olsen said in the postgame presser. “Not only now, but as it gets a little hotter as well. So that part is good. It was nice to score a few goals on dead ball situations and also one on the run of play, which has been a little bit harder for us, it’s still a work in progress but we’re getting there slowly.”
To the neutrals out there: I promise you that the Dynamo are a fun watch.
Generally speaking, that is not a great position to cross from, but you can actually see Arnaud Souquet look up and recognize that Kei’s got himself isolated on one center back with the other in no position to help. And since no one’s closing him down… yeah, just whip in a cross to the spot before the defense sets itself. Make a bet on the guy who’s scored 141 career goals to beat the center back and make it 142.
“He's the type of outside back that fits our style of play – we want those outside backs to get forward and that's why we play two pivots,” Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson said afterward. “So, sometimes we let both outside backs go so one of the pivots can stay, so we always have that balance. And tonight he was tremendous, he had a very good cross. And Kei set his defender on the far post, made a run, Arnaud found him and Kei did what he does and put it away. So, we expect that from Arnaud; like I said, he's still learning the league and he's gonna be better, he's gonna get better, but I thought tonight he was good.”
4. Toronto made it six unbeaten with a 0-0 draw down in Nashville, a result neither team is probably all that thrilled with. I think the Reds should be the more content of the two sides, though, as they used a ton of the ball and never let the ‘Yotes uncork one of those Hany Mukhtar-led counterattacks. Shutting that team out in this type of game is not something we’d have seen from last year’s TFC.
3. RSL finally found their lost xDAWG and a bunch of final-third quality in the second half of Saturday’s 3-1 win over Charlotte. I’m giving Andrés Gómez our Pass of the Week for the assist here because it is a beautiful illustration of the old “the run makes the pass” principle – i.e., an attacker who reads the defense and aggressively takes space makes the job much, much easier for the playmakers:
This has not been a great start to the season for the Claret-and-Cobalt, but with two of their DPs combining like that, you figure it has to get better.
As for the Crown, I can not help but revisit sporting director Zoran Krneta’s proclamation from when he signed winger Kamil Jozwiak to a DP contract last year.
"He played against Spain and Holland,” Krneta said at the time. “Can you play in Salt Lake City if you played against Holland? I think you can.”
In his 77 minutes, Jozwiak registered zero goals or assists, though to be fair his 0.51 combined xG+A did lead the team. It wasn’t a bad outing from him, so I think we can enter Krneta’s assessment into the big book of “technically correct” quotes.
2. Atlanta went to the Bronx and battled to a very credible 1-1 draw against NYCFC, which they earned despite playing a man down for the final half-hour after Franco Ibarra’s pretty brutal challenge on James Sands.
The early returns on DP center forward Giorgos Giakoumakis are really, really good – as in “wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up with 20 goals” good. Right now he’s on three in 318 minutes, and he just keeps finding quality chances. Thiago Almada, meanwhile, keeps providing them.
Now that it looks like the Pigeons have given up the ghost on converting Talles Magno to a false 9 (I think he’ll still play there from time to time, but he’s back to getting most of his minutes on the left wing), they could/should go out and get a true center forward like Giakoumakis. They don’t have the flexibility to make that happen with a DP slot – Thiago Martins, Santi Rodríguez and Talles himself occupy those – but they’ve got at least one open U22 Initiative slot, and perhaps two with last week’s loan of Thiago Andrade.
1. And finally, it’s hard to write about the soccer aspect of San Jose’s 1-1 draw in Harrison on Saturday night given the fact that one of RBNY’s players allegedly used a racial slur. I recommend watching the postgame press conference where Quakes’ center forward Jeremy Ebobisse addressed the incident at length and with his typical candor and insight.
For the game itself… the Quakes got brutalized trying to play through St. Louis’s press last month. They weren’t perfect attempting the same against the Red Bulls, but I suspect head coach Luchi González will be able to identify areas of real progress when he goes through the film of this one.