Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Pepi Hype Train takes off, Atlanta stop their skid & more from Week 18

The summer tournaments are over, I am back from a little vacation and we are smack dab in the middle of the 26th season of MLS.

Another weekend is in the books, so let’s pull this sucker apart and see what we see:


FC Dallas are riding the Ricardo Pepi Hype Train up the standings and directly into the playoff fight. The latest stop was a 2-0 win over Austin FC in a match that will, presumably, become a rivalry game at some point.

Dallas are the hottest team in the West, having taken 10 points from their past four games. That includes this home win over the lowly Verde, but they opened this mini streak with a win over the Galaxy, then followed that up with a win at Sporting KC last weekend and a point at Seattle this past Wednesday. Those are the top three teams in the Western Conference, and this was supposed to be the chunk of the schedule that buried los Toros Tejanos.

They are very much not buried, and Pepi is a huge reason why. Dallas are 5-2-3 with a +6 goal differential when he starts at center forward, and 0-5-3 with a -8 goal differential when he doesn't (that includes games where he hasn't played, hasn't started or has started at right wing). It took a while but Franco Jara finally played his way out of the XI and that’s produced a twofold bonus: Pepi, who is clearly the better player, is starting games and affecting them even when he's not putting the ball in the back of the net. Jara, meanwhile, has been something of a weapon off the bench — not quite Ilsinho of a few years back or Alan Gordon of a decade ago, but go ahead and ask the Sounders if Jara makes a late-game difference. That is a worthwhile club to have in the bag even if it's not exactly what you're hoping for when you slide a veteran No. 9 a DP contract.

There is other stuff at play here, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But the simple truth is that giving your best center forward the conch helps a ton. Pepi scores goals, which Jara hadn't been doing, so Dallas are spending more time playing with a lead. He also collects attention everywhere he goes on the field in a way that Jara wasn't doing, which opens space.

That’s what happened on both goals Saturday night. On goal No. 1 Pepi’s flashing near-post run compressed the Austin backline, which left Szabolcs Schon alone at the back post to pick up a failed clearance. Schon had enough time to slide a very gentle pass to Ryan Hollingshead at the top of the box for the one-timer.

Pepi’s effect on the second goal was even more obvious:

The entire Austin defense orients itself either toward the ball or toward Pepi. Jesus Ferreira just has to be smart enough to recognize that and hang back in the soft spot at the top of the box, and once again Schon’s got himself a primary assist. Ballgame.

Which brings us to the other things that are going right for Dallas at the moment: Ferreira, Paxton Pomykal and Edwin Cerrillo are all healthy and contributing, while Schon and fellow newcomer Facundo Quignon have integrated more easily and produced more immediate value than the previous horde of Dallas imports. Nkosi Tafari, meanwhile, has grown into his role as a starting center back in the absence of Matt Hedges, who has only returned to minimal game action this week after missing the past two-and-a-half months, so the defense has solidified. Given that and the return to health (and form) of Jimmy Maurer, Dallas have stopped hemorrhaging goals.

“The starting lineup has five, six players that weren't available at the beginning of the season, whether it's not being on the roster or injury, or maybe not showing, or not having the starting opportunity yet,” Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez said after the game. “So that shows you the roster, the depth, the competition and the fact that pieces can step up and get the job done.”

He’s not wrong: getting better players into the XI helps. Gonzalez deserves some credit for that — it’s not easy to bench most of the highest-paid veterans in any team, which is what he’s had to do — and for simplifying the team’s tactical approach and formation. He was game-planning like a mad scientist at the start of the season, but now Dallas are a pretty straightforward 4-2-3-1 side, and one that doesn’t beat itself. You have to go out there and do it to them.

That, too, is a massive change for the better, and Austin weren’t up to the challenge. They did put together a very promising first 45 minutes in which they deviated from their usual 4-3-3 shape to press out of a 3-4-3 and kind of rocked Dallas onto their heels, but without a true center forward it just doesn’t matter that much.

Erstwhile right back Manny Perez started up top for Austin and all three DPs — including newcomer Sebastian Driussi, who I really thought was going to be a forward but very clearly played midfield in this one, and has been repeatedly referred to as a midfielder in every Austin press release so far, so make of that what you will — started on the bench until a line change midway through the second half.

And so the hosts were never under a ton of pressure.

“All game long, I felt like Austin was really good at possessing the ball and finding little pockets in between our lines, but they didn’t really didn’t have that final pass, so even when [the DPs] subbed on, our defense felt very solid,” Hollingshead said. “There was never really a point that we really felt threatened by what they were doing.”

And that, my friends, is the story of how Dallas have righted the ship. It's not perfect, but they're within touching distance of the playoff line and are headed in the right direction: Straight up. After a long, hard spring, mid-summer has turned out to be Dallas's season.

Battle Scars

Atlanta United got their first win in 12 games, going to Columbus to beat the spiraling Crew by 3-2.

There was, for what seems like the first time all year, some verticality to Atlanta's play. They have not been as ponderous under interim head coach Rob Valentino as they'd been under Gabriel Heinze, and that plays better to the strengths of a pretty youthful roster.

Just look at the opening goal. Left wingback George Bello gets really advanced and does well to understand Ezequiel Barco’s modus operandi, making a run to stretch the defense and be a potential threat to get played in. Putting that kind of vertical pressure on a backline creates space to dribble through midfield, though, and when Barco has space to dribble he will always choose to dribble:

Bello’s frustration at Barco’s failure to play him through is momentarily visible, but the best part of this sequence is how he immediately recognizes the new state of play and reorients himself to be an asset. This is off-ball problem-solving of the type that I didn’t really expect to see from Bello yet given his issues with attacking third indecisiveness under Heinze, and also over the past month with the US men’s national team at the Gold Cup. This isn’t a knock — Bello acquitted himself well in the final against Mexico, and remains a very, very high-upside young player, but the momentum of attacking movements have tended to die on his foot.

Not here. This was a moment where he understood the possibilities of what could happen next better than anyone else on the field, and then … made it happen. It was a brilliant bit of play, one that leveraged Barco’s strengths to go directly at Columbus’ weakness.

And that weakness — the inability to close down through midfield and prevent teams from getting into 1v1 situations in and around the box, and an inability to then scramble effectively — is just crushing the Crew at the moment. The reigning MLS Cup champs have lost three straight in pretty emphatic fashion.

“It’s individual mistakes and moments and that’s what we have to clean up,” Porter said after the game. “I think a lot of it is psychological at this point.”

That’s correct, but it’s not the whole story. The simple fact is that Columbus have not really played well all year, and remain at or near the bottom of the table in every relevant attacking metric other than free kick golazos. Not just the stuff like xG (they’re ahead of only Miami) or xG differential (they are sixth from bottom), but shot assists, line-breaking passes and the like. Some of it is high-level data Second Spectrum tracks and quantifies, but a lot of it is just stuff you see with your own eyes. Some Crew fans have been seeing it for a while, and probably shouldn’t be shouted down for pointing it out.

Until this three-game stretch, the above hasn’t really mattered that much because the Crew are just too experienced, too tough and too talented. But now they’re too injured, too stagnant and too worn down to keep grinding out results like they’d managed to up until the end of July. And the defense, which was air-tight through much of 2020, has fallen apart while the offense has continued to sputter along, just as the underlying numbers warned would be the case.

“When you are the champion the last season, people look for holes in you," Porter said two weeks ago, right before this losing streak started. "Instead of talking about us being the best defensive team and the fact that we've lost one game in 10 and we've got five wins and four draws, instead of talking about that, they'll talk about why we're not scoring more goals. They always look for the negative and that's because when you're good, the tallest tree the wind blows the strongest against."

I got his reasoning then and said as much on Extratime, and Porter is definitely not the first coach to use the Power Rankings as a motivational tool (he might have to slide Adrian Heath a few bucks for copyright infringement). And again: Porter is mostly correct here. The Crew being poor is a story in a way that, say, Cincinnati being poor just isn’t. Of course we're going to pull it apart and try to figure out what's wrong.

But it’s more than just narratives, talking heads and angry fans. The underlying numbers have been down on the Crew all year, and the reason people pay attention to the underlying numbers is that on a long enough timeline, they tend to be right.

And right now, well, the standings (7th place in the East) and results (two wins in 10) are starting to agree with what the numbers have been saying all along, and my guess is the Power Rankings will, too. So the point is this: Columbus have some problems to solve, or their title defense will come to an ignominious end much sooner than expected.

A few more things to ponder…

11. Speaking of Adrian Heath, Minnesota United took care of business at home on Saturday night, dispatching a reeling Houston side by 2-0. The Loons largely controlled play and got their goals when Robin Lod pounced on a goalkeeper error, and once again via a set piece.

That winless, pointless four-game stretch to start the season is a distant memory. Minnesota have gone 7-1-5 since then, and climbed up to fifth in the West. The Dynamo, meanwhile, are winless in 11 and have dropped to 11th in the West after a promising 3-2-2 start to the season.

10. A week of turmoil in Cincinnati ended with what I think has to go down as a dispiriting 1-1 home draw against visiting Orlando City. Cincy really did have the better of the first half and absolutely did deserve their 1-0 lead, but a bit of madness from Allan Cruz gifted Nani possession in the attacking third, and these days Nani just does not miss. Orlando City have lost just once in their past six, while Cincy are winless in eight.

Really great run from the baby, though:

9. The Rapids absolutely battered a heavily rotated Sporting KC side in Colorado on Saturday night, but couldn’t make their dominance pay off in what eventually became a scoreless draw. Mark-Anthony Kaye was superb in his Rapids debut, pulling strings from central midfield in a 3-5-2, and the defense continues to be a revelation. But their lack of final third quality is starting to become a bit of an anchor.

Sporting weren’t great, but Tim Melia sure was. And this marks the fourth straight road game in which they’ve gotten a result, which I bet makes Peter Vermes very happy.

8. A road result for NYCFC as well thanks to the 2-2 final at BMO Field against Toronto FC, and Pass of the Week to James Sands for this blind, first-time diagonal to put a winger into space:

It looked very much like the Cityzens, who were rampant in the first half, were going to put this game away early. But Toronto interim head coach Javier Perez made two massive halftime subs — Michael Bradley off for Ralph Priso and Jozy Altidore off for Achara — that changed the momentum of the game. Instead of NYCFC running away with it, they spent the entire second half holding on for dear life, and to be perfectly honest, the 14th-place Reds deserved a winner and were unlucky not to find one.

"I think it's a difficult situation because Michael is the captain... he's the heart and soul of the team,” Perez said in the postgame presser of subbing Bradley off. “But tonight, the team needed something different and we made the change for just the good of the team."

7. The Timbers got themselves a pair of two-goal leads against RSL and that was enough for them to, in the end, hang on for a 3-2 win over the visitors.

“Hang on” is the right description. Portland have reverted to last year’s approach of just packing it in for the final 15 minutes of games if they have a lead, and while they survived against RSL I do suspect that, long-term, they will have to learn the same exact lesson of 2020. That lesson is “bunkering is hard and if you can’t do it well, you shouldn’t try.”

Gio Savarese, to his credit, knows this.

"Of course you want to finish the game a little bit more with the ball, you want to finish with maybe scoring another goal and making sure the game is a little bit more manageable but sometimes games like this happen," Savarese said in the postgame. "The most important thing is that we won the three points.”

The three points did pop the Timbers back up over the playoff line and knock RSL down below it, so Savarese's right that the result is the most important takeaway here. But Portland better hope it is in fact a "sometimes games like this happen" thing and not a "this is what we're going to be doing, again" thing.

6. The Fire blitzed the hapless Red Bulls on Sunday night in Chicago, racing out to a 2-0 lead inside of 10 minutes and eventually cruising to a not-as-close-as-the-scoreline-indicates 2-1 win.

It was a much-needed win for the Fire, their first in a month. They largely avoided the types of catastrophic errors that have been their calling card over the past several years.

That, in turn, is a catastrophe for a Red Bull side that's now won just once in their past nine and have no way of creating chances if their press isn't causing catastrophes for the opponent. RBNY's legs, right now, are too heavy for that and the attacking corps just doesn't seem to include the types of guys who can unlock a backline.

More foreboding still might be the body language, which is not good. RBNY lead the league in angry gesticulations at a teammate and dead-eyed strolls to the bench after being subbed.

5. Break up Inter Miami! A late, dramatic — and aesthetically very pleasing! — Indiana Vassilev header gave the hosts a 2-1 win over visiting Nashville SC in Fort Lauderdale.

It was a deserved win for Miami, their second in three games. They're not precisely rolling, but they're off the bottom of the table, the energy level is obviously higher than it was through May, June and July, and the on-field balance is better as well. Having Gregore in the middle of that 3-4-2-1 certainly helps, and it seems like putting the captain's armband on him was the right call from the coach.

Nashville ... this is where the schedule is their enemy. The first half of the season was loaded up at home, and now on the back nine they're going to have to figure out how to keep grinding through these games.

4. The longest unbeaten run currently in MLS belongs to the San Jose Earthquakes, who ran it to seven with a 2-1 win over visiting LAFC on Sunday night.

A few things here:

  • This game featured what I think was either a rage sub or a tactical sub* from Matias Almeyda when, in the 36th minute, he took right back Luciano Abecasis off for center forward Jeremy Ebobisse.
  • That sub changed San Jose's shape from the 3-4-3 they've been using throughout most of this streak to a 3-5-2.
  • They conceded an own goal immediately after that sub.

It was bizarre! But that's the Quakes, man — they've been a bizarre team throughout most of Almeyda's tenure. It makes for good TV.

They are not, however, quite as bizarre as they used to be. This streak coincided with the shift to the 3-4-3, but it also coincided with Almeyda finally backing off of the all-out man-marking that has been his calling card for as long as he's been a head coach. There are still some obvious man-marking principles throughout this team, and especially on the backline, but through midfield? They're zonal. In a lot of ways, they look like most every other team.

It's a massive shift, one that may have saved the Quakes' season.

(*) It turns out it was, in fact, an injury sub. Almeyda took Abecasis off for Ebobisse, then had to sub Paul Marie on for Cade Cowell at halftime in order to rebalance the defense. I am a little bit sad it wasn't a rage sub.

LAFC, meanwhile, spent a huge chunk of this game looking impossibly disorganized:

They were lucky not to be down 4-1 at the break. They are struggling like mad to manage basic defensive rotations without Eddie Segura, who's lost for the year with an ACL tear. I suspect they're going to be in a serious fight down at the playoff line — they currently sit seventh, two points ahead of San Jose, Dallas and RSL — for the rest of 2021.

3. While many of the other hard and high-pressing teams in MLS are either melting or imploding, D.C. United are thriving. Hernan Losada still has his side playing energy drink soccer, and it's getting them results: the game-winner in Sunday night's 2-1 win over visiting Montréal came directly from the high press.

The man who scored that game-winner, veteran No. 9 Ola Kamara, has been the most productive per-90 player in the league thus far. That goal was his 10th, one behind league leaders Gustavo Bou (1340 minutes) and Raul Ruidiaz (1565 minutes).

Kamara has played 624 minutes. If he keeps up this rate for the rest of the season — and to be clear, I do not believe that is possible — he will have posted the best per-90 season in league history, and will have done so by a mile.

CF Montréal head coach Wilfried Nancy switched to a back four in this one. Given the team's absences it was a worthwhile gamble, but it didn't really work.

2. The 'Caps finally have their No. 10, and he damn near stole them a win in Carson. Ryan Gauld made his debut on Sunday night late in the second half of what eventually became a 1-1 draw, and his audacious attempted chip from about 20 yards damn near caught Jonathan Bond out.

It was an auspicious debut, and Gauld fits one of the most obvious needs in the league. Vancouver just don't have anyone who's comfortably operated in the most high-leverage attacking spots on the field, and haven't for a good, long while.

The Galaxy, on the other hand, assembled their squad by cobbling together as many players who can operate in those spots as is possible. On this night it was 19-year-old homegrown Efra Alvarez getting into the half-space and splitting Kevin Cabral for the opener.

LA will be disappointed, I'm sure, that the second half kind of got away with them and Vancouver stole the point. But it was a seven-point week for the Galaxy, they sit third in the West and have significant firepower on the way. So I'm not sure the way the game played out indicates much on their part aside from some tired legs.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to young Paxten Aaronson in Philly's 2-1 loss at New England:

Aaronson was one of three 17-year-old central midfielders who started for Jim Curtin's heavily-rotated squad (the Union have a CCL game on Thursday), and it looked like they were sent out to be sacrificial lambs. They had other ideas, though, and gave the Supporters' Shield-race-leading Revs all they could handle.

The Revs, of course, handled it. Matt Turner was huge and the attack did just enough, even without the injured Carles Gil, to take the three points. It was New England's first regular-season win over Philly since 2017.

It was also their second straight game without Gil, the runaway MVP favorite. The exact nature of Gil's injury, beyond it being a muscle injury, hasn't been announced yet, let alone the duration of his absence, so ... we just don't know what this result portends. Stay tuned.