Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Philadelphia's talent gap, Seattle's waiting game & more from Matchday 20


As the season passes its halfway point we’re taking a look at a Seattle side finding glimmers of hope, an RSL team finding themselves one piece short, Columbus going to the Bronx and producing a classic, and one of the great No. 10s in league history finding yet another gear as he enters his 30s.

But we’ll start in Chester with a Philly team that’s lost its way.

And in we go:

Tumblin' Down

I wrote it and said it multiple times this winter: This group of Philly Union players had earned the right to come back, together, one last time and try to win something. They’d come so close so many times and done so while swimming upstream so often just in terms of on-field talent. I didn’t really expect them to win anything this year, but I expected them to be in the fight.

It has not turned out that way. Inter Miami went up to Philly without Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Matías Rojas, and with Federico Redondo and Diego Gómez still injured. First, they went down 1-0, then they equalized behind a Julian Gressel rocket. Then they went down to 10 men, and then they went down to nine men with just minutes left.

Philly smelled blood. They fought. They scrapped. They threw numbers forward and threw caution to the wind, banging on the door. Desperate for a match-winner.

And a match-winner came, just not in the way they’d hoped:

And with that, the Union fell to eighth in the East, with just one win in their past 11 league matches. It might’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I think we should see now that we have to invest in the team,” left back Kai Wagner told a group of reporters in what could be called a postgame rant. “We need players who can help us. We should not just believe our young guys can come up and play, and everybody just says ‘Okay, we have young guys coming up, they should help us.’ That’s not how it is.

“I think everybody sees it. The fan base, we see it. I think if that’s not clear and honest, everybody should know [in] the front office that we should go out now and get new players.”

Wagner went on to lament the team’s lack of pace and finishing – ironic on a night in which Mikael Uhre scored a goal, but probably not wrong overall. The Union, this group of players, just don’t have enough. And with Julián Carranza about to depart for Rotterdam, the talent gap between Philly and the league’s elite is about to get wider.

“They don’t have to be million-dollar players, just players who have different profiles, different styles,” Wagner said during his rant.

It’s a sentiment the leaders of the team, Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya, have both also expressed in one way or another. And, well, it’s time, because this group got their chance, and so far they just haven’t taken it. They haven't really even come close.

“You know who we have and it’s not gonna change,” is what head coach Jim Curtin said when asked about the roster, “so we have to find a way to get out of it.”

For now, at least. But if Philly want to climb back into their customary spot near the top of the East standings, Wagner’s words shouldn’t fall on deaf ears.

Back to Miami’s goal: That is the 15th pick in this year’s SuperDraft, Yannick Bright, finding the 32nd pick, Leo Afonso. If Miami win the Supporters’ Shield this year it’ll be because they have Messi and Suárez and Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, and it’ll be because they signed Gressel in free agency and developed their homegrown players and were ground-breaking in their use of the U-22 initiative.

It’ll also be because they left no stone unturned in terms of finding talent via the draft. Afonso and Bright have both been excellent, providing the kind of match-winning depth that, well, wins you matches you should otherwise have lost.

Waiting and Waiting

Fifty-six minutes into Saturday night’s home match against Minnesota United, the Seattle Sounders were nursing a 1-0 lead. It had not quite been one-way traffic to that point in the game, but it wasn’t far off from that descriptor. And over the previous 10 minutes of play, the Loons – a short-handed version of the Loons, but still a team up near the top of the Western Conference standings – had started getting on the ball a bit more, and were starting to create a little rhythm because of that.

This is where things have pretty consistently spun out of control for the Sounders this season. Long periods of good, or at least adequate play have been undone by catastrophic individual mistakes in defense, or in goal, or in the deep-lying midfield on an almost weekly basis. In conjunction with that, winning margins have been shaved razor thin by the attack’s inability to generate anything resembling a comfortable lead.

So you’d forgive Seattle fans if they found themselves on the edge of their respective seats, the taste of incipient doom on their tongues.

Then this happened:

Obed Vargas and Léo Chú did, in fact, weave some magic. And Paul Rothrock snuck to the back post to finish the movement off, tapping home for the 2-0 lead. Tastes like victory.

“Good possession in the second half, in the opponent’s half of the field, and a great second goal by Paul Rothrock,” is how head coach Brian Schmetzer described the difference between this performance and the ones that have led to so many dropped points this season. He then hung a lampshade on the obvious. “Because at 1-0 it becomes a little bit dicey, but at 2-0 it’s a little bit easier. And the team was even pushing a little bit for the third goal, so I was happy that they were continuing to play like they did in the first half. I think that was a big part of it.”

Seattle have had precious few of these types of build-ups this year, ones where they get into the final third at a run and then combine, at pace, to get into the box against a scrambled defense. Instead, their attacking play has been less decisive, and their ability to beat defenders with the ball has been a weakness. Thus far this season they are:

  • Tied for last in shots following a successful dribble in the final third.
  • 24th in xA following a successful dribble in the final third.
  • 19th in dribble attempts in the box.

Those numbers are all roughly in line with what they were last year. So if you want to understand why they are where they are – down by the red line, scrapping for their playoff lives – you first need to understand that their big winter signing, winger/playmaker Pedro de la Vega was brought in to specifically address that. He was supposed to produce the kind of dynamic, defender-eliminating 1v1 and combination play in the final third that could unlock tap-ins for the other attackers.

De la Vega has been limited to just 103 minutes all year thanks to a recurring hamstring injury. There is no word on when he’ll finally, officially be fit (though if you read the tea leaves, there’s some hope we’ll see him for a cameo by the end of this month). And so the Sounders have had to make do with largely the same winger corps as last year, who have mostly had the same shortcomings as last year.

But if you want to get an idea of what they were supposed to look like – what they hopefully will look like if de la Vega ever gets fit – that goal was it. That’s the Platonic ideal of a Sounders goal in 2024: a quick, decisive entry into the final third; a 2v2 that eliminates multiple defenders via skill moves; an open path into the primary assist zone and a ball zipped across the top of the six-yard box with multiple runners crashing.

It was a wonderful gift to fans of a club that was celebrating its 50th birthday on the night and a declaration of what this team’s desperately trying to become in the second half of the season.

Two other notes from this one:

  • When Alex Roldan suffered an early concussion, Cristian Roldan dropped to right back and instead of pushing Jordan Morris (four goals in his past five games) to the wing and bringing on Raúl Ruidíaz at center forward, Schmetzer kept Morris at center forward while Rothrock came in on the left wing and Chú moved to the right wing.
  • Ruidíaz took a DNP-CD and has just one goal since the start of May.

Read into that what you will.

The Loons have been resilient all season, but now have just one win in their past five. They took this one on the chin.

A few more things to ponder…

12. The beginning of the post-Gonzalo Pineda era looked a lot like the Gonzalo Pineda era proper as Atlanta mostly played pretty well, generated a lot of chances, scored a couple of goals… and coughed up a late equalizer when they lost track of Latif Blessing in the box:


Blessing’s goal made it 2-2, which is how it would end. Good road point for the Dynamo, who are a month away from getting the attacking firepower they really need.

The more I watch Atlanta, the more convinced I am that 90% of their problems stem from one thing: transition defense. When they retreat they have a habit of losing runners in the box (as above), or not timing their step to catch runners offside (as above), or failing to get pressure to the most dangerous midfield opponents (as above). Week after week after week I’m dumping those goals in here.

If interim head coach Rob Valentino can fix that by next week (I know, I know), this team will immediately start winning games. I’m not kidding.

EDIT: A couple of hours after I finished this blurb the long-reported sale of Giorgios Giakoumakis to Cruz Azul went through. Giakoumakis is a good player and a great goalscorer, but getting $10m for a frequently injured 29-year-old you paid less than half that for? Very good business that sets the Five Stripes up to go HAM when the window opens next month.

If they were up near the top of the table I don’t think they’d have done this deal. But given they’re on 17 points from 17 games and staring at some kind of reset, it’s a no-brainer.

11. Transition and set pieces have been the formula for Charlotte FC, who got a goal via the latter in their 1-0 home win over a punchless D.C. United side.

Both these teams need a dose of midfield creativity. The thing with Charlotte, though, is they can grind out 1-0 wins thanks to their excellent CB pairing and what Kristijan Kahlina’s done in goal. United have pretty thoroughly proved they don’t have that luxury.

10. RSL’s staff should submit Saturday’s scoreless draw at Montréal to their front office as exhibit 1A in the “we’re one attacking piece away” argument. And obviously, that’d be an attacking piece, as they actually proved their defensive depth in this one with Bode Hidalgo slotting in at center back in place of Justen Glad, who has an ankle knock.

Montréal are now four unbeaten, though they’re not making up much ground as they’ve only managed two wins in three months.

10. Break up the Revs! Their 3-2 home win over visiting Vancouver gives them three on the trot:

  • This type of patience in the build-up is not something we saw from New England earlier this year.
  • Notice Carles Gil is getting on the ball in No. 10 spots? Over the past few weeks, he’s been able to stay higher and be a creator rather than dropping deep all the time.
  • Man, it’s nice to see Dylan Borrero back and making those kinds of plays.

“I thought we played with a purpose. Obviously, we were able to play out, play through them with patience and purpose and that’s the key – the purpose,” head coach Caleb Porter said afterward. “There was a purpose on the end of the passing and acceleration, there was penetration, and there was chance creation.

“We’ve still got to score more though, but I love that we got three goals and I love that we responded after conceding to go 1-1. That shows the mentality is changing and I love that the guys were a little ticked off at the end of the game. We’ve won three in a row and they were kind of mad that they didn’t score more and that they conceded.”

New England are still in a boatload of trouble – winning streak or not, I don’t think this looks like a playoff team. But they’re better than they were a month ago, and with more consistent contributions from Borrero, Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic, they’re more dangerous as well.

8. The Red Bulls could use that kind of balance and production in attack. They spent the full 90 minutes thumping what was nearly a full-strength Nashville side. The shots were 22-6 in favor of the hosts, and the xG was 2.8-0.6 as per Sportec.

The final score was 0-0. DP No. 9 Dante Vanzeir started yet again. He’s registered 1g/0a in his past 11 matches over two months.

The transfer window opens in four weeks.

7. Orlando City played what I think was one of their best all-around matches of the season, going toe-to-toe at home vs. a white-hot LAFC side. Playing out of a 4-4-2 diamond with Luis Muriel up top alongside Duncan McGuire, they were always compact and often dangerous, controlling large stretches of play.

And in the end, it didn’t matter because LAFC have Denis Bouanga and Orlando don’t. The Frenchman potted two goals and added an assist as the Black-and-Gold took a 3-1 win, with two of the goals coming on the break in the final 10 minutes.

Speed kills:

“My first impression was we didn’t have enough numbers to control the counter, but it wasn’t like that. I thought we had enough numbers and we had enough people to control that play,” head coach Oscar Pareja said in the postgame. “They were faster than us in that position, and once again it happens that you’re controlling the game, then we tied it and start creating the chances, [then] this happens.

“We need to correct it tactically.”

LAFC have now won six straight, and are 8W-1L-2D since the start of April. A lot of that has come via possession, as they’ve worked back up to a significant level of comfort with the ball after going pure transition last year. But as they showed throughout this one, “pure transition” is still in their bag, and if you let them play that club, you will regret it.

6. Since switching to a back five late last month the Chicago Fire – the Chicago Fire!!! – are unbeaten, pushing their record to 2W-0L-2D over the past four games with a massive 4-1 win at suddenly listing Toronto FC Saturday night.

That run has also come in conjunction with DP attacker Xherdan Shaqiri’s early release to join Switzerland for the Euros and, well, good news Fire fans!

If they open that slot over the next few weeks and fill it with someone who can help elevate the team? I mean, it’s the Fire – they’re still in 11th place on 1 ppg with more than half the season done. I’m not expecting a miracle.

But Brian Gutiérrez has thrived since becoming the creative focal point, and the 5-3-2 suits DP No. 9 Hugo Cuypers, and getting an extra center back on the field has been a massive structural upgrade. They have figured some stuff out.

TFC now have just one win in their past seven. They’ve started conceding goals off the kinds of individual errors that murdered them last year.

5. The new-coach bounce is alive and well in Dallas, where interim manager Peter Luccin guided los Toros Tejanos past visiting St. Louis by 2-0 on Saturday night. Maarten Paes was awesome in goal; Jesús Ferreira banged home a PK; Nkosi Tafari capped what might’ve been his best game of the season by heading home the insurance goal nine minutes from time.

It wasn’t, by any stretch, a perfect performance – there were still plenty of back passes to go around, and St. Louis were constantly on the front foot. But Dallas did play with a dose of attacking freedom that had, I think, been largely missing so far this season.

CITY have that attacking freedom, but not enough quality in front of goal, nor even a hint of the luck that propelled them to the top of the West standings last year. And unfortunately, things probably got worse for them in this one as Célio Pompeu was carted off early after a gruesome injury.

4. The Rapids took care of business at home, shutting out Austin 2-0 behind goals from Cole Bassett and Rafa Navarro. The shutout was much-needed – it snapped a streak of four straight games having conceded multiple goals. And it was pretty thorough, as Colorado didn’t allow a single good (or even good-ish) chance until a late Gyasi Zardes look.

Connor Ronan quietly returned to Colorado’s lineup three games ago and he had a hand in Bassett's goal. Homegrown left back Jackson Travis (who does not yet have a Wikipedia page!) played a part in Navarro’s.

And speaking of Navarro, the Brazilian is now up to 10 goals overall. Six of those are non-penalty goals (including Saturday’s) on 4.1 npxG. Those aren’t elite open play numbers, but 1) they’re okay and trending towards good, and 2) his defense from the front is an underappreciated part of what makes the Rapids tough to build against. I have to imagine he’s done enough for Colorado’s owners to exercise his purchase option from Palmeiras this summer.

Austin are now on a three-game losing streak, and five of their seven outings over the next month before Leagues Cup starts are against current playoff teams.

They’ll need to play a lot better than this if they intend to collect points out of most of those.

3. The Galaxy’s 4-2 win over visiting Sporting KC was, as predicted, a shootout with, as predicted, LA’s superior talent proving to be the difference. And yes, they had superior talent even without the injured duo of Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman.

Here are LA’s three huge winter signings – right back Miki Yamane and wingers Gabriel Pec and Joseph Paintsil – combining for what became the game-winner (with Pec giving us our Face of the Week along the way):

Sporting’s margins for error are slim, and even when they play well they can’t match that ruthlessness. And manager Peter Vermes… well. He was not happy.

“With the chances that we had, not to score more goals is disappointing. The goals we gave up and the chances we had to score more were disappointing.”

2. Yuya Kubo grabbed himself a hat-trick of goals off a hat-trick of Lucho Acosta assists in the final 12 minutes of a wild, come-from-behind, 4-2 win for FC Cincinnati in San Jose.

I could talk about the tactical approach of these two teams, and how San Jose once again played pretty well (they have one of the best attacks in the league) and are better than their record and yadda yadda yadda. But that didn’t define this game. Lucho defined this game.

Once it hit winning time he just found a gear nobody else on the field had:

These first two are outrageous. The final one is comparatively simple, but still a lovely, perfectly weighted little slipped pass into Kubo’s stride.

“If you give Lucho Acosta half a second, he plays a one-touch ball behind Kubo and that’s what they’re capable of. The other goal again was we had numbers behind the ball, but Lucho is driving it and we’re not able to shut him down, and duel and keep him out of the box,” Quakes manager Luchi Gonzalez said afterward.

“The game is won or lost in the box defensively and offensively.”


With the three assists Acosta is now tied with Messi for the league lead on 13, and has a good chance of becoming just the fourth player in league history to provide 20 or more in a season (Carlos Valderrama has the single-season record of 26 back in 2000; Sacha Kljestan had 20 in 2016, as did Maxi Moralez in 2019). Lucho’s also climbed into the top 10 on the league’s all-time assist chart with 91, tying him with Diego Valeri and Cobi Jones.

Sometime late this season or early next he will become just the 8th player in MLS history with 100+ regular-season assists. And he just turned 30 so, longer-term, Landon Donovan’s career record of 136 is very much in play.

We’re watching one of the great No. 10s in league history do his thing, and I’m starting to believe that this year’s version of Cincy are better than last year’s Shield-winning side.

1. And finally, our best game of the weekend was the first game of the weekend, a Viernes de Fútbol clash between New York City FC and Columbus that ended 3-2 to the Crew. It felt like a high-level playoff match even with the Pigeons rightly down to 10 men following an early-ish Mitja Ilenic red card.

I’m going to give you two choices for our Pass of the Week. Here’s the opening goal from NYCFC:

And here’s some typically glorious Crew build-up on their second of the night:

Either will do!

Columbus now have four straight road wins in league play. The league record is seven, held jointly by three teams – including Wilfried Nancy’s 2022 CF Montréal side. They’re at a very short-handed Miami side on Wednesday.

The loss snapped NYCFC’s five-game winning streak, but honestly, they were so valiant, even down a man, against what I think is the league’s best team that I came away from this game more impressed than ever. And it bears mentioning how thoroughly Alonso Martínez has snatched the No. 9 role. The Costa Rican is a converted winger who, over the past month, has looked more and more like a Taty Castellanos clone.

Is the sample size still too small to be entirely comfortable with that comparison? Yes, for sure. But I’m gonna be bold and put it out there anyway. He’s been awesome.