Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Quakes have finally had it with Almeyda, jumping on the Djordje bandwagon, Fire can't buy a goal & more from Week 7

Happy MLS Matchday 7 to all who celebrate!

In we go:

Quite a Ride

The long-expected news came down late Saturday night, hours after San Jose put together probably their most respectable performance of the season in a 2-2 home draw against visiting Nashville SC:

It’s not official yet, but it certainly does seem like Matias Almeyda’s time in San Jose is done (shoutout to the gang at Quakes Epicenter who’d gotten the ball rolling with their report earlier in the week). If this game truly was his last, then he’ll officially have had 103 matches in charge across all competitions, and will depart with a record of 33 wins, 45 losses and 25 draws, along with a -37 goal differential.

He will have, in other words, won fewer than one in three games, and that is just not good enough no matter the circumstances. A coach with lesser credentials likely wouldn’t have made it to the end of Year 3, let alone 20% of the way into Year 4.

I am sympathetic to Almedya’s pleas for a larger budget to spend on high-end imports, and always have been. But there is context to understand here:

  1. Other small-budget teams – Philly and Colorado come to mind – have been good-to-dominant during the same stretch in which the Quakes have been middling-to-catastrophic.
  2. The idea behind getting Almeyda was “get a DP coach, someone who can turn average talent into stars!” And he was paid like a DP as, according to sources, Almeyda’s salary would not be TAM-able if he were a player.
  3. Last year’s roster had millions of dollars of Almeyda’s hand-selected talent on the team.

As per last year’s MLS Players Association’s salary release, Daniel Vega, Luciano Abecasis, Eric Remedi, Oswaldo Alanis, Javier “Chofis” Ramirez, Carlos Fierro and Andres Rios combined to make just a shade under $4.5 million. All of those are guys who have played in Almeyda’s system before and were familiar with it.

The Quakes missed the playoffs anyway. By the end of the season, most of those guys weren’t even starters. This season, most of them are already gone, and one of the two holdovers (Chofis) is likely to see his loan expire in two months. Only Remedi will remain.

Thus far in 2022, with Almeyda doing inexplicable stuff like playing Jackson Yueill at center back, Cade Cowell and Cristian Espinoza as wingbacks and Tanner Beason at left back, things have gotten worse. San Jose are the league’s only winless team, and are dead last in the Supporters’ Shield standings with three points from 21 on offer. While the players themselves deserve some blame – I don’t think anyone on this roster except for Jeremy Ebobisse can say they’ve played well – Almeyda’s bizarre personnel choices and insistence upon sticking with his man-marking defensive scheme, one in which a simple midfield turnover and missed tackle becomes a 4-v-2 jailbreak, are the biggest culprits:

The Quakes give up about 15 goals a year just like this one, and have done so since Almeyda arrived. Neither new personnel nor formation changes nor dropping the line of confrontation has changed things. Goals like this are very much baked into the system and are a huge reason why so very few teams around the world man mark.

Changing that is job No. 1 for whoever the interim head coach is (best bet according to folks covering the team is San Jose’s MLS NEXT Pro head coach, Alex Covelo, who has been around the club in various technical roles for half a decade). Just stop the defensive bleeding and this group has the pieces to get to respectability. We saw that a bit last year when Almeyda actually went to a zonal system in mid-summer and settled on a central defensive pairing of Beason and Nathan. In the 16 games those guys played together in the middle of the backline San Jose collected 1.5 ppg and allowed just 1.2 goals per game. In the 18 either one or the other was not on the field, or not in central defense, the Quakes shipped 1.9 goals per game and collected 0.9 points per game.

Pairing those guys in central defense and scrapping the man-marking scheme is the obvious thing to do. And for the Quakes, parting with Almeyda at this point is the obvious thing to do as well. They swung big when they hired him, made a splash, created some unforgettable memories (good and bad!), and overall it was quite a ride. But it never got anywhere close to where they really wanted to go, and sometimes the end is just… the end.

As for Nashville, there is nothing new to say about them. They have been more than respectable grinding out results on this season-opening road trip (they now have 11 points from seven games) and Hany Mukhtar is brilliant. But the rest of the attack is workmanlike rather than spectacular, and their set-piece defense remains inexplicably poor.

Magic Man

Sometimes a young player makes the jump from “good young player, lots of potential” to “great player, could maybe be Best XI” and you have to watch really close, and think about it a lot before you decide whether that assessment is right or wrong.

Sometimes, though not frequently, it’s more obvious than that. Sometimes a young player levels up into full-on, elite, Best XI-and-maybe-MVP-caliber, and literally no one will argue against that assessment because week after week they go out there and put in performances that leave nothing to argue.

That is the type of jump that Djordje Mihailovic has made. It is so plain, and so obvious that he has created actual unanimity among MLS fans, Montréal fans, Canada fans and even USMNT fans. There is no argument against his quality and his form, because every week his performances have been dominant and inarguable.

Such was the case, again, this week. Mihailovic was the best player on the field in CF Montréal’s 2-1 win over visiting Vancouver, picking up a goal and assist and driving his side’s unbeaten run to four games, the last three of which were wins.

As always when a player hits this level, it’s said player who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for it. As always, though, there are contextual factors at play as well, and usually the context is that a smart coach and good unsung teammates have put the player in question into a position to weaponize their skills and execute.

In Djordje’s case, this comes down to the consistency of where he's been deployed, and the role he’s been deployed in. What I’m saying is that the kid is getting a ton of touches wide on left, facing the field as a sort of half-space raumdeuter:

djordje pass bins

This graphic, from TruMedia via StatsPerform, breaks the field into buckets to show the starting point of each of Djordje’s passes this season. The bigger the block, the more often he’s hitting passes from that zone, while the number represents his pass completion percentage (the color is also an indicator there – red is a lower percentage, with the darker the red, the lower the percentage, and the darker the green, the higher the percentage).

You can see that he’s not sitting in the middle as a true No. 10, and he’s not being asked to get up the touchline and operate purely along the flanks. Instead, the shape of Wilfried Nancy’s 3-4-2-1 and the ability of Victor Wanyama and Ismael Kone to run the show from deeper in midfield has allowed Mihailovic to dominate games without necessarily needing to dominate the ball, or be responsible for running the show in the most cluttered part of the field.

Mihailovic can do that pretty well, but what he’s actually best at is finding and decisively taking space. Because that’s his superpower, he’s basically always open, and if he’s always open and the guys around him are moving the ball decently, then he’s going to generate chances for himself and his team. It’s a virtuous cycle, one where the coach has put his best players into a system where their strengths amplify and accentuate each other.

Just look at the two goal-scoring sequences from this game. In the first, he stays away from the scrum in midfield, holds his spot in the half-space and then drives at the defense before creating a shot at the top of the box. When that’s blocked, and Vancouver’s backline remains scrambled, he sniffs it out first which allows him an open look for the one-time finish.

On the second, he comes inside from his left-channel position to jump a ball-carrier, force a turnover, and then makes two separate high-value passes, the second of which leads to Romell Quioto’s goal.

This is a guy who’s perfectly comfortable in his role, and instead of being restrained by it is actually getting more freedom out of it. And he’s been unstoppable.

The 'Caps, meanwhile, are in a bit of trouble, which is probably not unexpected given that they've been hit hard by injuries – Caio Alexandre broke his hand this week, and is out for the next six, and Ryan Gauld hobbled off once again in this one, and Brian White just finally got on the scoreboard after limping through the start of the season with a knock of his own, and Pedro Vite’s not quite fit for regular minutes. That is a lot for any team to deal with, but especially once that’s trying to replace their team MVP from last season (Maxime Crepeau has been missed) and one that badly needs the midfield ball-winner, Andres Cubas, that they’ve been linked to.

The roster has been improved considerably over the past three windows, but this was a really, really big rebuild and they haven’t caught a single break in 2022. I know Vancouver fans don’t want to hear this, but they’re going to need to continue to be patient, because the seeds of a very good team are in place (once they get Cubas anyway), and they’ll need time to grow.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Goalkeepers were the story of the day in Atlanta’s scoreless home draw against FC Cincinnati. The very bad, to the point of being devastating news is that Brad Guzan went down midway through the second half with what Five Stripes head coach Gonzalo Pineda called an Achilles’ injury, one that he said did not look good.

Atlanta have depth at ‘keeper, and veteran Bobby Shuttleworth came in to finish this game off. But Guzan was excellent last year, and even if he’s struggled a bit this season, he’s a huge loss.

In the other goal, Guzan’s old back-up Alec Kann stood on his head to get Cincy a result, saving a Marcelino Moreno PK and making a handful of other top-shelf saves. Between this result and the win at Orlando City last month, Kann’s gotten Cincy four points that they absolutely, positively would not have managed at any other time in their MLS existence.

He hasn’t been perfect – last time out he had himself a shocker. But he’s been a clear upgrade at what was the weakest spot in the league for the past three years.

11. Emanuel Reynoso came out of his slumber and reminded everyone of just how spectacular a playmaker he can be, assisting on all three goals (one primary, two secondary) in Minnesota’s 3-1 home win over visiting Colorado. It was the first time all year that the Loons had scored more than a single goal, and it is zero surprise that such a heliocentric attack would start producing just as the No. 10 it revolves around plays his best game.

A note here: Minnesota generated 2.5 xG on 14 shots as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, which works out to about .18 xG per shot. Coming into the game they were at .11 per shot on the season. They finally showed the patience to make the math work in their favor.

That said, even in this one they settled for too many low-percentage shots from outside the box. This attack (not just Reynoso, but the whole damn thing) is too skillful to settle for so many hopeful 25-yarders.

As for the Rapids, I’m co-signing this:

Production from the No. 9 has not remotely been a problem in 2022, as Diego Rubio scored again in this one and now has 4g/1a on the year. What has been a problem is the above – the Rapids are not controlling games like they did the past two seasons, and are instead opening things up to create more chances. But that knife has cut both ways, as they’re mostly not converting those chances (mostly not Rubio’s fault!) and, in the process, are letting teams get comfortable against them.

The other issue, which I’m loath to bring up given how frequently it’s allowed Rapids fans to dunk on me over the years: Their unsustainable set piece dominance, which they’ve sustained for three years running, is finally looking… unsustainable.

They’re still good on dead balls, but thus far in 2022, they’re not what they were.

10. The Red Bulls put together yet another dominant performance, and were once again let down by their inability to turn that dominance into goals and had to settle for a scoreless home draw against visiting FC Dallas.

The underlying numbers continue to love Patryk Klimala – in 32 minutes he generated .47 xG on three shots, two of which were on goal and one of which skimmed the crossbar – but he continues to thumb his nose at them by missing chance after chance. He has not scored since Matchday 1, and neither Ashley Fletcher nor Tom Barlow looked like picking up the slack in this one.

Dallas did a good job of surviving a game they definitely would have lost last year, but this is the second week in a row they lost control of events early and never quite got it back. I feel like Paxton Pomykal and Brandon Servania are too often being dragged out of the middle, which leaves either Edwin Cerrillo or Facundo Quignon going 1-v-2 or even 1-v-3 in the most valuable real estate on the pitch.

9. Portland went down to Houston, got one utterly outrageous save from Aljaz Ivacic, a couple other very good saves from him, and got out with a point courtesy of yet another scoreless draw.

Again: an utterly outrageous save:

Gio Savarese was upset at not getting three points, given his side played the last 15 minutes a man up, which… fair enough. But his Timbers have always struggled in those situations against packed-in defenses as they don’t really have a lot of answers against a low block.

The Dynamo, who were dangerous counterattacking out of that 4-2-3-1, are unbeaten in five, and have a few more manageable games before getting stuffed straight into the blender in mid-May. Every point they can muster between now and then is precious, because a month from now the schedule becomes monstrous.

8. It wouldn’t be a weekend of scoreless draws if the Fire weren’t involved in one. Chicago got their fourth 0-0 of the season, barely registering a threat against the visiting Galaxy (who had two goals justifiably judged offside) in front of a big and disappointed Soldier Field crowd on Saturday night.

The Fire, who were once again playing without Xherdan Shaqiri, and were without his suspended back-up, Homegrown playmaker Brian Gutierrez, have not scored in a month.

I was disappointed that Greg Vanney matched Ezra Hendrickson’s ultra-defensive lineup with one of his own, putting three defensive-minded midfielders (Rayan Raveloson, Mark Delgado and Kelvin Leerdam – who is now a back-up d-mid as well as a back-up right back) in midfield and going without a playmaker.

It didn’t really work, and hopefully that means we won’t see it again.

7. The Revs ended their four-game losing streak with what was probably their best performance of the season, a 2-1 win over visiting Charlotte. Adam Buksa got on the board in the first half and Matt Polster capped a dominant all-around performance with a goal in the second, and which was enough to survive with the three points.

The best thing about this game for the Revs, though, is that they were so much better defensively than they had been. A big part of that was just getting more pressure to progressive passes, something that Buksa and Homegrown striker Justin Rennicks, who’s clearly winning himself a regular job over the past few weeks, excelled at. Because of that they allowed Charlotte just one shot over the game’s final 35 minutes, and while that turned into a Titi Ortiz goal – I think it was deflected, but if it wasn’t it’s a golazo – it never really felt like New England were going to shatter.

6 Pass of the freakin’ Week from Donovan Pines:

Pines has had some very nice moments distributing the ball, but I had no idea he had something like that in his locker.

And at that point in the game, it looked like D.C. were going to cruise to a dominant victory over visiting Austin FC. They were in complete control of the proceedings, and minutes after that display from Pines (literally while I was making the clip), Ola Kamara gave the hosts a 1-0 lead. Fifteen minutes after that he made it 2-0 and United were cruising.

Twelve minutes after that, Kamara picked up his second yellow of the evening and United were down to 10 men. They were no longer cruising.

I feel bad for Kamara, who got his first yellow after taking off his shirt to show a message honoring his late grandmother, who’d just recently passed, and who got his second yellow while defending on his own endline – not a place you want your center forward to be. The yellow for taking off your shirt rule has always been dumb, but it’s been a part of the game for 20 years now and everyone who plays the sport knows it.

Austin were mostly not good in this one, but credit to them for having the firepower to eventually take advantage of their, uh, advantage. They wouldn’t have managed that a year ago, and every road point is precious.

5. Miami have put together a little winning streak, riding a nicely-worked Robbie Robinson goal off the counter to a 1-0 win at a heavily-rotated Seattle side. Second Spectrum’s 2D animated view gives us a really good look at the positional interchange between Robinson (No. 19) and center forward Leo Campana (No. 9), as well as the value of that near-post run from midfielder Robert Taylor (No. 16) to clear out the lane for Robinson:

Crosses from that spot generally aren’t great value, but this team – once again without Gonzalo Higuain – can fly, and that mobility has caused real issues for their opponents two weeks in a row. Plus DeAndre Yedlin absolutely dimed it.

Given how heavily Brian Schmetzer rotated, it’s not particularly surprising that the Sounders came up short. They are fine, though, and obviously focused on CCL, as they should be.

4. NYCFC, on the other hand, have their full focus back on the league after getting Stefan Frei’d in the second leg of their semifinal vs. Seattle. And they took out their frustrations on an RSL team that didn’t quite know what hit them on Sunday afternoon, going up 2-0 inside of 15 minutes, and 3-0 by halftime en route to an eventual 6-0 win. Taty Castellanos banged home four of those.

RSL have been getting results, and they have been playing hard but they have not been playing well. Sooner or later you run out of miracles and the breaks you’d been getting start bouncing in the other direction. The underlying numbers have been sounding that alarm about the Claret-and-Cobalt since Matchday 1, and they’re now winless in four.

If you want more than underlying numbers, however, try this: In those four games they’ve only generated 13 shots on goal, and have conceded 25.

That’s not a path to long-term success, and I truly hope that new ownership group is planning to strengthen the squad with a DP No. 10 this summer.

3. Columbus have now lost three in a row, and are winless in four overall following their 2-0 home loss to Orlando City. They are also staring directly at a schedule in which they play four of their next six on the road, which is not great for a team that has just three road wins in their last 30 tries.

I was chatting about this with The Athletic’s John Muller, and here’s his take: Columbus have played a pretty tough schedule and they're still fifth in 538’s Soccer Power Index, second in American Soccer Analysis’s g+ differential, fourth in non-penalty xGD, seventh in non-penalty goal differential, and fourth in expected points. Nobody should be on the hot seat.

John’s right – the underlying numbers are good, and even during this streak they have battered some very good defenses in RBNY, Nashville and Philly. Bad luck and finishing variance are fickle masters, and can make even very good performances look bad. That said, those first three games of the season (against a very not tough schedule) prop up a lot of this still very small sample.

Of course on Saturday the Purple Lions were just clearly superior to the Crew, and are starting to look comfortable doing more than just absorbing and countering. They even put together a goal that’d make the highlight reel for prime tiki-taka Barca:

This is the promise and potential of this Orlando side, and clearly the type of soccer they intended to play when they went out and got two new DPs this offseason, both of whom (Facundo Torres, who had the primary assist, and Ercan Kara, who scored the goal) were the centerpieces here.

2. The nightmare for Philly fans is that they might’ve watched their team bring in a DP No. 10, and a pair of DP strikers over the past two transfer windows and it’s still not enough. They still might lack the kind of high-end firepower necessary to go out and win an MLS Cup.

It mostly hasn’t been that way this season, but they left Toronto on Saturday with their first loss of the year because the Reds have that kind of firepower – Jesus Jimenez got his fourth goal of the year, and Alejandro Pozuelo reminded everyone that he’s an MVP-level talent – and Philly don’t. Yes, Julian Carranza got his second goal of the season and has been very good, but the Union had the vast, vast majority of the best chances and walked away with nothing as the Reds won 2-1.

My money is on the Union’s attack continuing to improve throughout the season, and that they’ll be among the apex MLS Cup contenders (and will maybe have another Shield to add to their trophy cabinet) come October. But games like this one make you remember exactly how Philly’s playoff hopes have ended over the past four years.

As for TFC, when you have high-end attacking talent you can brute force some wins, and Reds fans are right to be pumped about this current four-game unbeaten run. Bob Bradley will have plenty to dissect this week in film sessions, though, because his team won’t win many games playing like this, elite attacking talent or no.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week came from the last game of the weekend, after Ismael Tajouri-Shradi pumped home a stunning game-winner in LAFC's 3-1 win over visiting Sporting KC:

I'm not sure who deserves it more – the guy in the middle, who's sort of the main character of the celebration, or the little kid to his right. Either way, they were right to celebrate that goal the way they did. It was a stunner, and it left LAFC atop the Shield standings with 20% of the season in the books.

Sporting are not in good shape, at just 2W-6L-0D with 14 goals conceded and a -8 goal differential. It's feeling more and more like this is the "held on one season too long" year, as many of the veterans who've been so great for so long just don't seem able to do it anymore.