Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Red Bulls enter a new tactical era, Toronto's turnaround & more from Matchday 6

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Matchday 6 gave us a chance to go down the roster all over the league, as about 100 players – most of them regulars – missed the weekend on international duty. That’s on top of the regular cadre of guys out with injuries.

In we go:

Bending Hectic

When Sandro Schwarz was hired to coach the New York Red Bulls, I assumed – everyone assumed – the job was to be Troy Lesesne with more authority or Gerhard Struber with more, uh, let’s call it “affability.” In short: run the long-standing Red Bull game plan and do so from a position of confidence, authority and geniality. Build upon the culture, do a better job of integrating the high-end DPs than Struber had managed, turn every outing into a game of murderball, and win.

We’re five weeks in now, though, and I think the sample size is large enough to say, in fact, that was not what Schwarz was brought in to do. Instead, it’s become pretty clear that the German was tasked with being the man to finally evolve the Energy Drink Soccer blueprint; to bend the hectic nature of their long-ball, press, turnover, re-press system into something more nuanced and varied.

And folks, it’s happening. They’re still a direct, high-energy team, but they are also this:

That was the opener in what became a 4-0 stroll past Inter Miami in the New Jersey rain, a much-needed bounce-back result after the Red Bulls had been roundly thumped last week in Columbus.

“Different opponent,” Schwarz said in the postgame presser. “So today was more transition game from our side, and we know about the quality of Inter Miami, especially in a power position with \[Sergio\] Busquets, and they had also most of the time the ball, I think it was 63% of the whole game, and it was more transition situations, and this was the main difference between these two games. This was better than last week. We also had some winning balls against Columbus, but we didn't solve the situation so well like today.”

Even with their more transition-oriented bent against Miami, the year-over-year numbers from the Red Bulls are striking:

  • 2.3 passes per sequence last year, which was dead last in the league. It’s now 3.2, which is the middle of the pack.
  • 6.0 seconds per passing sequence last year, which was also dead last. That number has climbed to 8.3 seconds, which is 20th.
  • Their passing accuracy has climbed from 71.6%, which was – you guessed it – dead last, to 80.5%, which is 21st.
  • Their field tilt has dropped from 58.6%, which was the second-highest mark in the league, down to 50.9%, which is mid-table.

Here is what that means in plain terms: the Red Bulls used to trade both possession and space to attack into for field position. “Get the ball to the final third, try to win the second ball, and then try to win it again, and whenever you do, play quickly in the general direction of your teammates.” This is what Jürgen Klopp meant when he said the press was the best playmaker in the world a decade ago, and for the Red Bulls, this was always Plan A, B, C and D.

In 2024 it’s become Plan C at best. RBNY have evolved primarily into a mid-block-and-counter side, with strong elements of free-flowing possession in the final third (this is more prominent when Emil Forsberg is available, but was still evident on Saturday). That story’s told in maybe the most shocking number of all so far in this young season: their passes allowed per defensive action, which is a rough measure of how high and hard teams press.

Last year it was 9.44, which led the league. They also led the league in 2022, 2021, 2020 and 2019. And all the way back to 2015.

This year they’re 23rd. Their PPDA of 13.44 is the highest mark they’ve recorded since Mike Petke was the head coach.

The old system is still there – we’ve seen them press their way to a few goals already this season – but it is now merely part of a larger superstructure, one that’s built upon the skill of players like Forsberg, Lewis Morgan, Dante Vanzeir, Frankie Amaya, John Tolkin and Noah Eile. They can still beat you with murderball, but they’d clearly rather beat you with soccer.

Miami found that out this weekend. Tata Martino ripped his team for not even being ready to compete, let alone win, and he was right.

I’m still sticking with my preseason prediction of Miami winning the Supporters’ Shield, but it’s pretty clear at this point 1) the 3-5-2 doesn’t work for them, and 2) their center backs are currently the limiting factor. They aren’t controlling games with the ball in the way they need to quite yet because the center backs aren’t moving the ball quickly or incisively enough.

That’s left them vulnerable, and it’s on Tata to fix it.

The Opposite

I’m turning this blurb over to Calen Carr, who was on color commentary for TFC’s 2-0 win over a depleted Atlanta side up in Toronto:

Atlanta United found themselves in an unusual position where the top-end talent was not on their side, missing five starters, including Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate Thiago Almada and Golden Boot presented by Audi co-favorite (*I picked Cucho) Giorgos Giakoumakis – all gone for their respective national teams. As a result, the ATLUTD attack stalled in build-up and lacked a cutting edge.

John Herdman smelled blood in the water and pushed Federico Bernardeschi higher up the pitch from the right wingback position he’d been performing admirably at. The shift in starting position allowed Bernardeschi to apply his energy more towards the attacking end and to pair with Lorenzo Insigne as split duel No. 10s.

The two enjoyed an inspired sequence on a short corner:

They were only building in rhythm until Insigne had to exit right before halftime with a hamstring injury. (Edit: Hi, it’s Doyle again. I’m dropping in American Soccer Analysis’ GameFlow graphic here, which confirms Calen’s eye-test assessment. You can see in the final 10 minutes of the first half, after Tyrese Spicer made it 1-0, that TFC were getting on the ball more and more, and in more dangerous spots. Usually Herdman’s teams go the other way when taking a lead – they pack it in and concede possession.)

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(Ok, back to Calen…)

SuperDraft No. 1 pick Tyrese Spicer got his first MLS goal in his first start of the season and mirrored 19-year-old Brampton, Ontario (of course) wingback Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty (who also scored his first MLS goal last week) and was again dynamic on both ends. Those two as wingbacks frees up the Italians to roam higher up the field and feels like a formula that might stick when Insigne is back.

Before the season, I was assigned a few TFC matches and had no idea what to expect. When I spoke to Herdman this week he used the words “gritty, resilient, committed and cohesive,” which felt surreal after doing their matches at the end of 2023 – those felt much more like watching the walking dead. With 10 points in five matches so far, they’ve not only lived up to it the moment but far exceeded it. Right now the questions are more about health and whether they can sustain this for a full season.

Ok, it’s Doyle again, and I’ll just co-sign everything Calen wrote above. Cohesiveness and top-end talent have taken this Reds side to an unexpectedly excellent start, but sustainability is a major concern given the relative lack of depth. If Insigne’s gone for a while – and he did not look good in being helped off the field – this team’s margins are going to get very thin. Especially since it doesn’t look like there’s much budget available to improve the roster right now, or maybe even this summer.

Atlanta, in theory, have more room for error. But they did not look like it at all in this game. Second-best all day long in every facet. The end.

A few more things to ponder…

11. After registering five shots with zero goals – and zero shots on target – through his first three games, Chicago DP No. 9 Hugo Cuypers now has six shots and two goals from three shots on target over his last two games, which includes Saturday’s 1-1 draw at New England. There are promising signs in there from Cuypers, but also from the right-side duo of right back Allan Arigoni and winger Maren Haile-Selassie.

However, since the Fire can’t ever have anything unambiguously nice: the draw was both good (a road draw against a conference foe you’ll be competing for the final playoff spots with is, by definition, good) and bad (goalkeeper Spencer Richey gifted the Revs the equalizer). They’ll have left Foxborough feeling like they could’ve had more.

The Revs needed to have more. They’ve taken just one point from the first 15 on offer in the league and play four of their next six on the road.

They are just 6W-11L-7D across all competitions since placing Bruce Arena on administrative leave last Aug. 1, and three of those wins have come against severely out-manned Central American teams in this year’s Concacaf Champions Cup. Now they’re staring at a quarterfinal matchup with Mexico’s Club América, the most successful team in North American history.

Things don’t look great.

10. The Crew took their first loss of the season, heading down to Charlotte and coming away on the wrong side of a 2-0 final. Dean Smith did a very nice job of prepping his team for Columbus’ death-by-a-thousand-cuts attack, and I think the network passing graph tells an accurate story about just how compact and balanced this team is through midfield:

charlotte passing network

Did young Patrick Agyemang maybe earn himself another start at center forward? I hope so. He’s looked the part every time he’s gotten a chance.

9. Lucho Acosta once again did MVP stuff as Cincy beat New York City FC 1-0 at home. Nick Cushing had his Pigeons mirror Cincy’s shape, but it didn’t really work. The scoreline actually flattered the guests a bit.

The Garys aren’t scoring as much as they should yet, but they’ve conceded just twice in five games, are unbeaten and are atop the Shield standings (on points, at least; Minnesota are top on PPG). Investing in their defense has paid off, as guys like Matt Miazga and Miles Robinson have been excellent. But they deserve a ton of credit for picking Kipp Keller off the scrap heap and turning him into a reliable option when one of the starters needs a rest (or is unavailable, as Robinson was).

NYCFC have just three points from five games. They’ll have their full roster for basically the first time all year next week, and the pressure to perform is officially on.

8. Orlando played a makeshift 4-1-3-2 with longtime backup right back Kyle Smith at d-mid, and MLS NEXT Pro goal machine Jack Lynn starting up top alongside Luis Muriel in what turned into a laugher of a 2-0 home win over Austin.

Lynn got his first MLS goal and Nico Lodeiro, who started as the No. 10, got his first in regular-season play for the Lions. I’m not going to say their early-season ills have been cured, but they took care of business.

With all due respect to New England, Austin are clear favorites to win the Wooden Spoon. There’s nothing this team does well at the moment.

7. Our Pass of the Week goes to young Fidel Barajas, who functioned as the main playmaker for RSL with Diego Luna out and Matt Crooks subbing on late, keying the Claret-and-Cobalt’s come-from-behind 2-1 win at Vancouver. This is sweet:

Head coach Pablo Mastroeni, who switched his side from the 4-2-3-1 they’d been playing to a 4-4-2 with Barajas nominally on the left, but more often coming inside as a sort of ad-hoc 10, praised his team for what he called a “proper collective performance.”

The ‘Caps, who took their first L of the year, lost that collective sense when Brian White was subbed off via injury just before the hour mark. No word yet on how severe the knock was.

6. If you’re Troy Lesesne, you’re looking at D.C.’s 2-2 draw at St. Louis in one of two ways:

  • A blown lead leads to two dropped points and a four-game winless skid.
  • A solid road performance gave you a bounce-back road point a week after getting thumped at home by Miami.

I would tend toward the second camp. D.C. have shown a high level of commitment and resilience thus far in the young season, against what I think is one of the toughest schedules anybody’s played. And look, if you see your team do this right after going down 1-0 on the road…

You’re probably leaving the building with at least a hint of a smile.

St. Louis manager Bradley Carnell was less pleased. I think it’s safe to say he’s not a fan of how United came to play.

“First of all, just want to apologize to the fans. It frustrates me a little bit when fans pay hard-earned cash to get tickets and watch a soccer game and there's no rhythm to the game and there's no real action,” Carnell said. “We pride ourselves on action and unfortunately, it was a little bit of disruption of rhythm tonight.”

CITY SC haven’t lost yet in league play this season, but disappointing draws are starting to pile up. The good news is they’re generating higher xG/game than last year, while the bad news is they’re also conceding more, and Roman Bürki is no longer overperforming his xG allowed by God-Tier amounts.

5. Two unexpected things happened in LA’s come-from-behind 3-2 win at Sporting KC on Saturday night:

  • Peter Vermes changed Sporting KC’s formation. Instead of the usual 4-3-3, it was a 4-2-3-1 double pivot with Alan Pulido dropping in as the No. 10 and Willy Agada (who got himself a goal) as the No. 9.
  • Greg Vanney finally beat Vermes.

I had no idea about that last factoid heading into the match. Or even midway through it. Just wild when you consider how long Vanney’s been at it, and how often his teams have been good to excellent.

This year’s Galaxy fall somewhere on that spectrum. They are clearly excellent in attack – up there with the likes of Columbus and Miami, among the very best in the league. The symbiotic relationship between Riqui Puig, Joseph Paintsil and Dejan Joveljic (Gabriel Pec’s finally getting in on the action, too) just so obviously elevates this whole team. They are never out of a game so long as Riqui’s out there dealing* and those guys are making runs.

(*) He leads the league in touches by a mile, though, as always, part of the struggle for the Galaxy is getting him to stay higher in the play. When he drops too deep, their balance gets thrown off.

The flip side remains the defense, particularly on set pieces. That’s how they got down 2-0 by halftime in this one, which looked destined to be a harsh early-season lesson.

Perhaps it was still that, because it’s not like the second-half comeback erased the message of the first half. They’ve simply got to be better at defending restarts. If the Galaxy fail in 2024, that’ll be the reason.

As for Sporting, they’ve now got just one win through five. And Vermes was not happy after this one.

“The whole idea is to win. You have got to manage situations. You can't just chalk it up to just 10 minutes. You have to realize also that in those 10 minutes, you also could have done something different,” he said in the postgame. “Even after the second goal, you could have done something. You lock something down.”

4. The Rapids felt hard done by not earning a point after center back Andreas Maxsø was pretty clearly elbowed in the face at the start of the sequence that ended with Brad Smith’s 96th-minute game-winner for the Dynamo. I was surprised that one wasn’t called back and that the 1-0 final stood.

It’s obviously a very good road result for the short-handed Dynamo. For Colorado… well, even if they’d gotten the point, I think the best we could say is things are still very clearly a work in progress.

3. Nashville went to LA and got absolutely thrashed by LAFC, a 5-0 final that felt absolutely indicative of the way the game went. Dénis Bouanga finally got untracked with a brace and Cristian Olivera got on the scoreboard, too.

I’m going to drop this snippet of an interview with Gary Smith here. ‘Yotes fans should watch it all:

I’m sympathetic to Smith’s stance that this was their worst outing of the year (by a mile) and that they’ve played pretty well in recent weeks (they have). But the overarching point he’s making – that you can’t really judge the team’s performance over the 21-game stretch Ben outlines because they haven’t had their best XI available for most of it – is what’s wildly concerning about the direction Nashville are headed as a whole.

Smith simply has to be better at developing young players and depth pieces. Dax McCarty’s gone. Walker Zimmerman is getting older and the injuries are starting to pile up. Same with Hany Mukhtar. Sam Surridge might not be more than a middling starting No. 9 in the league.

If the answer is “we can only win when all our best players are 100% fit and available,” then the playoff streak will end.

2. Is 18-year-old homegrown Niko Tsakiris the No. 10 the Quakes needed? I’m not going to say he 100% looked like it in his 64 minutes during Saturday night’s 3-2 win over visiting Seattle – he’s not goal-dangerous, which is a pretty key part of being a No. 10 – but I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the Quakes put together pretty clearly their best all-around performance of the season with his return to health and insertion into the lineup.

There were some extremely promising moments when Tsakiris and right winger Cristian Espinoza would swap spots during the run of play, as so:

San Jose would open the scoring on the subsequent corner. And then they’d score again two minutes later.

Seattle finally woke up with 20 minutes left, to bring it back to 2-2 before immediately falling back to sleep and allowing Jeremy Ebobisse to one-time home the winner. (Ebobisse, who seems to have lost his starting job, badly needed that goal).

The Sounders have two losses and two draws in their four games. They have Albert Rusnák and Yeimar Gómez Andrade back to something approaching full fitness, and Josh Atencio back from red-card suspension next week.

They have to go back to the 4-2-3-1. Brian Schmetzer became one of the best and most successful coaches in MLS history by basically never choosing the wrong formation. Through four weeks we’ve seen four 4-4-2s, and man, it’s not working. They concede too much time and space in central midfield, don’t get enough of a goal threat from out wide, and the pairing of Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidíaz have zero chemistry up top together.

Go back to what works.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Julián Carranza, who dropped two on the Timbers in a 3-1 Union win in Portland:

Carranza was up top in a flat 4-4-2 for Philly, who were missing at least four starters and most of their top back-ups. But they got some big saves from goalkeeper Oliver Semmle and a few lucky bounces, and then were ruthless and opportunistic any time they went forward.

It felt like a throwback Union performance and a necessary one after the embarrassments vs. Pachuca and Austin. And it left Portland head coach Phil Neville not very happy.

"I am probably as disappointed as I have been since I came to the club. Winning games of football in this league is really tough. If you don't take your chances and you don't do the basic job of defending set plays or dealing with balls played behind the defense, you are going to have some real problems winning games,” Neville said afterward. “We played against a team that excels in keeping the game simple, doing their jobs well, and grinding out a victory.

“Who was the better footballing side? I thought we were by far, but it's not always about technical abilities. It's about the mentality to win games of football. It's about doing the dirty work well. I felt that our mentality in trying to win the game was lacking.”

Portland at least got themselves a strong debut, including a consolation goal, from new DP Jonathan Rodríguez. But the creeping defensive frailty that was apparent, even at the start of the season when things were going well, reared its head in a profound way on the night.