Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Rusnak signing a masterstroke by Sounders, the magic is missing in Philadelphia & more from Week 15

Matchday 15 is in the books! Away we go:

One of These Days

One point. One point. One point. One point. Every single week, just about, it’s the same for the Philadelphia Union.

Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against FC Cincinnati meant the Union have drawn seven of their past eight outings, which is a pretty absurd run of “man, we just don’t quite have enough, do we?” It’s become so obvious this team has hit its collective ceiling with their current approach that former game-breaking sub/demigod Ilsinho is tweeting about how he’s ready to come back.

And man, they could use an Ilsinho. The front office has been both inventive and aggressive over the past few transfer windows, which includes bringing in two DP forwards over the winter (plus Daniel Gazdag last spring). But even with that shopping spree Philly don’t have the kind of magic that can turn a defense inside out and turn a one-goal lead into a two-goal win.

Head coach Jim Curtin came right out and said it afterwards: "It's not a lack of effort,” Curtin said. “…We missed that one piece to really break down the opponent and get in behind them.”

It shows up in the numbers. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Philly’s the narrowest team in the league, and the most direct, and have the lowest possession and fewest passes per sequence, as well as the fewest dribbles per game. They are, in other words, fairly one-note: They will play up the gut as quickly as possible and completely sell out to win 50/50s. If they win those, they’ll immediately play right up the gut again. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

This approach is married to both the personnel (the Union front office has furnished Curtin with a bunch of grinders) and the formation (the 4-4-2 diamond is narrow and sort of naturally positions the shuttlers to cut service out of the half-spaces, which leads to turnovers, which leads to… vertical play up the gut). And then on top of that, the whole point of having two true forwards out there in the modern game is so that when you win the ball, you always have two vertical options. The Union, this season, have taken that to its logical extent by playing a league-high 44.2% of their passes forward.

Last year that number was 37.8%. In 2020, when they won the Supporters’ Shield, it was 35.8%.

Philly aren’t that team anymore, though – they’re more like the Chester branch of the Red Bulls. They’ll relentlessly batter you and force you to match both their style and their energy, and that’s good, but if they’re not able to walk the ball into the net via the chances they create from their smash-bang approach… well, one point is better than none. But it feels like this team could turn one point into three more often than not if they had a playmaker (winger, second forward, No. 10, whatever) capable of a little bit of magic.

Cincy usually have that guy in Lucho Acosta, though he was limited to just a late cameo in this one after coming out of health & safety protocols. Still, they were able to consistently get into the attacking third in good order by just playing directly to Brandon Vazquez, whose Brian McBride-esque hold-up play mirrored his Brian McBride-esque willingness to sacrifice his face to score a goal. This comp is just from the first half!

Just as big for Cincy has been the arrival and immediate assimilation of DP d-mid Obinna Nwobodo, whose ability to control the middle of the pitch has allowed Pat Noonan to dial back the press and become a team that’s more interested in building with the ball.

There are lessons to be learned here for the Union, and maybe some shopping to do as well.

Welcome to the Machine

The Sounders already had multiple guys capable of magic, but that didn’t stop them from going out this offseason and adding another. When they signed Albert Rusnak as a free agent – the biggest free-agent signing in league history – there was no real question of the player’s quality. The question was how Rusnak, who’d spent most of his time at RSL playing as a No. 10 and all of the rest as a playmaking winger, would fit.

Brian Schmetzer’s solution was to play the Slovakian international deeper, using him as a No. 8 to both provide a deeper possession hub in the attacking third (Seattle’s at their best when running in behind, and if a playmaker is deeper, it stands to reason the opposing midfield will come up a bit to get pressure to him, and that the backline will go with them) as well as a natural press break when playing out of the back.

He does all that really well. What he’s been absolutely superb at, though, is drawing defenders to him and then eliminating them with third-line passes. That allows the Sounders to constantly switch the field into numbers-up situations. They live for this:

It’s literally been a trophy-winning move; putting Rusnak at the 8 was good in and of itself, but had the added benefit of unleashing Cristian Roldan (the former No. 8) on the right wing. They don’t win the CCL without those guys in those spots.

I doubted Schmetzer’s choice here initially – I didn’t think Rusnak, who was never all that interested in defending during his Utah days, would do the work on that side of the ball – but in being the first MLS team through the CCL tape and in almost every outing since then, it’s been wildly apparent just how much value the Sounders get out of having Rusnak deeper on a game-to-game basis.

Saturday’s 1-1 home draw against LAFC, which was short of the usual star-power these two teams have on display given the injury to Raul Ruidiaz, the absence of Brian Rodriguez and the second-half cameo of Carlos Vela, was another example of that. Rusnak was often commanding from deep in Seattle’s set-up, but he also is getting more license to push forward as Schmetzer tinkers and optimizes.

Look at where Rusnak, who scored his first league goal for the Sounders by pouncing on a mistake from LAFC ‘keeper Maxime Crepeau, turns up in Second Spectrum’s tracking data both via the network passing graph and off-ball resting formation:

sounders graphic

That’s not a guy who’s pigeonholed into one role. Rusnak’s been given so much license to go find the game – including on the goal – that Schmetzer’s typical 4-2-3-1 is starting to look more and more like a 4-3-3 with a single pivot (and yes, it says a ton about 16-year-old Obed Vargas that the literal champions of the region trust him in that role at his age).

It also, of course, says something about LAFC’s quality that they were able to go up to Seattle with just a half’s worth of contribution from just one DP and get a point. They forced Stefan Frei into yet another signature performance, and as soon as the Sounders saw their focus lapse for a split second, Chicho Arango was there to head home what was honestly a deserved equalizer.

“There was a lot of quality on the field,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said afterward. “It was a hard-fought game, an intense game. A little bit of a playoff feeling.”

There was no question about that. And there should be no surprises if these teams once again square off, for the third time in four years, deep into the postseason.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Another home game for RSL and another three points, courtesy of a 2-0 win over San Jose. One thing that jumps out about MLS is that teams that are able to find it within themselves to play really hard every single week – playoff hard – put themselves into position to win games. It can be, over the course of a long season, the differentiating factor.

Pablo Mastroeni knows this, and he’s got his team playing like that. RSL’s xDAWG factor is really high.

But they also played well this week. It wasn’t just brutality and force of will and human spirit and xDAWG – it was good soccer. This sequence here…

That’s some ball. And there’s starting to be more of that layered on top of the tryhard ruggedness that’s defined RSL this season (though the inability to finish that chance pointed to a looming issue, as the Claret-and-Cobalt have just six goals from forwards all year long).

San Jose finished their tough three-game road trip – at LAFC, at Nashville, at RSL – with just one point, and were shut out in the final two of those outings. They are playing better and less error-prone soccer under Alex Covelo, but the past month has shown the gap between them and the probable playoff sides in the West.

11. In case you missed it over the international break, this Fire team is cursed – both Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres picked up injuries. Still, Chicago got their first win in three months thanks to a Fabian Herbers header, which snuck past D.C. United ‘keeper Rafael Romo for the 1-0 final.

As for D.C., this thread did a nice job of summing up how they’ve kind of lost their identity over the past six weeks:

10. Vancouver, meanwhile, may just be discovering theirs. They went to Frisco and blitzed FC Dallas thanks to an early goal from Lucas Cavallini – his fifth of the year in just 875 minutes, and yes, he’s finally looking like the DP center forward he was brought in as – then got a thumping free kick from Deiber Caicedo just before halftime for the 2-0 final.

It was the presence of DP Andres Cubas at defensive midfield, however, that was the big change. For one, Cubas, in his first start, was able to lace about a half-dozen big left-to-right switches, which is the exact type of pass that teams with wingbacks need to be able to hit with consistency and precision.

For two, while Cubas wasn’t really the all-around ball-winning terror he’d been in France, he was very, very good at keeping Dallas out of the attacking half-spaces. He basically disappeared Alan Velasco, whose ability to eliminate players off the dribble and do pocket winger things has been such a crucial part of FCD’s entire approach.

9. CF Montréal struggled without Djordje Mihailovic pulling the strings, but still should’ve found an equalizer at least in their disappointing 1-0 home loss to 10-man Austin. The legend Kei Kamara gave us our Face of the Week when one of those would-be equalizers didn’t come to pass:

Austin scored a lovely goal, but otherwise were up against it the whole night.

And that’s fine. It’s good, even! Learning how to win this way is as big a part of Austin’s evolution as learning how to post dominant wins over cupcakes. They’re spending a lot of time holding on for dear life during this 10-game journey into the tougher part of the schedule, but they’re fighting, and now they’ve won twice (at LAFC and at Montréal) by scrapping like hell.

It’s an important and potentially significant step forward.

8. Yimmi Chara scored a blistering counterattack goal in the first half, which was then answered by a Dejan Joveljic header in the 88th minute for a 1-1 tie between the Timbers and Galaxy in Carson.

If you’ve been reading this column this year you’ll know my stance on the Galaxy’s current situation, but in case you haven’t, I’ll sum it up: While their roster construction has clearly been aimed at building a 4-2-3-1, their wingers have been so poor, and the forward combination of Joveljic and Chicharito so dynamic, that LA are clearly better off in a 3-5-2. That formation gets both those guys out there, while at the same time giving them control of central midfield and pushing fullbacks Julian Araujo and Raheem Edwards further upfield by turning them into wingbacks.

Greg Vanney’s aware of all this, but it seems he’s still not quite ready to make the adjustment:

I’ve got to admit that I don’t quite understand his reluctance here. There are defensive concerns, of course – there are in any two-forward set-up – but this team just isn’t turning any of their looks into goals unless Joveljic is on the field.

7. Caleb Porter’s been facing a similar issue in Columbus, and while the dueling goalkeeper errors that produced a 1-1 draw between the Crew and Charlotte FC will get the headlines, it’s at least worth noting that Porter – a longtime devotee of the 4-2-3-1 – trotted his side out in a 3-5-2 with ultra-aggressive fullbacks and the playmaker sitting underneath a pair of true forwards.

The scoreline was disappointing but I actually thought this was a pretty promising look for Columbus. They were a little quicker advancing the ball into the attacking third and were better about having more numbers in the box once they got there.

We’ll see, when they get Lucas Zelarayan back and if/when they sign Cucho Hernandez, if the 3-5-2 becomes the new normal.

6. The Red Bulls got an early set-piece goal from Lewis Morgan and then an acrobatic, chipped finish from 20 yards by Luquinhas in the second half to beat Toronto FC 2-0 in Harrison. It marked the 16th straight road game without a win for the Reds, and their 23rd straight league game without posting a shutout.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should expect Premier League loanee Ashley Fletcher to stick around in New Jersey. With Patryk Klimala out, Gerhard Struber opted to start Omir Fernandez as a sort of false 9, and then in the second half he brought in both veteran reserve Tom Barlow and homegrown rookie Zach Ryan instead of the Englishman.

Fletcher arrived in February on a six-month loan and has played just 250 minutes.

5. A four-point week for Orlando City, who collected a point on Wednesday in New England before coming back home to take all three in a 2-1 win over visiting Houston.

Both goals on Saturday came from DP target man Ercan Kara, who’s slowly figuring the league out after a somewhat tepid start to life in central Florida. He and the two other DPs, young winger Facu Torres and veteran No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra, seem to have found a bit of the chemistry that was missing for most of the season’s first two-and-a-half months.

You couldn’t miss it on the game’s first goal:

Houston got a goal from their DP striker as well, but their shape was weird with how deep they had Darwin Quintero dropping to pick up possession, and only some heroics from goalkeeper Steve Clark kept this one from getting out of hand.

4. And here it is, folks: Roger Espinoza playing the best PK defense I’ve ever seen:

Absolutely, positively, 1000% worth the yellow card he picked up for that, as it preserved a 2-1 Sporting win at Nashville that peeled SKC off the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Nashville are not putting their home games to good use, and drop to just 2W-1L-3D at GEODIS Park with the loss. There is honestly nothing to say about this team that I haven’t written a million times already – they are just too happy to settle for crosses from low-percentage spots, and too reliant upon the forward combo of Hany Mukhtar and C.J. Sapong to create anything at all in the box.

If you’re a ‘Yotes fan in search of a silver lining here, it might be that Ake Loba played his best half of soccer since last year’s arrival. If he’s able to spin that forward into a run of good performances, then this loss will have been worth it.

3. The Revs lost their first three league games after being eliminated by Pumas in the CCL. It looked very much like they were going to follow up their record-setting, Supporters’ Shield-winning season by missing the playoffs.

It hasn’t been that way. It’s been the other way. Following Sunday evening’s 2-1 win over visiting Minnesota, the Revs are now 5W-1L-4D in their past 10 since that three-game nose-dive, back above the playoff line and climbing. It hasn’t been perfect as there are a couple of brutal draws that should’ve been wins in there, but the team that spent all of March and most of April stepping on rakes has, it seems, been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Central to this rise has been Bruce Arena’s willingness to shift out of the 4-4-2 wide diamond and into a 4-2-3-1 that gets more bodies in the middle of the pitch. That killed the Revs both against Pumas and in last year’s playoffs, and the switch to the 4-2-3-1 just made the more solid and difficult to break down.

But Bruce switched again in this game, going away from the 4-2-3-1 and to a 4-2-2-2 with Carles Gil inverted on one side, livewire new winger Dylan Borrero on the other and the combo of Gustavo Bou and Jozy Altidore up top. And… it didn’t really work. New England’s goals came via a howler from Dayne St. Clair (his first of the season), and a thunderbolt of a free kick by Bou. From the run of play, they created almost nothing, and because they couldn’t control central midfield, they were constantly scrambling to put out fires defensively.

Lucky for them no one in Minnesota’s front three is much of a goal threat these days. The Loons are just 3W-6L-1D in the past three months, and continue to get absolutely nothing from their pair of DP No. 9s.

2. The Rapids went to the Bronx and battled to a very credible point, riding a Michael Barrios counterattack goal to a 1-1 drawTalles Magno equalized with an acrobatic, volleyed finish – and at least partially ruining interim head coach Nick Cushing’s debut.

Cushing had the Pigeons in a very balanced, almost rigid 4-2-3-1, and I felt like they struggled somewhat to play line-breaking passes into Colorado’s midfield shape and make them scramble. This improved after Keaton Parks was subbed on for Nico Acevedo with 20 minutes left, but it bears watching. Remember, the transition from Dome Torrent to Ronny Deila wasn’t particularly smooth, and going from Patrick Vieira to Torrent was a half-season disaster.

So even though it seems like not much should change… I don’t know. We’ve been down this road before, and it always does.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Luiz Araujo, who put this one on a tee for Josef Martinez in Atlanta’s 2-0 win over visiting, 10-man Miami:

Obviously this is not the best pass of the week, but credit to Araujo for reading the room and understanding that it wasn’t just important for the team that Josef, in his first start since recovering from injury (and folks, he did honestly look recovered this time), get a goal; it was important for the crowd!

Those fans in Atlanta worship Josef, and getting him on the board 61 minutes into a fit and healthy 90 is probably the best moment of the year for the Five Stripes. I think you could argue it’s the best moment in more than two years for them, provided Josef’s knee holds up.

Miami, who gave up a ton of room in midfield even before going down to 10 men, missed Gregore. And now they’ll be without Jean Mota next week following his red card.