Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Midweek analysis: San Jose's mistakes, Josh Atencio's promise and more

Florian Jungwirth - San Jose Earthquakes - refs

Week 1 went into the books and the worst team in the league that actually played, per our Power Rankings Politburo, was the San Jose Earthquakes. Only Real Salt Lake -- who were idle in Week 1 -- finished lower, as the Quakes dropped from 16th to 26th.

I don’t agree with that at all, but I also kind of get it. San Jose under Matias Almeyda have a history of taking one loss and then spinning it into three or four or five on the trot, and maybe that’s what my colleagues are smelling after their 2-1 defeat at Houston Dynamo FC last Friday. Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that San Jose have been ghastly to start each of the past two seasons, so why not expect more of the same from them in 2021?

Irrespective of whether or not that thinking is harsh, or if it’s actually correct, what’s clear is that San Jose suffered a few pretty obvious breakdowns in Week 1. And what I want to focus on is the buildup to Houston’s first goal, using the Second Spectrum panoramic view to illustrate how failure to defend properly from the front puts the entire man-marking scheme Almeyda famously employs in jeopardy, narrowing what are already thin margins for the center backs.

I’m about to pick on 17-year-old Cade Cowell, who started at center forward, a little bit here. And I’m also going to pick on new playmaker Javier “La Chofis” Lopez. This is the clip:

Twice at the start of the sequence, Cowell doesn’t understand the ramifications of a Houston player drifting into his neighborhood. The first time it’s just inattentiveness; the second time, neither he nor Carlos Fierro read the play, and both are caught ball-watching. Both times it’s so easy for Houston to just pick the Quakes apart because the pressure from the San Jose attackers is just… not right. Or non-existent. Your choice.

This doesn’t entirely destroy the teamwide man-marking scheme, but it does allow Houston to cut five San Jose players out of the sequence and advance into the attacking third at a trot, forcing the remaining Quakes into a scramble.

They scramble well enough to force a loose ball, which Jackson Yueill just clears upfield. But here’s the problem with La Chofis: he’s just been watching this all unfold since he was cut out of the play, then doesn’t anticipate the clearance or subsequent sequence. “Anticipate” might be too kind, actually; the dude barely reacts and only starts jogging in Joe Corona’s direction once it’s clear the next pass is going directly to Corona’s feet.

That’s not how Almeyda’s man-marking system works. Passes up the gut are supposed to be hard -- just ask Tyler Adams, whose simple pass like this against Almedya’s Chivas side in 2018 resulted in a turnover that cost the Red Bulls a spot in the Concacaf Champions League final.

La Chofis should know this. He was on that Chivas side!

But because his defensive rotation is so poor here, d-mid Eric Remedi is forced into a 40-yard sprint upfield to try to close Corona down. He never gets close, and that strands Florian Jungwirth on an island.

Jungwirth obviously should’ve done better, as should’ve goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski. I think you can also argue that Remedi, instead of making that sprint, should’ve held himself deeper and would’ve been better served screaming at La Chofis to rotate over to Corona. I also suspect that if Judson had been in there, this play would’ve unfolded very differently.

Regardless, it all ended with Jungwirth in a position where he felt he had to make a play. That was wrong, obviously -- he should’ve just contained Memo Rodriguez instead of diving in. But it’s emblematic of how pulling a loose string upfield can unwind the entire San Jose defensive scheme, and how inattentive defending at the front can spell disaster at the back. Ultimately, it led to that Week 1 loss that has everyone convinced San Jose are the second-worst team in the league.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe that play is emblematic of what’s to come. We’ll get to see on Saturday when San Jose host FC Dallas (3:30 pm ET | Twitter, Univision, TUDN).

Second Spectrum Numbers of the Week

I asserted, on Monday’s Extratime, that my biggest takeaway from Week 1 wasn’t just the quality of the goals (BANGERS everywhere), but the quality of the buildup and overall play. Teams seemed to take better care of the ball and have better ideas about what to do with it.

So I asked the gang at Second Spectrum to do some digging:

Possessions per match

  • 199.75 (2021 Week 1)
  • 218.67 (2020 Week 1)
  • 216.47 (2020 full season)

Turnovers per match

  • 98.42 (2021 Week 1)
  • 112.08 (2020 Week 1)
  • 104.95 (2020 full season)

Their conclusion -- which I agree with -- is that teams were a bit more deliberate with the ball, even if they weren’t necessarily playing more passes per possession league-wide (the numbers compared to Week 1 last year were flat).

Being that careful with the ball paid off in chances. Second Spectrum recorded a 35% increase in Xg per game from progression phases in Week 1 this year as opposed to last year, which means that, yes, there was some unusually pretty early-season soccer last weekend.

Young Player of the Week

Note: This isn’t the best young player of the week, just one that interests me.

I spend a lot of time talking to USYNT-obsessed dorks and in those conversations over the past three years, Seattle’s Josh Atencio has filtered in and out as a potentially noteworthy player. At first, in 2018, he was the d-mid of the future. Then, after he kept growing in 2019, surely he’d be a ball-playing center back.

But by 2020 he faded out of most of those conversations. Atencio was an afterthought, stuck on a club that had invested heavily in its academy but hadn’t really trusted any of the kids with first-team playing time given their “win now” ethos. Even after Gustav Svensson and Roman Torres departed this offseason, there was real skepticism about Atencio ever truly featuring with the first team.

So it was a pleasant surprise when the 19-year-old started last Friday’s opener, a 4-0 Sounders win over visiting Minnesota United FC. And it was a revelation to see him so easily covering ground and progressing the ball both off the dribble and via some pretty crisp passing:

Atencio, in this game, played as part of double pivot in a 3-4-1-2 next to Joao Paulo, but their roles weren’t precisely the same. JP was a true regista, sitting deep, winning second balls and spraying possession all over the field, while Atencio was much more of a box-to-box No. 8. He covered more ground than anybody in the league, per Second Spectrum.

It wasn’t just useless running. A fundamental thing every team has to figure out is “how do we get the ball into the attacking third?” Since 2016 the answer for Seattle has always been “give it to Nico and let him figure it out.”

Without Nico Lodeiro on Friday, the burden was shared more equitably across the central midfield and wingbacks -- and Atencio, in his first-ever start, was more than up to the task. He even got into the half-spaces and did some good work before JP’s banger:

Atencio wasn’t perfect. There were a couple of sweeping diagonals he should’ve hit but didn’t, and while he covers ground and is pretty physical, he doesn’t have the quickest feet and plays too upright. Bebelo Reynoso feasted in their 1v1s, spinning Atencio at the top of the box before drawing a foul (and a yellow) from JP and nutmegging the kid in midfield en route to launching a pretty dangerous attack.

Still, there was much more good than bad and this was a strong data point that the kid’s actual position is as a No. 8. We need to see more, of course, and even if we do I’ll remain very, very intrigued about the possibility that he could shift to central defense and be kind of Mark McKenzie-ish given his size (6-foot-1) and his passing (silky).

But he’ll be in the midfield for at least a little while longer. The Sounders go to downtown Los Angeles to visit LAFC on Saturday (6 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), and chances are Atencio will be in the XI once again.