Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Seattle face playoff uncertainty, Philadelphia are suddenly a scoring machine & more from Week 26

0821 amrchair SEA Frustrated

No preamble, let’s dive in:

Imperfect Hosts

I’ve said all year that the most MLS thing ever would be if, in the same year that the Sounders became the first MLS team to win the modern iteration of the CCL, they went on to miss the playoffs for the first time in their MLS existence. For the record, I still don’t believe that will happen – the Sounders are going to make the playoffs – but the news of Cristian Roldan’s injury followed by Friday night’s thrilling/frustrating/very MLSy 3-3 draw at LA, it feels like the unthinkable is actually within the realm of possibility.

Still though, the biggest reason I’m pretty sure the Sounders will make the playoffs is because they finally looked dangerous going forward again, which was in large part helped by Brian Schmetzer changing the team’s shape back to the 3-5-2 that worked so well last year. That shape, with either Kelyn Rowe or Jimmy Medranda at left wingback, gives Seattle touchline-to-touchline attacking width, something they’ve lacked this year when they’ve played out of a back four with Nouhou as an overlapping left back.

Nouhou is very good as a LCB in a back three – there was justifiable buzz about him winning Defender of the Year at this time last season. But he just can not do the job of a modern, attacking fullback, and as the summer went on teams were getting savvier about just conceding the whole left flank. They were daring Nouhou to beat them. He didn’t, and so Seattle didn’t.

So that, combined with the Roldan injury, led to the shape change, which led to more attacking balance, and a couple of happy knock-on effects:

  • Raul Ruidiaz, who looks something like 75% fit (and rising), and Jordan Morris have good chemistry up top together with Morris playing as a true forward. I thought the threat of Morris’s speed up the gut or into the channels created a lot of useful room for both Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro.
  • Speaking of Lodeiro, he liked the formation shift, too. “I think I found more space for myself,” Lodeiro said. “In this formation, it gives me more freedom to play.”
  • Part of the reason Lodeiro was finding more space is the play of young Danny Leyva, who now looks to have claimed the starting d-mid job for the rest of the season. The 19-year-old was, at one point, considered the very best of the ‘03s – both in Seattle’s academy and in the whole country. But one injury after another, as well as the rise of Obed Vargas, stunted both his growth and his opportunity for playing time.

It’s fallen to him now, and while he hasn’t been perfect, I think it’s fair to say he’s been very good.

“When he plays with the confidence he’s playing with now, he’s a very effective player,” Schmetzer said of Leyva, who is more of a Joao Paulo-style backline protector and distributor than an Ozzie Alonso-esque rangy destroyer. “He’s overcome some injuries, [and] he’s embracing that shot at being a starter with everything that he has inside of him.”

Ok, here is the flip side to all of this: The Sounders still gave up three goals, and it’s not like that was an accident:

Pressing out of a 3-5-2 is hard, and pushing the right wingback – Alex Roldan, No. 16 – that high is borderline suicidal. There are defensive rotations, both obvious and not, that Seattle just were not making (or were making too slowly) throughout the game, which was a perfect example of how just adding another defender doesn’t automatically make you a more competent defensive team.

As for the Galaxy, who are actually a couple spots above the Sounders and with a game in hand, it all feels more tenuous because of this:

As long as Greg Vanney stays committed to the 4-2-3-1 Kevin Cabral will play a huge, crucial role for this team. He’s supposed to be both the secondary chance creator and the secondary goalscorer, and his movement is really very good. You don’t get into spots to miss a million sitters if you’re not moving well, right?

But it seemed like he was emotionally broken out there in the second half. On that play above I’m convinced that he saw that run but didn’t finish it, and I think it’s because he’s become terrified of missing yet another sitter. Cabral seems to be that far in his own head, and the team is suffering for it.

How? Well, 60 seconds after that chance above, which would’ve made it 3-1 and probably iced the game, Seattle scored to make it 2-2. And that is almost the entire Galaxy season in a nutshell: their patterns of play are excellent, they execute them well, and then they leave the door open by not finishing them off.

Maybe that changes down the stretch. Maybe Riqui Puig, who didn’t do much in his debut except spin in circles, will carve out the types of chances that even the Galaxy attack can’t miss, or maybe Chicharito – who was subbed down the stretch, and yes it was weird, and no I don’t have an explanation for it – gets so hot it doesn’t matter, or maybe even Samuel Grandsir picks up the goalscoring slack.

But we’re three-quarters of the way through the season and the Galaxy are living on a house built out of “maybes.” In that way they’re really not much different than the Sounders, or any of the other teams scuffling along in spots 5-through-11 in the Western Conference race.

It’s just that Galaxy fans have been here so many times throughout the past few years and, well, they’ve tended not to love the ending.

A Hope in Hell

Through the first half of the season there was a very legitimate question about the Philadelphia Union’s ability to generate high-value chances and put up the kind of goalscoring numbers that truly elite teams in this league – including the 2020, Supporters’ Shield-winning version of this same Philly side – tend to put up.

They were clearly one of the half-dozen (or so) best teams in the league, mind you, and their defense was clearly going to keep them there, or even move them higher, irrespective of what happened with the attack. But for them to become the team that they wanted to be, they needed to get goals. They’d bet big (by their standards) on a DP-level No. 10 last summer, and then tripled down this winter by bringing in a pair of DP forwards. The attack was entirely remade.

It needed a minute to really take. Throughout the first half of the season the Union were indeed one of the very best teams in the league, and it was indeed because of that defense, which was (and still is) on track to be one of the best in league history. But the attack… 22 goals in 18 games wasn’t blowing anybody’s hair back.

In the nine games since then, following Saturday night’s 6-0 massacre of D.C. United, the Union have scored 29 goals. That No. 10 from last year, Daniel Gazdag? He’s a Best XI candidate. Those DP forwards, Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza? A combined 21 goals and 11 assists.

They are not only playing well, but they are making each other better when they’re out there together.

"A lot of the top strikers you see are, I'll just say it: Pretty selfish, and you see 20-something goals and two assists," head coach Jim Curtin said after the game. "These guys are willing to pass and contribute in other ways, and that's what makes them dangerous."

That is the big story for Philly. Any team that hits on all of its DPs (or one close to it in Gazdag) is going to be in good shape, and if you have that + an elite defense, you’re going to be in great shape.

But the Union have found a third heat with the addition of Jack McGlynn to the midfield mix. The Homegrown orchestrator, who always wants the ball to feet and always tries (and usually succeeds) to play it to space, has opened the game up for the front-runners:

Notice how Gazdag is able to make that direct run early? It’s because he doesn’t have to actually be a No. 10 in possession when McGlynn’s out there, and can instead function as almost a second striker. This is not something that happens when Leon Flach – who I like quite a bit, but who is a very different player – is on the field for the Union in McGlynn’s spot.

The upshot is that with McGlynn in the lineup the Union are much more able to toggle between going direct (McGlynn’s pass into space for Uhre led to the Union’s second goal) or getting into rhythm on the ball, making the field wide and using the fullbacks.

They lacked that through the first half of the year, and the numbers in McGlynn’s five starts are kind of a warning shot to the rest of the league that you might have to add another chapter to your book on the Union. With him on the field they string together wider passing sequences, as well as longer attacking sequences both in terms of time and numbers of passes. They also complete a higher percentage of passes all over the field, while still holding onto their Red Bull-esque full-throttle nature.

In the four games he’s started with Gazdag, Uhre and Carranza, it’s utterly terrifying: Philly are 4W-0L-0D with 17 goals scored and one conceded. There are sample size warnings, as well as quality of opposition warnings, as well as correlation/causation warnings to heed. They’re not going to keep scoring four goals a game, in other words.

But I don’t think this is all purely coincidence.

The other thing – and we saw this a bunch against D.C. – is that McGlynn’s comfort on the ball makes the Union more press resistant. Between McGlynn and Jose Martinez as a sort of double pivot, as well as two of the best ball-playing center backs in the league in Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, pressing the Union has become a very bad bet, and a very good way to make sure Uhre and Carranza get a lot of chances to run in behind.

D.C., of course, learned all of the above to their detriment. New head coach Wayne Rooney had hoped his team might have a playoff push in them when he was hired, but admitted after the game that it was gone, if it had ever existed in the first place.

I don’t begrudge Rooney or any D.C. fans their harsh words after this one, as it was a complete capitulation. But I’m going to try to find a silver lining here:

  • The first 35 minutes or so were actually quite good, with a couple of sequences that showed both how Rooney wants this team to play, and some promise with regard to its execution.
  • I doubt the guy who was most culpable for the gruesome scoreline – goalkeeper Rafael Romo – will be there much longer.

I know that’s cold comfort, at best, after a loss like that. So I’ll just leave it there.

A few more things to ponder…

12. FC Cincinnati got themselves a good road point, drawing 1-1 against the Red Bulls in Harrison despite the fact that they kind of didn’t look entirely up for it. The No. 1 rule against RBNY is you have to match them physically and it felt like, once they went up 1-0, the Garys couldn’t find the gas pedal.

Barring that physicality, then, you need a little more quality to play through the Red Bull press, and Cincy didn’t have that either as both Junior Moreno and Alvas Powell struggled badly in possession. So those touchline-to-touchline sequences that have carved other teams open – including the Union a couple of weeks ago – happened too slowly and never really forced the Red Bulls to run at their own goal.

New York, for all the sturm und drang over the past couple of months, had themselves a four-point week and sit a comfortable fourth in the Eastern Conference. They even got a Patryk Klimala goal, his first since May, breaking a 15-game dry spell, to celebrate.

11. A bunch of key pieces for the Revs were either injured or legally not allowed to enter Canada, and so Bruce Arena tried to juggle his lineup and formation into some kind of bunker up at Stade Saputo.

It didn’t work. Romell Quioto ran riot and Kei Kamara got his 135th career goal, moving him all alone into third on the all-time list, in a 4-0 Montréal win.

New England really aren’t made to bunker, but a good chunk of credit here has to go to a Montréal side that’s equipped to rip through a low-block defense even when playing without Djordje Mihailovic, who may be on his way to the Eredivisie (though my guess is that he’ll be in Quebec through the end of the season).

They are one of the league’s most patient teams at swinging possession from one touchline to the other, and Wilfried Nancy demands plus distribution from each of his center backs. That’s how you get a goalscoring sequence like this one:

The other part of their secret sauce is Quioto, who has five goals in his past three games and, with 14g/4a in a touch over 1600 minutes, has a claim on “most effective per-90 attacker in the league in 2022.”

For years the folks in Houston told me that Quioto had Best XI talent if he could just keep healthy and locked in for a whole season. It seems to be happening now.

10. Phil Neville has turned in something close to a masterclass of a performance as head coach this year. Here, following Saturday night’s massive 2-1 win over visiting Toronto, are the boxes he’s checking:

  • Simplified structure puts everyone in comfortable spots and allows easy toggling between 4-2-3-1 and 5-4-1 formations.
  • He’s gotten significant contributions and development from young guys in goal (Drake Callender), defense (Ryan Sailor’s been very good), midfield (Bryce Duke) and forward (Leo Campana).
  • Between Alejandro Pozuelo and Gonzalo Higuain he’s getting elite production from his DPs.

You don’t have to be Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. If you check those three boxes, you’re going to do damn well in just about any league, and that’s true here as well as Miami have gone 10W-6L-5D since April 9. They have an actual foundation, and are improving as the year goes on.

Toronto, on the other hand, are trying to fly the plane while they build it, and it’s pretty clear that Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Criscito and Federico Bernardeschi were all completely gassed by the second half.

"The one thing that was probably in our favor was that it was [Toronto's] third game in a week,” Neville said afterward. “We knew the likes of Insigne, Criscito and Bernardeschi, they've probably never played two games and then come down to Florida and played in this heat."

Toronto took just one point from two games this week, drawing at home against the Revs and then taking this loss in Miami. They are five points below the line with seven games to play.

Because everybody in the East playoff race is crushing everybody else, the door’s still open – they can still get over the line. But their margin for error is now nil.

9. The type of run we’d need to see from Toronto is the type of run we’ve seen from Minnesota since the end of June, as Saturday’s 2-1 win over visiting Austin makes the Loons 7W-1L-2D with a +8 goal differential over their past 10 games. They’ve climbed up to fourth in the West and, with multiple games in hand on third-place Dallas, I’m not betting against them climbing further.

As I’ve written here before: A lot of what Minnesota’s doing so well comes down to building a system that revolves around Emanuel Reynoso. He is the sun, and everybody else is, I don’t know, planets, comets, maybe an asteroid belt?

Anyway, you get my point: building around a great No. 10 works in MLS. It’s worked since Day 1, and I suspect it’ll keep working a good many years longer.

But you’d be foolish to think that’s all Minnesota are:

I wrote back in June about how the Loons had developed into a credible pressing team, and while they’ve dialed it back some since then, they’re still hovering around the top 10 in xG generated from high pressing situations as per Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Obviously this is a more opportunistic moment from Franco Fragapane than most, but you can see the overall ethos jumping off the screen in this clip.

Austin’s conceded 12 goals in their past five games, and they’ve come in all sorts of different ways.

8. The Rapids were so damn close to taking care of business when Houston came to town on Saturday night, but a moment of madness from Bryan Acosta in the 80th minute – I’ve got to assume he forgot he was carrying a yellow when he intentionally clipped Griffin Dorsey in the 80th minute – and a moment of inattentiveness five minutes into stoppage time turned what should’ve been a comfortable three points into a dispiriting 1-1 draw.

It seems like almost everything Colorado got right last year is going against them this year. While they could point to the roster and say they need to be furnished with more creativity out of central midfield (I am sympathetic to that argument) that’s not why they dropped points this weekend, and they surely know as much after Robin Fraser’s postgame team talk.

"There were some harsh discussions. [It] was a harsh discussion,” the normally taciturn Fraser said afterward. “And the fact of the matter is we've shot ourselves in the foot several times this year, and if we keep doing that, then our season is going to be really short. And at some point, we all have to take responsibility. We have to take responsibility for choices we made as a coaching staff; the players have to take responsibility for decisions and execution or lack of execution within the game.

“So I don't feel like it was an overly emotional response, but I do think that we needed to talk about some things. I even said, ‘I know that we don't want to talk tactics after the game, everyone's emotional, but there are things that need to be better. Period.’ It wasn't going to do any good to wait until Monday to make those comments, like those comments need to be made now. In our days off, guys need to reflect. We need to reflect and we need to show up again next week, and again, we keep talking about resolve, and I mean, our backs are pretty flat against the wall now so we have to stand up."

Houston halted their four-game losing streak and are set up to, at the very least, play spoiler down the stretch.

7. San Jose, meanwhile, played spoiler for LAFC’s hopes of an 80-point season, springing a surprise 2-1 win on the guests (and their heavily rotated XI, to be fair). It was a nice “welcome to the club” gift for new head coach Luchi Gonzalez, who’s not officially on the sideline yet but who’s taking a hand in guiding the rest of this season for the Quakes.

Two noteworthy things:

  1. Both San Jose assists came from getting the right back Tommy Thompson into the primary assist zone – the Man City zone – to hit a pullback to the near post or a cross to the far post.
  2. Nine of San Jose’s 10 shots came from inside the box.

Both of those are the hallmarks of a Gregg Berhalter attack – Berhalter’s Crew sides were relentless about getting to the primary assist zones before we even really called them “primary assist zones”, and they were relentless about generating shots from inside the box.

Luchi’s FC Dallas teams, from 2019 to just about the end of 2021, weren’t so great at that. They were 19th in the league in pullbacks over that three-year stretch and, as per TruMedia by StatsPerform, they were 20th in shots generated from inside the box, taking just 59.9% from inside the 18 (San Jose, playing conscienceless Almeyda-ball, were dead last at 56.5%).

This might just be happenstance, or maybe they caught LAFC on a particularly flat night. But if I were to wager on what would be the biggest difference between the FC Dallas version of Luchi and the San Jose version of Luchi, it’d be that ability of his team to get into final third kill patterns that generate high-value looks.

6. RSL don’t do a ton of that, but my god are they murder on the break. Here’s their whole season in a clip:

Everything is chaosball all the time, and the way they make sense of the chaos is either by hitting big switches or… by doing exactly what you see in the video, which is the exact same thing they did last week. The difference is that last week it was DP Jefferson Savarino providing the through ball, while this week it was unsung hero Jasper Loffelsend, a college right back from Germany who was the 81st pick of this year’s SuperDraft and is now a full-time starter and one of the half-dozen best No. 8s in the league.

Because – I keep trying to tell you this – nothing about how this year has unfolded for RSL makes sense.

And so I suppose, from that point of view, a 1-1 home draw against Vancouver kind of makes sense? Especially when the equalizer is scored by a right wingback coming in from the left to head home a cross from the touchline by the No. 10, right?

The ‘Caps being anywhere near the playoff race makes even less sense than RSL being well in it, by the way. Vancouver haven’t had their first-choice XI available even once this year, and by most advanced metrics they’re one of the three or four worst teams in the league. They also haven’t gotten much progress from any of their young players.

But with seven games left in the season, they just won’t go away.

5. The Fire, on the other hand, seem to be determined to go away. They’ve come out of a good 10-game run with two fairly humiliating losses – 4-1 last week at Philadelphia, and then 2-0 on Sunday evening at home (Bridgeview!!) against NYCFC.

Those are two of the three best teams in the East. Up next: Montréal, who’s the other in that triumvirate. And then it doesn’t get much easier, with road trips to New England and Columbus, two sides who are desperate to stay in the playoff race.

The Pigeons got a thunderbolt from Gabby Pereira early in the first half and had a gift deposited at the feet of Santi Rodriguez very early in the second for the final scoreline. They weren’t great at any point, but they didn’t have to be, and in general they did well enough digging in defensively in their new low-block look.

4. Our Pass of the Week goes to Kevin Molino because, damn, remember how great Kevin Molino was before the injuries?

This whole movement from the Crew is just beautiful, and has been rare this year because none of the wingers on the roster are particularly adept at coming inside during this pattern of play and hitting a through ball. Molino, who got 29 minutes in Sunday’s 2-2 home draw vs. visiting Atlanta – his longest run-out of the year as he’s worked to return from his latest knee injury – clearly is.

Molino doesn’t need to be 90-minutes fit to elevate Columbus down the stretch here. Just 30 minutes of this per game, with Lucas Zelarayan pulling the strings and Cucho Hernandez finishing things off? That has “Minnesota 2020” potential.

Defensively it’s obviously a different matter, as no matter the personnel it seems like the Crew are in “scramble and hope Eloy Room has a big game” mode week after week. Despite conceding twice Room was very good, but Columbus were really walking the knife’s edge throughout.

3. Orlando City got a late gift when Anton Walkes whiffed on a clearance at midfield, which allowed Tesho Akindele to get in on Kristijan Kahlina and turn what looked sure to end up as a 1-1 draw into a late and extremely welcome 2-1 win at Charlotte for the Lions.

Oscar Pareja has continued his adjustment of playing his No. 10, Mauricio Pereyra, as more of a No. 8 in the 4-2-3-1, while Junior Urso, who’s really much more of a box-to-box guy, played this game as more of a No. 10. It’s the one real adjustment Pareja’s been able to make given the state of the roster, and I suspect it’s the default set-up from here on out for the Lions.

Charlotte played hard, as always under Christian Lattanzio, but they’re bumping up against the ceiling of what can be achieved with this squad. They did get some good news in the form of an assist from DP winger Kamil Jozwiak – his first boxscore contribution of any sort in about 700 minutes – but that’s about the extent of it.

2. Nashville woke up! And they woke up angry, clearly taking Dax McCarty’s pep talk from last week to heart in pounding the absolute hell out of visiting FC Dallas by 4-0.

Forget the pep talk, though, because Hany Mukhtar was INCREDIBLE. Like, pretty easily one of the best individual games anybody has played all year, and especially so when given the stakes (a loss would’ve left the Coyotes below the line) and the competition (Dallas are pretty good!).

This was just an MVP-caliber performance from an MVP-caliber player. It didn’t matter what Dallas’s tactical set-up was, or Nashville’s formation (for the record: 4-4-1-1). What mattered was that Mukhtar walked out there determined to be the best player on the field for 90 minutes. And then he was.

Dallas are, I think, going to be fine. But this had to be a warning shot to them about bringing the requisite energy to proceedings down the stretch here.

1. And finally, our Face of the Week goes to Sporting KC’s William Agada, who has been a damn revelation and grabbed two more goals in his side's 4-1 win over visiting Portland:

That speed, that finish, that smile! That… reason for hope? Sporting fans haven’t had much of it this year, but Agada’s got five goals in about 350 minutes, and they’ve scored 11 in their past three games. He’s having a Cucho-like effect on this attack, with some help from summer signing Erik Thommy.

The Timbers have lost two straight and are winless in five, but they’re still just one point below the playoff line. Almost everybody in the West has started the stretch run by tripping all over themselves instead of actually getting their feet under them and stringing some results together.