Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Seattle's CCL hangover, Galaxy go nuclear, Miami find their mojo & more from Week 14

Another weekend in the books. Tally ho!

The Name of the Game

We’re nearly at the halfway point and, following Saturday night’s dominant 3-0 win over visiting Houston, RSL are third in the West on 1.79 ppg. The type of dominance they showed this week is not a typical thing – they are much more of an “every game is a knife fight” type of team than “every game is a masterpiece” type of team.

I’ve avoided breaking them down with one of the longer sections here for two main reasons:

  1. Even with their very good record and fistful of wins over probable playoff sides, they feel like an incomplete team. RSL have been hurt, have repeatedly changed their shape because of injuries and absences, and they only just got their first DP minutes of the year this weekend (Jefferson Savarino came on for a re-debut cameo). So it’s weird and hard to analyze a team that’s always in the process of changing so much, and is expected to change so much in the future.
  2. Even so, the way they have done this has defied any sort of tactical analysis. I watch them play and am at an almost complete loss to explain what’s happening here.

I’ll let RSL’s play-by-play announcer, Brian Dunseth, take it away. This is from last Tuesday’s Power Rankings show:

"There's nothing that makes sense,” Dunny told Andrew Wiebe and me when we asked him what his take is on this current season’s secret sauce. “We're doing this hardcore deep dive analytically, you know, across the board. We can talk about pressing and statistics and possession and expected goals and all of that, but this is one of those teams where I can never read into any of it. To your point, I don't know what that something is, and I don't know how to explain it.

"I can't tell you what it is. I don't know. I just see a team that wants to fight.”

That’s what a guy who watches the Claret-and-Cobalt like a hawk every single week has to say! They are breaking models and brains with how they are pulling this off, and it feels like so much changes from week to week that it’s hard to pick out one particular principle of play and point to it as something that they build upon.

However, I will point out one particular pattern of play that we see time and again from RSL no matter what the formation – theirs or the opponent’s. You can watch it on the opening goal:

First, you’ll note that this is nearly a 20-pass build-up from back to front. RSL are about the grit and grind, but even with no Damir Kreilach and no DPs on the field, they can ball if you don’t push them defensively.

Second, note the final few passes of that sequence. Left winger Justin Meram, who is very right-footed, loves to come inside not just in the attacking third, but in possession as well. He and left back Andrew Brody have developed some real chemistry with this rotation, and doing it at pace and in sync allows Meram to get on the ball ahead of pressure.

You can also see, two passes earlier in this clip, that Meram’s got his head up, checking both shoulders. He’s not actually checking for pressure here since he knows the ball’s getting to him too quickly for Houston’s midfield to shift with it. What he’s checking to see is the actual shape of the Dynamo backline and defensive midfield – to see if that pass right into that soft spot between the lines is on.

Obviously, in this play, it was. And then that leads us, I think, to the foundational principle of play under Pablo Mastroeni: once you have the opponents scrambling, do not give them time to unscramble. (Note that Dunny is talking about how gassed Houston’s right back Zeca is at the start of this clip, and note that Zeca’s too winded to do more than jog back and basically wave at Bobby Wood heading home at the back post). In preseason I wrote about how RSL under Pablo were great at never letting a chance to run at a retreating backline go to waste, and thus how they were excellent at getting multiple runners into the box as open play shots were taken. Once an opposing line is broken, the attackers are programmed to get forward and get into dangerous spots.

And that is how what looks like a pretty normal, non-threatening build-up at the 28:04 mark ends up with an open header inside the six 13 seconds later. And it turns out that improving this very thing – something they were already good at – is exactly what they were working on this week.

“In previous games, we’ve been quite static in our movement once we rotate the ball to the weak side and we just kind of hold our positions,” Mastroeni said (and for what it’s worth I would debate that, but clearly he knows better). “We’ve been working this week on really mixing up the runs and being more dynamic – don’t be standing in one spot and ride into a spot. J Glad’s [Justen Glad] goal and Bobby [Wood]’s goal were two of those moments where they arrived at the right time and had fantastic finishes.”

So that’s the story right now with RSL. I do think a lot of the rest of it kind of defies analysis, but in this one specific phase they know exactly what they want to do, and then are maniacal about doing it when the chance presents itself.

I can’t wait to see what it looks like this summer when reinforcements arrive.

Proper Preparation and Planning

Fifty-seven minutes into the Galaxy’s 4-1 win over visiting Austin on Sunday evening, this segment was going to be about how the Galaxy’s 4-2-3-1 has become ponderous. They generate possession at times only for possession’s sake, and are reliant upon 35-year-old Victor Vazquez, and basically only 35-year-old Victor Vazquez, to generate chances. The wingers have underwhelmed, Efra Alvarez has not developed, and with Chicharito going cold in front of goal, the Galaxy have become easy meat.

Austin had gone up 1-0 and in the subsequent four minutes there was basically zero response from the hosts. It didn’t look like they were capable of it.

Then Greg Vanney pulled a winger for another forward and temporarily went to two up top. Six minutes after that shift, it was 2-1 Galaxy with Dejan Joveljić having picked up an assist and a goal as he and Chicharito just ran the Verde backline ragged. Six minutes after that, the experiment was done as Vanney subbed Chicharito off and went back to a 4-2-3-1 for the rest of the match.

Joveljić, who seems really, really determined to play his way into the XI, was not done, adding another goal and another assist to become the first sub in MLS history to have four goal contributions.

That will be the story coming out of this one but my god, that 12-minute stretch was nuclear. Here, I bracketed it for you on the xG race chart:

galaxy two forwards

You could see the Galaxy were putting together some good chances even before Joveljić and Chicharito were up top together, but that’s the point – even when they do that, this year, they’re not landing the kinds of knockout punches that put games away. Get them onto the field together? It’s happened for just 120 minutes so beware of small sample size issues, but the Galaxy have generated four goals off of close to 5 xG in that time, and conceded none. They’ve spent virtually every second these two are on the pitch together generating A+ chances and scaring the bejesus out of opposing backlines.

It’s obvious, based on the players LA have acquired over the past couple of years, that they want to play a 4-2-3-1 full-time. It’s obvious that guys like Kevin Cabral, Samuel Grandsir and Efra are all going to get plenty of rope to show that they can start putting the ball in the net and turning the Galaxy into contenders.

But man, it seems obvious at this point that Vanney just needs to adjust his team’s formation to its talent. Whether that means going to a 3-5-2 (which I think would actually suit a lot of LA’s talent, and not just the forwards), or dusting off the old 4-4-2 diamond, or playing a flat-ish 4-4-2 with one of the wide midfielders tasked with stretching the field and the other used as an inverted playmaker… I don’t know, I think they’re all worth a look. What I do know is I want to see more of Chicharito and Joveljić together.

Here’s how Vanney addressed a question about that pairing after the game:

“For me, it's about a couple of things. It's them being able to defend together and then us as a team being able to defend together. It's about consistency when you have two forwards on the field,” he explained. “But I think the more opportunity, the more I see a connection between the two of them – which has been nice – I think it's something that we can certainly consider as we continue to move forward.

“You can see Dejan’s confidence is not lacking,” Vanney then added, and I think his tongue was planted firmly in cheek there given Joveljić’s general mien and the fact that in addition to his two goals, he had two of the best assists anybody will have all year. “So that's exciting for us, to have two guys who can put the ball in the back of the net.”

They haven’t had that much this year. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the weeks and months to come.

As for Austin, they are now officially halfway through that rougher 10-game stretch that came on the heels of their soft nine-game opening schedule, and have gone 1W-3L-1D with a -4 goal differential.

They’re not getting blown out – not until today, anyway. But there’s a gap, and the job for Josh Wolff & Co. is to figure out how to close it between now and the end of the season.

A few more things to ponder…

12. Eloy Room had himself a day, putting in a monster performance in Columbus’s 2-1 road win at Atlanta. The Crew goalkeeper, who has mostly not been himself this year, very much was in this one, and was only beaten by a Dom Dwyer bike in second-half stoppage time.

The good news for the Five Stripes is that they got Josef Martinez back and that he looked to be moving well. The bad news is that this game might’ve been Exhibit A in the “man, they’re really starting to miss those injured starters along the backline and in goal” argument. They just have to figure out how to stop giving up soft goals on restarts. It is, at this point, looking very much like a fatal flaw no matter who’s hurt and who isn’t.

11. Credit to Chicago Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson for continuing to wear his emotions on his sleeve even as his team has sunk to the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings. I’m sure Fire fans are less than thrilled but I don’t mind seeing tweets like this:

I will give Fire fans a bit of a silver lining here: The attack has looked much crisper over the past few weeks, basically since the arrival of Chris Mueller. He doesn’t put up big numbers but he plays with relentlessness and pace, and that’s opened up time and space for Xherdan Shaqiri (now getting more touches in better spots) and the rest of the attackers.

The fact that the defense has completely imploded while the above has happened is… cruel. But “cruel” is how it’s been for Chicago for a long time.

For Toronto, this was a much-needed end to a demoralizing six-game winless streak. I expect major personnel changes this summer, though I’m not sure they’ll get there fast enough.

10. Speaking of major personnel changes, the Revs are staring at a few of them. Saturday night’s 1-1 home draw with the Union was most likely Matt Turner’s final game with New England as he’ll be off to join the USMNT and then, with the summer transfer window for most of Europe opening on June 10, to Arsenal.

And it looks like Turner is not the only one about to make an exit:

The Revs, who are playing much better overall and truly dominated this one against a Union team that’s kind of gone stale recently, have potential answers to a Buksa departure already on the roster. But Gustavo Bou isn’t really a natural center forward (though I thought he was very good on Saturday), while Jozy Altidore is clearly just a bit player and Justin Rennicks might not even be that.

Regardless of how it all shakes out up top, this team has got to figure out how to stop stepping on rakes at the back. Omar Gonzalez has had more than his fair share of those this year, and Saturday night’s blind clearance across his own 18 that led to Mikael Uhre’s equalizer was an all-timer.

9. NYCFC went to St. Paul and dropped a 1-0 win on the Loons. They are now 7W-0L-1D since their CCL run ended, with the last six of those outings (and seven of eight) being shutouts. They are the first team since the Galaxy back in 2009-10 (a much lower-scoring era), and just the fourth team in league history, to toss six straight goose-eggs.

This was not the prettiest performance of the bunch, but the Pigeons have evolved, under Ronny Deila, into a team that doesn’t need to be pretty to win. They can absorb pressure, rely upon Sean Johnson (who is probably having his best season as a pro at this point, and would be the favorite for GKotY if it wasn’t for the guy lining up across from him in this game), and crush you on set pieces.

Minnesota have won just once in their past six and might be in some trouble if Dayne St. Clair spends the rest of the year being merely very good instead of superhuman. I think we’ve already seen that devolution in attack from Emanuel Reynoso, as the burden of carrying the whole damn thing – nobody else on that roster is creating much to speak of – seems to have worn him down.

8. This is the most Nashville xG chart ever:

COLvNSH xG Doyle

Get out to a lead – in this case, an insurmountable 3-0 lead by halftime – and just stop attacking. Shut it down. Basically end the competitive portion of the game.

They weren’t able to keep the zero, but a 3-1 win at Colorado is something for Gary Smith to be very happy about. He called the first half “sensational” and termed it a “fabulous victory” in the postgame, and neither of those descriptors is out of place.

When Nashville play like this Hany Mukhtar is almost always at the forefront of things, and that was the case in this game with his brace. But it’s worth noting that Nashville got very good minutes out of their depth pieces in central midfield, which is an issue that had caused Smith some angst as recently as two weeks ago.

As for Robin Fraser and the Rapids, I think he put his finger on it when describing his halftime talk.

“It was about urgency, to be honest,” Fraser said in explaining the 3-0 hole. “It was a few minor tactical things, but the whiteboard didn't matter at halftime. What mattered was our mentality.”

The Rapids do not have enough talent to start off slow or drift through games. They were mentality monsters most of the past two years, and too often this season that just hasn’t been the case.

7. Vancouver went on the road and got themselves three points thanks to a Lucas Cavallini PK in their 1-0 win at Sporting KC. Of course, since this is the ‘Caps and they are this year’s Cursed Club™, they still walked away with a pair of injuries as both Cristian Dajome and Leo Owusu had to come off. Nonetheless, they are 3W-1L-1D in their past five, and even if they’re not playing particularly great soccer during this run, they’ve pulled themselves out of what looked like an early-season death spiral.

No such luck for Sporting, who are maybe the only team more injured than Vancouver, have won just once in their past 10 and are staring at a much more difficult schedule over the next two months.

6. Our Pass of the Week goes to young Caden Clark, who caught this one perfect in RBNY’s dominant 4-1 win over visiting D.C. United:

This was RBNY’s first home win of the season, and naturally it followed their first road loss of the season. We’ve been meme’ing that stat all year and I just have no idea what to say, other than that the Red Bulls are generally playing some of the best soccer in the league. To that point, as spectacular as Clark’s pass was, it barely cracked the top three highlights (Nos. 1 & 2 being Lewis Morgan’s goal and Luquinhas’s second goal) from this game.

I don’t know if this win, combined with Wednesday’s US Open Cup win, is a sign that they have figured out their consistency issues in front of goal. But I do know that when you play well and control games, you generally give yourselves a better chance of walking away with a win even if you’re not exactly efficient in the 18.

D.C. had a promising little bounce after parting ways with Hernan Losada, but are now winless in four. If you want to point to one big difference between this year and last, it’s their transition defense. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data United were in the top third of the league in xG allowed in transition; this year they’ve dropped into the bottom third.

5. Dallas pulled out of a disappointing little two-game losing streak with a very nice 3-1 win at Orlando on Saturday night, riding a shape change (Nico Estevez once again had his team morph from his preferred 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1 with Jesus Ferreira in a free role) at the hour mark to a dominant final half-hour.

Ferreira, who now has 9g/4a, leads MLS in combined goals and assists as well as sitting tied atop the Golden Boot presented by Audi charts. And I don’t even think he’s been their best attacker! That’d be Paul Arriola, whose brace in this game gave him seven goals on the year, equalling his previous career-high, and who is also among the league leaders in expected assists and, by my unofficial count, in dummies that lead to goals.

That $2 million GAM Dallas paid for him is looking like a steal.

Orlando once again played a good hour but once again melted down. I think at this point it’s clear that Oscar Pareja’s only got about 16 players he trusts, and with two of them injured the bench has been short and the recently packed schedule has taken a massive toll. The good news is that Ercan Kara and Facundo Torres showed some improved chemistry, and that the Junior Urso-at-right-wing experiment continues to be fun in a Cristian Roldan-esque way.

4. Did you know that Inter Miami are 5W-2L-2D in their past nine games? That’s the story following Saturday night’s 2-1 win over visiting Portland, one in which the Herons once again showed their identity as a hyper-mobile 4-3-3 team that loves stretching the opponents from sideline to sideline and getting their fullbacks up into the attack.

This is just about the platonic ideal of a Miami goal at this point:

Notice where left winger Ari Lassiter is on that play? He never touches the ball, but by getting chalk on his boots he pulls the Timbers’ right back all the way out to the touchline, which opened up space for Chris McVey to underlap and dime that cross onto Leo Campana’s cabeza.

This is really good soccer, and Phil Neville deserves a lot of credit. He’s obviously getting a ton out of Campana, but the big center forward is just one of the kids who’s bloomed this year in Fort Lauderdale. Drake Callendar seems to have won the starting job in goal, while former draft picks Aime Mabika and Ryan Sailor are giving good minutes in central defense. Young Bryce Duke, an LAFC Homegrown that Miami pilfered for a handful of GAM, is now a starter in central midfield. Indiana Vassilev and Noah Allen have also contributed here and there.

Underperforming vets like Gonzalo Higuain and Kieran Gibbs, meanwhile? Either learning to embrace a super-sub role or benched entirely.

Miami’s not going to turn it all around in one season – this team is not going to win a trophy. But there’s an actual core of good, young players to build around in place around a core of solid-or-better prime-aged players (McVey and DeAndre Yedlin at fullback; the Brazilian duo of Jean Mota and Gregore in central midfield). You need to have both targeted signings and player development in order to be a competitive team in MLS, and through two years Miami had neither of those. Now they’ve got both.

As the DP slots they’ve mostly wasted start to open up in coming windows, Chris Henderson can focus on making the types of high-leverage signings that can fit into and raise the level of the guys in that core. If he gets those right, well… Miami’s a lot closer to being very good than I think most folks realize.

Portland are probably further, and with each subsequent outing that 7-2 win over Sporting looks more and more like an outlier. They’ve won just once in their past eight, and scored just one run-of-play goal (excluding the Sporting win) since April 9.

3. Former Timber Jeremy Ebobisse has reveled in his chance to finally be a starting center forward (for the life of me I will never understand why they played him on the wing for half a decade), but his brace wasn’t enough as the Quakes fell 3-2 down at LAFC.

Steve Cherundolo threw a bit of a curveball in this one, bringing his Black & Gold out in a 3-5-2 with a deep line of confrontation and Ilie as something close to an old-fashioned sweeper, and while I don’t think it was as defensively sound as Cherundolo would’ve liked, it did have the effect of pulling the Quakes further upfield and allowing LAFC’s forwards to run in behind.

It also had the effect of making sure there were always two attackers high whenever the ball was turned over, as so:

That’s mostly how two-forward systems function in the modern game, be it a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, and is why so many pure transition teams go with a front two instead of a front three.

I don’t think LAFC are headed that way on a permanent basis, but it’s obviously a good club to have in the bag for certain match-ups. And with Carlos Vela a short-term injury concern and a long-term question mark, the 4-3-3 no longer looks like a cinch as a default set-up.

2. CF Montréal saw Djordje Mihailovic limp off injured inside the first 20 minutes, and they shipped three goals at home, and yet they still were able to walk away with all three points courtesy of a 4-3 win over visiting FC Cincinnati. This is the second time this year these two teams have met, and the second time Montréal won 4-3.

The win snapped a mini two-game losing streak for Montréal, while pushing Cincy into a two-game losing streak of their own. Young Roman Celentano had his second straight rough outing in goal after being mostly flawless through his first month.

There is no word yet on the severity of Mihailovic’s injury, though he was able to walk off under his own power.

1. And finally our Face of the Week goes to Charlotte ‘keeper Kristijan Kahlina, who couldn’t do anything on Jordan Morris’s equalizer in what eventually became a 2-1 Sounders win late on Sunday night:

There is an element of frustration with the way the Sounders have been playing since winning the Concacaf Champions League at the start of the month. It’s not that they’ve been bad, per se, but more that they’ve been lacking some of the fluidity that’s characterized them* in their best moments over the past few years, and for the most part have not been able to summon the type of desperation virtually every team needs to find if they’re going to win when they’re not playing well.

(*) Obviously adjusting to life without Joao Paulo is part of this.

They did find a bit of both of the above in the final 25 minutes on Sunday night, though I’m not sure if that’s because they were more desperate and more fluid, or if it was that Charlotte progressively became more passive and allowed the hosts to get entirely too comfortable coming upfield and getting into good spots.

Either way, there hasn’t been an NYCFC or Montréal-like post-CCL explosion from the Sounders. As Sunday showed, they probably don’t need it in order to climb back into their customary spot in the top four of the West.

But they’ll probably need to play a touch better than this if they’re going to beat Real Madrid next year in the Club World Cup.