Back – mostly – from a weeklong Covid-induced hiatus. Big thanks to Sir Thomas of Scoopington for picking up the slack last weekend.
Since this matchday fell during the international break I’m going to change up the usual format and just give equal weight to all of our games rather than singling out two or three for deeper dives. Given how far down the depth chart most MLS teams had to go this weekend, it just feels like there’s less to be learned on a micro, single-game level. Conversely, we can probably glean some good stuff if we zoom out a bit and see what kinds of patterns have held firm irrespective of how much of Team X, Y or Z’s first XI was available.
So let’s dive in:
Saturday’s first outing was, honestly, kind of a stinker. The Timbers are currently ruined via injury and, if you’re reading what Aljaz Ivacic’s got to say, some level of internal strife. This is about where I come down:
So the Timbers, as is often the case this time of year, are kind of just hanging on for dear life and the only real prognosis is “they need their best players to get and stay healthy.”
My suspicion is that, much like last year, even that won’t be enough. The Timbers look truly miserable defensively and it was actually Ivacic – the guy who really did just intimate that head coach Gio Savarese is a liar – who was the team’s best player in 2022, and who was the primary reason they stuck around in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs picture until the final day. None of this seems to be setting up for a bounce-back season.
So what does this say about the Galaxy? They, after all, faced a pretty miserable defensive team, one that has turned the keys over to its backup goalkeeper (and then couldn't sub on the third-string kid in the second half since they were out of windows and had to finish with the LB in net) and failed to bag a goal. They didn’t even, in all honesty, threaten all that much.
It says the wingers have not been good enough. The number of times the Galaxy were able to create right-side overloads, then play across the game channel for Tyler Boyd in isolation on the left wing was very, very high. The number of times Boyd created anything out of that was very, very low.
We’ve seen this same picture with Memo Rodríguez and Efra Álvarez, and while we haven’t seen it out of Douglas Costa this year… c’mon. We know how that movie ends.
I understand why Greg Vanney wants to play the 4-3-3 (or a 4-3-3ish 4-2-3-1). It’s my favorite formation, too!
But reality – a 3-5-2-shaped reality – is starting to stare LA directly in the face here.
The Crown have regained a level of competence over the past two weeks as head coach Christian Lattanzio has shifted some personnel around. The big one has been putting Brandt Bronico back into central midfield (they badly missed his range and combativeness) while using veteran right back Harrison Afful as a left back who tucks in to become a deep-lying midfield in possession (the role Bronico started the season at).
The idea is the base 4-3-3 is supposed to morph into a 3-2-2-3 when Charlotte have the ball, but it’s hard to exert that kind of control over proceedings when the Red Bulls are involved. That’s especially true early in the season when teams are naturally just a bit less sharp in their movements on and off the ball.
The above axiom was compounded, as mentioned, by a bunch of international absences, which necessitated moving right back Nathan Byrne to center back, and boy did he look out of place when Elias Manoel truck sticked him on the game’s opener:
Goal: E. Manoel vs. CLT, 43'
The Red Bulls are still doing Red Bull things – they run, they press, and they completed fewer than 50% of their passes in this game. The interesting bit about it is that after starting the year in the 4-2-2-2, manager Gerhard Struber has already reverted back to the 4-2-3-1 for the most part.
I say “for the most part” because with 20 minutes left he sacrificed a winger (Cam Harper) for record-signing DP center forward Dante Vanzeir, shifting to the 4-2-2-2 in a bid to, presumably, help pad what was, at the time, a 1-0 lead.
Charlotte found their equalizer three minutes after the switch, and RBNY generated only a single chance after bringing Vanzeir on.
I’m not exactly sure why the 4-2-2-2 has never worked in Harrison. It’s genuinely weird.
One thing I’ve said over and over and over again is that a coach who’s able to develop potential into productivity is basically the best building block you can have in this league because in MLS you are almost never working with the finished product. When Columbus went out and paid whatever they paid to get Wilfried Nancy from CF Montréal this offseason, that, more than anything else, was what they were buying.
And so Aidan Morris and Philip Quinton and Jacen Russell-Rowe and Max Arfsten all got their first MLS goals, and Alexandru Matan got a hat-trick of assists, and Mo Farsi and Will Sands look exactly what you’d think attacking wingbacks would look like in Nancy’s system, and every player I just named is age 23 or younger.
Atlanta, meanwhile, were really poor in every conceivable way. And one thing I will suggest is we never see Franco Ibarra as a single pivot ever again.
Bruce Arena, when he was head coach of the LA Galaxy, was notorious for not playing the academy kids he had on hand. So it is a measure of how much the league has changed and, I think more accurately, a measure of how much better kids coming through MLS academies are now than they were a decade back that Arena pretty happily trotted out a midfield comprised of three homegrown teenagers and veteran d-mid Matt Polster on the road on Saturday, played D.C. toe-to-toe, and walked out of his old neighborhood with three points.
It was the youngest of those kids, 17-year-old Noel Buck, whose deflected shot from the top of the box proved to be the game-winner. And it should be noted that while the Revs have spent most of the year in a tight diamond with Buck as a shuttler, they switched to a flat four in this one with Buck and Polster in a double pivot, and, well, that worked pretty well, too.
Though with Carles Gil back – he came on for the final half hour, and dimed up Gustavo Bou’s equalizer with pretty much his first touch – it seems likely that New England’s heading back to the diamond (as they should).
I’m giving Ruan our Pass of the Week for this cross on Christian Benteke’s opener:
Goal: C. Benteke vs. NE, 45'
Wayne Rooney (though he missed the game to illness), following last weekend’s defensive disaster, used Ruan as a right winger and Chris Durkin as a right back in this one. Usually, they’re reversed. I’d say that putting Durkin on the backline allowed D.C. to be a little cleaner playing out, and Ruan obviously got at least one thing right as a winger, but United are now winless in four and the roster has the look and feel of one that still needs major surgery.
The early returns for Miami on the post-Gregore era are bad in the way you’d expect them to be bad: they are struggling to win the ball in central midfield and they are slow to read & rotate defensively, which means they’re dancing on the knife’s edge of disaster on every turnover.
Kei Kamara’s stoppage-time match-winner is all those issues writ large:
WATCH: Kei Kamara at the death sees Chicago upset Miami!
There are a number of issues there, but the big ones are in central midfield where Ben Cremaschi’s loose touch starts a cascade of failures, a sequence that ends with Chicago’s Brian Gutiérrez just blowing past the nominal No. 6, Bryce Duke – who was just way, way too late to recognize the kind of danger his team was facing.
I will say straight-up that I think Gregore makes that play, and by “makes that play” I mean fouls the hell out of Gutiérrez and dumps him on his ass right about here:
Duke is three yards away and can’t even get a body to the Fire No. 10 (who should, it must be said, continue in that role even after Xherdan Shaqiri comes back).
How/if Miami find a way to cope without their captain will determine what the rest of the year looks like.
As for the Fire… try as they might, they couldn’t blow another multi-goal lead. They really did earn this win, and it is at least a little notable that they’ve lost only one of their first four outings this season.
Philly are just 2W-3L-0D this year, and are losing games in the exact same way they won them last season: on second balls and transition moments. I swear to you that the Union scored about 40 goals in 2022 just like this one:
Goal: M. Ojeda vs. PHI, 2'
Except that’s not the Union winning a second ball against an emptied midfield and finding space in behind a dislocated backline; that’s Orlando doing it to the Union on the game’s first goal.
“We’re pissed and we’re going to get better,” head coach Jim Curtin said afterward, and they need to.
Orlando, meanwhile, have started to play better after a pretty turgid start to the season, though they still look nothing like what I think most people’s hopes (if not necessarily expectations) are set at.
But they’ve survived the first month of the year – including a rugged CCL series vs. Tigres – and are now staring at a very manageable five-game stretch.
Goal: K. Cabral vs. ATX, 85'
We’ve all had our fun with Kévin Cabral over the past couple of years because he’s proved to have a superhuman knack for missing chances like this. But this kind of chance – a one-touch finish on the break after a triple-move to shake a defender doing everything in his power to keep Cabral in his cover shadow – is precisely why multiple teams have taken a chance on the kid, and why multiple front-office types pinged me after Colorado traded for him to offer some version of “Cabral knows where goals happen so I completely understand why the Rapids made that move.”
So does the dam break now? Is his confidence restored, and will the goals start to flow?
I have no idea. I will just say that, historically, players who regularly find good chances regularly score goals. This holds true in every league, and while there are exceptions, those are extremely, extremely rare.
Colorado were better and more dangerous than Austin for the final 75 minutes of this one, by the way. The Verde & Black have a lot of issues right now, and I’ll maintain that one of the biggest is that their wingers aren’t consistently getting into the types of spots to hit the kinds of passes – pullbacks across the six/to the penalty spot – that Michael Barrios hits here.
They’re settling for too many crosses banged in against a set defense.
Back-to-back shutout wins for the Dynamo in the same season for the first time in more than nine years. That is an absurdly long drought for a club that once prided itself on a rugged, lockdown defense.
So is that all that BennyBall is, now? Regressive, defensive tactics?
No, it’s really not. The sample size is small and it’s early days, but Ben Olsen’s Dynamo are among the most methodical teams in the league building back to front. As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Houston’s direct speed of 1.08 meters per second is the league’s slowest, and their passes per sequence (3.7) is fifth behind only Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle and the Galaxy.
And this is not happening in a vacuum. Houston handled NYCFC – one of the league’s best pressing teams – with aplomb, turning the ball over in the defensive third just five times (NYCFC had been forcing three times that amount over the past few weeks).
There’s still some stuff that needs to come together – Daniel Steres has been a useful stopgap at right back, but he is, in fact, just a stopgap solution; the No. 9 remains a question – but it feels like the Dynamo are for real pointed in the right direction.
Sporting are for real not pointed in the right direction as they got themselves a 1-0 lead and then spent the rest of the night just getting battered by Jordan Morris (four goals) and Léo Chú, who tied a league record with four assists.
I will say that early on, right up to Willy Agada’s opener, SKC actually pressed well and forced Sounders into a lot of inaccurate long balls. After the goal, however, they completely dropped off and let Seattle set up their initial build-out shape much higher up the field.
That made things easier for Seattle, especially since Sporting didn’t go back to the high press even for short bursts to mix it up. And you could see right away how much Sporting were worried about Morris’ speed and how that affected things – there’d be two or three defenders dropping off to account for Morris starting to make a run in behind, leaving a huge gap between backline and midfield.
When you start giving Seattle room to play & build from the back like that you’re in trouble, because those midfielders will all just start swapping positions and creating overloads. That’s how they caused issues on the KC’s right side – Nico Lodeiro dropping into that half space, Chú staying wide on the touchline and looking to either combine or get in behind, and then one of Albert Rusnák, Josh Atencio or João Paulo getting the ball to Lodeiro in that pocket.
And then this:
WATCH: Jordan Morris pours in FOUR goals for Seattle Sounders!
I’m giving Morris our Face of the Week for his non-celebration on his third. That was cool as hell.
Anyway, Sporting have stability issues in the mid-block. They get pulled apart way too easily, and if they don’t fix it they’ll miss the playoffs again.
Adrian Heath, over the past month, has tried to compensate for the absence of playmaker Emanuel Reynoso in what I think is both the obvious and correct way of doing so: By dropping his team’s line deeper and thus trading both possession and field position for space to attack into. Minnesota United have been a pure counter-and-set pieces team since first kick, and with two wins, two draws and no losses through four games, you can’t knock them for it.
But you could see the limits of this approach on Saturday night when they spent the whole second half (but especially the final 30 minutes) defending in Clint Irwin’s lap, desperate trying to make a 1-0 scoreline stand up.
That is a way to give up a lot of chances. And if there’s a sloppy touch or a missed clearance, that ends up being a way to give up at least one good chance.
We did see some gestures towards trying to be more of a ball-playing team in this one, with the switch – which happened only sporadically, but still – surrounding the positioning of left winger Franco Fragapane in what passes for a build-up. He came inside earlier and more often, making Minnesota’s flat 4-4-2 look, at times, something like a 4-2-1-3.
These were only gestures at using the ball, though. For the most part the Loons were happy to let Vancouver carry play, and the ‘Caps, eventually accepted the invitation and Simon Becher banged home the late equalizer.
Becher, by the way, now has two goals in 34 minutes of game action this year. Given Brian White’s struggles in front of goal and Sergio Córdova’s injury, I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of the second-year pro in the weeks to come.
Nashville are another side that makes the same deal as Minnesota – possession and field position in exchange for space to attack into – though with the ‘Yotes it’s more of a default setting than something born of personnel-based necessity.
And so I’ll bang on about the limits of that approach again: If you control the game state (Nashville mostly have this year) and are defensively dominant in the box (Nashville mostly are), then it makes a good amount of sense.
But if you don’t control the game state things get dicier because the vast, vast majority of teams up a goal (or sitting on a draw they’re happy with) aren’t going to give you space to run in behind. So what happened is that, for the second straight week, Nashville conceded a goal right after halftime then saw the opponents set up shop in a comfortable mid-block and spend the rest of the game playing against the ball.
Pat Noonan, like Bruce Arena last week, wagered that Nashville aren’t just skillful enough in possession (they ended up with 61.3%) to break down any sort of organized block, and for the second straight week, it was a good wager.
Part of what made the wager good, by the way, is that for both the Revs last week and Cincy this week, it was distinctly a mid-block once they went up 1-0, rather than the type of low block that invites teams forward and can lead to the type of goal Becher scored in Minnesota.
What I kept harping on all offseason was that even if there were questions about St. Louis’s overall talent level – there were and still are; it takes more than five games to dispel those – there was still reason for confidence.
That confidence would be born of their clear ideology in how they want to play. Teams that are on the same page have a built-in advantage over their opponents, so the thinking as it went, was that if Bradley Carnell could get the players to buy into his vision and execute upon it, there would be room to squeeze out some early results.
Obviously CITY SC, now 5W-0L-0D and with a +11 goal differential, are on the outer edge of what could reasonably (or even unreasonably) be hoped for. And while, yes, they have benefitted from some luck, what they have really benefited from is their “never let a scrambled midfield/backline go to waste!"
RSL were scrambled all night (all year, really). And if there are gaps, Carnell’s men are going to hit them.
This is as true when they are pressing high (as they did last week in their home win over San Jose) as it is when they are pressing out of a mid-block, which was the case against the Claret-and-Cobalt.
There is nothing fancy about this, and I’m not even sure I’d call it attritional. It’s just good coaching – players put into a position to succeed, and then succeeding because of it.
By the way: through five games St. Louis’s underlying statistical profile looks much more like recent vintage Philly than it does like recent vintage RBNY. It’s still super physical, super-direct Energy Drink Soccer, but liberally sprinkled with skill and attacking cohesion that hasn’t really been seen in Harrison since 2018.
Toronto went to San Jose and danced on the knife’s edge, eventually gutting out a scoreless draw thanks to some veteran performances at the back (especially from Sean Johnson in goal) and some wayward finishing from the hosts.
Bob Bradley’s talked a lot about exerting control over games, and I think for 45 minutes there was a decent amount of that from the Reds. I still have doubts about their ability to win the ball back quickly enough – about their ability to mix possession and pressure and creativity like the best of his LAFC sides – but there have been steps taken over the past 270 minutes, at the very least.
I think the same can probably be said for Luchi González’s Quakes, who had to go to a 4-4-2 in this one given they were without four of their top five central midfielders (Judson technically returned, but was only good for the final 15 minutes).
I’m not sure there’s any real takeaway beyond “every San Jose team since 2012 would’ve found a way to lose this game.”
And finally, we did get some actual #MLSAfterDark vibes from the final game of the night. Dallas hit the unlucky trifecta of a VAR’d off goal, a VAR’d on red card, and a VAR’d on penalty against… the last of which was subsequently pinged off the crossbar and out by Carlos Vela.
That just opened the door for Dénis Bouanga to play the hero, as his low cross from the left side of the box somehow scooted through everyone – including Dallas ‘keeper Maarten Paes – for the 2-1 final.
LAFC, like St. Louis, are clear-eyed about how they play: they use zonal pressure out of a 4-3-3 (St. Louis’s is more ball-oriented) and when they win the ball, if there’s no opportunity to go direct, then they will settle into kill patterns trying to work it into the primary assist zones alongside the edges of the box.
Dallas are becoming sort of an LAFC-lite in that regard. They’re still more dedicated to positional play than most teams (we saw that in this one even when they were down to 10 men), but as I’ve written repeatedly already in this young season, they seem to have a little bit more freedom to play than they did in 2022.