Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Seattle turn back the clock, Cincy’s early Shield vibes & more from Matchday 1

Doyle column - 2.26.23

It’s back! Season number 28 of MLS kicked off this weekend, and extended into Monday night, since Mother Nature decided to give the whole west coast a reminder of who’s in charge.

Let’s dive in:

Endure and survive

It’s probably right for me to start with FC Cincinnati since I picked the Garys as the Supporters’ Shield winners entering the season. My rationale for that call is they brought back basically every important player from last year’s team – one that lost just once in the second half of the season, and that won a road game in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs (only team to do that in the first round, remember) before going to Chester and giving the Union absolute hell.

They have a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate in Lucho Acosta, two potential Golden Boot presented by Audi winners in Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, and a favorite for the very prestigious and coveted Extratime D-Mid of the Year Award in Obinna Nwobodo. They also upgraded the one spot (right wingback) they really needed to, from an attacking point of view. They will turn a bunch of those 2022 draws into 2023 wins.

A lot of that was on display in the first half of their 2-1 home win over Houston on Saturday night. Santi Arias didn’t get forward much from right wingback, but Álvaro Barreal sure did from his spot opposite him on the left, and Acosta was the best player on the field for big chunks of the game, and Cincy’s forwards were constantly dangerous.

This goal, their first of the season, is how head coach Pat Noonan wants them to play:

Win the ball and push forward with momentum, but not quite at the breakneck “verticality over all” pace you see out of Red Bull-style teams. If Lucho is weak-side, have the strong-side wingback pinch in to become an ad hoc playmaker. And always, always, always be running off the ball into those gaps between opposing defenders.

The second goal came minutes into the second half and it was just as pretty, with Barreal overlapping into a casual, backheel lay-off from Lucho, which ultimately ended up with Nwobodo side-footing home from 13 yards out.

And at that point, up 2-1 at home against a team that most (raises hand) have picked to finish near the Wooden Spoon race, it felt like it was about to be on.

It decidedly was not. Houston were the dominant team the rest of the way, with Noonan straight-up saying so.

“Their midfield three really controlled the game, and you could see the ability for them to move the ball and move forward was just connecting passes in a more efficient way than we were able to,” Noonan explained. “When we did turn them over, too often, we lost the next pass, and it became us chasing the game a little bit.”

That chasing led to seven corners for the Dynamo, and they were dangerous on basically every single one. Tate Schmitt scored the lone Houston goal off a corner just before halftime; they had six more looks in the second half, but only some heroics from Roman Celentano kept the three points for the hosts.

If the Dynamo get this kind of play out of Héctor Herrera (clearly out there giving a damn on both sides of the ball) and the gang – and remember, Ben Olsen’s D.C. United teams always played hard as hell for him, and always did murder on set pieces – then they’re going to be better than most of us had them pegged as entering this season. They really, really were the better team on Saturday.

But that brings us back to the argument for Cincy as Shield candidates, because they now have the ability to brute force some wins with sheer talent on both sides of the ball. This type of performance from them was a draw basically every time in 2022.

In 2023 it’s three points.

Left behind

There were two reasons, heading into this season, why it felt reasonable to pick Toronto to finish down near the bottom of the table despite the undeniable talent in the top half of their roster:

  1. The top half of the roster is talented, but older and injury-prone, and the drop-off behind most of the starters is precipitous. They seriously need like 60 combined healthy games from Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi in order to stay near the top of the pack.
  2. The way the midfield is set up, it’s hard for those two guys to make high-risk/high-reward decisions since any turnover in a bad spot is an instant counterattack in the other direction. So you have $20 million worth of wingers playing more conservatively than they probably should be.

It took 34 minutes for both of those concerns to come to fruition in what was a pretty devastating, by Matchday 1 standards, 3-2 loss at D.C. United on Saturday night.

Let’s start with how turnovers become goals against Toronto:

Thing one is there’s just no ability to get immediate pressure to D.C. left back Mohanad Jeahze after Mark-Anthony Kaye sprays that attempted through-ball directly to him (Kaye tries to pressure Jeahze, but he gets rinsed, and that moment kind of lays bare the difference between the 2022-23 version of Kaye and the 2018-19 version of Kaye). Thing two is the rotations after Jeahze breaks containment are so, so slow, and any attempted defensive recovery is even slower, so of course Mateusz Klich just strides forward and has a rip from 25. What DP wouldn’t?

Insult was followed by injury 20 minutes later when Insigne limped off. I don’t know how bad it is – I don’t think anyone does at this point – but in all it took 34 minutes for the “this season is a potential nightmare if things go bad” version of reality to descend on the Reds.

Now, they do deserve credit for fighting back anyway and taking a 2-1 lead. That midfield can’t run, but they can still ball, and Bernardeschi is so good that he will win this team some games all by himself even if he’s having to limit his audacity. But that’s pretty cold comfort (it’s no comfort at all, I don’t think) given the way the whole group utterly collapsed in second-half stoppage.

I’m just going to post the game-winner because the pattern is familiar: turnover; inability to contain up the sideline; inability to get pressure to the ball in midfield; Sean Johnson picking the ball out of his own net.

TFC head coach Bob Bradley took as positive a slant as he could in the postgame.

“You know, the play at the end, we do a good job of actually playing out as they step up, and Raoul \[Petretta\] tries to slip a ball down the line to Ayo \[Akinola\], and then it comes up a bit short,” Bradley said. “We just didn't do well enough in the transition and the ball got cut across. There's a lot to take, but there are certainly positives in the way we went about things, and we'll try to build on it.”

There are obviously plenty of positives to take from D.C.’s perspective. Not only did they get the three points, but they got goals from their two DPs, Klich and Christian Benteke, but they got some serious contributions from a horde of homegrowns, including a star turn from 21-year-old Ted Ku-DiPietro, who assisted on Benteke’s equalizer before banging home the winner you’re seeing in that clip above.

There’s still a lot of work to be done – they desperately need Steve Birnbaum to get 90-minutes fit and to stay 90-minutes fit, because boy oh boy is Victor Palsson not a center back – but nobody’s going to argue with three points and great vibes to start the year.

A few more things to ponder…

10. One of the questions about Inter Miami heading into 2023 was what formation head coach Phil Neville would trot his team out in. He’d promised two forwards – he explicitly stated in the offseason he wanted more goals, and felt that was the way to generate them – so it was maybe a little bit of a surprise to see them come out in a 4-2-3-1 even with Leo Campana’s calf injury (he was a late scratch; Josef Martínez started as a lone 9).

Regardless, I think Neville will be happy with his side’s attacking output in their 2-0 win over visiting CF Montréal. I wouldn’t say Miami were in complete control of the game, but they did a good job of being opportunistic, managing things throughout and never letting Hernan Losada’s Maximum Overdrive approach wrench the tempo of the proceedings wide open.

This performance, for what it’s worth, is a perfect example of why it was totally reasonable to pick Montréal something like 12th in the East. 1) Their lack of high-end attacking talent was glaring, and 2) James Pantemis struggled in goal, and 3) Losada’s system made Victor Wanyama, who is still Montréal’s best player, less influential overall (he had just 62 touches, which was eighth-most of anyone on the field).

I don’t think anyone should throw in the towel, obviously, but I suspect any adjustment period could be significant.

9. Talles Magno’s adjustment period to playing as a false 9 has also been significant, and in Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Nashville, he didn’t seem to have made any progress over what we saw from him last year for NYCFC:

talles magno touch map at nashville

This touch map, generated by TruMedia via StatsPerform, is not that of a goal-dangerous center forward. I still think any time Talles is lined up anywhere but the left wing, it’s fair to criticize Nick Cushing for playing his best player out of position.

Gary Smith, meanwhile, didn’t even have the luxury of using his best player from the start, but still got his team out on the field and got a very good all-around performance from them. Randall Leal was more than just solid pulling strings as a No. 10, while the incredibly pacey front three of Jacob Shaffelburg (I called him the Canadian Cabral in the group chat and had to eat my words), Teal Bunbury and Fafà Picault was just a nightmare for the NYCFC backline. Any time Nashville got a chance to play forward they did so, and those three guys were relentless both in terms of hunting space and in harrying the Pigeons’ defenders on defense.

It was still a Nashville performance in that they received fewer passes in midfield than any other team this weekend, and hit a higher percentage of long balls than any other team in the league this weekend, and had sub-40% possession this weekend.

But the energy they played with in this game was missing down the stretch last year, and that energy made it fun.

8. There was not much fun to be found in Orlando’s 1-0 home win over the Red Bulls unless you’re a Pedro Gallese fan. El Pulpo put on a typically adventurous El Pulpo display, making a number of head-scratching decisions followed by highlight-reel saves and ultimately making Facu Torres’s 56th-minute PK stand up.

That was Orlando’s only shot on goal of the game. They were neither sharp nor dangerous.

The Red Bulls also were not sharp, though they were dangerous. The hope, obviously, is DP Dante Vanzeir – who didn’t play in this one as he was waiting for his paperwork to get sorted out – will eventually turn chance-filled performances like this one into goals.

I’m going to register the first “Luquinhas has got to play better” note of the year right here, by the way.

7. Basically all of Austin FC have to play better, but whoo boy did poor Kipp Keller descend to the deepest circles of hell during his side’s 3-2 home loss against St. Louis CITY SC. Keller was beaten in the air by Tim Parker on a corner to open the scoring, and made the biggest gaffe anyone will make this season on the second St. Louis goal, and got pretzeled by Klauss on the third.

It was an unforgettable performance in the worst way, the kind of display that can shatter a young player’s confidence.

St. Louis, of course, put together an unforgettable performance in the best way, and became the first expansion side to win their debut since LAFC pulled it off back in 2018. They were, as expected, very Red Bulls-y: They had only about 40% possession, hit a bunch of long balls, pressed collectively and played vertically at basically every opportunity.

And they ran a ton, covering 75 miles as a group. Only one team – Atlanta ran 75.1 miles – covered more, and most everyone else was down around 70.

Remember how many times I wrote this offseason that their clear identity, and the roster’s buy-in on it, was going to be a built-in advantage, especially early in the season when games are ugly? Yeah, there it is.

6. The last bit of Atlanta’s running was probably MLS Next Gen Stats tracking the wild celebrations after Thiago Almada’s game-winning free kick. Almada became just the fourth player in league history to score both an equalizer and a game-winner in the 90th minute or later, propelling Atlanta to a 2-1 win over the visiting Quakes with a pair of bangers.

I don’t think it’s worth diving too deep into this one on an overall performance level since so much of this Atlanta lineup will change in the coming weeks and months as some guys get their paperwork done and other guys get healthy (they need either Santiago Sosa or Ozzie Alonso to get Matheus Rossetto off the field, man). But from an execution standpoint…

atlanta shot map v quakes

That’s 20 shots for Atlanta, but only four from inside the box. And one of those was the PK Luiz Araújo sent to Alpharetta.

Almada bailed them out this week, but we saw last year you need more than just raw talent to win games consistently. Atlanta’s got to be better with both their final third patterns and shot discipline around the box, because there’s no reason for this big a split.

As for the Quakes… gut punch. But at the same time, you can’t be too shocked when you end up on the wrong end of a scoreline in a game where you didn’t generate a single chance over the final 40 minutes.

5. Minnesota went down to Frisco and, still without Bebelo Reynoso, got a little bit of revenge on FC Dallas for last year’s playoff elimination with a 1-0 win courtesy of Mender Garcia’s 48th-minute goal off a bad rebound by Maarten Paes.

The Loons, who inserted Robin Lod into Reynoso’s spot as a No. 10, were playing for exactly that kind of moment – a scramble in the box, or a set piece, or a quick transition. There was no pretense toward anything else, nor should there have been, really. I don’t think you could’ve asked much more from a team playing on the road without their best player against a playoff-caliber opponent.

Dallas had moments where they looked smooth in possession. Still, they struggled to turn any of their wide overloads into real, high-level danger, and man do they need Jesús Ferreira and Alan Velasco to run in behind every now and again if, for nothing else, to give the midfield a little more room to play.

4. Pass of the Week to Joaquin Torres, who was deemed surplus to requirements in Montréal specifically because he just was not able to complete this type of sequence with the final ball:

This was the icing on the cake that was Philly’s 4-1 demolition of a Columbus team that came out of the gates and was really, really good for 45 minutes. But Jim Curtin had his team drop their line of confrontation a bit to start the second half, and with all that space for the attackers to run into, José Martínez and Leon Flach went turnover-hunting in central midfield.

It’s hard – borderline impossible – to play through those guys, and a few of the Crew’s young CMs and CBs got a tough lesson.

3. The Revs went to Charlotte and got three points thanks to a last-gasp Henry Kessler winner after the Crown had failed to clear their lines following a New England set piece.

I think the 1-0 scoreline was fair, though Charlotte’s Kerwin Vargas will definitely want a few of his better looks back (“can the wingers score?” remains the big question for Charlotte).

New England came out in a 4-2-3-1, and I can understand why – I think it’s probably the best formation for them given their current personnel, especially with young Noel Buck looking like a written-in-pen starter next to Matt Polster. But a bunch of their movement off-the-ball was uncoordinated and/or too static, so when Carles Gil would drop deep, the wingers would come inside and just kind of stand around.

That leads to the fullbacks taking some wild risks with their positioning in order to create some attacking dynamism, which in turn leaves the Revs open to potential counters. That is basically the story of how they got shredded last year.

Obviously it didn’t hurt them in this game, but it’s what I’ll be thinking about in the weeks to come: Can they create consistent danger without morphing into a 2-2-1-5 in possession?

2. Face of the Week to RSL’s left back Bryan Oviedo, who was on the field for the full 90 as RSL xDAWG’d the ‘Caps 2-1 in Vancouver:

Vancouver were just miles better in the first half, and took a 1-0 lead into the break, and never came out of the locker room for the second 45. By the time Damir Kreilach sliced home the 73rd-minute winner (welcome back, Dami!), the result felt inevitable.

I loved this quote from RSL head coach Pablo Mastroeni explaining what his side’s tactical approach was:

“Watching their preseason film, their wingers are always front screening, and that sets up perfectly for us with our outside backs a little bit higher. Again I think we did a really good job in preseason of exploiting those wide areas. The execution in the first half wasn’t good enough, but I think in the second half we created some great opportunities that always start in the wide areas for us. Some really good finishes that culminated in a good result.”

I, however, will break down the game with one stat: Duels Won.

  • Vancouver: 31
  • RSL: 52

You can’t get physically dominated like that in this league, or in many others, and expect to come out with points.

1. And finally, I spent all winter writing about Seattle’s new tactical approach of sliding Nouhou inside to morph from a back four to a back three, more or less flexing into a 3-2-2-3 with right back Alex Roldan given complete license to push forward.

We saw some of that in Seattle’s dominant 4-0 home win over Colorado on Sunday night, but they weren’t as rigid with that shift as we saw three weeks ago against Al Ahly in the Club World Cup. What we saw instead was a pretty straightforward 4-2-3-1, and that, for what it’s worth, is why Brian Schmetzer’s been a successful coach since Day 1: He doesn’t overcomplicate things.

What I’m saying is that when you have superior talent – and the Sounders still do on most matchdays – the right call is to keep it simple like 95% of the time. Put your guys out there in a formation and within a game model they know and understand, and trust them to execute. Save the fancy stuff for when you’re outgunned.

That is, to a degree, what Robin Fraser attempted, trotting out some kind of in-and-out four-man rotation in the central defense with central midfielders Connor Ronan and Ralph Priso taking turns dropping deep alongside/in between Lalas Abubakar and Andreas Maxsø.

I get why he tried it, but it didn’t work. Superior talent is, well, superior. And for at least this weekend, the Sounders reminded everyone that the roster that won the CCL is, when healthy and rested, pretty damn good.

EXTRA: Portland got an early goal from right back Juan Mosquera – who muscled Sporting KC’s Ben Sweat over the endline, then took advantage when Sweat lingered and kept everything onside – then just didn’t do much for the subsequent 80 minutes but held on for the full three points in the 1-0 win.

New DP No. 10 Evander was off the pace. Eryk Williamson was fun, but not super effective. Jaroslaw Niezgoda was neither, which gave a chance for Nathan Fogaca to come on and be both (those handful of Timbers fans who kept getting at me all offseason for having Fogaca over Niezgoda on the depth chart are probably on my side after this one).

So I think it’d be fair to chalk it up as a good result but a mixed bag of data points for the Timbers.

Obviously, it was not a great result for Sporting, who were still without both Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, and were also missing Johnny Russell (out for 2-to-5 weeks) in this one. It’s hard to be dangerous when you’re without basically all your veteran firepower, but Sporting actually managed that.

What they didn’t manage was to be clinical. Runs were a half-step too late, or a touch was off in the box, and against a solid defense that’s comfortable sitting in, the margins are too tight for that kind of thing.

Two additional and very surprising notes from this one:

  • David Bingham got the start in goal for Portland over Aljaz Ivacic, who was one of the five best ‘keepers in the league last year and kept the Timbers in the playoff race longer than they should’ve been. Bingham was good on the night, but I’m genuinely shocked Ivacic didn’t have that job locked up heading into the season. EDIT: It's been brought to my attention by, like, lots of Portland fans that Ivacic picked up a knock in preseason, so that's the likely reason for Bingham getting the start.
  • Sporting actually played a 4-4-2 mid-block without the ball before dropping into a 4-3-3 in possession. That is shocking – Peter Vermes has only rarely deviated from the 4-3-3 in any phase of play over his 14 years in charge.