Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Sporting KC's sad state, Chicago's Shaqiri problem & more from Matchday 9

Doyle 4.23.23

A bounce-back weekend for Cincy and the Sounders, the Galaxy finally woke up, Sporting stayed asleep and everything else from Matchday 9 to come.

We’re officially past the quarter post of the 28th MLS regular season. Let’s dive in.

Charlotte 1-0 Columbus Crew

After Matchday 8, Charlotte head coach Christian Lattanzio gazed upon what he had wrought, and lo, it was not good. It wasn’t a disaster, per se – the Crown had only one loss in the past month after that brutal, pointless (in so many ways) three-game start – but they looked very little like the always respectable and frequently dangerous bunch Lattanzio had molded them into on the back nine of their debut campaign.

And then Lattanzio finally caved and put Karol Swiderski into that trequartista role he occupied last season, and would you look at this:

  1. That is an OUTRAGEOUS ball from Bill Tuiloma to open up the field. Pass of the Week.
  2. Swiderski had gotten precious few looks from inside the penalty box this year shunted, as he had been, to the wing.

Putting your best player – and yes, Swiderski is still Charlotte’s best player – in a position where he can get more of the ball in high-leverage spots is a good building block. Putting him in a position where he can create chemistry with both of your other DPs (that’s Kamil Jozwiak, who’s been useful lately, providing the primary assist, and that’s Enzo Copetti making the run to open up all that space for Swiderski) is another good building block. Charlotte weren’t great on the day, but they were better than they had been, and they got themselves a great result over a Columbus team that had been rolling.

The big note from the Crew’s side of the pitch: Darlington Nagbe did not start. When asked why that was the case, Columbus head coach Wilfried Nancy was cryptic, saying "Darlington knows why."

FC Cincinnati 2-1 Portland Timbers

Cincy, as mentioned up top, bounced back after last week’s humiliation in St. Louis. They got the win, which is what was obviously needed, and they may finally have gotten Brandon Vazquez untracked with a clean look in front of goal for what proved to be the game-winner.

They also got a goal and an all-around effortful performance from Sergio Santos up top next to Vazquez, and frankly, that’s something they’d been missing all year. Brenner was just not doing it defensively, and in attack, he basically never stretched the field (Santos was a constant threat running into channels). All he seemed to want to do was drop deep and get on the ball, and as a result, his underlying numbers this year had fallen off a cliff – and he was taking the rest of the attack with him.

Getting $10 million from Udinese for him is a job very well done by that Cincy front office. Brenner is over there already, and even though he won’t officially be able to play for le Zebrette until next season, and even though he’s still officially property of Cincy until the Serie A transfer window opens… yeah, I think we’ve seen the last of him in Ohio.

Portland, by the way, were very good in this one, and in fact, I’d argue they were better over the course of 90 minutes than they looked last week against Seattle. The difference, of course, was they weren’t gifted three goals in this one.

Evander was lined up as something of a second forward, by the way, and put in his best performance of the year. I’d expect to see that same look next weekend from the Timbers.

CF Montréal 2-0 New York Red Bulls

New York head coach Gerhard Struber started something close to the same XI he used last week, and exactly the same backline and deep-lying midfield, so I assumed we’d see the same 3-5-2 they used last week in a game they utterly, almost entirely dominated (even though they finished only with a 1-1 result).

Nope! This time it was a 4-2-3-1 with Cam Harper, who was good as a left wingback last week, pushed up to left winger and the three-man central defense reduced to two.


That’s Harper and left back John Tolkin getting their signals crossed out on the left side of the RBNY defense and failing to track Aaron Herrera. And that’s left both RBNY center backs, Sean Nealis and Andrés Reyes, in scramble mode. They obviously didn’t scramble well.

Former RBNY great Sacha Kljestan touched on all the chopping and changing during MLS 360 Saturday night.

“I hated the formation switches as a player,” Kljestan said. “I absolutely loved and found the most confidence and consistency, I think amongst our whole group, when we found the formation that worked for us and we could build that chemistry.”

The Red Bulls have none of that this season, which is one of the reasons they’ve scored just six goals in nine games. That, in turn, is putting more pressure on the defense to remain airtight, and they haven’t quite been up to it.

Montréal needed this win badly. I’m not sure how repeatable it is – it’s not like they generated a ton of great looks – but at least it stopped the bleeding after a pretty lifeless three-game losing skid.

New England Revolution 2-1 Sporting KC

Sporting needed a win even more than Montréal did, and yeah, they did not manage it. Given events elsewhere (elsewhere being Carson), they are now the league’s only winless team.

They have just three points and just three goals through nine games. There are a lot of things that are going wrong, and it’s easiest to just list them:

  1. Injuries have robbed this team of their DP No. 10 for more than a year.
  2. Their big offseason acquisition, a TAM No. 6, has only managed 72 minutes across three appearances.
  3. Their DP No. 9 has only just returned (Alan Pulido has looked decent)
  4. The guy he replaced, Willy Agada, is out for months with a stress fracture (that injury, which likely didn’t happen all at once, probably accounts for the lack of top-end speed and ruthlessness we saw from Agada earlier in the year. His relentless, Chicharito-esque movement was crucial to Sporting’s late-season surge in 2022)
  5. Father Time has come for Tim Melia.
  6. Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Johnny Russell aren’t the players they once were.

The big, gigantic thing underpinning all of this: With the exception of one good year from Andreu Fontàs, Sporting have not been able to sign, develop, draft or otherwise acquire a starting-caliber center back for a full decade. They drafted Matt Besler in 2009, signed Aurélien Collin in 2011 and traded for Ike Opara in 2013, and once those three guys got old/got traded… well, that’s been that.

It’s hard to be a team that possesses if you can’t initiate sequences from the back and recover/cover ground in the event of midfield turnovers. It’s hard to be a team that presses if you’re not coordinated enough to snuff out danger if/when the first line of pressure is broken.

Sporting aren’t just giving up more goals because of their weakness at center back. They’re also building more slowly and predictably, which means they’re easier to defend against, which means they’re scoring fewer goals. And because they’re building more slowly and predictably and are easier to defend against, they’re turning the ball over more, which means they’re putting the center backs in more high-leverage positions, which means they’re… giving up more goals like the one you see above.

It’s a vicious cycle. I don’t see a way out of it this year.

The Revs were good for the first hour then very meh once they went up a man and ended up being kind of lucky to come out with all three points.

“Good first half. Crappy second half,” head coach Bruce Arena said afterward.

That’ll be good fuel the top-of-the-East Revs can use for next week.

NYCFC 3-1 FC Dallas

Maybe Santi Rodríguez was the false 9 they'd been looking for all along? Watch the interplay between him and Talles Magno on this goal, which turned out to be the game-winner:

Santi is playing up top because, for one, NYCFC don’t really have a starting-caliber center forward on the roster. And for two, newcomer Richy Ledezma – the former USYNT star who’s on loan from PSV, who you see picking up a secondary assist on that goal – has largely outplayed Rodríguez and made the No. 10 role his own.

After a tepid start, they’ve snuck up to fourth in the East on 15 points through nine games. They’ve yet to win on the road, though, and are staring directly at a four-game trip.

Dallas, who switched back to last year’s 4-3-3 after two weeks in a 4-4-1-1, weren’t precisely poor. But they started this game without two of their three DPs and the lack of top-end attacking talent on that front line was pretty glaring.

Part of that, though, falls on the central midfield. Paxton Pomykal was good when he was involved, but only completed 15 passes on the night. Sebastian Lletget got on the ball way more – he completed 46 of his 48 passes – but wasn’t incisive in the way that Ledezma or Keaton Parks were for NYCFC.

If Los Toros Tejanos are gonna make the jump from “good team, I think we’ll see them in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs” to the true contender tier, Pomykal and Lletget will have to be better.

By the way: Don’t be shocked if Dallas make a major move before the transfer/trade window closes on Monday night.

Orlando City 1-3 D.C. United

I love this shot map from D.C.:


Part of what I love about it is their shot discipline – they’re not just winding up and uncorking from anywhere. They’re clearly working to get looks from inside the box, which are, by definition, better looks than shots from outside the box.

The other part is their No. 9 (who wears No. 20), Christian Benteke, is so prominently featured. Benteke is a towering presence, one who gives the entire D.C. attack a focal point both in the build-up (you could see it in this game’s opening goal, in which Benteke’s link play was essential, or in last week’s goal at Montréal, where his work as a target man was key) and, obviously, in finishing off attacking sequences. There is no confusion about how the team wants to operate, and I think we’re seeing more clarity now that they’re playing in a 3-5-2 that seems to suit the talent (though the backline still needs work).

Orlando are the opposite of that at the moment. Last year’s gambit of dropping No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra deeper in order to facilitate more meaningful possession isn’t really working, and his defensive shortcomings at that spot are becoming too glaring to hide. Facu Torres and Martín Ojeda, instead of complementing each other, are kind of getting in each other’s way. None of the center backs are playing well, and the team as a whole has zero flow.

The Tigres series is a month gone at this point, and it was only two games, anyway, so the CCL argument doesn’t hold much water anymore. The Lions are playing slow, boring soccer, and don’t look any closer to figuring out how to change that than they did in February.

Philadelphia Union 4-2 Toronto FC

The Union, meanwhile, are still alive in CCL playing and harboring continental dreams, and put forward the type of performance you’d want to have in the days before a semifinal showdown against still-unbeaten LAFC. This one was a laugher, and TFC ‘keeper Sean Johnson gave us our Face of the Week:

Philly dominated in central midfield, creating turnovers that then sprung center forward Mikael Uhre into space again and again and again. Add in a truly hilarious own goal, and that’s how you get four.

TFC were spared some blushes by one banger from Lorenzo Insigne and another from Richie Laryea, but this team’s roster build approach of spending damn near everything on the top of the roster and damn near nothing on depth is starting to look like a very, very bad plan. And it’s being exacerbated by a weird inability to develop the talent on hand, which is the thing, I would argue, Bob Bradley’s been best at over the course of his career.

We’re talking all-time greats like Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov, Rico Clark, young Michael Bradley, Mike Magee, Eddie Gaven, Sacha Kljestan, Brad Guzan, Eddie Atuesta, Diego Rossi… everywhere Bradley’s been, both in MLS and overseas – even Chivas USA! – he’s taken young players and made them better.

That’s not happened with any of the kids in Toronto. It absolutely needs to or this team is not going to make the playoffs.

Nashville SC 1-1 LAFC

This was fun and unexpected and something of a tactical curveball from Gary Smith: He had his Nashville side play a diamond in this one. An interesting choice just before the Black & Gold face Philly’s diamond midweek in the first leg of the CCL semis!

Anyway, it worked very well for Nashville through the first 55 minutes, as by pinching the shuttlers in they were able to control most of the ball in central midfield, and thus didn’t let LAFC dictate the game.

But Walker Zimmerman – on a minutes restriction after midweek USMNT duty – was subbed out and the tide immediately turned. It wasn’t all LAFC from that point onward, but it was mostly LAFC from that point onward, with Dénis Bouanga getting a deserved equalizer.

Irrespective of that, I do think this is the way forward for the ‘Yotes. They have enough talent to play on the front foot and are at their best when they do so (they did it a lot in that great 2020 playoff push and followed that up by using the ball more in 2021, which remains their best regular-season).

Will that solve their issues at center forward? No. Only the buyout of Ake Loba’s remaining contract and, it seems the import of a high-level, DP No. 9 would be the solution. Perhaps the availability of Adam Buksa – Taylor Twellman hinted about it this week – would be enough to get Nashville ownership to budge since Buksa is both a proven MLS commodity and the Platonic ideal of a Gary Smith center forward.

I don’t think it’ll happen before this window closes. But as Taylor said, Buksa seems destined for an MLS return this summer and nobody could use him more than Nashville.

Houston 1-0 Inter Miami

Miami, to their credit, played maybe their best game of the season on Saturday night. They went to a very difficult locale and, while they didn’t control possession, I thought they did a nice job of controlling where on the field the game was played, and of generating some pretty good chances (Leo Campana needs to do better), and of generally being compact and dangerous.

And then, somehow, Daniel Steres was there, all alone in the box on the overlap to one-time home Corey Baird’s lovely cushioned header.

1-0. Ballgame. Six losses in a row for the Herons, and we are officially at the “Phil Neville answers questions about his job security” portion of the season:

I’m not sure playing Caleb Porter’s Greatest Hits of 2022 is the best tack to take here, but this really was a better performance from Miami, and newcomers Dixon Arroyo and Kamal Miller did look good at d-mid and center back, respectively.

Houston are very tough to beat, but they really do need a lot of things to go right in order to put the ball into the net from open play. The problem is if they put on the one guy who’s got a track record for scoring goals – DP No. 9 Sebastián Ferreira – they become significantly easier to beat, since Ferreira gives them little in hold-up or link play, doesn’t make unselfish off-ball runs and does absolutely nothing defensively.

Colorado Rapids 1-1 St. Louis City

Robin Fraser deserves a ton of credit for what he’s getting out of his Rapids team and deserves a ton of credit for the immediate turnaround after that Matchday 1 disaster, but this is their story:

They do not have match-winning talent.

St. Louis have shown they do (this time it was goalkeeper Roman Bürki taking the spotlight). Though with big center forward João Klauss coming off injured in this one, it seems like their depth will be put to the test.

The Rapids, for what it’s worth, generated a ton of chances by hitting big switches or dumping balls over the CITY press and into the channels. It was very similar to what we saw from Minnesota a few weeks back, and I suspect Bradley Carnell will have to prepare to face more of that.

Real Salt Lake 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes

This one turned into something of a coming-out party for RSL’s young U22 Initiative signing Andrés Gómez, who had a goal and an assist and who terrorized the ‘Quakes all night by drifting inside from the right flank and operating from – or sometimes through, and at pace – the half-spaces. He was brilliant, and San Jose couldn’t cope.

“I think overall we could’ve been more compact in between our lines,” Quakes captain Jackson Yueill said in the postgame. “That’s how they broke us through the goals. That will be something to look at, but I think this year we have been very positive in that way, not allowing central passes and denying a lot of these opportunities. Definitely, one to look at because I think we made some mistakes in some of our press, and they capitalized on those moments.”

Here’s what that looked like in practice:

I just want to point out, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, RSL are fourth in the league in cross ratio (the percentage of open play passes into the box that are crosses), which is basically a measure of “are you trying to work on some attacking patterns or are you just settling for lumping it into ye olde mixer?” Being fourth in that stat is not good.

They scored three goals in this one, and none came via crosses into the box. This was a purposeful attacking performance, not one where they simply settled for the path of least resistance.

LA Galaxy 2-0 Austin FC

Greg Vanney finally broke down and played a 3-5-2 (a slightly lopsided 3-5-2 with some 4-3-3 principles, it must be said) from the start on Saturday night, and lo and behold, the Galaxy were rewarded with their best performance and first win of the season. Who’d have known!?


That network passing graphic tells a big chunk of the story, as Tyler Boyd (No. 11) got a lot higher a lot more often as the right wingback than Julián Aude (No. 3) did as the left wingback, and Mark Delgado (No. 8), who is officially the most underrated player in the league, did really nice work sliding out there to cover for him and protect right center back Calegari defensively.

The other story it tells is Chicharito (No. 14) and Dejan Joveljic (No. 9) got a lot of time to work together, and yeah, that worked too. They combined on the first goal and created a ton of danger with each other/on each other’s behalf throughout.

I’m going to borrow a line from my buddy Sean, who’s a long-suffering Galaxy fan and has been dying for Vanney to switch to the 3-5-2: The switch “forces them to focus wide possession inward. Get angular pressure, looking for cutback, 1v1 win or foul, rather than the standard Galaxy fullback cross.”

In other words, the very shape of the formation limit’s the Galaxy’s inclination towards useless crosses from low-percentage spots because the 3-5-2 creates overloads in different spots on the field. LA weren’t perfect in exploiting that, particularly in the final 15 minutes of the first half, but I think it’s telling they came out in the second half and absolutely did not settle. They worked possession to create chances and were rewarded for it.

As for AustinEmiliano Rigoni now has 18 MLS appearances (regular season and playoffs) with no goals or assists. He’s a DP winger. Rodney Redes has 40 with no goals and one assist. He’s a U22 Initiative winger.

With Diego Fagúndez hurt and Ethan Finlay seeming to hit an age-related wall, Austin need those guys to deliver. Especially since the other attacking DP, Sebastián Driussi, has been an uncomfortable fit with offseason TAM signing Gyasi Zardes in the exact way that we thought, before the season, they’d be an uncomfortable fit.

Austin are now winless in five. They’ve been shut out in four of those.

Seattle Sounders 1-0 Minnesota United

The Sounders, because of injury and illness and just the need for rest, rotated the hell out of their squad against a tactically/technically/creatively limited Loons group that has grit, but not enough quality to break down teams that aren’t interested in beating themselves.

And Seattle learned their lesson from last week about not beating themselves. They stayed compact, steered possession to the spots on the field where they wanted it, and wore Minnesota down until it was the visitors who made a mental error:

All nine Minnesota field players focus on the ball, and on Fredy Montero. All nine forget about Albert Rusnák at the top of the box.

Atlanta United 2-1 Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire have a problem:

They are clearly a much better team with Brian Gutiérrez as the No. 10 and Xherdan Shaqiri – who I thought would be a great signing, and wooooo was I wrong about that – not on the field. Because whatever Shaqiri brings in attack (and to be clear, it hasn’t been much) he takes off the table in every other phase of play. Chicago’s star DP is a liability out there.

Anyway, I was just writing about how this game was so sloppy through midfield and there wasn’t much else in it except injuries. Shaqiri came off at the hour mark, as did Atlanta No. 9 Giorgos Giakoumakis (that’s him scoring above), who appeared to hurt his hamstring. Thiago Almada made it to 70 minutes, while Atlanta ‘keeper Quentin Westberg had to be subbed at the half for third-stringer Clement Diop.

Then this happened:

From a certain point of view, that’s an inch-perfect through-ball from Franco Ibarra.

And then nine minutes after that, this happened:

Analyzing this league is impossible.