Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Thoughts & Numbers: What I'm watching for in MLS Matchday 4

Doyle preview 3.16.23

Big Picture

MLS’s Concacaf Champions League cadre went 3W-0L-2D with a +6 goal differential in league play last weekend, the first 2023 matchday that came after a round of CCL games. Last year’s first matchday after a round of CCL: teams went 0W-4L-0D with zero goals scored and a -7 goal differential.

It’s anecdotal, but this improvement speaks to the improved depth around MLS. You can see it in players like LAFC's U22 Initiative winger Stipe Biuk, who’s got the kind of résumé and profile that would’ve put him out of reach of any MLS team as recently as two years ago. Or even with homegrowns like, say, Philadelphia's Jack McGlynn and Nathan Harriel, who are able to soak up meaningful minutes – honestly, saying “soak them up” undersells the value they bring, but I think you get me – in high-leverage games.

So we’re seeing a better ability to rotate the squad in functional ways. And naturally the one team that really, really struggled in CCL (Austin FC) is the team that has taken an 0-for on their U22s (and a 1-for on the Designated Players, which is even worse) and has a very limited (at this point) academy pipeline.

Let's see what that ends up looking like after the CCL Round of 16 wrapped up Tuesday and Wednesday. Austin and Orlando are out, while LAFC, Philly and Vancouver are into the quarterfinals.

Quick-hit match previews

Seattle Sounders FC vs. LAFC

Through two MLS games, LAFC are pressing like hell. Their passes allowed per defensive action – a rough measure of how hard teams press – is the lowest in the league at 7.44 (to put it into context, RBNY led the league last year at 9.28). That means they're generating a ton of turnovers to transition from.

Remember how Seattle lost to Cincy last weekend? Yeah, one bad turnover in the final third, and that was that.

Atlanta United vs. Portland Timbers

Thiago Almada gets on the ball and goes. He leads the league in carries by a mile – advancing the ball via the dribble – which speaks to his centrality in how Atlanta build their possessions. They're not just relying on him in the final third; they’re relying upon him to get there in the first place.

That should be the first bullet point on Portland’s scouting report. Or maybe the second, given how poor the Timbers have been when defending set pieces.

CF Montréal vs. Philadelphia Union

Kai Wagner was the attacking fullback everyone talked about last year (with good reason), but what we saw down the stretch in 2022 has carried over into 2023: The Union actually attack much more up the right-hand side, through Olivier Mbaizo (or Harriel), than up the left. Look at this from last week vs. the Fire:


That’s aimed directly at the left side of CF Montréal’s backline, which has been pretty ragged so far this year (though obviously their zero goals through three games is a much bigger issue).

New England Revolution vs. Nashville SC

Hany Mukhtar has been amazing, second in the league in expected assists (xA) despite playing about 120 minutes fewer than the guys around him (Nico Lodeiro et al). Any time he gets out on the break he's giving his guys clean looks. The Revs have got to be locked in and clean on the ball to prevent that lethal Nashville counterattack, and what we saw over the final 30 minutes on Sunday night in LA was a New England team that was not locked in and clean on the ball.

New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew

RBNY's early schedule against teams that are happy to sit back (Orlando, Nashville & Minnesota) has made them have the ball more, and try to use it more. And they've failed, managing only eight shots on target from open play through three games.

In theory, Columbus – with their commitment to methodical build-up play and dominating possession – are a better match-up for RBNY.

New York City FC vs. D.C. United

NYCFC jumped down Miami’s throat on Matchday 3, forcing 18 high turnovers (and turning a bunch of them into Drake Callender highlights). D.C. United – a team that, so far, has been sloppy playing out of the back – is next up. I have an idea of how this one will play out...

Orlando City SC vs. Charlotte FC

Charlotte: 0W-3L-0D, only one goal scored and second-to-last in the league in Total Cross Ratio (share of crosses per team's box entry passes overall). I harp on crossing not because crossing is bad, in general, but because crossing too much is a sign that a team lacks the cohesion and chemistry to build actual quality chances with coordinated movement on and off the ball.

So, you know, just bend ‘er into ye olde mixer.

They’ll be traveling to face an Orlando team that’s been punchless thus far, but is coming off a CCL second leg against Tigres that was pretty clearly their best outing of the season. And yeah, after the way it ended (out on away goals), I suspect the Lions will be out for blood.

Toronto FC vs. Inter Miami CF

Through three games for Toronto, with Lorenzo Insigne and the strikers injured, it’s been “Fede and hope.” Federico Bernardeschi – who is a winger – is taking 21% of TFC’s total touches in the attacking third, an extraordinarily high number (it’s fifth in the league) for any position, but especially so for someone who’s not a No. 10.

The Reds desperately need a win. They’ll be hosting an Inter Miami team that’s figuring out how to manage without midfielder and captain Gregore, who suffered a pretty brutal foot injury last weekend and is out for six months. His absence should, in theory, mean that Bernardeschi gets even more of the ball in the half-spaces when he sneaks in from the right wing.

Chicago Fire FC vs. FC Cincinnati

Cincy have evolved into a vicious high-pressing team – see their goal vs. Seattle – and as a result are attacking up the middle more and crossing less. They’re swinging in about half as many per game as last year, and as a result, they're way more efficient, completing nearly 42%. Nobody else is above 33%.

We saw the Fire play a flexible back three last weekend to try to contain Phily’s two-forward set-up. The same thing might be in the cards on Saturday evening.

FC Dallas vs. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC haven't scored despite recording at least 11 shots on target in two straight games. As per Opta, there had been only four such games in all of MLS over the previous 13 seasons (2010-22) with that.

Remember how Sporting’s missing all three of their DPs, all of whom are attackers, and because of that they’re settling for too many crosses.

Dallas – mostly Jesús Ferreira – have been more aggressive about attacking into the depth off the ball. This is less “false 9” and more “use your speed and smarts to get behind the defense, Chicharito-style” stuff:

Of course, they’re probably crossing a bit too much as well, up to nearly 20 per game (they were at 14 last year).

Houston Dynamo FC vs. Austin FC

That Austin side I mentioned up top, I’m going to hammer the crossing thing again because what they did midweek against Violette in CCL play was kind of embarrassing: 58 crosses, the vast majority of which were from open play. I can’t recall a single time the winger/fullback combo worked a little two-man game out wide and got to the endline, drove into the box off the dribble to draw the central defenders a step or three out of position, then hit a pullback toward the spot.

Given how good the movement of Sebastián Driussi and Gyasi Zardes is in the box, that is the ideal pattern of play. But it does not exist yet for Austin (in large part, I think, because they got the Emiliano Rigoni signing so wrong, as he does not have the quickness to beat anyone 1-v-1 or run away from anyone in open space).

They’ll be playing a Houston side that hasn’t won and hasn’t played since Matchday 2, but were actually kind of fun in their first two outings of the year. They did their best to get on the ball and do stuff with it, so if you’re a neutral looking for one game to focus on this weekend, the first Copa Tejas battle of the year will potentially be a hell of a lot of fun.

St. Louis CITY SC vs. San Jose Earthquakes

St. Louis are first in the league in tackles by a mile, as per TruMedia via StatsPerform, and second in the league in duels. They have played prettier soccer than I think a lot of folks expected, but never forget that they're built on Energy Drink Soccer physicality and directness (they have only eight passing sequences of nine-plus passes all year, which is the fewest in the league).

The Quakes have got to be able to ride those challenges and win those physical duels. If you don’t, you lose.

Colorado Rapids vs. Minnesota United FC

Minnesota completed only 48% of their passes against the Red Bulls, which is the lowest single-game number we've recorded going back to 2009. We wondered what would happen without Emanuel Reynoso and the answer is they're going full Burnley (I don’t blame them even a little bit).

I think they’ll do it again at Colorado this weekend. The onus is on the Rapids, who’ve yet to score this year, to carry the play.

LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Through two games Riqui Puig’s only managed to create two chances, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Galaxy have just one goal so far. The Spaniard is getting his touches on the ball deeper than last year, and no one else in the Galaxy attack – I’m looking directly at the wingers here – has been able to capitalize on the fact that opponents are selling out and leaving themselves exposed in order to stop Riqui from running the game.

Vanni Sartini is not above adjusting his team’s tactical shape towards taking away the opponent’s top option, and given that the ‘Caps will be playing on short rest and long travel after midweek CCL duty in Central America (rotated squad, to be fair), it seems right to expect a bit of caginess from the visitors here.