Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Thoughts & Numbers: What I'm watching for in MLS Matchday 6

Doyle 3.30.23

Full rosters are back this weekend now that the international date is in the books. Onward we march!

Atlanta United vs. New York Red Bulls

Thiago Almada has received passes higher up the pitch so far this year. He’s, as a result, losing possession only 12.1% of the time in the defensive or middle third, which is way lower than last year. He coughed it up 16.7% of the time in those two zones in 2022.

Almada was much deeper much more often. He had to work harder to get it into the attacking third. And that meant more turnovers, which meant more counters in the other direction.

Almada 2023 passes
Almada 2022 passes

Atlanta lost their build-out reference point without Almada this past weekend, and because of that the Crew’s pressing was uniquely effective.

Obviously Almada’s back after representing Argentina, and obviously they have to handle pressure better against RBNY than they did against Columbus.

FC Cincinnati vs. Inter Miami CF

We, as a soccer society, need to do a better job of understanding ball security as a defensive metric. We’ll use this year’s FC Cincinnati as an example.

Compared to 2022 they are making the same exact number of passes in the attacking third as last year (77.8), with Lucho Acosta (17.3 last year; 18 this year) still central to everything. But they’re completing more of those passes at 71.1% in 2023, up from 67.7% in 2022. Fewer turnovers when on the front foot means fewer counterattacks to try to snuff out on the back foot.

Obviously personnel is the big change in Cincy – as we all suspected, having Obinna Nwobodo and Matt Miazga from the start has made this team much better defensively. But there’s other stuff at play in here as well.

There’s just not much low-hanging fruit against them. Miami will have to work to generate chances.

Columbus Crew vs. Real Salt Lake

Wilfried Nancy is slowly trying to get Aidan Morris to evolve from a pure destroyer to something of an orchestrator, which is what he had last year in Montréal with Victor Wanyama.

Here's a chalkboard of Wanyama's passes (attacking from left to right) from last July's 1-0 win over Toronto FC. Notice how central he is, and how he's spreading the field by playing a lot of long, accurate passes to the touchlines:

Wanyama pass chart

Here's Morris two weeks ago vs. that same Toronto side (attacking from right to left):

Morris pass chart

He's choosing much shorter and safer passes, and is much more limited to one side of the field.

We’ll see if that continues to be the case against an RSL team that often lets opposing midfielders set terms.

LA Galaxy vs. Seattle Sounders FC

Twelve crosses completed on 73 crosses attempted. That puts the Galaxy at 28th in the league in crossing accuracy at 16.4%.

This has been a pattern for them over the years under multiple coaches: they settle for crosses from bad spots, and because of that they complete a very low percentage. And remember: every cleared cross is a potential counter going in the other direction, especially against a team as poor in rest defense as LA are.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sounders play a much lower block than they have been so far this year, specifically to try to take advantage of that weakness.

New England Revolution vs. New York City FC

There have been promising moments in Talles Magno’s No. 9 development over the past few weeks, but one number still sticks out to me: As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, he’s received just two passes in the box all year.

He needs to be more dangerous against a Revs central defense that has been very good this season.

Orlando City SC vs. Nashville SC

How much does Gary Smith trust his goalkeeper and center backs? When Nashville are leading this year, their field tilt – the share of final third passes they hit – is just 24.7%.

Which is to say that as soon as the scoreboard ticks to 1-0, they are dying for you to come up the field and attack them so that they have space to counter into. We’ll see if Orlando take that bet.

Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting have hit the second-most switches of play in the league (28) behind only Atlanta. Now that both starting wingers (Dániel Sallói and Johnny Russell) are healthy and Willy Agada has broken his drought, maybe that will start leading to some goals.

The Union, for what it’s worth, do not allow many switches at all.

Toronto FC vs. Charlotte FC

Bob Bradley hasn’t gotten his Toronto side pressing like LAFC used to. Thus far they’ve generated only 128 sequences that started in the attacking third, second-fewest in the league per game behind only an Orlando side that’s been juggling lineups.

Charlotte are sixth in that stat. They’re a more dedicated pressing team than folks seem to realize.

Chicago Fire FC vs. D.C. United

Brian Gutiérrez has started the past two games as a No. 10 for the Fire, they’ve scored six goals, he’s assisted on three of them, he had a hand in two of the others as well, and sometimes you don’t really need to dig – sometimes you can just believe what the numbers and the highlights are telling you:

That acceleration to create separation from Miami’s midfielders, the extra hesitation to freeze the defender, and then the perfect little touch into Kei Kamara’s stride? That’s true No. 10 stuff.

He’ll be on the field again this weekend against D.C. United, even if Xherdan Shaqiri is back.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers

Portland spend a lot of time on the back foot, inviting crosses and defending in their own box (their field tilt of 44.8% is third-lowest in the league). And, man, is that a dangerous game for a team whose center backs have gotten progressively worse in the air. Look at their aerial win percentage over the past three years:

  • 2021: 49.9%
  • 2022: 47.2%
  • 2023: 44.5%

Pretty bad trend, though I’m not sure how relevant it’ll end up being against a Dallas team that still doesn’t cross much (and isn’t great at it when they do).

St. Louis CITY SC vs. Minnesota United FC

Minnesota United will pose a completely different kind of test for St. Louis than CITY SC’s five previously vanquished foes, most of whom have come out and tried to play through midfield at least a little bit.

The Loons, who are still adjusting to life without Emanuel Reynoso, have given that up almost entirely this season. They’re 29th in field tilt (42.5%), which tells you they’re not spending much time in the attacking third. They’re also 29th in passes attempted and completed from the middle third, and 28th (ahead of only the Red Bulls) in passes completed to the middle third of the field, number of passes per sequence (just 2.1) and total number of touches per game.

It’s an entirely different statistical profile from anything St. Louis have faced over the past month.

Colorado Rapids vs. LAFC

The Rapids actually kind of pummeled Austin last weekend, generating a bunch of good chances and forcing Brad Stuver into some 2022-style heroics:


A lot of those shots, however, came off of set pieces and poor rest defense from the Verde & Black, which are two areas where LAFC tend to dominate (though they did give up a goal off a restart last weekend).

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Houston Dynamo FC

Héctor Herrera last year: Not good.

Héctor Herrera this year: One of the very best midfielders in the league, and the driving force behind Houston’s aesthetically pleasing and pretty effective play.

His 88.5% passing completion only tells the barest fraction of the story. When you combine it with the fact he’s averaging 10.5 passes into the attacking third per game (third in the league among starting central midfielders behind the possession-obsessed Galaxy duo of Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman), plus how the Dynamo are stringing together some of the longest sequences of the league and consistently generating high-level chances off of them, his impact becomes more clear.

This is the guy they thought they were getting when they signed him last year. San Jose’s got to keep him under wraps or they’ll be in trouble.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. CF Montréal

Simon Becher, a mid-first-round SuperDraft pick in 2022, has played three times for the Vancouver Whitecaps:

  1. On August 6, 2022, he came off the bench for eight minutes against Houston and scored the equalizer in what became a 2-1 win.
  2. Two weeks ago he came off the bench for 14 minutes in San Pedro Sula against Real Espana and scored the equalizer in what became a 3-2 loss.
  3. Ten days after that he came off the bench for 20 minutes at Minnesota and scored the equalizer eight minutes into stoppage against the Loons.

Folks, I suspect that Becher’s going to start playing a lot more minutes – especially with an injury to Sergio Córdova and Brian White’s inability to put chances away leaving the door open.

We’ll see how he does this weekend for the ‘Caps vs. a Montréal team against whom, to be perfectly honest, an equalizer should not be necessary.