Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Timbers are tearing it up, Cincinnati look dangerous again & more from Matchday 34


The first matchday of autumn brought with it the first official eliminations of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs race, as both Colorado and Toronto saw their seasons basically (and mercifully) come to an end.

At the other end of the table, FC Cincinnati more or less wrapped up the Supporters’ Shield while St. Louis pretty much wrapped up the West.

Since every game had meaning this weekend – the top and the bottom are sorted, but everywhere else it’s a knife fight for position, or just to get in – let’s run through the whole slate:

Atlanta United 4-1 CF Montréal

Remember when Garth Lagerwey was GM of the Seattle Sounders? They’d go shopping just about every summer, and just about every summer they’d come away with valuable new pieces who gave a turbo boost to the Sounders’ stretch run.

Lagerwey is in Atlanta now and he said, pretty plainly, back in winter that he wasn’t really going to be getting his hands as dirty in player personnel decisions as he did in Seattle. VP/technical director Carlos Bocanegra is still in place, after all, and so is most of the Five Stripes’ front office staff.

But those are the same guys who missed on signing after signing for years, and boy did Atlanta not miss this summer. The three big moves they made – DP winger Saba Lobjanidze, TAM winger Xande Silva and box-to-box midfielder Tristan Muyumba – all look something close to elite at their respective positions in MLS. And I can either take Lagerwey at his word, or I can use my eyes and recognize this is the type of thing that we’ve seen before.

Whoever deserves credit for scouting and signing these guys, here’s how it’s worked out on the field:

  • Lobjanidze has 3g/3a in just 269 minutes as he gets his legs under him.
  • Silva’s got 2g/3a in 425 minutes and is a relentless two-way player.
  • Muyumba’s appeared in all eight games since his Leagues Cup debut. Atlanta had lost four of their previous six prior to his arrival; they’ve lost once since.

All three guys were in the lineup from the start for the first time on Saturday, and it felt like a vintage, 2018-era Atlanta performance because even though they pulled one back to make it 2-1 just before halftime, it never felt like Montréal had a chance. Atlanta just have too many weapons and Gonzalo Pineda’s got them all bought in, playing selfless, balanced ball.

Pineda’s doing more than just rolling out a 4-2-3-1 and letting them work – I wrote at length last week about the tactical flourishes we’re seeing from his side – but that basic set-up, with everybody in positions and roles that make sense, underpins everything Atlanta are doing these days. It’s not complicated unless it needs to be, and if it doesn’t need to be, it’s Muyumba winning the ball and sending two elite wingers, a Landon Donovan MLS MVP-caliber No. 10 and a Golden Boot presented by Audi-caliber No. 9 off to the races against a retreating backline. When that happens, goals follow.

That was obviously a nightmare for Montréal, who are now 0W-3L-2D in their last five and are officially hanging on by a thread in the East on 37 points. A month ago they looked safe, but now, given how difficult their remaining schedule is, the odds seem firmly against them.

FC Cincinnati 3-0 Charlotte FC

Cincy put their mini three-game winless skid behind them with one of their best performances of the year, one in which Lucho Acosta pretty much wrapped up this year’s MVP award and gave us what should be the AT&T 5G Goal of the Year:

There aren’t many players in the league who can do a respectable homage to Diego Maradona’s 1986 masterpiece. Lucho’s one of those few.

Even better for Cincy’s hope of doing the Supporters' Shield-MLS Cup double was the improved chemistry on display between Lucho and DP center forward Aaron Boupendza. It wasn’t just that Lucho assisted Boupendza on the game’s second goal; it’s that Boupendza consciously ran directly to Lucho to celebrate after scoring it:


These guys had been better, so far, when one or the other was out of commission, and that hadn’t been lost on the coaching staff, the fans or, apparently, the players themselves. Vibes like this bode very, very well for the next two months of work.

Charlotte’s vibes are what you’d expect out of a team that’s now winless in five and is slowly sinking out of the playoff race. Head coach Christian Lattanzio would probably kill to see this kind of celebration between his DP forwards.

D.C. United 3-5 New York Red Bulls

The drum I’ve been beating all year is this: Christian Benteke has held up his end of the bargain. Even when he wasn’t scoring – and there was a good long stretch where he couldn’t buy a goal – he went out there, took a beating and contested every single long ball United launched in his direction. He has been involved in more aerial duels this year than anyone in MLS history going back to 2010, as per Opta. It is hard work.

And so when Benetke got himself a first-half hat trick, with the third of those goals coming two minutes into first-half stoppage, it felt like the hard work was going to pay off.

It did not. Cam Harper made it 3-3 off a corner before the halftime whistle blew, and then Sean Nealis made it 4-3 just before the hour mark off another corner, and then John Tolkin drove the knife in deep into second-half stoppage. With the loss and the other results in the East, United find themselves back under the playoff line in the East, down to 10th place at the end of the matchday.

“Tonight was a game we felt we had to win,” D.C. head coach Wayne Rooney said and honestly, he’s probably not wrong. “At home, we haven’t picked up the results we wanted. It’s disappointing because there’s been quite a lot of games where we should have won. We managed to score three goals, but obviously conceding the goals we conceded were sloppy, silly goals.”

That’s the first time RBNY have dropped a nickel in more than six years, the last time being July 19, 2017. The win keeps them within touching distance of the line in the East, three points (and two spots) behind their next-door neighbors.

Philadelphia Union 0-0 LAFC

Tropical storm Ophelia won this one, which did not, in any way, live up to the hype. Both these teams have significant work to do if they’re going to maintain a top-four spot (and the home-field advantage in the playoffs that comes with it) in their respective conferences.

Chicago Fire FC 2-2 New England Revolution

Interim New England manager Clint Peay had mostly just been minding the shop for his first couple of games, but made a big change on Saturday: He had Matt Polster start as a left back in a back four, then come inside into central midfield when the Revs were in possession to form a 3-2-2-3 shape (which is a pretty typical possession/attacking shape all around the world).

I get why Peay made that change – the Revs have to be better at defending up the gut if they’re going to be a serious MLS Cup threat. But it’s late in the year for such a big tactical shift, and there were both rough patches and proof of concept:

The Revs dropped down to sixth in the East, but also, they’re two points out of second. Things are tight.

Chicago technically still have a chance, but they’re now 0W-5L-2D in their past seven. They are in bad shape.

FC Dallas 1-1 Columbus Crew

Give Dallas credit for doing a better job of bottling up that dynamic Columbus attack than anybody has for months (save for Houston back in late August). Nico Estévez had his side start in a 4-2-3-1 with Alan Velasco as a No. 10, mostly aiming to hit on the counter, then switched to a 3-4-2-1 to mirror the Crew’s shape at the hour mark.

And it should’ve led immediately to a 2-1 lead:

The draw kept Dallas above the line in the West, and since they have games in hand on just about everybody out there, they control their own destiny.

A road point is by definition a good result for Columbus, but like everyone in that East scrum, they’ve got work to do if they’re going to have home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Sporting Kansas City 2-1 Houston Dynamo FC

Sporting went up a goal, then down a man, then up two goals, then put on a clinic on how to defend 10-v-11 for the entire second half.

This is the shot map from the second half. Houston’s shots are the purple blobs on the left:

skc v houston shot map

Only four shots in total. Just three in the box, and only one of them – a well-worked move in which Corey Baird was stuffed on the doorstep by Tim Melia, who’s having a hell of a bounce-back year – was a good look.

The Dynamo rotated some starters and rested a little bit, and this was kind of a trap game for them given they have the US Open Cup Final on Wednesday. But Sporting, who finished the weekend 10th place in the West, deserve a ton of credit for hanging on and gutting out the three points here, and head into the final three weeks of the season with a puncher’s chance of climbing above the line and into the play-in.

Minnesota United FC 1-2 St. Louis CITY SC

I don’t think any manager in the league has done as good a job of taking advantage of the five-sub rule as Bradley Carnell (add this to the list of reasons he’s going to win my Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year vote), who regularly makes hockey-style line changes either at the half or on the hour mark.

Two obvious benefits here:

  1. Key players get more rest.
  2. Mass subs can change a game (and have regularly done so for St. Louis).

In this case, City were down 1-0 when Carnell brought in DPs João Klauss and Eduard Löwen, as well as sparkplug attacker Aziel Jackson in the 58th minute.

Within five minutes, Klauss equalized on a beautiful header after some attacking interplay in which Löwen was key. Nine minutes after that… I mean, just look at Jackson here:

With his team pinned, he wins what’s really a 40/60 – not even a 50/50 – at midfield, rides a tackle, hits a through-ball (to be fair he left it a touch short), then presses upfield, wins possession back and dimes the cutback to the top of the box for the assist on the game-winner.

That’s fresh legs, but that’s also Jackson being a special talent. He was the best player in MLS NEXT Pro last year, would comfortably be the second-best player on Minnesota this year, and yes, the Loons traded him for just $150k GAM. They would, I’m sure, like to have that one back.

CITY finished the weekend eight points clear atop the West and, barring a massive meltdown, look set to become the first-ever expansion team to win their conference. They’ve also got a shot at beating LAFC’s single-season points total set in 2018 (57; they’re just ahead of that pace) and Chicago’s PPG mark, set way back in 1998 (1.75; St. Louis are just behind it).

The Loons, with three straight losses and only one point from the last 12 on offer, have headed rapidly in the other direction. They are down to 11th in the West and are staring at a must-win next week at home against the Quakes.

Real Salt Lake 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC

RSL showed the first signs of any remaining xDAWG in this team since Pablo Ruiz was injured in Leagues Cup, scratching out a pair of goals off of set pieces in the second half to reverse a 1-0 deficit that had looked kind of terminal.

This was, to borrow an old but eternally applicable quote from head coach Pablo Mastroeni, about human spirit more than anything else.

"These last games are playoff games, and you have to have a certain mindset," is what Mastroeni offered up after this one. "Something that we haven't been able to do is overcome deficits. That's not tactics, that's the mentality, and I think we've moved so far away from the identity of who we are and the team that has led us to this point."

To that end, DP No. 10 Jefferson Savarino didn’t even make the matchday squad in this one. I suspect his midweek mentality of “no, actually, I don’t think I’ll defend tonight” had much to do with that.

The Claret-and-Cobalt are by no means safe, but are in fifth place, five points ahead of 10th-place Sporting with a game in hand. It’d take a lot for this group to miss the postseason now, no matter how grim things had been up until Saturday’s second half.

Vancouver looked heavy-legged in the second half, which doesn’t bode well for Wednesday’s trip to Colorado. That’ll be the last of this month-long, seven-game road trip, and I think it’ll be considered a successful one no matter what that result turns out to be (they are currently 3W-2L-1D).

But three more points probably guarantee them a spot in the playoffs. The ‘Caps almost never get their work done early. Maybe this will be the year.

Portland Timbers 3-2 Colorado Rapids

The Timbers are fun, man. This is probably the most fun they’ve been as a team since winning the MLS is Back Tournament in the summer of 2020.

Winning is obviously a big part of it, and so is scoring. Since Miles Joseph took over a month ago they’ve gone 5W-1L-1D with 15 goals; in the previous 25 games they’d won only six times, and scored just 26 goals.

So what’s changed? The formation, for one – it’s a pure 4-3-3 with a single pivot no matter who’s in or out (Bryan Acosta manned that spot on Saturday with Cristhian Paredes suspended and Diego Chara still recuperating after appendix surgery), and the two advanced midfielders are really given license to attack. Santi Moreno in particular seems to be loving life, but the Timbers are truly getting contributions from everyone in their front five. Look at this touch from little-used rookie Noah Caliskan on Moreno’s 30th-minute goal:

That’s two central midfielders getting into the box at the same time and combining for a goal. Even Miami’s not that bold pushing numbers forward.

The other big change is the game model. I wrote last week about how the Timbers are now playing fewer long balls from the back. That’s led to more passes per possession – it’s at 3.2 passes per under Joseph, and was just 2.6 under Gio Savarese. And fewer of those passes are going forward. Under Savarese it was nearly 40%, which was behind only St. Louis and (of course) RBNY. With Joseph it’s just 33.6%, and Portland have developed a Columbus-esque affinity for patiently drawing opposing teams upfield and then eliminating them with quick combination play.

It is, like I said, quite fun.

Of course, there have been some compromises, specifically along the backline as neither fullback is getting as high as they used to. And even so, Portland’s transition defense can often leave a lot to be desired.

But this team’s earned their spot above the playoff line, finishing the weekend in sixth place on 42 points. Just about everyone else in the West has a game in hand on the Timbers, but nobody’s playing as well.

Credit to the Rapids, by the way, for not just playing out the string. They’re out there trying to ruin somebody’s season every time out, and gave Portland hell even after going down 2-0.

San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 Nashville SC

Job done for Nashville, who went on the road and got the point they seemed to be playing for (after going up 1-0 in the 50th minute they registered just four more shots for the rest of the game, and none was all that threatening).

I’m giving Hany Mukhtar our Pass of the Week for his work dropping deep here:

Hany’s so devastating in the final third, playing more as a second forward than a game-controlling enganche, that you can forget just how good he is when he’s orchestrating as a pass-before-the-pass guy. Just beautiful work here.

The Quakes are now on one win from their past seven and are hanging on for dear life. There were some good moments for them in this one – there are always a few – but in general things happen so slowly and they’re so hesitant to commit numbers forward that even their good sequences come to nothing. They need to take some risks.

For what it’s worth, Matthew Hoppe has no conscience and that has been a godsend for this team.

NYCFC 3-0 Toronto FC

The scoreboard says the Pigeons posted their biggest win of the year, and both the eye test (they were dominant from literally the first minute) and the underlying numbers (their xG differential of +1.8 was their most lopsided this season) agreed.

I’m not sure how much to take from it since TFC are wretched, but this result comes on the heels of their 2-0 win over what had been a surging Orlando side and NYCFC are now unbeaten in five (3W-0L-2D, +7 goal differential). They’ve pulled themselves up above the playoff line for the first time in months, so I’m not going to take nothing from it.

Two notes here:

  1. Mounsef Bakrar missed a penalty, but NYCFC are clearly better when the Algerian center forward is on the field. It’s a small sample size but they’re +3 in his 550 minutes. They’re -6 in the other 2500. His movement’s good so he’s always a threat, but he also makes it easier to hold onto possession, and he re-presses well.
  2. Talles Magno got his first start in two months and rewarded Nick Cushing with two assists.

NYCFC probably can’t climb out of the play-in game, but they’d sure like to host it.

Orlando City SC 1-1 Inter Miami CF

I think there are two ways to look at Sunday night’s 1-1 derby draw up in Orlando, from a Miami fan’s perspective:

  1. They rested Leo Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba entirely. They also rotated their center backs out at the half, so the entire depth chart back there only played 45 minutes each. And Facundo Farías only came on for the final 20 minutes, so a ton of key players should be good to go for Wednesday’s US Open Cup Final.
  2. The draw, which leaves them on 32 points with five games left, means they have just about used up any margin for error in their playoff push. They can probably afford only one more draw or loss.

However you look at it, this was a very gutsy performance from the Herons.

Orlando, though, should be furious at themselves, because these were points dropped. Almost the entire attack seemed overeager in the final third – extra touches, weird runs, squibbed finishes – so it’s fitting Duncan McGuire’s equalizer came on something of a broken play.

The Lions weren’t bad by any stretch, but they weren’t the flowing, unselfish group we’d seen throughout almost the entire summer. Got to rediscover that in training this week.