Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Vancouver's biggest obstacle, Seattle surge back to life & more from Matchday 8

Armchair Analyst - Season Pass

Onward we march, and in we go:

Only Advance

Seven weeks into the season and it is the Vancouver Whitecaps atop the Supporters’ Shield race if you’re measuring by points per game. On the one hand, you could point to a soft schedule – home heavy, with their only road trips thus far to woeful Dallas and woefuller San Jose sides – while on the other hand, you can state the obvious: you play who’s in front of you. And if you beat them, three points are three points. No matter who they’re against.

The ‘Caps are mostly beating the teams in front of them right now, and occasionally ripping the stuffing out of them. That was the case in Saturday’s 4-0 demolition of a suddenly spiraling TFC side, who were outclassed all over the field in every phase of play.

What made this game stand out, from a ‘Caps perspective, was how they did it. Through most of the season thus far they’ve mostly been a one-note team, as illustrated by Arman Kafai for Backheeled midweek. The ‘Caps are runners who have, in virtually every match this season, traded possession and field position (their field tilt was near the bottom of MLS entering this weekend’s clash) for space to run into.

This always has been and probably always will be a good way to start the season because teams are naturally sloppy to start the season. They will give you turnovers to work off of that, by mid-April, no longer exist (or happen at a lower clip, at least). Conversely, if you’re defending deeper and using less of the ball when you do actually go on the attack, you’re not coughing up those types of turnovers yourself.

So by virtually every metric we have, the ‘Caps were the lowest-pressing team in the league entering Saturday afternoon’s home contest with Toronto FC – another team that had spent most of the year absorbing pressure and counterpunching.

And then six minutes into the game, this happened:

Vancouver hadn’t pressed their way to a single goal all season. Their PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action, which is a rough measure of how high and hard teams press) was, as Arman pointed out, 19.3. That was dead last in MLS.

But it’s the time of year when good coaches understand they have to start laying in new schemes and looks on both sides of the ball, and we have learned over the past few years that Vanni Sartini is, in fact, a very good coach. So he had his team ready to do something they haven’t done all year – press from the whistle – and they were rewarded with a goal that set the game state, and the game state meant that TFC had to be more aggressive with the ball, more aggressive coming upfield, and more prone to conceding the types of goals that Vancouver have scored a ton of all season.

Force them to chase the game. Then force them to chase the ball. Then force them to chase Brian White, Fafà Picault, Ryan Gauld et al in the open field.

“We win the ball back, if we have the possibility we play, not kick the ball long and we go,” Sartini explained in the postgame. “[Instead] we go short and we go, and that was the right way to do it also because in the space we were killing them. It was a beauty of a game, to be honest.”

And now, with six games played, Vancouver are atop the West by every metric and looking down on the chasing pack.

“We deserve it. We played very well every game and we are doing really well, but at the same time, we realized that the harder things are coming. Because now we are no longer just the nice Canadian kids, we are now the team that is at the top, and everyone is probably going to look at us in a different outlook,” Sartini said. “And in order to be on top, you need to be winning because, you know, to go from eighth to fifth, maybe sometimes you can miss a game but in order to stay at the top, you need to win every game so it's going to be extremely hard.”

I’ve said heading into the season, and will continue to say that the ‘Caps are good, and bordering on very good. But Vanni’s right: harder things are coming, and what we’ve learned about this group every time they’ve had to play one of the giants of North America – be it LAFC in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or Tigres in both Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup – is that they remain a piece away. The harder things have proved to be too hard for this group of ‘Caps.

Even with Sartini being proven, and the systemic tweaks all paying dividends, I’m still seeing the same thing – this team is more likely to finish fifth than first if they don’t make a big addition. They need that kind of reinforcement or, as the schedule toughens up, they won’t be looking down for much longer.

As for the Reds, they conceded just twice in their first five games. They’ve now shipped seven goals in their past two. They are not limiting shot quality or quantity at the moment.

Destroyer of Worlds

Usually I save our Face of the Week for later in the column, but I’ve got to drop it here since 1) it’s worth it, and 2) Philly’s 2-1 win at Nashville turned out to be pretty interesting, from a tactical point of view, so I want to write a little bit more about it. Anyway:

That face from Nashville assistant Steve Guppy, 23 seconds in, is the face you make when you’ve watched your team leave the opponent’s second-best goalscorer unmarked in the box on a corner just as the clock is hitting 90. It’s the kind of face you make when you see your team turn what seemed set up to be a victory into a pretty crushing defeat.

I have never, not once, been able to figure out how and why Nashville are so poor defending restarts – a long-running theme for this group. It’s gotten worse recently because Walker Zimmerman’s been hurt, but even without Zimmerman, it shouldn’t be this bad.

Head coach Gary Smith didn’t mince words in the postgame presser.

“Bitterly disappointed, of course, to concede such a late goal,” Smith said. “But I have to say, second-half performance was nowhere near the sort of standards expected. And, you know, some worrying trends from dead balls now to concede two goals, as we have done in what has been at least the last three games, if not more, is just not good enough for a group like ours."

About that second-half performance… it was an odd one because this was an odd game. Philly’s Jim Curtin opted for a 3-5-2 from the start with an element of man marking to it – to my eye, it was Damion Lowe who was mostly tasked with shadowing the ‘Yotes’ superstar.

It didn’t really work. I think you could argue that it threw off Philly’s rhythm and spacing more than Nashville’s.

So at the hour mark, Curtin tossed the 3-5-2 in the bin, brought on Ale Bedoya for Jack Elliott and shifted to the standard 4-4-2 diamond that’s been the Union’s default for the past four years. And at that point… well, here’s the shot chart for the game’s final half-hour (Philly attacking right to left, Nashville left to right):

philly v nashville shot chart

Those two black dots halfway to the midfield stripe aren’t dead pixels on your screen. They’re the location of relative xG value of the only two shots Nashville generated as Philly turned that 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win.

The weekend’s results left Philly as the last unbeaten team standing.

“It’s nice. We’re gonna push it as long as we can,” Curtin said afterward before revealing the key to getting maximum output from his players: enticing them with free pizza, free beer, and days off.

“I have given some incentive to the guys in this two-game stretch here before we get a where we have a little bit of a bye. Players are motivated by very simple, simple things. Before it’s been pizza and beer for three consecutive shutouts with us, this time going into these last two road games, at Nashville and Atlanta, I said for each win I’ll give you a day off, an additional day off.

“So things happen on the field that maybe they have a little more urgency in certain moments. These guys will fight and die for days off [like anyone], they’re human beings.”

A few more things to ponder…

12. Turning this blurb over to Calen Carr, who was on the scene for Atlanta’s 1-1 draw at Citi Field against New York City FC in Queens:

Frustrating night. Very little rhythm and sloppy play with the ball gave the best chances for both teams in the first half. Mounsef Bakrar had a number of great chances but you can tell he has lost all confidence and there is no connection between him and Santi Rodríguez – one wants it in behind always (Bakrar) and the other is looking to play to feet (Rodríguez). Atlanta will be the happier side to “settle” for the point coming from behind without Giorgos Giakoumakis (who sounds likely to be back next week) and getting another goal from Jamal Thiaré. MOTM to Brad Guzan, who had several big saves and an unreal secondary assist – I believe the second of his career and first in MLS – and continued his excellent start to the campaign.

11. The Red Bulls made a statement by going to Cincinnati and walking away with a 2-1 win courtesy of a Frankie Amaya blast and a ruthless Dante Vanzeir finish after a gorgeous Cruyff to shed two defenders in the box. Hell, why am I describing it? Let’s just watch it:

Yes, Evan Louro – making his MLS debut at 28 – maybe should’ve done better there. But the story in this game, and what has been the story all year, is that the Red Bulls are really playing. Head coach Sandro Schwarz said as much on a call midweek, pointing out that his side was absolutely not going to win by sending in “a tremendous number of crosses that [Cincinnati] will just clear away.”

As with Vancouver, I still think this side is more likely to finish fifth than first unless they add another high-level piece. But also like the ‘Caps… they have evolved. They’re more and better and different than they used to be.

Cincy remain good. They also remain in need of another attacking piece, as it’s pretty clear that Corey Baird hasn’t really fit into Brandon Vazquez’s old role. Keep an eye on Kevin Kelsy, a 19-year-old Venezuelan international No. 9 currently on the books at Shakhtar Donetsk.

10. Lionel Messi came back for the second half and pinged one goal into the side netting, then set up another with a through ball to turn a 1-0 home deficit into a 2-1 lead. But a fully rotated Miami squad – one that indicates pretty clearly that they are going for it in Leg 2 of their Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinal down in Monterrey this week – gakked up a late Cole Bassett equalizer for the 2-2 final.

The Rapids have just one loss in their last six. They have been better than most expected.

9. The Revs took their first lead of the year and made it stand up, making good on head coach Caleb Porter’s inadvertent promise in a 1-0 win over visiting Charlotte. As pointed out by Seth Macomber in his excellent coverage of the team, this was the first time all year New England were really able to mix possession with verticality. The possession took the rhythm out of the Crown’s approach, while the threat in behind led to myriad chances (and one goal).

“The first 10 minutes again, it was more of like, keep the ball and go nowhere,” Porter said afterward. “That's not what I want, but then from there, they started playing forward and playing quicker and going to goal, and all of a sudden, our tail went up and we started getting confident.”

Charlotte’s DP winger Liel Abada made his first start but he, like everyone else on the team, struggled to leave a mark on the game.

8. I’ll let David take on St. Louis’s scoreless home draw vs. hapless Dallas:


This about sums it up, save for Dante Sealy’s 75th-minute miss on the doorstep being worth a mention.

I do find it interesting that St. Louis’s shape is morphing into something more 4-3-2-1ish than 4-2-3-1ish, but I’m not sure if that’s a one-off or something that Bradley Carnell is more seriously looking at long-term.

Whatever the formation they settle upon, they have to do better limiting opposing chances than what they’ve managed thus far. Every single game they play now feels ragged and open.

7. In a lot of ways the LA Galaxy are back: They have pieces that fit together, they play beautiful soccer on the ball, they build from the back with a purpose, they have star power, and they have carved out a place near the top of the standings.

But no team that is this bad at defending set pieces can ever truly be a threat to win stuff. And because of that, the Galaxy are not BACK back. They are just a fun, pretty good team.

LAFC, who are also a pretty good team, won Saturday’s El Tráfico, 2-1. They got their first goal off a corner in the 4th minute, and their second goal off a controversial penalty (I thought it was an awful call) in the 35th minute, which had canceled out Julián Aude’s equalizer for the guests.

The rest of the game was exactly what you’d think: the Galaxy had more of the ball and carved out some good chances while LAFC played against the ball and carved out some excellent chances on the break (Denis Bouanga… man. That miss was worse than Sealy’s).

Both these teams know who they are, and both have clear paths to improvement. I’m expecting it to happen for each.

6. The Sounders finally looked like the Sounders in Saturday’s nightcap, pummeling road-weary CF Montréal 5-0 behind two goals and an assist from Raúl Ruidíaz, and goal contributions from literally every attacker who touched the field in Rave Green on the day.

The 4-2-3-1 was back. Obed Vargas was back. João Paulo was back. Jordan Morris was back on the wing. Albert Rusnák, playing as a true 10, cooked.

This is what we thought the Sounders would look like to start the year, with or without Pedro de la Vega. He should be back soon, by the way.

Montréal get a mulligan for this one. They finally get their first home game of the year next week.

5. Calen Carr and I had a discussion on the match preview for Austin vs. San Jose in which we came to the same conclusion: you can talk yourself into this Verde & Black spine. Brad Stuver remains the most underrated goalkeeper in the league, and they have veteran center backs, and Dani Pereira is really good at dictating tempo (still needs to win the ball more), and Sebastián Driussi and Diego Rubio fit together at the No. 10 and No. 9 spots.

I’m already in on Jon Gallagher at right back. I am now pretty close to sold on Guilherme Biro at left back.

Austin needed another late thunderbolt from Driussi to come away with an utterly wild 4-3 home win over the lowly Quakes. It was not a time capsule win – even with that spine I’m kind of talking myself into, they conceded chance after chance after chance and were lucky to come away with all three points at home against a team that’s, uh, not great.

But with a fifth of the season gone they’re 8th in the West, and looking more like a team that’ll be fighting for a playoff spot than one fighting to avoid the Wooden Spoon. That’s something, at least.

4. We’ve barely hit April and it feels like Tani Oluwaseyi has wrapped up Extratime’s Super-Sub of the Year award. The Nigerian-Canadian dual-national, who’s in his third year as a pro, has grabbed his chance early this season with both hands. And on Saturday, he grabbed a home point for his Minnesota side with an 87th-minute equalizer at home in a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake.

Oluwaseyi, who dominated the USL Championship on loan with San Antonio last year, absolutely thrives as a traditional No. 9 attacking focal point during the Tactics Free Zone that often envelops the final 20 minutes of matches. He just comes in with his engine in the red and keeps it there the entire time. It’s exactly what you want to see from an attacking sub, and is practically Goonies-esque.

RSL didn’t match that energy or urgency, and weren’t clean enough with the ball to pass the Loons to death over the game’s final stages. It’s a good point – by definition, a road point against a conference foe is a good point – but it’s also going to give head coach Pablo Mastroeni a ton of ammo for film sessions this week.

3. Every single matchday seems to bring another data point suggesting that D.C. United are legit. This week’s offering was a 1-1 draw at Columbus – D.C. now have four draws from four road games – in which they were pretty clearly the better team and imposed their will even before Cucho Hernández’s wild, unnecessary and concerning 75th-minute red.

The Crew don’t get pressed into mistakes like this, but United did it again and again and again on the day:

The difference between D.C. and the best teams is that the best teams put this game away when up 1-0 and up a man. What happened instead is they left a sliver of a chance for Aidan Morris, who hammered a thunderbastard home for the 1-1 final.

I am less concerned about the performance from the Crew – they’re in the middle of a CCC week, of course they’d look tired – than I am about whatever’s happening with Cucho. The story I’ve heard from sources close to the team is that he threw a fit when he was subbed off against Charlotte (if you were watching that broadcast you saw it), but a manager-imposed two-game suspension seems like a pretty harsh penalty for that.

And now he comes back and instantly gets a needless red. Not great.

2. Also not great: Sporting KC taking a 3-0 home lead into halftime against a Portland side that’s really, really, really struggled to defend, and coming out with a 3-3 draw.

The turning point was Willy Agada’s missed PK at the hour mark. Portland won a PK of their own less than two minutes later to make it 3-1, and from there the floodgates opened.

It wasn’t a tactical switch or anything like that, just a personnel change (Portland head coach Phil Neville brought on two subs at the half, and then another at the 54th minute, all while staying in a 4-2-3-1) and, frankly, urgency. Sporting carried themselves like the game was over even after Agada’s miss left the door ajar. Portland carried themselves like there were still points to be won, and so they did.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Coco Carrasquilla in a losing effort up in Chicago:

The Dynamo just don’t have enough firepower yet to turn moments like that into goals. They did claw back to make it 1-1 midway through the second half, but Brian Gutiérrez – bouncing back from a bit of a shocker last week – eventually found the winner with about 10 minutes left when he got onto the end of a Xherdan Shaqiri through-ball and bravely chipped the on-rushing 'keeper.

The win comes at the start of a stretch in which Chicago play eight of 11 at home. They need to string some more of these together in the coming months if they’re going to break their playoff drought.