Just a phenomenal Week 1 to start the 2022 season. Let's dive in:
So one of the big questions this year was "which Carlos Vela would show up?" and it turns out that, in Week 1 anyway, the focused, energetic, world-destroying Carlos Vela showed up. He had himself a hat trick in LAFC's 3-0 evisceration of a dead-legged and utterly punchless Colorado side in downtown LA.
Vela, who played as a false 9* and swapped spots with young right winger Kwadwo Opoku throughout, scored a PK, and finished off a direct, one-pass counter over the top in which he both out-ran and out-muscled Lalas Abubakar, and finished off a classic Vela goal, cutting in from the right and then curling the ball to the back post with that gorgeous left foot of his.
It was, in short, damn near the full menu of Vela’s goalscoring greatness, the kind of performance to remind you that, yes, 34 goals and 15 assists in one season (2019) is absolutely absurd, and also it is actually possible for exactly one player in this league: the guy wearing No. 10 in Black & Gold.
(*) Chicho Arango wasn’t fit enough to start, but was fit enough to come off the bench for Opoku in the 73rd minute. So yeah, LAFC did this at less than full strength.
Vela’s contract is up on June 30. He said this week, via LAFC.com, that he’s happy in LA and wants to stay in LA. ESPN's Taylor Twellman reported on Sunday night that Vela and LAFC are into contract negotiations and that he expects to see a deal reached in the coming weeks for an 18-to-24-month extension. Other reporting says that he’s preparing to go back to Europe, hopefully to or at least near San Sebastian, where his wife is from. In this game, at least, he did not play like a man who’s planning to leave in midseason, but we shall see.
But back to the first goal. If Vela's hattie told us something about how he's approaching this (contract) year, LAFC's approach told us something about how new head coach Steve Cherundolo is approaching his first season in charge:
Most times when a new coach takes over a team, they bring with them a new approach and new principles of play. It's understandable – you only get so many cracks at these types of jobs, and if you're going to go out, you want to go out on your shield.
But also, what if the leftover principles of play from the previous coach needed almost zero work? What if the team just needed a few new faces in the squad and a new voice on the sidelines? That might be the case for the Black & Gold because this is the type of penetration-off-of-pressing sequence LAFC produced a million times under Bob Bradley over the past four years. It's a good thing, and it doesn't need changing, so why change it?
I'm sure we'll see some wrinkles that are unique to Cherundolo over the course of the season, but for now, keeping tactical continuity sure seems like a good plan.
Worth noting the other big question I had about this time is how/where Kellyn Acosta would play. I like him better as a No. 6, but he's spent much more time in his career as a No. 8, which is where he went 90 in this one. He was pretty good, as was everyone on LAFC, though Cherundolo singled out Ilie Sanchez, who started at the 6, for special praise.
"He had a very good game. Tactically didn't make a mistake, didn’t step wrong once, was able to control the tempo of the game for us. He found very good spots offensively. He made good decisions, he made very few mistakes on the ball," Cherundolo said. "An excellent performance, a consistent high level, which is what we expected."
There was nothing at all to praise from a Rapids team that has started 2022 in a waking nightmare. Between Concacaf Champions League and now the MLS opener they've scored just once in 270 minutes, and while a big chunk of it is that they need a go-to No. 9 (THEY NEED A GO-TO NO. 9!!!!), a bigger chunk might be that they're really not generating all that much. It looks much more disjointed than it did last year, or for most of the year-and-a-half before that under Robin Fraser.
Remember, though, that they were brutal to start 2020 as well, and that the transfer window is still open (THEY NEED A GO-TO NO. 9!!!!), and that Fraser is a really good coach. So don't panic yet.
Everybody’s going to talk about Yimmi Chara’s bicycle kick equalizer in this one, Portland’s 2-2 home draw against visiting New England. And they should! It’s a full-on Chilena, a true AT&T Goal of the Year contender in Week 1 from a Designated Player who’s unselfishly played a supporting role in his Timbers career, but was asked to play as more of a focal point in this one (and likely more to come as Sebastian Blanco gets fit). Obviously he delivered.
The real thing to monitor, though, is the play of 21-year-old winger Santiago Moreno in just his fourth-ever regular-season start. He had four assists in 350 minutes last year, and picked up where he left off this year with his utterly delightful chip through the Revs’ defense for Dairon Asprilla’s opener.
Moreno is a hand-in-glove fit both with Portland’s personnel and just in terms of raising the floor for what has too often over the years been a stagnant attack. The Colombian U22 Initiative signing is a right winger who absolutely loves to come in central and become a playmaker, and just look at this pass map from the game:
He lives in Zone 14. Gio Savarese knows it and went out of his way to weaponize it during the second half against a Revs side that often dares you to beat them by overloading in that part of the pitch.
“One thing that we did more in the second half is attack the spaces behind, make sure as soon as we went inside, as soon as we have the chances to combine we had to have runners in behind in good spaces,” Savarese explained. “In the second half we found a lot of them, especially in the first goal which was a great pass by Moreno. Great run, [he] timed it perfectly for Asprilla, and a great finish.”
This is why it suddenly feels less urgent to get Blanco, who played the final 10 minutes, out there as soon as possible and for as long as possible. Portland basically had nothing last year when Blanco was on the bench; this year, with Moreno, Chara and Asprilla, they can put out a more than credible attack even without their MVP No. 10.
I haven’t totally rethought my preseason tier designation of this team as a high-upside mystery box. They are still old, still injury-prone and the defense remains not great – they’re back to giving up goals off of set pieces again, which never bodes well. But Moreno's development into this kind of playmaker means there's a potentially soft landing for the Timbers if they have to go without Blanco for a while, rather than just pure freefall.
As for the Revs, they’re still a good attacking team. That’s not going to change even without Tajon Buchanan, especially since Sebastian Lletget has his mojo back (just a wonderful run and finish on New England’s second goal).
But I’ve been banging on about the wide diamond and how asking Matt Polster to go 1v3 against good teams is slow suicide, and look at this map of where Portland’s key passes came from, courtesy of Second Spectrum:
But the book is out on the Revs and Bruce Arena’s got to change it, or this year will end just like the last two no matter how effective the attack is.
12. Xherdan Shaqiri was rusty in his debut for the Fire, a scoreless draw down in Fort Lauderdale in which Ezra Hendrickson, good as his word, played the new DP as a No. 10. Even while knocking off the rust Shaqiri still played one of the passes of the weekend – an inch-perfect transition through-ball to Stanislav Ivanov that the winger couldn’t quite bury – and tested Clement Diop from 30 yards with a thunderbastard off that left foot.
So I continue to love the idea of a high-usage No. 10. I also love the idea of the Fire finding themselves a goalscoring winger with pace.
That said, the more impressive DP on the night was Gonzalo Higuain, who’s now slotted into a free role underneath a true center forward in Phil Neville’s 3-5-2 (or 3-5-1-1, if you want). Higuain was so good, looking fitter and more energetic, and in the process produced a league-high seven key passes. His chemistry with Ariel Lassiter, in particular, was instant and promising (less so with Leonardo Campana, though it’s early).
I think that, for both these teams, there’s going to be a lot of “keep a solid structure and let the DPs make magic” in their respective approaches this year. And honestly, given what we’ve seen from them in recent memory, that is absolutely fine.
11. “It's a squad being used in such a weird [expletive] way – you can press without all the sicko stuff.” That was a friend’s assessment of the Quakes who, as expected, played out off a 3-6-1 with Jackson Yueill and Francisco Calvo at center back and a man-marking scheme throughout in a 3-1 loss to the visiting Red Bulls that was not as close as the final score.
You know how you can tell a team was an absolute sieve in transition? RBNY, one of the crossing-est teams in the league, crossed the ball just twice all game. After all, why cross when you’re allowed to run up the gut again and again and again?
I don’t know what to say about this other than good on RBNY for starting the season off with three goals and three points. They constantly got out into transition – duh – and the guys who were supposed to score actually did.
10. Charlotte got the expected rude welcome to the league with sloppy play, a couple of back-breaking whistles, two ugly deflections and a whole lotta frustration in their 3-0 loss at D.C. to commence their MLS existence.
If you’re a Charlotte fan and an optimist, I think it’s ok to walk away from this one being pretty encouraged by the overall structure of the game, and hope that some new additions can fit snugly and provide a boost in terms of… basically everything. Rough scoreline or no, through 90 minutes I haven’t seen anything that makes me think this is more like Cincy’s expansion year than Austin’s.
For D.C. there are three reasons to be really happy besides, obviously, the scoreline:
But overall, this wasn’t really a great performance – the final score flattered them a good bit.
9. Austin fans are over the moon, and are right to be. Any time you win 5-0, even if it’s at home against FC Cincinnati, you should feel compelled to celebrate like mad. It is by definition a great day, and especially because the DPs looked good, the midfield looked good and – most importantly – the new-look defense looked good
Kipp Keller, the No. 5 overall SuperDraft pick, fell into Austin’s laps two months ago. They took him, he started this game, went 65 minutes and helped pitch a shutout in his first pro appearance. He was subbed for Ruben Gabrielsen, a new signing this winter who mopped up the final 25 minutes. At no point did Austin look stretched and flimsy, which is what they looked like at basically every point last year. And their DPs all looked very good.
No comment on FC Cincinnati’s on-field performance just yet, other than to say the display from their center backs made me really, really feel the need to revisit the decision to pass on Keller. And I still stand by my praise of their decision to sign Alec Kann – he is a very good shot-stopper – but his weakness in claiming crosses sure played a role on that second Verde goal.
8. The other part of Ohio is much happier this week after Columbus just blew apart Vancouver's 3-5-2, winning 4-0 by constantly getting attackers into the gap between Vancouver's center back and wingback, forcing rotations that the visitors were always too slow to make.
Those are basic defensive rotations. The 'Caps couldn't make them and so the Crew took advantage. Having Artur back helped, as he was excellent and raises the level of urgency the entire team plays with. Also, I'd been tweeting for a while that Miguel Berry could very well take Gyasi Zardes' starting job. Berry... started, and scored, and was very good.
“We need to forget the result,” ‘Caps head coach Vanni Sartini said afterward. “Don't forget the things that we have to do better, work on it and because next Saturday, there's another top team coming to BC Place and we need to get a result there."
7. FC Dallas’s 1-1 home draw against visiting Toronto FC was a fun, open, energetic midfield battle of 4-3-3s, one in which I think Dallas will probably be kicking themselves for leaving points on the table. They certainly generated enough looks – Opta had them at 2.6 xG on the day. Single-game xG should always be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, but in this instance it aligned with the eye test.
Also in this instance, it was a good argument for Jesus Ferreira as the No. 9 (they generated a ton of good chances!) and a bad argument for Jesus Ferreira as the No. 9 (they didn’t finish their chances!).
Toronto were gappy but held on, taking a point from a game they definitely would have lost last year. Bob Bradley, who started five Homegrowns, including three teenagers, and multiple guys in new spots, was not displeased.
“A guy like Jacob Shaffelburg playing his first game at left back, doesn't start well but then I think he does a very good job of playing through it and getting to the game in a strong, positive way,” Bradley said afterward, and that was basically the tenor of his whole postgame presser.
6. Atlanta had exactly one win over a playoff team in all of 2021. There is a very good chance they equaled that number on Sunday afternoon with their 3-1 home win over visiting Sporting Kansas City, and did so despite missing a host of starters in midfield and on the backline. It was an impressive display of depth and quality.
It was also a display of what I suspect Gonzalo Pineda’s intent as a coach is. He wants the Five Stripes to be a low-ish block team that goes direct and does murder on the counter (second and third goals), while selectively deploying a high press to unbalance teams that are determined to build out (first goal).
This is largely how Seattle plays, so it’s clearly got some merit. It also has merit, in any context, when going against Sporting KC. For the past few years their inability to defend in transition has been a massive, season-altering Achilles’ heel, and 2022 didn’t start any better in that regard.
And so Sporting might’ve reached a tipping point with regard to personnel already. Uri Rosell started at d-mid, a single pivot in (of course) Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3. He was ineffective, then picked up a knock and was subbed off in the 50th minute.
His replacement, Jose Mauri, was worse – so bad, in fact, that Vermes subbed him on in the 50th, then off in the 77th. That feels like a pretty clear message not just to Mauri, but to everyone on the roster.
I’m not sure what the fix for this is right now, nor who should/will start at d-mid next week. And to be clear, I think that Sporting will once again be pretty good even if they don’t really address it with anything but 3000 minutes of Rosell.
But we’ve seen over the past three years that there’s a gap between Sporting and the top, top teams. Getting more ball-winning and defensive mobility into central midfield would go a long way toward addressing it.
5. Everybody’s been sleeping on Minnesota a bit, right? They have an elite chance creating No. 10, a couple of complementary wingers who are clearly in the top quartile of the league at the position, and finally have the type of center forward Adrian Heath has always wanted in Luis Amarilla, who got the start over Adrien Hunou.
For half an hour of their 1-1 draw at Philly to start the season, it looked like that was going to be the story. The Loons are good! They controlled possession, gashed Philly on the break, got a goal through Robin Lod, and Amarilla constantly got into good spots.
But this is Philly, and Philly don’t go out easy. They wrested control of the game away via 50/50s and set pieces, got the equalizer off the latter, and were generally the better team from that point onward, holding the visitors to just one good look for the final hour.
What a look it was, though. Pass of the Week to Lod:
First-time backheel volleyed through-ball for a 1v1 for a potential stoppage-time winner. Outrageous.
4. Midway through the second half of a game that seemed destined to finish scoreless, Twellman and Jon Champion made the point that the Galaxy were doing a good job of grinding down an NYCFC team that, like Montréal and Colorado, seemed to be running out of gas. The framing, understandably – NYCFC hadn’t lost in four-and-a-half months – was of LA figuring out a way to hold onto a point against a good team.
But it didn’t play out that way. The Galaxy didn’t just hang on; Greg Vanney made a few proactive subs that allowed his team to get more of the ball and more control of the game, they started pressing more, continued to wear the Pigeons down, and like magic, Chicharito popped up in the box in the 90th minute to get on the end of a Raheem Edwards slip-pass, cut Maxime Chanot to death, and then roof it past Sean Johnson. 1-0. Ballgame.
LA might’ve won this game last year; they certainly had some nice wins in the first half of the season. But they wouldn’t have won it like this, by exerting more control and influence over the game.
It was a really promising start, even if I still have some concerns about the Galaxy’s game model (they’re too willing to settle for low-percentage crosses from overlapping fullbacks, especially in transition).
As for NYCFC, the only real takeaway for me right now is that Talles Magno still isn’t quite ready to shoulder the burden of being a secondary scoring threat. But he will continue to get chances, which is appropriate.
3. There is some good early evidence that Orlando City's new attack is going to have better chemistry than the group that struggled so much in coordinating runs and putting numbers into the box last year. The second half of their 2-0 win over CF Montréal wasn't precisely a clinic, but there were, at the very least, a double handful of sequences in which the Lions opened up the game on the ball with the coordinated stuff they were doing off the ball.
Off-ball movement isn’t good just in-and-of-itself; it’s good because it opens space for your playmakers to receive the ball and lanes for them to then play into. And so Mauricio Pereyra, who pretty much went silent over the final third of last season, got himself a primary assist and a secondary assist, and spent the entire second half being the best player on the field.
Of course, he was not alone. Every other Lion who suited up was in the running for “best player of the second half,” and most of them got involved in the game’s first goal, which was the prettiest team goal of the weekend:
I am not particularly worried about Montréal, who had a long, hard and ultimately triumphant week vs. Santos Laguna despite this loss. Though they really did sort of melt in the second half, so it’s fair to be mildly concerned about their workload given the added minutes and travel of the CCL.
2. Paulo Nagamura was secretive all preseason about his lineup, and how his Dynamo were going to play. And in game one, at home against a very short-handed RSL side, he… pulled a Jurgen Klinsmann, starting multiple d-mids, zero creatives, and earning a scoreless draw for his efforts.
It will not shock you to learn that the teams combined for just 0.9 xG. The closest either came to scoring was when Darwin Quintero rang the woodwork on what would’ve been a one-in-a-thousand strike from 28 yards in the 82nd minute.
Anyway, it’s a good road point for an RSL side that shipped 54 goals last year. They’ll be very happy to have kept that zero.
1. Gary Smith wound up and threw a curveball, coming out in a 4-4-2 diamond in Nashville’s first outing of the year, a trip to Seattle that ended with the Coyotes taking three points out of Lumen Field via a 1-0 final.
I’m not sure the formation had much to do with it, though – it was more Nashville’s ability to conserve energy and then pour it on for the final 20 minutes, pressing high, winning second balls and generally playing with more energy than the hosts. Also, here’s our Face of the Week:
I don’t think Seattle will be too upset given how the rest of their week went, but they did provide a masterclass in how not to attack a diamond. It’s an inherently narrow structure, so the idea when going against a typical diamond is to move the ball quickly from touchline to touchline, forcing the entire midfield into a series of 40-yard sprints that’ll eventually take their legs and crack ‘em apart.
It finished off a struggle of a weekend for the CCL sides. The four who played (the Revs advanced via forfeit, remember) went 0-4-0 with zero goals scored and seven conceded, five of those coming in the second half. It’s a reminder of just how narrow the margins are in this league, and how much of a burden it can be to seriously compete for continental glory.
Monday Morning Edit: Actually, 17-year-old Gaga Slonina gave us our Face of the Week: