Armchair Analyst: Henry's debut, Vela's golazo, Josef's ACL & more | Full week 1 analysis

Welcome to the 25th MLS season. There are 251 days until MLS Cup.

Let's go:


The New Client

Inter Miami, welcome to MLS:

That is just mean from Carlos Vela. That is not being a kind host to the new kid on his first day of school, a first day that eventually turned into a 1-0 loss.

"I mean, the only thing to talk about at halftime is the goal, man," Bob Bradley said on the ESPN broadcast heading into halftime. "It's Carlos's birthday and that was such a special moment, so... Miami's worked hard, we could still be sharper, but nothing else matters. That was a special goal."

Miami did well. Bradley's right – they worked hard first and foremost, and they pretty clearly have some talent. But they also pretty clearly had a deficit with regard to how they wanted to build out of the back and get numbers forward. As Taylor Twellman pointed out during the game, it often looked like they were attacking with five, and then they were defending with five (I'd say attacking with four and defending with six, but potato potato), and there was no real way to knit the two halves of that whole together. "Disjointed" is a fair way to term it.

The main issue came from both fullbacks struggling to get up field and add width to the attack, which meant when the wingers did get on the ball they were forced into repeated 1v1-and-a-hopeful-cross-to-only-one-guy-in-the-box situations instead of any sort of combination play. And when Rodolfo Pizarro got on the ball he really had only one option in center forward Robbie Robinson. And when Robinson got on the ball or into space he looked very much like a kid playing his first pro game going 1v2 against what might be the best team in the region.

It wasn't grim or anything. Miami still had a few good looks and there were hints of ideas in the final 10 minutes when they went to a 3-5-2. Diego Alonso has been a pragmatist with regard to tactics and formation throughout his career, so if that's what works better that's probably what we'll see.

But they got the toughest away date in the league for their MLS debut. A loss was to be expected. A respectable, close loss? Most teams would take that from LA if offered.

As for LAFC themselves: take it from Bob, they could've been sharper. We saw what "sharper" looks like on Thursday when they stabbed Leon to death (ask them if they'd take a close, scrappy, 1-0 loss in LA right about now). No reason to think that group won't do the same to their MLS foes in the weeks and months to come once they've had a bit of rest.

Good Damage

The Rapids were a very good team in the final two-thirds of 2019, playing at close to a 60-point pace and generally doing so with some style. It was fun and unexpected, even if in the end most of it came down to "dominate teams on set pieces and counterattacks."

Heading into this season I questioned whether Colorado could possibly be as dominant in either area in 2020, and if they weren't, would they have any other way of putting the ball into the back of the net?

Well, here's how the final 10 minutes or so of their 2-1 win at D.C. United on Saturday played out:

Colorado really started pressing at about the 80-minute mark, then took the shackles off at roughly the 85th minute and just smothered D.C. They never let the hosts even cross midfield in possession, won the ball back in United's half five times in four minutes, and not once did they settle for long-balls. They tried to build every single time and methodically got numbers into the box, including on the match-winner (above).

You can bag on D.C.'s defenders for not doing better there – and obviously they should have – but those guys were isolated and exhausted.

And Colorado's first goal? Naturally that came off a recycled set piece (look at this ball from Jack Price). It might've taken all of one week for the Rapids to take my "yeah last year was nice but it's probably not going to last" preview and put it in the trash. 

"Our players are so dialed in on set pieces," head coach Robin Fraser explained. "Working on them, they're really, really meticulous. [Assistant coach/goalkeeper coach] Chris Sharpe does a great job in putting them together and giving them some good schemes, and then Jack Price's delivery has been phenomenal last year and this year."

Just because a quote is boring doesn't mean it's not a good quote. Fraser has a team that's committed to killing you on set pieces. In Price they have one of the best set piece providers in the league currently, and in Kei Kamara they have one of the best headers of the ball in the league, ever. I still don't think they're going to score 17 dead ball goals this year, but they might come close. And if you're not ready for them, Kamara will dunk on your damn head.

D.C. battled hard on restarts (their only goal came off a corner), but from open play they struggled. That is to be expected when you're trying to play through central midfield but have the wrong guy there. Julian Gressel is not a No. 10:

Green arrows are completed passes and red marks incomplete. This looks like the storyboard from a slasher flick.

The good news is there's an easy fix. Just move Gressel back to his natural winger spot and put Edison Flores in as the No. 10. I'm not entirely sure that flipping them – Flores played on the right wing – was a one-game experiment, but it should be.

One more note on the Rapids: When playing on the road against a team in your own conference "preserve the draw" is usually the right strategy because you're not just collecting a point, you're denying two extra home points to a team you're in direct competition for a playoff spot with. When playing on the road against a team in the other conference, "preserve the draw" is almost never the right strategy. You should basically ALWAYS throw caution to the wind and go for the three points.

Denying home points to your opponents does nothing for you in that situation so you should just freaking go wild. Intentional or not, that's the way Fraser coached it. Well done to him.

Feel-Good Story

The Thierry Henry era is off to a very good start in Montreal, as his Impact grabbed a 2-1 win over the visiting Revs after inching into the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals. There are some pretty clear themes emerging with regard to how the Frenchman wants his team to play:

Sit deep and shoot forward is a totally acceptable strategy, and if you have guys who can get upfield, go for it. Bear in mind though, that while this has been his preferred strategy it hasn't been his team's only strategy. It's important to understand the context of what Henry wants to see from his team.

"In Saprissa [in the first leg of the CCL Round of 16] we wanted to press high at the beginning of the game. And we did, and we scored." Henry explained on Saturday night. "Against [Saprissa in the second leg] it became a bit difficult. We needed to adapt to what they gave us and we had to drop a bit. A bit too much at times – I thought we could do better when we were coming out with the ball in terms of, instead of passing the ball back, passing it forward to make it a counter.

"So today I said to the guys we need to play a tiny bit higher, pass the ball forward and be brave on the ball."

Henry's been adaptable so far, but I think the key takeaway after 270 minutes is that it's been adaptability within a recognizable framework. He's taking his basic idea with him from match to match – how they play, the partnerships, the idea of attacking direct and at pace – and adding one or maybe two new things instead of trying to add 10 different things every game and build the Eiffel Tower in one go.

It's more promising than I thought we'd see from the Impact at this stage.

It's also too early to have any concrete takeaways about the Revs, other than that they sure did miss Carles Gil and they sure do seem to have the same d-mid issues that plagued them most of last season. Montreal didn't really exploit that because they didn't exactly build up though midfield. They were running Go Routes all day (graphic courtesy of Second Spectrum):

They were an insane, chipped goal away from getting a road point at a conference foe in their first game of the year despite missing their best player and starting left back. I doubt there's any panic in the Revs' camp, even if there remain some things that need solving.


A few more things to ponder...

10. There are all kinds of things to be happy about if you’re a Nashville fan after Week 1 despite the 2-1 home loss to Atlanta United. The central midfield was very good, as was the central defense, and apparently Joe Willis is allowed to use his hands no matter where he is on the field. And the crowd was wonderful:

The two areas that folks thought would be questionable – right back and the goalscoring output/final third decision-making of their forward corps – were in fact questionable, and definitely cost them a point (maybe three). Those jobs (center forward, right wing and right back) still have to be up for grabs.

For Atlanta, this win was worse than any loss in team history, as it cost them Josef Martinez. Their best player, team leader and best goal-scorer this league's ever seen tore his right ACL midway through the second half. Recovery from an ACL tear can take up to 12 months to heal for athletes as per the Mayo Clinic, so welcome to the Adam Jahn era.

9. Orlando City looked like a team without two DP attackers and RSL looked like a team without two DP attackers and that’s how you get yourself a scoreless draw.

RSL generated only five shots. Four of them came from 25 yards out or more. They are a work in progress, but at least Freddy Juarez scrapped the Justen Glad-at-right-back experiment at halftime. Glad's a good player, and in my opinion should be starting at CB, but he's definitely not a RB. And Aaron Herrera's definitely not a winger.

If you need to bench a guy, bench him. Don't ruin the team shape by forcing two to play out of position.

8. The kids are alright in Dallas, though only alright, not great. A teenager (Jesus Ferreira) had the assist on Zdenek Ondrasek’s scorched opener, and another teenager (Tanner Tessmann, making his debut) had the assist on Paxton Pomykal’s capper in a 2-0 win over visiting Philly. You know I’m a Pomykal fan. Let’s remember why:

If you’re a young player and you want to force your way onto the field, make plays like these.

Regardless you could argue that they were outplayed by the Union – plenty of kids out there for them as well – and Philly just missed that final touch in the 18. It’s early and it’s hard to win on the road. Remember that.

7. There were strong hints of 2019 in RBNY's 2020 debut, a 3-2 win over visiting FC Cincinnati that was two goals closer than it should've been. The Red Bulls struggled mightily to hold onto any sort of lead last year, and while they managed it this time, it was only by a hair despite an utterly dominant first half.

In making my Comeback Player of the Year list I completely neglected Florian Valot, who's missed almost all of the past 18 months after popping first his right ACL (July 2018), then his left (March 2019). Valot was amazing in the first 45 minutes, and if that's the version of him the Red Bulls can get onto the field for 2000 minutes this year, their ceiling goes up. A lot.

That said, if they don't figure out how to defend when they're not pressing, their floor goes down. A lot.

FC Cincy were fairly promising in the second half, though shipping three in Week 1 is probably not how you want to follow up a season in which you set a new record for defensive futility by shipping 75.

6. "How will Toronto FC deal without Michael Bradley?" was one of the big questions heading into this season, and despite a late meltdown in a 2-2 draw at San Jose, the answer seems to be "pretty good!" Greg Vanney dropped Jonathan Osorio deep next to Marky Delgado in a 4-2-3-1 and while it did get crowded on the left – Osorio and Alejandro Pozuelo both want to occupy the same spots a lot of the time, so there wasn't great balance – they still played pretty well. 

Credit to Andy Rios for his sneaky, fox-in-the-box goal and to Oswaldo Alanis for his glorious equalizer, but the Quakes struggled. They were dominated physically, winning just 37 duels to 54 for the Reds. If you're a man-marking team that can't win your individual battles, you're staring at a long season.

Still, Face of the Week goes to the bench here and it's no contest:

5. It's hard to take too much away from any game in which there's a red card inside of 200 seconds, which is what happened in Columbus's 1-0 home win over visiting NYCFC. Still, since this is what they pay me for:

  • NYCFC looked better defending with four at the back than with five, even when they were down to 10 men.
  • Lucas Zelarayan's very, very clever in his movement, and his match-winning goal is exactly what you pay millions for.
  • If you're not going to get any pressure to Harrison Afful, he's going to pick the right pass and hurt you.

One other thing that stuck out: the Crew played hard. They were in no way easing their way into the season, which is good to see.

4. Excellent early returns for Sporting’s new signings, as both Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda got on the board in a 3-1 win at Vancouver.

Sporting pushed up the field really well, and while they weren't exactly humming quite as perfectly as they were this time last year, it was still impressive. For the ‘Caps it looked like more of the same despite the host of offseason additions:

I think I agree with Marc Dos Santos’s inclination to play Inbeom Hwang as a deep-lying distributor, because without him there I’m not sure they have any real idea of how to move play from back to front. But those numbers aren’t lying. Once Vancouver moved play into a true attacking phase they didn’t have many ideas and their execution was lacking.

Note, though, that the xG numbers loved Vancouver on the day. xG only becomes predictive after about eight games, so take it with a sample-sized grain of salt. But there might've been more there from the 'Caps than I picked up on in my viewing.

3. For a good long while it looked like Chicago was really gonna do it. The Fire went toe-to-toe at Seattle through the first hour, arguably deserved their lead and were often dangerous going forward. Then the game hit the hour mark, Jordan Morris – a halftime sub – shifted into fifth gear and blew the Fire's doors in. Morris got the equalizer in the 62nd minute and the game-winner three minutes into stoppage time in a 2-1 win

In 32 games for club and country across all competitions since June 23, he now has 17g/14a, and a better-than-solid "best non-Carlos Vela winger in the league" case.

I thought the scouting report and gameplan reveal from Chicago midfielder Alvaro Medran was interesting.

“We were watching the game against Olimpia because we arrived on Thursday," Medran said. "We watched that and the little that I knew was that they are a team with good players, but also if we pressured them they didn’t complicate things, they would hit the ball up and give up a second ball. We tried to do that and, well, we won a lot of the second balls and created many offensive chances. Well, let that be a lesson for us for the next game.”

Emphasis mine. That's partially the toll of Nico Lodeiro's absence and the partially the toll of a still-learning-on-the-fly pair of CBs.

The Fire looked purposeful and mostly good despite lacking a few important players, including DP d-mid Gaston Gimenez (Homegrown rookie Mauricio Pineda deputized and was super tidy on both sides of the ball, if not exactly dynamic). With or without the DPs, the 2020 defense still looked a lot like the 2019 defense in the game's biggest moments.

They'll need to work through that.

2. The positioning of Portland's fullbacks in their 3-1 home loss to Minnesota United was strange. Each of the first two Minnesota United goals came off of counterattacks in which Portland had pushed at least eight men – including both fullbacks – forward into the attacking third.

But... why? It was 0-0 and then it was 1-1 at home in game 1 of a 34-game regular season. I'm not sure I agree with Gio Savarese's risk/reward calculus there, especially with two relatively immobile center backs and especially against a team that struggles to create out of pure possession.  

Minnesota just won second balls and hit them into the places Portland's fullbacks weren't. It was a good second-half gameplan, Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus and Ethan Finlay were excellent, and it was a very good win for the Loons. 

1. And finally our Pass of the Week goes to David Bingham for channeling his inner Ederson in LA's 1-1 draw at Houston:

The fact that Bingham and the fullbacks were the Galaxy's best playmakers on the day is not, however, ideal. This team crossed way too much last year, and then they opened 2020 by crossing the ball 27 times. And Guillermo Barros Schelotto wants more of it, I guess?

“I think we might need to find [Chicharito] more times. We gave like six or seven really good crosses, but none of them found Chicharito," Scehlotto said afterward. "I am happy with the team and how we tried to reach Chicharito and how Chicharito moved in the front.”

I mean, yes – definitely find Chicharito more. But at some point this team needs to build through the midfield.

For Houston I'm sure the result was bittersweet. They were without their two most creative players in Alberth Elis and Darwin Quintero, so coming from behind for a point against the Galaxy (in front of a full house, no less), is nice work. But they actually outplayed LA anyway and still could only manage a point at home. 

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