Armchair Analyst: Miami make their mark, Sounders roll & more from MLS's return

And.... we're back. Again. Let's go:

The Guy for This

It took longer than most thought it would, and at the end there it got pretty dicey. But when it was all said and done on Saturday night, Inter Miami finally cracked the code and got their first-ever MLS win. The fact that it came with a 3-2 final over local rivals (yes, this is obviously a rivalry and was from the moment the two took the field together last month) Orlando City, who had been so impressive in the MLS is Back Tournament ... well, a lot of things about this were good for the folks from South Florida. I imagine some bottles were popped.

It had to be especially satisfying — beyond the "beat a rival" part — because it came with proof of concept with regard to young center forward Julian Carranza, who scored the game's first and third goals:

Carranza didn't look bad last month in July, but he didn't exactly look great, either. On Saturday, though? Great. Those were the finishes of a $6 million man. Head coach Diego Alonso talked about how that would give Carranza confidence going forward, which, duh. But given the context of everything about Miami with regard to "what are they going to use that open DP slot on?" this game looms large.

The other thing that loomed large (and you'll see it if you watch the video above) was midfield sloppiness from Orlando City, something that wasn't on the menu during the tournament. A pair of Sebastian Mendez turnovers led to the first two goals, and from there they were purely chasing the game, which allowed Miami to comfortably absorb and counter.

Head coach Oscar Pareja started Mendez — a box-to-box ball-winner — as a winger. He also started two other deep-lying central midfielders, and that upset the balance of the entire team. It was a self-inflicted wound that Pareja addressed at the half by subbing in Chris Mueller for Junior Urso and dropping Mendez back into his more natural destroyer role.

“They lowered the block and the space in between the lines was not big and it forced us to move players outside," Pareja explained afterward. "At the same time, I think the inclusion of [Mueller] helped because he knows that role. He started opening some windows there and we started being more creative, the team just looked much better and more comfortable going forward. In the middle, we had the same initiative as the whole game trying to create and trying to have the ball, but there’s no doubt that in the second half we looked a bit more dangerous up front.”

They did. They were almost dangerous enough to come back and take a point, and also got to enjoy what could be a break-out performance from rookie center forward Daryl Dike, who just absolutely sonned Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and picked up a secondary assist to boot:

For Orlando City, who are badly in need of a No. 9, that may have been as big a revelation as Carranza was for Miami. Only time will tell, obviously.

Just as obvious is that this night will be remembered for a long time by David Beckham, Jorge Mas, Alonso et al. They've finally got the monkey off their back, have reinforcements coming and an eye on the playoff line. No reason they should blink.

Gloves Off

I, like most people, expected LAFC to come out pissed off on Saturday afternoon in El Trafico. They had succumbed somewhat meekly against Orlando City in the MLS is Back quarterfinals, had their next-door neighbors visiting, and had a point to prove on Big Fox. They also had Carlos Vela back, and why shouldn't/wouldn't that mix up into the same sort of stew we all saw last month in that 6-2 rout of the Galaxy in the MLS is Back group stage? 

Should've, would've, didn't. The Galaxy outfought, stifled, out game-planned and outplayed LAFC in a fairly comprehensive 2-0 win. Vela went off with an injury, there was no replacing Eduard Atuesta, and unlike El Traficos past, there was no doubt who was going to win once the Galaxy got that second goal. 

"It was a terrible game for us," LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said afterwards. "I told the team, it's a day where I'm going to take responsibility because we didn't look like ourselves. We never found any rhythm. The game had no tempo. We weren't dangerous, and we just looked like we were second best throughout the day. Throughout our history, we've always had a way to push games, play a certain kind of football, and today we didn't come close."

Bradley's not wrong — it was weird to see LAFC just kind of drift through any game. But part of it has to do with the tactics Bradley's opposite number, the under-fire Guillermo Barros Schelotto, came up with. First and foremost was attacking in behind LAFC's hyper-aggressive fullbacks:

But this was born of the Galaxy denying LAFC's ability to build through midfield. LAFC don't usually just have possession; they have possession in dangerous places, controlling not only the tempo of the game but where it's played. Once you have that, you can push your fullbacks up almost at will.

Without that, every time one of the fullbacks pushed up it was a bigger gamble than usual. And the reason LAFC couldn't build through the middle was how LA's Homegrown right-back-but-for-now-at-least-right-winger Julian Araujo played. Simply:

"I knew my job was to stay inside and not let any balls be played inside."

Araujo had two assists (both lovely), but it was this defensive role in the 4-5-1 that really set the terms of how the game was played. While Cristian Pavon on the other side was excellent as a true north-south attacker, Araujo was always ducking inside to harass Mark-Anthony Kaye, Francisco Ginella et al. His defensive interventions — deeper and more central than we usually see from a "winger" -- tell a tale:

Every time LAFC tried to build out, they were played 3-v-4 in the middle of the park. They were not able to adequately deal with the numbers disadvantage.

There were other promising aspects to this win for the Galaxy as well. As I mentioned in that video above, they didn't settle for crosses. Sebastian Lletget in particular was committed toward driving to the heart of the defense and forcing them to make a play, and even when the Galaxy fullbacks pushed up (not often) they didn't just launch it toward the spot. Meanwhile it was a mistake-free outing from Nick DePuy and Daniel Steres in the center of defense, something LA haven't had in ... years? It feels like years.

Same with them having an actionable, purposeful plan. This was good soccer from LA, even if it wasn't pretty. They're not "back," I don't think. But they're not as dead as they looked in Florida.

Bad Choice Road

Also sad: FC Dallas's attack since returning from their extended break. They have failed to find the back of the net in three games, a 1-0 loss to Nashville followed by a scoreless draw vs. Nashville, and then another scoreless draw on Friday at Houston.

They showed signs of life down the stretch against the Dynamo when Paxton Pomykal and Brandon Servania came on — both have been nursing injuries — and I do think it says something that the kids have shined while the high-priced, veteran imports have underdelivered. Thiago Santos, Bryan Acosta and especially Franco Jara have all, for the past 270 minutes, failed to do anything but make up the numbers. The former two haven't figured out how to control the game, progress Dallas upfield and get the attackers into good spots. Jara, meanwhile, has been profligate and/or lacking incisiveness on the few occasions when he's had opportunities.

And so Dallas had exactly zero shots in the first half vs. Houston, and only two shots before Pomykal and Servania entered (and then five in the subsequent 21 minutes with them on the field). At this point, they don't really have a way to replace this:

“We’re missing rhythm in transition,” Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez said before the Dynamo game. “In the two games we made more than a thousand passes, and that’s a clear part of our playing philosophy, that we want to dominate possession.

“But in order to find success the way we want, there needs to be penetrations, vertical movement and create damage in the attacking half, and that’s where we have no rhythm right now.”

Maybe Pomykal and Servania get healthy and stay healthy and fix that (as you can see them doing in the clip above), and we all think of this as a three-game blip. Until they do, this Dallas team are quite a bit different (in a bad way) from the one that took Seattle to the wire in last year's playoffs. They are slow to build, slow to take space and, until Pomykal and Servania came on, were slow to exploit the rare moments of disorganization from Houston.

Much of that is a credit to the Dynamo, by the way. Houston were the more dynamic and exciting team throughout most of this match despite the fact that Darwin Quintero hasn't quite settled in and despite the fact that, frankly, they need one more passer of the ball in central midfield if they're going to play the way Tab Ramos seems to want them to play. Even with that deficiency, they forced Dallas' Matt Hedges, making his team-record 248th regular-season appearance, into one of his finer defensive showings.

Houston weren't precisely "all over" their rivals but they were definitely the better team, definitely controlled the game and definitely have some good stuff to build upon. They've also been sounder defensively than they looked most of last year.

Maybe that's too much praise for the league's only winless team, as they're now 0-2-4 with a -5 goal differential through Ramos's first six games. But I'm actually seeing the seeds of something here even if the results haven't shown it.

(Please use more than one sub next time, though, Tab).

A few more things to ponder...

10. How much do you take from Toronto's two games of dominance over Vancouver, a 3-0 stroll and a 1-0 win that was much closer than it should've been? I don't think it's a ton, since these were two home games that any team with the relative budget and talent advantage that TFC have over the 'Caps should be expected to walk away from with six points.

As for those 'Caps ... they keep not doing much. I thought their first two games of 2020 were promising but the only thing they've had since then is the counter, and they're not exactly the 1998 Chicago Fire in that regard.

And when they're not countering they have nothing. They were a combined 0-for-23 on crosses, both set piece and open play, in their 180 sad minutes at BMO Field.

9. The big talk coming out of Sporting's 2-1 win at Minnesota was the performance of young Gianluca Busio in a d-mid/regista role, dictating the game from deep. You can see some clips HERE, and my colleague Steve Zakuani (welcome aboard, Steve!) wrote about Busio's performance HERE.

But what really made it work for Sporting was that, once again, Alan Pulido was comfortable dropping back off the front line and becoming a playmaker, releasing the KC wingers and fullbacks into the space that Busio, Gadi Kinda and Roger Espinoza were creating by so ably occupying the Loons' central midfield:

Pulido's been the newcomer of the year. Full stop.

Adrian Heath has generally erred on the side of destroying opposing midfield build-up by inserting Hassani Dotson along with Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus, as opposed to putting a true midfield playmaker out there (Thomas Chacon was once again an unusued sub here). In this one, I think the smarter play would've been to put a 10 out there to make Busio really have to dig in and do defensive work rather than dictating the game, but que sera sera.

With Bebelo Reynoso reportedly on the way the above is pretty much a moot point, to be honest. Once he arrives there will certainly be a true No. 10 out there any time he's healthy.

8. Heber still can't finish, and that's officially sunk NYCFC to the bottom of the Eastern Conference following a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls in the Hudson River Derby courtesy of a Sean Johnson howler for the game's only goal.

There are other reasons for the Cityzens' failure to take flight. They're definitely not playing well. But they've created enough based upon raw talent to be at something better than three points from a possible 18.

The Red Bulls didn't create hardly anything. Chris Armas started Daniel Royer and Mark Rzatkowski (???) as forwards, and brought Kaku off the bench (this was a tactical choice), and ... it got the result. It was enough.

RBNY are 3-2-1, good for third in the East.

7. Atop the East are Columbus, who dismantled the struggling Fire in a 3-0 win late last week. Darlington Nagbe's stunner justifiably took all the headlines, but I just loved Gyasi Zardes' movement on Columbus's third goal:

You can see that as soon as Nagbe (No. 6) slides it out right to Pedro Santos (No. 7), everyone on the field gets pulled toward that side. Everyone.

Except for one guy. Gyasi (No. 11) makes the textbook run, separating himself from the defender. He stays onside and drifts back post for the one-time finish. Just clinical. He has five goals on 10 shots this year, six of which have been on target.

Movement like that is how you get tap-ins. His .42 xG per shot leads the league by a mile and is much higher than last year's (already very high) .25 xG per shot. He is finding the chances he's supposed to and is finishing them.

6. Another tight, scrappy, defensive affair between Philadelphia and New England, a scoreless draw in which both goalkeepers shined bright. Andre Blake has been Superman this summer, though to be fair this time he got a lot of help from Adam Buksa, while Matt Turner just kept doing Matt Turner things.

Matt Polster, by the way, was excellent in his Revs debut. Not only did he break up play and largely pocket Brenden Aaronson, but his ability to progress the ball into the final third is a tailor made for this Revs side:

I basically have nothing new to add on the Union, who I think continue to be better in a 4-2-3-1.

5. First things first: This was the performance of a $15 million attacker. Pity Martinez, in his first post-Frank De Boer game, lined up at left wing in a 4-3-3 (his preferred spot from his River Plate days), got two chances to annihilate Nashville, and did so:

Atlanta were not close to a fully healthy and fit first team, and they still don't have a permanent De Boer replacement, so there are a number of "we're not sure it's indicative of anything in particular over the long haul" data points to consider.The result was good, of course, but it's not like they ran the show. This was just brute forcing a win via superior firepower. Atlanta needed it, and they got it, and for this week, anyway, they can take a step back from the ledge.

The story for Nashville, once again, was a lack of execution in front of goal.

4. The bottom has dropped out for the Rapids over the past month as they took just one point from three games in Orlando, then coughed up a 1-0 lead and got absolutely destroyed — again — by RSL in a Rocky Mountain Cup clash. The final score was 4-1 and while you could argue that flattered RSL a bit, you could also argue that Colorado got what they deserved. They are so strung out and gappy through central midfield that any/every turnover becomes an emergency, and they're not scrambling well.

RSL were more structured and compact, and while Jonathan Lewis gave them fits early, they were able to adjust, cut off service from midfield and control the vast majority of the second half. They also used a hyper-mobile front line, with Corey Baird as the center forward and USL lifer Maikel Chang making a massive statement from right wing with a goal and two assists.

Those two and left winger Justin Meram just ran straight at the Rapids backline any time there was a transition opportunity, and it worked quite well.

3. Our Pass of the Week goes to FC Cincinnati's Allan Cruz, who should've had an assist on this one:

It ended scoreless. It shouldn't have.

2. I kind of wish Seattle's 3-0 win over the Timbers in Portland wasn't the last game of the weekend, because then I'd have more time to write about it. There was a worldie of an offside goal, a Kevin De Bruyne touch from Jordan Morris, a Bergkamp touch from Sebastian Blanco and then... then there was lots of Raul Ruidiaz and a match-changing performance from Will Bruin.

This was the Sounders playing like they did in last year's playoffs. They weathered some storms (mostly off of set pieces), defended deep and took turns both controlling the game and ceding control of it in order to bring Portland's line up and counterattack in behind.

The Timbers were simply not as sharp. Ruidiaz pushed the door open a crack, and then Bruin -- who won everything in the air, and connected everything on the ground -- helped him take it off its hinges entirely.

I need to watch it again before I say "the Sounders figured out what went wrong last month." It sure felt like that for the second half, and even in the first there was an intensity that had been missing in Orlando.

As for the Timbers, I'm still pretty convinced they are one of the five (or so) best teams in this league. But when you're playing one of the other five best, the margins get thinner and errors get punished quicker. It's a good reminder to get just a couple of weeks after they lifted a trophy. 

1. Speaking of lifting trophies, there was only one possible choice for our Face of the Week:

Congrats to Alphonso Davies and the Whitecaps. Kid's officially a Champions League winner, a treble winner and a trailblazer all before the age of 20. This is a path that basically every Homegrown signing before and after him will dream of taking, and he'll always be the first one up the mountain.


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