Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Status report: What defines your team through Matchday 11?

MD11 - Doyle column - 4.28.24

With just over a quarter of the season in the books, now’s a good time to change up our usual Sunday format and put together a look at all 29 teams – what they’ve done recently, the type of team they’ve been overall, and where they might be headed.

We’ll do it in the order of the Supporters’ Shield standings. And… in we go:

Inter Miami CF logo
Inter Miami CF

Matchday 11: Went to Foxborough and killed a mostly dead Revs side 4-1 behind two goals and an assist from Lionel Messi. That left them atop the Shield standings on points and points per game, and with a league-best +10 goal differential.

How they got here: The Herons have been as advertised: an attacking machine with lots of talent and a few glaring flaws defensively. For a hot minute at the start of the year, it felt like Luis Suárez was the legend of the game who’d be making the MVP push, but nah. It’s Messi.

Several of the role players have developed nicely as well, and the kids have been developing.

What’s next? More squad integration – welcome aboard, Mati Rojas! And welcome back, Robert Taylor – will keep things somewhat unsettled.

I’m less concerned about how those guys (re)integrate than I am about the defense. I wrote about it last week: until the backline improves in distribution and connectedness, Miami will just be a wildly talented team that wins games because of that talent instead of a complete team that rips teams apart with the ball for 90 minutes.

Of course, they have enough to do the Shield/MLS Cup double even if the defense never quite comes around, so it might not matter. But as a lover of great soccer, I want to see them play great soccer.

Real Salt Lake logo
Real Salt Lake

Matchday 11: Went to Philly and made a statement with a 2-1 win at the previously unbeaten Union. Alex Katranis was the late hero with a blast from distance, and the left back has been one of the most underrated signings of the season thus far.

How they got here: They’ve mostly switched the formation to a 4-2-3-1 from the 4-4-2 that was their primary look last year, with the idea being to control the game a little more through central midfield and become less reliant on big switches. This was largely by design but partially by necessity, as Pablo Ruiz sadly suffered another season-ending injury. Without that Argie’s left foot, relying upon switch after switch is a less profitable endeavor.

The biggest beneficiary has been Chicho Arango, the only man besides Messi who’s plausibly in the MVP race. He’s been excellent – a guy who raises the team’s ceiling when it’s playing well, and a guy who rescues points when they’re playing poorly. Matt Crooks has fit in as a sort of free-running No. 10, and Andrés Gómez has leveled up on the wing. Oh and Braian Ojeda has been excellent in central midfield.

What’s next? The one disappointment so far this season (besides the injury to Ruiz) is that Diego Luna, playing as a playmaking left winger, has buckled a bit under the weight of being the team’s primary playmaker. And just when he seemed to be snapping out of it, he picked up an injury this past week that ruled him out of the Philly game.

Luckily young Fidel Barajas has done a very good job filling in for Luna, and as always Pablo Mastroeni has been able to coax regular contributions out of guys further down the roster.

This team’s got two open DP slots, by the way. They’ll have the ability to turbo-charge their stretch run by going shopping and addressing any perceived needs in the summer window.

Matchday 11: Went to Austin and got pretty thoroughly handled in a 2-0 loss to the Verde & Black. Bad upfield turnovers caught the Galaxy both disorganized and on the back foot, and left them looking more like the 2023 version of themselves than what they’ve been at their best this year.

How they got here: Riqui Puig gets more touches, attempts and completes more passes than any other player in the league. It all runs through him in the 4-2-3-1 that Greg Vanney likes to say is a 4-3-3.

Puig’s got two new wingers to play with in Joseph Paintsil and Gabriel Pec, and two very good central midfielders healthy behind him, and a hot center forward in front of him (when Dejan Joveljic is healthy, anyway), and that is the recipe for one of the best, most aesthetically pleasing attacks in the league. They get out there, get on the ball as often as possible and cook. Paintsil’s movement is brilliant, as is his end product, and Pec’s been consistently dangerous. He looks like a long-term keeper.

On the flip side, they are prone to losing discipline in their shape and getting caught out – we saw it happen to them in the last El Tráfico loss, not just against Austin. And they are brutally bad at defending set pieces.

What’s next? Young center back Jalen Neal’s ready to return, and you’ve got to think he’ll help them defend restarts. If he can make them 20% better there, I’ll start believing in the Galaxy as a legitimate Shield contender.

Vanney’s status is low-key interesting. It’s well known he’s in the final year of his deal, and there have been zero reports of talks aimed at an extension.

Matchday 11: Mostly controlled things in a 2-1 home win over Colorado, driven by Corey Baird’s best performance since joining the club.

How they got here: Cincy invested in their defense and it’s paid off, as Miles Robinson and Matt Miazga are excellent, and young-ish guys like Kipp Keller and Ian Murphy have developed nicely (plucking Keller off the scrap-heap this winter was a bit of brilliance from general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan).

The return of veteran Nick Hagglund gives Cincinnati five good center backs. Most MLS teams struggle to find two.

That’s the identity of the team, with 2023 MVP Lucho Acosta as the attacking centerpiece. He hasn’t been quite as dynamic as last year, though he’s arguably been asked to carry more weight since the attack has been in flux. That said, new left wingback Luca Orellano has been finding his footing the past few weeks and Baird is finally looking like the guy who scored 14 goals across all comps last year for the Dynamo.

Oh and Alec Kann, filling in for the injured Roman Celentano, is finally getting a chance to start a run of games, and has performed admirably.

What’s next? The elephant in the room has been DP center forward Aaron Boupendza, who’s now lost his starting spot and has looked awful without a target man to play off of. The good news for him – and for Cincy overall, because the Garys need Boupendza to be productive if they’re going to add another trophy this year – is that they were able to acquire Venezuelan target man Kevin Kelsy on loan just before the primary window closed last week.

The defense keeps the floor for this team very high. A forward pairing like last year’s can raise the ceiling to those same heights, and maybe beyond.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC logo
Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Matchday 11: Went to Harrison and got a credible 1-1 draw against a very good RBNY side, though the chance was there to pick up all three after Noah Eile’s 74th-minute red card.

How they got here: Vancouver are, by design, getting less of the ball than last year, and the year before that. They’re drawing a lower line of confrontation and inviting the opponents forward, trading both possession and field position for space to attack into.

Because they’re effectively defending less of the pitch, that’s allowed them to take more risks with the starting position of their wingbacks, who are playing higher and more like wingers than we saw last year. It’s been a lot of fun to watch, and even more fun to listen to head coach Vanni Sartini describe it all in exacting detail.

Brian White, despite spending the first few games as a sort of target right winger, has been even better than last year on a per-minute basis (5g/2a in 677 minutes, the last 450-ish of which have come as a true center forward). The pieces behind him all fit snugly together as well, and Ranko Veselinovic should be getting some Defender of the Year love.

What’s next? They’ll be favorites to win the Canadian Championship again. And a top-four finish in the West seems doable.

Anything beyond that, though, is tough to see. We’ve got a lot of data over the past two years that says the talent gap between Vancouver and the best in the region is too wide to overcome:

  • Two games against LAFC in the CCL and then two more in last year’s playoffs
  • One game against Tigres UANL in last year’s Leagues Cup and two more in this year’s CCC
  • One game against Club León in last year’s Leagues Cup

Vancouver won zero of those eight games. They definitely came close a few times (though, notably, not against LAFC), but this team is screaming out for one more high-end, elite piece.

Without that kind of addition in the summer, they’re a darkhorse pick at best.

Minnesota United FC logo
Minnesota United FC

Matchday 11: Handled a struggling Sporting KC side 2-1 at home, with another winner coming from Nigerian-Canadian superhero Tani Oluwaseyi. He’s having the kind of breakout that makes me (and other folks) feel like he could be the next Brian White.

How they got here: First under interim head coach Cameron Knowles and then under new, permanent manager Eric Ramsay, they’ve been flexible in both where they draw their line of confrontation (sometimes they press, sometimes they counter, sometimes they spring midfield traps) and their formation (originally it was a 4-2-3-1, then a 4-3-3, now a sort of 5-4-1 that morphs into a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 3-2-2-3).

Usually they are at their best against the ball, which is fine. Though there are times when they do get on the ball that they are dynamic and dangerous.

I had them a top-four team in the West heading into the season, and that’s where they sit now. But my rationale was wrong: I thought it’d be because they had a full year of Teemu Pukki and a full year of Emanuel Reynoso and a breakout year from Bongi Hlongwane. Add in a new voice at the top, and the potential was there – I thought – for the whole thing to be freshened up.

It hasn’t happened that way. Hlongwane’s been slowly working his way back to full fitness from a knock, and Pukki’s been sporadically effective. Reynoso, meanwhile, has mostly been in Argentina and I sincerely doubt he’s ever going to play another minute for this team.

What’s happened instead is that Robin Lod has become the de facto No. 10 and everyone else around him has found freedom because of that. It’s a vibrant, fun surprise.

What’s next? There will be some sort of parting of the ways with Reynoso, which will allow the front office to go big during the summer window. I’m not sure what position it’ll be at, and at this point I doubt they are, either.

The next few months will be interesting.

New York Red Bulls logo
New York Red Bulls

Matchday 11: Picked up a 1-1 home draw vs. a very good Vancouver side despite playing down a man for the final 15 minutes.

How they got here: The Red Bulls have finally evolved. Their line of confrontation is lower than before – by every metric they are a much less aggressive pressing team than they’ve been in nearly a decade – and they are more committed to using the ball when they win it rather than just going hellbent for goal.

They’ve also hit a higher level of comfort playing out of the back than any Red Bull team since Tim Ream was patrolling the backline more than a decade ago. The biggest reason for that is new manager Sandro Schwarz, who has been open (not Sartini-level open, but still pretty open) about wanting to use the ball more. The second-biggest reason is young Swedish CB Noah Eile, a U22 Initiative signing who’s one of the five best distributors among center backs in MLS. And he ain’t No. 5.

Emil Forsberg, who’s the highest-profile DP the team’s brought in since Tim Cahill, has been very good. Lewis Morgan has returned to health and been excellent. Frankie Amaya’s taken a leap, as has Peter Stroud.

This team’s still tough to play against, but it’s not murderball. It’s soccer again.

What’s next? As with the ‘Caps: This team is one elite piece short of true contention. They got close on a No. 9 in the winter, and I expect them to go back to that well again.

They have an open DP slot and there have been some Timo Werner whispers. I wonder.

Toronto FC logo
Toronto FC

Matchday 11: Went to Orlando and got their best win of the season – honestly, one of the best wins of the season by anyone, full stop – with a late, come-from-behind 2-1 win thanks to No. 1 overall MLS SuperDraft pick Tyrese Spicer and red-hot Prince Owusu.

How they got here: Unity and buy-in. New head coach John Herdman talked a lot all offseason about resetting the culture and needing to get the entire team on the same page after the disaster of the past few years. And he’s done it.

It starts with the two Italian DPs, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, and it’s trickled down from there. Insigne was winning them points with weekly golazos at the start of the season (he’s been injured the past month), but it’s Bernardeschi's willingness to suffer for the team as a two-way player that’s been both more surprising and impressive.

Sean Johnson’s back and has been excellent in goal, and the makeshift, mostly anonymous cast of characters in midfield and along the backline have been stolid. TFC have taken their lumps along the way – they lost four of five from mid-March to mid-April before putting together this current, two-game winning streak – but even that deserves a positive spin, because when last year’s team (or the year before that, or the year before that) took some lumps, they responded by falling apart.

This year’s side has done the opposite. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows up in the 6, but there’s at least been a break in the clouds.

What’s next? Honestly, I don’t know. The pocketbook seems to have been closed pretty tight since signing the Italians, so it feels like this will be a “prove it” year for Herdman. Keep this team respectable, win the fans back and maybe reinforcements will come next winter?

Right now they’re eighth in the Shield race, and that would surely be more than enough proof of concept. As impressed as I am at what they’ve done to get here, though, I remain hugely skeptical of their ability to stay in the top half of the standings.

Matchday 11: Got a late goal from Denis Bouanga to rescue a 3-2 home win over Portland.

How they got here: Last year’s defeated MLS Cup finalists – and CCL finalists, and Campeones Cup runners-up – didn’t reinforce the roster a ton this winter. Instead, they cut costs by bidding farewell to some veterans and not exercising purchase options on some youngsters, and went all-in on building everything around Bouanga’s ruthlessness in transition.

We got our first taste of that down the stretch run and into the playoffs, as the Black & Gold were routinely under 40% possession, and only created danger on the break. It hasn’t dipped quite that low so far in 2024, though they are just 23rd in the league at 47% possession.

But the one metric they truly care about is box entries, and the other one they care about is box touches. They are among the league leaders in both, with Bouanga the individual league leader in box touches by a freaking mile.

He also leads the league by a freaking mile in times hitting the woodwork with eight. If half of those had gone in, he’d be producing goals at the same rate as last season and LAFC would be in the top three of the Shield standings.

“Sometimes ball go in” is not a satisfying narrative. But it’s what explains the difference between last year’s relative success and this year’s relative struggles.

Oh, and also the defense is marginally worse. However, until I see that linger another month, I’m writing it off as a hiccup.

What’s next? We know that Olivier Giroud is coming this summer. Is anyone else?

LAFC were, for some reason, let off the hook last year in how they were covered: they had an open DP slot all season long and finished second in three separate finals. You think, maybe, a center forward like Chicho Arango could’ve helped them win one or two of those?

When the Galaxy had a chance to become a dynasty 13 years ago, they added Robbie Keane and, you know, became one. When LAFC had the same chance, they made it harder on themselves by playing a whole year with one hand tied behind their back. And now they’re down to just one DP (Bouanga) who, great as he is, hasn’t been able to carry the whole load.

Their roster-building strategy since winning MLS Cup in 2022 has been really, really bizarre.

Colorado Rapids logo
Colorado Rapids

Matchday 11: Put up a fight in Cincinnati before succumbing to a 2-1 loss.

How they got here: A busy winter with lots of incoming faces and lots of outgoing faces, along with a new manager in Chris Armas has produced a team that plays more with the ball than anyone expected, has been unpredictable and opportunistic in transition, and mostly compact and reliable in defense.

And with all of that, they’re performing at roughly the right level: sixth in the West with a +1 goal differential, and a +0.08 xG differential per 90. They have morphed from last year’s disaster into a solid, middle-of-the-road team that mostly doesn’t beat themselves and absolutely can punish you to bits if you sleepwalk through a few moments.

Part of this: they are fun to watch again! Nobody’s going to mistake them for the Crew, but young No. 6 Oliver Larraz has been very good in distribution, which has let young No. 8 Cole Bassett push forward into high-leverage spots, while record signing Djordje Mihailovic has been good about drifting into the half-spaces and creating danger both on and off the ball.

Moise Bombito is developing into a star. And the movement of the front three is good.

What’s next? The finishing of the front three is bad. The Rapids – via declining Rafa Navarro’s purchase option and buying out Kévin Cabral – could open up two DP slots this summer for the stretch run.

If they are serious about winning a trophy this year, they should do so. Because you’re not winning anything with two DPs who don’t produce.

Matchday 11: Put together their best all-around performance in a long, long time with a 2-0 home win over the visiting Galaxy.

How’d they get here: They get numbers behind the ball and, thanks to relying upon a cadre of veteran center backs, and thanks to having Alex Ring back as a ball-winner in central midfield to protect Dani Pereira and Sebastián Driussi, they are less prone to the type of self-inflicted catastrophes that defined 2023.

As Calen Carr and I mention basically every week on Austin’s match previews: You can talk yourself into the team’s spine, all the way from goalkeeper Brad Stuver to center forward Diego Rubio, whose work as a false 9 has jibed nicely with Driussi. They don’t try to get all over the ball and dictate play as they have in the past, but when they do get into the attack, the pieces have fit together more snugly, which has made the team more consistently dangerous. And because the center backs have been solid, moments of danger are all this team has needed in certain games.

The wingers are still a weak point, but the fullbacks have been good.

Note that even with all of this they’re still massively overperforming their underlying numbers. But even that has started to tilt in the other direction in the past five games, as they’ve gone 4W-1L-0D.

What’s next? They could buy down Ring and buy out Emiliano Rigoni to open up two DP slots this summer. What happens to this whole thing if you give Driussi two elite wingers – think Paintsil and Pec types – to play with?

I’m not sure that makes them legit contenders, but it feels like they’re earning the chance to find out.

Matchday 11: Another rotated squad, and another draw – their fifth on the trot in league play. This one was scoreless at home against a Montréal side that’s attempting to do Crew-style stuff of their own.

How they got here: The Crew are balancing league play and Concacaf Champions Cup demands as well as anyone ever has in this league. They beat Tigres in a two-legged series, which, dayenu. Then they followed it up by winning the first leg vs. Monterrey.

It has obviously taken a toll on their regular-season form, but just as obviously head coach Wilfried Nancy has prioritized continental glory over winning the Supporters’ Shield.

That is absolutely fine. That is what he should do. I’m the world’s biggest Shield truther, but even I will admit that the CCC is the best trophy an MLS team can win right now.

Along the way, when they play their best, they have hit a level that I don’t think any other team in MLS can touch this year:

Also along the way, Nancy has handled the need to discipline his team’s best player, Cucho Hernández, about as well as you could possibly have asked for. Both the team and the player responded.

They play the best, most beautiful soccer in the league. They develop young players. They win.

Crew fans are loving life right now.

What’s next?


Whether they manage it or not, I can’t wait to see how this team handles the post-CCC hangover.

New York City FC logo
New York City FC

Matchday 11: Got a dramatic late goal from Alonso Martínez for a 2-1 home win over visiting Charlotte, which makes it three on the trot (or maybe on the wing?) for the Pigeons, and five unbeaten.

How they got here: They got James Sands and Keaton Parks healthy and available in central midfield, which gave them the two-way balance they had been lacking for the first month of the season. That, in turn, has allowed Santi Rodríguez to start cooking as a true No. 10.

Baked into all of this is they’re playing a little bit deeper in possession, which means they’re attacking a little bit more in transition than the best NYCFC teams of yore. That suits Rodríguez, who is more of an open-field attacker than an in-possession orchestrator like Maxi Moralez.

Young winger Julian Fernández has started to cook a little bit, and left back Kevin O’Toole has developed into one of the most effective attacking left backs in the league.

The other kids – and there are a lot of them – have developed more slowly. So it’s all still a work in progress.

What’s next? We find out if this run of good form is a real thing, or if it’s just a product of a five-game home stand. They’ll host Colorado next week and then it’s three of the next four on the road, which has been unkind this season (0W-3L-1D so far).

We also might be approaching the end for Mounsef Bakrar. The Algerian No. 9 gets into good spots but does not finish, and young Jovan Mijatovic is finally available. Got to think he’ll get the call sooner rather than later.

Houston Dynamo FC logo
Houston Dynamo FC

Matchday 11: Took a fifth-minute red card that led to a pretty limp 90-minute, 2-0 loss in Frisco to FC Dallas.

How they got here: Man, even with two losses in a row, I give head coach Ben Olsen and his team a ton of credit. I thought the whole thing would implode this year with Héctor Herrera hurt to start the season, but even without the legendary midfielder they kept keeping the ball, and by virtue of that they kept controlling and occasionally winning games.

Houston are at or near the top of the table in total passes, short passes and medium passes, as well as total passing accuracy, short passing accuracy, medium passing accuracy and – counterintuitively – long-ball accuracy. They are so accurate on those long-balls because they are so good at keeping possession in tight spots, which opens up the field for the occasional long, accurate diagonal to Griffin Dorsey on the overlap or Ibrahim Aliyu out at the left touchline.

The other thing at play here is that possession, for the Dynamo, is a defensive tactic. If they have the ball, you don’t. And if you don’t have the ball, you’re not gonna score on them.

What’s next? Get Herrera 90-minutes fit, and then get Sebas Ferreira back and see if he can actually be the answer they’re looking for at the 9? Part of what’s made this season (so far) so impressive from Olsen and his squad is they’ve been patching the lineup together with toothpicks and duct tape all year long (including in their CCC win over St. Louis and their credible two-leg loss to the Crew).

Whether or not Ferreira is ultimately the answer, I think the aim is to keep above water until the summer window and then make the kind of high-end attacking signing that can elevate this team.

Philadelphia Union logo
Philadelphia Union

Matchday 11: Took their first league loss of the year, a 2-1 home defeat to RSL.

How they got here: I argued this collection of players had earned the right to stay together for one more season, and try to get over the Cup hump. I’m talking any Cup here.

They already bombed out in their first opportunity, suffering a very un-Union-like humiliation at the hands of Pachuca in CCC (who, to be fair, are awesome and might win the damn thing). What made it humiliating isn’t just that they lost, or even the scoreline (though that was really, really bad): it’s that they didn’t compete. They looked old and tired and disorganized and slow.

There has been less of that in league play, obviously, and the Union are leading the Eastern Conference in expected goal differential per 90, which tends to become reliably predictive somewhere around the 8-to-10-game mark, which is to say, now.

Quinn Sullivan has been a breakout player, and Nathan Harriel has developed well. Alejandro Bedoya has settled into his veteran super-sub/mentor role, and Julián Carranza has been mostly awesome.

Jakob Glesnes, Jack Elliott and Andre Blake mostly haven’t been, though. And so I’m a little bit lower on the Union than the record and the underlying numbers say I should be.

What’s next? Pretty sure they’re gonna keep on trucking with this group and count on internal improvement from the likes of Sullivan, Harriel and Jack McGlynn to raise the team back toward the level they hit in 2022.

The other 800-pound gorilla is the status of Carranza, who is out of contract at season’s end. If he’s willing to stay in MLS, the Union should do everything in their power to keep him because having a center forward focal point like that makes it easier to develop playmakers like McGlynn or, say, Cavan Sullivan.

D.C. United logo
D.C. United

Matchday 11: Got a much-needed 2-1 home win over 10-man Seattle thanks to a brace from Christian Benteke.

How they got here: For every yin, there’s a yang:

  • The whole team has bought into Troy Lesesne’s direct, high-pressure system, but…
  • They often push so hard and so high upfield that they leave themselves open to easy chances on the counter when the press doesn’t hit.

Or how about:

  • Benteke has been monstrous, arguably the most essential piece in the league, but…
  • Despite playing some good soccer and generating chances, nobody else on the team can score.

They miss the hell out of Ted Ku-DiPietro, who’s been mostly injured for the past six weeks. It’s not just his 1v1 ability – he adds a dose of unpredictability to the attack that nobody else in the squad can emulate – but the fact he actually puts the ball into the net.

Alex Bono has been good in goal. Matti Peltola has been a nice piece in central midfield. Jared Stroud has been a useful two-way player. There are some very good building blocks here.

What’s next? Can they actually put together a win streak? They have Philly at home next weekend, so it won’t be easy, but the chance is there to start stringing together some results and building momentum.

Come summer, even if Teddy KDP’s back, they’ll need to add another high-end attacking piece. Though there is a chance Kristian Fletcher develops into that type of player between now and mid-July.

Matchday 11: Picked up a scoreless draw in Chicago, which is a fine-ish result in a vacuum, but it runs their winless skid to four games.

How they got here: The rebuilt defense has been pretty good. Brad Guzan has bounced back from a nightmare 2023 and has been pretty good. The new-look defensive midfield has been pretty good. The wingers have been… just okay.

The center forwards have been excellent when healthy (Giorgos Giakoumakis) and very good when called upon (Jamal Thiaré) and a useful back-up (Daniel Ríos). I don’t think anybody in the league has this much pure center-forward depth.

Thiago Almada has been disappointing. He was the second-best player in MLS last year, and in Gonzalo Pineda’s 4-2-3-1, the whole point of how Atlanta play is to put the ball on Almada’s foot and let him cook. There aren’t really any frills beyond that.

He hasn’t been good enough.

What’s next? I believe pretty strongly that Almada’s too good to be this mediocre for much longer. He’ll figure it out and when he does, Atlanta will be one of the four or five best teams in the East.

Whether they can rise beyond that will be determined by how much they can improve defensively. They’re better than the past few years, but they still make some disastrous mistakes and are prone to reactive, back-foot defending that lets other teams get comfortable playing against them.

Matchday 11: Laurent Courtois went back to his old stomping grounds and got a scoreless draw against a rotated Crew side.

How they got here: Courtois did the right thing on the six-game road trip to open the season, dropping his team’s line deep and primarily hitting in transition. That’s not to say they didn’t use the ball at all – when it was demanded of them, they did so – but he wasn’t trying to build his Crew 2 empire in Montréal overnight.

Seven points from six games of that to start the year, then four points at home via more expansive on-ball play (their passes per sequence jumped almost 20% overnight, which gives you an idea of how much more work they’re doing with the ball at home), then a good road point this weekend – again playing against the ball.

All this has come while juggling all sorts of injuries. Matías Cóccaro and Josef Martínez are both out, Dominic Iankov is just getting back in, and Mason Toye is banged up now… there’s been a lot.

On last week’s This is MLS, I was asked to give Courtois a grade thus far. To me, he’s pretty clearly earned an A.

What’s next? The project for the rest of the year is continuing to build their expansive game model and figure out which pieces are long-term fits.

That includes both the kids (most of whom haven’t played as much as I’d expected) and the vets (it’d be interesting to see if, say, Dallas have interest in acquiring Victor Wanyama, who’d help them a bunch).

Matchday 11: They had their bye week, which temporarily paused their three-match unbeaten streak.

How they got here: St. Louis are, in my opinion, playing better soccer than last year. Their lines are a little bit tighter, they’re doing a little bit more with the ball to create chances via possession, and their link play has been more reliable.

They have simply regressed to the mean both in front of goal (João Klauss and Sam Adeniran are both below last year’s unsustainable finishing rates) and actually in goal itself (Roman Bürki has mostly just saved the shots he should and committed the occasional goof along the way, whereas last year he was immortal).

Right now they have 15 goals scored and 14 allowed on 13.3 xG and 12.4 xG allowed, as per FBRef.

They crashed out of CCC play to an injured and limited Houston side. Adeniran was recently suspended after running afoul of head coach Bradley Carnell. Second-year pro Célio Pompeu has been a revelation cutting in from the left wing.

Just normal, mid-table team stuff.

What’s next? Well, the Adeniran situation is begging for some sort of resolution, and that’s a worry because this team does not have a lot of center-forward depth.

The other thing is it’s unclear who the best players on the team are besides Klauss and Bürki. I’m not sure what the best center back pairing is, and Eduard Löwen hasn’t looked the same since last summer (played just three times this year due to injury). Also, Aziel Jackson hasn’t really taken a step forward.

So it’s tough to see a path back to last year’s total of 56 points and a spot at the top of the West.

Matchday 11: Suffered a late, painful 2-1 defeat up at NYCFC, which marked the Crown’s third loss in four.

How they got here: Dean Smith came in and simplified things, alternating between a bog-standard 4-2-3-1 and an attritional 4-3-3 with, in both formations, most of the attack routed through the wingers via transition. There’s nothing fancy in possession – no center backs stepping off the backline with the ball a la John Stones – and there’s nothing fancy in defense.

He also moved on from Karol Swiderski and Kamil Jozwiak, which opened two DP slots. The other pre-Deano DP, center forward Enzo Copetti, has been splitting time as the starting No. 9 with second-year pro Patrick Agyemang, and judging by how Copetti’s been playing, he’s not going to be the starter for long.

They did make Israeli winger Liel Abada a record signing, and he’s been decent through a handful of games. But this is pretty clearly a team in the early stages of a teardown and rebuild.

What’s next? I think we got a glimpse of the future with young Nikola Petković starting as the No. 6 in New York, and my hope is he gets a run of games to show he can be a building block for the future. Same with Agyemang, who is just straight-up better than Copetti at this point.

Basically everybody’s auditioning for a job right now. Abada’s probably the only person on the roster who should sign a two-year lease.

Sporting Kansas City logo
Sporting Kansas City

Matchday 11: Lost 2-1 at Minnesota United, running their winless skid to four games.

How they got here: Sporting’s terrible 2023 start could be chalked up to missing half their team at the start of the season. Once they got their DPs back, the central defense sorted, and Tim Melia healthy, they played at a 60-point pace for the final two-thirds of the season, which was good enough to sneak them into the Wild Card round with a home game.

There’s really no excuse this year. Yeah, they didn’t replace Gadi Kinda, and yeah, Logan Ndenbe is out hurt, and yes, Johnny Russell has missed some time.

It shouldn’t matter this much. A team with veterans on the backline, at d-mid and in goal shouldn’t be coughing up leads every single week.

I don’t know what to chalk it up to other than they just look slow across the board – slow athletically, slow rotations, slow reactions when the ball is lost. It’s all symptomatic of a team that has maybe gone a little bit stale, and doesn’t have the talent to brute force some wins despite that.

Note it’s gotten so bad that manager Peter Vermes has actually changed the formation, going away from the 4-3-3 to more of a 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks with Willy Agada up top and Alan Pulido as a No. 10.

What’s next? Everyone knows they’re planning to make a big move in the summer with that open DP slot. I have no idea how they pull out of this tailspin and start stringing together results between now and then.

“Play better” is all I’ve got.

Portland Timbers logo
Portland Timbers

Matchday 11: A crushing, late, 3-2 loss at LAFC after Diego Chara was sent off in the 76th minute. After starting the season 2W-0L-1D, they’re now winless in seven.

How they got here: Portland are playing a standard 4-2-3-1 under new head coach Phil Neville, and that’s put DP No. 10 Evander in a position to shine. He’s responded with Best XI-caliber play, and veteran No. 9 Felipe Mora has been the biggest beneficiary.

It’s hard to say anything else is working particularly well. Santi Moreno’s been ok, but hasn’t really progressed over last year, while new DP attacker Jonathan Rodríguez has only really had moments, rather than full games of excellence. Chara has probably lost a step, which isn’t helped by the fact it’s still unclear who his best midfield partner is. Juan Mosquera is fun going forward, but leaves the door open on the counter constantly.

They give the ball away sloppily and get punished for it on the regular. They are not good at defending set pieces.

There is lots to work on.

What’s next? The biggest thing for this team would be to figure out that midfield partnership between Chara and one of Eryk Williamson, Cristhian Paredes or David Ayala. Stability in that spot should, in theory, limit the types of turnovers that have been killing this team.

What they’ll do with their DP flexibility this summer, I do not know. A lot of that depends upon whether they see Rodríguez as a winger or a No. 9, and whether or not the defense improves over the next couple of months.

Matchday 11: Chris Brady was spectacular in keeping the zero for a scoreless home draw vs. Atlanta.

How they got here: They don’t have a high-level playmaker, so Hugo Cuypers, the center forward who was their record signing this winter, has been starved for service. Kellyn Acosta has helped in central midfield, but not a ton. The backline is still a mess with none of the center backs really looking like MLS-caliber starters on a weekly basis.

They lead the league in errors leading directly to shots, and errors leading directly to goals.

The pieces, overall, aren’t that good. And they don’t fit.

What’s next? Since Georg Heitz took over as CSO ahead of the 2020 season, the Fire have finished 11th, 12th, 12th and 13th in the East.

A 14th-place finish this year would be tough, but it’s within their grasp.

Orlando City SC logo
Orlando City SC

Matchday 11: Took their worst loss of the year – honestly, it might’ve been their worst of the Oscar Pareja era – by conceding a late pair to Toronto as the visitors took all three points via the 2-1 final.

How they got here: David Brekalo has not been an adequate fill-in at center back. Wilder Cartagena and César Araújo have missed time in central midfield. Facu Torres has regressed. Pedro Gallese has been a nightmare in goal.

The Duncan McGuire deal fell through after they’d signed Luis Muriel to a DP contract, which means they now have one more No. 9 than they need. Because of that, they decided to sign Nico Lodeiro – still a good player but definitely not an elite one – as their No. 10. He hasn’t been it.

Neither has Martín Ojeda, who Pareja clearly does not rate/trust even though he’s got the best chance-creation underlyings of anyone on the team.

This is all like a 0th percentile outcome for this collection of talent. They should clearly be better than they are, and will probably become so soon.

But if they were going to build on last year’s 63-point season, they needed to have a different offseason approach.

What’s next? Presumably, they’ll complete an outbound deal for McGuire this summer. Will Muriel have scored a goal by then? Will Ojeda have gotten any time as a No. 10? Will Brekalo have played his way into a starting job? Will Gallese have played his way out of one?

FC Dallas logo
FC Dallas

Matchday 11: Rode an early Dynamo red card to a relatively easy 2-0 home win.

How they got here: They were supposed to play a free-flowing 3-4-2-1 with attacking wingbacks and constant danger from possession similar to what the Crew do.

A lack of upgrades along the backline made that difficult. Injuries to Asier Illarramendi (he’s back now) and Paxton Pomykal (he won’t be back until 2025) made it impossible.

Jesús Ferreira has also missed time, and DP playmaker Alan Velasco is out until at least midseason after popping his ACL late last year. Maarten Paes has regressed a little bit in goal, and Nkosi Tafari has regressed A LOT at center back. So has Bernard Kamungo in attack. Record signing Petar Musa has been starved for service.

What’s next? Head coach Nico Estévez is just sort of cobbling together a lineup and formation every week and hoping something sticks. In theory, Ferreira and Musa up top with Kamungo off the bench would be a nice, balanced trio of attackers. But that theory hasn’t worked on grass.

I still can’t get over their approach to the backline this winter, especially given Estévez’s obvious intent to shift to a 3-4-2-1.

I don’t know, man. Doesn’t feel like this team’s going anywhere.

Nashville SC logo
Nashville SC

Matchday 11: Managed just a 1-1 home draw against a San Jose side that had conceded at least two goals in every game they’d played this season.

How they got here: My buddy Ben Wright laid it out in-depth and in detail HERE. The tl;dr is that the midfield ball progression is bad, and thus they’re not getting on the ball much at all in the final third, and especially in the box:

NSH - Doyle - MD11 - embed

Dru Yearwood was not, it turns out, an adequate replacement for Dax McCarty.

The other, arguably more worrying piece, is that Day 1 Nashville’s success, such as it was, was built upon their ability to dominate the game in their own box. Sure, you could have 60 percent of the ball and knock it around to your heart’s content. But year after year after year, the numbers – boxscore and underlying – and the eye test said that Nashville were great at absorbing that kind of pressure and turning it into counterattacks.

They have been brutally bad defending in their own box this year, and their expected goal differential per 90 is 27th in the league. They were 10th last year. The year before that they were 6th.

Walker Zimmerman being hurt for most of the year partially explains this, but not fully. The bottom line is that in order to effectively play sufferball, the players have to be willing to suffer. I’m not sure I’m seeing that from this group.

Combine it with Hany Mukhtar maybe hitting the wall and Sam Surridge just being a guy, and not THE guy, and you’ve got a stew going. A sad, sad stew.

What’s next? Head coach Gary Smith sounded like a man laying out the case for him keeping his job on Saturday night:

Smith’s done a lot of things right during his time in Nashville, but one thing he’s not is a developer of talent. Because of that, the team can really only go shopping for finished products and there’s limited hope for improvement from within.

For a team with all three DP slots filled, the transfer window closed, and one of the oldest rosters in the league, that does not bode well.

Matchday 11: Went to D.C. United, went down to 10 men, and lost 2-1.

How they got here: As per head coach Brian Schmetzer, this is the lowest the club’s been in the MLS era. And that was before this weekend’s loss.

Here is the whole of it: age and injuries have depleted all four lines, from forward all the way back to goalkeeper. They have still done a decent job of creating chances, but none of the guys on the front line have finished them. They have still done a decent-ish job of limiting chances, but not good enough to pitch shutouts and turn losses into draws.

Their big offseason move for Argentine winger Pedro de la Vega has not yet paid off, as he’s been injured for basically the whole season. Raúl Ruidíaz’s age-related regression last year looks like a permanent thing. Jordan Morris is as streaky as ever, and Cristian Roldan is never going to be a regular goal threat.

What’s next? Unlike the other teams in this neighborhood, the Sounders, I think, have the pieces and the game model to climb up the ladder. They’re nowhere near as bad as their record (the underlying numbers largely agree).

They’re probably going to have to make a hard decision on Ruidíaz this summer. His contract is ending in December and, while he’s forever a legend in Rave Green, he’s probably not going to justify that DP tag or that starting spot anymore.

Matchday 11: Got themselves a 1-1 draw at Nashville via a Jack Skahan goal off a busted offside trap.

How they got here: The entire backline has been a mess, Carlos Gruezo has not been an adequate security blanket at d-mid and – most importantly – the goalkeeping has been colossally bad.

That last one is the big shocker, as Daniel was my pick (and everyone else’s who pays real attention to the league) for Goalkeeper of the Year heading into the season. The Brazilian was, on a per-90 basis, the best shot-stopper in MLS last year, and his underlying numbers in Brazil for the half-decade leading up to his 2023 season said that this was normal for him.

He was a disaster to start the season. Then he got hurt, and veteran William Yarbrough has fared no better.

The attack has not been good enough to make up for the goalkeeping shortfall. Maybe new Argentine playmaker Hernán López – the club’s record signing inked just last week – will fix that.

What’s next? A lot of 4-3 games, I guess?

I really do like San Jose’s attacking pieces – even before signing López you could see this team coming together with the ball over the past month – so I don’t think this is a completely wasted season.

But the defense is so unsightly that I can’t imagine it being a good one.

Matchday 11: Got depantsed to the tune of 4-1 by Messi & Friends.

How they got here: They do a poor job of building from the back, they do a poor job of defending without the ball, they do a poor job of getting No. 10 Carles Gil on the ball in Zone 14, they do a poor job of getting runners in behind, the goalkeeping has not been great, the defense has been inconsistent, and they have a few crucial pieces injured.

Disappointingly, the young players – Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarevic being the two most notable – have not developed at all.

What’s next? Head coach Caleb Porter, who’s won two MLS Cups, wasn’t brought in for a rebuild. He was brought in to take a veteran group over the top. And remember, this is largely the same group that was on a 65-point pace last year before Bruce Arena left.

I’m pretty sure that calculus has now changed, as this group looks 100% headed for a teardown and rebuild.