Rivalry Week

Atlanta's regression, Cincinnati fill their biggest need & more from Matchday 13

Armchair Analyst - Season Pass

An insurmountable talent gap, a young No. 9 staking his claim, a couple of 3-5-2s and a new-look old-look LAFC side are all on top for this week’s matchday recap. And a happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

In we go:

Shadows of Ourselves

Twelve points from 11 games. Three straight home losses for the first time in club history. Underperforming DPs. A fanbase that’s ranging from unsettled to outright seething.

It’s all uncomfortably familiar for supporters of Atlanta United, who once again came into a season with hopes for title contention and expectations of at least making the playoffs. Instead, they’ve been met by a side that’s played disjointed, dispirited soccer, and one that, following Saturday’s 3-2 loss to D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – somehow it’s always D.C. United – has dropped down to 10th in the East. Atlanta’s now officially below the red line, looking up at the Wild Card spots as things seem to be coming to a head.

Christian Benteke scored a hat trick for the visitors, dominating in the air and providing a focal point on the ground. D.C.’s midfield won second balls and were off to the races. The wingbacks pushed forward with abandon. It never felt, even when Atlanta were able to put their foot on the ball and knock it around for a bit, like the home team were in control of the proceedings.

“You need to have some accountability. And you need to have guys that have a little bit of a backbone that can look at each other in the face and look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I need to be better in all facets of the game,’" is what veteran d-mid Dax McCarty told Five Stripe Final in the locker room afterward.

“Because right now, we're conceding goals too easily after a good start to the season defensively. And we're not scoring enough goals and we're disjointed in our attack and we have a lot of work to do to get back to the cohesion and the quality that I know that we have in this locker room.”

By the numbers you could argue Atlanta had played better in recent weeks – Thiago Almada in particular had been showing signs of life – but things are falling apart anyway.

The main issue is Atlanta want to be a pressing team, and want to win the ball back quickly and high upfield. Yet they are a disastrous pressing team, one that makes it too easy to build from the back and find space to play to and through the heart of midfield. Watch, on this play, how central midfielder Tristan Muyumba pushes up to press after the Five Stripes have lost possession.

Two issues here:

  1. There doesn’t appear to be an agreed-upon pressing trigger. As in, it’s not clear whether Atlanta are meant to be pressing a pass, or a specific player, or even at all.
  2. Even so, D.C. have only one outlet ball – up the gut to Benteke – and only one place where he’s going to put the header when he wins it (it’s a when, not an if for Benteke winning aerials). But nobody for Atlanta recognizes that, which leaves central midfield absolutely barren.

From that point onwards, it’s just Benteke giving 18-year-old Noah Cobb a lesson. He dished out a bunch of those this weekend.

It’s all left Atlanta back in the same spot they’ve seemed to reside in damn near permanently since 2020: talented enough to win some games via brute force, but so disorganized as to be fatally vulnerable against motivated, well-drilled opponents.

This year was supposed to be more than that. It hasn’t been so far, and there are no signs that things are going to change.

D.C., meanwhile, have put together a little three-game unbeaten run, the past two of which have come out of their new 3-5-2 shape. Head coach Troy Lesesne has used Jared Stroud – who’s usually a winger or a wingback – as a sort of central winger who runs through the lines off the ball rather than functioning as a central midfielder. It’s an unusual role, one rarely seen, and it’s made for a distinct pattern of play that produces productive overloads up the right flank.

They go to that particular well again and again and again, as their attacking graphic from the weekend shows…

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Adding Ted Ku-DiPietro to the mix (he played 45 minutes this weekend and is working toward full fitness after missing most of April via injury) just draws more defenders out there because he’s such a 1v1 threat. And that in turn allows Benteke more room to operate in the box attacking crosses, and… yeah. We know what he does with that.

D.C. spent the first two months of the season mostly playing well but not getting results. They’ve reversed that over the past few weeks, and are now in a three-way tie for fifth in the East. They have just one road loss all year, have a top-three expected goal differential in the conference, and are finally getting healthy.

I’m loading up on D.C. stock.

Sound the Alarm

The biggest game of the weekend, in several ways, was the Hell is Real derby, and it produced a statement win for FC Cincinnati. The reigning Supporters’ Shield champs had never won at Columbus and not only have they now checked that off the list, they’ve done so in the best possible way: with a match-winning performance from new acquisition Kevin Kelsy.

The 19-year-old Venezuelan center forward, who the Garys were able to get on loan with a purchase option after the 2024 season, and who takes up a U22 Initiative slot, showed he can do the Brandon Vazquez things this team has been missing. His insertion into the lineup in the 67th minute blew open what had been a scoreless game, turning it into a 2-1 win for the Garys.

Kelsy’s value was dead obvious on the first goal. “Big dude with smart box movement dunks on everybody at the back post” is a goal Vazquez scored about a dozen times over the past couple of years.

The second goal, though, was a masterclass in everything a target man can bring to the table. Let’s watch the entire clip:

Let’s go point-by-point through Kelsy’s contribution here (and shouts to Taylor Twellman for basically calling it out as it happened):

  • Brings down the long-ball and cycles possession.
  • Good run into the pocket to provide a half-space option.
  • Drives forward an extra touch to collapse the defense and give Luca Orellano the edge.
  • After release dives into the middle to occupy multiple defenders.
  • Occupying those defenders makes Steven Moreira shade a step central, which makes him too far to close down Lucho Acosta.

Kelsy gets no assist on the play, or chance created, or anything like that. But dear god did Cincinnati miss exactly this over the past couple of months. He made that goal, and he made Lucho’s life easier, and if that’s what he’s going to do on a weekly basis, then Cincy are well and truly in another Shield race. And for the first time all year, it feels like it could be as much because of their attack as it is because of their air-tight defense.

"My concern, I think, was what Columbus is capable of on the ball," head coach Pat Noonan said when asked to explain making an aggressive, attacking sub in a scoreless road game. "And with Kelsy\] on the field, that meant that Lucho was going to have to be dealing with Moreira on that side who loves to advance and it was going to ask a lot of him with tired legs. So I was a little bit hesitant. We thought of bringing in [Malik [Pinto] to play that role to just give us a little bit more defensively.

"But we wanted to see what [Kelsy] was all about."

The early returns are better than they could possibly have hoped for.

I am not yet going to force myself to worry about Columbus, whose winless skid is now at seven games in MLS play. They have obviously been frying bigger fish on the continental stage, and that’s the real version of the Crew – the ones who got past Tigres and beat the snot out of Monterrey, and have Pachuca in their sights.

Also in their sights, however, is a five-game road trip starting this week. There is a very decent chance things get worse before they get better for the reigning MLS Cup champs, and they’ll start the second half of their season needing to dig themselves out of a hole in order to climb into playoff position.

A few more things to ponder…

12. The Red Bulls got four different goalscorers in a fun and open 4-2 win over the visiting Revs on Saturday night. I don’t think head coach Sandro Schwarz will be entirely pleased – New England had way too much time and space to play through midfield, especially in the game’s final 20 minutes – but any time you score four and walk away with three points, the fans go home happy.

Nothing is happy for the Revs right now, and things got even worse in this one as Dylan Borrero, who had just made his return to action after missing a year with a torn ACL, had to be stretchered off the field in stoppage time. No word yet on the severity of the injury.

11. I am all aboard the Patrick Agyemang hype train. The big man has a clear path to the starting No. 9 job now that Enzo Copetti seems set to depart, and if you score goals like this, which was the winner in Charlotte’s 1-0 win over visiting Nashville, you keep the job:

In his 800 MLS minutes from the start of last year, Agyemang has 4g/1a. He’s in the 69th percentile (nice) of non-penalty goals per 90 among center forwards, and the 56th percentile of non-penalty xG. I reckon both numbers would climb if/when Charlotte ever add a pure chance creator.

The real interesting numbers, though, are the ones that shine a light on Agyemang’s dribbling: he’s in the 91st percentile of progressive carries among center forwards, the 92nd percentile of successful take-ons, and the 91st percentile of touches in the penalty area (all data via FBRef). The kid knows where the goal is and has substantial gifts in getting there.

The way I see it, he’s got two months to prove all of this is sustainable. If he can do that, then when the window opens this summer, Charlotte will have the luxury of going out and adding two new DPs without having to worry about spending one of those slots on a No. 9. Because, at that point, the job will be Agyemang’s for good.

10. Orlando changed their shape to a 3-5-2 in order to stretch out Philly’s midfield diamond by playing true wingbacks, and in a way it worked: they went to Chester and won 3-2, a result that snapped a three-game winless skid.

Luis Muriel got two goals and finally looked like a DP, paired up top with Duncan McGuire. But man, this was not a repeatable performance from the Lions:


As per American Soccer Analysis’s Eliot McKinley, Philly’s +3.7 xG advantage was the largest for a losing team in MLS play since at least 2013. Part of that came from Dániel Gazdag having a penalty saved – his first missed penalty (non-shootout, anyway) of his MLS career – but a lot of this was the Union throwing numbers forward and not quite battering down the door on one end, and then shooting themselves in the foot on the other.

“That’s kind of a microcosm of this team right now, a team with a sub-500 record which is unacceptable for us,” head coach Jim Curtin said when asked about midfield turnovers. “Nobody is happy, nobody is satisfied.”

One note: Orlando’s Robin Jansson came off with an injury in the 65th minute. No word yet on what it was, but they can not afford to be without the veteran for any length of time.

9. Post-match fireworks and an explosive accusation from Toronto FC manager John Herdman took the spotlight off what was an entertaining and open 3-2 New York City FC win up at BMO Field.

The Pigeons had just 43% possession in this one and really have settled in as more of a pure counterattacking team over the past couple of months. It’s quite a distance from their CFG roots, but given their 5W-2L-2D record since mid-March, my guess is head coach Nick Cushing is in no rush to adjust his game model. What he’s doing now is working.

Toronto got Lorenzo Insigne back after he’d missed most of the past two months with a hamstring injury, but lost Federico Bernardeschi to a post-match red card (second yellow, really).

8. Petar Musa took advantage of an early gift to make it 1-0 inside of five minutes, then played Jesús Ferreira through to make it 2-0 in the 56th minute as FC Dallas eased to an eventual 2-1 win over visiting Austin.

Ferreira’s goal was his 50th in regular-season play, making him the youngest ever to hit that mark. And what was lovely about it, from a Dallas point of view, was Ferreira used his considerable speed to bust the Verde & Black's offside trap.

Running in behind like that is something Ferreira needs to do more of, especially when Dallas control the game state. If they’re going to play a 3-5-2 with Musa and Ferreira up top (that’s really what it was in this one), the opportunities will be there.

The mistakes Austin made on both goals were the types that had defined 2023, and that they’d largely avoided in 2024. They do not have the talent to bring those bad old days back and still stay above the line. Their margins are too thin.

7. Miami, on the other hand, have the largest talent-related margins in the league. And so they can survive mostly sleepwalking through the first half of games and still come away with all three points. That’s the way it played out in Montréal, as the Herons spotted the hosts a pair of well-taken goals, then stormed back for a 3-2 win behind Matías Rojas and Luis Suárez.

Rojas has been exceptional in his brief time in pink. As I mentioned last week, his arrival gives Miami’s front office the opportunity to make a move this summer to shore up the defense, which clearly needs both reps and reinforcement.

Montréal fought hard and were dangerous, but now have just one win in their past eight.

6. Our Face of the Week goes to a trio of Houston Dynamo players celebrating what turned out to be Aliyu Ibrahim's game-winner in a 2-1 at Sporting KC:

This game was mostly even, but as I said in the tweet: Sporting lack athleticism almost everywhere on the field. Griffin Dorsey and Ibrahim, meanwhile, are two of the fastest players in the league. That math added up to a back-breaking goal.

Sporting manager Peter Vermes questioned his team’s mentality following the loss, which dropped them to 11th in the West. They have just one win from seven home games and play three of the next four on the road.

Things are officially desperate.

5. St. Louis did the job, beating visiting Chicago 3-1 behind an early banger from Rasmus Alm (Chris Brady will want that one back) and a brace from João Klauss. In all, City generated 24 shots and put seven of them on target. They also doubled up Chicago’s expected goals total.

It was a comprehensive attacking performance, and I’ve grown to really enjoy the “Indiana Vassilev as a pressing 10” experience. I’m not sure it’s here to stay – Vassilev just doesn’t provide enough end product at this point – but it’s made St. Louis more versatile in how and where they generate turnovers.

Chicago got a goal from record-signing Hugo Cuypers, but are down to 14th in the East.

4. Break up the Quakes! They made it two wins in a row, and unbeaten in three with their come-from-behind 3-2 win in Colorado.

The game-winner came from a pattern of play we’ve seen a ton of from Gregg Berhalter’s US men’s national team over the past six years, including during the time when Quakes head coach Luchi Gonzalez was a top assistant there:

While the above goal illustrated what San Jose want to do as often as possible, the first two goals they scored – which turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 tie at halftime – illustrated the significance of having a No. 10 with game-changing quality. Hernán López won a ball at midfield, rode a challenge and then sprayed Cristian Espinoza into space to lead to the first goal. For the second, López volleyed home a smart header from Vitor Costa.

And now that they’ve peeled themselves off the bottom of the standings, they’ve got eyes on more than just surviving. They want to climb.

“They’re showing more confidence and showing how they can adapt to this league. Hernán is one of them and he had a positive impact, and he’s going to keep needing to adapt,” Gonzalez said afterward. “We need to support them. We need to, on and off the field, know that with more time, this group can compete with anybody in the league.”

The breakdowns that led to all three goals should serve as something of a wake-up call for a Rapids team that had been riding high and, honestly, didn’t play badly in this one. They just switched off during crucial moments.

As good as they are, and as fun a story as they’ve been, they’re not the type of team that can do that and live to tell about it.

3. Over the past 18 months, the ‘Caps have repeatedly shown that they’re one elite piece away from competing with the best teams on the continent. On Saturday night down in LA, it looked more like five or six pieces would be necessary, as they got utterly stomped by LAFC. The 3-0 final was flattering to Vancouver, if anything.

It was obviously a well-taken win for LAFC, not just for the dominance in the scoreline or the underlying numbers, but for how comfortable they looked using the ball. The first goal came off transition, but only after a few quick passes in central midfield compressed the ‘Caps; the second goal was a pure possession play, 15 passes that took nearly a minute off the clock.

But the real “hey this team might be adding more to their blueprint” moment came throughout the second half as, rather than sitting behind the ball and absorbing in order to protect the 2-0 lead, the Black & Gold stayed on the front foot, hovered around 60% possession and never let a very good Vancouver side come up for air.

Word out of LAFC camp is they’d been aiming to add that club to their bag as the year’s gone on. They used it very, very well on Saturday.

2. The Sounders were due for a break and they finally got one. Portland had taken a 1-0 lead through Felipe Mora in the 15th minute of Sunday’s Cascadia Cup clash, but four minutes later Cristian Roldan’s deflected 28-yarder wrong-footed Portland’s Maxime Crépeau to make it 1-1. Half an hour after that, Raúl Ruidíaz found a bit of magic in his boots to make it 2-1.

A batten-down-the-hatches performance for the final 40 minutes kept that as the final scoreline. The result broke a six-game winless run against the Timbers for Seattle and pushed them up to 10th in the West, three points beneath the Wild Card spots.

Portland’s misery continues as they’ve now gone nine winless, and drop into the Western Conference basement.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Riqui Puig, whose delivery here was so good that Zac MacMath couldn’t help but strand himself in no-man’s land:

That rescued a late point for the Galaxy in a 2-2 final vs. an RSL side that are, I’m sure, kicking themselves for letting the full points sneak away.

  • Until RSL get more interplay and incisiveness from Diego Luna and Matt Crooks, they will be incomplete – unable to expand or even kill off leads with the ball against good teams.
  • When Riqui stays high and plays as a true 10, the Galaxy will create boatloads of chances against anyone. But until they are able to win physical battles in their own box, they will be susceptible to getting dominated by opposing center forwards, as happened with Chicho Arango on this evening.

It was a fun game between two very good teams that have a clear path to becoming great teams.