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MLS Western Conference: Phil Neville’s new approach, Rapids’ high press & more on each team

We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Western Conference.

14 min read

Welcome back our two-part weekly MLS column here at Backheeled where we break down all 29 teams in the league.

I’ve got the West. Ben Wright’s got the East. Minnesota United don't have Emanuel Reynoso. Let’s chat about the latest for each Western Conference squad, shall we?

To read up on the East, check out Ben’s rundown.

MLS Eastern Conference: A Messi revenge game, NYCFC right the ship & more on each team
We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Eastern Conference.

Austin FC

Result: 1-0 loss at St. Louis City

Um, has someone tried turning the road version of Austin FC off and back on again?

After a pair of encouraging performances at home over the last two weekends, Austin limped to just two shots for a grand total of 0.11 xG in their loss to St. Louis on Sunday. As Arman, our stat master here at Backheeled, mentions, this isn’t the first time Austin have struggled to build any real rhythm on the road in 2024.

Gone was the somewhat free-flowing, 4-3-3 attacking play that we saw from this team against FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes (granted, it was FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes…). Sebastian Driussi touched the ball just 30 times from his left-sided attacking midfield spot — that’s less than half the number of touches he had against San Jose last weekend. Driussi couldn't get involved, the wide attackers weren’t dangerous, and Austin ended with basically nothing to show for their 62% possession.

The lows are real, real low for Josh Wolff’s team right now.

Colorado Rapids

Result: 3-0 win at San Jose Earthquakes

Slowly but surely, the Colorado Rapids are inching their way up the high-press rankings in MLS. 

A few weeks ago, they were 10th in the league in passes allowed per defensive action based on data from Opta. They would press more than most, but not early and often. Coming into this weekend, they’d moved up to seventh in PPDA. Then in a quality road win against the San Jose Earthquakes, they used a bit of high pressure to force a turnover and change the gamestate in their favor

I’ve been banging on and on this year about how the Rapids haven’t been truly differentiable when it comes to their tactical approach. That’s a bit of a problem for a team that lacks talent. If you don’t have top-end (or even much mid-tier) talent, but you play like 50% of the teams in MLS by sitting in a mid-block and hitting on the break, you’re not setting yourself up for success. Instead, having an overarching, differentiable system that provides clarity and reduces mistakes that stem from confusion can be an asset.

Leaning further towards the press, then, is a good thing for Chris Armas.

FC Dallas

Result: 0-0 draw vs. Seattle Sounders

Asier Illaramendi really, really wanted to keep us in the loop on his injury recovery. He made sure to give us everything but a doctor’s note. Oh, look, there he is. He’s gotta be close to a return.

Okay, now we’ve gotta be close.


Finally, after four missed games and three teaser tweets, we saw the Spaniard come off the bench in the second half for Nico Estevez against the Sounders. Illaramendi’s return is key for Dallas, a team that’s lacked connective tissue through most of their first seven matches of 2024. Want some proof? Club-record signing Petar Musa is averaging just 3.6 touches in the box per 90 minutes, only good enough for the 23rd percentile among MLS strikers this year.

With Dallas returning to a back three shape against Seattle (one that looked like a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 depending on Sebastian Lleget’s positioning on the right side of central midfield), Musa had all of one touch in the box. Illaramendi — and Jesus Ferreira — need to get back in the lineup ASAP. 

Houston Dynamo

Result: 2-1 win at Minnesota United

Am I sold on this version of the Dynamo really being nearly two-points-per-game-good? Nope. But do they keep on picking up results anyway? Yes, yes they do.

Ben Olsen’s squad has won two of three games on the road so far this year and triumphed over Minnesota United on Saturday. Missing at least three starters with injuries, it was another gritty result for Houston. Of course, they don’t play gritty in the first two-thirds of the field. It was the same 3-2-5 shape in possession that we’ve come to expect over the last year or so. There was a twist against the Loons, though. Instead of pushing Coco Carrasquilla into the right halfspace as part of the front five, Olsen used Latif Blessing in that spot and dropped the Panamanian into the double pivot next to Artur. That, in case you’ve forgotten, is Hector Herrera’s role.

With just seven shots and less than 0.5 xG over the weekend, the Dynamo sure could use a healthy Herrera. Their current string of results isn’t sustainable with their current crop of talent, but if a couple of key pieces find their way into the lineup sooner rather than later, the performances just might rise while the results keep coming.

Los Angeles FC

Result: 2-2 draw at Portland Timbers

You can’t be a team that relies on transition attacking play (which is what Steve Cherundolo has turned this LAFC team into) without nailing the defensive basics. LAFC whiffed on the basics in their 2-2 draw against Portland, allowing one of the most dangerous and versatile attacking fullbacks in MLS enough time to snag a lawn chair, put his feet up at Providence Park, crack open a cold one, and — oh yeah — pick out an uncontested assist: 

It’s a massive defensive breakdown from Ilie Sanchez and Timothy Tillman, who both fail to rotate over to apply any pressure Juan Mosquera. Because LAFC only play with a band of three players across their midfield line instead of the more common four, the central and weak-side central midfielders have to be alert to exactly the kind of situation seen above.


Design: Peyton Gallaher

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