Matthew "Armchair Analyst" Doyle, an American soccer writer since MLS's inception, was in high school during the 1990 World Cup, which is when he started following the sport in earnest. Then the USA hosted the World Cup in 1994, MLS kicked off two years later, and Doyle knew he had to be involved, in one capacity or another. "I got very lucky with that timing," says Doyle. "In retrospect, the career path is like I was destined to be a shitposter. So there it is." Doyle writes for MLSSoccer.com and co-hosts MLS's ExtraTime podcast.
SOCCER AMERICA: How'd you get into soccer?
MATTHEW DOYLE: The 1990 World Cup. That was the big turning point for me. And subscribing to Soccer America for over 30 years. Back then in the 1990s, it was the only way to get a view on the world game.
Hosting in 1994 catalyzed everything. I was in high school then. From there I realized that MLS was next and I wanted to be apart of it from day one, whether I was a fan or covering it — I got very lucky. In retrospect, the career path is like I was destined to be a shitposter. So there it is.
SA: Did you have a blog back then?
MATTHEW DOYLE: I should've, but I didn't. I was a prolific poster on the old Soccer America message board [SA Graffiti], and BigSoccer for a few years. But I free-lanced a ton in college and in the years after college. And I worked for the student newspaper — that sort of stuff.
I wasn't there with like, Brian Phillips and Shawn Francis and Matt Tomasiewicz — the early blog boys.
SA: I’ve always wondered about the armchair that you sit in. Was there an original armchair that got you the name armchair analyst?
MATTHEW DOYLE: [Laughs] No, no. When I conceived of the idea for the column, Greg Lalas, who was the old editor at MLSSoccer.com was taking a shot at me and said, 'Oh, the armchair analyst is at it again.' And then we were like, 'Wait a minute. That's perfect!'
And so it's why — I take what I do seriously — but it's always been a little tongue-in-cheek. Because, you know, there are almost zero absolute truths in this game of ours. So to present tactical analysis as the end-all, be-all of what's happening out there is a lost cause on the face of it.
Having the joke that is the endeavor built into the title of the endeavor almost seemed appropriate.
SA: Of all the World Cup cycles you’ve covered, where does this one rank in terms of expectations for the team?
MATTHEW DOYLE: That's a good one. Expectations are, I think, higher than they've ever been. Other than maybe 2006. 2006 there was real, 'Oh man, we're a top ten team in the world at least, we did the quarterfinals.' We got up to fourth in the FIFA rankings.
And then that one fell apart pretty good.
So this one is right there with it. Even though we're not as high in the FIFA rankings.
Look, a lot of people judge how good a soccer player is by how famous the club they play for is. By that metric, this is the best soccer team that the United States has ever had. And I think expectations are commensurate with that.
SA: On a technical level, where do these players rank against World Cup teams of old, in your opinion?
MATTHEW DOYLE: I think Claudio Reyna — excuse me, Gio Reyna — is one of the most technical players that we've ever had. Jesus Ferreira ... his technique is different and better than the technique we've seen from previous center forwards.
That doesn't mean he's a better center forward. I would take prime Jozy [Altidore] or prime [Brian] McBride over him but he's a better technical player.
I'm not sure I feel the same way about the midfield. Yunus Musah, certainly, is a cut above. Tyler Adams, technically, is not better than Michael Bradley. If he was above average technically, he'd be playing for Liverpool.
But he's average or below. Red Bull Leipzig got rid of him because he couldn't do the ball progression stuff that they wanted him to do in midfield. So that's what we're talking about when it comes to technique.
Weston [McKennie] is incredible in a lot of ways. But we've had three different Juventus managers adjust their entire systems to move him upfield because he commits too many turnovers because of his sloppy technique. So you can't play him deeper in a ball progression role.
So I'm not sure that technical ability is the differentiator in this side. In certain spots it is: Sergino Dest — there's no one like him that we've ever had, as a right back. His technique is off the charts.
SA: And in terms of your confidence in them?
MATTHEW DOYLE: I am less confident about this team than I was about the 2010 team. Even though that team was missing Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies. I had a lot of confidence in the 2010 team and a lot of confidence in the 2014 group even though Jurgen Klinsmann was the manager.
Young teams don't do well at the World Cup, right?
Going back to the 2006 discussion, Landon [Donovan] was supposed to be the leader of that team. He was the same age that Pulisic, McKennie, Adams and Weah are now. And he failed as a leader. DaMarcus Beasley kind of did as well. There were other failures as well — we didn't bring a back-up defensive midfielder.
But young teams don't do well at the World Cup. What I'm hoping for is that maybe they're naive enough to go out there and play like they did against Mexico both times — I thought they were great in both of those games. Leave the baggage behind, stop trying to be what they're not, and play with energy and conviction.
If they do that, I think they'll get out of their group and maybe even win a knockout game because I do think the talent is that good.
SA: The USA disappointed big time in the last international window against Japan (2-0 loss) and Saudi Arabia (0-0 tie). What was your big takeaway from the last international break?
MATTHEW DOYLE: Uh ... yeah, I don't know. There was a sort of aimlessness and malaise, almost like they were too busy thinking through the game rather than playing the game. Maybe that's how fear manifests itself. Guys were playing for a roster spot and did it ultra-conservatively, trying not to screw up.
I don't know whether these friendlies are indicative of anything. They are just friendlies, and after 35 years of watching this team I can differentiate between the intensity level that we see from a friendly and that we see from a game with actual stakes. Especially after what we went through in World Cup qualifying. Maybe there's something wrong with this team and if that's the case we won't find out until they take the field in Qatar.
SA: The USA's starting center forward in Qatar?
MATTHEW DOYLE: If it was me? I would probably go with Josh Sargent ... and if it wasn't working, I'd toss the dice on Jordan Pefok and adjust the scheme to be less about positional play and pitch control and more about , 'OK, let's just make sure we get runners forward into the golden zones and hit crosses, pullbacks and simplify everything we've been doing.' Which is arguably what Berhalter should've been doing from day one.
The crew from ExtraTime, the Official Podcast of Major League Soccer (MLS).
SA: In 2010, Don Garber said of MLS, “We have a very specific goal. If we get the World Cup, we want to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022." Though we got the 2026 World Cup instead of the 2022 one, do you think Garber has succeeded in the goal?
MATTHEW DOYLE: Yeah, I think MLS is a Top 10 league in the world. If you go by transfer spend and transfer sales, I think we're in the Top 10 in both. Especially when you factor in the amount of talent that's coming out of academies and the amount that teams are importing now from South America, and I expect that to branch out to Africa and parts of Europe.
I mean, look at what the Revs are able to dig up in a guy like Djordje Petrovic, who they'll probably sell for $15 million. So yeah, it's been a success. It hasn't been an incredible success — we're a top three league in the Americas. What would've been an incredible success would be to have looked at Brazil and say, 'No, we are neck-and-neck with them.' And we're not quite there yet.
It is one of the best leagues in the world. It's been a successful 12 years. The deal with Apple is in the pocket now, which is exciting because it's something new that no league has ever done. It's all really cool. The big thing now is that teams have to be ambitious. We're seeing some teams with ambition kind of...let me rephrase this.
Teams need to be smart and targeted with their ambition. We haven't seen enough teams that are able to do that.
We're starting to see some separation in terms of front office savvy. That builds culture and also trickles down to coaching staff and players. To me, that's the next horizon: turning the Philadelphia Union into a Benfica-style model where they're selling two guys for $15 million and they're not going out to replace them — their replacements are already coming from within.
And that's the exciting next step for me.
That doesn't rule out signing guys like Riqui Puig or Federico Bernardeschi or Gareth Bale even — he hasn't been good but I didn't have a problem with that signing. I still want that to be a part of the league. But it has to be balanced, and teams are struggling with that balance a bit.
SA: If you could change one rule in soccer, what would it be?
MATTHEW DOYLE: Red cards that stop breakaways. If it's a professional foul, it's a red card.
SA: Even if there are three defenders behind the ball?
MATTHEW DOYLE: Uh ... well, I mean, yeah. If the foul is an intentional, professional foul, designed only to prevent a breakaway; if it's not an actual trying-to-play-the-ball foul and just, 'I'm going to take the card here,' that's a red card.
SA: Your reason is that it'll lead to more attacking plays and more goals?
MATTHEW DOYLE: It'll lead to more soccer. It's a non-soccer play that prevents soccer from happening. To me, that's a red card. This is Michael Cox's hobby-horse that he's been pounding on for a good, long while.