Midweek musings

Pefok's big moment, other Yanks in Europe struggle, Atlanta surges & more

It certainy has been an eventful week for American soccer - both here and abroad. While Jordan Pefok scored an enormous goal, there were plenty of struggles from Horvath to Brooks to Adams. ASN's Brian Sciaretta walks you through it all
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 16, 2021
12:00 PM

THE MIDWEEK SLATE OF games both domestically and abroad was full of a lot of stories – some good, but many were negative. Injuries continue to be a problem, but also a poor run of form has also hit a bunch of players. From a team perspective in MLS, it’s becoming more clear who the contenders are.

The Champions League opened up on Tuesday and Wednesday with Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, and Christian Pulisic both missing games while Sergino Dest is coming back from the ankle injury he picked up over the international window and was an unused substitute.

Here are a whole bunch of thoughts on the games.


Pefok’s memorable day


Jordan Pefok had a game that both he and BSC Young Boys supporters will remember forever. Hosting Manchester United in the opening day of the Champions League, Pefok was on the bench at the start of the game. Manchester United scored the opening goal early via Cristiano Ronaldo.

But in the 35th minute, Manchester United was reduced to 10 players when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off. Trailing 1-0 at halftime, Pefok came into the game to help Young Boys ignite a comeback and take advantage of their man advantage.

Young Boys equalized in the 66th minute via Nicolas Ngamaleu. But the key moment came in the 72nd minute for United when Jesse Lingard replaced Ronaldo in the 72nd minute. That set up the dramatic winner in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

On the play, Lingard made an error for the ages when his attempted backpass to the keeper went straight to Pefok who finished with ease to give Young Boys a 2-1 win.


Young Boys got the breaks in this game and took advantage of them, and it was an epic win for their club. Can they advance? It’s a massive uphill climb but the draw between Villarreal and Atalanta helps.

This was a game meant to enjoy, and not to draw too many conclusions from an American perspective. The winning play was more reflective of Lingard than Pefok, but Pefok showed once again he is a good finisher – even in high-pressure situations. Still, these situations won’ present themselves too often. For the rest of the 45 minutes, he was mostly uninvolved.  

The U.S. national team forward situation remains in flux and Pefok is still firmly in the picture. He’s far from a complete forward but what he does – pure finishing – he does well. He’s unlikely to beat defenders with a dribble or be part of quick combination play, but he will finish chances and he doesn’t need the best service to do so.

Brooks, Adams, Aaronson, McKennie


The rest of the Champions League contingent of American players didn’t have a memorable week – to varying degrees. For McKennie, it was passable but unsatisfactory. For Aaronson, it was just frustrating. For Adams, it was a learning experience. For Brooks, it was just bad.

Weston McKennie played the final 23 minutes for Juventus in a comfortable 3-0 away win over Sweden’s Malmo. All the goals were scored by the time McKennie came on, and the Texan’s job was simply to see out a win over an overmatched opponent.

His best moment came when he nearly had beautiful assist on a play that was call-back for being offside.


Keeping a starting job at Juventus is the big challenge for McKennie, and we will see more in the weeks ahead. This game didn’t offer much insight.

Brenden Aaronson started and went the distance for Red Bulls Salzburg in a 1-1 away draw with Sevilla. Normally it wouldn’t be a poor result, but Salzburg had three penalties in this game and converted just one. It also was up a man from the 50th minute after Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri was sent off.

Aaronson played well and nearly had a late winner where his shot forced a finger-tip save from Yassine Bounou. Still, the frustration was apparent for Red Bull after the final whistle that they squandered two critical points in their hopes to advance out of Group G – as both Lille and Wolfsburg are beatable.

In the Lille-Wolfsburg game in Group G, Tim Weah was injured for Lille but John Brooks started for Wolfsburg in his Champions League debut. After a tough international window, Brooks continued to struggle with his club and he was sent off in the 56th minute for his second yellow – on a play where he was beaten.

Brooks can go through spells of good and poor play. Right now, he’s trending in negative direction and will have to turn things around quickly for both club and country.

As for Tyler Adams and Jesse Marsch, it was an ugly result in their Champions League opener as they fell 6-3. Adams had some decent moments, for sure, but then he was skinned by Jack Grealish on this goal and the game turned out to be disappointing for Leipzig – who were simply not able to stop City.


As for the Americans who didn’t play, Sergino Dest was the most fortunate as he missed out on Barcelona’s dreadful 3-0 home loss to Bayern Munich.  Without Christian Pulisic, Chelsea meanwhile managed to get back Zenit 1-0 at home. Gio Reyna meanwhile missed out on Dortmund’s 2-1 away win over Besiktas in Turkey. As mentioned, Lille is likely frustrated with its 0-0 draw against Wolfsburg after it was up a man for 35 minutes after John Brooks was sent off.


Otasowie concerns


Owen Otasowie recently completed a $4 million move from Wolves to Club Brugge but reports suggest that he isn’t off to a good start with the Belgian champions.


That is unfortunate too as the club pulled a stunning 1-1 draw on Wednesday against a PSG team with Messi, Mbappe, and Neymar. They showed a lot of heart and are unlikely to want to change the current formula.

Championship action


In the Championship, there was America involvement on completely opposite sides of the table.

Tim Ream captained Fulham to a comfortable 4-1 away win over Birmingham City to move back atop the table. The St. Louis native looked strong while Antonee Robinson did not get off the bench in this one – mostly likely to manage his minutes.

Meanwhile, Ethan Horvath made his first start in the Championship for Nottingham Forest and it did not go well as his poor error gifted Middlesbrough its second goal in a 2-0 win.


Horavath deserves a bit of a break here. He rarely plays and then, due to poor games from Brice Samba, he was forced into the lineup of a team that has been crumbling. Nottingham Forest now has just one point from seven games and sits in last place.

The good news for the club is that head coach Chris Hughton has been fired and Horvath, Samba, and the rest of the players now have a clean slate.


Atlanta rolling


Atlanta put on a dominating display on Wednesday night in a 4-0 win over Cincinnati and the club has a lot of things going for it right now. In terms of coaching, Gonzalo Pineda has this team playing its best soccer since Tata Martino’s famed 2018 team. 

Right now, this team doesn’t have a weakness. For one, its defense is very strong and is actually built on a rare central defense DP in Alan Franco. Then you have Miles Robinson, who is playing like a Designated Player and a deserved starter on the U.S. team. Then you have George Campbell, who looks the part as Robinson’s successor should he get sold.

Atlanta is now playing with a three central defender set up – because it has three strong defenders. Then it has the attacking fullbacks to get into the attack. When you combine that with Ezequiel Barco, who is finally looking like the player Atlanta hoped he would be, and Josef Martinez who is close to becoming his former self before the ACL – they’re in great shape.


But it all starts with the coach. Atlanta made a disastrous hire in Frank de Boer and the hiring of Gabriel Heinze was a big setback.

Atlanta is fun again. They attack, they defend, and they have a manager that is bringing out the best in their high-priced talent.

In the win over Cincinnati, Atlanta did not play down to the level of its competition – as it had done under previous managers. Instead, Atlanta ran their opponents off the field.

The only issues Atlanta might have before the playoffs are international windows forcing them into squad rotation. Other than that, this is a team no one wants to face. A potential New England – Atlanta matchup in the postseason could be very enticing.


Red Bull worry


On Tuesday night, the Red Bulls fell to Columbus 2-1 in Ohio after taking an early lead and then gradually crumbling to another loss. Everyone knows that the Red Bulls are trying to rebuild and set up a new direction as the team has never really been the same since Jesse Marsch was hired away within the Red Bull organization.

This Red Bull team is playing far below the sum of its parts. It never replaced Aaron Long. John Tolkin is a left back playing in the midfield. Caden Clark hasn’t been himself in weeks. The team gets no wing play and Patryk Klimala is still far from what the team needs. Cristian Casseres was injured, but even when he’s been healthy, he hasn’t been the midfielder the team needs. Frankie Amaya is a non-factor, despite the heavy investment.

This falls on Gerhard Struber, who seems to emphasize fitness but the team has no creative ideas. The entire team is playing below the sum of its parts.


Philadelphia falls to Club America


After dropping a 2-0 defeat in Mexico City, few gave Philadelphia any real chance of coming back against Club America in the return leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal. On Wednesday night, America won again, 2-0. This time, they allowed Philadelphia to control most of the ball while then hitting the on the counterattack. It worked and Club America scored two late goals to win.

Philadelphia actually played well for stretches of this game and forced some nice saves from Guillermo Ochoa – who made five saves.

The drought for MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League continues. 2020 remains the best performance when LAFC defeated four Liga MX teams but came up short in the final – despite having a late lead. This one, however, wasn’t expected to be close as Philadelphia is a fraction of its 2020 talent level (currently out of the playoffs) while Club America sits atop Liga MX.

The gap might be closing between MLS and Liga MX at the middle levels, but the top Liga MX teams still remain a bridge too far as they simply spend more on players.

The gap may one day close but it’s also tough when you see MLS embracing the selling league concept – which it should and should not abandon. Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson were the reason this team qualified for the CCL and now both are gone, so the team is rebuilding. Next year, New England should be in the CCL but Tajan Buchanan won’t be there. Atlanta United might be there, but it’s easy to see players like Miles Robinson and others getting sold.

MLS handicaps itself in this competition – some for good reasons (selling players more frequently), some for debatable reasons (salary cap and other salary rules). To compete against the top teams in Mexico, it is going to take young players that are difference makers at a young age before they’re sold, exceptional role players, impactful designated players, and some luck.


Dallas is maddening 

FC Dallas is a team that a lot of American fans want to like. Any team that has played such a big role in developing talent for a country, like Dallas has done, should be applauded. But the team just can’t seem to put it together. When its defense is playing well, its offense goes to kaput. When it scores goals, its defense is a mess.

Defense was certainly the culprit on Tuesday night when Dallas played NYCFC to a 3-3 draw at Red Bull Arena. The Dallas homegrowns showed up. Ricardo Pepi assisted to Jesus Ferreira on a great goal. Paxton Pomykal was active on the right side and Justin Che remains one of the top American prospects.

But even average defense would have won this game – and Dallas doesn’t look like it will be in the playoff mix. 

On the other hand, Pepi is on the U.S. national team and Jesus Ferreira is getting very close to a return. 


Playoff races


Just a quick word on the playoff races – it is going to be tight in both conferences. The East knows its top seed and Supporters Shield winner – the New England Revolution. But they’re going to have a tough path in the playoffs. Nashville is buit on defense and has a difference maker in Hany Mukhtar. Nashville isn’t known for their excitement, but they’re good.

But in the East, two points separate fifth place DC United and ninth place Philadelphia Union. It appears five teams are fighting for three spots – DC United, Montreal, Atlanta United, Inter Miami, and Philadelphia. I like DC United’s chances and Atlanta is back. Of the remaining three, don’t be surprised if Inter Miami is there – they’re playing with the chip on their shoulder because no one expected or wanted them to get there.

In the West, Seattle and Sporting Kansas City are in a tight race for the top spot but with Seattle getting healthy, they’re the favorites.

The playoff-line doesn’t have as many teams involved as the East, but it’s tight. LAFC has gotten its act together thanks to the arrival of Cristian Arango, who’s been terrific the past few weeks. But then you have LAFC and RSL at 33 points for the final two playoff positions and then you have Portland at 34 points. The first team out is Minnesota at 31 points (who have played one fewer game).

It’s close, but it will only become nail-biting once Emanuel Reynoso and Robin Lod return for Minnesota. For now, they’re losing a lot of ground.

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