MLS Week 2 breakdown
Play Your Kids, RBNY impress, San Jose entertain, Cincy & Minnesota disappoint
May 03, 2021
THE THIRD WEEK of the 2021 MLS continued what has been generally a strong start to the season – the Play Your Kids movement continues to bear fruit for the third straight year, impressive goals have been scored, and generally the play has been pretty good for early in the season.
Of course, we’re learning that our preseason predictions have been off – but, to be fair, almost all of the surprises have been in the West. Real Salt Lake is seriously outperforming expectations as is Austin FC and San Jose. Minnesota, meanwhile, has been a massive disappointment and Sporting Kansas City has been underwhelming.
But it’s early and the safe bet is that the standings right now will change massively.
Anyway, here are my observations from the week.
The kids are alright
While the “Play Your Kids” movement has been an ongoing process, the 2021 season is really the third year that it has begun to bear meaningful fruit. Sure, there were young players playing in the league in 2018 and before (Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies, etc), but things really started taking place en masse starting in 2019 at the first team level. The academies in the earlier half of the decade were instrumental but those key players started to mature two years ago.
Since then, you have seen players become instrumental to successful teams. Tyler Adams, Mark McKenzie, Alphonso Davies, and Brenden Aaronson all completed the process of coming through academies, moving to the first team, helping the club win silverware, and then getting sold to Europe. Others like Gianluca Busio, Cole Bassett, and others seem likely to follow.
So far in 2021, things are continuing in this trend – which is good for the various teams that have invested in academies, good for the league, good for the players, good for the national team, and good for the owners to build up revenue streams on sale.
Consider this, Dante Sealy scored for FC Dallas on Saturday against Portland. In doing so, he became the fourth American born in 2003 to score in the first three weeks of the season – joining Ricardo Pepi, Caden Clark, and Cade Cowell.
Another week, another 2003-born player scoring in MLS this season. Dante Sealy scores for Dallas. He joins fellow Americans Caden Clark, Ricardo Pepi, & Cade Cowell as the class of 2003 to get on the score sheet this season pic.twitter.com/psyG4P5EwP— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 2, 2021
These aren’t just one-offs either. Clark and Cowell both scored over the weekend and now have multiple goals thus far. This trend is only going to continue. As for Clark and Cowell, both have been exceptional and we’ll get to them soon.
There will be others who follow from the 2003-born class. Patrick Weah (nephew of George Weah and cousin of both Tim Weah and Kyle Duncan) made his professional debut as a late sub and nearly scored for Minnesota. Given how Minnesota has played, he’ll get chances in the weeks ahead.
Anyway, the process seems to be sustainable and it should be able to continue to develop a steady flow of young players.
Red Bulls will be okay
The New York Red Bulls defeated Chicago 2-0 on Saturday afternoon and it erased a two-game skid to start the season. It was the first win for new manager Gerhard Struber. The Red Bulls weren’t exactly poor in either of their first two losses but rather were done in by a one-minute collapse against Kansas City, and hitting a confident and in-form Chicharito.
In this game, the Red Bulls received another great goal from a highly rated member of the 2003-born class in Caden Clark.
It’s easy to see why he’s going to be a good fit this year. Instinctively he knows where to be in the box and his finishing is solid. But on top of that, he is very effective in the press where he forces turnovers and wins duels. Having him playing further up in an advanced position makes sense.
Love this finish from Caden Clark. His goals are almost always goalazzos pic.twitter.com/RWvY99dUSH— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 1, 2021
While young, Clark is not new for the Red Bulls. So, why should people be optimistic over the Red Bulls?
Frankie Amaya had a great first start for the club and looked like a missing piece of the equation. It was a smart move for RBNY to trade for the former first-overall pick. On Saturday, Amaya completed 100% of his passing, won more duels, covered the ground necessary in the press, and forced turnovers.
In addition, you also saw Cristian Casseres continue to play well and score his second of the year. New arrival, Fabio managed two assists. Andrew Gutman is growing into the left back role. When you add into to mix that forward Patryk Klimala will soon make his debut from Celtic (and presumably be an upgrade for Tom Barlow), there is plenty of reason for optimism.
When the margin of losing was thin to start the season, it didn’t take a lot to change things around. It took a few more additions and gradual improvement of existing options.
Quakes are good & fun
It’s too bad that COVID still has attendance so limited in so many markets – especially in San Jose where the Earthquakes are at their most entertaining level since the “Goonies never die” era of Steve Lenhart and Alan Gordon.
Now under the eccentric Matias Almeyda, the team is free-flowing, skillful, young, and talented.
On Saturday in a 4-1 rout over injury plagued DC United, two players led the charge: U.S. national team midfielder Jackson Yueill and Cade Cowell – yet another talented member of the 2003-born class.
Cade Cowell had a goal and two assists. Yueill, 24, had two goals – including one that could potentially win the goal of the year.
This angle is even better. What an amazing strike pic.twitter.com/8aYujjz95A— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 2, 2021
Cade Cowell now has two goals and three assists over his last two games.
Here is Cade Cowell’s goal tonight.. to go along with an assist. Cowell now has 2 goals and 2 assists in his last 2 games. Tonight’s game is still in the 31st minute. pic.twitter.com/bElWH2ukMs— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) May 2, 2021
Both Cowell and Yueill combined on the final goal of the game.
CADE COWELL BALL.— San Jose Earthquakes (@SJEarthquakes) May 2, 2021
JACKSON YUEILL FINISH.
WE'RE HAVING FUN. pic.twitter.com/5WYsn27IpF
Right now, San Jose is firing on all cylinders and it’s been highly entertaining.
Cincy has huge problems
In their first two seasons in the league, Cincinnati has been terrible – mostly due to making poor decisions in building the team. In its inaugural year, it decided to let things ride from their USL team and that didn’t work. It overpaid for Nick Hagglund and other acquisitions such as Joe Gyau and Caleb Stanko did not yield much value.
Heading into this year, ownership threw a lot of money at various players like Brenner and Luciano Acosta and that would normally be okay – if the team had a functional existing core. This team had too many problems from 2020 that needed to be fixed first and as a result, those expensive players aren’t able to make much of an impact.
Spending money like that almost makes things worse because the budget has now shrunk to fix the real problems and the star players eventually become disgruntled.
On Saturday, Cincinnati lost 3-0 to a still-short handed Orlando team and the result could have been far worse. On the heels of a 5-0 loss to NYCFC last weekend and a 2-2 draw where it Cincy held on for dear life for a point, things are really bleak. On Saturday's game, they conceded off an error in the back inside of the first minute.
The problem right now is that the team has so many problems that it becomes very hard to fix them. The front office isn’t making the right decisions, Jaap Stam is doing a poor job as head coach, and the team had a few good players but no real functioning core. Who, thus far, has shown they are capable of fixing the problem?
This league (or any league) is going to have dysfunctional teams but Cincinnati’s ineptitude comes at a horrible time as it is set to move into a beautiful new stadium. As society prepares to welcome back more and more fans, the current FC Cincinnati is not the product you want to have moving into this new gem.
As for Orlando, they’ll be fine. Oscar Pareja is a good manager and as more and more players return from injury, they’ll be near the top of the East again.
Many expected Cincinnati to be the worst team in the league – and they are. The biggest disappointment thus far is Minnesota which has lost all three of its first three games and is the only team in the league without a point. On Saturday, it was a 1-0 loss to expansion side Austin FC.
This team’s offense is just broken. Matthew Doyle pointed out that its dribbling is simply poor and that it has no way to break down defenses. That certainly explains part of the reason why it has only scored once in 270 minutes of action. But what should frustrate Minnesota fans is that this isn’t a typical case of some new-signing that doesn’t live up to expectations (which is common early in the season, especially with TAM signings). Instead, what we’re seeing is existing players from last season not playing up to their previous level.
Hear what Adrian had to say at halftime ?? pic.twitter.com/LQRHPJAMb8— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) May 2, 2021
It’s not just one or two players struggling, it’s Ethan Finley, Chase Gaspar, Hassani Dotson, Jan Gregus, Ozzie Alonso, Romain Metanire and newcomer but Wil Trapp – a veteran in the league. These players are not struggling under a new manager or new system either. Even elite DP Emmanuel Reynoso is struggling.
These are all players better than what they’re showing. For many, it’s a mentality or confidence issues and good players figure it out. But if the problems are deeper and there is a problem with team culture, it could be a rough season.
THE MLS teams in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League have been especially poor to start the season. Among five teams involved (Philadelphia, Portland, Columbus, Atlanta, Toronto) their combined record has been brutal: 13 games, 2 wins, 5 draws, 6 losses.
This year Liga MX is sending the cream of the crop based on their current Clausura (17 games into the season). Cruz Azul is in first, Club America is in second, Monterrey is in fourth. Sixth place Leon has been eliminated by Toronto.
Those top Mexican teams are on another level even within Mexico in part because they are very rich and spend a ton on payroll. It takes a remarkable effort from an MLS team to knock them off and the MLS teams struggle with depth when having to return to league play.
I think the gap is closing substantially with MLS and most of Liga MX. The perennial contenders, however, are on another level.
Rubin & Pomykal see revivals
There has been a lot of talk about Chicharito – and for good reason. He’s playing the way everyone initially expected after a brutal 2020. But, it was probably always a matter of time for him to start scoring. He isn’t that far removed from some impressive accomplishments and he hasn’t dealt with a lot of injuries.
The true revival stories so far this season have been Rubio Rubin and Paxton Pomykal. These are two players who have both been considered top prospects but have hit massive stumbling blocks. Pomykal has been hit with a wave of injuries to both knees, his hip, and a sports hernia – all have required at least one surgery. Rubin once broke through in the Eredivisie at age 18 but struggled every since.
Taking advantage of poor Kansas City defending, Rubin scored twice for Real Salt Lake in a 3-1 win on Saturday. His comeback began last season with Landon Donovan in San Diego at the USL level. Now he’s at MLS with RSL – and helping that team exceed all expectations, winning their first two games.
RSL isn’t just scraping by, they’re looking the part in going toe-to-toe with opponents.
As for Paxton Pomykal, he hasn’t yet started for Dallas this season but this long pass to spring the play that lead to Dante Sealy’s goal was a reminder to 2019 when he was one of the top players on the U.S. U-20 World Cup team.
Revs top the East
The New England Revolution have been the league’s best team thus far through three weeks. On Saturday they posted a 2-1 win over Atlanta United to move to seven points on the season.
It just shows you how quickly a team can rebuild in this league when put into the hands of someone who knows how to do it. Bruce Arena isn’t for everyone and he’s worn out his welcome at a few gigs but he has been able revive some teams which have been stuck in the mud.
From an American perspective, it's fun to watch. Along wiht USMNT keeper Matt Turner, the team's entire backline is American and most of the bench players are American as well. It's not the most attractive soccer to watch but everyone's role is defined, they play hard, and there is decent chemistry.
Carles Gil is critical with this team and has played well so far this season. He facilitates everyone. The team might be over dependent on him to play well and if he's ever injured, the Revs might struggle. If he's playing, however, they are capable of beating anyone.
Seattle's statement vs. Galaxy
Sunday’s night game between the Sounders and the Galaxy was billed as a clash between two of the league’s best teams. Fair enough. But the result was rather one-sided as Seattle won easily 3-0.
Like many, I kind of wonder when Seattle’s wheels will start to fall off without Jordan Morris and with Nicholas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz now over 30. But the skill of Seattle is that they always seem to find players that work – and someone typically steps up. This has allowed them to win or contend for MLS Cup most years.
The fact Raul Ruidiaz scored a brace wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was Brad Smith who put himself into the league’s Best XI of the Week with a stellar outing of a goal and an assist.
To cap off a great night (which included the snazzy Jimi Hendrix kits), Nico Loderio returned from injury in the second half to make his first appearance of the season.
And Seattle now has seven points to start the season while not firing at full strength.
As for the Galaxy, what is Plan B when Chicharito is contained? Can the defense improve after conceding multiple goals in each of the first three games of the season? Gregg Vanney has a lot of work to be done with this team.