Toronto impresses, Philly overworked?, LA Blues, & MLS in the Big Picture
October 05, 2020
THE BEST WAY to describe this weekend in MLS is that it was revealing. A lot of questions over specific players and teams were given answers and, as we head to the playoffs, we know a little bit more about the good and the bad right now – at least in the East. Outside of Seattle, the West in 2020 is peak MLS unpredictability, and that is saying something.
Before we get into the weekend in MLS, it’s worth talking about this league in light of the tremendous success some American players are seeing at the highest levels of Europe at the moment. While Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie, and Gio Reyna make up the core five players who are regular contributors to Champions League teams, their success helps all of American soccer.
American soccer is improving now, but that is across the board. It was never going to be the case of having a handful of successful players, having them be the exception, while the old existing status quo-level of players is behind them. It was always going to be a rising tide. The players at the top were going to be better, but the players behind them were going to be better. The typical American professional was always going to be better as American soccer improved. There are young Americans across the globe, based domestically and abroad, that are interesting and promising.
MLS has done a better job the past four years of being part of the global market place. Not only with the American and Canadian players it has exported, but also with the foreign players too – like Carlos Gruezo, Jack Harrison, Miguel Almiron and even others who were in the league only on loan – like Angelino.
There is still work to be done. When FC Dallas lost Weston McKennie for nothing after McKennie spent nine years in the club’s academy, there was a definite change in approach. Many of the league’s teams are signing homegrown players at younger and younger ages. In order to do that, teams had to get them on the field in order continue this path. For the most part they have – with some teams being much better than others. The best young American teens signed to league teams are playing and the crop below them are earning healthy USL minutes. That’s all well and good.
But this shift in approach has also been in good timing with the improvement of the young American player. When the “missing years” generation (birth years 1990-1994) was 18-21, it wouldn’t have been possible to get them on the field en masse without there being a significant drop off in talent. I am not a believer that the “missing years” generation was harmed by a lack of first-team minutes at younger ages. The battle for these players was lost way before that (the U-17 national team and younger YNTs for this generation were also poor).
The improved player of today – which are aided by improved academies in the league – are reflective in the fact that teams in MLS can build around these players and win. Brenden Aaronson is the starting No. 10 for a top Philadelphia team and Mark McKenzie is a very good central defender.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The increased number of homegrown signings following the McKennie departure are now coming to fruition. Many of the best 2003-born class are domestically based. It will test the league’s resolve as a selling league and the successes of the sales of Adams, Davies, Harrison and now maybe Cannon and Aaronson is not lost on players or European scouts. More and more the league will be seen as a viable pathway to the best of Europe – as opposed to hoping to sign for obscure Scandinavian team like Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies did in previous generations.
The point being, the success of American players (and foreign alumni of the league) is great news for this country’s domestic leagues. The quality of the overall American player isn’t going to improve without the domestic leagues also improving. It’s an exciting time.
With that said, here are my thoughts from the weekend.
Toronto downs Philly in the big game
The biggest game of the weekend, by a long stretch, was when Toronto “hosted” Philadelphia in Hartford. After Philadelphia took a 1-0 lead just before halftime, Toronto raised its game in the second half for a 2-1 win.
There were a bunch of takeaways in this one.
First, Toronto is well coached and former U.S. international Greg Vanney has turned himself into a quality manager. Tactically, he has adjusted well with Michael Bradley sidelined and now it looks like he’ll be without Altidore as well.
Second, Jozy Altidore’s hamstrings might sideline him – yet again. We won’t know the specifics until early in the week but this will, sadly, be a huge story of his career.
Third, Ayo Akinola stepped it up, big time, once Altidore left the field. His equalizing goal wasn’t just the result of a great cross into the box from Tony Gallacher, but Akinola’s movement to break free from his defender (potential future U.S. international Mark McKenzie) was smart. His execution was flawless. It was just a good header.
Here is Akinola’s goal. Nice header and solid movement from Akinola, great cross from Gallacher. pic.twitter.com/y3bKXH3VtF— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 4, 2020
There is a lot to like about Akinola’s development this year. When he was on the U.S. U-17 team, it was all about his strength. But his overall fitness is better now and the quality of his runs are also better. He has a long way to go, but he’s been able to score nice goals against good defenders this year.
For all the talk about Sebastian Soto’s international allegiance, it would be tough for the U.S. to lose Akinola right now – as he has 2021 to focus on the U-23 team as well.
For Philadelphia, this was clearly a tough loss because a win could have pushed it into the top of the East. The team has made big strides this year but the upcoming sale of Aaronson and with teams sniffing around for McKenzie, makes it almost a “win now” year for the Union. Sure there is a lot to like about the group behind those two, but they are still unproven and captain Alejandro Bedoya isn’t getting any younger.
Once concern for Philadelphia should be how much Aaronson and the core starters are working right now in a year with a super-condensed schedule. In particular for Aaronson, his weekly minutes increase since the return of play from the shutdown is something very new to his body. It shouldn’t be surprising if Aaronson sits occasional games down the stretch to avoid being overworked.
Seattle cruising in the West
In the Western Conference, there is Seattle and there is everyone else. Whenever Brian Schmetzer rolls out his best starting lineup, the team typically wins. Even when he opts for squad rotation, the Sounders can obtain results.
On Saturday, Seattle defeated Vancouver 3-1 in a game that showcased the numerous ways the Sounders can win. When the games are open, Jordan Morris will find holes and be a nightmare to defend. But it is not only Morris and Raul Ruidiaz who can score, the game was broken open when Joao Paulo hit a screamer from distance.
¡DE 9, DE GOLEADOR! ??????????— Los Convocados Perú (@Losconvocadosp) October 4, 2020
No podía faltar el gol de Ruidíaz en su regreso a la titularidad. pic.twitter.com/i7NECG8VM0
The West is an absolute mess and there is no sense in trying to make any order out of the inconsistencies of the two LA teams, Seattle, Dallas, or Colorado. Portland remains a threat but Seattle has this league figured out.
Orlando continues to rise
This is the most relevant and impressive Orlando City has ever been in its existence. During its first five years, the club has tried everything and the it hoped a designated player like Kaka could mask its weak supporting cast.
Right now, the team has things figured out and this was apparent on Saturday in a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls.
Yes, Nani is a great designated player but the entire cast is there. Chris Mueller is playing like a league Best XI right now and this assist only helped to continue to boost his stats.
What a season for Chris Mueller. His production rate is very impressive. 7 goals and 5 assists now in 2020. Really nice assist here— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 3, 2020
Then you have Daryl Dike who out maneuvered Aaron Long in the game’s opening goal. Dike is playing like a center forward who should belong on the U.S. U-23 team at the moment – although with his strong ties to Nigeria (his brother Bright – former Portland and Toronto forward played for Nigeria), it remains to be seen what he wants to do. Dike, however, should have more options with the United States than his brother did.
But above it all, the biggest reason for success is Oscar Pareja. His ability to implement a game plan that fits his players and not try to repeatedly change it has been enormous. Spending a lot in MLS helps but quality coaching matters now more than ever before.
The Red Bulls came into this game having won two in a row but this was the first time against good competition. The Red Bulls were okay, for the most part, but Orlando was simply better. New York Red Bull interim manager Bradley Carnell was pleased with his team’s attitude even if he was “gutted” but the result.
“We got ourselves into the right spaces, we turned over a ton of balls in the first half, and failed to hurt them in transition,” Carnell said. “Even in the second half, we actually played out some really good sequences and just failed to get in on the end of it. Just a bit disappointing that we couldn’t reward ourselves to get into some good spots because we really tried to plug away with certain things and there were some issues or some situations that we lose the sort of mindset of what to do, the coolness, the calmness in terms of how we want to cross the ball.”
The Red Bulls are clearly a team in transition and the inflow of talent clearly hasn’t matched the outflow. Still, the academy is back on the uptick and the rumors of Gerhard Struber leaving Barnsley and taking over the Red Bulls managerial spot grow louder.
For now, the Red Bulls have a huge problem with the loss of Kaku and Cristian Casseres to the national teams for the upcoming window. It begs the question where the goals will come from and who will occupy the defensive midfield position.
In the end, the Red Bulls will probably sneak into the playoffs – albeit maybe just the playoff round. Even when this team plays up to his potential, it just doesn’t have the strikers to compete with the best in the conference.
DC United and Olsen
In a matchup of troubled teams, Atlanta United traveled to the nation’s capital and destroyed DC United 4-0. Granted Atlanta United played well and this was just a pretty sequence.
This is a pretty goal from Atlanta. Nice sequence of passing pic.twitter.com/o1D67ay34r— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 4, 2020
Also, Brooks Lennon had more offensive production in this game than he had in in over 40 combined games. He played extremely well.
But DC United is now dead last in the Eastern Conference for the worst record in the league – with just 11 points and a -13 goal-differential.
Earlier this season, Charles Boehm tweeted that sources were telling him that unless there was something drastic, Ben Olsen would keep his job. This has become a stagnant and stale organization in the league. That is a shame because DC United was once the cornerstone of the league. Being relevant again never seemed so far away.
It is good for DC United to be playing a few promising young players in Moses Neyman and Kevin Paredes but as we’ve said, its one thing to play youth. It is another to win with youth. At the top flight, winning helps with development.
We get it. 2020 is a lost year and if you’re going to be bad, 2020 is a good time to be bad. It seems like the appetite for sports is way down across the country. Hopefully things return to normal in 2021 but DC United has to be looking towards that. Is Olsen really the right guy?
San Jose downs the Galaxy
As San Jose defeated the LA Galaxy on Saturday night, the numbers are starting to look comical.
- Opponents are outscoring the Galaxy 13-4 in the 598 minutes Chicharito has been on the field
- Galaxy are outscoring opponents 14-10 in the 661 minutes without Chicharito on the field.
- The Galaxy are 4-1-1 without Chicharito and 0-6-2 with Chicharito.
In this game, the Galaxy went another 89 futile minutes with the Mexican legend on the field and he still has just one goal on the season. Yes, he was critical to the build-up of the first goal as his rebound was put home by Sebastian Lletget.
This is an ugly situation that has been brewing for years, it is just that Zlatan’s presence was able to cover it up. Zlatan was able to create and score on such a regular basis that it masked how poorly this team was made up. Chicharito was never going to fix anything. He hasn’t been great and it’s not smart to excuse that, but he was never a creator. The Galaxy management made a poor assumption that that the existing cast could provide Chicharito with the service where he could score goals in droves.
2020 has been a nightmare for the Galaxy because the luster of having Chicharito has worn off even before the Galaxy could reap the benefit of selling tickets. Even making the assumption that crowds come back in full force next year, is Chicharito going to sell tickets in LA and throughout the league after this year? Maybe, but probably not. So not only are the Galaxy losing, they’re missing out on the publicity they wanted from signing Chicharito.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto is going to have to answer some questions moving forward about his vision for the team and whether or not he is connecting with the players. Combined with DC United, two of the most important organizations in the league are floundering in last place.
As for San Jose, there is something likable about this team even if they’re not good. But consecutive dramatic wins over both LA teams is eye-opening, despite the struggles of the LA teams. Before that stretch, San Jose was being outscored 11-1 over its previous two games. Every time Matias Almeya looks like he is crashing and burning, he escapes and provides hope.
And J.T Marcinkowski is a very positive development. It’s been a long time since a U.S. youth international goalkeeper has been playing regular minutes. Marcinkowski should be a lock for the U-23 team.
FC Dallas and its young group
On Saturday, FC Dallas played the Columbus Crew to a 2-2 draw in a matchup of teams that should be heading for the playoffs. It raised some questions about Dallas and its youth movement.
FC Dallas has been a hotbed for solid young American players for several years and the hiring under Luchi Gonzalez as the team’s head coach has opened door wider for minutes. Lately there has been a bit of a decline. Jesus Ferreira’s production has declined since the league restart in August and he isn’t starting. Tanner Tessmann is still in his first season but is a regular bench option. Brandon Servania’s season also hasn’t shown the continued growth from 2019. Thomas Roberts can’t seem to get on the field. Ricardo Pepi and Dante Sealy are less of a concern due to their youth.
Granted 2019 is a tough year for young players to find a rhythm. The injury to Paxton Pomykal and the sale of Reggie Cannon has also put a dent in the youth numbers – and so far Bryan Reyonolds has been the best performer of the kids
It is still unfortunate to see that youth is struggling to lead the way at the moment for Dallas. But it is wise to trust Gonazlez in how he handles these players. He has known most of these players since they were 12-14 years old. He knows how to connect with them, how they respond to certain situations, and what is best for their growth. It might just be that sitting on the bench at this time is what’s best.