At the time of year when momentum and purpose are paramount, and can make up for the sins of months past, several “big clubs” across Major League Soccer are fading instead – leaving us wondering if they’re serious about playing their usual roles at the business end of the season.
Atlanta United, the 2018 MLS Cup champs, known for big spending and the biggest, most lit home crowds? They’re looking dead in the water, closer to the wooden spoon battle than the Supporters’ Shield race, with just two wins since mid-July, their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs hopes on life support after Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Portland.
The once-explosive Five Stripes look fragile – uncertain in front of goal, prone to defensive gaffes like the plays that handed the Timbers the two penalty kicks that provided their margin of victory.
“I’m frustrated and upset,” admitted head coach Gonzalo Pineda postgame.
Perhaps most damningly, ATL’s talisman, their spearhead since the beginning, Josef Martinez, is a reserve, restricted to substitute work with Ronaldo Cisneros Pineda’s starter up top at present and still far from his past peak in the wake of his knee troubles.
“Just don’t give up on us,” Brooks Lennon requested of the Five Stripes faithful, and when you hear public pleas like that, it’s rarely a good sign.
“We aren’t going to give up on ourselves. We still believe in ourselves to get wins at home, and that’s the most important part now, is to prove to our fans that we are dedicated and believe in ourselves,” he continued. “We are going to give 110%. We are going to get back to the training ground and work as hard as possible this week. We will do everything we can to finish out the year strong and continue to fight until the end and never give up.”
The LA Galaxy, too, forge into September outside the playoff places out West, reeling from another set of dropped points at home.
To his credit, the Mexican legend faced the music afterwards – “I didn’t plan it, it was my instinct, I did a huge mistake and I’ll take the responsibility,” he said – but the steep cost of his error is obvious. The Gs now sit eighth, three points back of the playoff line with six games to go.
“We grinded until the end and had an opportunity to wrap the three points at the end,” said head coach Greg Vanney afterwards, sounding just as frustrated by his team’s defensive lapses as his star man’s questionable judgment at the penalty spot. “He [Chicharito] buried one before. He stepped up and he made a decision. It was the wrong decision. The wrong decision. He knows that. He knows how I feel. He knows how his teammates feel. It is what it is. We’ve just got to keep moving forward, and we lost an opportunity there in the end.
“But again, we gave up two goals just by letting guys run behind us. It's nonsense. Like, this has to stop. We're just not aware of guys who are in our back side, and they just drop the ball behind us and we give up two goals. And these are types of mistakes, whether it's the choice on the PK, or the not recovering and dealing with guys behind us, that we have to get tightened up.”
New York City FC, the reigning MLS Cup holders, are down bad at the moment, too, especially compared to the heights they occupied just a couple of months ago. The departures of head coach Ronny Deila and goal king Taty Castellanos have NYCFC reeling, with Sunday’s 3-0 loss at New England just the latest setback for Nick Cushing’s side.
“We have to put the ball in the goal,” said Cushing, who tweaked his tactics and shuffled his lineup to no avail. “I said to them after the match, ‘listen, let's not hide away from the fact that it's not good enough.’ And I am incredibly disappointed, just as the team are, and I know the fans are incredibly disappointed with our performances. We've changed a lot, we reflected a lot, I reflected a lot on how we set the team up, on changes we can make.
“And we came away with a game where we created six really good chances. But we had also those little moments that we've had in previous games, where we're just too easy to be scored on,” he added.
Cushing later insisted that his team have what it takes to turn things around, that playing three of their last five on home turf can give them a lift. But the squad that not long ago had the Shield in their sights is now clinging to fourth place, bereft of the drive that inspired their title run last fall.
Another heavyweight is shuffling towards disaster north of the border. Toronto FC’s vision for 2022 always involved the inherent risks of depending on a stretch-run surge once their Italian cadre had arrived, and now the points are simply not materializing.
Sunday’s home faceplant against their Canadian Classique rivals from Montréal was particularly agonizing in this respect. The Reds seized a 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes at BMO Field, then proceeded to leak four straight CFM goals to fall 4-3.
“Really, really frustrating night,” said captain Michael Bradley. “It's obviously been a year with a lot of twists and turns, and we still feel – we have felt good – about the way that we've continued to go and continued to move ourselves forward and to continued to be resilient.
“Tonight would have been a big, big step,” he added. “A bunch of times this year we've put together little stretches of good results, of good games, good football. And when we've had a chance to then take a big step with winning a big game and taking a real step forward, that part’s been hard for us.”
TFC sit 10th in the East, in need of help from elsewhere with just four more matches of their own and at least four points to make up in the table. That’s not good math for Bob Bradley & Co.
“We’ve dropped points in hard ways in this last stretch,” said Michael Bradley. “You guys don't need me to sit here and go through some of the games, but late equalizers, give away goals at bad times, self-inflicted. A few games to go, and … the mentality has to be strong. Continue to play, continue to fight, continue to try to take every point that's on the board, and see what happens. It's as simple as that.”
Up on Puget Sound, it took an equalizer from the rarest source imaginable – Nouhou Tolo’s first MLS goal in 9,750 combined career regular-season and playoff minutes – to save the Seattle Sounders from joining this luckless company, though they too remain right up against it, a wounded giant tottering on the edge of consciousness.
The last-place Houston Dynamo landed a gut punch on their hosts at Lumen Field, relishing the spoiler role as the Sounders scrape desperately for the points they need to extend their proud history of never missing out on the postseason in more than a decade of MLS life.
When Nouhou of all people brought the Rave Green level, it felt almost biblical, like a sign that their Concacaf Champions League triumph – the first by an MLS side in that tournament’s modern era – had somehow angered ancient, primal soccer gods.
“It seemed like we were trying to find ways how to lose games,” said a relieved Brian Schmetzer.
“You know, that three-game stretch where we only took the point, the team never quit. I mean, you guys all saw it,” he continued. “Those were gut punches. Those were three hard games to try and come back from. But again, credit to the players in that locker room, they're firmly committed to try and make sure that we make a run at this and see if we can sneak into the playoffs.”
On 36 points from 29 games, Seattle are three back of the Galaxy and six behind seventh-place Portland. Yet like TFC, their opponents in three MLS Cup finals from 2016-19, they’ll need help from elsewhere just to make it to the dance.
So not a great weekend to be a “big club” in MLS. We’ll see if any of them can reproduce the greatness of old in the coming days. The doors are closing.