National Writer: Charles Boehm

Goalfests steal the show, Austin flaunt contender credentials & more from Week 23

Sunday greetings, everyone. I’ve been tasked with delivering the difficult news that Armchair Analyst and professional Gonzalo Higuain impersonator Matt Doyle has headed for the hills and was last spotted foraging for wild berries somewhere east of the Hudson River Valley.

So as the local authorities map out the terrain and mull their rescue plan, weekend wrap duties have fallen to yours truly. Thankfully MLS Week 23 gave me plenty of material to work with, first and foremost those two truly batty 4-4s on Saturday, which is a decent enough place to start.

Don’t threaten us with a good time.

From goals off the kickoff to first-half hat tricks to late chaos, Minnesota United, the Portland Timbers, Inter Miami and FC Cincinnati had the statisticians working feverishly with the number of historical records and curiosities they logged in the space of a few hours at Allianz Field and DRV PNK Stadium.

As often as the #MLSAfterDark klaxon has been sounded over the years, this clustering of barnburners was pretty unprecedented:

While all that open, breathless, ragged soccer (and woeful game management) in Minnesota and Florida was delighting neutrals, six other teams around the league were plodding towards the other end of the spectrum with 0-0 draws, a feast-or-famine scenario that feels both odd and strangely MLSian. (It should surprise none of you that we’ll spend more time on the drunk games.)

It’s conventional wisdom to say that the visitors should walk away feeling better about these results, and the Timbers bench, at least, sure looked more pleased at full time in St. Paul. I’m going to push back against that a bit, however. There’s now barely two months left in the regular season, and all four of these sides not only dropped precious points that had been in their grasp, but also dropped hints about their own weaknesses.

We can go easier on the Loons considering that they just finished the month of July undefeated and remain in the top echelon of the Western Conference. They remain who we think they are, still heavily reliant on Bebelo Reynoso, hoping each week that one or two from Luis Amarilla, Franco Fragapane, Bongi Hlongwane or anyone else steps up to complement their No. 10 or at least divert their opponent’s attention.

Cincy and Miami, though? Saturday showed both the progress they’ve made and the work still ahead.

Both have dramatically elevated their collective resilience. They’ve both got a couple of confident, productive No. 9s to lead the line (Brandon Vazquez, who has blossomed into a stone cold killer, Brenner; the resurgent Gonzalo Higuain, Leo Campana), and delightful playmakers to feed them (Lucho Acosta, Alejandro Pozuelo).

They can both say they’ve exited the basketcase category, and I expect one or even both of them to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

But those brain farts in midfield to allow swift transitions? The untimely sleepiness in their own penalty boxes? The obvious inability to put their foot on the ball and take the sting out of a game when necessary? That suggests any 2022 postseason sojourns will be brief.

Saturday’s feverish slugfest in SoFla was a torrid summer affair, and we’ll all remember it fondly. Alas, a good bit more coherence is necessary when cuffing season arrives this fall.

You just gotta keep livin', man

So listen, I was about as skeptical of the whole “Austin FC as title contenders” concept as anyone when the idea took shape back in the spring.

The Verde had clearly stacked up some decent talent, their home-field advantage is on par with just about anyone else in MLS and Josh Wolff’s positional-play system seemed like a decent enough framework for the group. But even with last season’s hard lessons, they still had the air of an expansion honeymoon about them; I (and others) needed to see more.

Well, August is here, ATX are just four points off the Supporters’ Shield pace set by LAFC and fresh off their eighth road win of the season, Saturday’s 2-0 defeat of woebegone, hard-luck, can’t-catch-a-break Sporting Kansas City. No one has won more away from home than Austin – a sequence of results that have been as much about resilience and resourcefulness as much as pretty passing patterns. And in a league where the visitors almost always struggle, that means something.

“I'm really pleased with the maturity of the group, again, going on the road,” said Wolff, whose side had a whopping three goals waved off for offside, after this latest W. “We talk about what's made us good on the road, being tough to play against, tough to break down. We created a number of chances tonight, to only grab two was disappointing.”

Sebastian Driussi has been a revelation for the second-year club, and beyond his abundance of end product, it’s important to note how teammates like Brad Stuver talk about him (I wrote more about that here). The very best Designated Players have a buoyant effect on those around them, and you can see Driussi’s in the way guys like Diego Fagundez and Maxi Urruti are their best selves around him.

Yes, Sporting are on course for the Wooden Spoon, and the scale of their misery was exposed in gut-wrenching fashion here. From John Pulskamp’s unfortunate howler on the opening goal to Daniel Salloi’s saved penalty kick (which would have leveled matters at 1-1), there were multiple contenders for Face of the Week at Children's Mercy Park:

And SKC were fresh off an even more agonizing result, Wednesday’s historic U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss to Sacramento Republic on penalties. When it rains, it pours, and it rains a lot at the bottom of the table. It’s not completely impossible that SKC figures out a way to salvage something from this season, but whatever their trajectory in the coming months, this week was a low point.

Gone but not forgotten

With their 0-0 draw at CF Montréal, New York City FC ran their active shutout streak to 373 minutes and counting, which is an achievement for their back line and a tribute to the aging-like-wine Sean Johnson in goal. SeanJohn leads the league in clean sheets (12), and with a sturdy foundation like that, the Pigeons have reason to feel optimistic about their title defense.

But, uhhhh…

“They seem a bit rudderless without Taty Castellanos,” was how their veteran play-by-play commentator Joe Tolleson put it on the YES Network broadcast, and yeah, that sums it up. That grisly expected-goals total, closer to rounding-error territory than the number one, aptly depicts the vacuum opened up by the reigning Golden Boot winner’s exit for LaLiga, too.

NYCFC have lost their spearhead, and as much creative young talent as they’ve accumulated over the past couple of years, it’s hard right now to see who will step up and be The Guy in the wake of Taty’s departure.

Interim coach Nick Cushing has moved Maxi Moralez around a bit and shuffled around some of their attackers – Saturday marked the first time all five of the Cityzens’ Brazilians were on the pitch together, and surely won’t be the last – yet the personality and clinicality of Castellanos will be missed, for a few weeks at the very least.

Meanwhile, CFM missed a good chance to exploit their guests’ transitional state. The order of the day at Stade Saputo was paying tribute to Jason Di Tullio, the charismatic and beloved assistant coach who recently lost his battle with cancer, and the Quebecois club did indeed honor the fighting spirit of “La Grinta” with their tenacity.

Yet Djordje Mihailovic still hasn’t regained the peak form he was enjoying before his ankle injury and Montréal remain dependent on the day-to-day mood and output of Romell Quioto, Kei Kamara and the sort of goals-by-committee approach that Wilfried Nancy has had to adopt in the absence of an elite frontrunner to finish the chances that CFM create.

I really wish we could see what Montréal-era Didier Drogba could do up top for this vintage of l’Impact. Sadly, time-travel technology remains elusive and Nancy’s squad find themselves a couple of steps back from the East elite, which is pretty clearly a two-team brace of Philly and NYCFC until further notice.

Bits and bobs

Speaking of the Philadelphia Union: The DOOP squad ran over poor Houston with a tractor-trailer truck at Subaru Park, a 6-0 thumping that showcased Philly’s nous for smelling blood in the water and just devouring their adversaries in those moments, much like they did in the 7-0 rout of hapless D.C. United earlier in the year.

Beyond their well-established, bruising pressing identity, there’s a relentlessness about this year’s Union, sparked by the intelligence and precision of Ale Bedoya, the surging confidence and understanding among their striker corps and the effervescence of Jack McGlynn and the rest of the academy kids who are just so talented and hungry.

They were already MLS Cup contenders, and now they’re officially Shield contenders, too.

We’re all getting pretty familiar with how current league leaders LAFC operate and they did it again in Friday night’s 2-1 win over Seattle, a playoff-type game that crackled with intensity and meaning.

Even now, I’m still loathe to write off the Sounders, who currently sit ninth in the West and are in real danger of missing out on the playoffs for the first time in their MLS existence (carrying a 13-year streak). But they really, really could’ve used a result in Los Angeles, especially since they stunned the home crowd with an early goal, a dream start for Brian Schmetzer & Co.

The problem for Seattle is that no one in MLS takes a punch and responds like the Black & Gold. Over and over again under Steve Cherundolo, they’ve fallen behind or just been outplayed in the early stages of games, then rallied furiously, asphyxiating the opponent with waves of pressure and possession, playing at a pace that few others can sustain. LAFC are a learning computer and so far at least, they always unlock you by the end:


Oh, and if they do get the jump on you and score first? You’re up the creek there, too, because they have yet to drop a single point from a winning position this season, the only team in the league that can claim that distinction.

The Vancouver Whitecaps seemed to carry a Canadian Championship trophy hangover into their visit to Nashville SC and were nearly overrun by the Coyotes’ energy and intensity in the first half at GEODIS Park. I suspect they would have indeed capitulated in such a situation a couple of months ago.

But Vanni Sartini’s men figured things out, staunching the bleeding enough to hang around, then gradually imposed their will on NSC and finally got rewarded with Javain Brown’s late equalizer, Nashville’s latest failure to take full points at their pretty new stadium and just the sort that often comes back to haunt you later.

Even with NSC nominally starting in a 4-4-2, one thing I noticed from this one was these two sides’ dependence on energetic, productive wingbacks. Nashville just spent real assets to bring Shaq Moore home from Spain and Gary Smith has to be counting the days until the USMNTer reaches full fitness and comfort levels that will enable him to become the influential presence they believe he can be.

The ‘Caps swung a comparable move to bring Julian Gressel over from D.C. and you can already see his value in his first two games for the Canadians. His deliveries to Lucas Cavallini, Brian White & Co. pose a constant threat and should open up more breathing room for their Scottish magician Ryan Gauld, whose creativity is so crucial.

Gressel can become the face of VWFC if he performs up to expectations, and the contentious nature of his departure from D.C. United has given him an extra dose of motivation. If he can reach the heights he enjoyed with Atlanta, Vancouver might just be a fun darkhorse out West.