National Writer: Charles Boehm

Got depth? How Matchday 5 tested clubs across MLS


Atlanta United traveled to Columbus absent several key pieces with Thiago Almada, Miles Robinson and five others off with their national teams this weekend. Their hosts had comparable concerns: star striker Cucho Hernández is hurt and his attacking partner Lucas Zelarayán is away with the Armenian national team, one of three international absences for the Crew.

The jaw-dropping 6-1 scoreline at Field tells us which side coped better with the challenge, doesn’t it? While one game will always be a small sample size, both the evening’s stat line and eye test suggest that:

  • Crew president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko – one of MLS’s true roster-building wizards – has done well to stockpile depth pieces like Christian “Superman” Ramírez and Jacen Russell-Rowe.
  • Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy has very quickly installed a basic level of understanding of his methodical positional-play system across the squad – and seems to have ushered previously-marginalized figures like Alexandru Matan back into the fold and producing.

We’re not going to pile on ATL here: This one had ‘bad day at the office vibes’ and they dealt Portland a similar experience in last week’s 5-1 rout back in Georgia. It’s worth noting, though, what their president/CEO Garth Lagerwey said in a very good profile piece a few days ago: “We had some deals in this [Primary Transfer] Window that we had to do for salary cap reasons and that’s a posture that I don’t want to be in again.”

A confluence of scheduling constraints from climate to the calendar to umpteen other factors has forced MLS to play through this and other international windows. That will always be a contentious situation on some level, yet it’s also a reflection of the league’s maturation from the old days when there were far, far fewer international-caliber players here. Given those realities, it’s proven to be an early test of roster depth, which, like it or not, always gets exposed sooner or later.

The storyline was apparent across Matchday 5.

Down in Fort Lauderdale, 38-year-old Kei Kamara set a new record by scoring for his 10th MLS club – via sterling service from a kid literally half his age, Brian Gutiérrez – as Chicago Fire FC broke RosaNegra hearts in injury time to snatch a 3-2 road win over Inter Miami CF, who missed internationals Josef Martínez and Robert Taylor.

In Portland, teenage homegrown Tega Ikoba came off the bench to spark life into what had up to that point been a pretty dour grind of a game against the LA Galaxy, nearly finding a dramatic late winner for the Timbers. No Raúl Ruidíaz for Seattle’s journey to Kansas City? No problem for the Sounders, thanks to Jordan Morris shifting from the left wing to lead the line and racking up four goals against Sporting KC, all four of them assisted by Léo Chú, the guy who stepped into his usual slot out wide.

In a meeting of two teams missing seven internationals apiece and others due to injury, Orlando City SC snapped the Philadelphia Union’s year-plus, 24-match home unbeaten streak with two early goals at Subaru Park that paced a 2-1 win.

Playing in front of a River End banner proclaiming “PHILADEPTHIA,’ the DOOPers responded almost immediately. But a 2-0 hole after 10 minutes is no recipe for success. It was just the kind of opportunistic smash-and-grab that will be familiar to observers of Oscar Pareja’s teams over the years.

“Do we miss the guys that aren’t here? Of course,” said Philly boss and reigning Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year Award winner Jim Curtin, later adding, “We’re pissed and we’re going to get better.”

In the foggy, rain-soaked District of Columbia, Bruce Arena had the enviable luxury of bringing veteran striker Jozy Altidore and elite playmaker Carles Gil off the bench with the New England Revolution chasing a 1-0 deficit vs. D.C. United. And literal seconds later, the Revs had their equalizer via Gil’s second touch, a gilded delivery to Gustavo Bou.

Later, a Gil corner kick was the prelude to Noel Buck’s deflected game-winner at Audi Field. Conversely, D.C. called on Taxi Fountas, who’s recovering from a hamstring issue ahead of schedule, and the Greek dynamo created some danger but couldn’t find the net.

“We've just had a difficult week with a couple that went away on international [duty] and we've picked up a few knocks this week. And that's just depleted us a little bit,” said United coach Pete Shuttleworth, deputizing for the ill Wayne Rooney. “But yeah, I mean, it was nice for them to be able to bring them [Gil and Altidore] on.”

Noted Revs boss Bruce Arena of Altidore, who’s back from a season-long loan to Liga MX side Puebla: “His time was going to come and you could see how valuable his experience was in that game. And I thought he gave us a real good 30 minutes that we needed.”

And other examples of this phenomenon can be spotted across the matchday, too. Whether it’s call-ups, injuries, fixture congestion, summer heat or all of the above, sooner or later MLS will test the capabilities of your bench. This weekend we learned a bit about who might be best prepared to pass.