Houston are for real, Efra's case to be a starter and more from Week 9 | Steve Zakuani

Bradley Wright-Phillips celebrates - LAFC - September 2, 2020

Efrain Alvarez has all the tools to prove Zlatan right, LAFC will be just fine, and it’s a great time to be a Houston Dynamo fan.

How Efra can become a regular starter in LA

Houston are for real, Efra's case to be a starter and more from Week 9 | Steve Zakuani  -

Efrain Alvarez celebrates his first MLS goal | Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic speaks, everyone listens. So when he called Efrain Alvarez the best talent in MLS “by far,” people definitely paid attention.

The LA Galaxy have always had star names they can call upon—David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and of course, Zlatan. The 2020 team has Chicharito as its brand name star and Cristian Pavon as its best attacking player, but it’s the 18-year-old academy product Alvarez who may yet prove to be their X-factor in 2020.

Alvarez already has one of the best left pegs in the league and on top of that he has a great delivery, he's shifty in tight spaces, and he can unlock any defense with his passing. On any given day he can be a match-winner. It’s no wonder Ibrahimovic felt as strongly as he did about him. The question is how much of a liability he is in transition when he plays out wide.

MLS, more than most leagues, is built on quick transitions from attack to defense and vice versa. That’s why when it comes to wide players, many coaches end up opting for a less offensively talented, but more dependable two-way player who they know will track back and stay locked in defensively when needed. I learned that very early on in my career that the only way to get away with doing less defensively as a wide player, is to score or assist consistently. Work rate in transition moments is a powerful currency in MLS and Alvarez is not a great transition player yet, which may help explain why he’s not yet a consistent starter despite his immense talent.

You only have to see the quality in his first MLS goal against the Portland Timbers to realize that Alvarez possesses attacking abilities that very few have. The finish was top class, but I was just as impressed with his initial one-touch pass into Sebastian Lletget which set up the entire sequence. After making a great pass, a lot of young players stand around to admire their work. So I loved that he was locked into the next play and continued his run into a dangerous area, where he was able to receive the return pass that set the stage for his beautiful finish.

Against Portland, Alvarez was very active and his overall work rate was where it should be. He now has to be consistently good every time he plays—and a bit better in transition—to warrant regular starts. He’s not quite ready to be a luxury player that the Galaxy can compensate for defensively. That can only happen if and when he is either scoring or assisting in nearly every game.

But Zlatan said what he said for a reason: Efrain Alvarez is gifted enough to be a real driving force behind a successful LA Galaxy season.

Houston’s no fluke

Houston are for real, Efra's case to be a starter and more from Week 9 | Steve Zakuani  -

The Houston Dynamo celebrate one of three goals against MNUFC | Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a great time to be a Houston Dynamo fan.

When I came into the league, the Dynamo were a force to be reckoned with. I went up against the great Dynamo teams of Dwayne De Rosario, Eddie Robinson, Brian Ching, Stu Holden, Geoff Cameron, Pat Onstad, Ricardo Clark and more. That team was physical, disciplined, and tough to play against.

In recent years I haven’t always enjoyed watching Houston play, but Tab Ramos is changing that. His fingerprints are all over this new and improved Dynamo team. Most of the personnel is the same, but Tab has given the players a clear idea of how they should play and he’s also given them confidence. Unlike the great Houston teams I played against, this edition doesn’t depend on being overly physical and great at set pieces. Instead, they are very well-organized and dynamic in transition led by a motivated Darwin Quintero.

I never thought I’d see Quintero buy into a high-pressing system, but that’s exactly what’s happening. And it’s not just Quintero: It’s the whole team believing in the coach’s message about needing to impose their style and play in a specific way. Scoring eight goals in two games doesn’t happen by fluke.

In this case it's the result of a team that is dedicated to playing quickly in transition, possessing the ball with a purpose, and then being willing to run, press, and smother the opponent when the ball is lost. Beyond the specific tactics that Tab is implementing, it’s clear from the outside looking in that he’s brought a clear identity and confidence. I expect Houston to keep climbing up the table.

Solving the riddle that is Minnesota

Houston’s opponents on Wednesday night are going in the opposite direction, suffering their third straight loss in league play.

Minnesota United built a successful season in 2019 on being really good defensively, but right now they can’t buy a clean sheet. Yes, they miss reigning Defender of the Year Ike Opara, and not having Ozzie Alonso also didn’t help. But it’s still a bit of a mystery why a team that looked solid, if not spectacular, in the MLS is Back bubble in Orlando is now leaking so many goals at one end and looking toothless at the other.

Judging by his postgame comments, head coach Adrian Heath is as perplexed as I am. Opara will help once he returns, but I feel that after acquiring Bebelo Reynoso, they are two more signings away from being where they want to be: (1) A top class No. 9. While on-loan TAM striker Luis Amarilla has shown promise and has even talked about scoring 25 goals, I believe Minnesota need to add another player capable of double-digit goals; (2) and they’re going to need someone who can eventually replace Alonso, who sat out against Houston (easier said than done, I know!).

The Loons haven’t become a bad team overnight, but I also don’t see a team that has the depth to withstand absences, injuries and suspensions to key players.

What? LAFC panic? No way

Houston are for real, Efra's case to be a starter and more from Week 9 | Steve Zakuani  -

Diego Rossi celebrates one of 5 LAFC goals against San Jose | Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to LAFC and how much trouble they are supposedly in, I defer to the words of the great Aaron Rodgers: Just relax. This team will be just fine, and I’d have said that before their big win against San Jose because they played quite well in the first half of Sunday’s loss to Seattle and they were the better team until they fell behind.

LAFC still look like they can score at least three goals almost every time they play and even without Carlos Vela they don’t struggle to create good chances. Their issue, as I’ve already mentioned a few times in these columns, has been on the defensive side of things. But here’s why we should all relax: (1) This team still contains the nucleus of the group that put together the best regular season in league history just last year, (2) Bob Bradley is still at the helm, and (3) they’ve added two young stars from the FIFA Under-20 World Cup (Jose Cifuentes and Francisco Ginella) and one of the deadliest forwards this league has ever seen in Bradley Wright-Phillips.

I’ve watched every game they’ve played this season and when they’re on, they still play the best football in the league and they look like they can score every time they attack. The El Trafico defeat aside, offensively they create triangles and combinations that put opposing defenses under so much pressure that goals are inevitable. No other team asks questions of you defensively quite like they do.

Though I expect LAFC to continue to improve defensively, the issues this year have been bare for all to see. LAFC are built to take risks and that leaves them exposed defensively from time to time. As risky a style as they play, they only conceded 37 goals last season and that was mostly because their counter press was on another level. As soon as they lost the ball, they hounded the opposition until they forced the next turnover.

When teams did break the LAFC press, center back Walker Zimmerman was usually there to put the fire out. Until they have a replacement for Zimmerman, I expect them to double down on their collective press and they did it against the Earthquakes. On Wednesday night, as soon as they lost the ball, they pressed so well that they either forced a turnover high up the pitch or San Jose were forced to clear it long, essentially just giving the ball back to LAFC.

Sure, there will be times when a team will expose them—as we've witnessed in the last two postseasons—and for that reason, I sense that their front office will bring in defensive help sooner rather than later. But they still have the best player in the league, two of the best wingers, the best ball-playing central midfielder in Eduard Atuesta, and one of the best coaches this country has ever produced. And they can score two or three goals in almost every game. As soon as they stop conceding at this alarming rate, which they will, and once Vela gets some games under his belt again, they will be the same force they were in 2019, but maybe even better for having gone through some of the adversity so far this season.

Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization