Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Pressure mounting? These players need to step up in MLS Week 3

Pressure is a loaded term.

Who applies it? Who is affected by it? Can we prove correlation or causation regarding what happens on the field? Who cares? Does it even matter outside the media and supporter bubbles?

We’re just two weeks into the 2022 MLS season, and I’d argue it’s nearly impossible for clubs to truly be under pressure. One result, one performance can change everything. Table position. Perception. Locker-room vibes.

But what about for players? There are always jobs to be won, reputations to be secured and contracts to be justified. There is always pressure to perform, especially for the biggest stars. As we prep for Week 3, here are seven players whose performances are under the microscope.

WHEN: vs. Charlotte FC on Sunday, 4:30 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
BetMGM ODDS: Atlanta -165, Tie +290, Charlotte +425

First things first, I think we can go ahead and retire the “Is present-day Josef ever going to be like the Josef of old again?” narrative. There’s too much water under the bridge for both player and club to boil it down to a context-less hot take.

Fact is, Josef Martinez may never again approach the absurd goal-per-90 pace he sustained before the 2020 ACL tear. That’s a bummer, but it’s life. Atlanta United are a different team, and Josef is a player who has weathered a storm, both within the club and with his own grueling recovery. Oh, by the way, he still averaged 0.55 non-penalty goals per 90 last year in his first season back. That’s better than Golden Boot winner presented by Audi Taty Castellanos and uber-reliable Seattle frontman Raul Ruidiaz.

So what is the correct narrative with Martinez?

I think it’s more like, “Will Atlanta United generate the quality and volume of chances needed for Josef to be at his best, whatever that may be?” Two shots, one shot on target, zero goals and 0.08 xG through two games tell the story. So does the fact a formerly relentless No. 9 is at the bottom of the rankings for runs into the 18, per Second Spectrum. (Though he does have two assists, which tell a story of their own.)

Basically, Martinez is not close enough to goal and Atlanta aren’t giving him many reasons to get there with any urgency.

“There were a few half chances there but probably not really,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said following a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last weekend. “The ones we are waiting for our striker, whoever it is, to have. And so, again today, not just Josef but overall the team didn’t create enough clear chances.”

And why might that have been?

“I think Josef is a special player, and we’ve got to put him in positions to score,” defender Andrew Gutman said. “We got to get the ball wide more, put in more quality crosses, whether that’s behind the backline or some cutback balls. I feel like Colorado kind of set in as well, and that kind of negated us playing the ball in behind into the channels and then crossing into it.”

Pineda is still figuring out how to get the best from this team, all while missing the injured Luiz Araujo and waiting for Thiago Almada’s debut. Atlanta have time to get this right, but Tyler Wolff and Brooks Lennon are not Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba. And Julian Gressel isn’t walking through that door to convince Martinez to run at goal at every opportunity.

Fortunately, Charlotte FC are next on the schedule, headed to the Benz for their first soccer in the south baptism by fire. I’ll be watching Martinez closely on Sunday, and I’ll be watching how the players around him attempt to get him involved even closer. This is the sort of game the “old Josef” would have swaggered out of with a couple of goals and terror permanently planted in the heart of a rival.

WHEN: at Atlanta United on Sunday, 4:30 pm ET
WATCH: FS1, FOX Deportes
BetMGM ODDS: Atlanta -165, Tie +290, Charlotte +425

OK, I cheated. Let’s just file the entire Queen City group as “under pressure” until they win a game. Their 3-0 loss at D.C. United flattered the hosts. Their 1-0 home loss to the LA Galaxy flattered Charlotte. Either way, they’re still looking for their first point, and Atlanta players and supporters are going to be itching to apply a beatdown.

So what do you got, Charlotte? A win would be the stuff of legends, but let’s start with a competent and competitive performance and go from there. Don’t go laying down three games into this thing against a potential rival. That wouldn’t be a good look.

WHEN: vs. LAFC on Saturday, 1:30 pm ET
WATCH: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)
BetMGM ODDS: Miami +270, Tie +280, LAFC -115

Gonzalo Higuain might be the best soccer player in MLS. His talent is not in question.

But Inter Miami CF need more than Higuain’s talent. They need him to be a figurehead, the sort of leader that galvanizes a group of young, fresh faces against long odds and the sour vibes that come with the results and front-office chaos that have defined the club’s first few seasons.

So far, Higuain is channeling the Zlatan Ibrahimovic school of motivation, gesticulation and visible disappointment, which didn’t get the best from Zlatan’s teammates in LA and hasn’t worked so far in Miami either.

To be fair, Miami also need the goals and assists that come with said talent as well because it is hard to imagine Phil Neville’s team shutting out LAFC this weekend.

WHEN: at New York Red Bulls on Sunday, 7 pm ET
WATCH: MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
BetMGM ODDS: New York -160, Tie +260, Minnesota +450

There’s no doubt Luis Amarilla is Adrian Heath’s guy. The gaffer went back to the well to try to collect on the Paraguayan’s goal debt from 2020. Through 173 minutes, Amarilla is defaulting on repayment.

It's a small sample size, for sure, but Amarilla still must prove he deserves the starting spot over fellow Designated Player Adrien Hunou. It won’t be easy against a Red Bulls defense and pressing machine that’s dominated two opponents on the road so far. It’d be helpful if Emanuel Reynoso got going. His expected assists (xA) per 90 in 2022 – again, small sample size! – is at roughly half what it was in 2021.

WHEN: at D.C. United on Saturday, 7:30 pm ET
WATCH: MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
BetMGM ODDS: D.C. +105, Tie +230, Chicago +260

Xherdan Shaqiri is the star, and the Fire haven’t scored a goal. Pretty straightforward equation here. The pressure will always fall on him, even if it’s his teammates who also need to step up and create and finish off Shaqiri’s contributions. Rinse and repeat that for Higuain as well.

Nobody in MLS has more key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot, 11). Only Columbus' Lucas Zelarayan can match him for passes into the 18-yard box (7). Only Zelarayan and Luciano Acosta (15) have more shot-creating actions than Shaqiri (14). Only, only, only. Only Chicago don’t have a single goal from it.

The good news is opponents have been similarly shut down, thus two points to start the season, which is mostly what matters anyway as Ezra Hendrickson attempts to bring the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs back to the Windy City.

Is there pressure on Shaqiri? Sure, he’s a big-time attacking signing for a team that hasn’t scored yet, but I’d argue the pressure is just as much on the players surrounding him, in particular Kacper Przybylko, Stanislav Ivanov and Fabian Herbers. Bare minimum in D.C. is a goal. Let’s see if the Fire (and the Power Cube) can deliver.

WHEN: vs. FC Cincinnati on Saturday, 7:30 pm ET
WATCH: MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
BetMGM ODDS: Orlando -225, Tie +333, Cincinnati +575

It’s been slow to start for Facundo Torres, which Joe Lowery covered well this week in his surprises and letdowns column here at MLSsoccer.com. I’m going to steal from Joe here, while encouraging you to read the full piece:

Facundo Torres may be an excellent player in a year, a month, or heck, even next week. But he hasn’t been very good through two games for Orlando City. So far, the Uruguayan attacker is fifth in MLS in turnovers with 27. It’s not necessarily bad to be high on the turnover list (Emanuel Reynoso and Carles Gil are both in the top five in the league in turnovers so far in 2022 and we know what they’re capable of). Torres’ issue, though, is he hasn’t had the attacking production to justify the turnovers that come with being a ball-dominant attacker.

In terms of touches, Torres has been Orlando’s attacking centerpiece, averaging more touches per game than any of his attacking teammates, but he's yet to play a key pass this season. He’s also taken three shots – all were from outside the box and were either blocked or off target.

Luckily, FC Cincinnati are coming to town. Perhaps that’ll get El Cuervo going.

FC Dallas

WHEN: vs. Nashville SC on Saturday, 8:30 pm ET
WATCH: MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
BetMGM ODDS: Dallas +150, Tie +220, Nashville +175

Houston Dynamo FC

WHEN: vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday, 6:30 pm ET
WATCH: MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
BetMGM ODDS: -135, Tie +275, Vancouver +333

I’m lumping two very different Ferreiras into the same category. There is always pressure for No. 9s to score, even if they’re false. So far, zero goals from Texas-based Ferreiras in 2022, for different reasons.

For Sebastian Ferreira, it’s because the Houston Dynamo have created almost nothing. They’re last in MLS in goals scored (0), xG (0.8) and xA (0.4) according to FBref.com. He isn’t a do-it-on-his-own sort of striker. Paolo Nagamura’s team has to find a way to get Ferreira (or anyone, really) in dangerous positions. An early-season home game against the Whitecaps is about as good an opportunity as there is to get a few things figured out.

As for Jesus Ferreira, he has already proven that he’s one of the best attacking midfielders/second forwards in MLS. Thus, the Young Designated Player contract for FC Dallas. We know his vision and passing ability from center forward is MLS elite. He creates a ton of space for teammates like Jader Obrian and Paul Arriola to run into when he drops in to receive the ball or finds a way to turn.

Want to see how the false nine looks in a passing network? Ferreira is No. 10. Arriola and Obrian and Nos. 7 and 8, respectively.

At home against Toronto:

FC Dallas passing network vs. TOR

On the road against New England:

FC Dallas passing network vs. NE

The issue is that neither Obrian or Arriola are volume finishers. They aren’t efficient enough to supplant significant goal production from Ferreira. Jesus needs to create and score, and he hasn’t done either yet on the scoresheet, though the chances have been there and this narrative might be a bit different had a goal not been (rightly) called back for offside.

It won’t be easy against Nashville SC, but that’s the assignment for Ferreira, whether with Dallas or the US men's national team.