National Writer: Charles Boehm

Rash overreactions to MLS Week 4: Cracks in veteran squads? Dust-ups go mainstream? 

Happy international break, all (with the possible exception of the six MLS teams in action this weekend). Everyone in the league has played four games, and just three clubs have won three of theirs: early – very early – Supporters’ Shield leaders LAFC, Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake.

It’s early. Does any of that mean anything whatsoever?

Meh, who am I to say? Let’s get these takes off before descending into the collective continental freakout of Concacaf’s final days of 2022 World Cup qualifying.

It’s a young man’s league, they say

Even allowing for a limited sample size, it’s striking to see Sporting Kansas City adrift in the lower reaches of the standings with a 1W-3L-0D record and only three goals scored. This is a perennial Audi MLS Cup Playoffs participant looking decidedly wobbly out of the gates.

The Midwesterners lost 3-1 at Chicago Fire FC on Saturday, conceding ample scoring chances to Xherdan Shaqiri & Co. even with a switch from Peter Vermes’ longstanding 4-3-3 formation to a 5-4-1 intended to tighten things up at the back. It wasn’t pretty, especially for goalkeeper Tim Melia, though there is a caveat.

SKC have been ravaged by injuries in 2022, starting with the devastating season-long loss of Alan Pulido before the campaign had even started and now continuing with most of their established attacking weapons sidelined: Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi, Khiry Shelton and Gadi Kinda. Newcomers Marinos Tzionis and Nikola Vujnovic barely unpacked their bags yet are being asked to shoulder responsibilities that Vermes would surely prefer to ease them into instead.

An issue that runs even deeper: Age.

Sporting have fielded several of the oldest starting lineups in MLS thus far this year and in Chicago, it was plain to see the limitations that can impose. Cam Duke, Logan Ndenbe and Felipe Hernandez have gotten legit minutes but Vermes – who, to his credit, has led the construction of one of the league’s top youth development systems – may need to stir an even higher proportion of young blood into the mix and give more of his kids a real shot.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Something comparable is happening to the New England Revolution, albeit with the additional grind of Concacaf Champions League participation.

Currently at 1W-2L-1D, the Revs too have been trending towards the older side of the spectrum under Bruce Arena and while some of that is a natural consequence of the investment in and importance of older Designated Players Gustavo Bou, 32, and Carles Gil, 29, a few untimely injuries have exposed a lack of pace and vibrance in key areas.

The brutally painful midweek CCL loss to Pumas UNAM in Mexico was compounded by a veritable ambush in Charlotte, as New England were deservedly humbled 3-1 by the expansionists for CLTFC’s inaugural victory.

After the Supporters’ Shield triumph of 2021, it made a manner of sense for Arena to add some trusted figures he was familiar with like Omar Gonzalez, with the idea of padding out an already-proven squad.

Now we have real reasons to question the actual extent of the Revs’ depth at center back – and it turns out that Matt Turner’s elite shot-stopping abilities might just have been papering over more cracks than previously realized. The group needs some rest, and a tactical alternative or two to take some weight off Gil’s shoulders.

Fight Club (Part 1)

“Team chemistry” is one of the most influential, yet elusive and difficult-to-quantify concepts in professional sports. We tend to have a subconscious idea of what the good kind looks like – harmony, unity, trust – but over the weekend coaches at two clubs near the top of the Western Conference pointed to quite a different sort of data point in this sphere.

“It was a good week, we had some dust-ups in training,” said Austin FC boss Josh Wolff after his side controlled most of the play against the mighty Seattle Sounders, forcing some genuinely excellent saves out of goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland as the Rave Green clung to a quirky Will Bruin goal just before halftime and counted themselves fortunate to leave central Texas with a road point.

Yes, that’s right, Wolff was pleased to see his players come to blows, or near to it, in the run-up to the match.

“You know you're in a good place when your guys are fighting and competing in training and there's a little bit of fights going on,” he continued after the 1-1 draw. “That's a sign of a good team. We lost 20 games last year, there wasn’t a dust-up. I think those are the things that really show a different maturity in our group, a different mentality to winning and competing every day.”

Fight Club (Part 2)

It’s called “chemistry” for a reason, and sometimes a combustible mixture is welcomed. The vibe was similar at Real Salt Lake, where Pablo Mastroeni has defied preseason predictions to lead an unfancied, largely star-less collective to the top of the West.

“The mindset, the fight – in training the other day, at the end of training, I just said, ‘fellas, there's three or four challenges that could have really hurt some of our teammates.' And as long as we're going in with the right intentions,” said the coach after a pulsating, hard-earned 2-1 win over rugged Nashville SC.

“For a coach to have to dial training back four weeks into a season is an incredible thing.”

There’s a delicate balance to be had here. Some internal beef can simmer on the back burner and lead to problems down the line, and open warfare on the training pitch risks adding extra bodies to the injury list.

However you don’t have to be too old to recall days past when many treated the opening phases of the MLS campaign as an extended sort of preseason, on the logic that it was far more important to find form and momentum in later months, in order to time a playoff push around the dog days of summer or so. Yes, the calendar is a marathon, but some sprinting (and scrapping) is required as well. Let’s see how the likes of ATX and RSL sustain the intensity over the long haul.

‘Keepers under pressure

One brief side note to conclude on: Melia, who let in a couple of what he himself would probably concede were soft goals, wasn’t the only goalkeeper to suffer a rough day at the office in Week 4.

Both Brad Guzan and Sebastian Breza were repeatedly exposed in the ludicrously open Atlanta-Montréal slugfest at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Turner’s understudy Earl Edwards Jr. had a hard time in Charlotte and Portland’s Aljaz Ivacic will not look back fondly on the Timbers’ trip to Frisco, where they lost 4-1 to FC Dallas. Oh, and then there was that, um, viral crotch shot incident that afflicted Orlando’s Pedro Gallese at Dignity Health Sports Park.

GKs take on outsized importance in a parity-oriented league like MLS, where talent imbalances generally aren’t as big as elsewhere and the margins between victory, defeat and draw tend to be tight. Inspired shot-stoppers can help snatch results; conversely, an off night between the posts can multiply a side’s woes.

‘Keepers have an intensely stressful job, both physically and psychologically, so remember to hug the goalies in your life and tell them they’re appreciated.