Saturday night brought the first group doubleheader of the MLS is Back Tournament, with all four members of Group E in action back-to-back.
Eventually, I should say. Some trademark Florida summer storms pushed back both kickoffs and left those of us in the Eastern Time Zone bleary-eyed by the end of the nightcap match between FC Cincinnati and Columbus Crew SC.
So even by the proud standards of #MLSAfterDark, it turned out to be hell of a journey! Glad we made it. Here’s a few observations on Group E.
My colleague J. Sam Jones wrote in detail about the grudge match between ATLUTD and the New York Red Bulls – you can and should read that here – so I will try not to rehash too much ground in regards to the Five Stripes. But there’s an obvious and inescapable starting point when discussing this team right now:
Who’s going to score the goals?
The injured Josef Martinez is never going to be an easy figure to replace on any level, so it’s tough to expect ATL to do so in their first game in four months and against their bogey team to boot. Their chance creation was respectable given the overall havoc that RBNY’s pressing and tempo-setting wreaked on them. Manuel Castro had a rough MLS debut, missing a couple of sitters, and I’m sure he’ll bring more to the table in the future. Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco are still elite creative talents in this league and their quality will see them through more games than not.
But even now, a year and a half into Frank de Boer’s tenure, I still catch myself thinking about the first two years of Atlanta’s history – when they were a risk-taking, barnstorming sensation capable of blowing the doors off almost anyone on any given day – and wonder at how quickly they evolved away from that identity.
The best thing we can say about FCC’s Saturday night is that new boss Jaap Stam won’t be tricked into any false optimism from a group playing over its head to dig out a result. A 4-0 thumping at the hands of their cross-state rivals from Columbus – and it could’ve been worse – doesn’t leave much room for spin.
The roster’s talent level has risen since last year’s woeful expansion campaign, for sure. But it’s still a jumbled stack of parts that doesn’t entirely make sense and the collective confidence got visibly and immediately vaporized by Columbus’ opening two goals. I’m not sure where their scoring is going to come from in this tournament, either, but the most urgent problems continue to fester down the gut.
Cincy are just too damn easy to play through – and over, and around, and so on. As Philadelphia Union fans will readily tell you, Haris Medunjanin is not the deep-lying midfielder who’s going to tenaciously shield a leaky or under-construction defense, and asking him to do so is reckless. He’s still got a lovely flair for distributing from deep, but relying on it requires work rate and steel around him to keep the house from falling down.
Watching him and center back Kendall Waston make some dodgy (and costly) decisions at key moments was particularly dispiriting, because if two of your smartest veterans are doing that, it hardly sets the rest of the group on a firm foundation for progress.
Columbus Crew SC
Caleb Porter said his staff would be taking a “pretty businesslike” approach to their demolition of FCC, which serves to both sprinkle salt in their southern neighbors’ wounds and underline the extent of the Yellow Football Team’s ambitions. They look eminently prepared to go very deep at MIB.
At times this felt like a training-ground activity for the Crew and while the going will get considerably harder from here, Saturday was an infomercial for a fluid, ball-dominant philosophy that has me harking back to Porter’s “Death by 1,000 Passes” college juggernauts at the University of Akron. And it all starts with that super-fun central midfield triangle of Artur and Darlington Nagbe behind club-record transfer capture Lucas Zelarayan.
“It’s key in the vision that I have for my teams,” said Porter. “We have a pure [No.] 10 chance creator in Lucas Zelarayan, which is why that signing was so important this offseason.
"Artie is your midfield, rangy, destroyer, he covers more ground than anyone, he gets around, he's always around the ball and he's become a tenacious ball winner, that's something we've talked to him about, something we've worked on. And he's showing that, he's an animal. And then Darlington is your rhythm guy, he's the player that links, really, the game, from our build-up into the final third and rarely loses the ball. He gets us out of pressure, and is also an underrated ball-winner and covers a lot of ground. So the balance in that three is really important.”
New York Red Bulls
That 1-0 win over Atlanta was vintage RBNY, and as scrappy, hectic and bruising as their games can be, I’ve grown to appreciate over the years – and enjoy it, when they execute at a high level like they did on Saturday. (And even now, going on two years later, I’m still baffled that they abandoned it in that memorable playoff series against ATLUTD in 2018.)
No one in MLS is better at disrupting and demoralizing the opponent. No one in this league forces your decision-making into hyperspeed like they do, and probably no one sustains it at the fearsome tempo and duration that they do. The Red Bulls love to get into your head and wipe their muddy boots on every prized possession in the place — and to get them out, you usually have to beat them at their own game.
"Atlanta is one of the benchmarks of the league with top players, they're a well coached team," said head coach Chris Armas postgame, praising his players for "step[ping] on the field with courage and a commitment to the style of play, and a commitment to each other" in their win.
"For sure it's it's a great, great victory to start the tournament for our guys."
All that being said, RBNY only reaped one goal from their long periods of control, and it took a massive injury-time save by David Jensen on Adam Jahn to keep them from fumbling away the three points. So they’re going to have to be a lot more clinical in both penalty boxes, and probably crank up the scoring-by-committee approach as well, if they’re going to forge a long run into the knockout stages in Orlando.