Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday takeaways: What we learned from Week 1's action

Austin FC came up short against LAFC, but had plenty to be encouraged by on their MLS debut, while CF Montréal provided an impressive surprise and Caden Clark headlined a day of golazos.

Here are my top takeaways from Saturday's action as MLS returned in spectacular fashion.

What we learned from Austin's debut

It’s impossible to fully assess any team after one game, even more so when that game is the first game in club history, but we can definitely point to a few things Austin FC did against LAFC that will tell us what kind of team we can expect them to be. Going up against a motivated LAFC team was never going to be easy but for much of the game, Austin gave as good as they got. They did fade as the game wore on and LAFC took more control of proceedings, but Josh Wolff would have seen enough to offer him encouragement for their prospects this season.

Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing and Eduard Atuesta are among the best midfield trios in the league and so Austin have to feel very good about what they got from Daniel Pereira, Alex Ring and Tomas Pochettino. Pereira looked comfortable on the ball, he didn’t hide and he was involved in one of Austin’s best moves of the game when he broke through the midfield early in the second half and found Rodney Redes whose cross was ultimately scuffed by Cecilio Dominguez. It was a nice snapshot of what the youngster has to offer and my expectation will be that he will only get better as he gets more comfortable at this level.

Another area of promise for Austin FC will be that they created some pretty good chances. Danny Hoesen, Dominguez and Jon Gallagher all came close and on another day they could have easily left SoCal with a point. Building a strong, organized and disciplined defensive team is much easier than building a team that can create chances for fun.

Without question, being defensively sound should always be the foundation, but too often we’ve seen expansion teams that never go beyond that. They know how to stay in games, but struggle with going out and trying to win them. Austin won’t have that problem. Wolff’s tactics were bold — he sent his full backs very high, he tried to keep the ball on the ground and pass through the LAFC press, and he encouraged his players to take risks in the final third. The result was a few good chances and many good passages of play. Austin FC fans shouldn’t be satisfied with the defeat, but they should take heart from a solid showing on both sides of the ball.

CF Montréal defy expectations

I never read too much into one result but I have to say that CF Montréal’s win over Toronto FC was as impressive as it was surprising. This wasn’t the strongest Toronto lineup we’ll see this season but most of us probably still felt they’d have enough to beat a Montreal team that almost every expert tipped to finish dead last in the Supporters' Shield race. For today at least, Montréal shut most of us up and showed glimpses of what could very well be a potent attack as they efficiently dispatched of their rivals. So how did they do it? What worked so well?

First, their big players had big games. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is as simple as that. When your key players show up and play well, you always have a chance of getting a good result. Victor Wanyama and Romell Quioto both have to have good seasons in order for their team to make any playoff noise and judging by their output in this game, they are ready to step up and do so.

Thierry Henry may be gone, but his decision to play Quioto as a striker rather than a winger seems to have carried over under new head coach Wilfried Nancy and the Honduran was active all afternoon. His ability to run into channels off the ball really stretched the Toronto backline and forced their center backs into the uncomfortable position of leaving the central areas more often than they would have liked.

Quioto is also very good at running with the ball and so the more he can turn and face the opposition goal and dribble at speed, the more he’s going to cause all kinds of problems as long as his team mates have decent movement around him — which in this game, they did. His very best qualities — pace, power, finishing — were on display when he scored a stunning goal to double his team's lead. The partnership with Toye was extremely fruitful in this season opener as they both took advantage of some generous defending from Toronto. 

Wanyama had spells of absolute dominance last season and he was only let down by consistency. At his very best, he’s a force to be reckoned with as he’s able to dictate the tempo of the game with his ability to pass or carry the ball between the lines. He’s also very good defensively in terms of anticipating where the ball will be before it gets there, not to mention his aerial ability in both boxes — his leap over Michael Bradley was full of strength and determination, he simply wanted it more than the US international. When Wanyama is locked in and engaged, he can go toe to toe with any midfielder in MLS and he can be the key reason this Montréal team leaves us all with egg on our faces come playoff time. 

Despite highlighting a couple of players, this was a complete team performance from CF Montréal and the challenge for them will now be to prove that it wasn’t a one off win fueled by being written off and facing a rival.

Quick hits

FC Cincinnati Attack

After only managing 12 goals in 23 games last season, FC Cincinnati needed to address their offensive woes in the offseason.They did that by adding Lucho Acosta and Brenner and both of their new stars delivered with goals. The fluidity and creativity still isn’t where it needs to be as they only managed two shots on goal, but scoring two goals against a very good defensive Nashville team is a good sign for a team that was shutout in 2020 more than they’d like to remember. Acosta, in particular, will be critical to any offensive turnaround. His ability to play between the lines, draw multiple defenders to himself thus creating space for others should make for a fun and effective connection with Brenner.

Caden Clark

On a weekend that has already produced a number of outstanding goals, Caden Clark added another golazo to his already impressive highlight reel in his short career so far. Sometimes when a young player bursts onto the scene, the big question mark is whether or not they can sustain it. When I watch Caden Clark, I have no doubt that he will be around for a long time. It’s not just the special goals he’s already blessed us with, it’s his overall football IQ that shows up in the spaces he takes, his turns out of tight spots, and of course the technical ability to produce these absurd goals that look like becoming a routine part of his game. He wasn’t at his best tonight, but that didn’t matter because he impacted the game when it counted.

New Coaches

The most important thing for a new coach to establish when they arrive at a new club is a culture that everyone can buy into. A part of that culture is communicating a clear set of expectations for how you want your team to play. On Saturday we got a little glimpse at how D.C., RBNY and Atlanta will go about their business this season.

Hernan Losada got a big win by setting his D.C. team up in a way that made them tough to play through. With five at the back, the agenda was clear — do everything possible to keep it tight, stay organized, but don’t be afraid to get out and attack because we have numbers defensively to deal with the counter. They sacrificed possession but still created several chances and the players seemed to know what was expected of them.

Gerhard Struber’s RBNY didn’t play poorly against Sporting but they also weren’t great — especially in the final third. It was hard to figure out exactly what it is they were trying to do at times because of how disjointed their play was. I expect them to improve as the season goes on, and a huge focus on the training ground should be developing some fresh ideas and patterns in the final third. 

Heinze is going to be successful at Atlanta. Their play in wide areas was good in the first half, Ezequiel Barco seems to know what is required of him in this system, and there is a clear identity being developed — stretch the pitch, make it as wide as possible in order to create space underneath for the likes of Barco, and play a high pressing system. Orlando are not an easy opponent to start the season against and so Atlanta will still get better, but the foundational ideas can be seen already