Another set of points dropped from a winning position by LAFC, and a fifth win after falling behind for Sporting sort of tells you how things are going for these two teams right now. Sporting seem to have every player firing on all cylinders, especially when it counts. They also look to be the one team in the West that can keep pace with Seattle, should the standings continue as they are. Saturday's 2-1 win was really impressive.
I do want to focus a little more on their opponent, though, because the Black & Gold aren't where they used to be. Where they once looked formidable in attack and defense, LAFC now look like a team that can always find a way to lose, or at least lose points. That's in contrast to a Sporting team that always seems to find the ability to turn defeat into victory.
Part of LAFC's issue is that they have too many players out of form, or not quite at the level they were in 2019. There’s not much a coach can do about that – it’s up to those players to work their way back to their previous level. Carlos Vela obviously isn’t scoring as much as he did that year, but as I mentioned in my last column, he’s the best player in MLS. Once he gets back his sharpness and hits form, he will go on a scoring tear. I’m not worried about him in the slightest.
There was some rotation in the lineup Saturday, but the likes of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing and even Eduard Atuesta haven’t been as consistently good as they once were. LAFC's midfield used to smother teams and put on a clinic in the art of counter-pressing, but they're much easier to play through now.
I also never thought I’d see LAFC not only struggle to score goals, but really struggle to create consistently good chances. Despite his lack of production, we can see why Brian Rodriguez was a key cog in this attack. He was able to penetrate off the dribble and occupy a couple of defenders. He made it hard for teams to focus only on Diego Rossi and Vela because he could beat you off the dribble and get the ball into dangerous areas, which led to all three attackers having more space to operate.
The current attack is a lot more stagnant in its movement and is really dependent on either Rossi or Vela creating individual moments. The biggest concern, though, has to be the amount of games they’ve lost or tied from winning positions. MLS is an unforgiving league for teams that can't keep their noses in front. In the past, it didn’t matter if LAFC conceded late on because they were usually two or three goals up already. Now that they don’t score anywhere near as much, the second-half goals they give up are leading to lost points.
It’s hard to conceive right now, but just a few short years ago, Toronto FC were the gold standard of MLS. They had an attack-minded young coach, two important US men's national team players and a genius in Sebastian Giovinco who made it all come together. Even after Giovinco left, the addition of Alejandro Pozuelo softened the blow and gave them one of the premier playmakers in MLS.
They were a squad capable of competing both domestically and in Concacaf, but after watching their 2-0 defeat against FC Cincinnati, they look far from the team they once were. Greg Vanney is now coaching the LA Galaxy, Pozuleo has been injured a lot, Michael Bradley is still a good midfielder but, aged 33, unsurprisingly not what he once was and Jozy Altidore is training by himself.
As currently constructed, they have no chance of making the playoffs and this may be a season where the focus needs to immediately switch to rebuilding mode. They need to get younger, they need new leaders — they have to reinvent themselves. Judging by his post-game comments, Armas won’t make excuses. But I must say that playing home games in Florida due to the COVID-19 pandemic is an incredibly tall task and a massive factor in what we are seeing. Not the only factor, but a big one nonetheless.
While the job facing Armas was never going to be easy, and he certainly hasn’t been helped by injuries or playing every game away from home, I still struggle to believe that anyone predicted Toronto sitting on just five points and one win after 10 games. It’s been a stunning fall from grace and I can’t help but feel that the road back to the top must include a major overhaul of the squad next offseason.
In the meantime, there are some things that can be done to salvage what’s left of this 2021 season. Managing just three shots on goal against an FC Cincinnati team not known for their resolute defending is clearly a cause for concern. Since it seems unlikely that Altidore will return to the pitch anytime soon, Armas must figure out how to get more from the trio of Dom Dwyer, Ayo Akinola, and Patrick Mullins.
Armas went for two up top in this game, but it didn’t bring about the desired effect; they lacked creativity, ideas and execution when it counted most. That’s just one area that needs massive improvement. Things aren’t much better at the other end of the pitch, where they’ve conceded 13 goals in the last five games – all defeats.
Is it a personnel issue? Is it tactical? It’s usually a combination of both and the Toronto coaching staff, until the offseason arrives and they can really address the issues at hand, have their work cut out to return this club to where they should be — which is fighting for the big trophies.
Raul Ruidiaz's place in history
Raul Ruidiaz is the best finisher in Sounders FC history. That’s not up for debate. The numbers speak for themselves, as does the eye test. I’ve always maintained that Obafemi Martins is the best player in club history in terms of what he could do skill-wise and how he hurt opponents – he was a walking highlight reel. While that opinion hasn't changed, Ruidiaz deserves to be talked about as the best player the Sounders have had inside the 18-yard box.
He’s currently using all of the disappointment he must have felt from missing out on Peru's Copa America squad to spearhead the Sounders' attack with goal after goal. No player has ever broken the 20-goal barrier in a single Sounders' season, but based on what I’ve seen, I suspect that I won’t be able to type that sentence this time next year.
Chicharito shows his enduring class
I’ll keep this brief: Javier Hernandez is not just good, he’s exceptional. It’s one thing to know he brings world-class movement, it’s another thing to study him in action. He never stops moving – it’s one step to the left, one forward, two back – and before you know it he’s lost his marker and is wheeling away to celebrate yet another goal.
Watching him is a lesson in the art of being an out-and-out striker. The biggest takeaway I get when I see him out there is that he looks like he’s having fun. He looked burdened by many things last season, yet in 2021 he’s playing free. In the process, he’s shutting down a lot of critics who thought he'd be a major bust in MLS.
Game of the night
The 3-3 draw in Chicago between the Fire and the Union was a thriller. Full credit to the Fire for going for it in the way they did against one of the top teams in the league. In the end, they’ll view it as two points dropped after they found themselves 3-2 ahead. But I still think it’s a point they can build on and draw great confidence from once the dust settles.
For the Union, they’ve given up five goals in the last two away games. Now that four of their next five are away from home, they’ll need to tighten up their backline quickly.