Voices: Steve Zakuani

Saturday takeaways: What we learned from Week 13's action

We saw a goalscoring return for Jozy Altidore, while Hany Mukhtar scored a sensational hat trick and Carlos Vela reminded us all why LAFC should still be feared.

Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s Week 13 action. 

Editor’s note: This column was written before the news that Atlanta United relieved Gabriel Heinze of his head coaching duties broke Sunday afternoon. 

Jozy Altidore makes triumphant return

I want to talk a little about Altidore, but I hope to make a larger general point about the need for a coach, especially a newly hired one, to do all that they can to build a good rapport with their star players — because in MLS you simply can’t win and then sustain a winning traction without buy-in from your best players. 

It obviously didn’t work out for Chris Armas in Toronto for multiple reasons, and one of the leading stories was his fallout with Altidore a few weeks ago. To be clear, no player is above the club or above being coached. However, if a coach falls out with a marquee player, then the most important thing a coach needs to do, is to get results. You can justify almost anything as long as you are winning. But if you aren’t picking up points, and a guy who can clearly help you is training off to the side by himself, then lots of questions will start to be asked. 

In MLS, more than most other leagues, it’s hard to separate yourself from the pack year after year, because despite the obvious spending gap that exists between some teams, there is still so much parity — anyone can truly beat anyone on any given day — and that’s where star players can make all the difference. 

You need guys who know how to win, how to score important goals, guys who have been in the big moments before, and guys who attract the opponents attention even when they are out of form — Altidore is such a player. I understand he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve consistently praised him because, at his very best, there aren’t many like him in this country.

His hold up play is second to none, he can drop deep to pick up the ball and then drive at the backline, he can play the lone striker role or with a partner equally well, and as long as he can get fit and then stay fit — this has been his biggest problem in recent years — he’s going to get goals at the MLS level all day long.

Josef Martinez is another great example of this. There haven’t been many match winners on his level in the entire history of this league and so far in 2021, when he has played, it’s been clear he’s yet to fully rediscover his pre-ACL form, and Atlanta has suffered for it. A fully fit, firing on all cylinders and motivated Martinez would have had double digit goals by now and turned three or four of those draws Atlanta have had, into wins.

And then we’d maybe be talking about a potential top seed in the East rather than trying to figure out exactly what Gabriel Heinze is trying to do with the Five Stripes — goals scorers are just that important. Always have been, always will be.

I wasn’t surprised to see Altidore score on his return to the team over the weekend, and I won’t be surprised when he scores even more the fitter he gets. What I’m saying about Altidore can apply to all the big players in MLS — the guys who can win you a game even when they’re having an off day. This includes defenders and goalkeepers by the way. They are so few and far between that it’s imperative for a coach to get them to buy in to what they are trying to build because it’s very difficult to win without them, in this league especially.

Armas will bounce back and be better for the experience, I have no doubts about that either, but the lesson I learned in watching this whole thing play out was that if you are prepared to sideline one of your best players indefinitely, then you need to be getting results to show your fans and bosses your philosophy can thrive without said star player. If you don’t get results, then unfortunately, it’ll lead to a lot of questions and ultimately in your dismissal.

As for Toronto, Altidore warned us not to write them off just yet, and while I think they have problems that run much deeper than the recent absence of Altidore, and I don’t see them competing with the likes of Philadelphia, Columbus, or New England in crunch time, they definitely put in a good showing against Orlando and I do foresee them climbing up the table and making the playoffs. A big reason for that will be the goals, and overall play, of Jozy Altidore — should he stay fit.

Hany Mukhtar and Nashville SC's attack

There was a time where I felt I could predict what had happened in a Nashville win without even watching the game — they'd probably kept a clean sheet, and then scored the game’s only goal with one of their three or four shots in the game. That has been their modus operandi for large parts of their brief MLS existence, but in recent weeks there are signs of an improvement on the offensive end — and if they continue to be what they’ve been defensively — this could spell trouble for the rest of the East.

Without question, they took advantage of playing against a 10-man Chicago, but they were already up 2-0 when the red card occurred so the flurry of goals was definitely more than just the sending off, but also due to the sensational performance of Hany Mukhtar, highlighted by his six-minute hat trick. His second and third goals showed what he can be at his very best.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen stepovers that genuinely bamboozled a defender, but that’s exactly what Mukhtar did with his second goal. The first touch was fantastic because it immediately displayed his intention to be direct and to the point and forced the defenders back towards their own goal. Then came the double stepovers and the delightful finish into the bottom corner.

It was a goal worthy of winning any game, and I’d call it the goal of the game except he followed It up moments later with one of the best free kicks you’ll see this season. I can’t ask him to score a hat trick every week — no one can do that except maybe Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago — but when he shows us this side of him, it’s hard not to want to see it consistently. 

The evidence suggests Nashville will always be defensively solid, and if they can now add this sort of offensive output on a regular basis — 25 shots with 12 on target, and five goals against Chicago — they will become very difficult to beat in the postseason, when the games really matter and you need to rely on your bread and butter, whatever that is.

Also, this result shouldn’t have been entirely surprising as Nashville have gone on a five-game unbeaten run since losing their only game of the season, and they’ve now scored 12 goals during that span. They sit in fifth, but their ambitions should be much higher at this point, and rightfully so.

Quick Hits

Carlos Vela is back

Not long ago, Brad Evans and I spoke with LAFC assistant Ante Razov for our Side by Side Sounders FC podcast and we asked about Carlos Vela. Ante was the Sounders assistant who worked most closely with Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey when they used to just play one-twos to each other in the attacking half before one of them ended the move with a tap in. He said Oba and Clint were exceptional, but Vela is in a league of his own. That’s obviously extremely high praise, but it’s hard not to agree with it when Vela does things like he did in the win against Real Salt Lake.

He has struggled for form all year long, but I am pretty sure Bob Bradley hasn’t lost any sleep over it because at some point, Vela was always going to return to his brilliant best and to no one’s surprise, it was worth the wait. He missed a penalty 20 minutes before getting the game winner, and like all great players he’d probably forgotten about the penalty miss already by that point as he seemed to get better as the game wore on.

His first touch should be taught on every youth training pitch across America. The deftness was brilliant, but even more impressive was how he directed it to the exact spot that would set up the absurd finish that was to come. These are things Vela does on a regular basis, and I get the sense we are about to see them a lot more as the season begins to approach the more critical phases.

Match of the night

I would not have predicted these would be the two teams to give us a nine-goal thriller, and what a game it was. The back and forth nature kept us all on the edge of our seats, but in the end, CF Montréal were the deserved winners. 

FC Cincinnati certainly played their part, but only managed five shots on target, scoring four of them, whereas Montréal constantly looked threatening and pushed the envelope. Mason Toye was once again brilliant, as was the passing and possession from the whole team. I would not have had them in fourth place at this stage of the season in any of my preseason predictions, but they are there on merit and at this point. And with their return to playing actual home games in Montréal, there’s no reason they can’t remain exactly where they are or go even higher.