The LA Galaxy added a huge win to continue their impressive season, while two unlikely candidates are on the hunt for the Golden Boot presented by Audi. Then both Colorado and NYCFC continued to impress in the West and East, respectively.
Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s Week 19 action.
In the lead-up to the season, most of us would have offered up the same three or four names when asked who would win the 2021 Golden Boot presented by Audi. And after a few weeks, it looked like we were headed for a straight shootout between Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (10 goals) and Raul Ruidiaz (11 goals). But that’s no longer the case. And to be clear: One of those two may still win the award, but they’ll have to fend off some stiff competition from two unexpected players in Gustavo Bou and Daniel Salloi.
Bou is not an unknown quantity. Every time I’ve watched him play, the New England Revolution forward has left me impressed with his combination of skill and physical prowess, as well as his ability to link up well with teammates – especially Carles Gil. He played 18 games last season and scored five goals, then already has 12 this season in the same amount of games. He’s clearly picked up right where he left off in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, where he scored three times in four contests.
You could make the lazy argument that Bou’s goals are the product of being on a Supporters’ Shield-leading team with possibly the best attacking midfielder in the league, but you’d be wrong. Yes, it’s true that New England have scored a league-high 37 goals and Carles Gil is the MLS assist leader, creating an environment where good service is in strong supply. However, if you do a little digging, you’ll see that Bou scored five goals from 64 shots in 18 games last season, whereas his 12 goals in this season’s 18 games have come from just 46 shots. He’s landed 22 shots on target in both scenarios.
I’m not the biggest numbers and stats guy, but this tells me that we’re talking about a player who has upped his efficiency and is more deadly than he’s ever been, doing a lot more with less. I see no reason why he would slow down, especially if New England continue to roll through the Eastern Conference. If back in preseason you offered Bruce Arena a deal where Bou scored 15 goals this year, I think he’d have taken it. But as things stand, I’d be shocked not to see Bou get at least 20, maybe more.
Similar to Bou, Salloi is benefiting from playing on a Sporting Kansas City team that generates some very good chances. They’re atop the Western Conference standings and have scored the second-most goals (35) in MLS this year.
Just like Bou, Salloi’s goals are also a direct product of an incredible uptick in his efficiency. In 2019, the last time the homegrown forward played major minutes, he needed 50 shots to score his lone goal of the campaign. In 2021, he’s taken 51 shots to get his 11 goals. Looking back further to 2018, he also scored 11 goals but he needed 29 games and 78 shots to do it.
The common thread between both of these players is that they've been very efficient with their chances. To have a realistic chance at being the top scorer in any league, you must be a player that only needs one, maybe two, good chances per game to find the back of the net. Bou and Salloi, two MLS All-Stars, are both currently doing exactly that.
Numbers aside, it's hard to explain how strikers sometimes get into a zone where the game seems to slow down in front of goal and finishing seems to come much easier than usual. Bou and Salloi are giving off that aura right now, and as long as their teams keep on doing what they’ve done so far this year, I expect both to be in the Golden Boot conversation when it’s all said and done.
For a brief moment after Saturday’s 1-0 win at Minnesota, the Galaxy sat atop the Western Conference standings – and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn't expect them to be in the running for the top seed by mid-August. I knew Greg Vanney would improve them. He’s a very good coach and LA had sunk pretty low, but the transformation has been incredible.
There are many things to be impressed by, but I think the number one thing that stands out to me is the new mentality I see them playing with. There are many ways to gauge a team's mentality, and one of the very best ways is to see how they respond to adversity. The Galaxy have lost six times this season, and on all but one occasion, they’ve responded by getting three points in the next game. That’s really impressive and not easy to do. Also, the one time they didn’t win after a loss, they at least got a draw. They’re yet to lose two on the bounce in 2021.
I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I can guarantee you that the Galaxy of the past few years often let one defeat turn into two or three on the bounce – and that’s why they struggled so much. Winning is a habit, as is losing, but it’s also a mentality. There’s no doubt that Vanney has brought that mentality to Carson.
For much of the early season, Chicharito was arguably the best player in the league. He hasn’t seen the pitch since late June while nursing a calf injury, yet the Galaxy have found ways to get points and goals without him. Their scoring has slowed down slightly, but they’ve still found enough offense to stay in the conversation with Seattle and Sporting KC. That’s another sign of good coaching, being able to plug holes as they arise without losing too much of your momentum.
Can I see the Galaxy realistically winning the West and maybe even MLS Cup? I want to say yes, but their defense still gives me cause for concern. The one area Vanney has yet to truly fix is the amount of goals they leak. Now, they’ve kept two clean sheets in the past three games, but they’ve also conceded 28 goals in 19 games — only Portland have conceded more in the West.
If their goal-scoring ever dries up, LA are in big trouble. Seattle and Sporting KC (and even Colorado) have significantly better defenses. That could end up being the one key difference between winning silverware and leaving empty-handed.
Rapids mean business
Do not sleep on the Colorado Rapids. This is a team that I really enjoy watching because they try to play on the front foot, their wide play is exciting, and they have a very good young core. With just one defeat in their last eight games, they should harbor serious hopes of pursuing the No. 1 seed in the West.
As things stand, they have two games in hand on both the Galaxy and Sporting KC. And as fate would have it, they face both of those teams in two of their next three games. Those matchups will not only be an opportunity to close the gap, but will serve as a true measuring stick of exactly how Colorado stack up against the West's very best.
Should they emerge with two wins, both away from home, I can see them continuing this great run and making some serious noise between now and December. At that point, we won’t only be talking about the great job the players have done, but also about Robin Fraser and his chances at a Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year nod.
NYCFC stay surging
Another team worth highlighting is New York City FC as their run in the East continues. They have four wins in the last six and they’re the league’s third-highest scorers.
What exactly has been working so well? Two things: home form and clean sheets. They’ve been deadly at home – whether that’s Yankee Stadium or Red Bull Arena – scoring 12 goals across their four straight wins. And the wins have included some impressive performances against some pretty good teams in Montréal, Orlando and Columbus. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve held a shutout in four of their last six games.
As a player, I can’t stress enough the confidence it gives you when you’re on a team that hardly concedes. You go into games knowing that all you need is one goal and you’ll likely take home three points. They say defense wins championships and that in MLS you need to win your home games. Right now, NYCFC are doing both.