Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s Week 22 action.
For a long time, New England have arguably been the best team in MLS, a team that has at times looked unbeatable. The Supporters' Shield leaders entered their matchup at NYCFC holding a sizable lead atop the Eastern Conference standings while riding a nine-match unbeaten run. It was always going to take something special to not only beat them but to beat them well, and that’s exactly what NYCFC produced with a 2-0 result against the shorthanded Revs at Yankee Stadium.
In games like this, you need to get off to a fast start and lay bare your intentions – that’s exactly what Delia’s men did as they registered five shots inside the first 20-25 minutes. It wasn’t all one-way traffic since the Revs had their moments as well, but the night belonged to the Cityzens and their star duo of Maxi Moralez and Valentin Castellanos. They combined on both goals to put a bow on really impressive team moves that deserved to end in the back of the net.
Moralez is a player I’ve always liked. He’s shifty, has a great first touch, can see a pass that most can’t and most importantly impacts the score sheet. It’s one thing to spot the run of Castellanos on both goals – a lot of players can see that – but it’s another to play a pass with pinpoint precision that requires only a one-touch finish. We must not take for granted the two assists he pulled off. They were as absurd as they were special.
As for Casetellanos, he’s having a monster year – he’s now into double-digit goals (10) – and did what all good strikers do, which is to perform in the biggest games. Neither finish was easy, he just made it look that way. But watch enough football and you’ll see those chances missed at all levels, so I have to give him credit for the efficiency with which he dispatched his opportunities.
NYCFC were coming off a defeat but they’d actually been in good form for the most part and look like one of the teams that can challenge for honors out of the East. How can they ensure that happens? They need to replicate this kind of performance more often than not. The passing and movement, especially on the right-hand side led by Anton Tinnerholm, was exceptional at times. They were relentless in the way they attacked and lesser teams than New England would have succumbed to even more goals.
When they play like that, they’re a joy to watch and tough to defend against. But they’ve rarely produced anything close to that away from home, which could be their downfall when the postseason rolls around.
I recently told a friend that while the Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers rivalry was still the gold standard in MLS – due to the long history across multiple leagues, the iconic on-field moments and memorable fan interactions – El Trafico is right up there as the most entertaining. There always seems to be a minimum of five goals when these two teams lock horns. Recent form, tactics, defending, organization and discipline fly out of the window. Both teams just go out all guns blazing. I love it and Saturday’s 3-3 draw as part of Heineken Rivalry Week didn’t disappoint.
Both sides were missing their marquee player (Carlos Vela, Chicharito), and in their absence, a player I’ve always rated despite his lack of production took center stage. Brian Rodriguez has been among the most dangerous wingers in the league from the moment he entered MLS in 2019. Even when he isn’t scoring, I always feel he makes LAFC a better team because of the risks he takes and the questions he forces the opponent to answer. At times he commands the attention of two players, draws fouls, wins corners and is just a nuisance to have to defend for 90 minutes.
Granted, you can only get by on potential for so long. At some point you need to start scoring regularly, and if his exploits in this El Trafico are a sign of things to come, then LAFC fans – and neutrals – are in for a treat.
We can all see the potential, and that’s why the Uruguayan international has been a frustrating player at times. But he’s only 21 and is heading in the right direction, even if his recent loan to Spain’s Almería didn’t quite pan out. With a consistent end product, he automatically becomes a top-five winger in this league just because very few players – currently and in MLS history – possess his kind of skill set. I know that’s a big statement, but it’s true.
And I’ll make an even bigger one: His first goal against LA reminded me of a goal I once saw the great Thierry Henry score in 2004 against Liverpool in terms of the way he left defenders on the floor. It’s not every day that you're mentioned in the same breath as a legend like Henry, but this goal was special and only a handful of MLS players can score it. He’s a natural dribbler, quick, not afraid to go 1-v-1 and can also combine and play tactically when needed. Add goals and assists to that profile and you have the complete winger.
In what was again two points dropped for LAFC, the big silver lining was Rodriguez's end product. I’m sure his coaches and teammates have seen it often in training, but if it can now translate to games, the Black & Gold may yet have something big to say this season.
When a coach is willing to be held accountable and protect his players rather than blame them or some external factor all the time, that message is heard loud and clear. It's also usually well-received in the locker room. If players were still on the fence about Gonzalo Pineda, they’ll be ready to run through a wall for him next week.
Atlanta lost 2-0 to Nashville, but they’re still going in the right direction. I’ve said that for the past couple of weeks for various reasons – Ezequiel Barco’s form, Josef Martinez looking like his old self and a couple of good results. But this week my reason isn’t for anything happening on the pitch. Their head coach, a man I know quite well, was very quick to take the blame for their defeat.
It’s the kind of leadership that has perhaps been missing from the Atlanta dugout since Tata Martina walked out of the door. And it supports why their four-game winning streak ending in Pineda's coaching debut isn't too big of a concern.
If other teams had lost just once in 13 games, we’d be ranting, raving and writing think-pieces about their philosophy or culture. But we haven’t quite done that with Nashville, despite them sitting in third place in the East with a +14 goal differential and only two defeats this season. This is a team that was offensively average last year while being defensively great, and that already was enough to give them a taste of the postseason.
They’re still defensively great in 2021, and now that goalscoring is not the concern it once was, they have a real chance at making a lot of noise this season. I get the sense that they don’t mind flying under the radar a little bit; they’re happy to just go about their business and let the results speak for themselves. But I will say this: I want to go on record now that I would not be surprised to see them make the Eastern Conference Final – and maybe beyond.