Gonzalo Pineda won’t sleep well tonight and the reason is simple: Atlanta United missed a big opportunity to push themselves further away from the Eastern Conference’s playoff line by winning their final regular-season home game.
Gonzo is a winner, plain and simple. I know this because I’ve watched him from up close in training sessions and on the sideline as an assistant to Brian Schmetzer. He kicks every ball, contests every refereeing decision and wants to win more than anyone.
A few years ago he played in a charity game I host in the Seattle area, and as the game drew to a close with the result in the balance, he began playing with the same intensity he had when he was a key fixture for Mexico's national team.
He knows how hard it is to win away from home in MLS and that’s why this 1-1 draw to Toronto FC will feel like a defeat. It’s two massive points dropped and it keeps postseason hope alive for several teams beneath them. After taking five points from a possible nine in this recent three-game home stretch, they’ll now need to win at least one, possibly both, of their final two regular-season games (against New York Red Bulls, FC Cincinnati). Both are away from home.
In saying all of that, what will disappoint Pineda most of all is the lack of cohesion his attacking core played with at times – a group that’s been excellent ever since he took over. It’s not that they didn’t create chances, since their 19 shots is nothing to scoff at. It’s more that they didn’t look to be on the same page in critical moments.
Ezequiel Barco, a player that’s excelled under Pineda, resorted to some of his old bad habits – too many touches, indecision and not being clinical at the business end of the pitch. As a one-off game, it may not matter too much as long as they reach the playoffs. But it definitely wasn’t the kind of performance or result Atlanta fans want to see from their team this deep into October.
Barco wasn’t the only culprit, as the great Josef Martinez was uncharacteristically wasteful with chances we’ve seen him score with his eyes closed. Another area of concern for Atlanta should be the late goal conceded to Jordan Perruzza, as it was the second time in the last three home games that they’ve allowed a goal at the death to let two points slip away.
I still feel Atlanta will make the playoffs, but a performance like this will not hold up against opponents stronger than a Toronto side that’s struggled in 2021.
Columbus did everything they could to cling onto their playoff chances in Saturday’s 3-1 road win, while D.C. United continued to do their best to throw away theirs. Matt Doyle said it best when he highlighted that Hernan Losada's team has gone 1W-4L-1D in October – not exactly playoff form.
It gets worse when you factor in that four of those six games were played at Audi Field. Had they won just twice more in October, they’d be joint-fourth with Philadelphia. Instead, they’re now level with the Crew and outside the East’s playoff places in eighth.
When trying to figure out what a team needs to change in order to correct their form, the most obvious answer is usually the easiest. Across their past four games, the Black-and-Red are averaging three goals against. Ola Kamara (who's gone cold) is second in the Golden Boot race, but they still don’t score anywhere near enough to overcome conceding at that sort of rate – hardly anyone in world football does.
They have one game left (against Toronto on Decision Day) and the first priority has to be playing to zero at the back. It’s an absolute must-win, and their season rests on needing to score only one or two goals rather than four or five.
Had the Crew lost this game, they’d have surrendered their MLS Cup defense in disappointing fashion. Instead, their star man continued to come up big by scoring twice. Remarkably, as recently as a few weeks ago, there were some people questioning whether or not Lucas Zelarayan had been “found out.”
Let me make this simple: There is no finding out a player of this quality. Great players don’t care if you know what they are going to do, they’re so good that they just do it anyway. I can count on one hand the number of times Darlington Nagbe has called me to tell me about a player I need to look out for. After training with Zelarayan a few times, he told me to get ready for what I was about to witness.
Another thing great players have in common is their knack for stepping up in big moments, often in spectacular ways. After scoring a goal midweek against Orlando that the Crew social media team called Goal of the Year – it was incredible but likely won’t win – Zelarayan went and scored another worldie against D.C. to help secure three points.
The Crew surely got a boost in having their head coach back in the dugout, too. I don’t need to tell you how torturous the last 10 days had been for Caleb Porter, who's one of the most passionate and driven people I know. Due to MLS health and safety protocols, he was forced to watch the most important games of the season from home. Every second away from the team would have eaten away at him. He’s back now, and maybe just in time to mastermind a Decision Day win against Chicago Fire FC they’ll need to at least give themselves a chance to defend their crown.
The 2021 Golden Boot race has been one for the ages, and as we head into the final games of the season, it’s still up for grabs. By my count, there are at least five or six guys with a genuine shout for the top spot when it’s all said and done.
But after Saturday’s games, the advantage goes to Taty Castellanos. The NYCFC frontman has hit red-hot form just when it matters most. After going scoreless for four games, he now has five in his last three, including two in a 3-1 win that officially eliminated Inter Miami CF from playoff contention.
Taty’s got at least one hand on the Golden Boot with 18 goals and eight assists. He’s part of an offense that has been on a tear, and with playoff seeding on the line when they lock horns with the Union on Decision Day, you should expect him to play a central role next Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
Young stars shine
Two of the United States’ brightest young stars came up clutch in the latest round of games. Caden Clark had a key assist in a 1-0 win over CF Montréal that helped RBNY into seventh in the East – mathematically they could still finish as high as second place. He’s been reduced to a substitute role in recent weeks, but this was a good reminder of his ability to make key plays when needed.
And speaking of reminders, Cade Cowell scored a ridiculous goal to show anyone who may have forgotten about his unlimited potential. As a player that used to dribble over long distances, let me tell you that by the time you get to the opponent’s box, it’s so easy to turn the ball over simply due to tired legs.