Saturday's MLS Week 4 action saw an LA Galaxy team that continues to grab our attention for all the right reasons and we also got a good look at the true potential of two Eastern Conference contenders as they went head to head.
The standout moment from Chicharito’s performance wasn’t his very well taken goal or clever assist, it was the in the 94th minute when he chased down an LAFC defender by the corner flag and applied pressure to prevent the clearance.
By that point he was gassed, had heavy legs, and had already earned his pay check. It was indicative of the not only the new and improved Chicharito, but the new and improved LA Galaxy as well. Only time will tell how good of a job Greg Vanney will do but they already look and feel different than they have in recent years.
There is a commitment, resilience and belief that have been lacking since Bruce Arena walked out of the door. Sure, there were some amazing highs during the Zlatan era but as a team, they were still very poor. While they still need a defensive lynchpin, the signs of improvement are encouraging.
After last week's defeat in Seattle, previous incarnations of the Galaxy would have struggled to bounce back as one defeat usually became three or four on the bounce. Even when LAFC drew level, the heads never hung. This is no longer Zlatan plus 10. There’s a real togetherness that could be seen in how they celebrated the winning goal — everyone together with passion and emotion, and most importantly, with belief.
So what’s different about Chicharito this season? First, he looks fitter and sharper, which obviously has helped his world-class movement to be as effective as it has. Second, he’s playing a like a man who believes this is his team.
Jonathan Dos Santos is still their best player but this team will live and die by Chicharito’s goals and I think he loves that challenge. Despite his pedigree, in 2020 this team very much belonged to Cristian Pavon and very rarely played to the Mexican’s strengths. Now, there is an emphasis on getting the ball wide and trying to pick out Chicharito’s runs.
The Galaxy’s crossing still needs to improve considerably. The likes of Julian Araujo and Samuel Grandsir, who find themselves in great wide positions a lot, need to spend 30 minutes after every training session working on crosses because they have a guy in the box who needs good service in order to do what he does best.
The Galaxy won’t win the West because they are still not good enough defensively over the course of a long season, but they should, at the very least, aim for the top four and plan to make some noise in the playoffs. As for Chicharito, his eyes need to be firmly set on the Golden Boot presented by Audi as he continues his amazing redemption tour.
Orlando City and NYCFC were separated by two points in the table last season and both were within 10 points of top spot in the East so it goes without saying that they came into the 2021 season with big aspirations. We hadn’t seen them face off since last season’s dramatic playoff encounter but on Saturday evening as they went head to head in Orlando and we got a glimpse of what we can reasonably expect both to accomplish in 2021.
For Orlando, there’s no question that even in the absence of Daryl Dike they still possess enough firepower to win their fair share of games. Nani is a big reason for that as he is maybe in the best form of his MLS career.
His goals and Orlando’s overall attacking play have been worthy of more than the solitary win they’ve managed so far this season, but a poor defensive decision proved to be their undoing against NYCFC. As Oscar Pareja emphasized in his post game comments, it isn’t just Nani that is playing at a high level, it’s several of the the starting 11 and so you have to wonder why they haven’t been winning more.
The very best teams kill games off. Once you let them get in front, there’s very rarely a way back because they know how to preserve and even increase a lead. That’s what Orlando are missing. This wasn’t a vintage performance by any means, but they did dominate for spells and played some really good football especially in the second half, but that killer instinct eluded them and allowed their opponents to find a way back in.
During the 2020 run in, they failed to win several games in which they took the lead — against Inter Miami, NYCFC, Nashville, and RBNY. Those dropped points prevented them from maintaining their Supporters' Shield challenge and my fear is that unless they can consistently start turning a 1-0 scoreline into a two and three goal lead, they will fall short of the lofty ambitions they so rightly possess.
NYCFC will be pleased that they came from behind and snatched a point and they should also be very happy with how they chased the winning goal in the final 10 minutes.The in-form Taty Castellanos came close to providing a perfect ending when he went close in the final five minutes.
Big picture wise, we learned that this team can be very flexible in how they approach the game as they switched formations at least three times — twice appeared to be by choice and once was due to injury — but they never lost their rhythm and players still seemed to know what was being asked of them. Many MLS “experts,” myself included, pegged NYCFC to finish around 6th or below but I now expect them to finish in the top four at least.
They’ve obviously made a good start to the season but I actually think they can play even better than they’ve shown so far and once Maxi Moralez regains his very best form, they can only improve. Offensively they’re averaging over 15 shots a game and conceding less than a goal a game at the other end. They’ve made a leap forward since last season but the question will be whether they can sustain this form for 34 games and into the playoffs.
Impressive wins for Nashville and Vancouver
Nashville got their first win of 2021 and they’ll now hope this is the spark that ignites their season. They won’t lose many games because they defend very well and simply won’t concede too many.
The question has always been whether or not they can score enough to turn some of those draws from last season into wins. This win is a good sign that they may be able to do just that as they dispatched a very good New England team in an efficient manner.
Vancouver, meanwhile, are making a mockery of some of the pre season predictions surrounding them when many thought they’d struggle for any win. OK, I’m exaggerating but I’m not sure many of us would have had them getting seven points from their first four games.
The pleasing thing for the Whitecaps is that they have been in every game this season, and their lone defeat was by a solitary goal. What the specifically do well, is they move as one unit when they are defending. There are very few gaps, definitely not as many as last season, for teams to play through and that’s what is keeping them in every game.
Can they keep up with the very best in the West once the season really gets going? I’m skeptical that they can, but I also don’t expect them to be the team propping up the table when it’s all said and done — so long as they keep the great balance between attack and defense that they have right now.
Something needs to change in Chicago
I don’t exactly know why but I just feel that Chicago should be better, especially at home. They kept and moved the ball quite well against the Union on Saturday but there was not enough creativity or ingenuity in their play. It was all rather predictable and by the time the final whistle blew, I felt as though we could have played for another hour and they wouldn’t have scored.
They are winless in four this season — 10 if you stretch it back to last season. Is it tactics? Personnel? Something more intangible? It may be a little bit of all the above. But regardless of what it is, something needs to change, and soon.