The LA Galaxy continued their impressive start to life under Greg Vanney, Atlanta and Minnesota secured much-needed, but not entirely convincing, wins at the death and Portland and Colorado showed their quality out West.

Are the Galaxy true contenders?

I’ve been unabashed in my praise of the LA Galaxy so far this season because the improvement in their play is self evident, and Greg Vanney’s DNA can be seen in how they are set up. Through five games they’ve only dropped points once in a defeat to the league leading Sounders, and their star player has come to life as he leads the league in goals scored.

The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: are the LA Galaxy true contenders for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup? Despite everything I’ve said above, my current feeling is that no, they are not quite ready to compete for those honors just yet — and there’s one big reason why.

It’s no secret that the Galaxy have struggled to live up to their own lofty past in recent seasons. Whereas winning MLS Cup was once the norm, recent iterations of this team have struggled to make the playoffs or do anything noteworthy. The biggest reason for this decline lies in their defending — they have been a team that simply ships too many goals.

It’s weird to say that on a day that they kept their first clean sheet of the season but it’s the truth. Outside of 2020, scoring goals hasn’t really been an issue because in Zlatan they had a player who guaranteed you a goal a game. League wide they are joint second in goals scored this season, but my concern is that they are also joint second in most goals conceded in the Western Conference.

HIGHLIGHTS: LA Galaxy vs. Austin FC | May 15, 2021

As good as Chicharito has been, it’s a tall order to ask him to keep this goal scoring pace up through 34 games, and to be honest, unless he does so, the Galaxy won’t be able to score at a rate that nullifies the amount of goals they leak. With all due respect to those currently there, I’ll repeat something I have been calling for for a long time — they need a defensive leader, a lynchpin that can strike fear into opposing forwards.

There are small signs of improvement as they’ve only let in one goal in their past two games after conceding seven in their first three. It’s very possible that given enough time to drill his ideas into this current backline, Vanney will tighten them up and improve upon their goals against average of years past — 2.09 in 2020, 1.73 in 2019, 1.88 in 2018 and 1.97 in 2017. Those numbers have got to come down if they are to have a realistic chance of capitalizing on this fabulous start and the new life that Vanney has brought to the club.

To bring my point home, think back to the last time the Galaxy were serious Supporters' Shield contenders and won MLS Cup. It was 2014 and their goals against average was 1.08. If they can get anywhere near that number, they’ll be in the mix for silverware, but as good as they have been so far, my fear is that their Achilles heel will be their defensive play and it could unfortunately keep them from reaching the heights their attacking play deserves.

How much should we read into dramatic wins for Atlanta and Minnesota?

Both Atlanta and Minnesota left it very late to take the three points in their respective games and I’m sure there were some spirited celebrations in both locker rooms post game. However, my sense is that once the elation dies down and their coaching staffs can take stock of where they are at, Minnesota will feel mostly good about their recent direction whereas Atlanta and Heinze will have more concerns than they’d have hoped for at this stage of the season.

Minnesota, a side heavily favored to do big things in all the offseason predictions, got their second win on the bounce and they’ve done it behind two clean sheets and a single goal in each game. In this particular game, they had 27 shots, although only seven of those were on target. They were the better team and really took the game to FC Dallas, yet, and maybe I am being a little harsh here, something still seems to be missing from their play.

At the end of last season they played with a freedom and joy that I don’t see right now. There was a lot of positional fluidity as players interchanged and the link up between Emanuel Reynoso and Kevin Molino was reminiscent of the Lodeiro-Morris link up Seattle have enjoyed for the past few years.

HIGHLIGHTS: Minnesota United FC vs. FC Dallas | May 15, 2021

They haven’t, and probably won’t replace Molino but there’s still enough talent there for them to be a team that scores multiple goals a game and fights for top spot in the West. This was a much needed win as it would have been a real let down had they failed to build on the momentum of their midweek victory.

From that perspective, they have to be very pleased with the week they’ve had, but for a team that would have made it to MLS Cup in 2020 had it not been for a miraculous comeback by Seattle, I sense they know they still have a level or two they can still reach before they are fully satisfied with their play — especially on the attacking side.

As for Atlanta, the attack looks disjointed — the dynamic, free flowing counter attacks and patterns that made us all fall in love with the 2018 team seem to be from another lifetime at this point — and as they wait for Josef Martinez to regain his best form, they need to figure out exactly how they want to play in the final third.

On the plus side, getting a win when you are not at your best is definitely the sign of a good team, but I don’t think Atlanta will win too many games playing this way. Especially not against the better teams. As it is, they are second in the East and will feel they can still get better, I just wonder if they’ll be able to figure out how to get the best out of the current version of Martinez and the attacking core in time to really mount a serious challenge for the kind of success this club was built for.

HIGHLIGHTS: Atlanta United FC vs. CF Montréal | May 15, 2021

Quick hits

Portland's winning formula

Sometimes going back to basics is exactly what the doctor ordered and it appears that Gio Savarese got the memo. After a slow start to 2021 — CCL is a big, if not the only, reason why — he went with a 4-4-2 formation away to San Jose and his side turned in their best display of the season.

They were resilient, organized, their two blocks of four worked well together and they got the timely goals they needed. I’ve felt for a while that this team are at their best when they cede possession and play mainly on the counter — they are one of the best when going from deep within their own half toward the opponents' goal. Tonight’s win was down to good coaching by Gio for simplifying his teams approach and giving them the best chance to win.

They did this with Diego Valeri starting on the bench and I think we may see him spend more time there than we are used to. He’s still an impressive player who will have a big impact on the team's fortunes but every now and then, playing two in midfield — Diego Chara alongside Eryk Williamson — and two up top, will mean he’s sometimes the odd man out.

HIGHLIGHTS: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers | May 15, 2021

Don't sleep on the Rapids

Colorado are my dark horse in the Western Conference. There’s a lot to like about this team, they are well coached and they have one of my favorite young players in Cole Bassett. With three wins in a row, they are riding the great form of Diego Rubio and the aforementioned Bassett.

Against Houston they scored three goals in quick succession and were always in control, while against Minnesota they showed great character to come back from two goals down. Winning in multiple ways while scoring goals for fun should put the rest of the West on high alert.

HIGHLIGHTS: Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo FC | May 15, 2021