The Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution showed why they are top of the West and East respectively, and we also saw Columbus Crew sign off in style as they bid farewell to their current home as Major League Soccer made its return from the international break.
Here are my top takeaways from Saturday's action.
This may have been the Sounders best win of the season when all things are taken into consideration. Before the break, Seattle had looked unconvincing as they dropped four points at home in two games, and when you consider Defender of the Year candidate Nouhou joined Stefan Frei and Nicolas Lodeiro on the injury list, and they were away to an LA Galaxy team nipping at their heels with a perfect home record — leaving Carson with three points was a massive statement win. It showed this team has championship DNA through and through.
On the night, this game could have gone either way, but if you take a step back and look at both teams, you’ll realize there’s still a bit of a gap between them.
The Galaxy were missing Jonathan Dos Santos — and yes, he’s arguably their most important player — but outside of him, they were pretty much able to call upon all of their main guys. The Sounders matched them stride for stride and eventually came out on top, and in due course, this same Sounders team will be able to call upon players who are in the conversation for best playmaker (Lodeiro), best goalkeeper (Frei), and best defender (Nouhou) in the league. In other words, the Sounders were missing top level players and still managed to beat the Galaxy away from home.
For the Sounders to remain unbeaten at this stage of the season without having played their best football has got to inject an incredible amount of confidence and self belief in the locker room. The boys have to feel once the team gets fully healthy, and they get into their best rhythm, they will be capable of achieving their ultimate goal of winning MLS Cup.
Another strength of this team is the next man up mentality. Nouhou goes down and it’s no problem because Abdoulaye Cissoko steps into a hostile environment against the Golden Boot leader in Chicharito, and he doesn’t put a foot wrong. Not many teams have that ability.
There’s no question Greg Vanney is very good at his job. There is a style, identity, and maybe most importantly, a belief and tenacity in this Galaxy team that has been lacking in recent years. He has organized them well on both sides of the ball and he is getting the best out of Chicharito.
However, to close the gap on the Sounders over a 34-game season, LA are about two top attacking pieces away. They could also use a defensive leader who can marshal the backline and strike fear into opposing forwards — the Sounders have at least two of those in Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade, and you could actually argue that Shane O'Neill's form over the last 12 months gives them a third player who fits that profile.
But until LA can add those pieces, they will be a couple of notches below the best in the West. They’ve made progress no doubt, but there’s still a long way to go.
The New England Revolution are for real and something special is brewing in Foxboro. Before overcoming NYCFC, New England had relied on their home form to place them where they are in the table. Their only away win was against FC Cincinnati, which it has to be said, is nothing to write home about. Therefore, going away to a good NYCFC team, and being able to overcome being pegged back twice to emerge victorious is a fireproof stamp of their credentials.
What made the win even more impressive was just how much of a team effort this was. Carles Gil remains one of my favorite players to watch and he’s the key player on this team, but right now they seem to be getting the best out of almost everyone who steps on the pitch.
Matt Turner was exceptional, Jon Bell was able to score his first goal in MLS, and Gil was instrumental in two of the goals. At times they rode their luck, and you need to do that sometimes, but what’s undeniable is Bruce Arena is in the midst of crafting yet another championship contender.
I don’t see any glaring weaknesses when I look at the way they’re constructed and that’s very indicative of a Bruce Arena team. Every time I played against a team he coached, it was clear from the first minute each player knew their role within the system and that’s what we are now seeing with this current New England team — whether attacking or defending, they move as one.
I would also say that’s maybe one difference between them and NYCFC — I’m not sure that New York are getting the best from their key guys on a weekly basis. They didn’t play poorly at all, and probably created enough to win most games, but they’ve also had games where they were well below the level we know they can reach.
Consistent performances from their best players is what separates the two right now in the standings. An MLS season is a long one, but I see no reason why they can’t maintain this form and mount a serious challenge for silverware this season.
Fitting sendoff by Crew
The Crew could not have signed off from Historic Crew Stadium in better fashion. A good 2-0 win that had all the hallmarks of a Caleb Porter team’s performance — clinical, creative, and good in both boxes. Chicago had chances but none on target, and the Crew honestly had another gear or two in them from what I could tell. That’s now three wins on the bounce and all signs point to a team that is eager to defend their crown slowly rounding into their best form.
Austin impress in home opener
Expansion seasons are hard, trust me I know. I was fortunate to be a part of the 2009 Sounders team that had some good success. Our foundation was good home form. We used the fuel of our home crowd to eke out wins we probably wouldn’t have got on the the road and I truly believe home form is extra critical for an expansion team.
Home needs to be a fortress. So although Austin didn’t get the win, I was actually quite impressed with their performance — the number of shots, the energy, the willingness to try and win. They’ve only scored six goals this season and therein lies the biggest issue Josh Wolff has to solve. If they can get Cecilio Domínguez scoring consistently, and ride the energy they’ll get from their home fans, there’s still time to make this a memorable expansion season.