The June international break gives MLS players, teams and fans alike time to rest, recharge and renew their perspective on their respective clubs. Some reputations have been enhanced, while others have taken a hit in this young 2021 season.
After seven weeks of action, here’s a look at whose MLS stock is up and whose is down.
When Thierry Henry unexpectedly said au revoir to CF Montréal in late February, it looked like hard times were coming. Enter Wilfried Nancy to save the day. He started off as an academy coach, graduated to the first team as an assistant and is now turning heads as first-team manager. You know he is CF Montréal through and through.
They're absorbing pressure in a low block 3-5-2 system, then hitting teams on the counterattack with a rotation of pacey strikers and wingbacks, all while hoping for brilliance from the likes of Mason Toye, Bjorn Johnsen and Romell Quioto. And you know what … it’s working. Nancy is shining during his debut season, as Montréal sit fifth in the Eastern Conference.
After a difficult debut season in 2020, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez promised that we’d see a better version of him this season. Well, he's back with a vengeance and has a league-leading seven goals to pace the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
Chicharito's number of goals is one thing, but what I like most is the variety in which he’s scoring. The Mexican international isn’t overthinking things, but rather relies on pure instinct and reacting quickly to loose balls, deflections and turnovers. The LA Galaxy's leading striker has often attributed his bounceback to internal work with his sports psychologist, but what I see is a player who has fallen in love with the game again.
Chicharito hat trick! Galaxy star continues incredible start to 2021
Fresh off a goal and an assist the day after his 19th birthday, it's easy to see why European clubs are reportedly interested in Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio. He can dish out dimes from the No. 6 role, set teammates up for goals with dummies or finessed passes, or score highlight-reel free kicks.
What’s been fun to watch is that he doesn’t shy away from the big moments. With the frontline of Daniel Salloi, Alan Pulido, and Khiry Shelton rounding into form, look for Busio to continue to grow in confidence, goals and assists as the season progresses.
Sporting Kansas City's Gianluca Busio goal vs. Houston | Enhanced Highlight
Are New York City FC for real? I think so. They're sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, and their +6 goal differential is second-best in MLS. They've also gone 2W-0L-1D in road matches against the Philadelphia Union, Orlando City SC and LAFC.
Much of their success must be credited to head coach Ronny Deila. He's getting the most out of Jesus Medina, whose five goals are quietly tied for the third-most in MLS. As they get Brazilian youngsters Talles Magno and Thiago Andrade up to speed, plus get Heber back from his ACL tear, it's scary to think how many options their attack has. Delia will face selection headaches, but that's a good starting XI problem to face.
In a league full of playmakers, one man has been above the rest so far: New England Revolution captain Carles Gil, who has been at the heart of their ascendency atop the Eastern Conference. He leads the league in assists (5) and key passes (45).
The Spaniard possesses deadly service from set-pieces (Adam Buksa can attest to that) and only needs a half-yard of separation to pick out teammates at the back post for dangerous chances. What’s scary is that the Revs haven’t even found full form yet, and there's more their supporting cast can offer to support their re-signed star.
What the heck is happening with LAFC? They're supposed to be a legitimate MLS Cup contender, but it's been head-scratching losses and inconsistencies thus far. Injuries to Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi to start the season haven't helped their cause, but what’s more concerning is that they’re slowly losing the fear factor we’ve become so accustomed to seeing from Bob Bradley's team.
Costly turnovers when playing out of the back are leading to momentum-changing goals for opponents, just like we saw with Chicharito in El Trafico and Jesus Medina against NYCFC just before the international break. They don't seem that far off from stringing together wins, but the proof factor needs to emerge.
Rodolfo Pizarro was brought in to light up MLS with silky-smooth dribbling and his keen eye for the final pass, skills that boosted his profile with Mexico's national team. However, Inter Miami’s DP attacker has struggled in the season's early stages as he looks to build upon 4g/5a in 19 games from the Herons' expansion year.
To make matters worse, Pizarro finds himself on the bench in favor of Federico Higuain. The 36-year-old is having more of a positive offensive influence on this team than their 27-year-old, in-prime attacker. Given his reputation and price tag, Inter Miami need much more than a secondary role from the former CF Monterrey star.
Chris Armas is hitting some bumps early into his Toronto FC tenure. With only one win from seven league games, the Reds are having a tough time right now and languishing near the Eastern Conference's basement. This is a chance for the former New York Red Bulls boss to prove he's up to snuff.
That Toronto opened the season with midweek Concacaf Champions League games and playing their home matches in Florida instead of at BMO Field are big obstacles. Yet, it’s the way they're losing games – individual mistakes and lackluster defending at times – that makes their trajectory worrisome. They're slowly getting Alejandro Pozuelo back to full fitness, with last year's Landon Donovan MLS MVP sidelined by injury to start the year. Perhaps DP winger Yeferson Soteldo will soon get off the mark, too.
Eleven minutes into Chicago’s season opener against New England, things were looking bright. Robert Beric and Luka Stojanovic capped off two beautiful team goals, creating a buzz around Soldier Field. By halftime, that two-goal lead had evaporated and they preceded to lose four straight games.
Resilience and confidence (or lack thereof) are what Chicago have struggled with. They often start well in the first half, but have looked labored in their second-half performances. Francisco Calvo has been at the heart of a few defensive mismatches on set pieces and crosses, and opponents have capitalized on that. Their backline looks disjointed at times, so head coach Rafael Wicky needs to find a solution coming out of the international break.
Franco Jara very well may spark FC Dallas out of last place in the Western Conference, but their DP striker has just one goal and one assist through seven games. When he opened his 2021 account from the penalty spot during a 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake, FCD fans hoped it would mark the start of a goal-scoring spree for their big arrival of last summer. He even had eight shots (three on target) next week against Colorado, but couldn't finish in a 3-0 loss.
With pressure and criticism mounting his way, the 32-year-old Argentine looks like a player who is desperate to score. Head coach Luchi Gonzalez will be hoping that Jara can wind back the clock to his time at Liga MX side Pachuca, where he was scoring goals for fun. Who knows, maybe he’s been saving up his goals for the summer months.