Top Things to Watch in MLS This Week

The-Pitch---Week-11

Young Talent Makes Its Mark on the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

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As the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup enters the Round of 32, 21 Major League Soccer teams remain in the hunt for the coveted championship in the oldest national cup competition in United States soccer. The annual tournament continues to provide important opportunities for young talent to step into big roles, particularly in the early rounds. 

Among the players who seized their opportunities were a pair of San Jose Earthquakes who led a 5-0 routing of Bay Cities FC of the National Independent Soccer Association. Sixteen-year-old Homegrown Niko Tsakiris scored the first goal of his professional career, and he proudly shared the moment with family and the home crowd (Link). In addition, 21-year-old 2022 SuperDraft selection Ousseni Bouda also scored his first professional goal in the club’s U.S. Open Cup victory and parlayed that into an explosive effort in MLS NEXT Pro for Earthquakes II, scoring a pair of stunners against Tacoma Defiance just six days later. Bouda has made five appearances for the first team in San Jose in his rookie season.

In Cincinnati, 21-year-old Álvaro Barreal registered a late-breaking brace to take down Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC with his 95th-minute penalty and another goal in the 99th. Prior to U.S. Open Cup play, Barreal had one start this season. However, his stock rose quickly with starts and 90-minute contributions in two of the next three FC Cincinnati matches.

And the opportunities keep coming as clubs look to provide a platform for dynamic rising stars in their player development pathway, including Phil Neville’s 19-year-old son Harvey Neville (Inter Miami CF II) earning a first-team call-up and a chance to gain meaningful minutes in the competitive tournament environment.

On average, starting lineups of the 17 MLS clubs that competed in the latest round of U.S. Open Cup play consisted of approximately eight players (7.94 per team) who had started fewer than 50 percent of the regular-season games for the respective MLS first team clubs this season prior to U.S. Open Cup. More than half of the MLS starters in the third round – an average of 6.4 players per team – had made one or zero starts for their respective MLS clubs this season prior to their U.S. Open Cup appearances.

Across Tuesday, May 10, and Wednesday, May 11, 14 U.S. Open Cup matches will feature MLS clubs, including eight intraleague MLS matchups. Rochester New York FC is the lone MLS NEXT Pro side remaining in action, and they take on NYCFC on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+). All matches will be broadcast on ESPN+ and a full schedule of this week’s matches can be found here.

Colorado Calls on Zardes to Help Keep Home Streak Alive

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Touting a home winning streak that spans more than a year (since April 24, 2021), the Colorado Rapids are all the way in on newly-acquired forward Gyasi Zardes to pace their attack against the league-leading Los Angeles Football Club at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Univision / TUDN / Twitter for English audio).

Zardes earned the start and the full 90 minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes last week, and the veteran striker could be primed for production with Colorado after previously scoring 101 goals and recording 31 assists across 276 appearances in all competitions for the LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew.

The two two-time MLS Cup champion (LA Galaxy, 2014; Columbus Crew, 2020) has sights set on solid club performances that could help to secure him a place in the U.S. Men’s National Team fold. Zardes provided the 86th-minute game winner in last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup semifinal to help Team USA win it all. He also played for USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter in Columbus, which could mean the right eyes could be watching him at all the right times.

With Colorado hoping to extend their club-record home unbeaten streak, will Zardes be the answer to keep their home cooking going?

Revolution Reaping Rewards of Rivera's Rise

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Damian Rivera has a knack for making history in 2022. The 19-year-old winger scored in the first minute of his first-ever start for the New England Revolution, becoming just the third player in MLS history to accomplish the feat and the first since Matias Mantilla in 2007 for Real Salt Lake. His ascendance to the Revolution’s first team has provided another promising example of how MLS NEXT Pro prospects are moving up the ranks in the MLS player development pipeline.

Rivera lifted the Revolution II to their first-ever MLS NEXT Pro victory on opening day, scoring the first and second goals of their inaugural season. A week later, he iced a second consecutive win for the club with his third goal in two games as they earned a 3-1 win over Rochester New York FC.

Rivera’s early returns have paid dividends for the Revolution and the club is taking notice. Rivera earned a start against the Columbus Crew last weekend and became the first teenage Homegrown to start consecutive games for the Revolution since 16-year-old Diego Fagúndez in 2011.

Player Spotlight - Djordje Mihailovic

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With four goals and 16 assists in his debut CF Montréal season last year, the breakthrough for midfielder Djordje Mihailovic was just getting started. Now a frontrunner in the Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player conversation, Mihailovic scored his fifth goal of the 2022 season in Montréal’s 4-1 win over Orlando City SC last week, and his run of form has translated into Montréal’s third-place position in the Eastern Conference off the first seven-game unbeaten (5W, 2D) streak in club history. 

Since CF Montréal’s unbeaten streak began on March 19, the club leads all of MLS with 18 goals scored over that span, with Mihailovic involved in eight of those scores (five goals, three assists). His eight combined contributions mark an all-time high for the player over a seven-game span throughout his six-year MLS career, and his nine on the season are the second-most in MLS behind only Austin FC’s Sebastián Driussi (10).

After a call-up to January camp for the U.S. Men’s National Team, Mihailovic is on the international radar ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The catalyst for Montréal’s success has been capped by the United States six times from 2019-20, scoring his first international goal and the first of Gregg Berhalter’s tenure in his debut in a friendly against Panama on January 27, 2019.

On Saturday (7 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+), Mihailovic will look to continue his strong play on the road at Charlotte FC in hopes of earning a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team in June.

Three MLS NEXT Pro Players Sign MLS Contracts

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Over a three-day span last week, a trio of MLS NEXT Pro standouts had their soccer dreams come true as they signed their first MLS contracts. On Thursday, the Portland Timbers announced the signing of Nathan Fogaça, which was followed by Beto Avila signing with Houston Dynamo FC from Dynamo Dos on Friday, and Themi Antonoglou joining Toronto FC on a Homegrown contract from TFC II on Saturday. 

Fogaça, Avila and Antonoglou are the only players to sign an MLS contract after competing in MLS NEXT Pro. They join Inter Miami CF’s Noah Allen, who signed with the club on March 11, prior to the start of the MLS NEXT Pro season.

MLS NEXT Pro was created to complete the professional player pathway from academies to MLS first teams, and these signings are doing just that. Houston Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad said it best when discussing Avila’s signing.

"Beto’s signing is a historic moment for the club as he is the first player to graduate from Houston Dynamo 2 to our first team,” said Onstad. “We launched our MLS NEXT Pro team to provide more professional opportunities for talented young players in Houston and around the country. MLS NEXT Pro is a new initiative by MLS, but we are already seeing the advantages to our player development efforts by providing a valuable bridge from our oldest academy team to our first team. We plan for Beto to be the first of many players to earn their way to MLS through this new pathway.”

Fogaça first joined T2 on April 22 via transfer from Brazilian side Coritiba. He posted two 90-minute performances with T2, tallying an assist on May 1 against Colorado Rapids 2 and converting his penalty kick in T2’s shootout against Real Monarchs on April 24. 

Avila scored five goals with Houston Dynamo 2, including the first and only hat trick thus far in MLS NEXT Pro history. Avila joined the first team on a short-term loan in April, making his Dynamo debut in Houston’s 2-1 victory over Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. Open Cup on April 19, providing the game-winning assist. 

Antonoglou made his first-team debut when he came off the bench against NYCFC on April 22. He appeared in four games for TFC II, starting all four, recording a goal and two assists.

Atlanta United Looks to Extend Home Unbeaten Streak vs. New England Revolution

Riding a 12-match home unbeaten streak, Atlanta United welcomes New England to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday for the first match of an ESPN doubleheader (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN Deportes). Last week, Atlanta’s Ronaldo Cisneros notched a first-half hat trick, joining Josef Martínez (Sept. 13, 2017, vs. New England) as just the second player in club history to score three goals in the first half of a match. He’ll look to build on this success against a Revolution squad that has scored at least two goals in each of its past four matches, recording a 2-1-1 record over the span. Revolution forward Adam Buksa has scored in four straight games – the longest streak of his career – and all four goals have come via header. Buksa leads MLS with 13 headed goals since 2020 (regular season and playoffs), four more than the next closest players.

Sounders FC set to Keep Their Shine in League Play

Showing off sparkling new hardware from their Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League victory, Seattle Sounders FC will make their triumphant return to Lumen Field, with all eyes on a return to the win column in league play against Minnesota United FC on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN Deportes). This weekend marks the rematch of Seattle’s most recent regular season victory, a 2-1 result over Minnesota on April 2 at Allianz Field.

Stacking up Seattle’s roster are a slew of key contributors, including academy product Jordan Morris, who has maintained a near-even scoring pace in all competitions with three finishes in CCL and two goals during the MLS regular season. Morris’ tally includes his most recent finish in an MLS match against the San Jose on April 23, while midfielder Nico Lodeiro’s contributions of four goals on aggregate in the CCL final (3 goals, 1 assist) are not far off his role in three regular season goals (1 goal, 2 assists) against the Earthquakes in that same April meeting.

Seattle has also awakened its Peruvian scoring giant Raúl Ruidíaz – who found three goals in the last two CCL games. That effort came directly after he kick-started his contributions on the year with a regular season assist for a spectacular João Paulo finish away at Minnesota early last month.

With Seattle’s offense firing on all cylinders and the boost of the 12th man at home, Sounders FC will be up against MNUFC goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, who has been standing on his head in recent weeks after playing his way into a call-up to the Canadian National Team. Will that be enough to hold off the Sounders’ shine, or will Seattle start to reign supreme over the regular season?

Quick Hits and Key Milestones

Clash of Eastern Conference Contenders: The Eastern Conference top seed Philadelphia Union (19 points, 5-1-4) welcome the second-ranked New York Red Bulls (18 points, 5-2-3) to Subaru Park on Saturday, May 14 (7:30 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+). The Red Bulls will look to continue making history on the road, as the club vies for its sixth consecutive win away from home to start the season, which would surpass the 1998 LA Galaxy for the longest road winning streak to start a season.

Strong Start in Cincinnati: Behind a late-match goal from Brandon Vázquez, FC Cincinnati (16 points, 5-5-1) recorded its third consecutive win last week, marking the first three-game winning streak in club history. Vázquez, who has six goals in 11 games this season, is just two goals away from tying the club’s single season scoring record, set by Brenner in 2021. FC Cincinnati currently sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and will look to continue their winning ways against the Chicago Fire on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

Building a Fortress in the Queen City: With its 1-0 victory over Inter Miami CF in Week 10, Charlotte FC extended its home winning streak to four matches, dating back to March 19. The club is the fourth different expansion club since 2000 to record a home winning streak of at least four matches and the first since Atlanta United in 2017. Only six expansion teams have recorded longer home winning streaks in a single season: 2017 Atlanta United (five matches), 2012 Montreal Impact (six), 2011 Portland Timbers (five), 1998 Chicago Fire (two streaks, five and seven), and the 1998 Miami Fusion (six).

Canadian Championship Commences: An annual championship contested amongst premier Canadian professional teams, the Canadian Championship kicks off this week with preliminary round play on Tuesday and Wednesday. Vancouver Whitecaps FC is the lone MLS team in action in the preliminary round and will welcome Winnipeg Valour FC to BC Place on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET). Winners of the 2022 Canadian Championship lift the Voyageurs Cup and qualify for the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League.