Matt Doyle is out this week so I’m jumping in, as you can see with the little mustache added to his Armchair Analyst image.
Look at me, Doyle. I’m the captain now.
ATLUTD are back.
Results are there, now with 10 points after four matches and a league-best +8 goal difference, but so too are underlying performances. Both by numbers and the good ol’ eye test, Atlanta are legit.
One reason stands above all others to explain: Thiago Almada.
He is so special. Enjoy him while you can because he’ll be gone soon. More and more, I’m expecting the deal to set a new MLS record for an outbound transfer. This is a player who could be moved for at least $30 million to one of the biggest clubs in the world. I’m sure Atlanta will try desperately to keep him at least until the winter, but clubs will be calling this summer.
Last season, the 21-year-old Argentine was quite good after arriving in a league-record transfer from Vélez Sarsfield. He won MLS Newcomer of the Year. Then he went to the World Cup and was part of that champion squad. Now, this season, he’s taken The Leap.
“At his age being champion of the world and being in the same locker room with the best player in the world helps in your development for sure, but it can also be a distraction if he’s not mature enough,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said after Saturday's match. “That can be 'I’m done. I can retire now and I did everything in my career.' That’s not the reaction I saw from Thiago since the first day back.
“He was not taking liberties at all. He was here on time for the first day back. He’s been here on time for everything. He gets out of the building very late because he does treatment. He goes to the gym properly, I see all those little details that tell me that Thiago still has a big ceiling ahead of him and he’s striving for that. I’m very happy with that attitude.”
For all the talk about attacking patterns (or lack thereof), Almada has fixed it almost single-handedly. He’s the anti-Ezequiel Barco. He makes the right decision so often. You almost can’t teach it. Here’s a compilation of Almada earning his Ph.D. in transition soccer.
Atlanta’s attacking solar system orbits around Almada, as it should, but the cohesiveness is unrecognizably better now than in the last couple of years. It’s not just a collection of talent, but a cohesive unit. Almada is in a position to cook a scrambling defense because of the movement around him.
Caleb Wiley down the left flank has balanced the team. His vertical runs and understanding of space are so valuable. It sounds simple (because it is) but it’s not always so easy, and Atlanta have severely lacked that in recent years. Giorgos Giakoumakis (or Miguel Berry, before GG got his first start) occupies center backs and also makes the right runs. Luiz Araújo pinches in on the right wing and Brooks Lennon overlaps.
Wiley is an emerging 18-year-old talent who projects to develop into a left back long-term, but he’s up to 3g/2a on the season thus far. He would have been with the US U-20s next week but he’s staying with Atlanta because he’s playing a regular role. First-team minutes are better for development than some friendlies anyways, and I’m firmly expecting him to be on the U-20 World Cup roster in May. Sources say last year Atlanta rejected a bid for Wiley, which would have exceeded the deal George Bello left on. The kid is special.
Wiley, like Almada, won’t have a shortage of teams trying to sign him in the near future. In the near or mid-term this season, you’ve got to imagine Derrick Etienne Jr. will be the starter in this role. Having two options that both fit into the team and complement the other stars is huge. They’ll both play plenty of minutes. It’s a luxury to have.
Designated Player forward Giakoumakis looked good in his first start and got his first goal. He’s going to score a ton of goals in this attack. He won Golden Boots in the Netherlands and Scotland, and now is working on one in MLS.
On the other side of this rout, the positive vibes from the offseason are gone for Portland.
The injury list has grown comically long, the latest of which saw club-record signing Evander miss this game with a hip injury. Fellow DP Yimmi Chara limped out of the club’s first game. David Ayala underwent knee surgery. Sebastián Blanco, Felipe Mora and Dairon Asprilla are yet to debut this season. Cristhian Paredes filled in with a really good performance a couple of weeks ago… then got hurt.
“This was one of those matches where you feel down, you feel hurt, and it is difficult to be able to make comments right after the game,” head coach Gio Savarese said post-match.
The pieces are still there for a strong team around Evander, Eryk Williamson, the Chara brothers, Juan David Mosquera and Claudio Bravo, with a couple of additions coming in. Forward Franck Boli will debut soon. Portland are hopeful to add a new center back before the Primary Transfer Window closes on April 24.
St. Louis CITY SC officially have the best start to an expansion season in MLS history after a 3-0 win over the visiting San Jose Earthquakes. For a league that has had so many different iterations of expansion, it’s truly an incredible feat.
STL are now only the fifth team to start 4W-0L-0D in post-shootout MLS history (since 2000).
The spine of this group has propelled them forward. João Klauss (3g/1a) and Eduard Löwen (1g/3a) in particular have lifted the group. The coaching staff + having a defined play style (and the advantages that clarity gave in roster building from day one) makes this team look much more cohesive than a typical expansion team. That structure makes it conducive for role players to step up as well.
St. Louis were without their two projected starting center backs (Joakim Nilsson and Tim Parker), as well as the assumed first backup (Jon Bell), and they posted their first clean sheet of the season. Teams aren’t supposed to be competent without their top three CBs. It speaks to both the depth of the roster build as well as the coaching staff defining clear roles/expectations and empowering the squad.
CITY SC had five starters on Saturday (John Nelson, Lucas Bartlett, Jared Stroud, Indiana Vassilev, Nico Gioacchini) who weren’t regular starters at their previous MLS clubs. A sixth, Kyle Hiebert, went undrafted at the 2022 MLS SuperDraft (nine teams passed on third-round selections). A seventh, Jake Nerwinski, had his option declined by his previous team.
They’ve got that dawg in them and they’re ready to talk about it.
“It's really important that we wrote our names into history,” Klauss said. “As everyone knows, no one believed in us before the season. And I think we trust each other. We trust the people that we are working with every single day. And yeah, it was important for the club, important for us.”
"Is it a surprise for us? No. The boys were confident from day one," head coach Bradley Carnell said. "The boys were angry from day one that no one believed in them. So yeah, we've got the chip on the shoulder, we had the chip on the shoulder. But now we've shown that it's not just about having a chip on the shoulder.”
For further reading on St. Louis, last week I dove into five things they got right in their expansion build. All of that (obviously) holds up after another win.
St. Louis are forcing their way into conversations at the top of the West and we’ll see if they can indeed crash this party all season. For now, the class of the conference is LAFC and the Seattle Sounders.
The 0-0 draw between those two powerhouses (the first scoreless draw in LAFC’s last 116 matches) to kick off the weekend wasn’t an instant classic, nor was it a game we’ll be going back to watch highlights for numerous times this week. What it did was reinforce the opinion that these two are the teams to chase in the Western Conference and it’s likely they’ll be battling for the top spot in the conference.
Both teams have defined play styles led by elite individual talent in key positions.
Seattle are at their apex when they tilt the field to their right flank. Nico Lodeiro and one of Albert Rusnak or João Paulo join brothers Roldan (Alex at RB, Cristian at RW) to create overloads and quick combination play. It allows Jordan Morris to play as a second forward instead of a left winger who stays wide, and it also allows Nouhou to be more of a third center back on the weak side than an overlapping fullback.
LAFC remain in their front-footed, suffocating press/transition game, though they're a bit more direct under Steve Cherundolo than Bob Bradley. It fits the pieces in the team quite well.
Two more bonus, random thoughts on these teams: Stipe Biuk is really good.
Biuk, 20, will be productive in this league for a couple of years and then be transferred back to Europe for a significant fee. This kid is legit and it speaks to where the league is and where LAFC are as a club that they convinced Biuk this was the right place for his development.
Second, the Sounders are significantly less imposing without João Paulo – just like they were last year after he got injured. It was their single biggest factor in missing the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. João Paulo is on a minutes restriction as he builds back up, lasting 63 minutes on Saturday.
LAFC were much more dangerous from that point on. It is not a coincidence.
11. ‘Twas quite the time for Héctor Herrera’s first MLS goal, the late dagger in Houston’s 2-0 win over rivals Austin FC. It’s meaningful to me that Herrera ran to the sideline and jumped in Ben Olsen’s arms to celebrate.
Olsen and the club’s front office have challenged Herrera to be a leader for this group. He looked like it on a big stage against Austin on Saturday, helping lead Houston to their first win of the season. Herrera led the team in passes completed and covered the second-most ground from either team, trailing game leader Artur by just 0.2 miles.
"Héctor was our internal man of the match," Olsen said after the game.
Key offseason addition Amine Bassi got his first start and his first goal, scoring a penalty in the second half. The pieces are coming together.
And another reinforcement is on the way for Houston. Sources tell MLSsoccer.com that the club is finalizing a deal to sign Danish center back Erik Sviatchenko from FC Midtjylland. Sviatchenko, 31, is the club’s captain and started all six of their Europa League group-stage games. He’d be a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) signing.
It has not been a great 10 days for Austin FC. Questions about central defense will persist and may end up being their Achilles heel.
10. I was extremely looking forward to watching the Red Bulls host Columbus… and then the lineups came out and Dante Vanzeir continues to wait for his first RBNY start and Crew striker Cucho Hernández was held out with some knee pain.
Tough pregame developments for the watchability factor, but guess what? It was still a fun game! Vanzeir came off the bench to score his first MLS goal, a game-winner at the back post.
Shoutout to the celebration, including a neat shirt tucked in. I know Calen Carr is proud to see another #TeamTuck member.
Vanzeir has the chance to be a star; his pedigree is very strong. The scouting reports I’ve gotten from folks at the Red Bulls and across the league are strong. If he’s Best XI-caliber, this Red Bulls team can be special. They have a baseline of solidness: A defined and successful play style, with good players across the pitch. But they need someone to be great. Vanzeir could be the leading man.
Fellow DP Luquinhas got on the scoresheet, his first goal in almost a year. He had 0g/1a in his last 20 appearances. Good fortune for a tap-in was desperately needed.
One fun wrinkle of the game was that Columbus are intent on building out through pressure under Wilfried Nancy, even on the road against the most pressing of the pressing teams, which is admirable. Yet ironically, they scored their lone goal by going route one. It was their only shot of the first half. They still nearly held on for a point. Go figure.
The Crew have four points after four games, but I’d keep buying stock. This team is going to get better and better as the season goes on, methinks. Nancy has done a lot of positive things, and the hallmark of his CF Montréal tenure was how many players blossomed under him. The best example so far in Columbus is Alexandru Matan. I’ve got no worries here.
“NYCFC jumped down Miami's throat on Matchday 3, forcing 18 high turnovers (and turning a bunch of them into Drake Callender highlights). D.C. United – a team that, so far, has been sloppy playing out of the back – is next up. I have an idea of how this one will play out…”
That’s exactly how the first half played out. Here’s the first goal.
NYCFC win the ball back in the attacking third. Keaton Parks gets the ball. Keaton Parks breaks lines because he’s awesome. Talles Magno makes a perfect No. 9 run for a tap-in (looking more comfortable at this position over the last two games!).
It was 2-0 after the 37th minute. And that, folks, should have been that. Give credit to D.C. United for fighting back. Wayne Rooney made a triple sub at halftime and Christian Benteke scored less than a minute into the second half. They fought back again to claw it to 3-2 and chased an equalizer on set pieces, but couldn’t quite find it.
Sources told MLSsoccer.com this week that NYCFC are finalizing a deal to sign American attacker Richard Ledezma on loan from PSV. Ledezma agreed to extend his contract for PSV to sanction the move. All agreements have been reached, so now it's just about the final details.
8. Orlando vs. Charlotte was a big gut-check spot for both clubs, for different reasons.
Orlando were eliminated (on away goals) from the Concacaf Champions League in a heartbreaking 1-1 draw against Liga MX powerhouse Tigres on Thursday. Charlotte entered the game with three losses in three games, with a ton of questions abound.
Charlotte showed up. It was a different lineup.
DPs Karol Swiderski and Kamil Jozwiak were both dropped to the bench, with Kerwin Vargas and McKinze Gaines starting in their place. Harrison Afful started at left back (hopefully ending the Brandt Bronico-inverted-left-back experiment). Jaylin Lindsey came in for Nathan Byrne at right back.
Charlotte raced out to a 2-0 lead, but then hung on for dear life as Orlando threw everything they could going forward. They never got the equalizer, losing 2-1.
"I made the changes because we played three games and I gave certain players opportunities to play and I think it's only fair to give other players opportunities when things don't work the way we'd like them to work," head coach Christian Lattanzio said. "It's part of the team, that's why we have a roster and on many occasions, I said that I really trust all the players on the roster because they train well.”
This is fair and a good development. I was disappointed by how overly complicated things were in the first three games (specifically Bronico at LB and Swiderski at RW, despite the team’s best moments last year coming with Swiderski as a second forward and Bronico as an all-action box-to-box CM). It shows this situation is salvageable. Hopefully, when Swiderski next starts, he’ll be a second forward underneath Enzo Copetti.
One worry was Orlando dominating duels: 55 to 36.
Orlando attacked with more urgency and purpose after going down 2-0. We’ll see if they can recapture that vibe from the opening kickoff against Philadelphia on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).
7. The whole second half of Montréal’s 3-2 win over Philadelphia was a fever dream.
“The game tonight is hard to explain, but the best answer is that this is soccer,” CF Montreal head coach Hernán Losada said after the game.
Jim Curtin said it slightly more succinctly: “The word s--t show comes to mind.”
There were five goals and a red card, to Union striker Julián Carranza. Philly battled back to take a 2-1 lead, then Carranza was dismissed in the 69th minute and Montréal took advantage, eventually scoring two goals (90th, 98th) to win.
It was Montréal’s first three goals of the season, which were desperately needed. It was Losada’s first win at the club as well. The glass-half-full outlook for CFMTL is to point to the fact this was their first home game of 2023.
Face of the Week to whatever José Martínez looked like while hitting ‘send tweet’ on this.
Gustavo Bou scored his first goal of the season in the 52nd minute, which forced Nashville to dictate the game. They finished with 52% possession, easily their highest in a match this season (previous 34%, 42% and 38%). They couldn’t quite get the equalizer.
The possession intervals tell the story. In the last 30 minutes, New England sat deep and dared Nashville to break them down.
New England remain in a 4-4-2 tight diamond and DP striker Giacomo Vrioni remains on the bench behind Bobby Wood. I’m very curious how their starting XI will evolve over the season as Bruce Arena looks to maximize his attackers and balance the group defensively.
5. This game of ours so often comes down to moments. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ lone goal in their 1-1 draw against the LA Galaxy is simultaneously a moment of brilliance on one side and an inexcusable moment on the other.
Great delivery by Julian Gressel. He’s the best crosser in MLS and Vancouver need to maximize it. I’m not against him being in the middle in their 4-3-2-1 – he breaks lines really, really well – but there need to be more deliberate sequences of play for him to drift to the right flank.
Both sides will walk away feeling disappointed. The Whitecaps are still winless in MLS play and the Galaxy have legitimate gripes as to why Dejan Joveljic’s potential game-winner was ruled out for a handball.
Reinforcements are on the way for the Galaxy.
The club are signing Argentine youth international left back Julian Aude from Lanús on a U22 Initiative deal, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. Aude, 19, is highly-rated. He's already made 54 appearances for Lanús and played three games for Argentina at the U20 South American championships in January. The club will move Álvarez off his U22 Initiative slot to put Aude on it, maximizing the salary cap.
Speaking of maximizing the salary cap, former LAFC assistant GM Will Kuntz has joined the LA Galaxy front office, per sources. Kuntz spent 2017-22 with LAFC, helping build squads that won one MLS Cup (2022) and two Supporters’ Shields (2019, 2022).
Bernardeschi has the pedigree and sway to be able to give the quotes he’s given about the team needing to perform better. It’s even better that he led by example (again). He’s been a phenomenal signing.
“Today, we made it a point that we had to be aggressive, that we had to be on the front foot and manage the game well, and most importantly get the three points,” Jonathan Osorio said. “I think overall the performance was really good by the team."
The bigger takeaway for Miami is this was their first game after captain and key defensive midfielder Gregore went out with a broken foot. He’s sidelined for around six months and is probably their most irreplaceable player. It opens minutes for Bryce Duke, which is good, but they lose a lot of bite in the midfield without the Brazilian.
I imagine Phil Neville will keep tinkering and looking for the best combination. This was the first data point.
3. FC Dallas goalkeeper Maarten Paes had an eventual evening. He saved a Willy Agada penalty, but Video Review ruled it to be retaken for encroachment. Erik Thommy stepped up for the re-take… and Paes saved that too.
Then Paes was called for a penalty later in the game and given a red card… which was rescinded by Video Review for offside.
“Welcome to MLS,” Paes said when asked about his thoughts after a match like this.
I highlight these points because not enough people are aware that Paes is a match-winning goalie. He’s not yet in the Andre Blake/Djordje Petrovic tier, but he should be in the mix with another 5-6 guys behind them. He’s very good.
The missed penalt(ies) came in the 62nd minute with the game tied 1-1. It helped swing the momentum and then Jesús Ferreira won it in the 84th minute.
Sporting KC got their first goal of the season! But they're still working on their first win.
Actual Face of the Week to Daniel Salloi, exorcizing the emotion/frustration of not scoring yet in this mean mugging, trash-talking knee slide.
Key midfielder Jack Price, who hasn’t started yet this season because they’re trying to be careful, came into the game and was subbed off after 11 minutes with a non-contact injury. He was carried off by Rapids staff, so hopefully there’ll be good news.
Price’s absence was the one the club couldn’t really recover from last year. The team seems to have more talent around him now (with Andreas Maxsø, Connor Ronan and Cole Bassett) but it’s a big concern. His set-piece delivery is a singular weapon in this league as well, one the Rapids maximized over the last few years.
Minnesota get three points and they’ll soon get a new attacker. The club are finalizing the acquisition of South Korean attacker Jeong Sang-Bin from Wolverhampton Wanderers in a deal worth around $2.5 million, sources tell MLSsoccer.com. He arrived in Minnesota this week to finalize the move and will hit the roster via the U22 Initiative.
1. Pass of the week by Lucho Acosta here.
I mean, come on.
In different circumstances, there’d be optimism surrounding the last eight days in Chicago Fire land. After all, without a handful of key starters, the club still got a hard-fought 3-3 draw against a very good FC Cincinnati team a week after a solid performance and nearly winning a point down a man at the Philadelphia Union.
In reality, with the context around the club and taking a 3-1 lead at home into the 80th minute against a Cincy club who were previously 0W-0D-49L in games in which they went down 2-0, it’s not positive.
Head coach Ezra Hendrickson spoke to it. You can feel his pain and exacerbation when reading his words.
"You need to fight for the badge. The mentality needs to be better. We almost lost that game."