A historic win for Orlando City, the keys to Red Bulls' attack, dynamic wing play, and a spirited Real Salt Lake performance after a tough week highlighted some of the biggest storylines from Saturday night's action.
Lions hit new heights
There were some impressive wins on Saturday — the Philadelphia Union and New York City FC both turned in great performances, but I am going to give the title of most impressive win of the day to Orlando City. NYCFC and the Union were at home, while Orlando won on the road against a team they’ve never beaten, who also happen to be one of their main rivals.
It’s fair to say that Philadelphia aren’t sneaking up on anyone at this point. They are the real deal and will be near the top of the East at season's end. NYCFC played some good attacking football and their best moment of the day was actually a goal that wasn’t but should have been — a move, early in the second half, filled with intricate passing and great off the ball movement that should have ended up in the back of the net, but Heber blazed the shot high and wide. Their best player, Maxi Moralez, also made his return and gave them a really good 45 minutes topped with an assist.
Orlando, on the other hand, are a team transformed under Oscar Pareja, and they took another significant step on Saturday against Atlanta: they showed that they can win in a different way. In their previous three games they had at least 60% possession — that’s the Pareja way and how they typically want to play. However, to be successful in MLS you have to win in more than one way, and that’s why this win was so impressive. They had only 39% of the ball but still created good chances even with Nani starting on the bench, and they were deadly in transition, especially for their second goal. The pace of that attack, the quick passing, and the composure in front of goal until they could pass it into an empty net was the highlight of this historic win.
A day for the wingers
Every time I watch a game, I keep a close eye on the wingers. I can’t help it, there’s just something about guys who hug the touchline and give outside backs nightmares. MLS is a league full of great playmakers but very few old-school, stick to the touch line and torch the defender all game wingers.
FC Dallas' Fafa Picault and FC Cincinnati's Joseph-Claude Gyau both fit that mold and were fantastic on Saturday night. Picault has had to come off the bench more than he’d like but he made the most of his start against Minnesota. For his goal, his mentality was the key as he first drove with purpose at the backline. Once he cut inside, he then had the skill and composure to not rush the finish but to firmly place it into the far corner.
Picault won’t get an assist for his team’s second goal but he was the chief architect as he spun Romain Metanire inside-out before whipping in a cross that Kevin De Bruyne would be proud of. It was high-level wing play.
Over in Cincinnati, Gyau has quietly been putting together an impressive season. It hasn’t shown up on the stat sheet yet but there is a reason he always starts and rarely comes off. As a winger, I learned very quickly that I couldn’t rely on just being a good dribbler — in the modern game a winger has to be multifaceted, and that’s what I like about Gyau. Dribbling is his bread and butter, but he also makes good off the ball runs and has a good delivery once he’s in the final third. He also possesses that special skill every top winger needs: the willingness to try things.
The next step for him will be turning his good play into goals and assists, because that’s what he will ultimately be judged on. Is he a player that can one day return to the national team? The current talent pool makes it a tall order, but if he keeps putting in good performances then a January camp call would not be out of the question.
Kaku, Omir must start
Kaku, the DP No. 10, needs no introduction — he makes a difference because opponents have to respect his skill set. He can see a pass that others can’t and the attention he receives creates space for his teammates. After starting the Red Bulls' last two games on the bench, his performance should give head coach Chris Armas plenty to think about as he considers his team selection in the upcoming games.
The goal from Fernandez, a 21-year-old Homegrown from the Bronx, was a thing of beauty — it showed his dribbling ability and awareness to pass and move into the right space before applying a neat finish. He also had the pass of the game with a perfectly weighted outside-of-the-foot ball that split the New England defense, but Tom Barlow couldn't quite put away. I don’t believe in giving young players minutes for the sake of it, but Fernandez has earned his time and the Red Bull attack is much more fluid when both he and Kaku are on the pitch.
An emotional comeback
I want to give a special shout out to Real Salt Lake. They didn’t get the win but after the week they’ve had, they showed a real togetherness and spirit in fighting back for a point against the Portland Timbers.
When you are down 4-2 away from home with five minutes left, you’re not supposed to leave with a share of the spoils but behind an inspired performance from Corey Baird — his Messi-esque assist for Sam Johnson’s game tying goal had me off my seat — they showed just how strong their locker room is. They’ll only get a point in the standings, but something tells me this team gained a whole lot more from this comeback.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.