Matchday 15 is in the books, and with June on the doorstep and the season’s halfway point looming, things are getting real around MLS.
I’m hopping off the bench to sub in for the dapper and distinguished Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle on this edition of the weekend wrap. We’ll jet to the north shore of Lake Ontario to begin this roundup, for reasons that are pretty apparent to anyone with even half an eye on the rumbling daytime drama that Toronto FC have become.
Locker room distrust! Mutinous conference calls! Vapes on a plane! Simmering resentment between Designated Players over OVO track jacket collabs!
The head-turning TFC exposé published by The Athletic on Friday was packed with juicy insider tidbits, most of them none too flattering towards the club, its players and leadership, and will quite possibly turn out to be a signpost for the impending downfall of the current Reds project.
TFC’s on-field response to the controversy suggests they might actually have Tom Bogert, Josh Kloke and Paul Tenorio to thank for airing some of that dirty laundry that was stinking up the place. Because as bruising as it may feel when situations like this first go public, it can provide an important pivot point, a prompt to face up to difficult things and find a workable way forward – and a challenge to step it up.
“Obviously with all the things going on in the team right now, the vibe isn’t that great. But we come out here and put in a good shift.
“This last week got some stuff out into the air and maybe it lit a fire for some of the guys to come out here and perform. We need that every week from everybody. Maybe we just need to have those conversations every week if we come out and play like that.”
Hedges knows about what works in this league and what doesn’t. So if someone of his stature is saying this about his own team, it’s worth paying attention. Insigne and head coach Bob Bradley, two protagonists closer to the heart of the drama around the BMO Training Ground, kept their cards closer to the vest in their remarks to the media. Read between the lines, though, and you might detect acknowledgment, in their own ways, that accountability now hovers close over everyone’s heads. The Reds needed to respond on Saturday, and the hunger in their performance reflected it.
“Like I just said, what I told you, I say it every week. It's about wins,” said Bradley when asked about the boos that greeted his name before kickoff at BMO Field. “And if the results aren’t as good as they need to be, I take full responsibility. I said that five times, 10 times. I’ll say it again tonight.”
Toronto’s backs-against-the-wall mindset was greatly aided by the complacency of their guests, who got ripped for their sloppiness by their coach in a fashion that stings far more than a halftime hair dryer: a triple substitution, enacted in first-half injury time for the express purpose of underlining the scale of Wayne Rooney’s discontent.
“Whatever is happening behind the scenes with the manager, with certain players, with the club, normally what happens is the team comes together, the players come together. So that’s exactly what I was expecting – I was expecting a very difficult game from Toronto tonight,” said the English legend.
“Maybe as a team, we were thinking we're better than what we actually are.”
The context of TFC’s controversy made this a trap game for D.C. and they traipsed right into it. The margins in MLS remain tight across the board, such that even fleeting dips in collective commitment and concentration can be swiftly punished. Especially when your opponent has a game-changing, if mercurial, talent like Insigne.
Earlier this month Chicago Fire FC got jolted in a fashion somewhat comparable to Toronto, when head coach Ezra Hendrickson was dismissed after about a year and a half on the job. The Fire’s results had been underwhelming enough to necessitate a change of some sort, even if bigger questions – like, has sporting director Georg Heitz built a roster that can legitimately compete? – remained, and still do.
Chicago are 1W-1L-2D in the league since the firing, and continued their costly habit of dropping points from winning positions in three of those games. So it was again at Gillette Stadium on Saturday as their early 2-0 lead over the New England Revolution dissipated into a slugfest that ran to 2-2, then 3-2 Fire via Maren Haile-Selassie’s clinical finish, then ended 3-3 after Jozy Altidore bundled home a flicked-on late corner kick at the far post.
An infuriating outcome on the surface, though the Fire’s outlook is somewhat ameliorated by the general uplift under the guidance of former Hendrickson assistant and club icon Frank Klopas, who’s been put in charge for the remainder of the season. Those familiar with the charismatic Klopas could only smile when word got out that he’d taken the Fire out for a team-bonding meal at his favorite Chitown Greek spot not long after taking the reins.
Perhaps there was something in the olive oil that inspired U22 Initiative signing Georgios Koutsias, who opened the scoring in Foxborough with his second goal in as many games, his first tallies in MLS:
Klopas steered his side to an upset win over Austin FC in midweek US Open Cup action – cup runs can be such a useful pick-me-up when league results are fraught – and may have awakened something in star playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri, arguably the best player on the pitch in both of this week’s games. The coach was also clever to shift his team into a 3-5-2 to liberate Shaqiri while getting numbers around his opposite number Carles Gil.
“It's just the way we wanted to build our play up in possession. They had two forwards, we had the advantage in the back with the three. We boxed the midfield,” said Klopas afterward. “They were in a diamond in the first 35, 40 minutes. We had the advantage, playing out of the back. We always set the advantage in the middle with our pivots. When we played that and we switched the point of attack, we always set really good triangles and numerical advantage once we moved the ball.”
For now, I’m ready to anoint the Fire as MLS’s free radicals, akin to the Matias Almeyda-era Earthquakes or D.C. back when Rooney was prowling the penalty boxes rather than the technical area: Predictably unpredictable and prone to entertaining chaos. Wager on them at your peril, but enjoy them as a neutral. And beware to any opponent who thinks they can stroll to a simple three points against them.
“We know what we’re about, and we like just going about our own business.”
Those were the words of Andre Blake after his Philadelphia Union handed New York City FC their first home loss of the season and first-ever regular-season loss at Citi Field, storming back from an early 1-0 deficit to take a 3-1 W that was vintage Union.
These two teams have for some time been the class of the East, dueling ferociously in the last two conference finals, a postseason history that Pigeons supporters referenced with a pregame tifo taunting Philly on the fact that City went on to win their MLS Cup final (2021), while the DOOPers fell agonizingly short last year.
Unfortunately for NYCFC, they currently look much further removed from their peak than Philly do. The Gotham club has cranked up a youth movement to replace the likes of Taty Castellanos and Maxi Moralez, and while plenty of talent has been stockpiled, it’s just not fitting together into a cohesive XI that can execute their pass-and-move ethos at the same high level as before.
Concomitant to that is a naiveté that crops up at inopportune moments, like the dying minutes of a first half in which they largely outplayed the Union, making Blake and his defense sweat, and owned a 1-0 lead to show for it.
That’s when they got Julián Carranza-ed.
NYC’s increasingly brittle backline failed to deal with a couple of long balls, Carranza punished them mercilessly to turn 1-0 to 2-1, and at halftime Philly boss Jim Curtin felt comfortable enough to straight-up ask his players, “Guys, you want to high press?”
Their response, according to Curtin, was an immediate, emphatic YES, and NYCFC duly got grinded into powder.
“We have to be more resilient as a team,” Pigeons coach Nick Cushing lamented. “We're a young team, we're a new team and a young team and we have to be more resilient. And in those moments after [conceding] the first goal, we have to show real maturity to keep the game at 1-1 and continue to apply the game plan.”
Though they’ve taken a few body blows over the past year or so, Philly still understand their identity – they FEEL it, down there in their collective gut – and conversely, some part of that baked-in intuition has drifted for NYCFC.
It was his side’s third loss in their last four league matches, and they effectively handed STL the club with which they were beaten. Goalkeeper Thomas Hasal made errors on all three goals conceded, flapping at Eduard Löwen’s deep free kick, misreading and failing to communicate on Tristan Blackmon’s headed own goal and giving up the rebound that led to Miguel Perez’s close-range clincher.
It was a gruesome underperformance on CITY’s 0.9 expected goals, and a harsh blow given that the 'Caps were superior in several other statistical categories. Add in the uncomfortable fact that VWFC’s showpiece winter signing Sergio Córdova looks well off the pace (he's yet to score a notch a goal or assist in all competitions this season after looking so lively on loan at Real Salt Lake last year) and you can imagine what the coach would be stewing about.
Sartini, however, professed himself infuriated above all by referee Sergii Boiko, and did so in strong enough terms that have probably drawn the attention of the Disciplinary Committee:
Sartini eventually acknowledged “the silly mistakes that gave them two goals,” adding, “we need to be more prepared, we need to know that we come here and there's 22,000 fans that are against us. Because we are a better team than them, it's pretty simple.”
And while there is probably some debate to be had about that last part, the Italian is right about the influence of those raucous crowds at CITYPARK, which give their team such a huge tailwind at home. Vancouver are now 0W-4L-3D on the road, and that runs a lot deeper than any one referee on any one night.
Big win down in the Bayou City for the Houston Dynamo, who edged Austin FC to take early pole position in the three-team Copa Tejas. Go read my colleague Ben Wright’s piece on the 2-1 comeback result, the Dynamo’s fifth home dub (by an aggregate score of 9-2) and the right way to build on their 4-0 Open Cup shellacking of Minnesota United.
Héctor Herrera keeps playing like the DP Houston need him to be, scoring the leveler and assisting on Iván Franco’s scrappy late winner. And every goal is vital for La Naranja, who keep playing pretty soccer but have to score by committee as long as another DP, striker Sebas Ferreira, plays sparingly due to coach Ben Olsen’s concerns about his defensive contributions.
And make no mistake, the Dynamo are also working week by week to win back the hearts of a city that once cherished them like few others in MLS.
“Hopefully how we're winning is entertaining in a way, and we've got some personalities out there. I think we're a fun team to watch. We'd love to see more fans in the stands. We'd love to get back some people that used to love this team 10 years ago or five years ago that lost interest,” said Olsen.
“Win at home and get people back in there. We've got to earn that.”
Another week, another painful loss for the LA Galaxy, who are stumbling through the kind of nightmare season their fans once thought would never happen to them, the kind in which new ways to self-destruct keep getting discovered.
This time it took a red card for Javier “Chicharito” Hernández – ejections have been as rare as two-dollar bills across his glittering career – made possible by a silly first yellow card for a frustrated kick of the ball after play had been whistled to a stop. Even worse, though, was the cardinal sin of allowing a corner kick to bounce in their own six-yard box on Karol Swiderski’s winner for Charlotte FC. Kids, don’t try this at home:
After a brutal start, Charlotte have quietly climbed back to .500 thanks to a 5W-2L-0D run over the past month. They sit sixth in the East standings and now travel to Subaru Park to face Philadelphia at midweek, a legit litmus test of The Crown’s contender credentials.
At least we can give some credit to the Galaxy coaches and players who walked over to their supporters' groups after the final whistle at Dignity Health Sports Park to hear firsthand the frustrations of their most dedicated fans.
Things are looking up for the team that the Gs replaced at the foot of the table, Sporting Kansas City. Sunday’s 4-1 trouncing of poor Portland in sultry afternoon conditions capped a 3W-1L-1D May for the Midwesterners, who entered the month winless and miserable. Erik Thommy was The Guy for SKC, slamming home a worldie for the opener and generally stepping up admirably in the injury-imposed absence of Johnny Russell.
This win also gave us all a reminder of what a rugged road destination Children’s Mercy Park can be, something Peter Vermes will surely aim to dial up in the summer heat ahead. It’s noteworthy that a goal and two assists came from substitutes as the Timbers got stretched and sloppy, which suggests there might be some depth on that KC roster after all.
“You have got to be good with the ball. When you're good with the ball, there's a couple of things that happen from it,” said Vermes. “One is you have purposeful chances that you create and the other is that, in weather like this when it gets hot, it becomes a really important aspect of every game.”
Minnesota coach Adrian Heath compared Real Salt Lake to a toothache in the leadup to RSL’s visit to Allianz Field this week, and Pablo Mastroeni’s men duly tormented the Loons with their particular vintage of Utah catenaccio in a 1-1 draw that extends MNUFC’s string of dropped points on home turf.
Heath’s side remain in the Western Conference Audi MLS Cup Playoffs places, but probably won’t be in a good spot at the business end of the season if they can’t improve on their 1W-1L-4D mark at Allianz. And based on Heath’s remarks about Emanuel Reynoso, it doesn’t sound like they’ll be able to depend on their linchpin playmaker for several weeks.
Though they’ve looked rather creaky in recent losses to Sporting KC, Austin and Vancouver, the Seattle Sounders are still the Seattle Sounders. Saturday’s home win over the New York Red Bulls pushes them back into first place in the West, though in light of LAFC’s Concacaf Champions League-adjusted schedule, it should be noted that this is on points, not points per game.
Jordan Morris scored the game’s lone goal, ending a nine-game scoring drought, and even after that spell he’s still just one tally back of current Golden Boot presented by Audi leader Dénis Bouanga. What matters more in the medium term – for the US men’s national team as well as Seattle – is that Morris appeared to injure his groin on the play, which probably means several weeks on the sidelines. And that’s very bad news for the Rave Green, who’ve gotten 43% of their scoring output from the homegrown.
We’ll end on that most inescapable of talking points: set pieces. Because as the games slow down in summer weather, and mileage stacks up on players’ bodies and minds, and training-ground restart routines get honed, dead balls become even more crucial than usual.
Ten of Saturday’s 29 goals came on set pieces or their immediate aftermath, second-most on a single day this season (behind the 11 scored on May 20). A further reminder arrived in Sunday’s nightcap in Nashville, a pulsating affair where the Columbus Crew put in a laudable display for 55 minutes, only to allow Fafà Picault’s close-range conversion of a delightful Hany Mukhtar corner-kick delivery… and completely crumble from there.