Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

Trouble in Atlanta, drama in Montréal, relief in NY & more from Matchday 12

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Happy Mother’s Day, especially to all the soccer moms out there.

With Matchday 12 in the books, I’m pinch-hitting for Matt Doyle. We’re going a little less analytical/tactical and more big-picture on storylines/narratives.

One note before diving in: There were Ed Rooney voice nine red cards this weekend. Nine! Maybe that’s Rivalry Week-related, maybe it’s Video Review-related, maybe it’s a lack of discipline – or some combination of all those factors. Whatever the answer is, it was pretty stark to witness.

Away we go…

Chicago Fire FC 1-0 St. Louis CITY SC

“Today he played like a DP, like he should play every game.”

That was new/returning Fire head coach Frank Klopas on Xherdan Shaqiri, who looked, up to this point in the season, let’s call it blasé. The big-money Swiss star had been outplayed by homegrown Brian Gutiérrez. Shaqiri battled injuries/fitness earlier this year, but it was plain for anyone to see. The 19-year-old was simply more dangerous and involved than the veteran of four World Cups.

Then, on Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field, with Chicago playing their first league game of the post-Ezra Hendrickson era, Shaqiri slotted into a more traditional No. 10 role with Gutiérrez wide left and two d-mids shielding the backline (Federico Navarro and Gastón Giménez). The returns were encouraging.

Be sure to listen to MLS Season Pass announcer Kyndra de St. Aubin in the clip above. She hit the nail right on the head, and while Chicago didn’t score on that sequence, those patterns of play were commonplace.

If Chicago are going to climb the table, they need their reported $7.5 million signing and rising teenage star to be in sync. Toss in some of Klopas’ top-down passion and commitment, and there could be something promising brewing.

“There will be flashes where individuality can take over – Guti has that, Shaqiri has that, we have a lot of guys,” Klopas said in the postgame. “ … But you want a team that's going to go on the field, especially here in the Midwest, in Chicago, and f—ng compete and leave everything on the field. And that's what the fans want and I felt the players did that today."

For St. Louis, they’re now 1W-4L-1D in league play since the calendar flipped to April, particularly missing DP striker João Klauss (quad) as of late. These spells are natural and expected for expansion teams, as frustrating as they can be for supporters after a record-breaking start to life in MLS. This, from their sporting director, caught my eye too:

Atlanta United 1-3 Charlotte FC

Let’s give Atlanta DP striker Giorgos Giakoumakis the floor.

“I don’t think we have a lack of intensity in training, but it’s different when you play a game versus just train with your teammates,” said the Greek international. “I think we can work even harder in training. We can’t accept this whole situation. If you don’t accept this situation and get upset about it, we have to start thinking that we need to change a few things. 

“First of all, mentally we have to be stronger. We have to be tougher. We have to overcome different situations like the one we have right now. But I think we will work even harder in the training. We will talk between each other, and this is something that we need in this moment. We need to communicate a bit more. We need to realize how my teammate next to me is thinking, what is he expecting from me. What am I expecting from him. We need to understand that. 

“Right now, sometimes we don’t play with our teammates. This is something we need to change right away… If we keep losing, keep dropping points then the fans will disappear, and they will be right. We bring the fans to the stadium, and we send them away with our performances. I hope that we will give them some joy to come and watch us.”

I don’t think there’s quite a five-alarm fire in Atlanta, even amid a four-game winless stretch across all competitions. But it’s definitely noteworthy when the club’s marquee offseason signing is taking to task qualities like intensity and mentality. 

Adding salt to the wound, it sure doesn’t help how a former Atlanta attacker scored a brace against them for the second straight week. This time it was Justin Meram, who bagged his first Charlotte goals since being traded from Real Salt Lake at the Primary Transfer Window deadline – and he notably didn’t celebrate against his old club.

Charlotte, quietly, have won three of their last four games. Christian Lattanzio’s figuring stuff out, even with injury troubles at center back and with DP striker Enzo Copetti (yellow card accumulation) out this past weekend.

Columbus Crew 2-2 Orlando City SC

When Columbus’ starting lineup was released, Lucas Zelarayán surprisingly wasn’t in the gameday squad. I co-sign all of this from longtime beat reporter Patrick Murphy, who does good work covering the Crew.

Winless in four, the Crew are struggling to put together complete games – and dropped points prompt some unwelcomed déjà vu after late defensive miscues defined the club’s 2022 season. 

A lot gets solved when they have Zelarayán and Cucho Hernández (two assists vs. Orlando and nine shots) playing together, right? New head coach Wilfried Nancy, who’s already transformed this club tactically, needs that to be the case.

Also, Duncan McGuire is inevitable:

For those tracking at home: That’s a 22-year-old striker, fresh out of college soccer, popping up in the 92nd minute to give his team a comeback road draw via his fourth goal of the year. 

I’m not here to say Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja needs to start McGuire – there’s value in being a game-changing substitute, and DP striker Ercan Kara got the visitors rolling with a 49th-minute goal after they got dominated in the first half. 

But, at the very least, there’s a decision Pareja has to make: McGuire or Kara? And these comparisons have popped up a few times:

D.C. United 1-1 Nashville SC

Down DP forwards Christian Benteke (ankle) and Taxi Fountas (leg) to injury, two D.C. United academy kids supplied another piece of late drama at Audi Field:

That’s 17-year-old Kristian Fletcher and 21-year-old ​​Ted Ku-DiPietro linking up two minutes after subbing on, with the Black-and-Red down a goal at the time. As much as D.C.’s rebuild under Wayne Rooney is about the veterans, it’s important to see homegrowns stepping up clutch like that.

As for the injuries, reporting suggests Benteke could return Wednesday for Matchday 13. If I’m a D.C. fan, I’m more worried about Fountas’ status after he left with discomfort in the first half. Those ones can be tricky.

One other thought: Do Nashville see out a road win if USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman (groin) is playing? I believe so. In good news, it sounds like he’ll be available midweek in some capacity after missing the club’s last two games.

Inter Miami CF 2-1 New England Revolution

Bruce Arena did not like the call on Noel Buck’s disallowed first-half goal.

“The goal that they called back was a good goal,” New England’s head coach and sporting director said postgame. “That’s not interfering with the goalkeeper. It’s amazing to me that they would call that goal back. I don’t know what the VAR was thinking.”

I’ll defer to referee analyst and MLS 360 commentator Christina Unkel on this one:

That sequence aside, let’s not overlook the result: Miami, despite their injuries, knocked the league leaders down a peg and have three straight wins after a six-game losing streak prompted tough questions about head coach Phil Neville’s future. Josef Martínez got his 101st career regular-season goal, moving into a tie for 10th all-time in league history, and homegrown midfielder David Ruiz notched a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a red card).

Miami are experiencing a season-saving turnaround. New England… I, um, expect them to come out of the gates firing in Matchday 13.

“I think the way we started that game was disgraceful,” said Arena. “To fall behind by a goal in the first seven minutes of the game and the way some of our guys stepped on the field to start that game was poor. Ultimately, it cost us the game.”

Added Arena, pouring on the disappointment: “Good athletes show up when they play at home or on the road. When you don’t, you need to question the quality of those players. So, we will have many games ahead of us and we will be challenged to make sure we have 11 players ready to play from the opening whistle.”

CF Montréal 2-0 Toronto FC

Six games unbeaten in all competitions and back-to-back Canadian Classique victories, first in the Canadian Championship quarterfinals and then in the league. Life in Montréal is good right now under new manager Hernán Losada.

What’s not so good is Toronto’s form and their lengthy injury list. The Reds, now last in the Eastern Conference, have won only two of 12 games in the league and were down two starting center backs and two starting midfielders at Stade Saputo. That’s how you get situations like Mark-Anthony Kaye playing center back (even if he was solid), exposing Toronto’s top-heavy roster and lack of first-team depth. 

Head coach and sporting director Bob Bradley is maintaining a glass-half-full approach despite the adversity.

“We are going through a tough stretch, and the work every day is to keep everybody going and with a belief that there are things that we're doing that are still positive, [even if] we haven't had much to show for it,” said Bradley postgame. “But the important thing is that if we can fight through this stretch, get some more guys healthy, keep improving, there's a positive light at the end of all this.”

There’s a decent amount hanging on that if above, and I suggest checking out what MLS Wrap-Up commentators Nigel Reo-Coker and Andrew Wiebe (view this week’s show here) had to say about the Reds’ future. 

Questions are swirling for a team that was, back in preseason, discussed as a potential MLS Cup contender. And the questions go far beyond if Italian forwards/DPs Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are producing (they’re not doing so consistently lately).

New York Red Bulls 1-0 New York City FC

New York, for now, is red.

The latest derby match was settled by Omir Fernandez’s 76th-minute strike from atop the box. I think it was deflected slightly by NYCFC center back Thiago Martins (see: top-spin), but we’ll let you be the judge of that:

Let’s not bury the lede, though: the Red Bulls capped an emotional week that involved the following:

  • Monday: Gerhard Struber and RBNY mutually part ways, while Troy Lesense gets promoted to head coach after being an assistant on the Austrian manager’s staff.
  • Tuesday: 1-0 win over D.C. United, advancing to the US Open Cup Round of 16.
  • Saturday: 1-0 win over NYCFC, securing a New York Derby victory before more than 23,000 fans at Red Bull Arena.

There are definitely some new-coach bump vibes out of Harrison, but Lesense also seems ready for this chance.

“It's been a lot this week, and it will be a lot going forward,” said the 39-year-old postgame. “But that's what you hope for. Whenever you get an opportunity like this, you want to obviously make the most of it. I'm at a great club and I've been given an opportunity that I want to try and maximize. And you know, when you play in a derby like this, you get a real sense of what it means to this club even more.”

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: NYCFC are a completely different team on the road. That 0W-5L-2D away record, oof – and the team caps a four-game road swing on Wednesday when visiting Orlando City.

These comments from NYCFC head coach Nick Cushing were very interesting after his group had nearly 70% possession, but landed just one shot on target.

“We got into the box many times on the opposite side of the field, but we didn’t score a goal,” said Cushing. “We have many chances where we have our offensive players in good positions and we don’t score. So, we have to address that problem because if we don’t score we don’t win.”

Cushing added: “We control the game but don’t score, and that’s our league. Our league, the margins are so small that if you don’t put the game away, you always leave the game open for a team to score whether it’s a set-play goal or a second ball off a corner. We’ll remember it for ‘we did many things other than win the football game.’”

It’s hard not to think about the club’s lack of a dependable No. 9 in the context of those remarks. Players like Talles Magno, Gabriel Pereira, Richy Ledezma and Santiago Rodríguez… there’s a ton of individual (and young) quality in City Blue. But without a clear finisher to cap the movements, they’re dropping points.

What does this all mean ahead of the Secondary Transfer Window, which runs from July 5 to Aug. 2? It’s a huge question to track, especially with NYCFC holding a couple of vacant U22 Initiative spots.

Austin FC 0-1 FC Dallas

The dude loves dunking on Austin.

Jesús Ferreira, somewhat quietly, is building off his Best XI presented by Continental Tire campaign from a year ago. The USMNT forward’s 89th-minute goal at Q2 Stadium was his sixth tally of the year, and four of those are game-winners.

“If he wants to raise his level to the top, he needs to have phenomenal physical performances,” Dallas head coach Nico Estevez said of the homegrown DP. “Pressing, running and fighting is what makes him different. He has the ability to keep repeating these actions at a high speed. The moment he does not do that, he loses that strength and power that he has. This is what we asked from him today and he delivered. He made runs behind the defender and he did not stop all night. 

“Sometimes he scored and sometimes he does not, but today he put himself in a good position to score,” continued Estevez. “It was the game-winning goal and I am very happy with his performance. These are the types of performances we demand from him because he is growing into that leadership role and when he encourages others, the team looks a whole lot better as a unit. He led by example tonight and I am glad he had this performance tonight.”

In this growing chapter of Texas’ three-pronged rivalry, Dallas are now 4W-0L-2D against Austin in the regular season. The Verde & Black won their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs matchup last fall, of course, but the trend is hard to ignore.

It’s been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of year in Austin. They had strong moments Saturday, then Rodney Redes was shown a straight red card in the 54th minute. Head coach Josh Wolff’s team hasn’t won since mid-March, going 0W-4L-4D in the league, and they’ll visit Seattle next weekend while likely still missing injured star Sebastián Driussi (left adductor). Tough times.

Houston Dynamo FC 0-1 Seattle Sounders FC

Up through 86 minutes and change, it seemed like Seattle would settle for a frustrating scoreless road draw, despite being up two men and dominating the ball (they finished with nearly 72% possession and outshot the Dynamo 12-3).

Then Paul Rothrock, of all people, stepped up.

For those unfamiliar: Rothrock, 24, is a Sounders Academy alum who’s been playing on a short-term loan from MLS NEXT Pro affiliate Tacoma Defiance. He’s scored in all three games played with Seattle’s first team, including in two different US Open Cup matches.

Still atop the Western Conference table, Seattle have to thank a player who technically isn’t even on their first-team roster. It’s a hallmark of a strong club to get a result like this.

“We’re happy for that kid Rothrock for coming in and saving us,” head coach Brian Schmetzer said postgame.

Houston dropped their first home game of the Ben Olsen era after posting five straight shutouts at Shell Energy Stadium. Olsen took particular issue with the refereeing decision on Héctor Herrera’s 78th-minute red card (his second of the year) and called it the type of result where they’ll “lick our wounds” and recharge.

Sporting Kansas City 3-0 Minnesota United FC

Peter Vermes has taken a lot of criticism this year. Now, he’s ready to push back.

“Make no mistake about it, there's a side of me that is vengeful for sure,” SKC’s manager and sporting director said postgame. “I want to show everybody that we are that good. I know inside the locker room, inside the group, that we want to show everybody that we are that good. I know that there's a lot of doubt. 

“Us going up to Seattle [last week], Seattle is a really good team. They've been a really good team. We've beat them there before. It wasn't like we couldn’t go up there and do it. We come home and that Minnesota team has been good for years, and they've always been steady. We've had good battles against them. It's not easy to just go out and win 3-0 at your own place. But I know what this team has. I know the quality it has. I know what's on the roster. 

“Again, those guys, they have to be available. There are times when a player is not available for a game. I understand that and you have to figure out a way how to adjust and adapt to that situation. When you're talking about guys that have been out for a significant amount of time, it takes a toll on the team. At the end of the day, I've always been resolute to what I believe in and I will continue to do that. I appreciate the fact that I work for an ownership group that we're made of the same cloth.”

It’s now two wins on the trot for SKC, who need another big result or two to say their 0W-7L-3D start to the year is behind them. But with DPs Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda back healthy, and with offseason signing/d-mid Nemanja Radoja in the starting XI, some of the pieces are coming together.

Minnesota haven’t won in the league since early April, going 0W-5L-1D while hanging onto the West’s last Audi MLS Cup Playoff spot by a thread. 

Maybe Emanuel Reynoso, finally back stateside amid a prolonged saga, could come in and help staunch the bleeding? There’s no knight in shining armor situation just yet.

“At this moment, Rey is still suspended by the league,” Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath clarified of their DP No. 10, who’s yet to play in 2023. “He’s training. He’s doing two and three-a-day sessions. I don’t know when that will be cleared and then it’s a case of how long is it going to take him to get up to speed to play a game. I don’t know the answer to that, but he’s got to get cleared first before we can start integrating him in the group. We hope that will be sooner rather than later.”

Colorado Rapids 1-2 Philadelphia Union

The Rapids’ seven-game unbeaten streak (2W-0L-5D) in league play is over, unable to build off Connor Ronan’s first-half PK despite carrying play and generating 1.4 xG (expected goals). Head coach Robin Fraser called this home loss an “aberration” several times in his postgame press conference. He also took a historical approach to things.

“Sometimes you have games like this,” Fraser remarked. “And it's not – I don't say that to excuse it because it's never okay to have a poor performance, but again, if you've played long enough, you've been around it long enough, you know it happens from time to time. 

“The question really is, as I said, this sort of thing happens. I feel like most teams have at least one stinker a year, like one real stinker a year. The question is, what's the response going to be? So, if you're talking about what the test is, the test is Wednesday coming off of this performance.”

That Wednesday trip Fraser referred to? A visit to an Atlanta side where anxious feelings are certainly increasing.

What’s really interesting from this game, though, is how Philadelphia looked when playing out of a 3-5-2 formation. Union head coach Jim Curtin said it’s a look they plan on using more this year, especially on the road when other teams like having the ball.

“Personnel will definitely dictate it, opponent will dictate it too,” Curtin said. “I still think our default will be the 4-4-2 diamond, but I think we learned a lot tonight and I think we can not only do this well to get draws on the road, but I think we can be pretty dangerous in it too. If you can imagine the full group back together, there are some really good options to play out of.”

Two injuries to watch for, even as Philadelphia won their third straight league game:

  • DP striker Mikael Uhre didn’t play after getting fluid drained from his knee. Doesn’t sound super serious.
  • Standout d-mid José Martínez is expected back midweek from a hamstring strain that caused him to miss the CCL semifinal second leg at LAFC.
Real Salt Lake 0-3 LAFC

Knowing LAFC’s approach to competition, they want to maintain rhythm before the CCL final is held May 31 (away leg) and June 4 (home leg) against Liga MX’s Club León. And Saturday’s win at RSL, to state the obvious, was a good step in that direction.

But part of the club might want to put each player in bubble wrap before this huge occasion arrives.

“It’s a big task that we have to try to keep pace with our league and put points on the board, but also remain healthy,” head coach Steve Cherundolo said postgame. “These games that we have on our schedule are not going away. I can’t just erase them off the calendar. We will play them. We will play them to the best of our ability. I believe we have the roster to get through this stretch.

“… It will be an amazing achievement from these players to get through this schedule in a winning way because it’s very, very difficult. But up until now, I'm very proud of the players and the staff, the organization. We haven’t missed a beat yet and we hope to continue that for the next couple of weeks.”

Cherundolo was commenting after midfielder Kellyn Acosta got subbed off in the 19th minute for an undisclosed injury and was replaced by José Cifuentes. There wasn’t a specific update available on the USMNTer, but Cherundolo said “we hope that Kellyn’s situation isn’t as bad as maybe it looked at first” and “with a little luck he can be back as well.” Starting goalkeeper John McCarthy also took a knock, yet finished the game. That’s on top of center backs Jesús Murillo and Giorgio Chiellini remaining out, testing the club’s depth.

This isn’t to suggest there’s an injury crisis developing at LAFC, not even remotely. But they’re definitely trying to prioritize health, knowing three more games (all home) remain before the CCL opportunity arrives:

  • May 17: League play vs. Sporting KC
  • May 20: League play vs. San Jose
  • May 23: US Open Cup (Round of 16) vs. LA Galaxy

We’ve already seen some adjustments by LAFC, too, using an MLS NEXT Pro-heavy squad midweek to beat USL Championship side Monterey Bay FC in the US Open Cup.

My only RSL thought right now: they end Matchday 12 with a league-worst -10 goal differential and Western Conference-worst 20 goals against. More than anything, Pablo Mastroeni’s group has to patch things up defensively and build from that foundation.

Portland Timbers 3-1 Vancouver Whitecaps FC

So it turns out this Evander guy might be pretty good (I know, what a revelatory take about a reported $10 million signing).

That was the Brazilian midfielder’s second of two goals for Portland in a Cascadia Cup victory over Vancouver, giving him 3g/2a in the Timbers’ last three games. The offseason transfer headliner, acquired from Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland, is shaking off the cobwebs and looking more settled in MLS.

“Evander looked today like what we know he’s capable of and I still think there’s more there for him to continue to grow,” said head coach Giovanni Savarese. “Game-by-game he’s feeling better.”

Evander knows his MLS history as well (seriously, it’s incredible this hasn’t happened yet):

Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini remains arguably the best – or at least the most blunt – quote in the league.

“I think we deserved to lose, so really fair and square,” said Sartini, later referencing their Canadian Championship travel midweek. “I think that the Timbers came on the game readier than us, if you ask me why I don’t know. Of course we can say ‘Ok we had to fly back, we are a little tired.’ But then at the end, actually we did 70 minutes after the first horrible 20 minutes I would say, where we’re kind of okay. I think we were a little bit too rushed into everything.”

Call it as you see it, folks. And in this case, it means the Whitecaps’ eight-game unbeaten streak (3W-0L-5D) is over.

LA Galaxy 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

Dejan Joveljić celebrations stay undefeated.

That high press → forced turnover ​​→ slotted shot stood as the game-winner in the latest California Clásico, less than a minute after the Serbian striker subbed on for Chicharito. And there’s absolutely nobody in MLS who goes harder after scoring than the Serbian international.

Based on how LA played Sunday night, you’d be hard-pressed to believe they’ve been bottom of the league (they’re still second-from-last in the West). Riqui Puig was fantastic, playing like a top-10 player in MLS, and Chicharito was leading the line as you’d expect. They created 1.51 xG, finishing some of the chances they failed to earlier this year.

Maybe this is a season-saver for LA? It’s been pretty bleak around Carson lately, and they just knocked off an Earthquakes side that was flying high after last weekend’s statement win over LAFC. Strong defensive work to keep Jeremy Ebobisse and Cristian Espinoza under wraps, too.

"I thought for 90 minutes, it was a very professional performance," LA head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney said postgame. "I thought it was our best, by far, best defending game of the season. Just, the collective work, reactions, the way we dealt with situations. I thought it was very, very good. We created a lot of chances. There were more goals in that game than we took at the end.

" … I feel like we’re starting to find some rhythm and we’ll continue to try to build off of it. But there was a lot of good things to take away from this game, and some guys had some exceptional games as well."

For all the good vibes around San Jose, they're 0W-4L-2D on the road this year. Improve there and Luchi Gonzalez's team could push for one of the West's top spots.

"I’m sorry to our fans we couldn’t perform better to get a better result," the new San Jose head coach said postgame. "We performed better at the end, we threw everything in the box to score, but it was too late. We have to do better, we want to perform better, and even learn that if performance is not there, can we still find ways to tie or win in these types of games with quality in the last third and balls in the box. We’re going to have to do better than this."