Ezequiel Barco is beginning to show why he was so highly regarded when he first arrived in MLS, New England continue to find ways to win, while Raul Ruidiaz maintained his path toward making history. Elsewhere, Inter Miami CF fans will hope that Rodolfo Pizarro’s heroics will lead to more consistent performances.
Here’s what we learned from Wednesday's Week 20 action.
I remember a conversation I had with Darlington Nagbe shortly after he left Atlanta. I asked him to give me the scoop on Ezequiel Barco. He was a player that had always fascinated me because I could see the talent, but so often he flattered to deceive and I couldn’t figure out why.
“Is he good in training?” “Can he make it in MLS?” I asked questions along those lines and Darlington’s response was an emphatic yes to all of the above. Since then, Barco has pretty much continued to show flashes without ever really living up to the promise. Until now.
I’m not inside the locker room so I have no idea what exactly has changed, but in recent weeks he has added a consistency to his game that hadn’t been there before. Since returning from the Olympics with Argentina he has started and played 90 minutes in all four games, scoring three goals and adding two assists, all while being a constant attacking threat.
Another question surrounding Barco was what his best position is. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to matter where he plays because he’s finding the right spaces in dangerous areas where he can really hurt the opponent. Personally, I like him playing up high through the middle as he has done in recent weeks, because he has the skill set to cause an enormous amount of problems.
For his goal against Toronto FC, he made an in-behind run that any true No. 9 would be proud of, and then the first touch, turn and finish were something very few players can pull off. It was further evidence of a player who may finally be showing us what his true value is.
For Atlanta, both the club and fans, his form is good news for a couple of reasons. There’s no doubt Barco was signed with a view to one day being sold for a large fee that could be reinvested in the squad, and if his current form keeps up, that will be happening at some point in the near future.
Also, if he keeps playing this well, he will bring the best out of Josef Martinez. They're two players that are more than capable of spearheading a renaissance for a team that's desperate to get back to the lofty heights they once occupied.
All championship teams have similar traits. They're defensively sound, have multiple match-winners in the attacking half and boast have an incredible ability to get results in every way possible – even when missing their talisman. New England are showing all of these traits and then some so far in this 2021 season.
Carles Gil is an MVP candidate, a gifted playmaker and a player who’d walk into any team in the league, yet the Revs have made light work of his current absence through injury. From 12 possible points without Gil, they’ve taken 10, and they're now unbeaten in eight, with seven wins during that stretch. That eight-game stretch has included three clean sheets, an average of over two goals a game and four wins away from home in a league where it’s notoriously tough to pick up road points.
They were outshot by D.C. United on Wednesday and fell behind to an early goal. But it’s going to take more than that to beat the Revolution because they possess yet another trait that all championship teams possess: good coaching. Bruce Arena’s substitutions were timely and impactful.
One of those subs, Tajon Buchanan, who is having an outstanding season, enhanced his growing reputation with a great first-time finish off a cross. It was par for the course for New England, who seem to get timely performances and plays from different players any time they need it.
There’s still a long way to go in the regular season, but as things stand, New England are the frontrunners for the Supporters' Shield due to their ability to get results even when they’re not at their best, are missing key players, or fall behind. In Arena, they have a coach who has been there and done it so many times before, and he seems to be at the top of his game, both tactically, with his decision making, and of course with his highly regarded man-management.
Ruidiaz primed for Sounders history
For all of the great forwards the Sounders have had in their history, it’s actually quite shocking that none have broken the 20-goal barrier. In 2014, Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey respectively had 17 and 15, and perhaps it can be argued that they shared the load in a way that made it hard for either to run away with the Golden Boot presented by Audi. However, as good as they were, Ruidiaz is next level in terms of his efficiency. The numbers don’t lie.
He currently has 14 goals, the latest of which came just 20 seconds after entering the game as a sub at FC Dallas, and it’s hard to see him slowing down any time soon. Observing his one-track mind once he gets inside the box is worth the price of admission alone; he's a predator in the purest form. I think it’s safe to say that in a few months we'll be crowning the first 20-plus goalscorer in Sounders history.
Moment of the Night
He hasn’t lit up MLS in the way that Inter Miami fans would have hoped, but Rodolfo Pizarro’s late winner brought the house down as Phil Neville's team secured a much-needed three points against Chicago Fire FC. The win takes Miami to within a point of Chicago with two games in hand, and they sit eight points outside of a playoff spot.
The late-game heroics from Pizarro were very welcome on this night, but what would be even better would be some consistently good performances from the Mexico international midfielder that can really kick start his team's season.