Gonzalo Pineda continued to stamp his authority on Atlanta United as they made light work of FC Cincinnati. Elsewhere, Chofis and Ola Kamara both fired hat tricks while LAFC recorded a third straight win and Minnesota United slumped to a second straight defeat.
Here's what we learned from Wednesday's Week 25 action.
It never was a surprise to me that the Sounders enjoyed some of their very best years when Gonzalo Pineda was associated with the club – first as a player and then as an assistant coach. When he arrived in that locker room he not only brought toughness and winning mentality, he also brought a level of professionalism to the club that rubbed off on everyone from Osvaldo Alonso to a young Cristian Roldan. In fact, Roldan strongly credits Pineda for helping him settle in so quickly and to understand what it meant to be a pro.
As a player, he was excellent at doing his job – breaking up play and connecting passes – and then providing passes that put the star players like Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in the positions they craved. As a coach, he’s exactly the same – he knows how to get his most dangerous players into the areas they need to be in. He thinks about the game more than most and knows how to unlock the dangerous players. This is why he may be the best thing to happen to Ezequiel Barco in a very long time.
Make no mistake about it, Barco’s talent has always been clear and he was enjoying a decent season before Gonzo arrived. But mark my words: He will go to a new level under Pineda’s system and tutelage, as will the whole team. Will they get back to the levels they enjoyed under Tata Martino? That will be tough because their squad isn’t as talented as it was back then in my opinion, but over time, they’ll certainly be better than they have been in the last two years.
The 4-0 win against FC Cincinnati was everything I’d expect from a Pineda team – high pass count, dominant in possession, lots of chances, goals at one end and stinginess at the other. We are looking at an Atlanta team that has only been beaten once in eight and have won their last two games by a combined score of 7-0.
The likes of Barco have thrived under Pineda because he understands how to relate to the gifted, game-changing players since he spent his whole career winning the ball and feeding them. He knows where they should run, how they should position themselves and how they can find the right spaces. He was an expert at helping the likes of Oba and Clint get the service they desired, and so far, as a head coach, he’s showing he can unlock the spaces for Barco and company.
Due to the hole they dug themselves, Atlanta may end up having to settle for a sixth or seventh seed in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. But if the way they’re playing right now continues, is there a team in the East that would be happy facing them in the postseason? I don’t think so.
It’s been a disappointing season for LAFC by any measure. They’re a club that expects to compete for the top seed while playing expansive football that produces goals aplenty. From that standpoint, it’s been a difficult season for their fans to witness.
But in recent weeks there have been signs that their best football may well be ahead of them, and that they could yet make 2021 special. They’ve scored 12 times in their last four games while picking up three straight wins. Averaging three goals a game for a stretch of the season is something we grew accustomed to with the LAFC of 2019, but something they seemed incapable of this entire season.
Cristian Arango's arrival has obviously helped, but their overall football looks more fluid, creative and dynamic than it has for a long time. The style is definitely different than it once was. Where they once needed to command huge amounts of possession and counter-pressed better than anyone in the league, they’re now happy to cede some possession and do more with less.
They’ve been out-possessed in all three of their recent wins – not a trait we associated with this group – but they’ve been deadly and efficient in the final third. If healthy, they remain a team that can put three or four past anyone on their best day.
While LAFC appear to be going in the right direction, Minnesota suddenly look like anything but a force to be reckoned with. You’re always going to lose games in MLS, especially away from home, but the manner of Wednesday's 4-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City is what should worry Loons fans.
They looked toothless in the final third and the stats from recent games back that up. They’ve scored just three goals in their last six games and didn’t even manage a shot on target in the defeat to Sporting. They've now dropped outside of the playoff places ahead of two big matches at home, including a real test against the Galaxy. Before these two defeats, they’d only lost two of their previous 17 so they’re clearly not a bad team. I just don’t think they have enough firepower to make any real noise this season, even when Emanuel Reynoso comes back.
As far as hat tricks go, La Chofis just scored one of the more incredible ones you’ll see. For his first goal, the first touch inside to set himself up – in stride – for the world-class finish was special enough. But he was just getting started.
His second goal was my personal favorite because I love everything to do with dribbling, tricks, feints and making defenders look like cones – which is what he did. It’s a goal you dream of scoring as a kid, and the type most of us try to perfect on FIFA.
His third goal is an Olimpico made famous in MLS by Thierry Henry. Did he mean it? It doesn’t matter. The best players in the world would struggle to score from a corner in training with no goalkeeper, let alone in a real game against real opposition. It was exquisite and a goal worth the price of admission alone. The only downside to his great night is that it came in a losing effort as Real Salt Lake spoiled the party in a wild, back-and-forth 4-3 game.
Ola Kamara is a man on fire right now. He’s scored 15 goals in his last 15 appearances and that form has him now leading the Golden Boot presented by Audi race, two ahead of Seattle's Raul Ruidiaz. What’s even more impressive is that he’s played as many as five fewer games than some of those in the race with him.
He’s had the fortune of getting a few penalties recently, but as a striker, it doesn’t matter how you score. Spectacular strikes, tap-ins, penalties – they all count the same and your only job is to score. The challenge for Kamara will be to ensure that these goals aren't in vain, that they accompany wins and much-needed points, and ultimately lead to a playoff appearance for D.C. United.