Voices: Steve Zakuani

Wednesday Takeaways: What we learned from Week 9's action

Week 9 is a wrap and there’s plenty to dissect.

In the Eastern Conference: Carles Gil enhanced his case for the Landon Donovan MLS MVP award, while Chicago Fire FC hit another low. In the Western Conference: Minnesota United’s newcomers propelled them to victory, while the two biggest stars in Los Angeles both found the scoresheet.

Here are my top takeaways from Wednesday.

The magic of Carles Gil

MLS is an ever-changing league – expansion clubs continue to join, new stadiums are built, the coaching gets better and so do the players – yet one truth remains: If you want to be a serious championship contender, you need to build your team around a talented playmaker. The last few MLS Cup champions attest to this fact.

Last year's winner, Columbus, rode the skills of Lucas Zelarayan to the title. Before them, Seattle were led by Nicolas Lodeiro for both of their Cup wins. Atlanta did the same with Miguel Almiron, Toronto had Sebastian Giovinco and Portland were built around Diego Valeri. It’s an undeniable truth in MLS that if you want to win big, you need a talented squad that's spearheaded by a special playmaker.

This brings me to New England. They have some talented players and there’s no question the coaching is top-class, but in Carles Gil, they have a truly gifted playmaker like all recent MLS Cup champions. The argument can be made that, based on present form, he’s the best player in the league. I’m not one to make judgments from stats alone, but a league-leading 10 assists in 10 games, including three in a 3-2 win over the New York Red Bulls, speaks for itself.

Individually, Gil may harbor ambitions of breaking Carlos Valderrama’s single-season assist record (26), but collectively the Spaniard and his team should be thinking about MLS Cup. Their recent run of form has been nothing short of brilliant and even though they almost threw points away against RBNY, they held on to record a fifth straight victory.

Gil’s ability lies not only in what he can do – pass, dribble, make something out of nothing – but also in how he improves those around him. He’s now getting extra special attention from opponents who probably spend most of their scouting report meetings talking about him, yet he’s still producing. That’s the sign of a good player – when the opponent knows what you're going to do and yet they’re still powerless to stop it. We all knew that Dutch winger Arjen Robben was going to cut onto his left foot and curl a shot into the far corner, yet he still did it. If Gil can maintain this form, there’s absolutely no reason why the Revolution can’t be the team to beat in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

Trouble in Chicago

Let me state the obvious: something needs to change in Chicago. I am not talking about a coaching change, as I don’t think that will solve all of the problems, just like rebranding and moving to Soldier Field didn’t. Winning teams win because of their culture.

If you study the club I am most affiliated with in MLS – the Sounders – you’ll soon realize that their sustained success the last decade-plus is the result of an established culture. When you join Seattle, you learn that winning is not a suggestion but an expectation. It doesn’t matter who’s at the helm, be it Sigi Schmid or Brian Schmetzer, the same daily habits are peached over and over until they become a part of you as a player.

In recent seasons, for one reason or another, the Sounders have said goodbye to icons and legends such as Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans and Ozzie Alonso, yet they’ve kept winning. How many teams can do that? Not many. They’re currently top of the Western Conference and unbeaten without conceding a goal in the run of play, all while having their best player and starting goalkeeper unavailable for weeks. It seems as though they can plug anyone into the lineup and the train just keeps on rolling. How does a team manage to do that? It’s down to fostering a culture of winning.

That culture is clearly missing from Chicago and has been for some time. The 2021 team looks uninspired and lacking in ideas. On paper, they actually have a few players I rate, particularly Robert Beric and Alvaro Medran, but they’re not getting anywhere near the production they’d have hoped for. They had 19 shots in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati, but only two were on target. With those struggles, it’s not hard to see why they’ve been shut out in six of their nine games this season.

Creating a winning culture starts at the top with ownership and trickles all the way down to the players. It’s easy to demand a coaching change, but sometimes the issues run deeper than that and it’s going to take every member of that organization – from players to staff – to come together and find a way out of this mess.

When a player joins the club, are they being told that MLS Cup is not only a desire but an actual possibility? Are they then given the blueprint for how they plan to get there? Are there consequences for failing to win? Is there competition for places or do some players know that they’ll play no matter what?

That’s how you set a culture. You can’t think to yourself, “we’ll just try again next year” — no, you need every player and coach to be motivated to win now, while believing that it’s possible. I don’t see that when I watch Chicago right now. Things change quickly in MLS and it may just take a massive reset and/or shift in philosophy to get the ship going in the right direction. But what is clear is that something, almost anything, needs to change.

Quick hits

Minnesota on the come up

Don’t look now, but Minnesota United are coming. They’re five games unbeaten, big signings are hitting the ground running and last night’s 2-0 win over Austin FC was their third clean sheet in five games.

After a horrendous start to 2021, the Loons are now clicking on all cylinders. Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou have fit right in and are showing their value, while defensively, they once again look organized and tough to play through.

This next stretch of games includes Portland, Colorado and Seattle, as well as LAFC a little more down the line. If they can emerge from those games with a couple of wins and big performances, Minnesota may be a team we talk about deep into November.

Chicharito, Vela show their quality

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been on fire and added his eighth goal of the season in a 2-1 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The LA Galaxy striker is now tied with Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz atop the Golden Boot presented by Audi race. His movement and work rate is still world-class.

It surely hasn’t been lost on Carlos Vela that his friend and former Mexican national team teammate has moved to LA and knocked him off the top of the scoring charts. And so it was good to see LAFC’s star get off the mark and contribute an assist in their 2-0 win over FC Dallas. Vela remains the one player in MLS who’s head and shoulders above the rest when he’s on form, but injuries have kept him from being himself lately.

Chicharito may have the lead right now, but Vela is capable of going on an absolute tear and scoring 10 goals in his next six or seven games. Their personal battle is the battle within the war for supremacy in LA that is raging between LAFC and the Galaxy. I’ll go as far as to say that whoever scores more between these two is the one whose team will end up higher in the table. They are each that good and that important to their respective clubs.