Welcome to MLS Week 13. We don’t have time for a long-winded introduction.
In a nutshell, you’re going to tune in to ESPN twice this weekend, fire up MLS LIVE on Saturday night and then tune in to the Extratime Club & Country USMNT postgame show on Sunday night following the Canada game on MLS social channels. ETR is, of course, driven by Continental Tire.
Everything is Fine!
Atlanta United vs. New England Revolution — Sat., 5 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada
I was going to write all about Carles Gil having as dominant a chance-creation season as we’ve ever seen in MLS, how he’s clearly been the league’s best player so far, a No. 10 worth appointment viewing and all the awards and rewards that come with that, but then…
Nothing to see here! Keep it moving, folks! EVERYTHING IS FINE!
I absolutely would NOT panic if I was an Atlanta United supporter. It’s not like this is your talismanic striker and new, big-name head coach who can’t see eye to eye! It’s not like you’ve proven completely reliant on one goalscorer for inspiration! It’s not like this season already felt like it was on a knife’s edge, teetering on the brink of yet more disappointment!
This? This is small potatoes stuff. Just a healthy and fit Josef Martinez training away from the first team by the manager’s decision. Totally and completely normal. Just a couple stubborn men drawing temporary lines in the sand. We saw something similar recently in Toronto, and just look at how painlessly the Jozy Altidore situation played out! It only took a couple months and possession of a wooden spoon to put a band-aid on the wounds (and that only after Chris Armas lost his job).
OK, I am done joking here. This is a massive gambit by Gabriel Heinze as he attempts to put his imprint on Atlanta United. The message is clear: there is only one opinion that matters in Atlanta, and it belongs to the manager. Not even Josef Martinez, a man whose face is painted on murals around the city he helped bring a championship, is immune to punishment.
Now, the big caveat here is that we don't know what's going on behind the scenes. Martinez's banishment from training could be completely justified. It could seem silly from the outside looking in but make sense to those living it. It could be anything, but the fact is his absence makes Atlanta United less likely to succeed.
And it puts pressure on both manager and those players who are in training to get it right without the team’s best player, who, again, is healthy and could contribute should the manager decide.
Can they get it right? There hasn’t been much evidence to suggest they can so far in 2021 … and now they’ll have to do it without their best player (Martinez), best defender/goalkeeper/left back (Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan and George Bello, all with the US at the Gold Cup) and most expensive player (Ezequiel Barco, who is with Argentina at the Olympics).
So yeah, Carles Gil and the Revs are good and all, but all eyes are going to be on the Five Stripes and Heinze on Saturday afternoon.
Invincibles for how long?
Minnesota United vs. Seattle Sounders — Sun., 2 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada
I’m here to make you a promise. This is the last time I will refer to the Sounders as the Invincibles until (more like if, and a big one) they set the MLS record for consecutive regular-season games without a loss. They’d need five more such games to get to 20 and stand alone at the MLS mountain top.
I know I’ve already written it and said it, but … that they’ve done it without Nico Lodeiro is honestly absurd. Unthinkable really, for the Sounders or any other MLS team, to lose their best player and not just survive but thrive at historical levels.
LAFC aren’t the same without Carlos Vela. Toronto FC aren’t the same without Alejandro Pozuelo. The Revs aren’t the same without Carles Gil. Portland aren’t the same without Sebastian Blanco. The Crew aren’t the same without Lucas Zelarayan. Atlanta United aren’t the same without Josef Martinez … sorry, I couldn’t resist.
The Sounders are even better than before, largely because they got all the other signings right, including the league’s best forward (Raul Ruidiaz) and defensive midfielder (Joao Paulo), mined the academy for meaningful minutes and cleaned up in free agency and the trade market. Meanwhile, Jordan Morris keeps hitting recovery milestones, and Lodeiro and Stefan Frei are working through their own injury timelines.
Point is, Seattle should only get better when it matters most, even if keeping this streak alive without the Roldan brothers is going to be a big ask.
Minnesota, meanwhile, would like to be the sort of club that Seattle clearly are and have been since arriving in MLS. They want to get their big signings right. They want to make the playoffs every year. They want to compete for (and win) trophies. They want to be consistently excellent.
They got Emanuel Reynoso right, it seems clear, but the jury is still out on Adrien Hunou. They’ve started a little two-year playoff streak, but apart from a U.S. Open Cup final loss, the Loons haven’t yet competed for trophies. They have not yet been consistently excellent. The jury is still very much out on this team and the roster as it is currently constructed.
Yes, things are better now than they were in mid-May. No, there aren’t any truly convincing or marquee results in the 4-1-3 run since then, Shield place in parenthesis:
- W 1-0 vs. VAN (25th)
- W 1-0 vs. DAL (24th)
- D 1-1 @ RSL (15th)
- D 1-1 @ DAL (24th)
- W 2-0 vs. ATX (19th)
- W 1-0 @ POR (18th)
- D 2-2 vs. SJ (23rd)
- L 2-0 @ COL (6th)
Which brings us to Sunday and a chance to build the sort of momentum and belief that can change a season. What if Minnesota end the Sounders' streak? If you want to be among the best, you’ve got to beat the best. So far, the Loons haven’t done it.
ESPN+ Game of the Week
Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United - Sat., 7:30 pm ET
Both Philadelphia and D.C. want to turn the ball over and play vertically in transition. The Union have been doing it longer, but United are starting to look like they’ve got Hernan Losada’s physical and tactical demands figured out. Then again, the Union are a much different test than Inter Miami (twice) and full-on death spiral Toronto FC.
I’ll leave you with a suggestion to spend 10 minutes on this throwback arcade game featuring Phang, the Supporters’ Shield and RFC raccoons. It’s not soccer, but it’s a whole lot of fun.