We are now five weeks into the 2022 season, and a mere three teams across MLS have yet to experience the vinegary tang of defeat.
That’s a pretty rapid mortality rate, even for a parity-centric league, so it got us thinking about what this trio is doing right.
Here’s a look at the unbeaten triumvirate, two of whom are unsurprisingly sitting tops in the early stages of the Supporters’ Shield race.
LAFC: Just blowing the dang doors off
Your MLS first-month pacesetters are the Los Angeles Football Club, who top the overall table with a 4W-0L-1D record and 13 goals scored, the most in the league by a wide margin (alongside Austin FC). Certainly it helps that Carlos Vela, while certainly not quite back to his utterly unstoppable 2019 peak, has been casually devastating to the tune of four goals and two assists in 356 minutes.
But it’s the lesser-known teammates around him who have been the real head-turners, thriving under new boss Steve Cherundolo via the same kind of aggressive pass-move-and-counterpress philosophy now-Toronto FC boss Bob Bradley used to lead LAFC to the Supporters’ Shield three years ago. Bradley’s gravitas is such that it was difficult to distinguish how much of the club’s success was powered by his guidance vs. an institutional commitment to those ideas, and in the first few matchweeks since his departure we’ve seen ample evidence of the latter.
LAFC want to beat you with the ball; they’ve mostly been possession-dominant thus far and can still weave pretty patterns in the buildup. But they flashed a different riff on Saturday in Orlando, where the host Lions owned more than 61% of possession but still got ravaged to the tune of 4-2 as the Black & Gold press created, then exploited costly errors in the Floridians’ own half of the field. The speed and purpose of their best moments of execution have been breathtaking.
The Angelenos have grown both more opportunistic on the counterattack and much more resistant to such moments in the opposite direction, something my data-savvy colleague Joe Lowery has attributed in part to the arrival of No. 6 Ilie Sanchez, who appears revitalized from his latter days at Sporting KC. Behind the Spaniard, Mamadou Fall has continued his upward trajectory and is clearly the top young defender in MLS, providing tigerish intensity and ground coverage not only at the heart of the backline but on attacking set pieces.
As many have noted, the addition of goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau has steadied the club at a position that carried question marks aplenty the past few years. Then add in fellow intra-league additions like defender Ryan Hollingshead and midfielder Kellyn Acosta, and LAFC seem to possess a sturdier spine – plus multiple ways of competing and winning.
Their friendly early schedule does leave some questions – their only away days so far have been two trips to Florida (Orlando, Miami), not exactly the most daunting place to play in early spring – but thankfully for all of us, their next chance to answer them comes in Saturday’s El Trafico at the LA Galaxy, 2022’s first edition of the spicy SoCal derby (7:30 pm ET | FOX, FOX Deportes). You might want to tune in for that one.
Philadelphia: Identity and repetition
Right behind LAFC, separated only by goal differential, sit Philly, also at 4W-0L-1D after handling Charlotte FC 2-0 at home in the most businesslike, Union-like manner imaginable. On Saturday the DOOP squad did what they love to do: Impose themselves physically, take an early lead and then maul their opponents’ efforts at a comeback with organized defending and viciously efficient transitions.
When they pounced on CLTFC goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina’s imprecision in a fairly ponderous build-up out of the back to take a 2-0 lead just after halftime – producing one of the simpler goals Daniel Gazdag will score in his MLS career – it felt inevitable, like watching a pet python go about lunching on a mouse dropped into its enclosure.
They don’t need a ton of possession. They don’t need Designated Players pulling rabbits out of hats. This is just what Philly do, and have been doing at a consistently high level for years now:
It would be easy, and correct, to castigate Charlotte for not dealing with the direct ball over the top that led to Julian Carranza’s tone-setting opener. Then again, maybe we should castigate Inter Miami for being chaotic enough to buy a young talent like Carranza, not know how to suitable deploy him and end up loaning him out to Philly for well below his market rate, thus bolstering a conference counterpart. This, too, is just what Philly do.
Jim Curtin’s side occasionally gets exposed when they themselves fall behind and have to rally, or when they face adversaries with superior elite talent in high-stakes situations: This is why they haven’t won an MLS Cup or Concacaf Champions League trophy yet. But amid the week-in, week-out grind of the league, they are consistently a tough out because they know, love, embrace and actualize who they are.
You’d better have a similar identity and plan if you are going to beat the 2020 Supporters’ Shield title-winners.
Chicago: Stubborn and steely
The only club who’ve conceded even fewer than Philly’s two goals against are the Fire, who are 2W-0L-3D despite some pretty uneven displays in the attacking end, because they’ve leaked just one goal across their first five matches.
It’s their best start to a season since 2009 and they’ve done it with their showpiece winter acquisition Xherdan Shaqiri (1 goal, 2 assists in 379 minutes) still finding his feet – and now looking a bit worn. The Cube of Power picked up a calf issue over the weekend that saw him taken off just 18 minutes into Saturday’s 0-0 draw with FC Dallas at a cold, rainy Soldier Field after logging heavy minutes for Switzerland during the international window.
Yes, the Windy City side hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row of opponents so far: at Miami, home to Orlando, at D.C., home to Kansas City, home to FCD. They themselves have only scored five times, and have been shut out on three occasions, which they may later look back on as dropped points. And that would actually be a striking sign of dramatic progress down on Lake Shore Drive!
At this point we need to focus on the extent of the progress Chicago have made in their opening months under Ezra Hendrickson rather than dwell on what they haven’t done. Because last year’s Fire were a decided leaky, underperforming and, well, soft team. Chicago allowed 54 goals in 34 games in 2021, which tabs out to 1.59 goals per game.
Even with the usual warnings about sample size, ratcheting that number down to 0.2 goals per game thus far is cause for celebration, because it hints at a sturdy foundation upon which to craft a more fluid and productive attack. Rather than Shaqiri, the most influential newcomer has probably been German center back Rafael Czichos, who has lifted younger colleagues like Wyatt Omsberg and inspired a more defiant defensive mentality overall, a far cry from his fickle predecessor Francisco Calvo (now at San Jose).
The fact that the Fire ground out Saturday’s draw despite Czichos’ absence due to health and safety protocols is a reflection of that game’s dour early-spring conditions, but also an encouraging sign that CFFC are a much tougher collective to play against in 2022. It sure helps they have 17-year-old rising goalkeeping star Gaga Slonina if all else fails, too.