Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Wiebe: Five big questions heading into MLS Week 11

Atlanta United - goal celebration

Enjoy the weekend everyone. Give your mother a hug, a card, a call or all three!

What’s the most terrifying sound in MLS?

It’s gotta be the deafening train whistle that booms over the speakers at Mercedes Benz Stadium every time Atlanta United scores a goal. More than one team has been run over to that soundtrack.

It’s probably time to revisit the piping-hot Frank de Boer takes that were flying around during the Concacaf Champions League and early season MLS struggles. Maybe he wasn’t breaking the defending MLS Cup champions. Maybe a little time and a couple hiccups were all Atlanta needed to understand what the Dutchman was asking of them.

After all, they’ve now won three straight coming into Sunday’s rivalry game against Orlando City SC (2:30 pm ET | FOX, MLS LIVE on DAZN). Josef Martinez is scoring again. Ezequiel Barco was a terror before he left for the U-20 World Cup. Miles Robinson might just be the best young center back in MLS. Pity Martinez seems to be getting more comfortable by the game, even if box score moments have proven elusive.

“It’s a process,” Michael Parkhurst said after the Five Stripes dropped Toronto FC, 2-0, on Wednesday. “He asked us to be patient. Now it looks like more of what he said it would be. We are dominating the games.”

Four shutouts in five games is a testament to that. The style of play may not be as electric as the past two years with Miguel Almiron running down opponent’s throats, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as effective. It takes more than a couple regular-season wins to prove that, however.

My three players to watch are still to come, but go ahead and add Hector Villalba to that list. Tito’s been mostly quiet so far this season – one goal, two assists in eight games – but he’s a baller. So ball, Tito! The next month is your opportunity to shine.

Which signing pushes the Union over the top?

The Philadelphia Union sit atop the Eastern Conference on points (20) and points per game (1.82), are tied for most goals scored (21) and have the second-best goal differential in MLS (+10) behind only LAFC. Two of their three losses came in the season’s first two games.

As they say in Chester: Doop.

The answer to the question I posed above is sporting director Ernst Tanner, whose early returns must be gratifying for Philadelphia owner Jay Sugarman and Union supporters. We fret so much about the puzzle pieces that sometimes it’s easy to forget about the person putting the puzzle together.

Earnie Stewart got the ball rolling in Philadelphia, and Tanner’s moves have kept the momentum going in the right direction while balancing the present with the future. It could all fall apart, sure, but right now Tanner feels like a DP signing. And one that doesn’t count against the cap!

So far, the Union have gotten value and quality from their foreign signings (Kacper Przybylko, Kai Wagner, Sergio Santos, Jamiro Monteiro) and Tanner hasn’t been afraid to flip players who have value but a limited future at the club (Keegan Rosenberry, C.J. Sapong, David Accam, Derrick Jones) in exchange for assets. Meanwhile, Brenden Aaronson’s progress, landing Marco Fabian and the hot start have been the whipped cream, chocolate syrup and cherry on top.

Even better? It doesn’t feel like the group has reached its potential. They’ve just scratched the surface.

There’s depth at every position, which allowed Tanner to make the trades he did without sacrificing the short term, and Philly are spreading the love. Eleven players have scored in 11 games: Accam (4), Przybylko (3), Ilsinho, Cory Burke, Santos, Alejandro Bedoya, Fabian (2), Monteiro, Jack Elliott, Fafa Picault, Aaronson (1).

As I am sure Tanner would insist, massive props go to Jim Curtin and the players, too. The Union played pretty last year, and it was effective. When Tanner announced he’d usher in a stylistic shift, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. And yet, nobody’s missed a beat. The team is more flexible tactically, and results speak for themselves.

The question now, from here until the final game of the season, is whether Philadelphia can maintain this form and pace? It’s a fair one, all things considered. Their best results are home wins against FC Dallas and the Montreal Impact.

Curtin and the boys head to Toronto on Saturday to take on the team that handed them a home loss in the 2019 opener (3 pm ET | TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US). After that, the Union have back-to-back home games against the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.

Are they as good as their record? We’re about to find out.

What’s the big question for the three MLS clubs with interim head coaches in Week 11?

Conor Casey and the Rapids: When will they win a game? 

Did you see the video of the Colorado substitute’s bench when Andy Rose scored the game-winner for Vancouver last Friday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Heads in hands. Despair. Resignation to the seemingly inevitable. It was brutal imagery.

Every game at this point is gut-check time. Losing is contagious, and there is only one cure for the Rapids. Just win, no matter the method. Stop the bleeding in the back – somehow, some way – and get three points against Real Salt Lake on Saturday (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, on DAZN in Canada) in front of your increasingly desperate supporters.

It’s the Rocky Mountain Cup, for goodness sake, a rivalry match. Ugly it up, if you must.

Yoann Damet and FC Cincinnati: What approach and starting XI maximizes the roster?

You can listen to my interview on Extratime driven by Continental with FCC president and general manager Jeff Berding below.

Per Berding, culture and identify – or lack thereof – are what pushed Alan Koch out the door. One was untenable and the other was nonexistent thanks to near constant shuffling. What can Damet do about that in the short term? Basically, reward hard work in training, be honest with everyone about their roles and put players in positions to succeed.

There have been 10 different lineups in 11 games for FC Cincinnati. The group that Damet sends out there on Saturday against the Montreal Impact at Nippert Stadium (1 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, TVAS) will be the most telling of the year. 

Mike Lapper and New England: Can the Revs stop the bleeding?

Forget about the result until the final whistle. Lapper has to get New England to play with some pride. 

The cumulative score in the club’s last 360 minutes is 18-5 bad guys. And that’s AFTER the Revs’ motivation was questioned publicly. That’s tough for any coach to survive, and so the search begins for Brad Friedel’s replacement.

Matias Almeyda’s Earthquakes (suddenly in form and tough to play against!) come to Gillette Stadium on Saturday night (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, on DAZN in Canada). San Jose know exactly what they’re doing, and they believe in it. Their style has overran better teams than New England. 

Can the Revs match that commitment? TBD.

Which players will I have my eye on?

Francisco Calvo (Chicago Fire) – “He threw me in the trash like I was a rookie.” That’s how the Costa Rican international and former Minnesota United captain described his treatment by Loons head coach Adrian Heath prior to the trade that sent him to Chicago. As luck would have it, the schedule served up an immediate meeting between Calvo and his former club on Saturday (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, on DAZN in Canada). Prayer hands that Veljko Paunovic gives him the start.

Sam Johnson (Real Salt Lake) – The MLS news cycle hasn’t lacked for quotable moments this season. RSL’s new DP striker has three goals in his last five matches, but Johnson lamented how little his teammates pass him the ball last week after a loss to the Timbers. “They have to trust me,” he said. Mike Petke met with Johnson this week to clear the air and set the tone for the rest of 2019. So how will the Liberian respond in Colorado, where there are clearly goals to be scored?

David Accam (Columbus Crew) – Accam’s best season in MLS came in 2017 with the Fire (14 goals, 8 assists). That year, the Ghanaian played mostly on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 that featured Nemanja Nikolic goal-poaching up top. Accam was devastating in the open field, clinical around goal and got to the endline to provide service for the Golden Boot winner, too. In Columbus, he’ll be asked to do basically the same thing. Be direct. Feed Gyasi Zardes. Maybe Bobby Warshaw should have saved his “Accam for MVP” prediction for 2019. We’ll find out starting with Saturday’s game against LAFC (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, on DAZN in Canada).

What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?

Are the Houston Dynamo one of MLS’s top teams? I’d like to think so, given my Alberth Elis affinity, but I’m not sure yet. Houston’s got the results – can’t knock that league-best 2.38 points per game – but their schedule has been awfully soft compared to the other teams at the top of the table: six of eight at home, just one shutout during that span and a loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy, the best team they’ve played so far.

The first eight games set the foundation for Wilmer Cabrera. The next eight* will tell us whether those results were more than just a byproduct of the schedule, starting with Saturday’s match in Seattle (10 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, on DAZN in Canada). The Sounders haven’t lost at home in six matches so far (4-0-2) and Raul Ruidiaz appears to be back. The Dynamo will get their best shot.

*Because you’re probably wondering what that eight-game run looks like, here you go: @SEA, POR, DC, @MIN, SKC, @POR, @SJ, @NE. Four of those teams are currently in the playoff field. The Timbers (winners of three straight and up another DP attacker) and Sporting KC ought not be underestimated.