Kickoff 3.30.23
What you need to know

Blake "on schedule" for Philadelphia Union return this weekend

The Philadelphia Union, amid a rare two-game losing skid, may get arguably their best player back for Matchday 6 action. Head coach Jim Curtin has expressed optimism that goalkeeper Andre Blake can start in Saturday’s home match against Sporting Kansas City (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

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The load-bearing players of MLS, assemble!

Andre Blake’s impending return and Philadelphia’s struggles without him got me thinking: Which players hold up the structure of their entire team, or at least a section of the structure? And the more I thought about it, the more I decided Andre Blake isn’t actually load-bearing – he’s just what pushes Philly from a very, very good team to a great team. Players carrying more weight than that do exist in MLS though. For example…

He hasn’t been the best shot-stopper in the league so far – that honor goes to Austin FC’s Brad Stuver – but he’s been the difference between a decent start for New England and a start that has them on top of the Eastern Conference standings. I’d fully expect that kind of impact to continue. Not in the sense that the Revs are locked-on favorites in the East, but in the sense that Petrovic will continue to provide the decisive margin in close games.

So far, the Revs have won three games by one goal. Petrovic has played a key role in that. It’s all very familiar to how New England set an all-time regular-season points record in 2021 (73). It seemed like those one-goal games would stop when Matt Turner left for Arsenal, but along came Petrovic. The Serbian international, as you probably know by now, is legit.

Just because the answer is obvious doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. I would have felt dumb for not including Hany. After all, he’s the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP and Golden Boot presented by Audi winner for a reason.

I bet you thought I was going to go with a different player here. And, yeah, you know what, it’s also true that Thiago Almada is a load-bearing piece of the puzzle right now for Atlanta United. Robinson is in the same boat though. 

His presence in the backline and ability to cover space at speed allows Atlanta’s (sometimes not great!) midfield to press with confidence and just generally improves the Five Stripes’ defensive set-up as a whole. That’s especially important considering how Atlanta’s goalkeeping numbers aren’t necessarily elite league-wide through five games.

Cincy wouldn’t be bad without Nwobodo. Don’t get it twisted. However, Nwobodo gives them the ability to be far more pragmatic. 

Remember what they were like at the beginning of last season? Then Nwobodo swooped in, said “I can fix him,” and Cincy eventually settled down, started a Roth IRA and started playing fewer games that ended 4-3. I don’t think they’d revert to needing to score in bunches every game just to get a point without Nwobodo, but he sure does make things easier in every phase. Obi is a major reason why Cincy are genuine Supporters’ Shield contenders this season.

Gregore certainly fits right into this group. Which makes it even more of a bummer that he’s out for the next six months or so. We’ve already talked about this plenty, so we won’t dwell too much on it, but the Herons might be in trouble without him.

Or so we thought! Maybe?

The Quakes could probably trudge along without Espinoza and still get decent results here and there. It wouldn’t be pretty though. Espinoza is the kind of player that feels definitive for a team teetering on the edge of totally ok and actually good. He’s currently your league leader in expected assists by more than a goal's worth of chances, which puts him well on the way to putting up similar numbers to last year’s under-discussed seven-goal, 14-assist season. That’s the same mark as Carles Gil last season and just four fewer assists than Gil’s MVP-winning 2021.

In fact, if we’re talking about primary assists – MLS counts passes that lead to an assist in the final total – that led directly to a goal-scoring shot, Gil and Espinoza are tied for the league lead since both entered the league back in 2019.

On a San Jose team that finally feels like it’s finding stability under new head coach Luchi Gonzalez, Espinoza might be set to ease past last year’s career high. And he might also be an X-factor in getting them back to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

I mean, I don’t think the Sounders would be bad without him or anything, but, uh, he has seven of their 10 goals so far. I’d classify him as “pretty important to the whole deal so far” in 2023. And, ya know, I had to meet my daily Jordan Morris quota for the week after he scored four goals in one game. Did y’all know Jordan Morris scored four whole goals in one game?

Player to be named later
Team to be named later

We’ll revisit this one down the line when we have more data. The more I thought about this, the more I realized some teams have changed too much to really assess who’s holding it all together this early in the season. Either that or no one is holding any of it together so far. Or they’re LAFC and they could lose half their roster and still get a home playoff spot. Some structures are just built differently.

Other things

Charlotte FC midfielder Bronico suspended one match: Charlotte FC midfielder Brandt Bronico has been issued a one-match suspension and an undisclosed fine for serious foul play that occurred during Charlotte's match against the New York Red Bulls on March 25. Bronico will serve his suspension during Charlotte’s match against Toronto FC on April 1.

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Good luck out there. Beware. He could be anywhere.