Jozy Altidore reminded us that he is still the best American striker, Inter Miami defeated an Atlanta United team that has lost its way and Real Salt Lake tore apart a struggling LAFC side.
Jozy, still the best US striker alive
There are some players in MLS that I really wish I’d have had the chance to play with. Very near the top of that list is Jozy Altidore. As a former winger, he would have been the perfect forward for me to combine with and bounce passes off.
Every now and then I’ll read a tweet or an article criticizing Jozy and I have such a hard time understanding why he’s not appreciated more. He is still the best USMNT striker, the best hold-up forward in MLS and someone who takes his team to a new level when he’s in form. In Toronto FC's 2-1 win against Montreal Impact some of his best qualities were on display yet again.
When the ball is fired into him, it usually sticks and his layoffs often set up his teammates with good opportunities. Another thing I appreciate is how he can adapt his game to accommodate other stars. He hasn’t skipped a bit in the transition from Sebastian Giovinco to Alejandro Pozuelo. The only thing that can stop Altidore are injuries because if he stays healthy, he guarantees you goals and also guarantees that Toronto remain the best team in Canada.
In my last column I criticized Toronto’s inability to convert their dominance into three points. They have been playing well, but if you don’t finish your chances you’ll be punished. On Wednesday, they played well without being overly dominant and the difference was their game management. They controlled the transitions well and defused Montreal’s most dangerous players. Then when they needed it most, the best American striker stepped up to give them the win.
Which one was the expansion team?
Against Atlanta they weren’t spectacular, but they were effective. Atlanta had 65% possession and Inter had 21 fouls to Atlanta’s nine — that right there should tell you the game plan. Inter were intent on disrupting Atlanta’s attempts at fluid passing movements and were prepared to play ugly at times to win. I’ve got no doubts that the ultimate dream of Inter part owner David Beckham is to have a team that plays attractive football, but right now, the impressive thing about Inter is that they are willing to grind out points as they find their way in MLS.
Meanwhile, Atlanta are experiencing just how cruel sports can be. You can get 99 decisions right, but the one you get wrong can derail everything. They’ve done very little wrong on and off the pitch since they joined MLS but a couple of big decisions that they’ve gotten wrong have them looking like a club that has lost its shine.
They failed to replace the ultra attack-minded Tata Martino with a coach that would continue the exciting philosophy that their fan base, and quite frankly, the whole league enjoyed. They also failed to replace Miguel Almiron with a Designated Player who could elevate the team to the next level. The 2020 Atlanta side looks like an expansion team that is still experimenting and therefore they are losing games they could have won with their eyes closed in 2018 and 2019.
It’s hard to say exactly what interim Stephen Glass (above) can do to turn the team around, but a good place to start would be getting more out of Ezequiel Barco. There’s no doubt he’s talented, but he has been underwhelming almost every time I’ve watched him this season. And sometimes when you’re getting criticized as a player, you begin to overthink and second guess every play you try to make (see the penalty kicks – yes, plural – against Inter Miami). Barco strikes me as a player that will be at his best when he’s playing free and instinctively without giving too much thought.
The days of Atlanta being a free flowing and high scoring team are over for now and so Glass should focus on making them solid defensively and hard to beat. Without Josef Martinez and a new Designated Player to replace Pity Martinez, they need to realize they won’t score two or three goals very often and so they need to focus on keeping teams off the scoreboard at the other end and winning low-scoring games until a permanent coach is installed, Josef is healthy and the second attempt at replacing Almiron has arrived and proves he can get the job done.
RSL showing flashes of the old days
I was fortunate to play against the LA Galaxy of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Beckham as well as the great Houston teams coached by Dom Kinnear. However, the hardest team I ever faced was Real Salt Lake, especially when they played at Rio Tinto.
The RSL that I played against featured a unique diamond formation in midfield with Kyle Beckerman, Andy Williams, Javier Morales and Will Johnson and they were so good at making short passes that moved you all over the pitch. That style combined with the altitude made Rio Tinto Stadium a really tough place to play.
I’ve always felt that if the current Salt Lake team could develop a similar passing style that forces teams to run and chase in the altitude, they’d win most of their home games comfortably. In their 3-0 win against LAFC, and in some other recent home games, they played some very good football. Their passing style doesn’t need high level possession numbers, but it just needs to be effective and slick in the final third.
The key to all of this is Albert Rusnak. He has the skillset needed to implement this style and when he finds pockets of space in between the opponent’s defensive lines in the attacking half, he can be scary.
Although LAFC out-possessed Salt Lake, the difference was that Salt Lake were much more efficient with what they created and that was in large part to how they moved the ball in the attacking half.
I firmly believe that RSL head coach Freddy Juarez knows the advantage they can create at Rio Tinto if they force teams to run around at altitude and chase the ball. On Wednesday night they took advantage of a defensively fragile LAFC team and produced the type of intricate passing in the final third that no team wants to come up against. Especially at altitude.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.