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Caden Clark's bright future, LA Galaxy's struggles plus more Wednesday takeaways | Steve Zakuani

Wednesday night saw another Caden Clark golazo, a rout in the Cali Clasico and FC Cincinnati getting their first Hell is Real derby win. Steve Zakuan is here to break it all down.


Caden Clark does it again

If anyone was still on the fence about Caden Clark’s potential, all doubts were laid to rest as he produced the goal of the night to rescue a point for the New York Red Bulls away against Toronto FC. Skeptics can explain away his goal against Atlanta by attributing it to instinct and good fortune — the ball came to him quickly, he didn’t have to think, all he had to do was hit and hope, and besides, Brad Guzan’s vision was obscured — while I disagree with that assessment, the argument can be made. There was no instinct or good fortune about his second career goal, this was pure class.

We will get to the actual finish in a moment but the lead up to the strike was just as, if not, more impressive. The pass into him came at speed and in the air yet he killed the ball dead with an exquisite first touch. And as if that wasn’t brilliant enough, he then produced another great touch that allowed him to turn and create space for himself where there seemed to be none. Those two actions set up the grand finale — a rocket into the top corner that made me let out an audible gasp in my living room. It was simply sensational. If Carlos Vela had pulled that off, I’d have said to myself, “that’s just what he does.” But this wasn’t the reigning MVP, it was a 17-year-old kid playing in his second MLS game, scoring his second banger in as many games — a goal that made him directly responsible for the four points the Red Bulls have gained in their last two games. 

Watch: Clark's banger vs. TFC

I am notoriously slow to anoint young players as the next best thing because I want to see consistency over time, but in this instance, I can’t go against what my eyes have seen. While there’s no guarantee of anyone’s potential being fulfilled, as long as he continues to do the things that have earned him his contract and his minutes, Caden Clark will be lighting up our screens for many years to come — he is special.

Cali Clasico debacle

I have to give credit to the San Jose Earthquakes. Not long ago when they were conceding a record breaking amount of goals I was very critical of Matias Almeyda’s devotion to his system at the expense of results. I didn’t think he was using the right system for the players he had. And although not much has changed in that regard — they still try to man mark more than they should and they leave gaps in areas you absolutely shouldn’t — they are actually in pretty good form and are only a couple of wins outside of a top four spot. More importantly, their 4-0 win against the struggling LA Galaxy gave them some breathing room above the playoff line.

Since the system hasn’t changed much, I can only attribute this turnaround to a tremendous mentality within the group. To win four of your last five, while scoring 11 goals and keeping two clean sheets, after suffering a 7-1, 6-0 and 5-0 defeat not too long ago, speaks volumes to the character of the group. I’ve been on teams that fold after a string of bad results and I’ve been on teams that refuse to accept their fate and vow to fix things — San Jose fall into the latter group.

Highlights: LA Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes

I’m not in their locker room and haven’t talked to anyone from the team but I can almost guarantee you that there have been a few meetings where some harsh truths were told — it’s likely some of these were player-only meetings called by the veterans — and where guys held each other accountable. There is probably a group text where guys can communicate away from the coaching staff as well.

While it’s important to give San Jose credit, we simply cannot ignore what the Galaxy have become. This isn’t just a down year, this is who they have been for at least a couple of seasons and the only difference is they no longer have Zlatan to balance out the goals they concede. There are so many things wrong both on and off the pitch, here are just a few:

  1. Lack of defensive investment: For years the Galaxy were known as the preferred destination for the elite attacking players. And while they were known for Donovan, Beckham, Keane and Zlatan, they usually had a very solid defense as well. They went and got Keane but they also made sure they had an Omar Gonzalez at the back. They just haven’t done enough to upgrade their defensive quality in recent seasons despite various attempts (Giancarlo Gonzalez, Jorgen Skjelvik, Diego Polenta, Emiliano Insua) and the evidence was there to see on San Jose’s opening goal. There is no way Andres Rios should be able to bring down a cross inside the six-yard box and have the time to find a wide open Nick Lima, before anyone gets within touching distance of him. That is inexcusable defending but the Galaxy allow it every game. They need a defensive leader ASAP — a big personality on and off the pitch. That’s where their next big signing should be.
  2. Tactics: The tactics are wrong at both ends of the pitch. I’ve spoken of my disbelief at their attempt to play a high line and yet they still employ it more than they should. There is nothing wrong with a high line if you have fast defenders who can make up the ground. The Galaxy don’t have that and so they end up getting caught out a few times a game and their defenders are left chasing shadows. Offensively, I’m not quite sure what the game plan is, especially when Chicharito plays. Sometimes they play hopeful balls into the box hoping it finds their star striker and other times they give it to Cristian Pavon and hope he makes something happen. When he fails, the whole offense looks pretty lost.
  3. Chicharito: In this league, when you are are the highest paid player on the team — and have the biggest profile — you will get a disproportionate amount of the praise when things go well. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for when things go bad. He is not the main problem but once again we have to go with the evidence. The Galaxy have won four games this season and the one common denominator with those wins is that Chicharito was not on the pitch. In those games, Pavon and Sebastian Lletget thrived. They played freely and without overthinking the simple things. When Chicharito plays, they tend to over-adjust their games to fit in around him by looking for him when they shouldn’t and forcing balls into him that they’d normally do something else with. The system hasn’t helped Chicharito either as he’s mostly played as a lone forward — he does better when he has someone close by that he can link up with. The Galaxy also don’t have wingers whose biggest strength is pinpoint crossing delivery, which is something Chicharito thrives on.

FC Cincy finally get derby win

Coming into the Hell Is Real Derby, FC Cincinnati had not only failed to win a single game at home all season, they’d also failed to score a single goal at Nippert Stadium. They had also lost two of the three games they’d played against Columbus Crew SC — scoring zero and conceding seven. I’ve long learned to put nothing past the realm of possibility in MLS and so an FC Cincy win wasn’t out of the question, but even I didn’t expect them to win in the manner that they did. This wasn’t a sit back and hope for the best strategy by head coach Jaap Stam. They actually played on the front foot and looked the more dangerous side, especially in the first half.

In a previous column I spoke about the impressive Alvaro Barreal and he was once again very impactful. He delivers an incredible set piece, combines well even in tight spaces and is always looking to drive the team forward. I still don’t think he is completely match fit so I can only imagine how much better he will continue to get.

Defensively, Nick Hagglund and Tom Petterson were colossal as they kept Gyasi Zardes out of the game and limited the Crew to just one shot in the first 45. As expected, the Crew began to apply pressure in search of an equalizer as they game wore on, but the Orange and Blue stood firm, and their debutant in goal — Bobby Edwards — had a much quieter night than he’d have expected. This is the kind of win that can spur a turnaround and a good run of form, and judging by the fist pumps, hugs and smiles by the FC Cincy players and staff at the final whistle, this win meant more than just three points to them.

Quick Hits

  • East leaders drop points: The MLS regular season is hard. That’s why, despite the unbalanced schedule, I’ve always felt that the Supporters' Shield winner is the fairest measure of the best team in any given year. Don’t get me wrong — I love the playoff format and all the drama it brings — but it’s much harder to be good for 34 weeks than it is to be good for a month. As the season drags on, injuries pile up, games start to mean more, all while dealing with national team call-ups to key players. Add in the challenges brought on by the current pandemic and you’ll understand why I was not surprised to see all the top teams in the East — Columbus Crew SC, Philadelphia Union, Toronto and Orlando City SC — drop points. All of their opponents are fighting for their playoff lives and are going to give their best shot for 90 minutes in every single game, no exceptions. The West’s leaders didn’t fare much better as Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers also dropped points. With several teams fighting for the right to play in the postseason, we can expect to see some more unexpected results in the final weeks of the season.
  • Revs surging: As the top teams drop points, it’ll leave the door open for the chasing pack to really apply the pressure. Right now, no one is doing a better job of applying the pressure than New England, thanks in large part to an attacking group that is finding form at just the right time. Between Teal Bunbury, Adam Buksa, Lee Nguyen, Gustavo Bou and Kekuta Manneh, they seem to be getting the performances they need at just the right time as they have just one defeat in their last seven games — including a 3-2 win over Montreal Wednesday.
  • Most impressive win: No one could have seen this Nashville SC 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo coming since they managed to score more than one goal only once this season. The star of the show was Hany Mukhtar who capped his evening with two brilliant goals. Defensively they have been solid all season, so if their attack can now click into gear, they may yet have a big role to play in the postseason.

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

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