Oscar Pareja strengthened his case for coach of the year, Chicharito reminded us of his immense quality and the Colorado Rapids look capable of making some real noise in the playoffs. Here's what went down on the penultimate week of the regular season, Wednesday.
Only one choice for coach of the year
End of season awards are around the corner and while many of them will be up for debate and discussion, I cannot see anyone competing with Oscar Pareja for coach of the year. He has absolutely transformed Orlando City. This was a team that ran through several coaches trying to find the right style of play, culture, philosophy and cohesion. They had never made the playoffs. And then Oscar Pareja happened.
We can talk about the style of play — it’s fast, efficient and committed — but the most impressive thing he has instilled in this team is belief, and that’s what every good manager does. This is not a group of players that are just happy to be here and happy to be getting a result here and there. No, they are hungry, they want more and they believe.
Against a good Columbus Crew team, they went down to 10 men and immediately lost their lead. In years past they’d have completely collapsed and lost the game by two or three goals, but things are different now. They regrouped, dug deep and found a way to get three points — points that put them into third place and helped them leapfrog their opponents. This win was about the team spirit and togetherness that Pareja has fostered.
Highlights: Orlando City 2, Columbus Crew 1
Facing the Crew with 11 men is tough enough, and so the fact that Orlando played over 35 minutes a man down but still outshot the Crew and still found a way to win, told me everything I needed to know about this group of players — they are the real deal and will be very tough to beat in the playoffs.
To make Pareja’s case, we can point to a few things such as the fact that they’ve lost only three games — the lowest in the league — or the fact that they are unbeaten at home. We can also look at the fact that in 22 games this season, they have surpassed the points total they amassed in 34 games in 2019. But I think the strongest evidence of what Pareja has brought to this team was on display in the win against Columbus — grit, resilience and a never say die attitude that has them perfectly set up for a strong postseason run.
Chicharito shows class is permanent
I am not a fan of cliches but there is a popular one that best describes what Chicharito did tonight: form is temporary, class is permanent. There’s no question that he has struggled mightily this season and I, along with many others, have spoken extensively about how the Galaxy have looked better without him — a statement backed up by the data. Against the Sounders however, he came off the bench to produce a true moment of magic that served as a reminder of his quality.
I’ll get to the goal in a minute but I think it’s important to be fair to Chicharito and acknowledge the enormous pressure he is under. There have been many big name signings in MLS history — Beckham, Zlatan, Henry, Pirlo, Villa, Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard, Kaka, Drogba and more — but aside from Beckham, I’d argue that no one has been under the pressure to deliver that Chicharito has been.
Most of those players arrived here with their legacies secured and their progress in MLS was hardly talked about wherever back home was for them. For example, no one in France judged Thierry Henry by what he did or didn’t do in MLS and the same goes for Pirlo in Italy and Kaka in Brazil and everyone else on that list except Beckham. Chicharito is headline news in Mexico and in many Spanish speaking communities in North and Central America. Every performance he has in a Galaxy shirt is talked about, dissected, debated, defended and attacked almost every day on some sports talk show anywhere from LA to Mexico City. We cannot relate to the pressure he is under.
I don’t say this to excuse him, but only to bring context to the environment he finds himself in. That’s why the goal he scored probably meant so much more to him than a regular-season goal normally would. The goal itself was special only because it highlighted all of his best qualities.
His movement when Cristian Pavon drove at the backline as great. By pulling wide, he opened up a passing lane and dragged defenders toward him. Once he received the ball and played the pass into Efrain Alvarez, he once again made a great off the ball movement into space, timed his run well and then kept his composure really well before applying a very assured finish. It was a masterclass in off the ball movement in the final third and it was the exact type of play the Galaxy had in mind when they signed him. If he is able to use this goal as a springboard to return to his best form, he may yet become another successful star in a long line of them for the Galaxy.
Rapids are the West's dark horses
I think most people would put Portland, Seattle, Sporting and a fully fit LAFC as the favorites in the West. That’s an assessment I’d agree with. Minnesota are a solid team but I don’t think their attack has gelled to the level they were hoping it would in time for the playoffs and so I think they will struggle to win on the road at any of the aforementioned teams. The beauty of the playoffs is that anything can happen, especially in single-elimination games, and so it’s not a given that the top seeds will run the table.
With that said, I am going to make a case for Colorado as my dark horse to be the Western Conference representative in MLS Cup. They were the hottest team in MLS toward the end of last season but missed out on the playoffs because they’d dug themselves too deep of a hole in the first half of the season. This time around, they were just beginning to fire on all cylinders when they suffered the COVID-19 outbreak and were forced to postpone several games.
Not being able to play for several weeks was bad enough, but being limited in how much they could train had an even bigger impact on their fitness levels and match sharpness when they finally did return to the pitch against Sporting KC and Minnesota. They looked off the pace, disjointed and lacked a spark. But, in the last two games when they’ve faced the Sounders and the Timbers, they have finally found some of their best form again.
Highlights: Portland Timbers 0, Colorado Rapids 1
Their young players are not intimidated — Cole Bassett impresses me every time I watch him. He plays with courage and personality and is not afraid to take risks. Nicolas Benezet has also rounded into form and is the one player who really unbalances the opponents' backline. His dribbling attracts multiple defenders and creates space for the likes of Diego Rubio and Andre Shinyashiki. They have enough weapons to worry any team they face and we cannot underestimate the confidence they’ll gain from knocking off two of the best in the West in back-to-back games.
Defensively, they didn’t allow a shot on target against the Timbers, and against the Sounders, they kept Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris in check a lot better than most teams do. This is a team that can cause a few upsets and go very far in the postseason.
Nani's controversial Red
I’ve watched this a few times and I am still trying to figure out why Nani was sent off. It’s even more puzzling when I consider that he was sent off after VAR was consulted. I’m not sure how you can watch that and conclude that he needed to walk. It was a strong challenge, but to me it wasn’t even worthy of a yellow. At worst, it was just a foul.
Chicago's lapses will prove costly
Once again the Fire were their own worst enemy. This is a team with real quality but bad habits die hard. They have too many defensive lapses at inopportune times and that’s what cost them three points again. A win on Decision Day gets them into the playoffs but it will be a very short-lived experience if they continue to let attackers run free in the box, make sloppy passes in the defensive third and let commanding leads slip because the playoffs can be very unforgiving.
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.