National Writer: Charles Boehm

LA Galaxy take it up a notch, Philadelphia's proven formula & more from Matchday 7 

LA-PHI

Matt Doyle is deservedly off this Easter Weekend, giving me a chance to pick apart all that went down during MLS Matchday 7.

Without further ado, in we go:

Philadelphia Union 2-0 Minnesota United FC

Something had to give in this afternoon meeting of undefeated (in league play) sides, and it was the Loons – at the hands of a deeply characteristic Philly performance: Score early off a set piece (here it was a scrappy corner kick sequence that MNUFC fell asleep on) to set the game state, get stuck in and impose yourself on the tempo of the match and feast on every mistake possible.

Union head coach Jim Curtin talks often about “looking like ourselves,” and if you’ve watched his team at their best, you know exactly what he means. They’re a blue-collar team that make their living in the small margins (like set pieces!) and ride their goalkeeper’s shot-stopping when things get hairy – which still applied here even after Andre Blake had to exit after taking a couple of knocks, thanks to the rise of backup Oliver Semmle.

“Overall, a 2-0 clean sheet at home is what we’re about,” said Curtin, who lately has been tweaking his standard 4-4-2 diamond shape into more of a flat four in midfield, which helped stem the Loons tide in the second half after Philly won the first 45 minutes by a clear margin.

The Loons paid dearly for zoning out on that corner kick 15 minutes in, yet rallied gamely and remain joint-tops in the Supporters’ Shield table on points per game, which is miles ahead of where most of us thought they’d be at this point. Creative linchpin Emanuel Reynoso missed this one because he’s out of the country working on his green card, which the Minnesota brain trust probably figures is worth it in the long run for opening up an international roster slot.

D.C. United 1-0 CF Montréal

You can chalk this one up as a textbook siege scenario – playing their fifth of six consecutive road matches thanks to the Quebec winter, visiting Montréal sit deep in a 5-2-3 shape, D.C. press high and bash on the gates until the resistance finally breaks via Pedro Santos’ absolute thunderbastard in the 85th minute, and it’s a 1-0 W for the hosts. United’s marked advantages in shots (22-8), shots on target (6-3) and expected goals (3.2-0.9) bear that out.

But there was lots, LOTS more interesting stuff going on for the tactics nerds to enjoy in real-time:

I suspect CFM would really like Dominic Iankov, Josef Martínez and Matías Cóccaro to gel as an attacking trident, and here they started together for the first time. But Troy Lesesne – who, it’s increasingly obvious, is a very legit manager – has rapidly instilled in D.C. a clear understanding of the aggression and calculated risk-taking his game model relies upon, and it inundated Montréal for long stretches, leaving that front three mostly isolated and marginalized.

“It’s really the most competitive team we’ve met so far,” said Laurent Courtois of United.

Though in all fairness, there was undoubtedly a scenario in which his team snatches a 1-0 or 1-1 result to take home to Canada. Jonathan Sirois had a solid bounceback game in goal after conceding that brutal wind-aided winner in Chicago last time out, and Martínez saw a shot cleared off the line by Aaron Herrera not long before Santos’ rocket.

CFM play just one more road game before that long-awaited home opener, which opens a stretch of four games in six at Stade Saputo, and they’re at .500 right now, with a clear sense of purpose and camaraderie.

Inter Miami CF 1-1 New York City FC

Truth be told, even with Inter Miami shorthanded as Tata Martino played it safe with his XI ahead of Wednesday’s massive Concacaf Champions Cup clash with CF Monterrey, I thought New York City FC were in for a long night down in Fort Lauderdale.

Luis Suárez was busy all night, full of the movement and malevolence the world has come to love/hate, and opened the scoring by absolutely working over one Pigeon after another in a sequence that began in the 13th minute. First El Pistolero forced Strahinja Tanasijević into a foul as he played a one-two with new right back Marcelo Weigandt (who started this game just a couple of days after hopping off a flight from Buenos Aires), Suárez managing to bloody the Serbian center back’s lip even as he earned a dangerous set piece.

Then Suárez helpfully ushered his marker James Sands to the floor with a gentle shove just before Julian Gressel’s inviting delivery, treating himself to a free header that he flicked clinically past Matt Freese for a 1-0 lead. It was veteran savvy of a Machiavellian scale and referee Filip Dujic had a good viewpoint on the contact, taking no pity on Sands.

NYCFC responded with encouraging grit, however, coming to grips with the Herons’ physicality and sniffing out space in transition, and soon got their reward via a thumping low finish from Alonso Martínez, his first in MLS. It helped that Freese was on one, making five solid saves to stymie Suárez (who took eight shots, lol) & Co.

Plenty of visiting sides have and will crumble when hit with adversity at Chase Stadium this season; the Cityzens hung tough and earned their point. With Rayados looming, IMCF will take it, too.

“I never felt more let down in nine months by a game than I did last Saturday [Miami’s 4-0 whipping by the New York Red Bulls]," said Martino, who resorted to playing Sergio Busquets at center back. “Today we played well, created a lot of goalscoring opportunities. I think the NYCFC goalkeeper was the man of the match. There was a drastic change by us fundamentally and in intensity.”

Charlotte FC 1-1 FC Cincinnati | Orlando City SC 1-1 New York Red Bulls | Nashville SC 2-2 Columbus Crew

Let’s file this trio together under the ‘Dude, I almost had you!’ heading.

One week after notching a huge win at home over the defending champions from Columbus, Charlotte FC had nearly pocketed another statement-type W over a top side from Ohio – up 1-0 on FC Cincinnati for more than half an hour of second-half action. Injury time had begun to tick away. The rowdy faithful at Bank of America Stadium may already have allowed their minds to wander towards the location of the afterparty. And then...

Granted, that’s an exceptionally skillful, clever flick by DeAndre Yedlin, but for The Crown to let that one slip? OOOOFFF. Yet Dean Smith remains persistently positive.

“I just feel they're a little bit too down,” the Englishman said of his team after leaking that last-gasp leveler. “We created a lot of opportunities and some really near-opportunities as well, which could've been big chances. And I felt we defended our box really well. If you put them two items together for the majority of the season – sometimes you suffer that in a game, because it’s a game of football and it can go end to end. But more often than not, you’re going to take your chances and win 4- or 5-nil.”

Smith is still building belief in both himself and his project, and probably wise to take that angle, and yes, their 12-game unbeaten streak at BofA shows CLT have quietly become a tough out at home. The MLS Wrap-Up crew had an interesting back-and-forth about whether this was truly a good result for them:

The Red Bulls, too, can say they’re headed in the right direction. They’re now 3W-1L-2D, just a step back from the gang of four atop the overall MLS standings, level with the Crew on both points and points per game.

But wow, it sure would have felt nice to take all three points from their visit to Orlando, a game Emil Forsberg missed out on due to what’s being described as tightness in a leg muscle.

Lewis Morgan’s early penalty kick, which pushes him into the Golden Boot presented by Audi lead for this week, and RBNY’s ability to manage the Lions’ energetic but largely blunt response had the visitors on course for all three points in central Florida. Yet they too left the back gate open, letting their hosts hang around and eventually conjure up a late, late equalizer termed a Noah Eile own goal but made possible by Jack Lynn’s quick-thinking near-post backheel.

It’s not going great for Orlando, who’ve claimed just five of the 12 points available to them at Inter&Co Stadium. But a draw is pretty decent considering the uncomfortable questions that linger around their front line, where guys like Lynn are bringing more to the table than the million-dollar men.

Whether you call Oscar Pareja’s current lineup a 4-4-2 with Luis Muriel and Duncan McGuire paired up top or a 4-2-3-1 with Muriel in the hole, the chemistry between those two, and really the attacking group as a whole, is well short of what will be required for OCSC to meet their big expectations for 2024.

I’m not sure precisely what to expect from Nashville SC anymore. The Coyotes had the Crew dead to rights at GEODIS Park, with seemingly everything breaking in their favor to take down the champs:

  • Rallying from 1-0 down to 2-1 up via two goals in first-half stoppage time, Hany Mukhtar breaking an eight-game scoreless drought on home turf with the first...
  • The second being an eye-popping chilena worldie from [checks notes] defensive midfielder Aníbal Godoy
  • Riding their luck when Diego Rossi clanged a penalty kick off the post after the break…

… And it all fizzled away into another sour deadlock when Marino Hinestroza took flight to nod Yaw Yeboah’s delicate lofted cross into the net to grab a share of the points. That’s NSC’s MLS-co-leading fourth league draw, and it stings that much more because five minutes before Hinestroza struck, Godoy had fired wide with the net at his mercy, a much easier chance than his first tally and one that could’ve iced the victory at 3-1.

Not all ties are created equal, but the points haul is. Consistently successful teams in this league learn how to scrap out results on off nights, which is just what Columbus, Orlando and Cincy did. Their latest opponents will need to internalize the same lesson if they are to join them in that contender tier. And yes, 'Yotes fans, that means your team is not a contender. Not right now, at least.

LA Galaxy 1-0 Seattle Sounders FC

Speaking of tiers, it might (MIGHT) be just about time to swap these two teams. Matt ranked Seattle in the “Tier 2: Elite Contenders” in his epic Zach Lowe-style preseason rundown and placed the Galaxy one rung down in “Tier 3: High-Upside Mystery Box,” but man, did it sure look like the opposite at Dignity Health Sports Park Saturday night.

With most of Southern California awash in heavy rains that nearly made the DHSP pitch unplayable, it was the once-hapless Gs who came to grips with the slick, slow, splashy surface quicker. Joseph Paintsil rang a good look off the woodwork in the opening moments before setting up Gabriel Pec to beat Stefan Frei at the near post just four minutes in for his first goal in MLS, and that was all the hosts needed, despite the Sounders doubling them up in the xG category by full time.

Greg Vanney will love to see his two showpiece offseason acquisitions linking up like that, and it feels like Pec is about to show out the way Paintsil already has been. The Brazilian’s adaptation to LA was extended some by his getting married in the midst of his move from Vasco da Gama, and here, in his second start, we saw signs that he’s settling in: 70 touches, 91% passing accuracy, two key passes, 5/7 successful dribbles, three fouls drawn is a pretty decent night.

As for the winless Sounders, well, not much is working at the moment. The collective strugglefest is dragging down once-reliable individuals and perhaps even sapping that sturdy winning culture of theirs that’s been so decisive for the past decade or so. Brian Schmetzer is trying to show faith in guys that long ago earned the benefit of the doubt, but this is a flagship club that’s now sitting rock-bottom in the Western Conference table:

Toronto FC 1-3 Sporting Kansas City

“We were all embarrassed with the result last week, because we should have finished that game out 2-0 or even more. We know that we missed some chances and we also took our foot off the gas pedal when they scored their goal.”

That’s Peter Vermes alluding to Sporting KC’s gut-punch 3-2 home loss to the Galaxy, a setback that undoubtedly fueled their ruthless 3-1 whuppin’ of TFC at BMO Field, which handed the Reds a rude introduction to the month-plus they’ll be without Lorenzo Insigne thanks to a hamstring injury.

In fairness, both sides were missing a handful of starting-caliber players, and the extent of SKC’s superiority – TFC scored their goal in second-half stoppage time – renews the questions about Toronto’s lack of depth. With just six goals in six games, they’ve also got to figure out who can step up to finish chances, and whether that person is currently in the building or not.

That’s a polite way of noting that it has indeed been a difficult start to life in MLS for Prince Owusu, with John Herdman alluding to a “constant conversation” about the starting striker position among club decision-makers.

“At some point, someone's really got to step up and take that No. 9 jersey,” said Herdman. “As a club, we're always looking. The [transfer] window's still open, but these guys are putting a hell of a shift in. … We're expecting something's going to come from that effort and we're expecting that it will come in time.”

Colorado Rapids 3-2 LAFC

Every now and then, people like me are forced to acknowledge that there is a small kernel of truth in “You can't win anything with kids,” Alan Hansen’s infamous remark about Manchester United’s golden generation in 1995. Like when David Martínez, arguably MLS’s brightest young prospect, showed both sides of the #PlayYourKids sword at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

LAFC’s Venezuelan wunderkind came off the bench and scored a beauty of a first MLS goal, flashing absurd close control to push the visitors in front at 2-1 in the 76th minute. Nine minutes later, he was trudging off the field after picking up his second yellow card at 2-2, a couple of ill-advised challenges handing his teammates the task of holding off the resurgent Rapids with 10 men.

They were unable to do so. Djordje Mihailovic, the recipient of the foul that got Martínez sent off, got the decisive touch on a headed center from rookie Kimani Stewart-Baynes to bag his brace and seal a comeback win that floods some much-needed momentum into Chris Armas’ rebuilding project.

“You can see how happy the team is for him, and the fans get to see some high-end quality with some of his attacking plays tonight,” said Armas of Mihailovic’s first goals in burgundy.

“The goals that he scores, some of it’s real class, and some of it is just a real will to win.”

Bits and bobs

Whipping around the rest of the weekend action…

• We could probably spend an hour or two dissecting what went down between Vancouver and Portland on the BC Place turf, a 3-2 barnburner that showed off both sides’ features and flaws alike. Instead, we’ll recommend this one as the one you watch back in full on Season Pass if you’ve got the time, and post the highlights here if you don’t:

• Josh Wolff and his Austin FC group can breathe a little easier this week with their 2-1 Copa Tejas win over free-falling FC Dallas, the Verde & Black's first win of the year and perhaps a salve for the angry segment of ATX supporters who’ve fully, publicly turned on their head coach of late. This derby had a whiff of panicky desperation about it that you don’t often find in March, and Austin can only be thrilled to see Sebastián Driussi log his first 90-minute outing of the season.

• Further south in Lone Star country, a delirious start morphed into slow-motion misery for the San Jose Earthquakes on their trip to Houston. Bruno Wilson’s 1st-minute tally was followed by a crippling straight red for Preston Judd half an hour later, and the Quakes’ resistance slowly, inexorably crumbled down the stretch. Sebas Ferreira, the DP the Dynamo clearly didn’t want around last season, rode to the rescue with an 81st-minute equalizer and Franco Escobar, the defender Houston refused to trade to Inter Miami despite heavy interest from the Herons, played hero with the winner mere moments later on an emotional night at Shell Energy Stadium.

• The turnabout was even more drastic in Utah, where Chicho Arango bagged a hat trick in 21 second-half minutes to wash out a fantastic solo effort from Indiana Vassilev, powering Real Salt Lake past St. Louis CITY SC, inflicting the Missourians’ first L of the year.

“He's the driving force and everything we do with this group,” said RSL boss Pablo Mastroeni afterwards. “He's the mental monster during training. He sets the tone on both sides of the ball. And I'm just so happy for him to have the game that he had, because it then represents the rest of the group... There's a locker room there that will do anything for Chicho.”

Atlanta United are now 3W-0L-0D at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this year after Sunday’s 3-0 dispatching of Chicago, drawing the Five Stripes level with Columbus for the league’s best record at home. And just like the good old days at MBS, it could’ve been even worse for the visitors, as the budding chemistry between Giorgos Giakoumakis and Saba Lobjanidze provided the breakthrough and a Jamal Thiaré super-sub brace sealed the deal.

By contrast, the Fire used Xherdan Shaqiri as a substitute after his heroics for Switzerland in their friendly win over Ireland, and once again just didn’t get enough from their underperforming Designated Player.