Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
So where does Thursday’s thrilling 5-3 win for LAFC over city rival LA Galaxy rank on the list of biggest MLS games ever? Pretty high. In terms of star power and anticipation, there was more in this match than in quite a few actual MLS Cups. When it comes to rivalry games, it was also right up there. The only ones that really come close are the 2013 Western Conference semi between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, and the 2016 East final contested by Canadian sides Montreal Impact and Toronto FC.
It’s still pretty clear that this one topped them all. Given the pregame hype, there were questions about how Thursday’s match could possibly live up to the billing. But then all five previous versions of “El Tráfico” had delivered drama in spades. Sure enough, no sooner than Carlos Vela — who in perhaps his final head-to-head battle with Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved beyond doubt that he’s the best player in this league — had scored his second to give LAFC a 2-0 first-half advantage, the Galaxy pulled one back off a fine finish from Cristian Pavon. You knew right then that this was going to be another instant classic.
The quality on the field wasn’t always great. Ibrahimovic’s short-lived second-half equalizer was the result of amateurish defending and goalkeeping. When it came to the overall spectacle, though, Thursday’s match checked all the boxes. The trick now will be for Bob Bradley’s side to avoid a letdown when they host a dangerous Seattle Sounders squad back at Banc of California Stadium on Tuesday night [10 p.m. ET, ESPN] with a trip to MLS Cup on the line.
1. I can’t see Seattle winning that match. The Galaxy had been LAFC’s bogey team, and the almost-impossible to defend Zlatan always gave them a chance. Mentally, beating them for the first time when it mattered the most should provide enough momentum to carry Vela et. al. all the way to the MLS Cup title they’ve been the favorite to win since March.
2. Crazy things happen in one-off games, though. It’s not inconceivable that the Sounders could off pull the upset, or that Toronto FC — which knocked off top-seeded New York City FC on Wednesday — could go to defending champ Atlanta United next week do the same. As much as neutrals might want to see LAFC and Atlanta play for it all at the Banc Nov. 10, a third Seattle-Toronto final in four years, this time in front of what would surely be a packed house of almost 70,000 at CenturyLink Field, wouldn’t be too shabby either.
3. First thought after watching Toronto and Seattle each reach a conference final for the third time in four years? Playoff experience really matters in MLS.
4. Hats off to the Philadelphia Union, who took a big step forward as a club this season despite Thursday’s 2-0 loss in Atlanta. The defeat was closer than the score would suggest; both Five Stripes goals, scored by Julian Gressel and — who else? — Josef Martinez, were all-world. Had youngster Brenden Aaronson not been robbed by Brad Guzan on a first-half shot that would’ve tied the contest at one, who knows how things would have turned out?
5. Guzan’s save reminded me of something excellent young Union coach Jim Curtin told me earlier this season. “A good goalkeeper is worth 12 points in this league,” Curtin said. He should know; after allowing a howler in last weekend’s 4-3 comeback win over I-95 rival New York Red Bulls, Andre Blake kept Philly in Wednesday’s match by making a pair of point-blank saves on Martinez and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez around the hour mark.
6. Curtin said he thought the next trend for MLS teams would continue to invest in goalkeepers and central defenders. After all, a million-dollar backstop can be just as valuable on field as $10 million striker. Just ask Minnesota United, who became a different team with newly minted Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone holding things down in the net this season.
7. So what’s next for the Union? “I think if we make a run in the playoffs, ownership is willing to invest,” Curtin said when we sat down in August. We’ll see.
8. Who needed their star striker more this week, Philly or NYCFC? The Union couldn’t score Thursday without Kacper Przybylko, who sat out his third straight match with a foot injury. But the Pigeons really, really missed Heber, who had been the team’s difference-maker all year. The Brazilian was only able to play the final 30 minutes off the bench.
9. There was a naivety about New York City’s play all night. People will point to the mistakes that resulted in both TFC goals. I thought a more telling moment came when the “hosts” — with NYCFC’s usual Yankee Stadium home unavailable, the club’s most important match of 2019 was played on short notice at the Mets’ Citi Field — were desperately trying to get the ball into the box for once last-gasp chance in the fifth and final minute of second-half stoppage time. That’s when Maxime Chanot, whose gaffe gifted the Reds the opener, somehow managed to dribble the ball out of play to end the game. Mentally, this team was never in it.
10. The change of venue isn’t the main reason New York City FC lost. But it didn’t help, and the optics were terrible.
11. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing NYCFC move to Citi Field permanently in the short term. The configuration allows for a bigger field for players and better sight-lines for fans, plus its location in futbol-crazy Queens is more accessible for a larger portion of the New York metropolitan area than the Bronx.
12. Speaking of stadiums, found it pretty interesting to learn that after less than a decade in suburban Chester, Pennsylvania, the Union have quietly begun exploring a move to Philadelphia proper. I have it on good authority that owner Jay Sugarman originally had the option of building what is now Talen Energy Stadium on Broad Street, where the venues that house the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers are clustered. But it was significantly cheaper to set up shop away from the action in Chester, which sits 15 miles south east. Sure seems like a shortsighted decision now.
13. Anyone who reads this column regularly knows the admiration I have for Bob Bradley. But his distain for the media professionals who work their asses off to cover this league for a living is unwarranted. Bradley’s response to a perfectly reasonable post-match question from ESPN’s Sebi Salazar — he told Salazar to “get lost” on live television after the reporter teed him up to praise Vela’s big-time performance Thursday — was cringeworthy.
14. Bradley is a hell of a leader and he’s a good man. He’s been known to quietly reach out to laid-off journalists to offer words of encouragement. But this is his blind spot. “It’s not the bigger picture with him, it’s the smallest little detail,” LAFC defender Steven Beitashour told the LA Times this week after Bradley took home MLS Coach of the Year honors for the third time, noting that the 61-year-old routinely follows his players into the meal room to make sure they clean up after themselves. Maybe that explains it. Maybe that’s why Bradley has never seemed to believe that beyond winning soccer games, he’s in a position to be a leading ambassador for a sport that still has a long way to go in the United States and Canada. When MLS begins to rival the NFL in popularity, its coaches can start acting like Bill Belichick.
15. I’m not sure what the league could’ve done to compel Vela and Ibrahimovic, its two most marketable players, to promote Thursday’s match. Neither did any interviews in advance of the game. I get that that’s normal in Europe, where both spent the bulk of their careers, but if Steph Curry or LeBron James can be available every day of the NBA Finals, and if Tom Brady can get asked the same questions over and over in the week leading up to a Super Bowl, then these guys can do it, too.
16. As great as Wayne Rooney was through most of his 18 months in MLS, the way he left the league was disappointing. Rooney sleepwalked through the remainder of the schedule after announcing in August that he was returning to England as a player/assistant coach with second-tier Derby County. He also didn’t bother to talk to reporters after his final match in Toronto. Too bad.
17. By the way, how on earth did DC not get a substantial transfer fee from Derby for Rooney, who had a year remaining on his contract plus a club option for another? And while we’re on the subject, Luciano Acosta — who drew interest from cash-flush Paris Saint-Germain last winter — is now all but certain to walk away on a free transfer in January. Just crazy.
18. Two full days before El Trafico, the cheapest ticket on the secondary market was $240. (It was closer to $300 by kickoff.) According Jesse Lawrence, who tracks these sorts of things and the founder of Ticket IQ, the get-in price for this week’s NBA season opener between the LeBron’s Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers at Staples Center was about $100 less.
19. Thought the FS1 camera crew did a great job capturing Nick Rimando’s emotions during the final moments of the longtime Real Salt Lake keeper’s sterling career. The lens lingered on Rimando after each of the Sounders’s goals, and you could almost see Rimando coming to terms with the reality that there wasn’t going to be another game. Great stuff.
20. Getting Tab Ramos is a coup for the Houston Dynamo, no question about it. Now they have to make sure Ramos gets the support necessary to make that sleeping giant of a club at least as relevant as they were when they won back-to-back MLS Cups upon their arrival in the Bayou City in the mid-2000s. There’s no reason the Dynamo’s academy shouldn’t be churning out pros the way Texas rival FC Dallas’ does.
21. After NYCFC’s loss, manager Dome Torrent wouldn’t confirm that he’ll be back next season. The Red Bulls’ first-round elimination means Chris Armas’s future in New Jersey is also uncertain. That makes the timing of local product Ramos’ decision to take the Houston job really interesting. Because if Armas is let go, Ramos’ high-press, youth-first approach combined with his ties to the club would seem tailor-made for his home state’s team.
22. If Jason Kreis returns to Real Salt Lake as the clubs’s coach and general manager (or just as GM), would he remain in charge of the U.S. under-23 side that in March will attempt to quality for the Olympics for the first time in 12 years? Both the qualifying tournament in Mexico and the 2020 Games in Tokyo conflict with the MLS season.
23. Stepping away from an U-23 side that by all accounts has impressed mightily on Kreis’ watch would be a huge blow to the team’s chances of making it to Japan. It would also leave U.S. Soccer without full-time youth national team coaches at the U-15, U-16, U-18, U-19, U-20 and U-23 level, although I fully expect that U-17 coach Raphael Wicky will take over Ramos’ role as both the U-20 boss and as U.S. Soccer’s youth technical director after the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil.
24. Just my opinion, but I believe RSL interim boss Freddy Juarez has earned the chance to fill the job full-time after taking over from the fired Mike Petke and leading the club into the playoffs and past the Portland Timbers in the first round.
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