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MLS Weekend Review: Has NYCFC gone colour blind?

Monday 26th March 2018

Major League Soccer put on an abbreviated fixture list during the international break with just six matches taking place, all on Saturday. Let me catch you up.

Three Stars

3. Sebastian Blanco -- The Portland Timbers no.10 rescued a point for the struggling Cascadia side with a stunner that eclipsed another brilliant long-range strike from FC Dallas’ Roland Lamah on 36 minutes.

Jacori Hayes did the heavy lifting on FCD's opener. Spinning away from a defender then pushing towards the box, he slotted into the middle for Lamah just before arriving. The Belgian measured his shot, guiding it between defenders and beyond Portland keeper Jake Gleeson’s outstretched left arm.

Two minutes after the restart Portland’s goal was almost a reversal of the Toros’ movement. Fanendo Adi squared the ball from the top of the box onto the flank for Blanco. Alvas Powell overlapped to the inside, drawing a defender away, creating space for the Argentine to cut inside onto his left foot and release a curling volley that found the far side-netting.

Late on Lawrence Olum balanced the scales on the two brilliant goals, brainlessly attempting a Hand of God in the box in a league that already has video review in place. Thankfully the Timbers were able to survive the final quarter-hour while a man down. What can you say except Portland (and MLS) remains a work in progress?

2. Ricardo Clark -- The longtime Houston Dynamo defensive mid opened his Columbus account as the Crew romped to a 3-1 win over minnows DC United.

Milton Valenzuela had put Columbus ahead on 20 minutes after some woeful defending from United. Yamil Asad, trying to enjoy life in the MLS cellar after a debut season as part of Atlanta United’s four South American horsemen in 2017, levelled. The 23-year-old Argentine was given time and space to curl his shot around two defenders and inside the right post.

Five minutes before the half-time whistle the Crew won a corner. Federico Higuain sent it near post, seemingly towards striker Gyasi Zardes. Instead Clark arrived in front of his teammate to flick a looping header inside the far post.

Two minutes later Christian Martinez did his best Marcus Rashford, dribbling from the byline to the near post before slotting across for Pedros Santos to tap in on the far side to complete the scoring.

The Crew continue to demonstrate that a heavy roster turnover and uncertainty over their future in Columbus hasn’t affected the franchise's status as MLS Cup contenders.

1. Bradley Wright-Phillips -- The New York Red Bulls striker continues to prove he is an MLS legend in the same vein his father established himself with Arsenal. Another Gunners icon, Thierry Henry, pushed Wright-Phillips hard before retiring. Dax McCarty started attacks that so often ended with a BWP finish before the ginger destroyer was shipped off to Chicago Fire. Sacha Kljestan provided the second-generation footballer sublime service before being traded as well, to Orlando City. Now Wright-Phillips is the old man. He must lead the Reds. And that is what he is doing. The 33-year-old Englishman has scored six goals and three assists in seven matches split between MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League.

On Saturday Minnesota United came to town. After an underwhelming debut campaign made all the more dismal by Atlanta United’s astounding success, the Loons have been flirting with respectability in the Western Conference. Under former Burnley, Sheffield United, and Orlando City boss Adrian Heath they had won two of their first three before coming to Red Bull Arena. Jesse Marsch’s Red Bulls reminded them it wasn’t that easy. Alex Muyl opened the scoring. Then came Wright-Phillips brace.

When Tim Parker flicked on a long-distance set-piece delivery BWP arrived between a defender and keeper Matt Lampson to deflect the ball into goal on 42 minutes. With 12 minutes remaining Alex Muyl loosed a perfectly struck ball for his striker. Wright-Phillips ran onto it then calmly chose to slide it past Lampson inside the far post. He could have had a hat-trick but for hitting the upright on 55 minutes. 

The only distressing aspect of the talisman’s brilliant early form is that it is early. Can he maintain this pace throughout the season? If so the Red Bulls will put some pressure on their noisy neighbours in the Bronx.

Identity Crisis?

Speaking of those noisy neighbours New York City FC began the season in top form. The Sky Blues ticked off three victories and two clean sheets. Their nine points had them clear atop the Eastern Conference table. Patrick Vieira’s side appeared to be emulating parent club Manchester City. Then they made the trip up to Gillette Stadium to face New England Revolution and the picture changed abruptly.

Although the Revs finished second in the East in 2014 and made a run all the way to the MLS Cup Final--where they ran into Landon Donovan who had promised and ultimately delivered a title before retiring at season’s end--New England have largely been a mid-table team for the past decade. Something like Stoke had been until this season.

City were confident but Brad Friedel’s Revs were undaunted and intent on defending their home ground. They jumped in front on a 20-yard volley from Diego Fagundez that beat Sean Johnson to his near post in the 12th minute. Ismail Tajouri-Shradi levelled for City on 51 minutes but Juan Agudelo put New England back in front just after the hour. Tajouri-Shradi saved a point for City with a quarter-hour remaining but it was hardly the dominant performance the side had given in its first three outings. They were on the back foot from the off.

Alarmingly Vieira’s squad no longer resembled Manchester City. Instead it recalled Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, who had ripped through opponents in its first three Premier League matches before scrambling to a two-goal draw at the Bet365 against Mark Hughes’ Stoke City.

Needless to say that is not a comparison the organisation will be comfortable with people making. It is not a road they would choose to go down. David Villa is already missing time due to a calf injury. They will not wish to see him draw a three-match ban for a foolish stomp upon returning, perhaps against FC Dallas on April 29th. That would rule him out of the Big Apple Derby against the Red Bulls that follows. If he then fell out with Patrick Vieira never to be seen again City fans would feel a distinctly uncomfortable, red-tinged feeling of deja vu. At that point you might almost expect Vieira to engage in a war of words with Atlanta United gaffer Tata Martino in which the Argentine confusingly calls the 6’4” Frenchman a “little man.” Only then would the transformation be complete.

Ibra in LA

Speaking of strange journeys of sight, sound, and mind, self-made legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic has officially signed with LA Galaxy. Like David Beckham before him the Swede has the power to enchant Hollywood stars and make the StubHub Centre the in place to be for the so-called beautiful people. Upon arriving he placed a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times telling the city, “you’re welcome.” Nothing else. No imagery. Just a two-word letter that set the boundaries on their relationship.

There is no word when he will make his first appearance for the side or whether he is fully recovered from the complications to his devastating knee injury. The Galaxy stumbled to a goalless draw away at Vancouver Whitecaps despite already boasting a potent attack including Giovanni and Jonathan dos Santos and Ola Kamara. LA were missing playmaker Romain Alessandrini to injury. Both sides sought to beat the press by playing over the top. Neither could seem to find the target when they were in on goal. Ibra ought to remedy that for the Galaxy when he finally takes his bow.

Next week the league switches to a Friday/Saturday format for one weekend. There will be a full slate of 11 games with only FC Dallas idle among MLS' 23 franchises. I'll set it up for you in the Grab Bag on Friday. See you then.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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