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MLS Weekend Review: Revenge of the Set Piece

Monday 30th April 2018

Another Major League Soccer match day is in the books. Let me catch you up.

Three Stars

3. Kevin Kratz -- Atlanta United are the Liverpool/Borussia Dortmund of MLS. They will hit you on the counter all day long. If anyone tries to tell you they’re one-dimensional, point to this game.

The visiting Montreal Impact opened the scoring on 12 minutes through a Saphir Taider header while United struggled to penetrate the box. The score remained 1-0 until the 67th minute when Darlington Nagbe chipped over the Impact defenders. Chris McCann tried to square a first-touch half-volley for Josef Martinez. Chris Duvall handled it. Miguel Almiron converted the penalty.

On 77 minutes, Atlanta won a free kick at the top of the arc. Kratz delivered a right-footed curler into the left-side netting.

The Five Stripes finally cranked up their counterattack shortly after. Almiron turned up the field after an intercepted pass, then sent a through ball into Martinez’s path. The Venezuelan’s backheel bounced up for Almiron, who was continuing his run. The Paraguayan calmly slotted the ball inside Evan Bush’s right post for a 3-1 lead. In added time, the near post denied him a hattrick.

Four minutes into stoppage time, Kratz was given the opportunity to repeat his set-piece magic, this time from a tad more to the right and five yards further out. It wasn’t a problem. The ball found the side netting as a disgusted Bush could only watch.

Atlanta remain a point behind NYCFC in the East. Montreal are ninth, 14 points off the pace.

2. Bradley Wright-Phillips -- The New York Red Bulls striker won the heavyweight battle with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Saturday evening, but it was a close thing with VAR taking a prominent role.

Ibra had a goal ruled offside. A still photo suggests only his arm, a body part that cannot play the ball, was offside. Teammate Dave Romney was called for a handball in the box. No clear views of the contact were published by the league. Romney claimed the ball hit him on the shoulder blade. The referee called it off his elbow. Kaku’s penalty was the winner in an exciting 3-2 affair.

Wright-Phillips teed up Daniel Royer and Florian Valot, not ten minutes into each half. Zlatan put Ola Kamara in for the Galaxy’s first. The Norwegian also had a first-half assist to Romain Alessandrini correctly ruled offside on review. Ibra then delivered the corner that led to the temporary equaliser. Romney headed it down. Gio dos Santos took a touch in traffic, then finished.

The result leaves the Red Bulls sixth in the East, the Galaxy fifth in the West. Following the match, Ibrahimovic was the lone LA representative not bemoaning the officiating. Claiming he had never lost three home games in a row before, he challenged his teammates to take responsibility and improve. When a player who has won the league title in all but four seasons in his career calls you out, you should listen. When he is 6’5”, temperamental, and an accomplished martial artist, you should listen intently.

1. David Villa -- The Spanish legend had missed three games to a calf injury. Patrick Vieira worked him back into the starting XI slowly. Last week’s defeat in Portland had been Villa’s first full 90 this season. This week, the test was FC Dallas, the league’s only remaining unbeaten side.

Villa entered the contest sitting on 399 career goals. On three minutes, he sprinted into the box from the left side, then cut back for Jo Inge Berget. The Norwegian rattled the far post. Dallas keeper Jimmy Maurer couldn’t cover the rebound, allowing Jesus Medina to open the scoring. On 36 minutes, Villa completed a penalty for number 400. If that felt cheap to some, he followed up by winning a long ball against two defenders then beating Maurer for 401.

There is no longer an unbeaten team in MLS. The Toros remain fourth in the West. City clings to its one-point lead atop the East.

Keep your shirt on

On Friday night, Real Salt Lake travelled up and over the Rockies to Vancouver to play the struggling Whitecaps. Mike Petke’s visitors had been gaining momentum after a sluggish start while Carl Robinson’s home boys had been struggling on defence, normally the Welsh manager’s trading card.

Although each side had chances, there was no goal in this match until the final quarter-hour.

On 75 minutes, Nick Besler’s heavy touch in his own box forced him to foul the pesky Nicolas Mezquida. Christian Techera stepped up to take the penalty, calmly beat Rimando, then streaked to the corner flag, tearing his shirt off as he went, forgetting he had been booked just four minutes earlier.

Despite going down a man following the resultant red card, Vancouver added to its lead through Blondell three minutes later, then saw out the match. Robinson will be pleased with his side’s second clean sheet in nine matches. They had been shipping goals at a rate worse than two per game prior. He will not be pleased with Techera. Perhaps a brain scan is in order, to see if anything can be found. It was certainly an empty-headed impulse by the Uruguayan, pulling off his shirt while on a yellow.

Originally, such celebrations were made a bookable offence because they were deemed disrespectful to opponents. Everyone seems to have gotten over that. You will see players on both teams do it in the same match with no reaction from anyone save the referee. Only the rule itself is feeling disrespected these days.  

League marketing departments have an issue with endorsements and political messages revealed on shirts underneath. I can understand that. It’s like the Egyptian FA plastering Mo Salah’s image on the team plane alongside the competing brand he is contracted to endorse. Not cool. By all means, discipline any attempts at free advertising. But Techera was wearing a Brandy Chastain-esque sports bra over a plain tee shirt beneath his kit. The only message that can be derived from that would be the player is advocating gender equity. That seems harmless.

Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo takes off his shirt on a regular basis, shaming dads and beer drinkers the world over in the process. Speaking for myself, I haven’t felt any subliminal urge to hit the gym. So that’s harmless, as well.  Maybe it’s time we let the referee keep the yellow card in his pocket.

Baby Steps

Toronto FC began their long journey from the Eastern basement to the top of the table against Chicago Fire at BMO Field. Sebastian Giovinco set up Jonathan Osorio with a goalmouth cross to the far post. He then had an early goal that would have put the Reds up 2-0 overruled by VAR. No matter. They soon went 2-0 up through the returning Victor Vazquez’s cheeky lob. The disallowed goal proved costly.

Bastian Schweinsteiger had a first-half penalty saved but Chicago pulled two back late. Schweini headed home from short range on 70 minutes. Alan Gordon’s turn-and-shoot equaliser came in Kevin Kratz time, four minutes after the 90.

Draws won’t make up ground for the defending champions. They’re still bottom. Chicago are clinging to seventh but are four points adrift the Red Bulls for the final playoff spot.

No home for old franchises

DC United showed why they will finish last in the East once TFC gets their act together. Major League Soccer’s original dynasty are bottoming out for the second straight season. It’s not going to get better for a while. Having played their first two ‘home’ games at alternate venues, the Eagles now face two months on the road before their new ground, Audi Field, opens on July 14th.

In the first of seven matches away, United scored in the seventh minute, capitalising on a midfield turnover with three quick passes that put Zoltan Stieber in on goal. Unfortunately, they conceded the equaliser through an own goal a half-hour later. Frederic Brillant backheeled Ilsinho’s attempted pass inside the far post. The ‘i’ is missing from the Frenchman’s surname for a reason. On the hour, CJ Sapong headed in Ilsinho’s assisting header, giving the Brazilian two assists on the day, albeit one unofficial. Sub Darren Mattocks levelled ten minutes later, leaping to half-volley home a waist-high cross, but the Union’s Borack Dockal had the winner almost immediately.

Philly sit eighth in the east. Jim Curtin’s squad will chase a playoff berth all season. It’s going to be a much less hopeful campaign for Ben Olsen and United.

What else could happen?

  • After missing the first eight games of the season to a knee injury, former NYRB midfielder Mike Grella came off the bench for Columbus Crew and delivered the game-winner against San Jose. The Crew are fifth in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. The Earthquakes are one from the bottom in the West, both in points and position.
  • Brad Friedel continues to impress as New England Revolution boss. In his first season as a coach, the former Premier League keeper has his side in fourth and claiming points off top sides. This time it was a 1-0 win over Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City.
  • Minnesota United picked up a crucial 2-1 win at home over the mercurial Houston Dynamo. Victory lifted the Loons above three clubs, Houston, Colorado, and idle Portland, into sixth in the West.
  • Orlando City invaded Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to torment their favourite whipping boys, Colorado Rapids. In City’s short MLS existence, they had beaten the Rapids in all four meetings while maintaining a clean sheet. The good news for Colorado? Dominique Badji struck for the early lead and a first-ever goal against the Lions. The bad news? The Lions roared back scoring two and condemning the Rapids to loss number five.
  • A nightmare start to the season continues for Seattle Sounders. Bottom in the West, the two-time MLS Cup finalists were the opponents as LAFC opened their new Banc of California Stadium. Both sides went for the three points. Neither could find the end product. Then, in the third minute of stoppage time, Laurent Ciman teed up a free kick from Roberto Carlos range. The ball dipped and curved directly into keeper Stefan Frei’s mid-section but the Swiss netminder muffed it, allowing it to trickle through for the game’s only goal. Sounders remain bottom. The Wings move into second, two points behind SKC.
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Race for the MLS Cup

Here are the five most likely contenders for the league title.

5. LAFC -- Bob Bradley’s side continue to impress. The side is showing it has more to offer than Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Ciman is proving to be a strong leader in the John Terry/Vincent Kompany tradition. Next up for the Wings: FC Dallas.

4. Orlando City -- Jason Kreis has been given all a manager could ask but is engaging the supporting players, as well. The club again earned its Cardiac Cats nickname after overturning Colorado’s early lead. Next up for the Lions: Real Salt Lake.

3. Sporting Kansas City -- Peter Vermes side couldn’t find the net at Gillette Stadium this week against a New England side trying to break into this power ranking. SKC hang onto their place, though, just as they are still top in the West. They have a chance to rest next week.

2. Atlanta United -- The Five Stripes stayed right on NYCFC’s heels and showed they can win a match in more than one manner. They travel to Chicago next week to brave the Fire.

1. New York City FC -- Patrick Vieira is still manager, for the moment. David Villa is back and on song. The side responded emphatically to their first defeat by dealing FC Dallas theirs. All is well in the Bronx. Next up is a Big Apple Derby against the Red Bulls.

See you on Friday for the Grab Bag.

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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