After starting out as the last MLS team to record a win, the Philadelphia Union have suddenly posted a pair of blowout victories and three shutouts.
It was blowout week in Major League Soccer, with five different teams posting multi-goal victories while scoring three or more goals. Some of the teams you might expect to be pummeled — like Real Salt Lake — were, but then some others you wouldn’t have pegged for beatdowns — like Seattle and the New York Red Bulls — also fell victim.
Two coaches who were on the hot seat as recently as two weeks ago — Curt Onalfo and Jim Curtin — moved further away from danger as their teams continued to turn things around after both suffered dreadful starts to the season.
Heading in the opposite direction are the Red Bulls and Sounders, who were both soundly beaten, raising questions about their recent slumps. Seattle has managed just one win in seven matches, and while injuries have played a part, there might be some truth to the idea of a post-MLS Cup hangover for Brian Schmetzer’s squad. The Red Bulls on the other hand have suddenly dropped three straight, with their latest showing at home against the Galaxy easily being one of their worst in recent memory.
Toronto FC continues to chug along, pushing its winning streak to six games, with Greg Vanney masterfully navigating a congested schedule with the help of a team that just might be the deepest in league history.
Here is a look back at the top themes and storylines from MLS Week 11:
AFTER WOEFUL START, UNION ARE ON A ROLL
When the boos poured down at Talen Energy Stadium on April 22 after the Philadelphia Union squandered a 3-0 lead on the way to a 3-3 draw against Montreal, it looked like the club had hit rock bottom and would have to make a coaching change. The Union didn’t replace Jim Curtin, and have instead watched him help the club climb out of an 0-4-2 start to post a pair of blowout wins in the midst of a four-match unbeaten streak.
Saturday’s 4-0 trouncing of D.C. United represented a full-circle moment for the Union. Earlier in the season, the Union stumbled through a 2-1 loss to D.C. United on a day when beating D.C. was well within reach. That loss came in the midst of a four-match losing run where the Union showed glimpses of being able to compete, but not enough consistent play to generate the results. They wore the dreaded “better than their record indicates” label, which isn’t the kind of tag that flies well in Philadelphia.
Something changed though after that draw against Montreal. Instead of imploding, the Union went on the road and grabbed a well-earned draw against the LA Galaxy, then returned home to trounce the New York Red Bulls in a match that could have easily gone the other way if not for an Andre Blake wonder save and C.J. Sapong’s 11-minute hat trick.
As eye-opening as the win against the Red Bulls was, Saturday’s win at RFK Stadium was easily the Union’s best match of the season. The attack created chances in bunches, while the defense posted its third straight shutout, limiting the D.C. attack to just one shot on goal.
“We said in the pre-game talk that this group really turned the corner in the Red Bull game,” Curtin told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We’ve been through about as difficult a time, and difficult a stretch as we can go through, and I think we’re stronger because of it. You can tell it’s a group that is fighting for each other on the field, and I thought that was a complete performance for 90 minutes.”
So what has changed exactly? Veteran defender Oguchi Onyewu has settled in well in central defense, forming a solid partnership with rookie Jack Elliott. Curtin’s decision to bench 2016 standout Keegan Rosenberry and replace him with veteran fullback Ray Gaddis has paid dividends as well. Offensively, C.J. Sapong has been a force up top, while newcomer Haris Medunjanin has quietly been one of the best signings of the MLS season, giving the Union an invaluable midfield fulcrum capable of sparking the attack from deep while also supporting the defense.
Though there is still plenty of work to be done to overcome the team’s poor start — the Union still have the fewest points in the East despite earning eight points from four matches — Curtin has the Union playing with confidence, and the veteran squad is coming together and limiting the mistakes that plagued it earlier in the season. A tough test awaits on Wednesday though, against the red-hot Houston Dynamo. That’s just the kind of opponent that will tell us whether this recent Union revival is the real deal.
“We have our hands full,” Curtin said of the Houston test. “But this is a confident group now.”
SPORTING KC’S BLESSING IN DISGUISE
When game planning for Sporting Kansas City last week, Orlando City knew that star striker Dom Dwyer was suspended, meaning Peter Vermes would have to find a way to account for the absence of his best forward. The Lions had a game plan in place, but it didn’t account for the presence of Latif Blessing, who wound up scoring both Sporting KC’s goals in Saturday’s 2-2 draw in Orlando.
“No, we didn’t expect (Blessing) up there. We actually thought Soony Saad would play in that role tonight so that took us by a little bit of surprise,” Orlando coach Jason Kreis said. “There’s not a whole lot of scouting material available on him, but as you saw, quick guy. Another guy that was ‘Johnny on the spot’, at the right place at the right time.
“I felt all three of their strikers — if you like to call them that — their front three I thought were all extremely dangerous,” Kreis added, referring to the trio of Blessing, Gerso Fernandes and Jimmy Medranda. “They’re talented individual players and some of the combinations they were creating in and around our penalty box was real good.”
Vermes couldn’t help but smile when told Orlando City had been surprised by Blessing’s insertion into the starting lineup. “It’s good when you can catch people by surprise,” Vermes told Goal.
You can’t really blame Orlando City for being surprised. Blessing had seen scarce minutes in 2017 before Saturday: just three cameos for a combined 36 minutes. Listed at 5-foot-7 and 104 pounds, Blessing isn’t the player anyone would have pegged to start as the target forward in place of the powerful Dwyer. What Vermes saw in the 20-year-old Ghanaian was a player who could unsettle opposing center backs with his speed and skill, which is what he did in scoring two goals at Orlando City Stadium.
“He’s obviously a very busy guy, very quick. He’s a little bit of an X factor,” Vermes told reporters on Saturday. “He’s got a great nose for the goal, and incredible instincts around the attacking third.
“We expected that he’d be difficult to deal with. You look at his size, and just the quickness and everything, we figured that might be a little different player than they’re used to seeing.”
Blessing’s two goals were of the opportunistic variety, with him reacting more quickly than Orlando City to pounce on a pair of loose balls, but his speed and tenacity gave the Lions defense fits all night.
“The fact that (Blessing) lasted as long as he did is really the big thing for me,” Vermes said, referring to Blessing’s 82-minute shift. “He gave a great, great effort tonight. That’s what I commend him for the most.”
While Blessing isn’t likely to threaten Dwyer’s starting job, his performance in Orlando gives Sporting KC opponents something to think about, and gives Vermes a unique option for an attack that has struggled at times to generate goals. Whether working as a winger, second forward, or even as a No. 9 like he played on Saturday, Blessing showed he can make an impact. It’s safe to say Orlando City will probably be the last opponent that will be surprised by Blessing this season.
RED BULLS ON THE ROPES
If there is one thing the New York Red Bulls have been able to pride themselves on in recent years, it is their form at home. Red Bull Arena — along with being the most impressive soccer stadium in MLS — has been a fortress where the Red Bulls have rarely lost, and even less frequently played poorly.
Sunday marked an exception, as the Red Bulls started out flat and paid the price against an LA Galaxy side that came in buzzing after last week’s two-goal rally to tie the Chicago Fire. A consolation goal from Daniel Royer made the final score 3-1 on Sunday, but the match wasn’t really that close, and afterwards Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch gathered his team at midfield in a tight huddle for a speech meant to motivate and wake up a team that has lost three straight.
“I challenged them. I challenged them to stick together and to be more like us,” Marsch told reporters after Sunday’s match. “You know, at halftime, I told them that I didn’t recognize what that was. I didn’t recognize — we didn’t look like us. That’s plain and simple.”
There was plenty of blame to go around for Sunday’s loss, from a defense that didn’t do a good job of pressuring effectively, to an attack that just couldn’t combine passes and create chances like we’re used to seeing the Red Bulls create.
Rather than assign blame, Marsch put Sunday’s performance on one person.
“I have to take responsibility for this, because to have a team that’s not ready to play from the start, and to play a first half like that where we show no life and no commitment and no belief, I have to look carefully at what I’m doing,” Marsch said. “And, you know, there’s not enough guys that are playing up to their potential and their capabilities, and so again, that has to fall on my shoulders.”
Things don’t get any easier for the Red Bulls. They return home on Friday night to take on Toronto FC, the hottest team in the league.
“Time for us to learn about ourselves,” Marsch said of his team’s next challenge. “Time for us to learn what we’re made of.”
Looking for a candidate for most improved player in MLS? Try Justin Meram. He was already a very good winger heading into 2017, but this season he has played at an MVP level, and has looked unstoppable at times. His hat trick in the Columbus Crew’s 3-2 win against Montreal is just the latest in a season filled with jaw-dropping performances. A year ago, Meram compiled five goals and 13 assists. This season, just a third of the way through, Meram already has seven goals (one off his career high) and four assists. What makes his form even more impressive is the fact he just signed a new contract before the 2017 season. Right now he’s playing like someone in the last year of his deal rather than the first year of a new deal.
Anyone wondering why New York City FC didn’t trade Tommy McNamara before the close of the league’s primary transfer window were given a reminder on Sunday, as his second-half equalizer helped NYCFC earn a draw against FC Dallas. McNamara hustled to race onto a David Villa free kick that rattled the crossbar, heading it home as he flew into the net along with the ball. Patrick Vieira has insisted that his bench will be needed as NYCFC navigates the long season, and McNamara should continue to play a key role.
While Latif Blessing generated raves for his two-goal performance for Sporting KC on Saturday, his teammate Gerso Fernandes was actually the most dangerous player on the field. The Portuguese winger helped create both of Blessing’s goals with dangerous runs in the penalty area that created the scrambles that Blessing pounced on. Vermes raved about the team’s ability to land Fernandes this winter, and on Saturday he showed why.
The Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic is building a strong case for MLS Newcomer of the Year, with his two goals and assist in Saturday’s 4-1 hammering of the Seattle Sounders serving as the latest evidence. The Hungarian international was signed as a designated player this winter and the Fire insisted they had landed the kind of sure-fire goal-scoring threat they had lacked for years. His eight goals so far — tied for the MLS league lead with Erick “Cubo” Torres — supports that early enthusiasm.
LAFC’s coaching search has reportedly led the club to consider former MLS MVP and current Boca Juniors manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto. This past weekend Schelotto was visited by another former MLS coach in Sigi Schmid, who guided the 2008 Columbus Crew to an MLS Cup title with Schelotto as his star player. Could we Schelotto return to MLS as a head coach with Schmid serving as his lead assistant? It’s a pairing that would make sense on plenty of levels, but that’s assuming Schelotto can be lured away from coaching one of the biggest teams in the world for a return to the United States.
BEST OF MLS WEEK 11
Player of the Week: Tosaint Ricketts. The Canadian forward delivered game-winning goals in both of Toronto FC’s victories last week.
Team of the Week: What fixture congestion? TFC rattled off another two-win week to extend its lead atop the Eastern Conference.
Rookie of the Week: Julian Gressel. The German-born Providence College product delivered his first career goal to help Atlanta United earn a draw in Portland.
Coach of the Week: Curt Onalfo. The embattled LA Galaxy coach helped lead his team to an impressive road win at Red Bull Arena.
Goal of the Week: Kaka couldn’t keep his side from dropping points at Orlando City Stadium for the first time, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as evidenced by this beauty of a finish:
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) May 15, 2017