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Three things: Atlanta go home, get back on track vs. DCU

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Sunday provided everyone with example no. 143,395 of Why we shouldn’t draw any conclusions whatsoever from the first week — or two months, probably — of the MLS season.

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From week to week, no other league in the world will see a team turn in such diametrically opposed performances…

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Tactical flexibility is a must-have in today’s MLS

Atlanta United were demolished and run off the field in their season-opening 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo last weekend, at which point the MLS masses were clearly a tad too quick to celebrate and dance on the Five Stripes’ grave.

Not only did the players respond during Sunday’s 3-1 thrashing of D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so too did manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino during the week as he settled on a formational change and devised the perfect gameplan to cure precisely what ailed his high-powered attacking machine just eight short days ago. In that game, Atlanta were completely overrun in midfield with Darlington Nagbe and Chris McCann deployed as a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 — it didn’t work because there was simply too much space — vertically, but especially horizontally — for the pair to cover, and they were torched out wide.

To offset the obvious shortcomings of a Nagbe-McCann central midfield, Martino swapped the 4-2-3-1 for an aggressive, high-pressing 5-3-2 which featured Greg Garza and second-year Swiss Army knife utilitarian Julian Gressel and left and right wing backs, respectively. The third central defender helped Nagbe and his new midfield partner, Jeff Larentowicz, vertically while Garza and Gressel were godsends to either side. Not only were they asked to do far less defensively, thanks to G&G harassing Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola out wide, but Nagbe in particular was able to have an immense impact on Atlanta’s possession game — something which was null and void just a week ago.

Tata’s also working out the Nagbe “problem”

Speaking of Nagbe, it’s only a small exaggeration to suggest he could lead the league in assists, on secondary assists alone, this season. Consider the embarrassment of attacking talent playing ahead of him: Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba — who’d be the focal point for at least half the teams in MLS, but falls to third chair in his own midfield — playing behind Josef Martinez. There will be plenty of goals scored in the ATL, just like last season.

Take Atlanta’s first goal on Sunday as the most perfect example of how much easier the aforementioned stars have already begun to make Nagbe’s job. Sure, the first touch is great and bails out Villalba who’s in a tough trapped spot up against the sideline, but the ensuing through ball for Villalba is elementary stuff for a player of Nagbe’s skill:

The “problem” that Nagbe has presented his various coaches — both club and international — throughout his career is that he “should” be this type of player, or he “should” be that type of player. It’s pretty clear, after seven seasons and more than 200 appearances, he’s not a no. 10 and he’s not a winger. Let the man be the brilliant shuttler and link between defense/defensive midfield and a vibrant, downhill attacking quartet. (Caleb Porter stumbled onto this formula in 2015, and the Portland Timbers rode it all the way to MLS Cup.) Does it carry less weight and sound far less sexy? Sure, but to play the part as quickly and instinctually as Nagbe can do, might just be what separates Atlanta from being “fun” and “great.”

Plenty of reason to have hope for DCU

I said it before the season, and I’ll say it again now: by the time summer arrives, no team will have improved more from 2017 to 2018 than D.C. United. The roster was turned over last August (Arriola, Zoltan Stieber and Russell Canouse) and the overhaul continued this winter (Asad, Frederic Brilliant, Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno). For the first time in a long while, Ben Olsen has a genuinely talented MLS roster at his disposal.

For not-insignificant stretches of Sunday’s game — say, most of the second half — United were not quite in control of the run of play, but they were the more dangerous side with the score still 1-0. Darren Mattocks missed a couple decent chances (as he does) and the Black and Red were unable to capitalize and fatally conceded two goals in as many minutes.

Once Luciano Acosta reclaims his place in the starting lineup (he returned to the bench after being suspended for last week’s 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC), he should tie together United’s sturdy back half and an attacking unit made up of (largely) slightly above replacement-level MLS retreads.

Pique finds solidarity with criticized NBA players

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There have been a number f outstanding pieces in The Players’ Tribune since its launch, but few as colorful and entertaining as Thursday’s entry from Gerard Pique.

The Barcelona star center back spilled the beans on any number of funny stories in his post, from Roy Keane’s cell phone anger and Sir Alex Ferguson‘s guiding hand to Lionel Messi’s greatness and more.

[ MORE: Zlatan in MLS an auto success ]

But perhaps most interesting was his take on the grief he’s received for supporting the vote for Catalan independence. Pique points out that he’s been proud to represent the Spanish national team, but won’t veer from his democratic beliefs.

And guess what? Even in Spain, athletes rightly bristle at the “Stick to Sports” crowd.

It’s funny, I noticed some people in America have started telling the NBA players to “just shut up and dribble” when they express their opinions on real problems in society.

It’s ridiculous, no?

It’s the same here in Spain. They say, “Just shut up and play football. It’s all you know.”

Sorry, but I will not just shut up and play. It’s not all I know. There’s a lot more depth to footballers than most people realize, and I think it’s important that we express ourselves and our views.

Given relative health, Zlatan’s success MLS is close to automatic

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The only question is his knee at his age.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming to Major League Soccer. Having confirmed his departure from Manchester United, the announcement that the living Swedish legend is joining the LA Galaxy is expecting next week.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

Some have asked whether he’ll cut muster in the league, to which we point to the lead: Few players have arrived to MLS with as dominant a career as Ibrahimovic, and the Swede would need his knee to fall apart in order to fail in California.

The man’s game isn’t based on speed, but it does require his abnormal power and grace. He scored just once for United in very limited time this season, but don’t forget how dangerous he was against Premier League and Europa League defenses last season.

He scored 28 goals with 10 assists last season, with 17 and 5 coming in league play. He was suspended for three matches and injured for seven, meaning this is a 20-goal Premier League scorer arriving in MLS within a calendar year of doing so.

Try putting his resume in perspective: Didier Drogba was extremely good for Montreal but a half-decade removed from his last double-digit goal PL season (Don’t forget that Drogba bagged 11 in 11 to start life on our shores). Robbie Keane was about the same time removed from his run of 10-plus goal seasons in the Premier League. He was good for LA.

The only risk here is that Ibrahimovic never gets healthy and LA takes a bit of a loss on his salary (one which is at least partially negated by the sheer number of Ibrahimovic Galaxy jerseys sold).

Entering this season, Ibrahimovic had failed to score 15 goals once since 2006. He’a also had a fairly religious assist output (10+ most years). With names like Alessandrini, Kamara, and dos Dos Santos, this should be a stand-up double if not a homer for LA and for MLS.

Plus the vicious looks after teammates miss him badly with a pass, let alone the press conferences and paparazzi hits: This should be a lot of fun.

MLS Weekend Preview: Friedel’s Revs get NYCFC test

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It’s an international break, and Major League Soccer is only sorta observing it.

More than half of the league’s clubs will participate on Saturday match days, with several shorthanded by national team duty.

[ MORE: Southgate on racism in football]

Columbus won’t have Zack Steffen and Wil Trapp for a visit from DC United — who is missing Zoltan Steiber, Bruno Miranda, and Oniel Fisher — while the Red Bulls will be without Tyler Adams, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo for Minnesota United’s visit.

NYCFC won’t have Alexander Ring, Ronald Matarrita, and Rodney Wallace, Portland’s without David Guzman and Andy Polo, and Sporting KC loses Daniel Salloi.

The Whitecaps won’t have center back Kendall Waston, while opponents LA Galaxt are without Ola Kamara.

New England Revolution vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Brad Friedel‘s New England revolution, purposely lower case, is making believers out of its players. It would take a giant step if it could slow the NYCFC juggernaut. The visitors have allowed just one goal in their 3-0 start.

As for the hosts, Friedel has made his mark in a way that mostly makes you wonder what in the world Jay Heaps was doing:.

(Bunbury) pointed to a fine system in the locker room, increased accountability, how Friedel posts the starting XI on game day, and occasional two-a-day training sessions, which never occurred in the forward’s four years under Heaps.

“I think it unifies the team,” Bunbury said. “The broad sense of professionalism, it’s about having respect for each other and making sure you are held accountable in every part of this club.”

Never occurred under Heaps? Woof.

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FCD had an uninspiring ending to their CONCACAF Champions League dreams, but that’s little compared to the Timbers’ 0-2 start under Gio Savarese. A trip down South isn’t a surefire way to right the ship.

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

A long trip up North is only made worse by a laundry list of injuries for Sigi Schmid’s Galaxy. We’re only listing it amongst our Top Three because an LA win would be wildly impressive given the ‘Caps strong start.


Columbus Crew vs. DC United — 6 p.m. ET Saturday
New York Red Bulls vs. Minnesota United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday
Colorado Rapids vs. Sporting KC — 9 p.m. ET Saturday

Mourinho: “People with brains” understand Man Utd in transition

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Jose Mourinho’s been having a little fun on his international break, “managing” a team of superstars including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in a charity match.

[ MORE: Southgate talks racism in football ]

Speaking CNN as part of a publicity run, Mourinho was asked about Manchester United’s second place campaign and disappointment after dropping out of the UEFA Champions League.

Mourinho reiterated his position that United is a team in transition, and that the season is going along at an acceptable clip.

“I understand the frustration, I understand the sadness of being knocked out in the Champions League, but I don’t understand anything more than that,” Mourinho said to CNN’s Amanda Davies.

United has scored the third-most goals in the Premier League, and allowed the fourth-fewest. It’s drastically reduced its propensity to draw matches, which hurt its table position last season, and has already surpassed last season’s goal total.

Two more wins, 10 goals better differential, and the list goes on but unfortunately also includes crosstown rivals running away with the league and still alive in the UCL.

“Of course in the future we want to have 19 clubs behind us but this is the reality,” said Mourinho. “And the reality is for people with brain, with sense, with common sense, with knowledge of what sports is, we are in a moment of transition. Being in a moment of transition and still manage to do what he did last season and win trophies and to do what we are trying to do this season, which is still trying to win a trophy, and try to be second, because in this moment it’s the only top position that is possible for us to get. I think we are in a good position.”