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Three MLS Things: Growing pains in ORL; hat-trick hero

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The third Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and we learned a few (more) things along the way.

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

One game is just one game; two games is too small of a sample size; but three games is the beginning of a trend…

[ LISTEN: Talkin’ Touches podcast — breaking down Week 2 in MLS ]

Lots of changes, lots of kinks to work out

Inside the last nine months alone, Orlando City SC acquired the following who’s-who list of MLS star-level players: Dom Dwyer, Yoshi Yotun, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell. That’s one half of an uber-talented, but brand new, starting lineup (at a massive cost) — which is to say, Jason Kreis and Co., have made serious changes, and everything isn’t going to coalesce overnight.

Throw in the fact that Kljestan was suspended the first two games, Dwyer has battled multiple muscular injuries since January and is yet to make his 2018 debut, and Rosell didn’t arrive in Orlando until the week before the season opener and hasn’t played either, and you begin to understand how “such a talented team can have just one point from their first three games.”

Saturday’s 2-0 loss away to a David Villa-less New York City FC was frustrating in more ways than just “we’re still figuring things out, but we’re getting there.” Both of NYCFC’s goals resulted from self-inflicted, avoidable mistakes in possession which turned into easy counter-attacking chances going the other way.

Rosell will undoubtedly fix many of Orlando’s problems with regard to ball circulation and defensive organization/transitions, but only upon his arrival into the lineup can his tricky and important integration begin.

NYCFC, on the other hand, have three wins from three games, have conceded just once (while scoring six) and now hold a nine-point lead on the defending champions from Toronto. Oh, and did I mention they looked just fine without David Villa?

Martinez closing in on history

Just 23 games into his MLS career, Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez is one hat trick from tying the all-time record for hat tricks in a career (5 – currently held by Landon Donovan, Stern John and Diego Serna). To put that into perspective, the three aforementioned players made 340, 55 and 124 appearances during their respective MLS careers.

Assuming he doesn’t pick up another long-term injury (he missed 10 games between March and June last year) and/or transfer back to Europe in the summer, Martinez should summit the hat trick-scoring chart by early June. Given the veracity and vigor with which Atlanta engulf their opponents, Martinez scoring at least two more hat tricks this season feels like the safest bet one could make in a league full of constant flux.

Take, for example, Saturday’s 4-1 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which not only saw the Five Stripes fire 21 shots (4 on target – 100 percent, obviously), but more importantly hold more than 72 percent of possession and limit the visitors to just five shots in total (Kendall Waston was sent off in the 13th minute, leaving the ‘Caps a man short for much of the evening). Jeff Larentowicz has solved most of the problems in midfield and allowed Darlington Nagbe to settle in quickly and thrive. If that trend is to continue, the sky is truly the limit for Tata Martino’s boys, and Martinez will bag goals by the handful.

Where’s the real Sporting KC defense?

Should we be a little worried about the Sporting Kansas City defense, a group which finished 2017 as the league’s stingiest unit and returns its entire back-six in 2018? After conceding just 29 goals in 34 games last season, the group led by past Defender of the Year award winners Ike Opara and Matt Besler has conceded seven goals in their first three games this year.

If it were any other team, and any other group of MLS veterans, with any other coach, I’d be officially worried right now. But, given their (perennial) stake to one of the league’s best defensive records, I remain in a holding pattern, even after giving up another soft/sloppy goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Sporting head coach Peter Vermes made a fair and valid point following the game, reminding the assembled media that playing more freely going forward — a massive weakness for Sports in recent seasons — comes at the expense of defensive positioning and numbers. Sure enough, they’ve scored seven goals in three games (tied for the most in MLS – all coming in the last two). Sporting scored their seventh goal of the 2017 season on April 29.

Here’s the thing about Sporting’s recent seasons: they’ve been a lock-down side throughout the regular season and never figured out how to consistently score goals, and it cost them plenty of points along the way and ultimately they played on the road in the knockout round each of the last four seasons. That style, which they’ll surely settle back into come playoff time, doesn’t lend itself to playing on the road. Securing a home playoff game, which would the first for the team since winning MLS Cup 2013 at home, is priority no. 1, and Vermes might just be willing to sacrifice a little bit of defense for a whole lot more offense (finally).

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.

Three things: NYCFC flying with Villa, Medina at the helm

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Week 2 of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and New York City are one of just four teams with six points following Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the LA Galaxy.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Earlier today, I advocated against making any judgments whatsoever about the MLS season before the calendar reads May or June. Barely two hours later, I’m ready to ignore my own advice and tell you that NYCFC are very, very good — largely based upon the entirety of 2017, but also the way they’ve kicked off the 2018 season…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Medina lessens the blow of losing Harrison

Jack Harrison was, in so many ways, a perfect complement to David Villa, in that he was only slightly less aggressive and quick to transition than the legendary Spaniard. He was an abundant source of secondary goals — a must-have for every team, even ones with a Villa-caliber spearhead.

Everyone was, understandably, unsure how NYCFC would replace Harrison’s final-third production following his transfer to Manchester City. It was a big ask for 20-year-old Paraguayan attacker Jesus Medina to walk straight into an established squad and immediately shoulder the load as Villa’s primary running mate. Through two games, Medina has surpassed expectations by miles and miles.

He scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City last week, and was instrumental in setting up both goals against LA. On the first, it was Medina who got the ball wide right, held up play ever so slightly to allow Villa to move ahead of him, and finally slotted the perfectly timed and weighted through ball to the top of the six-yard box. Villa’s shot was saved, but the rebound came to Anton Tinnerholm, who smashed his left-footed shot off the underside of the crossbar and in.

On the second, it was Medina, alongside Ben Sweat, who chased a bouncing ball deep inside NYCFC’s half and eventually won possession, then turned on the jets as he glided around one defender before playing the pass to present itself, a simple square ball to Sweat at the top of the box. Again, Sweat’s shot was saved, but the rebound fell to Villa with an empty net to mark his 100th MLS appearance with a game-winner.

Medina will probably come up short of Harrison’s numbers in the goals column — maybe even for assists, too — but it’s already very clear that he’s got a brilliant soccer mind when it comes to so many of the little things: his movement off the ball, how to time his runs to maximize the space he creates for others, and a willingness to play within the confines of his own strengths and weakness. For a 20-year-old player of any age, he’s been off-the-charts impressive.

Injuries, ineffectiveness, indifference

We’re only two weeks into the season, and LA have already lost superstar attacker Romain Alessandrini to a hamstring injury last week, starting center back Michael Ciani to an injury of his own on Sunday, and supposed-to-be-star Giovani dos Santos to a complete loss of form and ability, and/or an overwhelming sense of indifference. Dos Santos was subbed off at halftime of Sunday’s game, replaced by Servando Carrasco, a defensive midfielder.

Why would Sigi Schmid do that to his most expensive and centerpiece Designated Player, you ask?

Considering LA have considerably curtailed their free-spending tendencies in recent seasons, it’s not at all outside the realm of possibility that they could look to move on from Dos Santos’ contract, which pays him $5.5 million per year, should he continue in this vein of form.

Yes, we’re going to keep talking about VAR

… until MLS and the Professional Referee Organization gets its head on straight. If you missed it yesterday, I ranted at greater length about Baldomero Toledo and Co.’s refusal to even consult the video review available to him after Los Angeles FC scored what will likely be the most egregiously offside goal this season (since, you know, VAR is in place to correct these kind of mistakes).

On Sunday, barely a day later, another instance where VAR could have fixed a potentially “clear and obvious error” occurred in the 85th minute, with LA trailing 2-1 and threatening to equalize, when Ashley Cole was shown a second yellow card for tripping Villa as he prepared to run into 50 yards of open field.

First things first, yellow cards — not even a second yellow — aren’t reviewable within the guidelines set forth by MLS (goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistake identity). Considering a second yellow has the exact same impact as a straight red, which is to effectively end LA’s comeback bid when Cole appears to have made no contact with Villa, it should be reviewable all the same.

These are simple matters of common sense that, were MLS serious about using VAR as a tool to improve the level of refereeing, could be fixed overnight. They started using VAR roughly two-thirds of the way into the season last year, so what’s an amendment to the guidelines after fewer than two dozen game this year?

When Claudio Reyna talks, you should listen

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Claudio Reyna is one of the most important figures in American soccer and when he talks you listen. Simple.

You can’t help but devote your attention to the Hall of Famer who speaks so eloquently and intelligently about the current state of the game in the USA.

Now, more than ever, it is worth soaking in his every word.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk from Rockefeller Plaza as he took part in New York City FC’s 24-hour game to raise money for charity and get NYC hyped for their 2018 home opener against LA Galaxy this weekend, Reyna was up front and brutally honest about the future of not only MLS but the U.S. national team.

[ MORE: Vieira talks to Pro Soccer Talk

The current Sporting Director for NYCFC played 112 times for the USMNT. He was named in the team of the tournament at the 2002 World Cup as the USA reached the last eight. He knows how to get things done and has been leading NYCFC off the field since Day One.

With NYCFC pushing for a third consecutive playoff appearance under Patrick Vieira and Reyna in just their fourth season as a club, all is well in the Bronx.

It’s the current state of the U.S. national team after they failed to reach the 2018 World Cup (their first missed World Cup since 1986) that really gets former USMNT skipper Reyna going.

“As a former player and having a lot of close ties with the U.S. national team, it is disappointing and frustrating not to be going to the World Cup but at the same time I do feel hopeful that it has woken us up and that we must improve in many different areas,” Reyna said. “Whether it is behavior, whether it is the way we put teams together, the way we prepare teams and just really improve on what has been, in my opinion, a steady slide over the last few years.”

Following the World Cup qualification nightmare, Reyna hit out at a “culture of arrogance” within U.S. Soccer and his no-nonsense attitude impressed many.

One thing which still frustrates Reyna is division among the USMNT. He believes it is creating a real problem for the program moving forward as they try to rebuild from the devastating disappointment of not making the World Cup in Russia this summer.

“I do think we need to unite. There seems to be a strong division around all of this nonsense around German-American players, MLS players, European players, Mexican players that all play for the United States,” Reyna continued. “I think it is all really nonsense and to be honest disappointing that we’ve become divided on how we view players who put on our national team jersey. I don’t care where they come from when they play for the national team. They have to be ready to perform and play. There are good players in Europe, in MLS, there are no excuses. I am hopeful because we have good talent and good players, but my frustration is where we need to come together and eliminate some of the division which exists from players, coaches, leagues, everything in general, that is where I’m at with the cultural challenges that we have with our behaviors.”

Once again, when Reyna talks, you listen. He makes so much sense.

Given that fact, some are putting him forward for roles with the USMNT to help get them back on track. Asked directly if he is interested in taking on the new GM job with the USMNT after Carlos Cordeiro, the new president of U.S. Soccer, created the role, Reyna reaffirmed his love for NYCFC.

He also wants the new GM, whoever they are, to “get real” with the changes which need to be made.

“I’m fully focused with NYCFC. I love my job,” Reyna said. “It is important that the right person is in charge and hired. It is important that we kind of get real with the changes that happen. A lot of it is often humanistic and people to people changes which need to happen. That is what we need to face. I am hopeful that the disappointment of not qualifying has woken us all up and brought humility to our sport in this country and I think and I feel confident that there will be a reaction from everybody because we are a country that wants to do well and wants to win. Overall, despite the disappointment I believe we are going to come out of it better for it. I’m very hopeful of the young talent and players that are in the system. It is our job as coaches and technical people to make sure we get the most out of them.”

When it comes to developing young talent in the system, it is clearly something Reyna also feels passionately about. His son, Gio, is one of the top prospects U.S. Soccer currently has, while the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie continue to make waves and, Pulisic aside, push towards being in the senior team regularly.

This is something Reyna feels strongly about. He heads the Claudio Reyna Foundation, a non-profit organization which focused on proving to provide soccer training and mentoring to underprivileged youth in the USA and overseas. He clearly feels passionately about given youngsters a chance to make their way in the game, no matter where they are from or who they know.

In his day-to-day business in the MLS world, Reyna has a new toy to play with: Targeted Allocation Money (TAM).

That mechanism is something which gives each MLS team a sizable chunk of cash each season which is primarily used to bring in players from outside the league (it can also be used to pay current players more) who fall outside of their current salary cap restrictions.

Cue an influx of talented players from South America and Europe who would have previously taken up a Designated Player spot. The main debate going on in American soccer circles right now is that the influx of those players via TAM could have a negative impact on young American and Canadian players breaking through in MLS.

Does Reyna share that view?

“No. My view is that it is very positive to have more good players in our professional league. For the American and Canadian players to play, they have to earn it. They have to earn it Monday through Friday in training and they will get the chances when they do that,” Reyna said. “It is only positive that there is more talent coming to the league from other countries because it is going to make our American players better. They’re going to have to step up and improve and fight and be smarter on the field. I think it is actually really positive. We can’t create an environment where we open doors and make it easy for American players to play. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. You have to earn your right to play and that has to be the same for promising young players and, for that matter, any player.”

Reyna believes his players at NYCFC in 2018 are “motivated, hungry and want to succeed” and they’ve brought in stars from reigning Swedish champs Malmo, plus young Paraguayan playmaker Jesus Medina. He praised the work done by Vieira in preseason and believes the “balance” of the squad is right with youngsters, players in their prime and a sprinkling of experience with David Villa once again leading the team.

What is achievable for NYCFC in 2018?

“Our expectation is to be one of the top teams in the league, similar to last year,” Reyna said. “Wherever we land at the end of the year we will see. There is a lot of work and games left to be played obviously. We feel good about the team we have and our experiences last year making us better for this year. We want to integrate our new players and get them up to speed with how we play and get them comfortable in our league. I think we are a team that feels when we step on the field with any team in MLS we can get a result. That is the feeling with the players, the coaching staff and myself as well. We can play with anybody in MLS but we have to work hard. It is a brand new season and what happened last year happened last year.”

Straight talking. Honest. Focused. Reyna’s voice is one of the most important in American soccer right now. We should hear it, and listen intently to it, more often.

Vieira on NYCFC’s hopes, building an identity

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Patrick Vieira is in his third season with New York City FC in Major League Soccer and the legendary French midfielder believes his project is gathering momentum as they prepare to host LA Galaxy at Yankee Stadium in their home opener.

To help build the anticipation levels for their opening home game of the 2018 MLS season, NYCFC is hosting a 24-hour game at Rockefeller Center with Patrick Vieira and David Villa each having a side in their name and getting involved on Mar. 9-10.

The 24-hour game kicked off on Friday afternoon in Manhattan and will finish on Saturday afternoon with a special soccer pitch set up in the center of Rockefeller Plaza, plus all of the proceeds from the event will be donated to support NYCFC’s charity, City in the Community (CITC).

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk ahead of NYCFC’s home opener against the Galaxy on Sunday, Vieira revealed his excitement levels are sky-high as he looks to reward the fans with another season of progress.

“We are really excited. It is always good to play at home in front of our fans and, honestly, last year they were really good, they were fantastic supporting the team, especially when we were going through a difficult period,” Vieria said. “We are really looking forward to playing the young kids again and there wasn’t a better way for us to start [this season] after the win we had at Sporting Kansas City. I’m really looking forward to the game against LA at home.”

After finishing second in the Eastern Conference last season, the pressure is on Vieira, 41, and his players to make another big leap forward in 2018.

With Jo Inge Berget and Anton Tinnerholm arriving from reigning Swedish champs Malmo in the offseason, plus talented young attacker Jesus Medina from Paraguay, the makeup of this NYCFC team is a little different to having the likes of Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa around as they did over the past three years, although the latter is still leading the line at the age of 36.

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Vieira acknowledges that the pressure is building but he is also keen to keep NYCFC’s identity strong.

“I think what’s important for us, as a team I think when you look at the last two or three years, I think we managed to be in the playoffs, especially last year in the playoffs, we looked better than in the first year,” Vieira said. “Of course, there is a big expectation of ourselves because of who we are. My job is still the same. There is going to be a pressure all the time and this is something I accept and that is what brings the best out of me. What is important for me is not to forgot that to win you need to get the best of the players. To get the best of the players you need to have a clear identity and a clear idea on how you want to play. It is my job to make the players understand this.”

With reigning MLS Cup champs Toronto the favorites to win it all again, plus Atlanta United spending big in the offseason to bring in Darlington Nagbe and Barco, does Vieira see those two teams as their biggest rivals to finish atop the Eastern Conference?

“Yeah, Atlanta, Toronto… but when you look at the East, D.C. United have a really good team and this year is going to be really tough. Columbus went to win in Toronto, so I think in this league it is of course a bit too early to talk about who is the favorite but we have a team who can compete against other teams,” Vieira said. “What will be important for us is for me to get the best of the players and to allow them to perform at the best that I know they can do, and obviously to be consistent. Consistency will be really important for us.”

The likable Frenchman beamed when talking about their opening day 2-0 win at Sporting Kansas City as his side showcased grit and a solid defensive outing in testing circumstances away from home: “We showed experience and I really loved the way we managed the game,” Vieira added.

The former Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan and Man City star also revealed that new signing Medina, who scored on his debut in that win at Sporting KC, took a while to adjust to life at NYCFC after arriving from Paraguayan side Libertad in the offseason but he is now “expressing himself and we don’t have any doubt about his talent” with the entire squad eager to make him feel at home and let his talents flourish.

Speaking of talent, Vieira’s former team Arsenal has plenty of that but has struggled for results this season in the Premier League with the Gunners so far having their lowest points tally under Arsene Wenger at this stage of a PL campaign.

With Arsenal in sixth place in the table and the Wenger Out calls growing louder despite their win at AC Milan in the Europa League this week, Vieira believes there are plenty of other PL clubs worse off than the Gunners.

“When you look at Arsenal in the last four years, I think they’ve managed to win three FA Cups. You only have one winner in the last few years and in the last few years Arsenal was there,” Vieira said. “I think at the moment people are maybe asking too much about this team because of what they can deliver. I don’t know because I’m not there to see it. All I have to say is that when you judge a team by what they win in the last couple of years and when you look at Arsenal and what they won in the last couple of years, I think there are a lot of teams who are doing worse than what Arsenal is doing at the moment.”

As pressure continues to mount on his former manager Arsene Wenger, some have linked Vieira as being a potential successor to the long-time Arsenal boss. The former Arsenal skipper, who won three PL titles with the Gunners and led the famous Invincibles side, is fully focused on NYCFC heading into the new MLS season.

But with one eye on his old team, does he feel the current criticism of Wenger is unfair?

“It is unfair because they’ve been winning silverware and there are a lot of teams who are not performing and not winning,” Vieira said. “Arsene, with what he has given to this football club, I think he should be the one who decides when it is time for him to leave or not.”

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