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Three (final) things we learned from MLS’s opening weekend

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The opening weekend of MLS 2018 is in the books.

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PST’s Joe Prince-Wright talked us through the first three lessons of the newborn season yesterday, followed by three more later in the evening, and three more earlier today…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Throw NYCFC into the “incredibly well-coached” category

It’s time to put Patrick Vieira into the “best coach in MLS” conversation. It’s one thing to swarm and press and overwhelm teams with numbers, but it’s another thing to do so with the discipline and the tidal wave of energy that have become synonymous with New York City FC.

Starting with David Villa up top and all the way back to Yangel Herrera and Alexander Ring in central midfield, NYCFC are simply relentless and forever in sync with one another. The way they rotate and step into passing lanes is not only impressive, but it’s also exhausting to watch. For nearly an hour of Sunday’s 2-0 victory away to Sporting Kansas City — until they had their two goals and called off the dogs — they squeezed the life out of a side that’s done precisely that to so many opponents over the last decade.

The sheer number of defensive actions from the front six — again, spearheaded by Villa (7) and made possible by Ring (8) — will make NYCFC one of the toughest teams to break down and fashion more than a handful of decent chances against this season, whether at home or on the road.

Creative hub (still) required in KC

The (presumed) idea behind Sporting KC’s offseason roster moves — trading away Benny Feilhaber, after trading away Dom Dwyer last summer; replacing them with Yohan Croizet, Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez — was that the former two additions would wreak havoc on the wings and serve as the primary danger men, while the latter teams up with Roger Espinoza and presses teams to death all over the field, thus putting Croizet and Russell into counter-attacking chances aplenty.

Against a team that presses as frequently and effectively as NYCFC — which is to say just as well, if not better than, Sporting — that all falls apart rather quickly when you’ve no one with the patience to dwell on the ball and open the field up (that was Feilhaber), nor a striker with the size, strength and aerial presence to serve as a totally different type of outlet altogether.

That sounds an awful lot like the struggles of Sporting foes from years gone by, only this time the shoe was on the other foot.

Croizet struggled terribly and lasted just 57 minutes before he was subbed off; striker Diego Rubio offered very little in terms of hold-up play to rescue a suffocating midfield; Russell being heavily involved was a promising sign, even if the final ball was always lacking; and Gutierrez was the most effective of the newcomers, but expecting no. 10-type playmaking from an all-action box-to-boxer isn’t going to lead to a ton of, if any, quality chances.

If your highest value chance of the game is an extremely difficult scissor kick to finish a chipped through ball over the defense, I’m still of the mind that you don’t have a striker problem, so much as you’ve got a chance-creation problem for the fifth year running.

Having a midfield makes a difference

The LA Galaxy spent each of the last three seasons — and even prolonged periods of 2014, en route to winning MLS Cup on David Beckham’s swan song — attempting to play the game of soccer without a functioning midfield. Neither Steven Gerrard nor Jermaine Jones — shockingly — proved to be the cure to what ailed Bruce Arena in his final two-plus seasons in LA, nor Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid in 2017.

Then, the Galaxy tried something truly whacky and zany this winter: they signed Perry Kitchen, a well above-average MLS defensive midfielder. We’re only one game into the 2018 season, but if Sunday’s 2-1 home victory over the Portland Timbers is any indication whatsoever, Kitchen makes the Galaxy a real-life, functioning, professional soccer team again.

Not only was his final stat line of defensive actions (5 recoveries, 2 interceptions, 2 clearances, 1 tackle won and 1 block) far in excess of any Galaxy d-mid in recent memory, the majority of his contributions are done on the front foot, as he reads the game and snuffs out chances before they come to pass. There are still plenty of questions to be asked about who’ll ultimately start at center back for this team, but regardless of who it is in the end, they’ll be infinitely better protected with Kitchen patrolling the midfield in front of them.

Surely there’s someone on this team that wants to drop deep into midfield, get their foot on the ball and drive the attack forward. Once they get that (significant) kink worked out, they’re pretty easily a playoff team.

MLS comings & goings: Kitchen, Castillo, Henley arrive for 2018

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The next two weeks, leading up to players reporting for the start of preseason, are sure to be chock-full of signings made by all 23 MLS teams. A handful of key deals have been announced in the last 24 hours alone…

[ MORE: FC Dallas block USMNT call-ups in favor of CCL prep ]

For the last three seasons, the LA Galaxy attempted to play without a functioning midfield. It turned out… well, quite poorly, particularly in 2017 when Curt Onalfo’s Sigi Schmid’s side finished dead last in MLS, for the first time ever. Enter: Perry Kitchen (from D.C. United, for $300,000 in combined allocation money), five-year MLS veteran and fringe-U.S. national team defensive midfielder seeking a new club after two years in Europe (Hearts and Randers). Kitchen, who’s (somehow) still only 25, has more than 150 MLS appearances to his name (plus another 50-plus from his time in Europe). The Kitchen-Jonathan dos Santos/Joao Pedro double-pivot is a fantastic foundational unit. 7/10 — not flashy or sexy, but highly functional and priority no. 1

After finishing 20th in 2017, the Colorado Rapids’ massive rebuild has begun. Enter: USMNT and Monterrey left back Edgar Castillo, and Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Jack Price. Castillo is 31 and brings a wealth of experience at the club and international levels. Price, 25, joined the Wolves academy at the age of 8, and never left (save for a pair of loan spells) and made nearly 100 appearances between League One and the Championship. 5.5/10 — plugs a pair of holes with replacement-level (maybe slightly above) starters

For the first half of 2017, Real Salt Lake were arguably the worst team in MLS; for the second half of the season, Mike Petke’s side was inarguably one of the best (and youngest), ultimately missing the playoffs by a single point. So far this winter, RSL have made Brooks Lennon’s loan permanent, signed 26-year-old Spanish forward Alfredo Ortuño, and on Tuesday completed their capture of 23-year-old right back Adam Henley — an American-born Welsh international. As he’s only ever appeared in friendlies for Wales (and never played for U.S. youth national teams), Henley would be eligible for a one-time switch, should his development and play warrant such a move. 6/10 — a starting right back with upside, without giving anything away in a trade

Giles Barnes, 29, has bounced around MLS in recent seasons — from Vancouver, to Houston, to Orlando, all since 2016. Now, the English-born Jamaican international is headed south of the border, to Leon, where he’s been given a Cristiano Ronaldo-like VIP welcome.

Other lesser-known (but perhaps just as impactful) signings in MLS

Columbus Crew SC — 21-year-old Venezuelan midfielder Eduardo Sosa, from Venezuelan side Zamora (FULL RELEASE)

Minnesota United — 24-year-old Cameroonian attacker (2 caps, 1 goal) Frantz Pangop, from Cameroonian side Union Douala (FULL RELEASE)

Report: LA Galaxy trying to bring Kitchen back from Denmark

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Perry Kitchen’s European adventure has seen him endear himself to two fan bases in two nations, but has done little to increase his stock with the United States men’s national team.

Now with fresh eyes ready to look over the Yanks’ roster, could Kitchen be coming back to Major League Soccer.

[ ARSENAL-LIVERPOOL: Recap | 3 things | Stars/duds ]

Kitchen, 25, left DC United in 2016 and quickly endeared himself to Hearts in Scotland, making 45 appearances and earning the captain’s armband before falling out of favor with a new manager.

He headed to Denmark’s Randers FC, and has been an impactful starter for a team in a relegation fight. The usual European place competitors sit dead last.

Washington Post soccer man Steven Goff says the LA Galaxy want Kitchen in Carson, and that a “barrel of allocation money” would help LA gets his re-entry rights from DC United.

Kitchen is five times capped from the U.S., and could stabilize an MLS midfield for a half-decade or better. Sigi Schmid will certainly have a priority on the middle of the park.

MLS Reports: Red Bulls on verge of Argentine signing, and more

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The New York Red Bulls are in the market for a new playmaker, and it appears they’ve found from South America.

The Red Bulls are on the verge of signing Alejandro “El Kaku” Romero Gamarra, a 22-year-old attacking midfielder for Argentine side Huracan, for a $7 million transfer fee according to a report from TYC. The Argentine native played three times for the Argentina Under-20 Men’s National Team at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup and has played in Huracan’s first team since 2013.

All that’s remaining is for El Kaku to sign personal terms with the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls reportedly beat out Cruz Azul for the transfer of the Romero.

[ MORE: MLS stats

If Romero signs for the Red Bulls, he’d replace Sacha Kljestan and countryman Gonzalo Veron, who was selected by D.C. United in the MLS Re-Entry Draft this week, and be following in the footsteps of MLS MVP and fellow Buenos Aires native Diego Valeri to MLS, albeit without European experience beforehand.

Here are some more reports, news and notes from around MLS:

(more…)

Reports: Perry Kitchen to leave Hearts for Randers in Denmark

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A precipitous and swift fall for Perry Kitchen at Hearts of Midlothian has reached its inevitable conclusion.

The American midfielder has reportedly departed preseason training with Hearts and is heading to Denmark to sign with Danish Superliga side Randers.

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Despite making 26 starts in 29 games last year in the Scottish First Division, Kitchen found his playing time decrease under new coach Ian Cathro, who was appointed in December 2016, and following the season Kitchen was stripped of his captaincy.

According to the reports out of Scotland, Kitchen was told he was free to find a new club to join this summer.

The news of a move to Denmark is surely a blow to Kitchen, who now finds himself on the outside of the U.S. Men’s National Team picture. He earned five caps for the national team under Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure and was a regular for the youth national teams during his time in high school and with D.C. United in Major League Soccer.