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MLS Wrap: What We Learned

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It was another busy evening of MLS action on Saturday. There were upsets,

Here’s a look back at what we learned from Week 17

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


Earthquakes continue hot form in rout of Galaxy

There weren’t any last minute heroics needed on Saturday evening in the first edition of the Cali Classico.

The San Jose Earthquakes routed the LA Galaxy, 3-0, in front of nearly 51,000 fans at Stanford Stadium in a battle of not only Argentine managers but also more strategic Designated Players v. the Galactico method. It was the Earthquakes fourth win in their last six MLS games, with the other two being draws as the Earthquakes are suddenly in playoff contention.

It took the ‘Quakes some time to get used to Matias Almeyda’s methods, but it’s paying dividends. Vako, who scored a brace on Wednesday in a win over the Houston Dynamo, bagged the first of the night against the Galaxy after a planned free kick routine bounced back to him at the top of the box. Vako’s curling effort in the 11th minute proved to be the difference in the match.

In the final ten minutes, Shea Salinas fired a cracking goal that bounced off the far post and in, while Tommy Thompson dribbled past three Galaxy defenders before his shot took a wicked deflection, leaving David Bingham helpless in goal.

Of course, the Earthquakes wouldn’t have won without their goalkeeper. Daniel Vega made a couple of world-class saves, one on a dipping, curling effort from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and another from Fabian Alvarez. The Galaxy controlled the match, especially in the second half, but thanks to last-ditch defending from the Earthquakes and saves by Vega, they didn’t score.

To add insult to injury, Sebastian Lletget, who continues to battle muscle injuries this season, suffered a right thigh injury, per the club, and was subbed off at halftime.


More drama in Atlanta? 

Thanks to recent acquisition Justin Meram, Atlanta United bounced back from a disappointing defeat at Toronto FC to knock off the Montreal Impact, 2-1. However, the game is partially overshadowed by the substitution of Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez.

The most expensive transfer in MLS history has found life difficult playing for a different coach than Martinez probably expected when he agreed to come to the U.S. (Frank De Boer instead of Gerardo “Tata” Martino) and the MLS style is different than what Martinez experienced in Argentina.

On Saturday, Martinez was subbed off in the 68th minute, well before Meram scored the winner and after the Impact had leveled the score in the 50th minute. Martinez had initially set up Meram’s first goal, but according to de Boer, Martinez wasn’t at his best as the game wore on.

“In the beginning,there was nothing wrong,” de Boer said after the match. “I think he played quite well. He was setting up the first goal, cutting inside, playing it to Justin (Meram), moves through to make the space for Justin to come inside, so I have no problem with that. But in the second half, especially around the 60th to 65th minute,he was making too many mistakes and then it’s a danger to the team in that moment. Then it is my choice to make a decision,and overall against Toronto, I think he played one of his best games. It was short notice that he’d play again and maybe he was tired, but he has to make those plays.”

Martinez spurned European offers to come to the U.S., but one may wonder if he’s regretting that now, midway through his first season here. Of course, this could just be a blip as well. Martinez went the full 90 and could have saved a point with a penalty kick in the eighth minute of stoppage time, but he failed to score.


Are the Revolution turning it around? 

Bruce Arena’s first match on the sideline came in a surprise 2-1 win on the road at his former home, the LA Galaxy. Since then, the New England Revolution has only lost once, which came in the U.S. Open Cup, without a full-strength squad.

In MLS play though, the team is unbeaten under Arena, and the Revolution picked up yet another win on Saturday, as Teal Bunbury’s second half stoppage time goal was the winner in a 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo.

Everyone seems to be enjoying a new lease on their soccer lives. Carles Gil looks like the dangerous Designated Player he was supposed to be, Justin Rennicks made his first MLS start and Andrew Ferrell looks like a lock-down defender yet again. Arena also went with Matt Turner in goal instead of Cody Cropper, who had been preferred under former coach Brad Friedel.

Interestingly, Arena credited a tactical switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 as the reason the Revolution came back from being a goal down at halftime.

“I think I probably screwed them up in the first half a little bit,” Arena said. “I don’t think that formation they were
comfortable enough in, and not bad, as much as it was more favorable for Houston to play against. We
wanted to see [Justin] Rennicks up top with [Juan Fernando] Caicedo. So, we got that opportunity. I think
the second half, switching our formation a little bit helped. But at the end of the day, it’s still 11 against 11.
I don’t get entirely consumed with the discussion of formations. Of course, if the players know how to
move and work together, any formation you play can work.”

With the win, the Revs sit just three points outside of the playoffs. We’re not saying that they can win the whole thing, but a late-season surge to make the playoffs? We’ve seen weirder things happen.

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.

Reports claim Allegri linked with Manchester United, Spurs

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The international break can be a slow time for news, but what to make of multiple reports claiming that Max Allegri is in discussion with a pair of struggling traditional Premier League powers?

Tuttosport claims that Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have interest in hiring the Italian manager, adding that United has had “intensified” contact with him.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Noise out of Old Trafford continues to back Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while there is no real buzz that Mauricio Pochettino is on the verge of leaving Spurs.

The 52-year-old Allegri has won Serie A once with AC Milan and five times with Juventus, claiming a Serie C title with Sassuolo in 2007-08.

Is there anything to it? He’d be a great hire for either side. In United’s case, he’d be a marked upgrade on their current boss.

It’s hard to be humbled. Anything less could cost Berhalter his job

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Wild nights, positive or negative, deserve reflection one day later. Here’s our bid to put the USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Canada in context less than 24 hours later…

The humbling of Gregg Berhalter is one of two distinct hopes for his survival as United States men’s national team coach.

The other is an unreliable route, one filled with long-term health for his best players on some pie-in-the-sky road where he utilizes the same 12-14 players per game for the rest of his tenure.

So, yeah, the first one is pretty key.

Coaches are by nature arrogant, and Berhalter earned his confidence by nurturing a suboptimal Columbus Crew roster into an over-performing playoff mainstay despite owner and former showgirl Rachel Phelps trying to move the club to Miami (Movie reference No.1, achieved).

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

When Berhalter beat out the field of two to lay claim to the USMNT position, he won over the media with Powerpoint slides about Pep Guardiola-inspired possession, which assumed to the delight of the American fan base that the nation had the immediate tools to out-class most of CONCACAF simply by being organized. He even had people handing him cute nicknames and defending the idea of using a Bundesliga regular defensive midfielder as a right back because he was generous with his time. Who needs La Masia when you’ve got the DA?

It should be pointed out that the philosophy’s failure through nine months doesn’t entirely destroy the idea to try it, but Berhalter’s often bizarre player selection and tactical destruction at the hands of Jamaica, Mexico, and now Canada have hastened the end of his honeymoon period almost as effectively as his the federation’s refusal to interview anyone other than Berhalter and Oscar Pareja. I mean, who needs Sergino Dest’s optimism when you can keep trying to jam a Wil Trapp-sized Wil Trapp through an Andrea Pirlo-shaped hole?

So you get what we had last night, a tire fire of a match in which his midfield had no idea what to do with the ball and his forwards might as well have been on a monastic retreat. According to the broadcast, Berhalter thought a miserable first half was due to his men not moving the ball fast enough side-to-side. His answers via subs, even before they were down, were to take off Christian Pulisic and leave creative minds Sebastian Lletget and Tyler Boyd on the bench. After the game, he claimed his players weren’t working hard enough and didn’t match Canada’s desire.

Here’s the problem, though, that’s on Berhalter, too. There were myriad articles out there, including several on this site, detailing Canada’s desperation to get results in the CONCACAF Nations League in order to move into a Top Six CONCACAF spot on the FIFA Rankings and qualify for the Hex.

(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

All it takes is a cursory look at the Canada roster to see that their electric attackers were their hope of winning the match, and that pressing their relatively weak group of defenders — one of whom has only been a defender for a year — was probably a great idea.

But Berhalter again stuck with his idea that the United States men’s national team program, even without several of its best players, could implement his system anywhere, against anyone.

And it failed spectacularly.

The thing is that Berhalter is actually quite a decent coach, as he proved in Columbus, but whether or not he lives to show it to this American audience in this particular job depends on his accepting the shortcomings of his depleted roster.

I want to talk to you about Aaron Long, and not because of his “Stranger Things” lifeguard haircut (TV show reference No. 1, achieved).

Aaron Long is a mauler, the sort of player who’d be beloved by many segments of the USMNT community in several generations. He gets stuck in, has a good work rate, and can factor on set pieces in the attacking third.

What he does not do very well — and I’ve covered this a lot in this space — is pass the ball and aid in possession. Since breaking into MLS in 2017, the now 27-year-old center back has completed 76, 69, and 65 percent of his passes with the New York Red Bulls.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Part of that is a function of the Red Bulls’ system; The team doesn’t really care at all about possession, passing at a terrible 68.6 percent, and not one of their players had a completion rate above 80 percent this year. By comparison, 197 players in Major League Soccer completed 80 percent or more of their passes this season (WhoScored).

This is not an argument that Long shouldn’t be in the U.S. system. While he’s had a rough couple of months in the shirt, he’s in the mix for the toughest American center backs in the game.

Might this possession-based idea look a lot better when healthy? Of course, that’s what we mentioned above. John Brooks is by far the best passing center back in the pool, and has been out of the mix for sometime due to injury. The same is true for the side’s best No. 6 in Adams.

But what the Yanks were for so long was difficult to break down, a hassle to play against. Berhalter needs that right now, and he’s got the horses to do it (Watch Jordan Morris’ legs keep moving for 90 minutes if you need proof). Success could then require admitted in front of a microphone that his team can’t hack his system right now, and that he talked down to an entire room last month when they just spit facts his way. That’s humbling, and it’s not fun. But it’s needed.

Adding to the issue is that it’s easy to see the Yanks still emerging from their group by beating Canada in Orlando next month and then walloping Cuba. But if Berhalter hasn’t been humbled and sees victories against the 53rd and 145th ranked teams in EloRatings as validation, well, I’ve got some truly valuable early 1990s baseball cards to sell you for a premium price.

Arrogance does nothing for you if it’s ill-founded. That confidence has felled countless executives, coaches, and players over the years (and yes, even average writers). Being outfoxed by Tata Martino is one thing, but having no reaction to the plan of John Herdman is another (That’s not a shot at Herdman, who had done well with the New Zealand and Canada women, but let’s be real).

We won’t learn whether Berhalter has learned from his errors via results next month, rather by what he does to try and get those results. When Martino beat him in the Gold Cup Final, the rematch two months later was far worse. He gets a second chance to match wits with Herdman next month, and it really cannot get much worse. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice (Movie reference No. 2, achieved).

Last month, I wrote that Berhalter’s duties including the following bare minimum goals.

  1. Qualify for the World Cup
  2. Reach the final of all CONCACAF competitions
  3. Look like an adequate footballing nation in other competitions
  4. Make sure he doesn’t lose any talented dual nationals (also the GM’s job)

No. 1 is still far away, but 2-4… woah. We’re one Alphonso Davies star show away from finishing 2019 without a Gold Cup and no place in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal. Sergino Dest might’ve skipped town for Ronald Koeman‘s Netherlands set-up either way, but being shoehorned at left back last month probably helped his decision.

Finally, a number of people on Twitter pointed out that Canada is due plenty of respect for out-dueling the USMNT on Tuesday. Absolutely! But if you think a nation with under 1 million registered soccer players should be absolutely clowning a nation with 4 million-plus, a side they hadn’t beaten let alone dominated in 34 years, then you’re not getting the point. There’s room for Canada and the U.S. to both be good, but the Yanks looked like a steaming hot mug of spoiled milk to Canada’s well-chilled bag of the fresh stuff. No good.

Your move, Gregg. Do what you did last night, and last month, and you’ll get the same results. Your only other option is Voodoo dolls of Alphonso Davies and Scott Arfield.