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MLS: Five things we learned

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The second day of the 2020 Major League Soccer season was just as enticing as opening day, featuring thrilling goals, a handful of debuts and a late winner.

[ MORE: Vela, LAFC spoil Inter Miami’s MLS debut]

This is what we learned from Sunday’s action:

1) Carlos Vela is the league’s best player, and it’s not even close

Many players, coaches and followers of the league are already onboard with this idea: Carlos Vela is the best player in MLS. He is, and it’s not even close. And if one still had their doubts about the rationale, the Mexican attacker, who turned 31 on Sunday, scored one of his best goals in the league thus far:

These next-level sequences are routine for Vela. Sure, Alejandro Pozuelo quickly assembled a highlight reel of his own in his first season in the league in 2019, but the consistency from the Spaniard pales in comparison. The Cancun native is cut from a different cloth. And, if you ask Bob Bradley, he’d probably tell you that it’s an exclusive cloth.

“I have been a coach for many years and I have been fortunate to train a select group of special players,” Bradley said following Sunday’s game. “Carlos Vela is on that list with Hristo Stoitchkov and Mohamed Salah.”

2) Lucas Zelarayan fits like a glove in Columbus

Lucas Zelarayan’s arrival to the Crew didn’t get the airtime it deserved, but after his debut on Sunday, oblivious onlookers got their first taste of the Argentine’s nifty skills.

In Mexico, Zelarayan got the short end of the stick at Tigres, who boast one of Western Hemisphere’s most lucrative rosters, accumulating more time on the bench, or in club suites than on the field towards the tail-end of his stay. That may never happen under Caleb Porter’s watch, giving Zelarayan the chance to engrave his name into MVP conversation list this season. 

3) Inter Miami didn’t look all that great, offensively 

It’s totally fair game to summon the “it was the first game ever for Inter Miami” one-liner when taking a defensive posture in an anti-Inter Miami debate.

The fact that they made their MLS debut, however, doesn’t save them from being analyzed – for better or for worse. They have both feet in the arena and are fair game.

That said, they didn’t have a productive game on the attacking end.

Rodolfo Pizarro, the player that was purchased for a reported $12 million from Liga MX’s Monterrey, fell really short of the hype surrounding his league debut. The 26-year-old Mexican ended the night with two shots on target, two more than his teammate Robbie Robinson, who offered little goal-scoring threat up top. Matias Pellegrini, too, proposed little from the left flank and was subbed off in the 79th minute.

There’s no doubt that Diego Alonso will eventually figure it out in Miami. After all, David Beckham and company set him up with a decent roster, but don’t be surprised if Inter goes through a long session of growing pains.

4) Atlanta United need a proven striker to fill in for Josef Martinez

On Sunday, Atlanta United revealed that their goal king Josef Martinez tore his ACL against Nashville SC. 

The injury is, undeniably, a major blow to the Five Stripes. To make matters worse, at the moment, Frank De Boer has only one healthy striker to chose from in Adam Jahn. Jahn put together a praiseworthy season with USL Championship side Phoenix Rising in 2019, but has shown the opposite in over 100 MLS appearances.

Luckily, de Boer mentioned the possibility of signing an emergency striker. Atlanta needs to exercise that option, but they can’t afford to execute it mindlessly. In other words, if one wants to fill in the void left by a goal-scoring machine, one needs to do so with a goal-scoring machine.

With the primary transfer window not closing until May 7, the Five Stripes won’t be in a time crunch, but they will have more time to get the ideal signing down (or not). Carlos Bocanegra has done well on player recruitment, but perhaps this is his biggest challenge yet.

5) Jordan Morris needs to start for Sounders moving forward

Like any other coach in a similar situation, Brian Schmetzer had his tactical reasons to start Miguel Ibarra over Jordan Morris. It’s completely understandable.

Moving forward, though, Schmetzer won’t have any reasons to do the same. Morris, who scored two goals off the bench for the Seattle Sounders, handed the defending champions a prized victory over a new-look Chicago Fire, solidifying his place in Seattle’s starting lineup for the pair of weeks to come.

As pointed out by MLS analyst Matt Doyle, Morris, since June 23, has recorded 17 goals and 14 assists for club and country. Morris should be far removed from bench treatment. It’s pretty simple.

2020 MLS Power Rankings, Vol. 1

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With the 2020 Major League Soccer season kicking off this weekend, here’s a (surely brilliant) predictive edition of the Power Rankings, which will be updated at the start of every month here on PST…

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

MLS Cup favorites
Los Angeles FC and New York City FC

We all remember what LAFC did last year, and the fact they didn’t win MLS Cup despite settling most every relevant league record will only serve as further fuel for Bob Bradley to demand even more from (inarguably) the most talented team in the league. One potential pitfall: after trading Walker Zimmerman (for a record amount of allocation money), it’s unclear who’ll start at center back, and if you think it’s clear it’s a less than ideal situation. As for NYCFC, they managed to fly under the radar last year despite finishing top of the Eastern Conference by six points. While they don’t have the household names of an LAFC or Atlanta United, Domenec Torrent’s side (now that of Ronny Deila) played every bit the attractive, fluid attacking soccer of the league’s darlings. In a week East, NYCFC could wind up Supporters’ Shield winners.


MLS Cup contenders
Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC

These teams will be in the playoffs, 100 percent guarantee. (fingers are now crossed) With satisfactory answers to certain questions, they could make the leap from contenders to favorites with ease. Those questions are… Seattle: does the completely rebuilt backline come together, and how long does it take? Atlanta: will head coach Frank De Boer find the right balance between his preferred defensive slant and the roster’s natural tendency to attack at all costs? Galaxy: is the defense, which has been horrific for five or six years now, any better? Toronto: wait, why aren’t they on the “favorites” line? Ah, yes, because only one team per conference is allowed.


See you in the playoffs
Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Philadelphia Union and D.C. United

Here’s the thing about this group: the two teams from the East should finish fourth or fifth in the junior circuit (some ways back of the clear-cut top-three), but they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs in the West. By default, Philadelphia and D.C. get a bump in the tiers for the fact they’ll walk into the playoffs in the East. That is not — repeat not — to say they are as good as RSL or Dallas, who would actually push Atlanta and Toronto for second and third.


In the hunt
Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Montreal Impact

That’s a long list of teams. As stated above, the teams from the East will be in playoff contention due to not having seven standout sides. Basically, any combination of these teams could wind up in the playoffs. Looking to the West, Portland, Sporting KC and Minnesota have the potential to climb a tier (or two) if all goes right for them, but each of those sides has a glaring, and potentially fatal, flaw. The temptation to say Colorado will actually be quite good and also a playoff team is very strong, but it goes against all human instincts when you think back to how they opened the 2019 season, before firing Anthony Hudson and hiring Robin Fraser and almost making the playoffs anyway.


Fulfilling obligations
FC Cincinnati, Orlando City SC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Barely a month into their first season (last season), Cincinnati was very clearly the worst team in the league. Somehow, the offseason has gone even worse for them. They (probably) managed to improve enough so as to not claim back-to-back Wooden Spoons, but enough to contend for a playoff place? Highly unlikely. Orlando City has never — not once in their five-year MLS history — given me, or anyone, reason to believe they are a competent organization. Until they do so for a period of six (6) months or more, they just exist for existence’s sake. Speaking of merely existing, the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Expansion teams, TBD
Inter Miami and Nashville SC

Here’s the thing about expansion teams: they aren’t to be trusted, either way. What looks good on paper can sometimes look terrible on the field, and what looks terrible on paper can sometimes look great on the field. We’ll give Miami and Nashville their first assessments after a month of games.

CONCACAF Champions League wrap: Atlanta draws, LAFC falls

CONCACAF Champions League
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The CONCACAF Champions League began the knockout rounds on Wednesday, with some eyebrow-raising games that nonetheless yielded very few surprises in results.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Liga MX sides Leon and Cruz Azul won their matches, while Josef Martinez scored an equalizer for Atlanta United as perceived underdogs Montagua joined Portmore United in putting up solid home displays.

Leon 2-0 LAFC

Jean Meneses’ goal in the 21st minute put the Liga MX side in front of an impressive traveling crowd for a second-year team, and Bob Bradley‘s side was sloppy but limited further damage until a deflating 88th-minute goal from Angel Mina.

Portmore United 1-2 Cruz Azul

A strong display from Portmore United saw the Jamaicans take a 74th-minute lead through Rondee Smith, but La Maquina showed its mettle with goals in the fourth and ninth minutes of stoppage time to take a lead and two away goals.

Montagua 1-1 Atlanta United

The Honduran side took a 33rd-minute advantage, but the Martinez boys equalized within two minutes when Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez and Josef Martinez sliced through the heart of the Montagua defense.

Josef doesn’t miss many of these:

Nashville SC trades for USMNT mainstay Walker Zimmerman

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LAFC has sent one of its foundational pieces to Nashville SC for an international roster spot and what could amount to $1.25 million in allocation money.

2019 MLS Best XI center back Walker Zimmerman joins his third MLS team, still just 26 and entering the considered prime for his position.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 26-year-old averaged 1.9 tackles, 1.3 interceptions, and 3.6 clearances per game for LAFC last season. Zimmerman has 13 goals in his 149-match MLS career.

The 6-foot-3 defender also has 12 caps with two goals for the USMNT. He began his rise as part of a monstrous CB partnership with Matt Hedges in Dallas, and was getting interest from Europe by 2018.

The move is an easy one for Nashville, who adds another MLS regular with USMNT experience to Gary Smith’s roster.  Nashville may not instantly be a playoff team, but there’s enough maturity and MLS know-how in the league to assure something better than FC Cincinnati’s maiden voyage, for instance.

LAFC boss Bob Bradley used returning center back Eddie Segura more than any other player last season, but this move surprises due to the club’s impending CONCACAF Champions League dates with Leon on Feb. 18 and 27.

‘Let’s do this’: Bradley Wright-Phillips announces his arrival to LAFC

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Bradley Wright-Phillips is taking his talents to Los Angeles.

The New York Red Bulls legend, who left the club in November after seven seasons, is joining MLS Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC, according to his personal Twitter account.

The news comes after it was reported that the 34-year-old had joined LAFC’s preseason as a trialist in hopes securing a contract with Bob Bradley‘s side.

The forward, a two-time MLS Golden Boot winner, saw his productivity rates drop drastically last season as injuries became a common theme. Despite making 24 appearances, Wright-Phillips was limited to nine starts (1098 minutes in total), scoring only two goals all season.

At the end of the season, the Red Bulls decided to not offer the soon-to-be 35-year-old a new contract.

LAFC, in need of proven, attacking depth as they head into a busy 2020 which will include CONCACAF Champions League play, will get one of the league’s most prolific goalscorers in the Englishmen.

In seven seasons with the Red Bulls, Wright-Phillips scored 108 goals – the fastest player in MLS history to reach the century mark. In three out of the seven seasons, the attacker posted more than 20 goals, with the then-record-tying 27 goal campaign in 2014 the hallmark of the bunch.

LAFC have yet to release an official statement on the signing of Wright-Phillips.