The game in 200 words (or less): How about one word? Insanity. Simply put, an all-time classic in MLS Cup Playoffs history. It’s a small sample size, no doubt about it, but MLS’s new single-elimination playoff format appears to have solved the problem of uninspiring early-round action. Seattle advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, where they’ll face the winner of Real Salt Lake versus Portland Timbers, with a 4-3 extra-time victory, but it wasn’t without 120 minutes of nonstop drama. Seattle went from 2-0 up inside the first 25 minutes, to level at 2-2 inside 65, to 3-2 up 10 minutes later, to level again with under 10 minutes of regular time remaining. They needed 113 minutes to do it, but Seattle broke the deadlock for the final time when Jordan Morris completed the first hat trick of his career.
Sounders making magic out wide: No matter how many times they saw it, Dallas simply couldn’t slow down the Sounders wide attackers and full backs from creating superb scoring chances from out wide. This has been one of the Sounders’ greatest strengths for a couple seasons now, yet Dallas seemed wholly unprepared for it. The speed and crossing ability they have out wide is a huge problem for a lot of teams, especially when Morris and Raul Ruidiaz are moving around freely in the box.
Sounders’ defensive struggles unsolved: For all the chances they created on one end, Seattle couldn’t control the game or even slow it down in middle and defensive thirds. Whether it was on the counter-attack, through sustained possession by Dallas or set pieces, Seattle struggled in the worst way. Even after going ahead in extra time, Seattle stood idly by as Dallas created a couple of golden scoring chances and were so close to finding themselves level again at 4-4. They won’t have (m)any more “get out of jail free” cards to play as they advance to the latter rounds.
The game in 200 words (or less): Highly-favored at home, the reigning champions needed their goalkeeper to keep them alive against a New England Revolution side that only made the postseason via MLS’ decision to let almost everyone make it. Yes, Atlanta United dodged a bullet as Brad Guzan made six saves and Ezequiel Barco’s slick pass set up Franco Escobar for a brilliant winner with about 20 minutes to play. New England fought to the very death, but couldn’t take advantage of the absence of Miles Robinson.
Soon-to-retire Michael Parkhurst appeared to dislocate his shoulder late in a challenge with Cristian Penilla, and needed a lot of help to get off the field. Hopefully that wasn’t the last we see of him.
Atlanta will host either Philadelphia or the New York Red Bulls on Thursday evening.
Three things we learned
1. Guzan overcomes blip to stand tall: The longtime USMNT backup made a major error and nearly allowed New England in front but was otherwise sensational over 90 minutes in Georgia.
2. Martinez off, and Martinez off: While Frank De Boer opted to keep Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez out of the Starting XI, it was his star striker who nearly made him pay for the decision. Josef Martinez was not on his game, and lashed a should-be winner from his office over the goal in the first half before being stopped on by Turner on a 1v1 as the match neared stoppage time.
3. Barco makes the difference: Who knows if the 20-year-old Argentine will ever fully deliver on his promise, but the plays he made to set up Escobar’s goal was sensational. After dancing around a pair of defenders, he cut a shot pass between two defenders for the on-running Escobar to blast past Matt Turner.
Considering that 92 of 408 MLS matches ended in ties this season, we may also see a few matches hit penalty kicks.
Here’s where we see the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs going…
East (5) DC United defeats (4) Toronto FC
(3) Philadelphia Union defeats (6) New York Red Bulls
(2) Atlanta United defeats (7) New England)
West (5) LA Galaxy defeats (4) Minnesota United
(6) Portland Timbers defeat (3) Real Salt Lake
(2) Seattle Sounders defeat (7) FC Dallas
Why the upsets? DC’s defense has been very good this season, and there’s something about Wayne Rooney‘s MLS exit that doesn’t seem immediate. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a big game player and Minnesota’s experiencing the playoffs for the first time. Portland is missing Brian Fernandez but has enough savvy and experience to outlast a decent (and very strong at home) RSL.
East (5) DC United defeats (1) New York City FC
(2) Atlanta United defeats (3) Philadelphia Union
West (1) LAFC defeats (5) LA Galaxy
(2) Seattle Sounders defeat (6) Portland Timbers
Why the upset? If there’s one team equipped to deal with the NYCFC possession-based attack on a baseball field, it’s DC. The back line and Bill Hamid do enough to stun a No. 1 seed which will not have played in nearly a month.
East (2) Atlanta United defeats (5) DC United
West (1) LAFC defeats (2) Seattle Sounders
MLS Cup Final
(2) Atlanta United defeats (1) LAFC
Why the upset? Just to be different, and so all the people who laid Atlanta’s early struggles at the feet of Frank De Boer and not adapting to the post-Miguel Almiron era can sigh, “Ohhhhh.”
When it comes to American soccer, there are few fonts of wisdom as well-earned as Claudio Reyna.
Before he was New York City FC’s sporting director, the New Jersey-born midfielder did just about everything possible for a player of his era en route to becoming a USMNT centurion (112 caps, to be exact).
Reyna played for Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia, where he won the Hermann Trophy as the best player in college soccer. He left for Europe following the 1994 World Cup, embarking on a 14-year career in Germany (Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg), Scotland (Rangers), England (Sunderland and Manchester City), and the U.S. (New York Red Bulls).
Now closer to home with NYCFC, where he’s helped build the East’s No. 1 seed in these MLS Cup Playoffs, Reyna is constructing a giant of American soccer. We spoke with Reyna about the status of youth soccer, scouting the globe, his NYCFC heading into the playoffs, and a United States U-17 World Cup roster which includes his son Giovanni (Borussia Dortmund) as well as several NYCFC players.
ProSoccerTalk: Considering the many facets involved with a project like this, bureaucracy, red tape, community challenges, how heavy of a lift was this and how rewarding is it to see it moving toward completion?
Claudio Reyna: “It certainly is a heavy lift but it’s not just NYCFC. It was a partnership with adidas, Etihad, the Mayor’s Fund, and U.S. Soccer Foundation. They certainly helped in getting this off the ground, on time and on budget. We still have more until we complete the 50. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the team effort but it was a lot of heavy lifting and coordinating of people’s schedules. It’s very rewarding and satisfying when you see the pitches bringing communities together and having kids playing unstructured, fun soccer, all kinds of ages coming together. To have that space and creativity to have fun and play soccer.”
PST: How important is it that young players are competing in free-flowing games, trying new things, and techniques? And how can you help maximize their use?
Reyna: “Within the community they know the pitches are there, and word will continue to spread. But it’s important to leave a legacy and give something that really does so much to a community. It’s not about developing soccer players — it certainly helps the sport grow and get visibility — but in urban areas there is limited park space and just in general it’s difficult to get out and play and exercise. It’s attractive, these blue pitches. It’s all these players, their stadium.
It’s a magical place for them to go and they’ll never forget that. It’s that spark for kids. It brings people together like it does at all levels.
“That’s what we’re most proud of, all the partners are. You continue to change lives, and we’re certain that’s going to happen. It’s one of the best projects that we’ve had, and it’s something you can see with your eyes the impact that it’s making.”
PST: Looking at soccer here on the whole, there have been magnificent strides in the past 10-15 years. What’s your status report of the youth game here in our country at this point?
Reyna: “It’s good but we’re not anywhere near the best leagues and soccer nations in the world. In terms of investment and facilities, level of coaching, and level of players coming through the academies is much better than in years past, but every club is at a different place and different environment. You have to understand your market and your areas.
“We are fortunate that we have a rich talent pool of players, but we have to take them in and teach them about life first, that’s a big thing for us in character traits, make sure they are respectful to the team and wearing the jerseys. At our academy we’re focused on pushing players and when it gets too easy, we move them up. When we feel a player is ready for the first team, we push them up.
“Despite winning the last two U-19 national championships, we’re always focused on the long-term development of players. We won last year with very young teams, so that speaks to what we believe in. We have four Homegrown Players, and there will be more in the future. There’s that inspirational pathway, a really good pipeline where they see the first team.
My path was a bit unclear for me. I didn’t dream of playing professional soccer at 10, 11 because there’s no league. But now a kid goes to our stadium, to our academy, he sees a local kid make it, and knows he can be the next one.”
PST: What are the biggest challenges for your academy in bringing in young players for the first time?
Reyna: “We have many players that come with a very good background, and we’ve made a lot of efforts in partnering with local clubs. We start bringing the players in at 10, 11 years old. Before that they have a different development and understanding.
“We have to bring down some habits because the kids who come to us are the best players on their other teams and they get away with more than they will when they come to another level. We focus on breaking habits. We believe in a collective game where everyone needs to play and be comfortable on the ball.
“The first year we may have to shift players around because what you find is when the best players come to us, most were center forwards, center midfielders, central defenders. You have to say, okay, this player’s good but his long-term potential is a right back.
“The perfect example is Joe Scally on the U-17 World Cup team. He came to us from a club in Long Island as an athletic box-to-box midfielder. He was very strong, but we saw him as an outside back. The lesson that we now we share that with our players, don’t get upset if you move to a position, but Joe Scally understood, never complained, he played wherever he was told to do, and now he’s a right back now, 16 years old going to the World Cup after being in our academy for two and a half years.
“Players who buy in like that, and Joe, Justin Haak, and James (Sands), they tend to have more success. In New York we continue to work with local clubs like NYSC and Met Oval and a lot of smaller clubs around the NY area have helped us produce players who come with a good foundation and good base.”
PST: I wanted to ask you about the U-17 World Cup. Obviously your son being on the team has to make it an incredibly emotional thing, but to have have three academy players in the fold, too, man… that must be a sensational feeling.
Reyna: “And a coach, too (NYCFC academy coach Matt Pilkington is an assistant on the squad). It’s very special. My son, obviously, it’s a very proud moment for him to be able to compete in a World Cup. But for me, I’ve known these kids since they were 10 years old. When I see them run out, it’s kinda like “Whoa,” I remember them hanging out at 11, 12, 13. It’s really great to see.
“Then again it’s a credit to what we do here. We prepare players for the next level. That’s what an academy is. You’re not there to win academy games. You’re there to prepare them for the next level. These guys are mature. They are winners. They have a winning mentality that has translated to this team. I’m definitely get down, and go back and forth because of the playoffs, it’s super exciting for me. Very emotional as well. I love them like they’re my own kids.
PST: And one of them is.
Reyna: (laughs) One of them is.
PST: I wanted to ask you about the first team. I’m thinking of Alexandru Mitrita of Romania (who came from Universitatea Craiova) and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi of Libya (Austria Wien), and how you’ve found players from everywhere. Obviously there are thousands of hours of video on massive leagues, but how do you judge whether players from “smaller” places can get the job done for NYCFC in MLS?
Reyna: “I believe there are players everywhere in this world. Anyone who doesn’t understand this, they’re behind. The first thing is, really, how bad do they want to come here. Why do you want to come here? The players we’re recruiting, why New York? Why MLS? Why now in your career? You get a straight answer and a feeling, because from then on you can always go back to that.
“I’m very open about how we work and how we play and the expectation of a very high standard of professionalism. Ultimately for them, it’s important to say if you do really well, there’s another step for you. Like Jack Harrison. You’ve gotta be honest about the league, the competition, the travel, different conditions and climate. You’ve gotta give them the picture. Prior to that you see the player play. It’s the eyes, ears, and then the data after that.
“The data is there to support the decision, not drive the decision. These are human beings with emotions. Alexandru is the perfect example. At the beginning of the year he was alone waiting for his fiancee — now his wife — to come, and I knew besides other things and adaptation, that’s why he wasn’t yet where he was going to be (on the field). Not everyone sees that, the fans don’t see that. Then you see him with his wife, and his family, and he’s got a big smile on his face, and data’s not picking that up.
“You have to look at all these things, so we make a big effort to make sure we help them settle in. A player who feels welcome, will give 100 percent back. If a player doesn’t work out, I look at ourselves first. Too often, clubs and coaches and supporters blame the player. It’s my responsibility to say what could we have done better. They are human beings first. I will never turn my back on a certain league. There’s a very good generation coming through, look at the U-21s this summer. Our squad, the players fight, they wanna be here, and now the players are playing as hard as they can for the jersey.”
PST: You look at NYCFC’s place in the stats this season, and it follows suit with what you’re saying that the club is at or near the top of the league in a lot of the desire stats.
Reyna: “The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. Stats are important. I asked a colleague to compare them to years past, and it gives you so much information. The difference between when I played and players today is they like this, they want to see it, and we didn’t have it growing up. It’s another way to learn. They want to see how goals are scored, how they are given up, whether they are in transition or whatever. Set pieces for us was something we wanted to see how we could get better. The stats gave us a clearer picture of what we’re doing well. After every game we get a review of what we did, and I look at everything because a stat can show you something you might not have seen with your eyes during the game.”