The game in 200 words (or less): Level at one but holding the hosts at bay, Toronto FC looked content to drag the life out of the Eastern Conference Final. One of its attackers had other ideas, though, as Nick DeLeon dribbled into and then out of traffic to smash a shot past Brad Guzan from outside the box and earn the Reds their third MLS Cup Final berth in four years (all against Seattle Sounders).
The Five Stripes came out of the gates hot in both halves. Julian Gressel rolled a ball over the line in the fourth minute of the first half and Atlanta won a penalty with embellishment only to see Quentin Westberg deny Josef Martinez from the spot. Both Westberg and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan were very decent in the first half, Nicolas Benezet’s equalizer a curling thing of beauty. A league with almost unrivaled home field advantage saw two celebrated home sides beaten by cagey former champions. MLS is a riot.
One more note: Here’s a nod to USMNT hero Michael Parkhurst, whose career ends one match short of another final.
“I have to say that today was resiliency,” said manager Greg Vanney. “It wasn’t beautiful soccer. These guys refused to give up, kept looking for their moment and got it. I don’t think there were too many statistical categories we won.”
1. Bradley, TFC caught sleeping early: Toronto FC’s hopes of taking the Mercedes Benz Stadium crowd out of this one took a seismic shake when Michael Bradley somehow didn’t realize Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was right behind him to blaze onto a terrific through ball from in-form Ezequiel Barco. Martinez held onto the ball as long as possible before sending a pass to Gressel for as easy a finish as you’ll see at this level. 1-0 in the fourth minute. Bradley then conceded a penalty to an embellishing but fouled Martinez, but French-American goalkeeper Quentin Westberg bailed him out with a fine save on Josef Martinez to keep the deficit at one. Buy him dinner, MB90.
2. TFC makes only attacking moments count: Nicolas Benezet quickly restored the deadlock with a terrific finish from the corner of the box. The ex-Guingamp midfielder ran onto a marvelous diagonal pass from center back Laurent Ciman. Benezet cut in freom the left and spun a curling effort toward the back post that ex-Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not rescue before it rippled the netting for 1-1 in the 14th minute. You could argue that there wasn’t another threat from the Canadian side until DeLeon’s winner, which was a smashing shot to cap a smash and grab.
3. Westberg, Mavinga keep Reds in the match: Yes, of course, the penalty kick save was an outstanding moment for the former Troyes and Auxerre goalkeeper, but he would be needed many times over the course of the match including two moments in the first few moments of the second half. Decisive off his line and composed on it, the 33-year-old continues to validate Greg Vanney’s decision to put him in the lineup over MLS Cup winner Nick Bono. As for Chris Mavinga, the physical Congolese defender was a force. A few days after a Man of the Match performance in New York, Mavinga rebounded from an in-game injury to make two decisive interventions in the final five minutes.
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.
While France enjoyed nearly 70 percent of possession, thanks to playing 78 minutes with a man advantage, they were anything but dominant and overwhelming in their 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.
Les Bleus‘ opener came just before halftime, when Youssouf Fofana (Strasbourg) volleyed home from the edge of the penalty area. Saudi Arabia went dangerously close to equalizing just seconds later, but Illan Meslier (Lorient) made a stellar save to his left to deny Turki Al-Ammar.
The 1-0 scoreline remained all the way until the 75th minute, when finally Amine Gouiri (Lyon) hit a shot off the hands of the goalkeeper and watched as it bounced over the goal line for a 2-0 lead and to complete the scoring.
France will take on Panama in their next Group E game on Tuesday.
Argentina 5-2 South Africa
Ezequiel Barco might have made himself — and Atlanta United — a few million dollars on Saturday, thanks to an otherworldly golazo in Argentina’s 5-2 victory over South Africa.
The 20-year-old hit the following volley from just inside the penalty area to make it 3-1. All you can do is sit back, watch in awe and count up all the extra dollars Atlanta United are now set to make when Barco inevitably moves to Europe, following in the footsteps of Miguel Almiron and his $30-million move to Newcastle United in January.
Fausto Vera (Argentinos Juniors) opened the in just the 4th minute, followed by Barco’s first of the game — from the penalty spot — in the 63rd. The golazo came eight minutes later, followed by late tallies from Julian Alvarez (River Plate) and Adolfo Gaich (San Lorenzo) in the 78th and 90th minutes, respectively.
Next up, Argentina will face Portugal in a battle for Group F supremacy on Tuesday.
Portugal 1-0 South Korea
Much like France, Portugal were made to work mightily hard for their tournament-opening victory over South Korea.
Trincao (Braga) scored the game’s only goal in the 7th minute, when he timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Jota’s (Benfica) through ball. The counter-attack was lightning quick, and Trincao’s finish cool and precise. Portugal had the ball in the back of the net again in the 19th minute, but a look at video review revealed that Rafael Leao (Lille) was offside during the build-up before he picked out Trincao with his cross.
Ezequiel Barco is one of the most talked about buys in recent history, and Atlanta United’s 19-year-old Argentine is on the board.
Barco scored in his fourth MLS appearance and third start, running into the left side of the box to meet the fine work of Miguel Almiron and turn a shot inside the near post.
Atlanta moves two points clear of NYCFC for first place in the East, and the Five Stripes have played one fewer match than its rival. Its 2.44 points-per-game is nearly a half-point more than the closest competitors (NYCFC, Orlando City, Sporting KC, and LAFC).
Red-hot Valeri makes it three-straight for Savarese’s Portland
Diego Valeri stayed red hot in artistic fashion, spinning this critical free kick home to record his fourth goal of the season as Portland continued its brutal, away-heavy opening run to the season on Saturday.
The 32-year-old celebrated his birthday week (May 1) by making it four goals and three assists in his last five matches, as Portland has now won three-straight for new boss Gio Savarese.
The Timbers have played just two of eight matches at home, with Saturday providing their first away win. Savarese’s men are 3W-3L-2T. That’s outside the Top Six on goal differential, but two points shy of third as the West works on sorting itself out.
The loss gives coach Mikael Stahre the worst points-per-game in this early season, as the Quakes sit 11th out West.
Sigi Schmid will be fuming after his LA Galaxy wasted a pair of equalizer when Jose Rodriguez scored a 90th minute goal to give the Houston Dynamo a 3-2 win on Saturday.
The Galaxy have lost four of five matches since their stunning late win on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut.
But Houston will be relieved, picking up a third win in five home matches to move above the red line and into sixth place despite tossing aside two leads. Romell Quioto had a goal and an assist for the Dynamo, the helper coming on Alejandro Fuenmayor’s second minute opener.
For the Galaxy, Giovani Dos Santos had a goal and an assist, Ola Kamara also scored, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic recorded an assist in the loss.
Kamara claimed the blame for Houston’s first goal, and said LA has “to be harder to beat.”
We could show the Marx Brothers’ level bad fortune defending of Houston’s winner, but instead we’ll show some close to vintage Ibrahimovic spatial awareness as he got the hockey assist on Kamara’s late and brief equalizer.
In honor of that, here’s one observation, thought, or quip for each of the 23 teams in the top flight for Canada and these United States.
Atlanta United — In some sort of Malkovich way, there’s only one way to talk about the Five Stripes season and it’s only use the surname of hyped acquisition Ezequiel Barco.
Barco? Barco Barco. Barco!
Chicago Fire — All eyes on goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, the Mexican youth national teamer who came up through the academies of Atletico Madrid and FC Dallas. The well-traveled 23-year-old is going to be asked to do a lot at a young age.
Colorado Rapids — Head coach Anthony Hudson is a top prospect when it comes to coaching, and how he sorts the Rapids will tell us a lot about his intention. A 3-5-2 with Marlon Hairston as a wing back, though, could very well have American national team implications. We’re watching with wide eyes.
Bonus: If Senegal isn’t going to use Dominique Badji, at some point can the U.S. get a look at the Boston University product. He arrived here two years before debuting at BU in 2011, and is the type of exciting player we wouldn’t mind seeing in a January or Gold Cup camp.
Columbus Crew — I promise to use more than three words in future “Twenty Three” posts, but I only need a trio for this debut post: Save the Crew.
FC Dallas — Is this a mess? I mean, this really could be a mess. FCD somehow imploded last season despite dreams of a treble, and center back Walker Zimmerman was sent packing this offseason. Given their talent and acumen, part of me wants to predict a run at the Supporters’ Shield. A bigger part thinks FCD is going to miss the playoffs and possibly cost Oscar Pareja his job.
DC United — Ben Olsen feels untouchable, and he’s getting a new stadium bump this season in addition to a full season of USMNT sparkplug Paul Arriola. Yamil Asad and Frederic Brillant are inspired intraleague acquisitions, and the Black-and-Red are a prime candidate to surprise a la the 2017 Chicago Fire.
Houston Dynamo — Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto are pound-for-pound as powerful and entertaining as any other international duo on the same club in Major League Soccer, and “Random Dynamo Game” remains the hidden gem of any viewing weekend. Welcome back, gens.
LA Galaxy — The worst year in club history featured a lot of bad luck, so at the minimum it’s fair to expect a bounce back in terms of bounces. Beyond that, this team is very deep in attack and replaced mixed-up striker Gyasi Zardes with in-form Norwegian attacker Ola Kamara. He just may lead the league in chances, if not goals altogether.
Los Angeles Football Club —Bob Bradley knows the league and the first XI looks very decent, but LAFC looks like they’ll need an incredible run of health to contend as a first year club. Beyond that, it’s betting that Benny Feilhaber’s decline was greatly exaggerated and we’re not sure if he’ll reclaim prime SKC form.
Minnesota United — Loons goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth likely left last season with confidence Minnesota would address the sad defending in front of him. Heck, we all did. But Minnesota still has more questions than answers when it comes to keeping balls out of their goal. The good news? The names are there to score plenty of goals.
Montreal Impact — Last season was a major letdown considering the potent combination of Blerim Dzemaili and Ignacio Piatti, and that cost a man his job. Enter Remi Garde, who will attempt to find similar magic between Piatti and new DP wizard Saphir Taider. For all of that, it’s going to be the defense which needs to solidify Montreal’s postseason hopes. Looking at the roster, it’s going to take a workmanlike performance from a star-free bunch.
New England Revolution — Brad Friedel has his hands full. Already saddled with the Lee Nguyen saga, the Revs roster is steady but not spectacular. Maybe Diego Fagundez can find another gear and Friedel can organize the unit through Kelyn Rowe and captain Chris Tierney, but it feels like 2018 could feel like a long one.
New York City FC — How long is Patrick Vieira going to stick around Stateside? One of the biggest names in football, his having found his footing in MLS is a great thing for the league. Is he holding out for Cup glory? The Arsenal job? Either way, while I was confident he’d succeed in the gig, I’m surprise he’s still around for Year Three. How special can NYCFC make this third voyage?
New York Red Bulls — The Red Bulls Academy is a monster, and has produced a verifiably threatening batch of players. While the city is big enough for two MLS clubs to develop youth, let’s take a minute to honor RBNY for remarkable production at a tricky and growing time for U.S. Soccer: Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Matt Miazga, Juan Agudelo, Amando Moreno, Timothy Weah, and on and on. Cheers to one of the best.
Orlando City SC — Jason Kreis thinks he has a contender in Central Florida, but putting a bunch of new and wonderful pieces together quickly is a challenge for a club in any league. Kaka is gone, and was better than many expected. Sacha Kljestan has been dynamite in New York, but has to take up the boots of a legend (albeit at a nascent club). How fast will the Lions find their collective roar? Better put: Can they fake it long enough to find it?
Philadelphia Union — There are a lot of pieces in Philadelphia, but so much of this season hinges on the interplay between CJ Sapong and David Accam. Looking at the roster, the Union have what it takes to become a playoff team under the direction of Jim Curtin but could be a legit contender if the attack is firing on all cylinders. Is the chemistry there for these two?
Portland Timbers — Look: I recognize that to fly in the face of seemingly everyone’s conceptions of a coach reeks of a contrarian nature, something I don’t deny. But Portland’s inconsistency during Caleb Porter’s time in charge — some of it injury-driven, some not — feels like it had a lot to do with the nature of the coach. Giovani Savarese will have no problem at the helm of a favorite, and the departure of Darlington Nagbe opens the door to a number of tactical worlds for the new boss. The Timbers Army has every reason to be excited for a new campaign.
Real Salt Lake — I’m unsure whether Real Salt Lake has what it takes to make a charge to the top of the West, but I do know that the hiring of Mike Petke was an inspired move by the Utah club. More than anything, the idea of his lifting a major trophy with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando would feel like a fitting moment for their careers and the league.
San Jose Earthquakes — Mikael Stahre is a very interesting hire, one of those names who feels feast or famine enough to lay claim to the Coach of the Year crown or wash out by the Fourth of July. How his new DP and countryman Magnus Eriksson mingles with Chris Wondolowski matters, as does his skill in deploying Tommy Thompson, Nick Lima, and Vako Qazaishvili others.
Seattle Sounders — The Jordan Morris injury stinks because he’s a fine U.S. prospect, a relentless worker, and gives Seattle a different dynamic from Will Bruin and others. While I think his injury hampers Seattle’s chances of being a Top Two seed in the West, I don’t think it’s as big a loss as many have said. Seattle’s midfield is going to cue up any number of players for goals, and Morris is a couple of years removed from inevitable superstar status (which tells you something about the use of words like inevitable). He’s good, but this is not the end of the world.
Sporting KC — In an alternate universe, Peter Vermes is handed the keys to the United States men’s national team instead of Bruce Arena. He’s guiding the Yanks’ preparation for a Group G with Belgium, Tunisia, and England. What does this have to do with Sporting KC? The U.S. will hire a new general manager soon, and if that GM wants an MLS-experienced and USMNT-passionate boss, he could take Vermes away in the middle of a season (or at least hire him and allow double duty through October).
Toronto FC — The treble-winning Reds are going to do just fine in the Eastern Conference pending a horrific run of injuries, but I cannot help but view their entire 2018 through the lens of their status as MLS’ best possibility to win the CONCACAF Champions League in some time. They are two-deep in nearly every spot, and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has proven adept at scouting both big and small.
Vancouver Whitecaps — There so much mystery in British Columbia this season, and a club which flirted with the Western Conference’s top spot for most of the season. Perhaps no player is more enigmatic and emblematic of the 2018 ‘Caps fortunes than Kei Kamara. Three seasons removed from his 22-goal season, he’ll have to prove he’s more than an (approximately) 10-goal mainstay.