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.
Gregg Berhalter cannot risk rust from his MLS-based players for November’s pivotal CONCACAF Champions League matches versus Canada and Cuba, and has called 19 players for a pre-camp from Nov. 2-9.
While the roster will undoubtedly have Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, and a bevy of European-based players, it will also have several MLS faces who have been eliminated by the playoffs or did not qualify altogether.
Berhalter has to make sure those players are fit and firing, and has included two players from sides eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs in the past two nights (Brad Guzan and Walker Zimmerman).
Uncapped defenders Chase Gaspar of Minnesota United and both Mark McKenzie of Philadelphia have been called up alongside McKenzie’s club teammate Brendan Aaronson and New England goalkeeper Matt Turner.
Djordje Mihailovic, Jonathan Lewis, and Jeremy Ebobisse are also back in the mix for the first time, while no MLS players called up in October has been dropped from the roster.
Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and Seattle duo Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris are understandably omitted due to MLS Cup Final duty.
The U.S. plays Canada in Florida on Nov. 15 and Cuba in the Cayman Islands four days later.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Defenders: Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Chase Gaspar (Minnesota United), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
Midfielders: Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Forwards: Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Vito Mannone is one of the nice guys, so there are only good vibes in announcing that the Minnesota United goalkeeper has been named the 2019 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year after an outstanding season with the Loons.
The 31-year-old Italian was a revelation after arriving on loan from Reading in England’s Football League Championship, the latest stop in a career which has seen him play for Arsenal in the Champions League and spearhead several big seasons for Sunderland in the Premier League.
Mannone’s 73 saves from inside the box and 136 total saves were both third in MLS as was his 11 clean sheets in a season which saw the Loons claim their first MLS playoff spot in three seasons and make a run to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. He’s just the second MLS Goalkeeper of the Year to hail from outside of a CONCACAF nation.
PST had a chance to speak to Mannone for a wide-ranging conversation on not just his incredible season, but his feelings of responsibility to be a contributor to his community and the gratitude he feels to be a professional athlete. From emotionally crediting his parents to a funny story about former Arsenal teammate and current LAFC star Carlos Vela, Mannone is an absolute joy in conversation.
ProSoccerTalk: Vito, congratulations on a wonderful season. First things first, what does the award mean to you?
Vito Mannone: “I didn’t expect it in a way, but it’s an incredible feeling. You always work so hard to achieve something like this and it’s an award that rewards me, the work I put in throughout my career. It’s a special one, special moment.”
ProSoccerTalk: There are a lot of worthy on-field topics, and we’ll get to them, but I want to talk about your focus off the field. I read someone on Twitter call you “the nicest guy in football.” You clearly care about how you treat people and your purpose.
VM: “I grew up with special parents and they ingrained in me great values in general in my life. I learned everything from my dad and my mom. They were special people, not just to me but to everyone. That’s how I was raised. I always cared about other people, them first.
“The football platform gives you the chance to give back to people. Anywhere I go I try to give my best to my fans and people who support you in your job. It’s fantastic, you don’t get that in many other jobs.
We are very very lucky to have thousands of people working hard during the week to come and watch you and support you in good and bad moments. The minimum required is to give something back to them.
“Outside of football it’s something I want to do. It fills my heart but at the same time people will look at you and appreciate what you do for them. It extends in a way to connect to poor people, people with health problems. When I go out to hospitals, I always feel I’m very lucky and in a privileged situation.”
PST: It’s interesting that you mention that because for all of your accomplishments — Champions League with Arsenal, season-saving saves with Sunderland — I remember being particularly touched by something you did off the field, as Jermain Defoe and you spent time with ailing Bradley Lowery while he battled cancer, raising money and awareness.
VM: “We are very lucky and I always see myself like any of these kids, I put myself in their shoes because I was a kid full of dreams and I’m lucky that I made it but these kids or ones with problems or fighting really hard to be alive, I know a kid is full of dreams and loves football like we do. That’s why I really want to connect with them.
“Bradley was a prime example. He did so much in general for people who got to know his story. You could see this guy with a smile who would change your day, and you realize your small problems in life are nothing compared to one of these kids.”
PST:“I want to go a little deeper because I’m someone whose paid a lot of attention to the Northeast of England and, don’t get mad, but I grew up watching Newcastle. When you see something like Bradley’s story and the Sunderland connection, it makes it so much bigger than football. It brings a sense of community that extends beyond the field and our little allegiances. Did you have any role models in football who helped you find your way in the community?
VM: “My role model in life in general and in football was my dad, who unfortunately I lost when I was 16. It was a tough task to become a professional without him. He always dreamt with me and he sacrificed his life to get me where I am today and to have a nice career so far and become a professional. I would say my dad. He was my role model.
“And then there’s many good people in general in football. You always want more of these people in your life in football. You mentioned Jermain, he’s one of them, but anywhere I can go I can find people who see it the same.
“In football there is so much violence, now we see racism, we see people using football in the wrong way but I think as well as you mention these moments, these stories like Bradley or many others behind the scenes, kids who are examples, it brings football together. It makes you realize it’s not hate, it’s not violence, there’s nothing that goes above these stories.”
PST: On the field, this season… Remarkable. When a player comes to MLS and he comes with a resume like yours, you expect the player to have a decent season but I don’t know that we could’ve expected to see a goalie play as well as you did while adjusting to a new culture and country on a pretty new team. What would you say about the season?
VM: “Tremendous journey. Tremendous adventure. In general I loved every minute of it. It’s always tough when you change countries. You bring your family out in a new place. It’s never easy, not an easy job, but I had a feeling from the first chat I had with the club, I felt like it was a good project. As soon as I landed here, they treated me with respect and they showed me I was an important piece of the puzzle.
“Opening a new stadium, meeting news fans everything went really well. We started to climb and we got better and better. We molded as a team, new players, youngsters with veterans, and we had a magnificent cup run. The third year for this club in MLS. We reached the playoffs. We beat big clubs. We had an amazing season in a new stadium with special fans. Everything has been fantastic. If I go back (to Europe), I had a few objectives coming here and I successfully fulfilled all my dreams, also becoming Goalkeeper of the Year. You cannot ask for more.”
PST: Well, you brought it up… have you thought a lot about what’s next for you?
VM: “No, this season has just finished and I put 100 percent into it until the very last minute. We were unfortunate not to go through against Galaxy and it’s a bit of pain. But I can’t take anything away from the great season. I want to relax, sit down, see my options. I just talked to the club and it’s a good situation right now. I want to sit down with my agent, talk with my family, and see where we can go from here.”
PST: Overseas you had a number of American teammates in your career. Matt Miazga for a bit last year at Reading, Jozy Altidore at Sunderland. You’ve had plenty of career to evaluate American soccer. After a year in MLS, what’s your evaluation of soccer in America?
VM: “Until you get here, you can’t get the true feeling of what the American league is building. This league has great potential and in a few years, it will be there. Progressing really well. Incredible fans, stadiums everywhere you go. Facilities, every club I’ve been around this season has been fantastic and it’s far ahead of many many European clubs.
“What they need to get is keep going, keep building up history, and of course what I can tell you the difference is the standard of the football has been very high. I was impressed, good mix of South Americans, international from Europe, the big stars in Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Vela, my home friend Sagna, but these people want to embrace the league more and more.
“I had this impression from Europe of a retirement league, but it’s not, it’s not! It’s young players, talented players, good ones from America. Every team I faced was a challenge for me and now a days the market is changing — Almiron to Newcastle — it’s going both ways. One time it wasn’t like this. People going to England, to Italy, and coming out here too, it’s different. This will build up and get even better and better.”
PST: Who impressed you the most in MLS, both on your team and opposition?
VM: Let me think about that it’s difficult. Teammates… I’ve been really impressed with youngsters like Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper, Mason Toye, who came into the first team and are going to be big hits for U.S. national team one day. They have got quality and are good professional, surely yes. I had very good teammates in general. Many good players around, LAFC we all know what they did. My old friend Carlos (Vela), ha, he’s been on fire.
PST: How well did you know him at Arsenal?
VM: “We spent two years as a teammates. He was a youngster too and didn’t have his best time but progressed in his career. He had one of the best years, breaking the MLS record. He’s probably going to MVP and deservedly so.”
PST: Did he get break the record against you, or tie it? That’s a real jerk move!
VM: “Actually, the one to level the record (the penultimate game of the season). We texted each other before the game. I told him don’t worry about the record. You’ll score a hat trick in the last game but zero against me. He said, no no no, one against you and three in the last game, and actually he did it! I called it, so he needs to thank me.”
1996 – Mark Dodd (Dallas Burn)
1997 – Brad Friedel (Columbus Crew)
1998 – Zach Thornton (Chicago Fire)
1999 – Kevin Hartman (LA Galaxy)
2000 – Tony Meloa (Kansas City Wizards)
2001 – Tim Howard (NY-NJ MetroStars)
2002 – Joe Cannon (San Jose Earthquakes)
2003 – Pat Onstad (San Jose Earthquakes)
The fans were buzzing at Allianz Field as Minnesota United got its first playoff campaign under way at home, but the jubilation didn’t last long as the LA Galaxy spoiled the party with a 2-1 win over the wasteful hosts. Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos were on hand to lift the visitors on a night to forget for strikers on both sides.
Just seven minutes in the porous LA Galaxy defense parted beautifully for Minnesota, but the home side couldn’t capitalize. On the break a wonderful cross reached Angelo Rodriguez with the goal gaping, but he completely whiffed on the chance with Dave Bingham charging.
The home side produced much of the attacking intent through the first half-hour, and again nearly went in front as Robin Lod blasted over the bar with a glorious chance to smash home the opener. Bingham turned sweeper keeper to smother another chance minutes before the break as a ball long for Ethan Finlay got behind the Galaxy defense.
After the break, Minnesota again had a chance to go in front as Romain Metanire sent in a delicious ball in front of net, but Rodriguez couldn’t head on target, flailing at the ball and ending up with his back to the net when he made contact. The Galaxy’s best chance of the first hour fell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic who found himself all alone near the far post on a corner, but he too flubbed the chance, unable to make solid contact while instead sending the ball skittering out of play off the side of his foot.
With strikers on both sides struggling mightily to make the most of chances, the LA Galaxy went in front against the run of play. Christian Pavon found Zlatan all alone about six yards in front of net, and while his shot was blocked, the rebound fell right to the feet of a charging Lletget who deposited his chance in a game begging for a finish.
Ibrahimovic’s struggles continued as his one-on-one chance with Vito Mannone was smothered by the goalkeeper, but moments later Jonathan dos Santos produced a wonderful curler that Mannone couldn’t reach and put the Galaxy 2-0 up.
There was still hope for Minnesota as they got a consolation with four minutes to go as Jan Gregus pulled one back for the hosts with a vicious low strike that rocketed into the bottom corner for the first real moment of tenacity up front for Minnesota United. Unfortunately, that would be it for the visitors as they sent Mannone forward for a late corner but nothing came of it and the final whistle blew.
The Galaxy move on to a dream matchup with their neighbors LAFC, while Minnesota United falls for the first time in 13 home games and their season comes to an end.
It’s playoff time! With the new MLS postseason format, featuring single-elimination matches, the margins between victory and defeat are razor thin. Winning individual battles, or a battle to control a zone in the field, are more important than ever.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key battles ahead of the start of the 2019 MLS playoffs.
5. Wayne Rooney v. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC CB’s
At this point of the season, every game could be Wayne Rooney’s last in a D.C. United uniform. Along with Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola, Rooney is clearly the key man to D.C. United’s attack. The ball will flow through him as D.C. gets going, and it will be on TFC to mark him tightly and make sure he has no space to turn and strike the ball, or get on the end of a cross into the box.
Michael Bradley, at 32-years old, is no spring chicken. Especially late in the season, it will be interesting to see how he does marking Rooney when Rooney drops into the space between TFC’s backline, or whether he can pass him off to Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga in the center of defense.
4. Union central midfield v. Red Bulls central midfield
The Philadelphia Union have enjoyed an outstanding season, and a large part of that has been the play in central midfield of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The two veterans are adept on both sides of the ball, can play a pass, intercept passes, and control the tempo of the match. If they’re put off their game, with some pressure as soon as they receive the ball, the New York Red Bulls have a chance to win.
Whether it’s Sean Davis, Christian Caceres, Mark Rzatkowski, or Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra (who is coming off a goal for Paraguay during the international break), their work in the middle of the park will be crucial to determining which team controls the tempo, possession, and ultimately, who creates the most chances. Otherwise, Medunjanin and Bedoya will pick out Brenden Aaronson, Marco Fabian or Kacper Przybyłko and be off to the races.
3. Julian Gressel v. Jalil Anibaba
It’s a direct rematch of the last week of the season, where Atlanta United triumphed over the New England Revolution with a 3-1 win to close out a strong regular season campaign. While there’s plenty of focus on Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez – who didn’t play in the season finale – and Ezequiel Barco, the real difference-maker in the attack for Atlanta United is Julian Gressel. The German-born wing back has plenty of marauding runs forward, is always available to receive a pass and can deliver quality crosses too. He ended up with two assists in the season finale and Anibaba was eventually substituted, though it may have been more to give the Revs some offensive punch with Juan Aguedlo coming on. It will be up to either Anibaba, or someone on the Revs to shut him down, cutting off one supply line of balls into the box for Josef Martinez to rifle home.
2. Jordan Morris v. Reggie Cannon
It’s a battle of two U.S. Men’s National Team regulars. Jordan Morris has had a resurgent second half of the season and appears to be in the best form of his life. On the other side, Cannon’s parlayed his terrific form for FC Dallas, despite his young age, into a starting role for the USMNT.
Morris in recent weeks has proven he still has his game-changing pace, as well as an improved left-footed touch. It’s going to be up to Cannon to stay with Morris down the wing, or pass him off to a teammate such as Reto Zeigler should Morris cut inside and not leave space open behind Cannon for a runner down the left wing.
One of the league’s best strikers against the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. 6-foot-5 (Zlatan) against 6-foot-2 (Ike Opara). When Ibrahimovic and Opara meet, it will be one of MLS’s duels of the ages. Zlatan has been nearly impossible for defenders to contain in MLS, as he not only uses his incredible size and tactical nous to win headers, but his technical ability on the ball ain’t bad. However, if there’s one player who can push around Zlatan, it might be Opara.
Opara has been a revelation to Minnesota United and could single-handedly be the reason they’re hosting a home game in the playoffs this year, rather than hitting the road or watching from home. He’s also part of the reason Sporting KC has been a complete mess this season.
If history is to be used as a precursor, the only meeting between Opara and Ibrahimovic this season ended in a scoreless draw. We’ll see if Opara can notch another win over Ibrahimovic this weekend as well.