The MLS report: the best week*

Photo: Earl Gardner

It was almost the best week in MLS history.

The league nearly guaranteed it would secure its first crown as champions of CONCACAF, but New York Red Bulls were unable to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit at “home” versus Chivas Guadalajara.

It was a bitter result, but as harsh it might sound, this was the best possible outcome for MLS.

This has been the best CONCACAF Champions League in history from a Canadian and U.S. point of view. Their teams played well en masse, advancing deep into the tournament. Unlike previous iterations, MLS sides weren’t skating through with easy draws against Costa Rican and Honduran clubs. They were going head-to-head with their biggest continental rival, Liga MX — and winning.

Wouldn’t it have been a little anticlimactic if the final pitted two MLS sides against each other?

Instead, we get a classic matchup. After handling Mexican powerhouse Club América, Toronto FC cemented itself as the best team in MLS history. Chivas are second only to Club América with 11 Liga MX titles. More important than the on-field success, the opponent provides a more poetic counterpart. Chivas have fielded only Mexican players since 1908.

U.S. international stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore will once again square off against their rivals to the south. This time, they’ll be playing for club rather than country.

CONCACAF Champions League

Toronto FC 4-2 Club América

The Reds have already accomplished something no other MLS team has.

They’re the first side to beat a Liga MX side in the competition’s semifinals. Toronto were nearly the first club from their league to leave the fortress that is Estadio Azteca with all three points, but a penalty awarded late in stoppage time denied them that honor.

So how did Toronto beat Mexico’s most accomplished club?

It’s with one person. Greg Vanney is a damned good coach. The Canadian club was without their first choice No. 10 Victor Vazquez and defenders Nick Hagglund, Justin Morrow, and Chris Mavinga.

It wasn’t a problem.

Not only are Toronto deep at every position, but that depth is bolstered by Vanney’s ability to instill the club’s structure into every player while keeping those reserves happy with limited time. When Altidore was forced off the field in the 7th minute of the crucial second leg in Mexico City, backup forward Tosaint Ricketts stepped up. All he did was square a pass to midfielder Jonathan Osorio for the backbreaking goal five minutes after coming onto the pitch.

Vanney also relied on domestic players to cruise into the final. It’s somewhat surprising considering MLS is trending toward international stars rather than local ones. Ten of the 14 players to feature in either of the two semifinal legs hailed from the U.S. or Canada. How fitting was it that wing back Ashtone Morgan, the club’s first homegrown talent from back when Toronto was in shambles, scored the critical third goal at BMO Field?

Tactically, Vanney was pragmatic. In the first leg at home, the Reds relied on the attacking talent that saw them break records in MLS. Altidore netted along with Italian superstar Sebastian Giovinco. They knew they needed to score at home and pressed for goals, accordingly.

Toronto recognized it would be a different story in Mexico’s capital city, especially considering their two goal advantage. Yet they were buoyed by Osorio’s early goal. With Club América left searching for three goals, Vanney parked a bus in front of goalkeeper Alex Bono, in a way that would have made José Mourinho proud.

Two banks of four, led by a standout performance from Bradley, left América firing low-percentage shots from outside of the box. When the home side did occasionally penetrate the defense, Bono provided a “man of the match” performance in net.

Chivas Guadalajara 1-0 New York Red Bulls

The second leg of the other semifinal matchup mirrored the first.

The Red Bulls, however, only needed one goal at home to match the scoreline from Estadio Akron.

New York were the better team in both games and absolutely dominated the latter contest in Harrison, NJ. There, they launched 20 shots at Chivas goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota, who turned away all nine on-target attempts. The visitors didn’t take their first and only shot until the 87th minute.

Despite all the control, the Red Bulls couldn’t produce that final product to break through. Hmm, I feel like I just saw the same thing last Saturday. In the first half, the Red Bulls were creative and looked destined to score. As the game wore on, the attack became static, relying an aimless long balls and wishful crosses.

The semifinal draw was interesting as it placed the all-Mexican Chivas players in contrast with New York’s talented homegrowns. Midfielder Tyler Adams once again showed he is one of the most promising players in the U.S. talent pool, offering a versatility that allowed head coach Jesse Marsch to deploy Adams as a wing back.

Yet it was a different homegrown that stood out. Forward Derrick Etienne was the most dangerous player on the pitch, and that includes No. 10 Kaku and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Etienne was dazzling off the dribble and made intelligent runs.

Awards section

Goal of the week

Sometimes a beautiful goal is a balletic bicycle kick or a 30-yard curler. Other times it’s the culmination of a fantastic build-up.

Goat of the week

I don’t think Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic needs help scoring, but Columbus Crew goalkeeper, Zach Steffen, gave him an absolute gift. Even worse— it was the only goal of the game.

Save of the week

Player of the week: Julian Gressel

With the likes of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, and Hector Villalba, Atlanta United boast one of the most talented sides in MLS. Their best player this season, though, might be Julian Gressel. The second-year German has looked like a natural wing back since head coach Tata Martino transitioned to a three-man back line. He displayed that once again versus LAFC. He banged home a close-range goal after an excellent run and recorded an assist with a pinpoint cross to Martinez.
Runner-up: Johnny Russell (Sporting Kansas City)

Local player of the week: Jeff Larentowicz

Continuing with the theme of underappreciated Atlantans, West Chester’s own Jeff Larentowicz deserves plaudits for his role in the Five Stripes unbeaten run. They were steamrolled in the midfield during the season opener in Houston. Since then, Larentowicz has provided the defensive shield Martino desperately needed. Against LAFC, he helped shut down Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi while providing two key passes.

Best of the rest
  • Sometimes, even the ugliest of creatures can be fascinating (I’m looking at you, angler fish.) That’s exactly what we got in Chicago. The Fire have deployed super sweeper Bastian Schweinsteiger to shield what had been a porous defense crippled by injuries. Chicago were able to move the ball from the back and amazingly, defend. It did come with a sacrifice. Already missing a No. 10, the Fire’s midfield was creatively neutered. They could produce only one shot on goal, and forward Nemanja Nikolic capitalized for the 1-0 win.
  • Can you imagine the possibility of Schweinsteiger marking Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the box?
  • Winning with one shot on goal got me thinking, and I found this doozy. Kansas City Wizards beat New England Revolution without one shot on goal back in 1997. The 2016 Seattle Sounders are the only other club to do so, when they beat Toronto in the MLS Cup.
  • I still don’t know if the Revolution are good.  They thrashed Montreal Impact 4-0, but that came after Impact midfielder Saphir Taider picked up a red card in the 13th minute. New England have outscored their opponents 6-0 over the last two games, but have played up a man 132 out of possible 180 minutes.
  • Orlando is really digging this whole “play no defense, but score dramatic goals” thing, huh?



  1. Is it just me, or did that Steffen giveaway remind anyone of a certain Union goalkeeper gifting the same Chicago Fire a goal a couple years back?

    • OUCH.

      Poor kid. I’m torn between sympathy and Schadenfreude. Steffen is a great player. But I am also tired about hearing how the Union lost the local kid. Personally, I am very, very happy with #savesbydre.

  2. If Toronto eliminates Tigres and America only to get bested by Chivas, it would be a disaster of epic proportions.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    Great stuff, Nick. From a Union supporter standpoint, you could say that it was the greatest week with RB cr*pping the bed in another big home match.

    Steffen’s blunder – If a team is committed to playing out of the back, mistakes will get made (even Barca will mess it up and concede a bad goal once in a while) The good thing is that Berhalter will continue to encourage his team to build their attack in this manner.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      Berhalter has to be a top 5 coach in MLS (As I type this, I’m surprised by the amount of quality coaches this league has)

      It was weird with RB, wasn’t it? It didn’t feel like Eagles/Cowboys. I’d say it was more like rooting for a rival Big 5 school because you still wanted them to represent the city/league well.

  4. I have the impression that Greece won The Euro championship played in Portugal with one hot, a header from a corner kick that went in, late as I remember it.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Tonight’s game is 3-0 Union at half. Ends 3-3. Friggin’ Orlando…

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