24 Thoughts: Retiring MLS legends, pitfalls of new playoff format, looming VAR changes

Atlanta United's Michael Parkhurst is retiring at season's end. (Rich von Biberstein/Getty)
Atlanta United's Michael Parkhurst is retiring at season's end. (Rich von Biberstein/Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

The final weekend of the 2019 MLS season promises to be full of drama, specifically in the Western Conference, where four teams — the Portland Timbers, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes and (somehow) the Colorado Rapids — are vying for the league’s final two playoff spots.

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Decision Day will also mark the last regular season match for four MLS legends who are retiring this year: DaMarcus Beasley of the Houston Dynamo, Colorado’s Tim Howard, Michael Parkhurst of Atlanta United and longtime Real Salt Lake backstop Nick Rimando.

Beasley and Howard should be unanimous first-ballot National Soccer Hall of Famers. Rimando is probably the best keeper in league history. “Obviously those guys have had tremendous careers — mine isn’t quite on that level,” Parkhurst told Yahoo Sports in his typical understated fashion earlier this week. “But it’s nice to be grouped in with them for sure.”

The Rhode Island native shouldn’t sell himself short. The undersized and cerebral center back broke into MLS with his hometown New England Revolution in 2005, reaching three consecutive MLS Cup finals before leaving for Europe, where he spent seven seasons and played in the UEFA Champions league (with Danish club Nordsjaelland) and German Bundesliga (with Augsburg). He was one of the final cuts from the U.S. World Cup roster Shortly after signing with the Columbus Crew in 2014, and finally won his first MLS Cup on his fifth attempt, captaining Atlanta United to the title last year.

“I had fear that I would never win it,” Parkhurst said. “It definitely makes it easier to walk away. But I’d love to go out with back-to-back ones.”

24 Thoughts

1. While BeasleyHoward and Rimando revealed their plans to retire earlier this year, Parkhurst didn’t make it official until late September. “I was in denial a little bit — that’s part of why I didn’t announce earlier,” the 35-year-old said. “I had thought about it before the season started. There’s just days when the body is struggling, the knees don’t feel good, and it takes a little extra to get through. This preseason was the most difficult by far for me.”

2. Parkhurst made his first start since July in last week’s 1-1 draw in Montreal.I felt pretty good about my performances early in the year, but the last two months has sort of solidified [the decision] for me. How it’s been the last two months, I definitely don’t want to do another full year of that. I’d rather go out a little bit early than a little bit late. I don’t want my last year to be something that I look back and I’m ashamed of how I played. I think it’s the right time to step away.”

3. One of the reasons MLS adopted a new, condensed playoff format this season was to avoid the November international break, which typically fell between the conference semis and finals. But while MLS Cup will now be held before players report to their national teams, the shift didn’t solve the problem entirely. Because of October’s FIFA window, there’s now a huge gap between Decision Day and the postseason opener. The wait is even longer for the conference champs. After securing first-round byes, LAFC and New York City FC will be idle from Oct. 6-23.

4. Asked Atlanta coach Frank de Boer about the long layoff before the playoffs. “I prefer normally one week,” he said. “It’s the international week, of course, and I understand that. Some players with small injuries can totally be recovered.

“But you see a lot of times after the international break [the players] have to start the engine again, you know? The rhythm of the game is different. Normally, when you’re in that rhythm week to week, they are more lively.”

5. De Boer and Montreal midfielder/fellow Barcelona alum Bojan Krkic had a long chat in the hallway between the two dressing rooms following Sunday’s contest. After all these years, I’m still struck by how small the soccer world is.

6. If you haven’t read it yet, Matt Pentz’s profile of Beasley is a masterpiece. I wish I’d written it.

7. Howard Webb, the legendary English referee-turned-general manager of North America’s Professional Referee Organization, is making the rounds at MLS stadiums speaking to reporters and broadcasters about MLS officiating. Two interesting tidbits from his first such presentation last weekend: MLS has been quietly testing offside-detection technology this season. The early signs, Webb said, are positive. The league is also considering using a centralized location for video assistant referees. Since the implementation of video review midway through the 2017 season, VARs have been housed inside stadiums.

Howard Webb, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, is doing the media rounds about the latest developments in MLS officiating. (AP)
Howard Webb, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization, is doing the media rounds about the latest developments in MLS officiating. (AP)

8. “The advantage of that being that we can brief them before every game, we can then do a hot debrief immediately,” Webb said. “We can use a slightly smaller group of people as well, so that would aid the consistency.” Webb didn’t provide a timeline for the implementation of either change.

9. Heading into the penultimate weekend, Webb said that VAR had blown 24 calls over 378 games in 2019. “We don’t get them all right,” Webb said, conceding that as with the quality of play, the officiating in MLS still lags behind the very best leagues in the world.

10. This isn’t really MLS-related, but it needs to be said to those clamoring for European-based dual national youth players like Ajax’s Alex Mendez or PSV’s Richard Ledezma to be cap-tied by the senior team this month: Fielding youngsters before they’ve earned it (Mendez and Ledezma have never played a first-team minute for their clubs) simply to ensure that they can’t play for Mexico would be a huge disservice to those players.

11. Expect both Ledezma and Mendez to be on the U.S. U-23 roster when it’s announced on Friday.

12. Can’t wait to see the U.S. and Canada slug it out in their Oct. 15 CONCACAF Nations League match in Toronto. The MLS-heavy American side will have their work cut out for them against a team desperately trying to climb up FIFA’s rankings and quality for the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying as one of the region’s top six sides. Canada’s roster features 10 MLS players plus former Vancouver Whitecaps/current Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies.

13. According to U.S. Soccer’s Jeff Crandall, Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley would become the first U.S. players to take the field in their home stadium in an away or neutral-site match. Cool stat.

14. LAFC’s Carlos Vela heads into Decision Day needing just one goal to top the record 31 strikes Atlanta’s Josef Martinez managed last year. There’s still an outside chance that with 29 goals, the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic — who already has two hat tricks this season — could pull it off, too.

15. Martinez returned to training this week after an injury scare. He has 26 goals in 28 games this season. Anyone else remember when Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching shared the 2004 Golden Boot with just 12 apiece?

16. Thought 16 last week read Don’t be shocked if [Mathias] Almeyda isn’t back in MLS next season.” This week, TUDN reported that Mexican juggernaut Monterrey is hoping to lure the San Jose Earthquakes coach back south of the border. The Argentine previously managed Chivas Guadalajara, leading them past Toronto FC for the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League title. The Quakes declined to comment.

Matias Almeyda might be about to coach his last game for the San Jose Earthquakes. (Getty)
Matias Almeyda might be about to coach his last game for the San Jose Earthquakes. (Getty)

17. San Jose needs at least a point in Portland to qualify for the playoffs. Usually, you’d think that news of a coach potentially leaving on the eve of a crucial match would be insurmountable to overcome, especially for a spiraling team that’s lost eight of its last 10. Then I think about how Atlanta tore through the postseason field last year after Tata Martino announced his departure. Maybe this wakes The Goonies up.

18. As a neutral, it’s hard not to root for Robin Fraser’s Colorado Rapids to squeeze into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. On the other hand, I’d also like to see LAFC (the Rapids’ foe Sunday) break the single-season points record after the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC did last year and in 2017, respectively.

19. LAFC remains the prohibitive favorite to hoist MLS Cup despite its late-season swoon. (Bob Bradley’s team has one win over its last seven.) I still think they are standing atop that podium on Nov. 10. History isn’t on LAFC’s side, though. The Supporters’ Shield winner has pulled off the Shield-Cup double just seven times in the league’s first 23 seasons.

20. One thing working in LAFC’s favor? Thanks to the new playoff format, winning the regular season title ensures that Bradley, Vela, et. al. will host every one of their playoff games at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC is 13-1-3 at the Banc in 2019, the best home record in MLS.

21. I almost hope that New York City FC ends up having to host MLS Cup as karmic punishment for somehow not reserving Yankee Stadium for the finale.

22. Would love to know what Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo — whose team missed the playoffs for the third straight season this year — was thinking watching former Impact manager Jesse Marsch’s FC Salzburg almost steal a tie against European champs Liverpool at Anfield this week. Pride that he gave Marsch his first head coaching job when he picked the little-known American to lead his expansion effort in 2012? Or regret that he parted ways with Marsch after that more-than-respectable maiden season?

23. It’s hard not to wonder where the Impact might be today had Marsch been retained for another couple of years.

24. As always, 24 Thoughts will be on USMNT duty during the international break. See you in two weeks.

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