Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
More than a week into the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, the World Cup-style competition appears to be hitting its stride. No matches have been postponed since Sunday. No players have tested positive for COVID-19 since last week, a promising sign with the league approaching an important threshold for new infections in the coming days.
And the games? The games have been entertaining. Really entertaining. We’ve seen all-world goals, none better than the one Columbus Crew playmaker Lucas Zelarayan scored off a perfect curling free kick against in-state rival FC Cincinnati. We’ve seen lots of drama, highlighted by the San Jose Earthquakes’ wild 4-3 stoppage-time rally over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night.
Increasingly, the action on the field has been at the forefront, even if it’s impossible to forget that the main story here is still the inherent weirdness of trying to stage a 24-team event (down from 26 after two coronavirus-plagued teams withdrew) without fans in a single isolated location in the middle of a global pandemic.
“The first week to 10 days, I’m not gonna lie, there was anxiety in this bubble,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen told ESPN during halftime of Thursday’s match between Atlanta United and FCC which, in line with the rest of the craziness, Cincy surprisingly won 1-0.
“Now, I think everyone feels very comfortable here.”
1. We’ll begin this week with Minnesota United, which relied on its own late theatrics Sunday against Sporting Kansas City. Adrian Heath’s team scored both the equalizer and the winner after the 90-minute mark in its tourney opener. The comeback victory gave Minnesota its third straight win to start the season; the Loons also won both contests they played before the health crisis interrupted the 2020 season in mid-March.
By Heath’s own admission, Minnesota’s performance wasn’t good. The result obviously was, especially with the Loons missing 2019 MLS defender of the year Ike Opara, fellow veteran Ozzie Alonso and key offseason addition Luis Amarilla, a 24-year-old Paraguayan striker who scored in both of those early season triumphs.
“We weren’t sure about our legs heading into the game,” defender Michael Boxall told Yahoo Sports, noting that both pre-tourney friendlies Minnesota had scheduled in Orlando were cancelled. “We hadn’t played 11 against 11 since March because we haven’t had the numbers in training. No matter how much running you do, nothing replicates a game.”
2. Heath wasn’t sure where his team was mentally, either. United’s players have gone through a lot in recent months. In addition to the pandemic, they’d been highly active in the local community following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May. Adding proven MLS vets Raheem Edwards, Marlon Hairston, Tyler Miller and Aaron Schoenfeld over the winter helped galvanize the locker room.
“I think we have a lot more character within the group, and one of the pleasing things about the game the other night was we stayed in it,” Heath said. “We showed great character after months of adversity and inactivity. It did affect the players, emotionally and mentally. A lot of them were deeply affected by what went on in our city. We’ve got eight-to-10 Black guys in our squad. It’s something that weighed heavy on their mind every day.”
3. “We have so many Black players who are leaders in our community,” said Boxall, whose captain’s armband featured Floyd’s name in the game with SKC, the first played by any of Minnesota’s pro sports teams since the incident sparked worldwide outrage. “They really led the charge in educating the other players who may have been lacking the awareness or the understanding of the experiences that some of our teammates and a lot of people in this country go through every day.”
4. “The players deserve an immense amount of credit,” Heath said. “We’ve had a lot of false hope in the past, but I honestly believe that we might be on the threshold of a little bit of change here. I don’t think we’ve ever seen the outpouring of emotion and love and support through this movement, and I think the one thing I can do is listen and learn and act and just help Black people in general to bring about meaningful and lasting change. And if that happens, then maybe George Floyd’s death won’t have been in vain.”
5. Three days before Minnesota’s first match, an unidentified Sporting player tested positive for COVID-19, the last confirmed case the league has had. That player was immediately quarantined. The rest of SKC’s roster tested negative twice before the match, which went ahead as planned per the league’s protocol. But that decision seemed inconsistent after Sunday morning’s tilt between D.C. United and Toronto FC was postponed as a precaution when those teams returned one unconfirmed positive and one inconclusive result. (Both were confirmed negative through subsequent testing.) Yahoo News medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass explained that Minnesota’s players weren’t likely to catch COVID-19 from an SKC player, even if one of those players had contracted the illness from his infected teammate but wasn’t showing positive yet.
“If they test negative right before the game, even if the infection is brewing in their system, they’re probably not contagious,” Kass said. “There has to be a certain amount of viral particles floating in their system before they can be contagious” — and before they fail a test.
6. Still, some Loons players were worried about taking the field that night. “I don’t think it was communicated very well — we really didn’t hear anything from the league about the [Kansas City] player or what measures are being taken to ensure that everyone was safe, especially after the Toronto-D.C. game was postponed last-minute,” Boxall said. “To be honest, there was a fair bit of concern in our team.”
7. Heath’s team has tried to err on the side of caution. “We’ve been down here for two weeks and I keep describing it as the bubble within the bubble,” he said. Loons players aren’t mingling with opponents inside the hotel. That won’t change even when the protocol allows it after teams have been on-site for a specified period. “You very rarely leave your own floor,” he said.
“As much as I’d love to hang out with guys who have played with other teams, it’s just not worth it at this point,” Boxall added. “It’s not ideal, but we’re OK just being within our own, making that sacrifice for the two or three more weeks we’re down here. We have a really good group. There’s a little bit of cabin fever, but we’re not losing our minds just yet.”
8. The MVP of the tournament so far has to be Orlando City’s Chris Mueller, who has three goals in the Lions’ first two games, including this beauty against New York City. For me, though, the most impressive player has been Zelarayan, who has helped Columbus win twice and draw once to start in 2020.
9. Before the season started, I spoke to Crew coach Caleb Porter at length about his new Argentine maestro. Columbus has fielded some of the best No. 10s in MLS history over the years in current LA Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and, until last season, Federico Higuain. (Now with D.C., Higuain scored a peach of a goal Monday against TFC.) Zelarayan, acquired from Mexican power Tigres, is a worthy successor to his countrymen.
10. “You need 11 guys that attack and defend,” Porter said. “We looked at a lot of guys that were special in the attack but they only played one way. And we looked at other guys who really worked hard, but they weren’t special enough. With Lucas, what we found is a player that will do both.”
11. As important, the 28-year-old designated player checked the boxes off the field. “He’s a humble guy,” Porter said. “When you’re adding a DP, you want to make your team better because of his individual qualities, but he also has to fit in with the group. If he doesn’t, then you actually might get worse.”
12. Before Zelarayan arrived in MLS, there were questions about his production. In 113 Liga MX appearances for Tigres, he managed 21 goals. But Porter compared Zelarayan to another Argentine who has excelled in MLS, Diego Valeri. “When he came into our league he didn’t have gaudy numbers,” Porter said of Valeri, who led Porter’s Portland Timbers to the 2015 MLS Cup title, beating Columbus in the finale.
13. With Tigres, Zelarayan mostly manned the wing. “Probably the only reason he didn’t produce as many goals as he will in MLS,” Porter said, “is he was on one of the best teams in CONCACAF.”
14. Porter, now in his second season in Ohio’s capital, still liked what he saw on video of Zelarayan. “He’s mobile and he’s quicker than you think,” he said. “The game I saw him live, he played as a 10 and he ran the show. So I knew he could do that for us. He’s a smart player. I think he has a different level of intelligence and sophistication. He understands rhythm and flow of the game and doesn’t complicate things. But also, if you watch the clips, he can unbalance teams individually, too.”
15. Paired with the deeper-lying Darlington Nagbe — whom Porter coached at the University of Akron and acquired from Atlanta United for seven figures last November — the Crew should be improved in possession this year.
“We wanted more of the ball,” Porter said. “With Darlington and Zelarayan, our control of matches and ability to unlock defenses will be far better. You can’t break down a balanced defense unless you have guys that can eliminate players and find solutions. We have that now.”
16. Another newcomer in Columbus this season is Jordan Angeli, just the second woman hired as a full-time color commentator in MLS history after Kyndra de St. Aubin, who works Minnesota United’s local broadcasts.
17. Angeli became the Crew’s television analyst in February. A former Stanford University standout who went on to play in the NWSL, Angeli began calling high school games following her 2015 retirement and kept slowly but surely climbing the ranks. “I knew that MLS was likely my next step,” she said in an interview last week.
18. She’d called Rapids games on the radio in her native Colorado since 2017. But with club legend Marcelo Balboa entrenched as the voice of the Rapids, Angeli knew she’d have to move to find her opportunity. Shortly after settling in Ohio, everything changed.
19. Most MLS TV folks are contract employees paid on a per-game basis. So when the matches stopped, the worrying started. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford my new apartment,” Angeli said. “But the Crew were really understanding of our position.” Now games have finally returned. However, with the tournament being aired exclusively by the league’s national broadcast partners, Angeli has had to get creative.
20. She’s been everywhere: appearing on pre- and post-game shows on the club’s website, hosting a new U.S. Soccer podcast alongside former D.C. United, New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union forward Charlie Davies and partnering on another pod, MLS Assist, with tactics wonk Joe Lowery that has been picked up by The Athletic and is churning out daily episodes during the group stage.
21. Sticking with pods, I’ve enjoyed the new Crack Podcast hosted by former USMNTers DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu. Beasley and Onyewu offer the perspective of guys who have played at highest levels of Europe — experience that most MLS executives could only dream of. Can’t help feeling like both should be working in the league.
22. Youngsters continue to shine in Orlando. Philly’s Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie have stood out. So have Ayo Akinola (Toronto), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Aboubacar Keita (Crew) and others. The latest to take advantage of his chance was Cincinnati’s Frankie Amaya, who scored a worthy game-winner against Atlanta on Thursday.
23. A week later, I still hate the Adidas logo superimposed in the center circle. But I must admit that I don’t notice it nearly as much anymore, and not just because it’s slightly smaller than it was in the first few matches. Maybe Henry Bushnell is right?
24. Former U.S. World Cup team member Fabian Johnson is available on a free transfer after his contract with German Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach expired last month. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be in MLS anytime soon.
Johnson has been mulling a stateside move forever; Cincy tried to snag him before its inaugural season in the league last year. But multiple sources told me last week that the 33-year-old oft-injured fullback/winger passed on the opportunity last year to join Real Salt Lake, where he would’ve reunited with his old USMNT roommate and close friend Nick Rimando.
25. One source told me that Johnson’s services have since been offered to clubs around the league, at a salary number lower than what RSL had available, but that there were no takers.
26. Staggered kickoffs are awesome. While it’s easy to understand why MLS wants to play most of its games on weekends during non-pandemic times, there is something to be said for being able to watch an MLS game on any given night. Hopefully, it’s something the league does more often whenever the regular season is able to resume.
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