The MLS XI, Week 19: Drama, Rivalries and Controversy

Avi Creditor

The Gold Cup and Copa America are over. The Africa Cup of Nations is wrapping up. The secondary transfer window is open. The All-Star Game is on the horizon. There aren't any more clear indicators of the MLS season beginning to heat up than those.

Indeed, the season is well into its second half, where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders and the race to a new-look postseason hits its stride.

As a reset for those who used the last month as a full international break: It's still LAFC and then everyone else. Bob Bradley's side continues to outclass its competition in every way and maintains an 10-point lead in the race for the Supporters' Shield and a first-round bye in the single-elimination, seven-team-per-conference playoff format. The Eastern Conference remains up for grabs, with all teams struggling for consistency and going through hot and cold spells, while Minnesota and San Jose are upsetting the apple cart in the Western Conference.

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With teams getting back to full strength after the return of their internationally-occupied talents, here's what stood out from a weekend that featured rivalry controversy, drama and some fantastic individual efforts.

I. Controversy on the Hudson

Throw-in or corner kick? That was the question being asked on both sides of the Hudson River after the New York Red Bulls controversially beat NYCFC 2-1 on Sunday.

It all centered on the second of Daniel Royer's goals on the day. With the match tied at 1-1 just before the hour mark, Alexander Callens cleared a ball out of play, seemingly for a corner kick. That's how assistant referee Corey Rockwell saw things. Referee Alan Kelly overruled him, though, and the Red Bulls took a quick throw-in instead. With NYCFC confused and delayed in its reaction, the hosts pounced, and Royer headed in the eventual game-winner.

Credit the Red Bulls for maintaining focus and playing through, but you'd understand where NYCFC's anger comes from considering it saw Rockwell point directly to the corner flag while Alex Muyl collected the ball for the throw-in.

That goal allowed the Red Bulls to leapfrog NYCFC and two other losing teams in the Eastern Conference to claim third place in the standings with the home stretch of the season on the horizon.

II. Drama in Minnesota

As if Mason Toye's stoppage-time goal wasn't dramatic enough, Vito Mannone made it stand up with a penalty save on Reto Ziegler in the dying seconds of the added minutes. Call it life at the death for Minnesota United vs. FC Dallas, and the Loons further fortified their place in the thick of the Western Conference playoff places with the three-point haul and fourth straight win.

III. California Clasico sweep

An earthquake in Southern California is a little on the nose given recent events, but credit San Jose for coming into Dignity Health Sports Park and dominating the host LA Galaxy, beating Zlatan & Co. for a second time in as many weeks to complete the season sweep of the California Clasico. The Galaxy may have scored early, through Rolf Feltscher's second-minute goal, but that's about where LA's attack ended for the night. 

San Jose outshot LA 32-5 on the night. Feltscher's goal was the only Galaxy shot on target. As for Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham, he was peppered with 16 shots on frame by his former team. Both shot totals were San Jose single-match club records. That's another way of saying this wasn't particularly close, and San Jose got its just reward with goals from Valeri Qazaishvili, Danny Hoesen and Jackson Yueill after the hour mark.

Since starting the season 1-5-0, Matias Almeyda's Earthquakes are 8-2-4 and among the best in the league over that time. 

IV. A Canadian exclamation point

Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore remain among the most potent attacking duos in the league, and the Toronto FC stars showed that from nearly an identical spot on the field in a 2-0 derby win vs. the Montreal Impact. 

First, it was Pozuelo, who was mysteriously left free to roam through the Montreal midfield before being given the space to fire from 20 yards. 

Then, it was Altidore, in stoppage time, finishing off the Impact from about one step behind where Pozuelo shot, doing so on a pinpoint free kick.

The win was just Toronto's second since May 4, but now that all the pieces are active and in tow–including new center back signing Omar Gonzalez–look for the Reds to turn this momentum into a second-half surge.

V. It wasn't the winner, but this was special

Raul Ruidiaz's solo effort for the opening goal in the Seattle Sounders' 2-1 win over Atlanta United on Sunday was an absolute peach. To head it to himself twice, to then volley to himself over his defender and to then come up with an unstoppable finish: what a goal.

Harry Shipp's header off Jordan Morris's assist was worth the three points, but this, at the very least, was worth another look.

VI. Save of the week

If it doesn't go to Mannone, then how about LAFC defender Mohamed El-Munir? 

With LAFC trailing the Houston Dynamo after a third-minute goal, the deficit could've easily been 2-0 if not for one of the hustle plays of the season. Alberth Elis was on his way to tap in Houston's second, only for El-Munir to track back and make a last-ditch, sliding block, using exquisite technique to avoid committing a penalty in the process.

LAFC's attack picked up the slack from there, with Adama Diomande's double and Diego Rossi's chip capping a 3-1 win that further strengthened LAFC's hold on first in a one-team race for the Supporters' Shield. 

VII. Capsized Crew

The Columbus Crew's biggest win came of the season came in December, when the club was preserved for the city and transfered to new ownership. Since then, a bright 4-1-1 start to the season followed, but it's currently mired in a stretch of 13 losses in 15 games (1-13-1). The club has endured a season-ending injury to Federico Higuain, whose time in Columbus could be done altogether. Its most recent setback came in the 84th minute of a 1-0 loss to Orlando City, which is when 21-year-old homegrown forward Benji Michel scored his first career MLS goal–on Orlando's only shot of the game.

Nothing is going right in Columbus–though if there's a silver lining it's at least that eight of those 14 losses are by a single goal. It's a glass-half-full kind of look at some rough times for Caleb Porter's Crew.

VIII. Bigger than soccer

Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese returned to the club following the passing of his father, and emotions ran high at Providence Park during a 2-2 draw vs. the Colorado Rapids. Between the team celebrating its opening goal by huddling around its coach and the Timbers Army giving him a full-voiced salute, there was support to go around in the Rose City.

IX. Bruce unplugged

Before he was the coach that guided the U.S. men's national team to both its highest and lowest points all in a 15-year stretch, before he was at the helm of the Beckham-era LA Galaxy and before he took over to try to save the New England Revolution, Bruce Arena was the architect of D.C. United's early championship teams. And count him among those appalled by the club's lack of a nod to its history at Audi Field.

Arena, who was on hand as D.C. United shut down RFK Stadium and paid tribute to its legends, didn't mince his words–does he, ever?–when discussing D.C.'s new stadium with reporters following a 2-2 draw vs. D.C., a match in which his side blew a 2-0 lead but remained unbeaten since ousting Brad Friedel as manager (4-0-4).

"I don’t think the club cares about history here at all," Arena said in a series of pointed, heartfelt remarks. "I don’t think there’s been much of a connection to the people that helped build United. There’s a great distance—why, I don’t know, but we haven’t had really any kind of contact or association. ... I should see [club legends] Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno in the rafters somewhere. This club had a great tradition; that tradition you should see every time you walk in the stadium. That’s just my opinion. What the hell do I know? It’s just what I think.

“You walk into stadiums in any sport around the world, they celebrate their past. They should be celebrated a little more. What do I know, I’m not up with the millennials. They don’t know who the hell anybody was anyways.”

Quintessential Bruce. And he's not wrong.

X. Welcome back, Jefferson Savarino

Real Salt Lake is back on the right side of the playoff line, and it's in large part due to the return of Jefferson Savarino. Fresh off his run with Venezuela at Copa America, Savarino scored twice and assisted on another goal in a comprehensive 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Union. Both of Savarino's finishes were top-class–though, due to Ruidiaz's goal, they weren't even the best strikes of the weekend by a player returning from Copa America. Nevertheless, behold the beauty.

XI. Signs of life in Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati has not exactly screamed "set up for success" after firing its manager 11 matches into the season and claiming quite publicly that it's basically looking for an 18-month stopgap replacement. No, the club didn't have a long runway to its inaugural MLS campaign, but there's not a ton in the way of excuses for how it's conducted its operations in getting off the ground.

That said, perhaps FCC is turning the corner. Fanendo Adi's late strike led the side to a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire, Cincinnati's second straight win after a horrid 1-11-0 stretch that effectively ended its hopes at being a playoff team in Year 1. For a team light on starpower, it needed its bigger names to step up, and that Adi's goal was just his first of the season goes a long way in explaining the on-field struggles. 

Perhaps his goal is a start of a personal run–one that sparks Cincy to even more positive results as its inaugural year goes on.

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