In MLS, there are some games that just mean more.
No, we're not talking about the Leagues Cup, the new MLS-Liga MX "competition" that begins this week, for which the inaugural participants weren't selected based on any sporting criteria and for which the size has already grown for next year's second edition (which will, incidentally, be based on sporting criteria). We're not talking about the All-Star Game, even though a rebuilt Atletico Madrid makes for an intriguing opponent next week in Orlando, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela will team up after a week of trash talk culiminated in an unforgettable showdown.
It's the rivalry games that rarely disappoint, regularly entertain and always leave you looking forward to the next one where the league truly makes its mark. The meaning of the regular season has always been called into doubt, even by Zlatan himself as he so eloquently put it in his postgame interview on SportsCenter following the LA Galaxy's 3-2 win over LAFC Friday night. And while there's plenty of truth to Ibrahimovic's statement about all of the focus being put on the playoffs, especially with seven teams in each conference getting into the new single-elimination format, there's no denying the passion and true meaning palpable in certain rivalry bouts, and that's where we'll start our look back at a hectic, busy and loud week in MLS:
I. Zlatan leaves his mark
Ibrahimovic did everything short of taking out another full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times Saturday morning to tell L.A. "You're welcome."
Nobody backs up his talk more than Ibra, whose perfect hat trick (goals with his left foot, right foot, head), kept the Galaxy undefeated against new rival LAFC in their rapidly burgeoning history. After calling himself a Ferrari among Fiats, he went ahead and showcased the performance that others can't. This is still Vela's season. The Mexican has 21 goals in 20 games (no MLS player has ever done that) and is on pace to ironically do what Ibrahimovic said he would at the start of the season and break every attacking record the league has. But the night–and city–belonged to Zlatan.
Now, it's just a matter of when we'll see Ibrahimovic play next. Lost in the mania created by his performance that left a mark on the league was a violent elbow that left a mark on Mohamed El Munir's head and went unpunished in the run of play. His leaping, flying connection has reportedly resulted in a facial fracture, one astutely flagged by New York Red Bulls defender Amro Tarek (and was clearly the reason for LAFC goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel's ire, which manifested itself after the final whistle).
This is just unbelievable!!! ElMounir is going to have a surgery tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/XQnT8xEC5K— Amro Tarek (@AmroAbdelAziz) July 22, 2019
Ibrahimovic has proven he's a special case in MLS, but it will be hard for the MLS Disciplinary Committee to see that and look the other way in good faith. With important road matches against Portland, Atlanta and D.C. up next, the Galaxy could find themselves with a gaping hole in their garage for the time being, one that could require multiple Fiats to overperform in the interim.
II. Fireworks in the Pacific Northwest
As good as El Trafico was yet again, it's still got a ways to go before it catches Seattle-Portland as the league's best rivalry. It's hard to do that. The Sounders and Timbers go back decades, through many iterations, and history and longevity can't simply be replicated. The venom that overflowed in the latter stages and after the final whistle in Portland's 2-1 win at CenturyLink Field Sunday night, for instance, is a product of all of that.
If Zlatan vs. Vela is the individual rivalry to watch in Los Angeles, then Brian Fernandez vs. Raul Ruidiaz is the new individual matchup to circle in Cascadia. The two star strikers both came to MLS from Liga MX in lucrative moves in the last year, with Ruidiaz joining Seattle last summer and Fernandez following suit in Portland in early May. Ever since, the latter has been a goal-scoring machine, with seven tallies in nine appearances. Ruidiaz enjoyed a similar prolific start, with 10 goals in 14 games last season before getting off to an eight-goal start through 12 appearances this season.
Like with Ibrahimovic and Vela in L.A., Fernandez and Ruidiaz were at the heart of all of the scoring in Seattle–though Ruidiaz will surely be replaying the one that got away over in his mind even if he made up for it later in the match.
The Aug. 23 rematch in Portland can't come soon enough.
III. The Revolution is on
Make that an even 10 for the New England Revolution. Since Brad Friedel's firing, the Revs haven't lost in 10 matches, going 6-0-4 combined under interim manager Mike Lapper and permanent solution Bruce Arena.
New England extended its run with a pair of wins this week, buoyed by the arrival of club-record signing Gustavo Bou. His midweek stunner vs. the Vancouver Whitecaps announced his arrival with authority, and he returned the favor with an assist to Carles Gil, the club's previous record signing, in Sunday's win over FC Cincinnati.
The numbers are staggering since Friedel's ouster: 19 goals scored, eight conceded and a surge from last place into the playoff spots. It's been quite the flip of a switch and a rapid evolution for the Revolution.
IV. Shooters gotta shoot
Evidently subscribing to Wayne Gretzky's mantra of "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take," the San Jose Earthquakes have set a new record for attacking volume, firing away a staggering 64 times in the last two games–32 times apiece in respective 3-1 wins over the Galaxy and Whitecaps.
It's hard to argue against the strategy and the methods employed by Matias Almeyda, who has put himself in frame to give Bob Bradley a run in the Coach of the Year voting later this year.
V. Set-piece perfection
Marco Fabian's first season with the Philadelphia Union hasn't gone entirely as hoped, with the Mexican veteran playing in just 13 of the club's 23 games (starting nine), not yet assisting on a goal and scoring four. But the most recent of those tallies was spectacular. Straight from the training ground, Fabian uncorked a beauty to help the Eastern Conference-leading Union stay in first.
VI. Mauro Manotas vs. all of Toronto FC
This was like those periodic videos that pop up of two or three pros taking on 100 children in Japan and finding a way to score anyway.
Yes, that's one Mauro Manotas and seven Toronto FC players in frame. Let's go to the videotape:
#ColombianosHD ¡Solo contra el mundo! Mauro Manotas fue paciente, supo aguantar, buscó la oportunidad y anotó este golazo con el Houston Dynamo, que venció 1-3 a Toronto FC en la MLS. ¿Qué te parece el gol del atlanticense? pic.twitter.com/isdzaal8gz— Habla Deportes (@HablaDeportes) July 21, 2019
It's a combination of just putrid defending with some sensational solo skill, and it's something that took a hatchet to Toronto FC's momentum. The Reds went to battle for their third game in seven days with a heavily rotated squad and paid the price. The Dynamo, meanwhile, had lost three straight games and conceded at least three in each of them before cruising to the 3-1 win. How very MLS for things to unfold as they did.
VII. USMNT respect
DaMarcus Beasley's pending retirement will put a cap on one of the greatest careers by any U.S. men's player ever, and that fact hasn't been lost on Jozy Altidore, whose goal in a third straight MLS match was but a consolation in TFC's loss to Beasley's Dynamo. That didn't cause him to lose sight of the bigger picture in securing one of the more meaningful jersey swaps he'll have.
VIII. Sporting KC gives it away
Sporting KC had shown signs of snapping its slump after a pair of consecutive wins, but it did itself no favors in slipping back into futility on Saturday. The two goals conceded to FC Dallas were a product of the inability to come up with the simplest of plays in its own defensive third, and the club has nobody to blame but itself for dropping all three points at home.
One way to silence The Cauldron: score right in front of them. 😱 pic.twitter.com/P2g59mkI1Z— FC Dallas (@FCDallas) July 21, 2019
IX. Bittersweet 16
Colorado Rapids 16-year-old homegrown player Sebastian Anderson scored the first goal of his career, then was sent off less than half an hour later in a 2-1 loss to NYCFC. To say "life comes at you fast" is a bit on the nose with regard to a 16-year-old pro, but it's not inaccurate.
X. Michael Boxall always uses a coaster
The man is resourceful if nothing else. Wait for it...
XI. Atlanta's Martinezes leave it late
After toying with Houston in a midweek 5-0 win, Atlanta United struggled to break down a D.C. United side playing without Wayne Rooney–that is before two of its highest-priced stars did what they're paid to do.
A dash of Pity Martinez in the 89th minute, a dose of Josef Martinez (after his earlier, unique penalty run-up finally backfired) in stoppage time and Atlanta United suddenly finds itself three points out of first place in the east with a game in hand.
He comes up in BIG moments— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) July 21, 2019
He scores BIG goals
Pity Martínez slams home the close range header! pic.twitter.com/Chyknztudu
The Martinez connection 💥— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) July 21, 2019
Pity with the dime.
Josef with the finish.
This game is OVER 😡 pic.twitter.com/GUzEqLFtCg
All is not as ideal as it was a year ago, but the Five Stripes are in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup and firmly in contention as the season turns to winning time. The sky isn't falling at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after all–and even if it was, that's what the roof there is for, right?