The MLS XI, Week 24: LAFC Clinches, But Here Comes Atlanta United

Avi Creditor
Sports Illustrated

It's that time of year when each MLS result is met with a bit more scrutiny and significance given the state of the table and how many games are left in the regular season.

For the teams toeing the playoff line with less than 10 games to go, that becomes even more true, so to see the Montreal Impact turn a 3-0 lead into a draw all while the teams directly around them in the table–New England, Orlando and Toronto–all played their ways to draws as well goes down as a blatant missed opportunity.

To see Seattle go up a man six minutes in vs. the LA Galaxy only to blow a lead, fall behind thanks to two Zlatan Ibrahimovic goals and then salvage a draw of its own on just an atrocious own goal goes down as a blatant missed opportunity for both. The Sounders and Galaxy should both make the playoffs, but given the new single-elimination format, home field will mean plenty, and each will rue those two missed points–especially if they wind up in slots 5-7 out west.

There are two teams who haven't had much to regret lately, though, and they sit at the top of their respective conferences after a pair of wins spearheaded by their record-setting goal-scorers, and that's where we'll start our look back at the most notable happenings in MLS:

I. Atlanta United hits its form

What a week it was for Atlanta United. You can debate the merit of the Campeones Cup and the value of winning trophies that were created out of nothing, but there's nothing cheap about Atlanta going head-to-head with a first-choice Club America side and coming out victorious on a night that certainly felt like it had some meaning. 

Fast forward a few days later, and Atlanta went into Portland and emerged with an impressive 2-0 victory in their MLS Cup rematch, one that took the Five Stripes back to the top of the Eastern Conference. Based on Atlanta's form, pedigree and talent, you wouldn't be faulted for expecting the club to stay there.

That's not to say that the struggles, head-scratching decisions and stylistic changes that persisted for most of the season are to be excused, but in MLS, you have the time to let things develop over the course of a season without being punished for a prolonged stretch of futility. It also helps matters that no other team in the Eastern Conference has been able to run away from the pack, with the Philadephia Union's stumbles coinciding in tune with Atlanta's rise.  

With a U.S. Open Cup final and a chance to lift another trophy at home on the horizon, there's ample opportunity for Atlanta to add even more momentum going into the playoffs for its title defense.

II. LAFC clinches–already

It was a never a doubt that LAFC would make the playoffs, and the runaway Supporters' Shield leaders made it official with Saturday night's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. Carlos Vela's latest goal (he now has 24 in 24 games) ensured he set a new standard for most combined goals and assists in a single MLS season–and there are still nine games left to play!

If this was Europe, we'd be debating whether this is the greatest single season ever, but it's MLS, so the playoff reckoning must happen first before that conversation takes place. Make no mistake, though, what Bob Bradley's club is doing is sensational. Its goal differential of +42 is 27 goals–27!–higher than the next best club in that metric, Atlanta. LAFC has scored by far the most goals (67) and conceded by far the least (25) in the league. It still has to solve the Zlatan/Galaxy puzzle, though, and the next chance to do that comes Sunday night at Banc of California Stadium, where it is unbeaten in 11 games (10-0-1) this season.

III. Josef Martinez cannot stop scoring

Vela has been the runaway Golden Boot leader for much of the season, but the reigning king is having a say in that race after all. Part of the reason behind Atlanta's resurgence is that Josef Martinez has found his scoring form to the tune of goals in an MLS-record 11 straight league games.

The Venezuelan, whose single-season record of 31 goals is in peril, is now up to 21 in 2019 after a sensational finish seconds into the second half in Portland. Picked out by Julian Gressel's perfect pass, Martinez was played in behind the Portland defense, where he elected to curl from 20 yards instead of trying to round the keeper for an easier finish. Such is the level of confidence at the moment for one of the best goal-scorers MLS has ever seen.

IV. Wondo, the standard of longevity

There's one thing that Vela and Martinez are both highly unlikely to accomplish: Come up with 10 straight MLS seasons with 10 goals or more. That distinction belongs to Chris Wondolowski, though, the true standard of longevity and consistency in the league.

MLS's all-time leading scorer found the back of the net again in what wound up being a footnote to a second straight surprise defeat to a team outside of the playoff picture. His completely unmarked header opened the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Sporting Kansas City, putting him in double digits yet again.

For perspective, no player had done it in six seasons before Wondolowski, and now he has an unlikely double-double. His all-time record now stands at 154 (and counting).

V. Rooney sounds off

There's little for Wayne Rooney to lose now that he's leaving D.C. United at the end of the season for a player-coach role with Derby County. So he's using his platform to be a bit more vocal about MLS's shortcomings. He's not the first player to vocalize his displeasure with the league's travel policies, and he certainly won't be the last, but he's one of the most high-profile to do so. Much was made of Rooney passing on the chance to have special travel accommodations when he arrived in the league, but it's clear he'd like extra accommodations to be had for all. Keep an eye on that element during the upcoming CBA negotiations.

VI. The Galaxy's new star trio

Donovan-Beckham-Keane was great and all, but can anyone stop Zlatan-Homer-Bart? Just how the latter two will be fit under the club's salary structure remains to be seen...

VII. Where would TFC be without Jozy Altidore?

The U.S. forward has been keeping TFC's playoff hopes afloat with his array of goals (five in seven games) since the Gold Cup, and the Reds needed his latest one–a 90th-minute equalizer just to salvage a point vs. Columbus.

TFC remains the league's most confounding team. On paper, it's good enough to compete with the LAFCs and Atlantas of the league, but in practice, it's been utterly mediocre. As it stands, it's out of the playoff picture, though has a game in hand on those within striking distance above the playoff line. If TFC gets to the other side of the line, it surely will have Altidore to thank.

VIII. Montreal blows it

The Montreal Impact were up 3-0 at home and cruising to a valuable three points in a tight playoff race until, well ... 

That's just a gut-wrenching way to drop two points for a club teetering on the edge of the playoff line. If the Impact don't wind up making it to the postseason, you can look back to Saturday's result as one of the chief culprits.

IX. Danladi does it late

Minnesota United has had plenty go its way this season (after plenty not going its way the previous two years), and that manifested itself again in the waning moments vs. Orlando City. Sometimes all you need is some late, long throw-in magic.

The draw keeps the Loons in second in the Western Conference, albeit a far distance from first-place LAFC and only five points clear of the playoff line. There's still work to do in Minnesota, but the turnaround in Year 3 has been impressive.

X. Sign language

MLS has controversially ensured that all politically charged signs stay out of its stadiums, but the league hasn't said anything about signs about pundits who stir the pot on the debate over whether political messages should remain outside the stadium.

XI. St. Louis will have its day

MLS's expansion tour will hit St. Louis on Tuesday, with's Brian Straus confirming the league's intention to award the city with the league's 28th franchise. It was all but revealed on Monday, when MLS teased a "special announcement" in St. Louis on Tuesday that features commissioner Don Garber and St. Louis's expansion bid personnel. That is, after all, the expansion bat signal.

It will mark an incredible turnaround for a bid that looked dead when the league first announced its intentions to expand to 28. It was never beyond reviving, though, and it's only appropriate that MLS finally lands in a city with so much soccer history. Plenty of questions will be answered in the coming days, weeks and months regarding the club, its future and how it manifests itself on the field (along with what league growth means for future alignment and competition rules), but it's a big deal for one of America's great soccer cities and one that's probably long overdue. Ahead of the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, polled a number of the league's executives and coaches about what city they thought deserved an MLS expansion team, and the overwhelming winner was St. Louis. A little more than three years later, that is coming to fruition.

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