A couple of big announcements off the field gave way to some explosive and surprising play on the field in MLS Week 8.
The past few days have been significant ones for MLS, both on and off the playing field.
Off the field, MLS made a pair of major announcements, first claiming that it will seek training compensation and solidarity payments for players who are or were part of its clubs' academies and leave for foreign leagues. The North American league also announced a further round of expansion, with MLS now slated to grow to 30 teams. Sacramento and St. Louis aren't at the finish line yet, but they certainly appear to be at the wheel for bids No. 28 and 29, leaving a fierce race for cities trying to claim the 30th and final (for now, anyway) spot.
On the field, there was some explosive play as well, with the supposed battle of Western Conference powers going decidedly LAFC's way, while a series of unexpected results had some eyebrows raised across the league.
Here's the best from a weekend in which many teams looked alike thanks to the special Earth Day-inspired Parley uniforms but there were some pretty clearly defined winners and losers across the board:
I. LAFC strikes first
The battle of the Western Conference's best didn't really turn out to be much of a two-sided affair. LAFC struck the first blow vs. the previously unbeaten Seattle Sounders, claiming an emphatic 4-1 home victory in the first of two meetings in a week's time.
Carlos Vela's MVP campaign continued to build steam after another two-goal performance, with Mark-Anthony Kaye's play in the LAFC midfield continues to be a valuable part of Bob Bradley's first-place side.
It wasn't fully a fair fight, however. Seattle was without a number of key contributors, such as forwards Will Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz and, perhaps most importantly, center back rock Chad Marshall, from whom the dropoff to an aging Roman Torres proved to be quite steep. The best part is, they'll get to do it all over again on Sunday, this time in Seattle. For competition's sake, let's hope the Sounders are playing with more of a full deck.
II. Altidore makes his feelings known
Perhaps it was knowing he had the comfort of a long-term deal already signed, or perhaps it was the frustration of suffering yet another hamstring injury, but Jozy Altidore let loose with his feelings Friday night, taking an unsubtle shot at Toronto FC president Bill Manning after the Reds' thrilling 4-3 win over Minnesota United.
The drama stemmed from the apparent severing of ties with trainer Giuseppi Gueli after the club sold Sebastian Giovinco to a Saudi Arabian club. Altidore credited Gueli for helping him overcome what was a series of debilitating hamstring injuries and then let loose at his superior.
“This could have been avoided, but you'll have to ask Bill Manning why it's not. It's just disappointing, I'm just disappointed," Altidore said following a match in which two Jordan Hamilton goals two minutes apart–the last of which Altidore assisted–gave TFC the win. "We had a trainer here the last three years that has been helping me avoid muscle injuries, but because he was attached to Seba, he's not allowed in the club, which I think is ridiculous. And so now, this is what I'm faced with. Hopefully [Manning] can put his ego aside and I can get the guy that has kept me healthy, kept Michael [Bradley] healthy, kept a bunch of guys healthy and we can move forward. To run a club, you've got to put your ego aside and put the players first ... hopefully, that will change.”
In comments made Monday, after Manning and Altidore met to hash out the issue, the club president said that he had met with Gueli, unbeknownst to Altidore, about continuing his role at the club. Altidore issued a public apology following their meeting, and it appears that there's a happy ending to an otherwise pointed set of words from a star player to head management.
As for Altidore's hamstring status, it appears he'll miss 2-3 weeks before returning. With the Gold Cup on the horizon and Altidore notorious for having injuries impact his summer international play, all eyes will be on how he fares in his return and how impactful Gueli can be at restoring the in-form striker's ailment.
III. The unexpected, Part I
The weekend featured a number of unexpected results, perhaps none more stunning than what the San Jose Earthquakes were able to do to Sporting Kansas City.
San Jose's season highlight to date had been a lopsided win over a Portland side that was playing way worse than advertised, yet Matias Almeyda's side found its top gear yet again against MLS's CCL semifinalist and one of the more well-rounded teams in the league. A penalty miss from Krisztian Nemeth and an injury to Matt Besler made for rough watching for SKC fans, while Danny Hoesen's double in the opening 12 minutes set the tone for the This Is Why You Shouldn't Bet on MLS Game of the Week.
IV. The unexpected, Part II
After five draws and a loss, NYCFC wasn't exactly rolling into Audi Field with a wave of momentum, but there was Domenec Torrent's side, playing D.C. United off the field in a 2-0 win for its first win of the season.
Alexandru Mitrita and Heber are NYCFC's marquee new faces, and they delivered, with the latter making the most of his first start. He set up Mitrita for the slick opener before beating Bill Hamid for the insurance strike that sealed the three points and ensured the club wouldn't rue Maxi Moralez's penalty miss.
Meanwhile, since a 5-0 thrashing of Real Salt Lake, D.C. has now gone scoreless in its last three home matches, an oddity for a club that thrived in its new park after its opening last summer.
V. The unexpected, Part III
The New England Revolution have at times looked like MLS's worst team this season, yet a 1-0 win over the skidding New York Red Bulls ensured that they leapfrogged last season's two prime contenders for the Supporters' Shield in the Red Bulls and Atlanta United. Cristian Penilla's goal off the bench was the difference in a result that could be part of a bigger-picture shakeup in Harrison.
Reports are swirling that the Red Bulls will be ousting Chris Armas in favor of Thierry Henry, a move that would send shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and bring the former RBNY standout back to Red Bull Arena in a managerial role. After his unsuccessful and criticized run at Monaco and the Red Bulls' clear way of trying to play over the last few years since Henry left, you have to wonder whether his presence alone would change the club's fortunes, but for the meantime, the club has downplayed the reports that surface, and it's still Armas's job to do before it's too late.
VI. The peaks and valleys of the Whitecaps
The Vancouver Whitecaps really mimic their logo sometimes. Just days after securing their first win of the season at the expense of the previously undefeated LAFC (who, to be fair, were resting a number of regulars in anticipation of Sunday night's clash vs. Seattle), the Whitecaps turned around and promptly dropped a 1-0 result to Orlando City on a very deflected goal that goes in the books as a game-winner for Nani.
There are peaks and valleys to be expected of a club that endured so much turnover in the offseason, but they'd surely like there to be linear growth instead of every step forward being met with a step back.
VII. Gaitan breaks out in Chicago
The Chicago Fire had been waiting to see the best of Nico Gaitan, and they got glimpses of it in his two-assist performance in a 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids. The Argentine playmaker pulled the strings in his first 90-minute performance, helping make the Fire look like quite the dangerous side in climbing into the playoff places and seventh in the East.
The performance comes with the caveat that it happened against the only remaining unbeaten side in the league, but continues building on the foundation for the Fire, with all of their top stars clicking, to become a more dynamic team and potentially creep its way into the competition in what is turning out to be a wide-open conference. The upcoming run of fixtures (at NYCFC, at Montreal, at LAFC) will say a lot more about where Gaitan and the Fire's form–the club is unbeaten in four now–truly stands.
VIII. Portland on the board–at Porter's expense
Leave it to the Portland Timbers to finally get their first win of the year in the most personal way possible, by beating former manager Caleb Porter and his Columbus Crew in a 2015 MLS Cup rematch.
The Timbers needed this one badly, snapping a losing streak of five games with another five straight coming on the road before the opening of the renovated Providence Park.
IX. Rusnak gives his injury the finger
Real Salt Lake's Albert Rusnak could have had a night to forget in Friday's match vs. FC Cincinnati, but he turned it into one to remember, instead.
The Slovakian star dislocated a finger in absolutely brutal fashion in the early minutes of their showdown, then went on to score two goals in a 3-0 win, proving that pain is not a factor for him.
"They taped it and when you score a goal, you don't feel the pain," Rusnak said.
There is no substitute for painkilling quite like goals, apparently.
X. Jesus continues his rise for Dallas
Naturally, Jesus Ferreira was a key component on Easter weekend, helping lift FC Dallas to a win in Atlanta by scoring early in dealing yet another blow to the reigning MLS champions.
Ferreira, the son of 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira and a potential U.S. youth international–citizenship status pending–now has three goals in his last four games and is a central figure in the rising youth movement of teenage talent across the league.
The match was ultimately won by Jesse Gonzalez's stout goalkeeping and an absolutely lethal late counterattack, with FCD remaining in the mix out west, while Atlanta continues to languish in last amid a stunning fall from grace.
XI. Union win comes at a cost
The scoreboard will show that the Philadelphia Union beat the Montreal Impact 3-0, but what it won't show is the price Philly paid in securing those three points. An injury to star goalkeeper Andre Blake and a red card to impressive left back Kai Wagner figure to leave the Union short in their coming matches.
Fortunately for the Union, the run of fixtures is pretty favorable (at Vancouver, vs. Cincinnati, vs. New England), but for a club playing well and building cohesiveness in the back, being without both for any extended period of time is an obvious setback.