MLS clubs with high expectations are beginning to crawl out of their early-season slumps, while the use of VAR was chastised in D.C. and welcomed by the Red Bulls.

By Avi Creditor
May 06, 2019

MLS is 10 weeks into the season, and clubs with high expectations are beginning to crawl out of their early-season slumps.

Last season's finalists are enjoying their first winning streaks of the season, with Atlanta United impressively securing a win in Kansas City, while the Portland Timbers won their third on the bounce to continue their climb back to relevance. The Supporters' Shield-holding New York Red Bulls also have won consecutive games for the first time all season, a feat made more impressive when considering it's come without the services of their top two players.

We'll start this week's look back with the defending MLS Cup champions, though, who continued to receive a strong contribution from a player with high potential, only to realize that he'll be gone for a very busy upcoming stretch due to international duty:

I. Barco goes out with a banger

Ezequiel Barco will depart for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, where he'll try to follow in Lionel Messi's footsteps and help Argentina to the trophy, but not before lacing home another special strike. This one, courtesy of a helpful giveaway by Graham Zusi, doubled Atlanta's lead en route to an important 3-0 win at struggling Sporting Kansas City.

Barco also assisted on Josef Martinez's second goal of the day, and it was Barco's shot that stung Tim Melia's hands and fell to the doorstep for Martinez's opener. Barco, who disappointed after becoming the most expensive signing in league history last season, has already matched his goal total from his first MLS campaign. Perhaps this is the result that sparks the reigning champs and their reigning MVP in Martinez onto bigger and better things in 2019–though they'll be without their prized 20-year-old talent for at least a month-long span that includes six games.

II. Say Unkel

The record books will show that on Saturday, May 4, D.C. United beat the Columbus Crew 3-1 at Audi Field, breaking out offensively after a three-game stretch in which it mustered only one goal. Yet the result could've gone a very different way had Ted Unkel not overturned a would-be Columbus opener for ... a foul that he effectively committed on the goal-scoring sequence? Unkel, afterwards, said that a supposed foul committed by Wil Trapp on Luciano Acosta was the reason for waving off the play following a video review, but if anything, the referee's presence in between the two players caused any supposed tripping of Acosta that sent the Crew on their way to a goal that would not stand.

Needless to say, Caleb Porter was not pleased, and he made absolutely clear of that in postgame remarks.

Porter can expect a fine this week, but it's hard to argue with his assessment of the situation, at least as it relates to the play the took a goal away from Columbus.

III. When the rescinded red card pays off

Cristian Roldan could have missed the Seattle Sounders' 1-1 draw at Minnesota United after his red card offense last weekend against LAFC. During the week, Seattle appealed the decision–made by, you guessed it, Unkel–and the panel unanimously agreed that Roldan's slap of Eduard Atuesta's face was more inadvertent than purposeful, freeing him to play Saturday at Allianz Field. That decision paid off in a massive way for the visitors.

IV. Ohi-NO

Columbus's loss to D.C. was its fifth straight, a staggering fall from where the club stood less than a month ago–atop the Eastern Conference table. It can take solace from the fact that its new neighbor, FC Cincinnati has not only also dropped five in a row, but it hasn't scored during that stretch. Yes, the expansion side has been blanked a combined 9-0, including the last 40 minutes vs. San Jose Saturday night, when it had a man advantage.

As it turns out, hell is presently very real for both sides of that so-dubbed rivalry.

V. Portland putting it together

Columbus and Cincinnati need to look no further than Portland for inspiration on how to snap out of a five-game losing skid. The Timbers have done just that, winning a third in a row after a 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake–with both goals the result of Sebastian Blanco shots the were first blocked before having their rebounds turned in for scores.

Giovanni Savarese's side has yet to keep a clean sheet this season, but at the very least it's winning again, and with that backloaded home slate waiting, it's doing enough on the season-opening 12-game road trip to remain in the mix. On top of that, it's bolstering its attack with the signing of Necaxa's Brian Fernandez as a Designated Player ahead of the primary transfer window closing this week. There's plenty of room for improvement, but things are finally trending in the right direction for the Timbers.

VI. That's a lot of DOOP

No MLS team had a better week than the Philadelphia Union, 2-0 winners over FC Cincinnati and 6-1 thrashers of the New England Revolution in a three-day span.

The latter result escalated quicker than a San Diego news station fight featuring Ron Burgundy. Four goals in less than 20 second-half minutes showcased both the ability of the Union's attack and the absolute dread in the back for the Revs, highlighted by Sergio Santos's double and Ilsinho toying with his opponent before deftly putting a near-post chip into the back of the net.

The Union sit atop the Eastern Conference after 10 weeks, with six wins in their last eight games sending the success-starved club into first.

VII. Houston takes the battle of Texas–barely

The Houston Dynamo have very quietly put together a strong start to the season, punctuating it with a 2-1 win over in-state rival FC Dallas–though an offside call seven minutes into stoppage time prevented Santiago Mosquera from salvaging a draw. Mauro Manotas's double gave Houston its sixth win in seven games, allowing the club to creep into third in the Western Conference with games in hand on both LA teams. 

The Dynamo's 2.38 points per game is actually the highest in MLS, and perhaps it's time more take Wilmer Cabrera's side seriously as a contender. Next weekend's challenge at Seattle is as good a litmus test as any.

VIII. VAR at RBA

While Columbus may have been ruing the use of VAR in its game, the Red Bulls surely welcomed its intervention in a thrilling win over the LA Galaxy. Derrick Etienne's game-winning goal for the Kaku- and Bradley Wright-Phillips-less Red Bulls was confirmed with help from technology, which didn't appear to go over too well in Los Angeles.

"I think New York didn’t play better than us," Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. "I think we had to get something, I think the third goal was a very irregular situation because it's very clear the New York player is offside, but soccer is like that sometimes."

Meanwhile, Amro Tarek, who scored the opener for New York, had a very proper social media response after the win, in another match that included a Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal.

IX. Here comes Toronto FC

A 2-0 win in Orlando doesn't confirm anyone as a contender, but Toronto FC securing that result without the injured Jozy Altidore and on the heels of reports that the club is nearing a deal to sign Omar Gonzalez and bring the U.S. international back to MLS should put the Eastern Conference and rest of MLS on notice that the Reds are on the rise again.

It also helps that the non-DP contributors are pulling their weight again. Jay Chapman and Jonathan Osorio have quietly been getting the job done, combining for five goals and six assists and handling the scoring in Florida.

X. Another result for NYCFC

Plenty has been said about the lackluster ways of NYCFC under Domenec Torrent, but the club may be figuring it out after all. NYCFC has still only lost once all season and stretched its unbeaten run to six after a 2-0 win at previously surging Montreal. NYCFC has still drawn twice as often as it's won, but there's something to be said for avoiding losses and accruing points.

XI. The 2019 Colorado Rapids in photo form

Days after firing manager Anthony Hudson and replacing him with Conor Casey in the interim, Colorado promptly gave up a late winner to Vancouver's Andy Rose Friday night, dropping a seventh straight match to fall to 0-8-2 on the season. The talent on that team is better than a winless 10-game stretch, but it appears to have the life sucked out of it. It'll be a long climb back to any semblance of contention for the Rapids.

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