- MLS has reached its annual All-Star festivities, and the league's two hottest teams are ones who previously occupied last place in their respective conferences, while its leader staved off a challenge from last season's champion prior to a star-laden showdown vs. Atletico Madrid.
MLS has hit All-Star Week, which means two things: the home stretch is here, and the transfer window is shutting soon.
Atletico Madrid is ready to take on MLS's best after a 7-3 pasting of Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup, with both parties descending on Orlando for Wednesday night's showcase and the festivities that precede them. About 65% of the regular season is in the books, but there's still about a week for clubs to add outside reinforcements for the final leg. The league's secondary transfer window closes on Aug. 7, and there's plenty of buzz surrounding some potential incoming talent that could add intrigue and perhaps a curveball or two to the playoff picture.
When league play resumes over the weekend to kick off that last stretch, two of the most in-form sides will be ones who previously occupied last place in their respective conferences, and that's where will start our look back at the pre-All-Star-Game weekend that was in MLS:
I. The hottest team in MLS is the New England Revolution
Bruce Arena's side is now unbeaten in 11 matches (7-0-4) after handling the All-Star host club with ease. A 4-1 result over Orlando City was never in jeopardy, and it was just another instance of new record signing Gustavo Bou and previous record signing Carles Gil showing their quality and fluidity in leading the attack.
The Revs' run will be put to the test after the All-Star Game, when the club faces league-leading LAFC (in what should be just a fantastic Arena-Bob Bradley coaching showdown), followed by a road clash with the Seattle Sounders and a return home vs. the New York Red Bulls. Arena is under no illusions as to what this streak means if the club can't keep it up.
"We've got to really grind it out to position ourselves for the playoffs," Arena said in his postmatch remarks. "It's not going to be easy. At least we're back in the hunt, though, that's a real positive."
And it's something that was unfathomable just a couple of months ago.
II. The most fun team in MLS may be the San Jose Earthquakes
Yes, the same Earthquakes that were left for dead a few games into the Matias Almeyda era have emerged as an inspired, all-in bunch, and the results have been riveting. A third-straight 3-1 win gave San Jose four wins on the bounce and sent the club six points clear of the playoff line in the Western Conference. There are teams that accumulate points but don't really look like they're having much fun doing it (more on Atlanta in a bit), and then there's San Jose.
With "only" 17 shots after 32 apiece in their last two games, San Jose took its foot off the attacking gas a bit vs. Colorado, but Saturday night's match didn't require the full high-octane treatment after a second-minute own goal put the Quakes on their way. That didn't stop them from putting on a passing and possession clinic, which extended their run to just two losses in their last 16 games (10-2-4). They are suddenly in position not just to make the playoffs but to host a postseason game. The race for "greatest turnaround" is a fierce one, but what Almeyda has been able to do with a side that was not subjected to wholesale changes has been nothing short of remarkable.
III. No party for Pity
Atlanta United was in the midst of trying to make a comeback from 4-1 down to LAFC Friday night when manager Frank de Boer raised eyebrows again. He took off Pity Martinez, the MLS-record signing, just as he was finding his groove at Banc of California Stadium, replacing him with Ezequiel Barco (the previous record signing). Body language said everything that Martinez elected not to verbalize.
De Boer's postgame explanation involved wanting to get Barco into the game and that Martinez was the positional choice that made the most sense for the swap. Is it not de Boer's job to figure out how to get both of his Argentine superstars on the field at the same time? Was recent addition Emerson Hyndman playing so incredibly well that removing him wasn't a consideration? (He wasn't.) It was a baffling move in the moment, and it's just the latest instance of the two parties, who replaced the club's most important winter exports, butting heads.
If things continue on this path, then Atlanta will be put to a business decision. No front office wants to give a clear indicator that it's siding with players over management, but de Boer has already been run out of two clubs in short order. Martinez's value–his sell-on capacity, even at 26, was part of his draw, a la Miguel Almiron–is the one in danger of plummeting the most. Unless Martinez's pouting turns the locker room on the Argentine playmaker, it doesn't take a math whiz to figure out how things should proceed.
IV. Touch of the season
For all of the headlines garnered by Carlos Vela this season–and for good reason: he has 22 goals and 13 assists in 21 appearances and is en route to breaking the single-season scoring mark set a year ago by Josef Martinez–Eduard Atuesta has played a vital role for LAFC in its success. The 22-year-old Colombian midfielder has been involved in 10 goals of his own this year, but the prettiest one of the bunch was the one he scored Friday vs. Atlanta. Just look at this immaculate touch to settle Adama Diomande's cross before calmly finishing in the box.
Even though it gave LAFC a 4-1 lead at the time, it wound up being the game-winner–and a deserved one at that.
V. Jozy Altidore is on some kind of scoring tear
Submit your "he should've scored vs. Mexico" remarks elsewhere. In MLS play, Altidore has been on a roll, scoring in four straight games and doing so in style. His latest strike was that of a forward displaying the utmost confidence. Given the free kick and back-heel flicks that preceded this curling finish from long range, it's for good reason.
VI. Portland finally does it without Chara
The Portland Timbers held one of MLS's most unique stats for over four years and 25 matches, but the streak is finally over: They've won without Diego Chara. After going 0-15-10 without the Colombian midfield anchor, the Timbers rolled the LA Galaxy Saturday night to the tune of a 4-0 victory.
Cristhian Paredes rose to the occasion to help compensate for Chara's absence, scoring twice and having a dominant performance in central midfield alongside Renzo Zambrano. Finally putting an end to the aura surrounding games Chara misses can only help add to the confidence of a squad that is unbeaten in its last six, remains alive in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals and plays 11 of its final 13 matches at home.
VII. Just desserts for Zlatan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic literally broke the face of LAFC's Mohamed El Munir over a week ago with a flying elbow, and while MLS didn't deem his actions to be worthy of a retroactive suspension, Ibrahimovic wound up with a ban anyway–and one that puts a damper on one of MLS's top available showcases. The yellow card Ibrahimovic picked up vs. Portland put him over the accumulation limit and will cost him a place in Saturday's nationally televised showdown in Atlanta. (Diego Polenta and Efrain Alvarez, who both saw red vs. Portland, also won't be available.)
It's a downer for neutral fans, it's a downer for those in Atlanta who only get to see the Galaxy locally every other season and it's a downer for a national audience that will be deprived the chance to see the self-proclaimed Ferrari go for a spin at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the reigning champions, but the fact is that Ibrahimovic should've been banned at least one game if not more for his actions vs. LAFC. Sometimes this things have a way of working themselves out.
VIII. Montreal's instant Impact
Welcome to MLS, Lassi Lappalainen. The Finnish winger, on loan from Bologna as a TAM signing, scored four minues into his MLS debut, then added a second moments after the second-half restart in an impressive 4-0 win over first-place Philadelphia.
The match, which also featured the return of Montreal's Ignacio Piatti after an eight-game absence, was a clear case that very little separates the teams in the Eastern Conference–which could make for one wild single-elimination playoff bracket–and that all it takes is an impact (pun alert!) signing to tilt the scales. The win snapped a four-game losing streak for Montreal, which goes right back into the thick of it all in a race without a clear leader (though NYCFC's multiple games in hand make the standings a bit misleading).
IX. Leagues Cup's unintended consequences
Plenty have thoughts about the new MLS-Liga MX Leagues Cup, its randomness, its future and its eventual usefulness, but Real Salt Lake indicated it was taking it seriously. So seriously, that manager Mike Petke made a clear statement that that was the case prior to a 1-0 loss to Mexican giant Tigres in the opening, quarterfinal stage. If you didn't believe his words, behold his postgame actions.
That tirade was enough to cause MLS to suspend Petke in an open-ended manner, with the league stating he'd be banned "until a review of the incident is complete." That could mean one game, it could mean more. As it is, he missed a 0-0 draw vs. FC Dallas, one of three 0-0 draws on Saturday night's 10-game slate.
FC Dallas may not have been able to beat RSL in MLS play, but the club wound up with the highlight of the weekend against RSL on a different playing field.
That's Caden Benson of FCD's Special Olympics Team launching a long-range free kick and tucking it under the crossbar. You've got to love that.
XI. The rumor mill is buzzing
Argentina national team winger Cristian Pavon to the LA Galaxy? Uruguayan rising star Brian Rodriguez to LAFC? What comes next for Inter Miami after it made its first two signings? With just over a week to go before the closing of the transfer window, the buzz is starting to heat up, and perhaps there's a splash or two that turns some heads.