Football Features

From Atlanta United to NYCFC: Who is the best team in a stacked MLS Eastern Conference?

By CJ Smith


Published: 17:29, 29 July 2019

Week 21 in MLS brought us 12 games as the race for the play-offs cranked up another notch.

The end of the regular season is just over two months away and aside from LAFC running away with the Western Conference, things couldn’t be much closer.

This latest round of matches did nothing to make a potential outcome any clearer, but it did provide us with a tonne of goals and some end-to-end thrillers to keep us all glued to the action.

Read on as we get stuck in and make sense of everything that happened in week 21.

MLS week 21 snapshot

Game of the week has to go to LAFC and Atlanta United’s slugfest at the Banc of California Stadium. After Mo Adams put the reigning champions ahead with his first-ever MLS goal, the current Supporters Shield leaders stormed back, with goals from Adama Diomande, Diego Rossi, Carlos Vela (of course) and Eduard Atuesta, giving Bob Bradley’s side a 4-1 lead.

Even then, though, the Gold and Black weren’t safe and had to hold on as Atlanta grabbed two goals in response and pushed hard for an equaliser which, ultimately, they couldn’t quite muster. Meanwhile, in New York, NYCFC kept their understated challenge to top the Eastern Conference on track with a 3-1 win over a Sporting KC side who continue to struggle.

Bruce Arena made it 11 games unbeaten for a previously terrible New England Revolution side with an impressive 4-1 over Orlando City. The Revs have gone from propping up the east to sliding above the play-off line and now find themselves just six points behind leaders Philadelphia Union. Fellow Eastern Conference side Columbus Crew kept their faint play-off hopes alive with a 3-2 away win at New York Red Bulls, making it three unbeaten for the Crew.

Chicago Fire v DC United, FC Dallas v Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United v Vancouver Whitecaps all finished 0-0, while Seattle Sounders climbed back into second in the West with a 1-0 away win at Houston Dynamo. FC Cincinnati’s struggles at the bottom of the pile continued with a 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC, Montreal Impact smashed the Union 4-0 and San Jose continued their own remarkable upturn with a 3-1 win over Colorado Rapids.

MLS 2019 top goalscorers

  • Carlos Vela (LAFC) – 22
  • Josef Martinez (Atlanta United) – 17
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) – 16
  • Diego Rossi (LAFC) – 12
  • Wayne Rooney (DC United) – 11

The final game of the week saw LA Galaxy travel to Portland, fresh off the back of their El Trafico win over LAFC last week. However, things didn’t quite go to plan for Zlatan and company, with the Timbers hitting four past the Galaxy in a game which saw three red cards, 17 fouls and 37 shots. Safe to say, Ibra was not best pleased.

What they said

“First I have to say thank you to all the fans who voted me to be captain. It’s a pleasure. I hope they can enjoy the game and we can bring a good show for them.”

Carlos Vela after being voted as captain for this week’s MLS All-Star game v Atletico Madrid

“I think this streak has a lot to do with these players. They’ve really been terrific to work with. They’ve played well, and they’ve dealt with the good and the bad along the way. So it’s real positive.”

Bruce Arena on the Revs going 11 unbeaten since sacking Brad Friedel

“I think many times we’ve lost the attitude. In two years, even three years, I’ve never seen Atlanta play defensive, so we can’t play defensive, whether we have one forward or two forwards, Atlanta has always played attacking soccer and has to continue that way.”

Josef Martinez on Frank de Boer’s Atlanta United tactics

“There was a critical moment in the second half where [Clark] made at least three world-class saves that could have made the ending of that game a lot more nervy than it was. Credit to the backline for shutting down Ibrahimovic, he came in in some form and they didn’t give him much of a sniff and then the attack showed up.”

Jeremy Ebobisse on Portland Timbers’ 4-0 win over LA Galaxy

Who is the best team in a tightly-packed Eastern Conference?

LAFC may have things nice and sewn up in the West – well, barring some unlikely, monumental fall off in the run-in – but the same cannot be said for the Eastern Conference, which remains absolutely wide open. Philadelphia Union currently top the pile but between them and eighth-place Toronto FC, just seven points separate the entire pack.

But who is the best out of this eight-team clutch? Each has their own claim, so let’s take a look.

Philadelphia Union

The Union have been one of the surprise packages of MLS 2019 so far, outscoring the entire Eastern Conference with 41 goals. Ilsinho continues to be important from the bench, while the likes of Jamiro Montero and Haris Medunjanin have played key roles. However, they’ve won just two of their last seven MLS games and are now clinging on to their Eastern Conference lead by the skin of their teeth.

Key stat: The Union have attempted the joint-highest number of shots (347) in the east so far.

Atlanta United

Until recently, Atlanta United had been the defensive kings of MLS this season, with their game predicated on shutouts and pragmatism. However, all that has changed recently. Josef Martinez continues to fire goals in at an absurd rate and the return of Ezequiel Barco will surely help, but De Boer still won’t trust Pity Martinez, bringing the Argentina international off once again just as he was hitting his stride against LAFC. Their relationship is a delicate one, to say the least, while Five Stripes fans are unconvinced by De Boer’s possession-heavy style having been the ultimate counter-attacking side under Tata Martino.

Key stat: Atlanta United have the third-lowest expected goals against (32.54) in the Eastern Conference this season.

DC United

“LuchaRoo” just isn’t quite clicking this season. Wayne Rooney is still chipping in with goals but Luciano Acosta has scored just five times and assisted once this season, looking a shadow of his 2018 form. That said, DC United are still third in the East and both those aforementioned talents are capable of switching it on at any given moment, not to mention Paul Arriola’s wing-wizardry. However, if they’re to make a serious dent in the play-offs, they have to be more creative in the final third and less dependent on Rooney’s moments of magic.

Key stat: DC United have the second-lowest xG (29.82) in the East this season.

New York City FC

NYCFC have slipped under the radar and climbed the Eastern Conference without really being noticed, until now. Maxi Moralez is a creative genius, Heber is well and truly in the goalscoring groove and Domenec Torrent has the Bronx side playing some of the most fun, attractive football in MLS right now.

No side in the East has had a higher average share of possession (58.74%) this season than NYCFC and if they keep on going like this, the Eastern Conference title and, maybe, MLS Cup could be on the cards. Their long search for a first piece of silverware looks close to reaching its conclusion.

Key stat: NYCFC’s 1.75 points per game total is the highest in the Eastern Conference this season.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls’ aggressive press just hasn’t quite had as much thrust this season as it did when Tyler Adams was running the midfield. That said, they’ve proved against the likes of Atlanta United and NYCFC recently that they’re still a dangerous side that should never be underestimated. If they can get Bradley Wright-Phillips fully fit and firing and get the best out of Kaku and Daniel Royer as the play-offs approach, don’t bet against them upsetting a few sides. Chris Armas’ side aren’t interested in possession but are arguably far more dangerous without it or in transition.

Key stat: The Red Bulls have made the second-highest number of tackles (440) in MLS this season.

Montreal Impact

The Impact’s unexpected 4-0 win over Philadelphia ended a run of four straight MLS defeats and keeps them chipping away at a play-off spot. The Canadians certainly wouldn’t be your go-to choice for a run to the MLS Cup, or even to remain above the play-off line come the end of the season, but the return of Ignacio Piatti at the weekend should strike fear into every opponent they have left to face, and he could provide that extra touch of magic to make all the difference.

Key stat: Piatti has made the highest number of short key passes per 90 minutes (1.5) of any Impact player this season.

New England Revolution

What a job Bruce Arena is doing with the Revs. The club has its struggles, sharing Gillette Stadium which is simply not made for football but on the pitch, things couldn’t be going much better. Arena took over a real mess of a team when he succeeded Brad Friedel but the Revs are now 11 unbeaten under his guidance, in the play-off spots and brimming with confidence. Their next three games – against LAFC, Seattle Sounders and NY Red Bulls – will be a real acid test of whether the Revs can really make and compete in the play-offs but regardless, things are on the up.

Key stat: The Revs have the highest expected goals against (43.9) and second-highest xG (42.07) in the East so far.

Toronto FC

It’s a real shock that Toronto FC are below the play-off line but don’t expect them to stay there. The Canadians have lost just three of their last 10 and have Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore firing on all cylinders now. Those two have the potential to be one of the most potent duos in MLS and if you can get that sort of firepower into the play-offs, anything can happen.

Key stat: Toronto FC have completed more passes (10, 713) than any other Eastern Conference side this season.

Verdict: They’re not top yet, but NYCFC‘s style and attacking prowess has them flying up the Eastern Conference standings, playing some of the most attractive football outside of Los Angeles this season. Moralez continues to be one of MLS’ ultimate playmakers, notching nine assists so far, while Heber has nine goals in 13 games. Along with LAFC, NYCFC have lost the joint-fewest number of games (3) so far this season and the scary thing is, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Every result from MLS Week 21

Saturday, July 27

NYCFC 3-1 Sporting KC

LAFC 4-3 Atlanta United

Sunday, July 28

New England Revolution 4-1 Orlando City

NY Red Bulls 2-3 Columbus Crew

Chicago Fire 0-0 DC United

FC Dallas 0-0 Real Salt Lake

Houston Dynamo 0-1 Seattle Sounders

Toronto FC 2-1 FC Cincinnati

Minnesota United 0-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

Montreal Impact 4-0 Philadelphia Union

San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 Colorado Rapids

Portland Timbers 4-0 LA Galaxy