Football Features

Vela breaks records on Decision Day as big rival Ibrahimovic hints at MLS departure

By Chris Smith

Published: 13:41, 9 October 2019

Decision Day is done, the play-off places decided and the MLS regular season a distant memory.

The postseason is now screaming into view, with 14 teams ready to battle it for MLS Cup in some seriously mouth-watering match-ups.

However, before we get into all that, we should definitely take a quick look back at what was a dramatic, record-breaking Decision Day.

Strap yourselves in, here is everything you might have missed.

1. Carlos Vela: Hat-trick hero and record-breaker

What. A. Season.

2018 Carlos Vela was good but a little inconsistent, the 2019 version has been absolutely unplayable.

The former Arsenal forward headed into LAFC’s Decision Day clash with a very simple task: score once to break Josef Martinez’s 31-goal regular season goalscoring record. Never satisfied with the bare minimum, Vela put one in the top corner from 25 yards, bagged again with an overhead kick, then finished the job with a true striker’s finish, leaving him on 34 in 31 for the season. The 3-1 win this delivered for LAFC over Colorado Rapids meant the Black and Gold also set a new single-season points record of 72.

All of that in itself is remarkable, but coupled with the fact that he’s also provided 10 assists for the runaway Supporters’ Shield winners and you really start to understand why the 2019 MVP debate isn’t a debate at all.

After a recent slump, LAFC have rediscovered their mojo right in time for the play-offs, whoever has to face them in the Western Conference semi-finals has a monumental task on their hands.

2. Legends bid farewell

As much as Sunday afternoon was a load of fun for Vela and LAFC, the same cannot be said for Tim Howard.

The 40-year-old goalkeeper was appearing between the sticks for the last time as a professional and allowing three goals in a 3-1 defeat isn’t the way he would have liked to have gone out.

Even so, that performance for the USMNT against Belgium in 2014, 132 clean sheets in 399 Premier League games for Everton and Manchester United combined and the huge role he’s played in changing the perception of North American players mean Howard will still go out as an absolute legend.

Howard wasn’t the only big name saying goodbye, though, as former PSV, Man City and Rangers winger DaMarcus Beasley also hung up his boots, going out on an impressive 4-2 win over LA Galaxy for Houston Dynamo, although their play-off hopes ended some time ago.

Beasley will be underrated by many, but 126 caps for the USMNT, league titles in Holland and Scotland, as well as a host of honours in the USA should keep him in fine company during retirement.

And arguably the biggest name of them all, former Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, announced his retirement following Chicago Fire’s 5-2 win over Orlando City on Sunday. With eight Bundesliga titles, seven DFB-Pokals, a Uefa Champions League and a Fifa World Cup crown, nobody will be questioning his iconic status any time soon.

MLS stalwarts Nick Rimando and Michael Parkhurst also made their final regular-season appearances but with Real Salt Lake and Atlanta United both making the play-offs, we may yet be seeing more of them.

3. The Return of the King

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Josef Martinez was taking the field against San Jose Earthquakes looking to score for the 16th straight league match and take another step toward Lionel Messi’s 21-game record. But 11 minutes from full-time, the Venezuelan was forced off after jarring his knee in horrific fashion following a collision with team-mate Pity Martinez.

Atlanta United fans, and likely Frank de Boer himself, were left contemplating their play-off hopes without their star man, and things really did look desperate.

However, just 16 days later, “the King” returned to the starting line-up for Atlanta United’s Decision Day clash with New England Revolution, a choice which De Boer admits was made by Martinez himself.

The 26-year-old scored the Five Stripes’ second and assisted Julian Gressel’s third in a 3-1 win over the Revs for the defending champions, completing the full 90 minutes in an incredible show of fitness and recovery.

Atlanta United with Josef Martinez is a much tougher proposition for any side than Atlanta United without him – their play-off campaign begins with a re-match against the Revs on October 19.

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4. FC Dallas and Timbers get it done

Speaking of the play-offs, the Western Conference still had plenty to sort out when it came down to Decision Day, with FC Dallas, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids locked in a four-way battle to make the final two spots.

The game of the day was undoubtedly at Providence Park between the Timbers and the Quakes, with Giovanni Savarese’s men ending a run of five games without a win – four of which were at home – to send Matias Almeyda’s side away on their holidays with a 3-1 victory. The Quakes had done brilliantly to turn their season around after some horrendous early struggles, but Almeyda’s physically demanding, man-marking system finally took its toll, with Sunday’s loss making it six on the bounce.

Things were a little more straight-forward for FC Dallas, with Luchi Gonzalez’s young side crushing Sporting Kansas City 6-0 at Toyota Stadium to seal seventh in the West, having gone four games without a win prior to that.

As you’ve already read, the Rapids’ hopes were ended with a 3-1 away defeat to LAFC, although it was always a fool’s hope anyway. Just like the Quakes, Colorado can take great heart in the fact that they made anything of their season after spending much of 2019 at the bottom of the Western Conference.

5. Zlatan scores again… and makes more noise

“A Ferrari among Fiats”, screaming in the face of his opposition, the self-proclaimed best-ever player in MLS. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time in the USA certainly hasn’t been dull.

Just days after his 38th birthday, Ibrahimovic bagged another goal – his 30th of the season – although it wasn’t enough to catch Vela in the Golden Boot race. In fact, it wasn’t even enough to stop LA Galaxy falling to a fourth defeat in seven games, losing 4-2 to Houston Dynamo.

With Ibrahimovic and Argentina international Cristian Pavon in their side, the Galaxy have the potential to match and upset anyone in the play-offs, but that brittle defence is almost certain to come back to haunt them and they’re playing like anything but champions.

In fact, Guillermo Barros Schelotto may be more worried about the noise Ibrahimovic is making off the pitch, with the Swedish striker claiming he’d still “make the difference” in Serie A and beyond while speaking at a statue unveiling at his first club, Malmo.

“Oh 100 per cent, I know I could still make the difference, both in Italy and in other countries,” he said.

“I’d do better than the players who are there now. My contract expires in December and I don’t know what will happen after that.”

Zlatan’s confidence will ever be the source of entertainment, while it was never likely that he would stay with the Galaxy beyond his current contract. But for him to be making these sorts of comments right ahead of the play-offs, with his side in quite horrendous, unconvincing form, will have to worry Schelotto and question just how much focus he will get from his star-man in the post-season.

Furthermore, what does this all do for his MLS legacy?