Football Features

Records tumble in MLS play-off race and Wayne Rooney is served DC United ultimatum

By Chris Smith

Published: 13:42, 12 August 2019

Goals, red cards, VAR calls – week 23 in MLS had it all. Well, except a clean sheet.

Just 12 points now separate the top eight in the Eastern Conference, while, LAFC aside, the West is just as close with Seattle Sounders sitting in second, just nine points ahead of Houston Dynamo in ninth.

So, as the race for the play-offs hots up, here is what you might have missed from week 23.

1. Another record tumbles for Josef

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez celebrates scoring

Staying right on the heels of Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia Union, defending MLS Cup champions Atlanta United won for the third time in four MLS games – their only defeat in that time coming against LAFC – beating New York City 2-1 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Who scored for the Five Stripes? Yeah, you guessed it, Josef Martinez.

“The thing about Joe is he’s a fighter, He’s a competitor. When you cross the white lines, you want him on your team. He’s a warrior out there.”

Brad Guzan on Josef Martinez breaking another MLS record

Record after record seems to tumble at the feet of the Venezuelan marksman and, now, he has another two to his name, becoming the first MLS player to score in 10 consecutive games, after previously holding that record alongside Diego Valeri with nine games. Remember at the start of the season when he was supposed to be off form?

Josef Martinez’s MLS records

  • Most consecutive games with a goal (10)
  • Most goals in a single season (31)
  • Most goals in a three-year span (70)

Martinez is clicking just at the right time, which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league, while his namesake, Pity Martinez, is also finally finding his stride in MLS, with Frank de Boer claiming the Argentina international had his “best game of the season“. With the play-offs looming, Atlanta are beginning to look ominously good.

2. RSL sack Petke despite win

There’s a lot to be happy about at Real Salt Lake right now: they’re above the play-off line in the West, they’re unbeaten in five MLS games and they beat Sporting KC 2-1 away at the weekend.

But for all that, as well as having one of the best youth production lines in the league, they’ve recently been unable to attract big names and, now, they have to work out how to attract a new head coach.

The powers that be at RSL decided to part ways with Mike Petke, ultimately sacking him after his abuse of a match official during their Leagues Cup clash with Tigres in July.

Petke was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine, as well as attend an anger management course for using “unacceptable and offensive language” and for his “repeated confrontational misconduct towards match officials.”

With the play-off race about to enter its final sprint, RSL will have to move fast to replace Petke or risk their 2019 season being totally derailed.

3. Hell is real

“Hell is real” is probably an apt name for the FC Cincinnati v Columbus Crew rivalry right now. The pair are pretty much stranded at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, their seasons fizzling out into playing for pride and building for 2020. They’ve pretty much been in MLS hell for the past few months.

For the first time ever, that rivalry was played out on the MLS stage on Sunday and it didn’t disappoint. Cincy took a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Darren Mattocks and Emmanuel Ledesma but, well, Cincy gonna Cincy and throw it away to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. A Gyasi Zardes penalty and a Pedro Santos strike did the damage for the Crew.

But don’t forget, we said these sides are in hell. Zardes managed to miss what was as close to an open goal as you’re going to get in second-half stoppage time, denying the Crew a win which would have kept them in touch with 10th-placed Chicago Fire in the East. Safe to say, Crew fans were not impressed.

4. Zlatan hits a brick wall… and it doesn’t fall

Whether he’s calling himself a “Ferrari among Fiats”, taking people’s teeth out with his elbows or scoring thunderous headers at the back post, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is always up to something.

This week was no different, with the giant striker giving us some choice words for his thoughts on the MLS season structure, before breaking the league record for most shots taken in a single match (14) during LA Galaxy’s 2-1 defeat to DC United.

But guess what? He didn’t score. That’s two in a row without a goal since his stunning El Trafico hat-trick and during that time, Josef Martinez and Carlos Vela have pulled four and seven goals, respectively, away from him in the Golden Boot race.

The Galaxy are an incredibly one-dimensional team right now – get it to the back post and hope Zlatan can bully the full-back. The long-term hope is that marquee signing Cristian Pavon can help spice things up and give them another dimension. Right now, though, while Pavon adjusts to the pace and travel demands of MLS, the Galaxy need Zlatan firing on all cylinders as the play-offs begin to creep over the horizon.

5. History is made in US Open Cup

Born in 1914, the US Open Cup is one of the oldest football competitions still running today, not too far behind the FA Cup or Scottish Cup. This week, the old competition had a new lease of life injected into it as three first-time semi-finalists went head-to-head, giving us two debut finalists.

The first semi-final saw fierce rivals Orlando City and Atlanta United battle it out at Exploria Stadium, with the Five Stripes running out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Eric Remedi and Bournemouth loanee Emerson Hyndman, earning them the right to host the final on August 28th.

The second semi-final pitted Portland Timbers, who have somehow never reached an Open Cup final, against Minnesota United, who are enjoying a brilliant 2019 so far. Former Everton winger Adrian Heath successfully guided his side to their first final of any sort with goals from Darwin Quintero and Mason Toye doing the damage either side of a Brian Fernandez strike for the Timbers.

It’ll be a tough ask for Minnesota to overcome the Five Stripes, who have been formidable at home for pretty much all of their existence, but the Loons are defying all logic this season so don’t bet against them.

Parting thought: Wayne Rooney has three months to save MLS legacy

Arguably the biggest news in MLS last week was the announcement that Wayne Rooney will depart DC United in January to take up a player-coach role at Derby County. On the face of it, this looks like a relatively smart move: Rooney has expressed a desire to be closer to home, Derby are a progressive club looking for young coaches and the Championship will likely offer him a chance to further extend his playing career.

However, what it does do is serve Rooney with a serious ultimatum: you must win the MLS Cup before leaving DC United.

DC United striker Wayne Rooney

So much of this franchise has been built around Rooney since he arrived in 2018, helping lift DC off the foot of the Eastern Conference and into the play-offs following their move to Audi Field, keeping them competitive and in the mix this season and, overall, helping boost attendances.

David Beckham had his controversies in North America but won the MLS Cup with LA Galaxy, has a statue outside Dignity Health Sports Park and is about to enter his own team, Inter Miami, into the league. He left his mark.

2019 MLS Golden Boot race

  • Carlos Vela (LAFC) – 23
  • Josef Martinez (Atlanta United) – 20
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) – 16
  • Diego Rossi (LAFC) – 13
  • Wayne Rooney (DC United) – 11

The same can be said for the likes of David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Thierry Henry. They stuck around, they scored goals and, for the most part, they won things.

If Rooney were to leave without tangible silverware, he would still depart with the good will of DC fans and staff but also a sense of what might have been. His lasting legacy will be defined in the next three months.