Red cards galore, a Wayne Rooney outburst and fluctuations at the top of the Eastern Conference – week 24 in MLS was a fiery one.
Things in the East continue to tighten up with just 12 points now separating 10th-placed Chicago Fire and the leading duo of Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union, while LAFC continue their stronghold on the Western Conference, though with just five points between Minnesota United in second and FC Dallas in eighth, pulses continue to race among the chasing pack.
We edge ever close to determining who will make the play-off spots, but what might you have missed from week 24 across the Atlantic?
1. The half-century Swede
Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Zlatan Ibrahimovic appears to make more headlines across the pond than a baker makes bread, and this week was no exception, with the Sweden legend now having a hand in 50 goals for LA Galaxy since pitching up in California last year.
The seasoned striker netted four goals in as many days last week to bring up a half century of direct contributions, including 40 goals and 10 assists, meaning this self-proclaimed “Ferrari among Fiats” has now been directly involved in his side scoring every 79 minutes since his debut.
A brace against FC Dallas on home turf on Thursday preceded another double in the match involving Seattle Sounders over the weekend, with Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side playing the majority of the match against Brian Schmetzer’s team with 10 men after Daniel Steres was shown a straight red for his last-man foul on Raul Ruidiaz.
Despite this, Ibra was able to bag two, one either side of the interval – a bullet header and a confident penalty kick – to ensure LA snatched a point and continue keep their play-off aspirations very much alive.
2. Eastern Conference heats up
Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union are currently slogging it out at the top of the East, with the current duopoly taking it in turns to hold down the all-important No.1 berth at the peak of the division.
‘The U’ had a fantastic opportunity to finish week 24 in pole position, with Atlanta playing in the Campeones Cup – more on that later – but a disappointing 2-0 defeat to a 10-man Chicago Fire on Sunday undid all their good work against Houston Dynamo last Monday.
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Jim Curtin’s side had managed to leapfrog the Five Stripes courtesy of their 2-1 win against the aforementioned Orange Crush, but dropped points at Toyota Park at the weekend, which allowed Atlanta to capitalise on their shortcoming and reassert dominance with a 2-0 triumph over the Portland Timbers at the start of week 25.
Those results leave both clubs level on 45 points in this current two-horse race for first-place, though Frank de Boer’s side do have a game in hand, while the likes of New York City FC and DC United remain clinging to the coattails of the dominant duo with just four and six points separating them respectively.
3. Frank de Boer silences critics with silverware
Until the wheels came off towards the end of June and start of July, ‘the 17s’ were enjoying serene progress under De Boer, but fluctuations in the relationship between the Dutchman and Pity Martinez, inconsistencies in the performances of some of their key players and questionable tactical decisions left Atlanta United’s hopes of finishing the season atop the East in serious jeopardy.
However, the insatiable, record-breaking, prowess of Josef Martinez coupled with the return to form of Ezequiel Barco and Martinez has got the Five Stripes firing on all cylinders once again and De Boer has now silenced his critics by clinching his first ever piece of stateside silverware: the Campeones Cup.
The annual North American match pits the MLS champions against the winner of the Campeon de Campeones from Liga MX in a sort of Super Cup, with Atlanta becoming only the second club to win the gong since its inception last year.
The inaugural match saw Toronto FC beat UANL 3-1 at the BMO Field in Canada, while this second installation saw Atlanta become the first American club to win the Super Cup after they edged Club America 3-2 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, thanks to goals from Bournemouth loanee Emerson Hyndman, Jeff Larentowicz and, of course, Martinez.
4. Brian Fernandez on fire
While Martinez continues to light up the East, the Western Conference remains replete with an abundance of lethal finishers vying for the MLS Golden Boot, with Ibra and Carlos Vela currently dominating the goalscoring charts, but there is one man who is making considerable noise at the minute: Brian Fernandez.
The diminutive Argentina marksman has only been plying his trade in the states since May, but has already netted double figures for the campaign and boasts the second-best goals per 90 minutes ratio in MLS (0.9).
The 24-year-old traded Mexican outfit Necaxa – where he netted 16 Liga MX goals in 30 appearances – for the Portland Timbers in a club-record transfer three months ago and has thus far found the back of the net 10 times in just 13 games.
Across all competitions – including the US Open Cup – the Argentine has bagged 14 goals and registered two assists, meaning he has made 16 direct contributions in his 16 matches for the Timbers, including a brace against Chicago Fire on Thursday to hand Giovanni Savarese’s side a much-needed 3-2 win.
Victory on Thursday was dampened by defeat to Atlanta on Monday, but the Timbers remain in the Western play-off spots by the skin of their teeth, currently lying level on points (37) with DC United in seventh and eighth respectively but occupying the final qualification place due to having a better games won record than Rooney and Co.
5. Rooney’s rant
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in MLS as Derby County-bound Rooney issued a series of expletives in the direction of the fourth official as he left the field in DC United’s 1-0 defeat to Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday.
The former England international is set to leave the American capital for Derby in January, taking up a position in Phillip Cocu’s current incarnation of the Rams as a player-coach, but it doesn’t look like he will be returning to these shores discreetly.
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) August 18, 2019
As Rooney was substituted off in the 74th minute by manager Ben Olsen in Canada, the seasoned striker issued a verbal tirade towards the fourth official, though it is not yet clear what the Englishman was complaining about.
In the immediate afterglow of the defeat, Rooney also took aim at MLS for their laws regarding travel. According to league rules, clubs can only take charter flights four times a season, meaning for the most part, private jets are out of the equation and commercial flights are the norm.
— Wayne Rooney (@WayneRooney) August 18, 2019
2019 MLS Golden Boot race
- Carlos Vela (LAFC) – 24
- Josef Martinez (Atlanta United) – 21
- Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) – 20
- Diego Rossi (LAFC) – 13
- Heber (NYCFC) – 12
- Wayne Rooney (DC United) – 11