- The MLS All-Stars beat the Liga MX All-Stars 2-0 at Allianz Field in Wednesday night’s All-Star game
- After talking with various All-Stars over the last couple of days, let’s dive into some of the most interesting takeaways from the festivities in Minnesota
ST. PAUL, Minn. – With the Dethloon patrolling the skies above Allianz Filed, MLS beat Liga MX 2-1 in the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night. Wait, what? Dethloon?
You read that right. I said Dethloon.
Before the game, a large remote-controlled loon flew through the air. I’m not sure that the Dethloon tops the giant inflatable trophy that ultimately lost its battle to the elements in last year’s MLS Cup. But hey, between the trophy and the bird, it’s going to be pretty tough for MLS to build on their pre-game visual for this year’s MLS Cup.
Setting the Dethloon aside (which I’m hesitant to do, frankly, out of fear that it will somehow find me and destroy me), let’s run through some of the things I learned over the last couple of days talking to players here in Minnesota. We’re not talking about the All-Star Game itself, here.
Instead, we’re diving into other topics from around the MLS world.
“CLARITY” THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN CINCY
FC Cincinnati’s journey from Wooden Spoon favorites to, well, not that has been one of the best stories in MLS this year. They went from averaging 0.59 points per game in 2021 to averaging 1.33 so far in 2022.
What’s behind that massive increase? A few things.
Brandon Vazquez scoring a bunch of goals and putting himself into the U.S. men’s national team conversation is a great place to start. Lucho Acosta creating chance after chance as a No. 10 is pretty high on the list, too. Then there’s Obinna Nwobodo, who eats up everything in midfield, and Brenner, who has as many goals in 19 games this year as he did in 33 games last year.
The players are a key part of Cincy’s improvement, there’s no doubt about that. But when I asked Vazquez about the main driver behind his team’s performances this year, he pointed to Chris Albright and Pat Noonan.
“I think it’s the new GM [Chris Albright], new coaching staff [led by Pat Noonan] that came in,” Vazquez said. “They’ve switched the place completely around. New culture. The players respect this coaching staff an incredible amount. We all have one job and we all know what we’re doing every time we step on the field, so it’s been great.”
Vazquez didn’t mention any past FC Cincinnati coaches or front office members, but it’s easy to see the contrast between the new regime and past ones. The players respect this new group – and the coaching staff and front office have successfully refreshed the club’s culture. There’s “clarity” now, as Vazquez put it, that helps the players understand what they need to do on the field at any given moment.
What do you get when you add this new-found clarity to actual on-field talent? You get a playoff team.
USMNT PLAYERS LOOKING TO MLS
A pattern has started to emerge over the last six months or so: fringe USMNT players are coming back to MLS. DeAndre Yedlin signed with Inter Miami in February. In July, Shaq Moore signed with Nashville SC and Nico Gioacchini signed with Orlando City. In early August, Matt Miazga signed with FC Cincinnati.
With the World Cup looming, it makes sense that these players, who are far from locks in Gregg Berhalter’s squad, would try to find a place to play and impress before November. But the fact that these U.S. players are looking for that place in MLS strikes me as something of a change in the league’s perception. I asked Yedlin about the motivation behind this pattern of USMNTers coming back to the United States.
“[MLS] is gaining real traction in the world and it’s being looked at as a competitive league,”Yedlin said. “Whereas before, to be honest, even back when I left, I don’t think it was looked at as a real competitive league amongst the world.”
When Yedlin left MLS in 2015, players didn’t view the league as a place to test themselves before a big international tournament. And that’s understandable. But now, when you look at some of the players that MLS teams are attracting, the perception is changing. MLS isn’t close to competing with some of the world’s best leagues, but it’s clear that players at different stages of their careers are starting to view it as a viable option.
“Credit to the league for creating an attractive enough league that players of that stature want to come,” Yedlin said.
WHAT’S BEHIND MONTREAL’S SUCCESS?
If you’re not watching CF Montreal, you’re missing out. Under Wilfried Nancy, Montreal play some of the most aesthetically pleasing soccer in MLS. They’re also one of very best teams in the league, sitting in fifth in the Supporters’ Shield standings with an average of 1.67 points per game.
After finishing 10th in the East in 2021, what’s behind Montreal’s success this season?
“We have quality all over the pitch, Kamal Miller said on Wednesday. “Our whole starting lineup and guys coming off the bench is full of quality. We have an MVP caliber in Djordje Mihailovic, we got Victor Wanyama, we got these guys, Romell Quioto. When we got these guys on the pitch, we know we can make anything happen.”
It’s not just the talent in Montreal that’s made them one of the best teams in MLS, though that is a huge part of it. It’s also their demanding style and, maybe more importantly, their belief and ability to execute that style. Miller called it “high risk, high reward football”. With their focus on possession (Montreal is sixth in MLS in possession percentage) and focus on buildup play, that description sounds about right to me.
“Usually Rudy Camacho has the most touches in the game, him or myself,” Miller said. “It just shows how much we believe in building through the back and how much we believe in attracting our opponent and then hurting them with one killer pass. We get Djordje the ball in the pocket and then it all opens up. For us, that’s the way we play…We just like to make it hell for teams.”
To Montreal’s credit, they’ve made life miserable for a huge number of their opponents this year – and it’s wonderful to watch.