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MLS Eastern Conference: Wilfried Nancy’s new contract, trouble in Chicago & more on each team

We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Eastern Conference.

14 min read

Welcome back our two-part weekly MLS column here at Backheeled where we break down all 29 teams in the league.

I’ve got the East. Joe Lowery's got the West. Wilfried Nancy got paid. Let’s chat about the latest for each Eastern Conference squad, shall we?

To read up on the West, check out Joe’s rundown.

MLS Western Conference: Hector Herrera is back, Minnesota don’t need Reynoso & more on each team
We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Western Conference.

Atlanta United

Result: 2-1 loss vs. FC Cincinnati

Another week, another blown lead at home from Atlanta. Last week they conceded two goals in five minutes to draw 2-2 with Philadelphia. This week they conceded two in two minutes to lose 2-1 to FC Cincinnati, conceding the winner within just eight minutes after taking the lead. 

The whole thing was largely self-inflicted. Cincy’s first goal certainly was. It’s not often you see a short corner go quite this wrong:

It was a poor idea from Almada, and even worse execution. Cincinnati’s second goal was a complete failure from Atlanta to mark one of the league’s most dangerous attackers on a fairly routine ball into the box. Injuries aren’t helping Gonzalo Pineda’s squad – his two preferred center backs missed the match, and Noah Cobb left the game at halftime with a migraine. 

But even acknowledging those issues, the Five Stripes are showing some worrying fragility borne by mental lapses, and it’s costing them points. And points dropped in April are just as costly as points dropped in October.

FC Cincinnati

Result: 2-1 win at Atlanta United

A friend texted in a group chat before this game, “Lucho Acosta always goes off against Atlanta.” That pretty much sums up this game for Cincinnati. The reigning MVP took over the game in the final 30 minutes, setting up the equalizer for Luca Orellano and scoring the winner himself in the space of two minutes.

Looking outside of Acosta, Yuya Kubo started up front. This time, he was paired with Corey Baird as Aaron Boupendza was surprisingly dropped to the bench. Boupendza, despite his obvious talent, hasn’t produced crazy numbers this season with just two goals from eight matches. Without Brandon Vazquez taking some of the hits up top, the Gabon international has looked out of sync with his attacking teammates. 

Pat Noonan spoke about the role of his forwards in the middle of last week, saying “there’s times where as we’re progressing up the field, where our front two are being asked to be patient and be high and occupy defenders in ways where we’re freeing up space, whether it’s for Lucho, whether it’s for the wingbacks to get those guys in front of goal.”

It was fascinating to watch Cincinnati’s forwards through the lens of opening space for Acosta. Kubo and Baird would slide across Atlanta’s backline and move into the No. 10 role, dragging a defender with him and opening space for Lucho to drift wide.


Design: Peyton Gallaher

That rotation paid off for a goal. Watch Baird’s movement in the buildup. He sees Ronald Hernandez watching him, and knows he has Lucho right behind him. He slides quickly across the top of the box in a near post run, clearing space for Acosta to get the ball unimpeded in front of goal. That’s the type of unselfish play Noonan was talking about.

Charlotte FC

Result: 3-0 loss vs. Minnesota United

Maybe Charlotte FC didn’t get the memo that they were facing a team with the newest and youngest coach in MLS that’s also dealing with off-field drama surrounding their biggest star and that started in an unfamiliar look without their three top scorers from last season. Because, uh, if they had, they probably wouldn’t have gotten played off the field at home against Minnesota United on Sunday.

But make no mistake: that’s exactly what happened.

Charlotte FC found a couple of chances courtesy of vertical movements from the two wingers — Liel Abada on the right and Kerwin Vargas on the left — in Dean Smith’s tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 shape. They couldn’t contain Minnesota United’s transition attacks on the other side of the field, though, and ended up in a three-goal hole just 10 minutes after halftime.

Smith and co. have earned three wins over the course of 2024, but am I crazy for not thinking that much of any of them? I don’t think so, anyway. The first win for Charlotte came on opening weekend against a struggling NYCFC team. The next came in a chaos-filled home clash with a 10-man Columbus Crew squad. The third, of course, came last weekend against Toronto FC.

Right now, the ceiling isn’t all that high and the floor seems awfully low for Charlotte FC. There’s plenty of work to do.

Chicago Fire

Result: 4-0 loss vs. Real Salt Lake

Oh, so the Chicago Fire are bad bad. This would’ve been a catastrophic loss regardless of the location, but for it to come at home in a market the club has failed to captivate for the better part of a couple decades is truly brutal. 

Things were bad from before the opening whistle. Brian Gutierrez, one of the very few bright spots for the Fire this season, was injured in warmups. Federico Navarro replaced him and had a disastrous 45 minutes before coming off at halftime, playing a poor backpass to give Chicho Arango a gimme finish. Xheridan Shaqiri went off injured after 28 minutes. In a lot of ways this match was a microcosm of Chicago’s season so far.

Things are going really, really terribly in the Windy City. It feels like they’re heading towards some early changes.

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Columbus Crew

Result: 2-2 draw vs. Portland Timbers

Usually the quotes you find in press releases are throw-away sentences with little actual meaning. Not so in the Columbus Crew’s press release announcing a new contract for manager Wilfried Nancy. 

Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko had this to say about the man who transformed Columbus last season and helped lead them to victory in MLS Cup:

“When we hired Wilfried, our top priority was ensuring alignment from the First Team through Crew 2 and the Academy with coaches, players and staff, including in our desired style of play, player profiles and most importantly, our club values. Wilfried has delivered in every way, and then some, with his leadership and devotion to entertaining soccer. We are confident with his and our team’s collective leadership and collaboration that we can continue to build upon the foundation that has been laid and consistently compete for championships for our fans and the City of Columbus.

That about sums it up!

Nancy has checked all the boxes for the Crew. A clever tactical scheme that provides the kind of team-wide clarity that reduces mistakes? Check. The skill to communicate that style to his players? Check. The ability to help players find new positions where they can thrive, to integrate players from lower rungs in the Crew’s organizational pyramid, and to install belief in those players? Check, check, check.

He’s the best coach I’ve ever seen in MLS and deserves this extension, even if it only serves to get a little extra financial compensation for Columbus after a European club sets their sights on him. No matter what the future holds, this is an absolute win for all parties.

On the field, the Crew played to an entertaining (as always) 2-2 draw with the Timbers on Saturday ahead of the first leg of their Concacaf Champions Cup semifinal at home against Liga MX giants CF Monterrey. Their focus is — and should be — on Wednesday night.

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