Here are the winners and losers from a crucial week in Major League Soccer as the regular season winds down.
The turnaround in Cincinnati might be one of the best stories this league has seen in some time. All credit to general manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan that helped take FC Cincinnati from the worst team in MLS (many years in a row) to the best as they locked up the Supporters’ Shield on Saturday.
A change in fortune of that stature doesn’t just happen, and Luciano Acosta, who will likely be named this year’s MVP, is at the center of everything. Because the front office surrounded him and Brandon Vazquez with necessary talent throughout the roster, the approach suddenly was fresh, belief became evident and the culture shifted. It's a very simple formula, but Cincy perfected it and is now reaping all the benefits.
Acosta and Aaron Boupendza have found a connection at the perfect time as playoffs approach. Home-field throughout the playoffs is massive as Cincy is 13-1-1 at TQL Stadium this season. The first order of business is done, and it’s a hell of an accolade. Now focus is on if they can stay consistent among a brutally stacked East and chase MLS Cup. But from what they’ve shown us all year, we shouldn’t believe otherwise.
St. Louis City
St. Louis needed three things to happen this weekend for it to officially clinch the West’s No. 1 spot, where they’ve resided most of the season. A win and both Seattle and LAFC to draw or lose. Checks all across the board for City, which took care of business with a riveting 4-1 win over Sporting KC in a rivalry game. It was how they pulled it off that made things even sweeter. Bradley Carnell, who should undoubtedly win Coach of the Year, adjusted some things at halftime of a stalemate and made subs that instantly sparked something. The result was an onslaught of four goals in 12 minutes that turned CITYPARK into a party.
Saying that St. Louis was the best team in the Western Conference was met with hesitation throughout the season because people didn’t want to fully believe that this squad actually was. Now those critics have nowhere to hide because City is officially the expansion team with the most wins (17) and are now just two shy of breaking LAFC’s expansion points record.
Joāo Klauss returned from injury and quickly got back to his scoring ways while goalkeeper Roman Bürki is a legitimate MLS MVP contender. The West belongs to City and now they have home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. You couldn’t have imagined this year to unfold more perfectly, but St. Louis is dreaming even bigger.
Life after Leagues Cup wasn’t being kind to RSL. It felt like it was slipping slowly. But you learn a lot about a team’s mentality when they’re up against adversity and how they react.
Sunday’s visit to LAFC could’ve been a devastating blow that instead turned into their biggest win of the season and catapulted them to No. 2 in the West. Cristian “Chicho” Arango came up with the winner in the 72nd minute, goalkeeper Zac MacMath kept the clean sheet and RSL won its seventh road game this season. Head coach Pablo Mastroeni said it was all about a mindset and being disciplined enough to get the result. The focus has recently been on improving the defensive effort, and a shutout of the defending champs will surely help that confidence.
RSL is now in full control headed for a top-4 finish. Its final three games are all against teams that are below the playoff line, which sounds like a perfect opportunity to gain some momentum with the playoffs approaching. Last time RSL put a nice run together the team shot up the standings and looked like a contender. The stage is set to run that back.
Firing a coach is such a tough decision to make, and in Portland’s case it turned out to be the correct one. Since Miles Joseph took over, the Timbers have been a completely different team. The talent was always there, which is why the shortcomings under Giovanni Savarese were so baffling, but now it’s just a totally different aggression we’re seeing.
Santiago Moreno has been the catalyst, playing a more central role and openly creating for the offense opposed to his lack of contribution when he was used as a winger. They’ve scored 18 goals and are 5-1-2 under Joseph. Surging at a certain point of the year is one thing, but this is a team with real experience that’s bulldozing its way to complicate the playoff picture. And it's doing so missing two of its most crucial players, Diego Chara and Evander.
A month ago nobody would’ve even thought to utter this, but Decision Day versus Houston at Providence Park is now a major fixture for many reasons.
LAFC is struggling to score goals lately, and to make matters worse had to watch Chicho net the decisive goal at BMO Stadium on Sunday. Yes, the same Chicho that helped the Black and Gold to MLS Cup in 2022 and that they traded away earlier this year. Meanwhile, their current No. 9 Mario Gonzalez wasn’t even on the team sheet. Ouch.
This LAFC team has some flaws that are coming to light at the worst possible time. The loss pushed them down the standings to No. 4. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Vela both at least took accountability and straight up said they’re lacking in quality. But Cherundolo also classified this as a phase, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. They haven’t scored a goal in four games, losing the chance at lifting a trophy along the way. The midfield, which has always been the strong point for LAFC, is not dynamic enough to truly impact games like they used to. Their home stadium, where teams typically struggle to get points, isn’t as daunting as it once was either.
“Some of our attackers are not performing at their highest ability,” Cherundolo said Sunday, citing fatigue. “That’s somewhat explainable or understandable, but these are professionals and that needs to improve.”
“Sometimes we are also not playing as a team,” Vela added. “Right now, I think we are looking for other things and making everything tough for ourselves.”
That isn’t a phase, that’s a problem.
Tomás Avilés helped rescue a vital point Saturday with his stoppage-time equalizer against NYCFC. Mathematically, Miami is still alive in this playoff push. And when you look at the quality they have compared to other teams in the fight, it’s not even close. But this lingering mystery over Lionel Messi’s injury and how severe it truly is has changed the vibe in South Florida. Gerardo “Tata” Martino says it's just day-to-day despite reports stating otherwise. Who you believe is your choice, but the fact is the margin of error is getting smaller by the second. Messi’s absence has overshadowed Jordi Alba also being sidelined. All eyes are on Inter and I’m not sure they’re coping with this pressure adequately. They got completely dismantled in the U.S. Open Cup final and if it wasn’t for Avilés’ late goal, they wouldn’t have much to show for Saturday's game either. They did almost win it deep into stoppage time but were denied by the crossbar. It’s hard to conjure that Messi magic when he isn’t on the field.
When confidence is down, forget about it. Austin FC was in the Western Conference finals last year. It felt like a true milestone for a club with high promise and an MVP candidate. It was a step in the right direction for Josh Wolff and his coaching staff. The regression in Year 3 has been appalling. It started with defensive woes at the beginning of the season and then everything just piled on as the year went on. Losing to the Rapids 1-0 in a “must-win” tells you everything you need to know. Austin has constantly found new ways to lose without many solutions. But the verdict is still out on why and how this all went south so quickly. Changes, many of them, are inevitable this offseason and it’ll likely start with Wolff. Just three more games left to put an end to this nightmare.