MLS News
MLS Team of the Week: Kaka, Molino, Giovinco Impress on Decision Day
MLS News
Monday, 24 October 2016 09:31

The final day of the Major League Soccer regular season was supposed to hand us 90 minutes of drama-filled action with playoff berths on the line. 

However, instead of the final playoff positions being determined late on, they were sealed long before the final whistle thanks to a few spoilers. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps were the biggest spoiler on Sunday as they trounced Portland. Two of the other impressive showings on Decision Day came out of eliminated sides Orlando City and New England. 

Due to the offensive outburst on Decision Day, we aligned our team selection in a 3-4-3 formation.

Continue reading to see who was named to the season's final Bleacher Report MLS Team of the Week.

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D.C. United Emerging as Dark-Horse MLS Cup Contender as Regular Season Ends
MLS News
Friday, 21 October 2016 02:49

When you start compiling a shortlist of MLS Cup contenders, the teams that easily come to mind are FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, who lead the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively.

Maybe you're drawn to the Colorado Rapids' worst-to-first story and the club's grind-it-out defensive mindset. Some will talk about star-studded Toronto FC and a second-year New York City FC club led by David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. 

You can't count out Bruce Arena and the LA Galaxy either anytime the postseason rolls around, especially with the star power they can trot out on to the pitch any given week combined with the former United States head coach's managerial genius.

But there's one other team you should add to the mix among the perennial favorites and top teams from the 2016 regular season. 

They definitely aren't the sexy pick to be crowned champions on December 10, but D.C. United are a team to look at as a serious MLS Cup contender. 

Under the guidance of manager Ben Olsen, D.C. have put together a six-game unbeaten run and have lost just once since July 31. 

The Black and Red were left for dead along with the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire, who both still sit at the basement of the Eastern Conference, as the calendar flipped from July to August. But a few changes have been made to boost them to the cusp of a hosting a match in the knockout round of the postseason. 

United enter the final day of the regular season—Decision Day as it's being called by the league—in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. All it takes to lock up at least a home match at RFK Stadium is a win over Orlando City on Sunday at Camping World Stadium. 

All of this has been made possible by a pair of shrewd acquisitions near the end of the summer transfer window—one of which was a deal with D.C.'s biggest rival—a stout defense and a manager who has made the required tweaks to his side.

Let's start with the trades for Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam because both of the attack-minded midfielders have brought a new dimension to the final third, and they've actually made D.C. an attractive team to watch, which is a big step considering what they've looked like in past years. 

The addition of Mullins, a 24-year-old striker in his third Major League Soccer season, has meant the world to D.C. The University of Maryland product didn't receive a chance to blossom into the striker he should be under Patrick Vieira at New York City FC this season. 

With playing time diminishing and D.C. in desperate need of a consistent scorer, Olsen pulled the trigger on one of the best moves of the season. Since joining D.C. on July 20, the No. 11 pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft has scored eight goals in 12 matches. 

Mullins is second on the team in scoring behind Lamar Neagle, who was brought in during the offseason from Seattle. The lively presence of Mullins in front of net has been a welcome sight to the eyes of D.C. fans after Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola failed to provide a consistent spark up top during the first half of the campaign.

Saborio remains a solid option off the bench for the Black and Red, especially in the postseason with his wealth of experience. Espindola was jettisoned to Vancouver to make room for Mullins on the roster. Kennedy Igboananike, who was brought in from Chicago at midseason, is also available off the bench.

The rest of the goals have come from a wide variety of players, but Mullins has ushered himself in as the top scorer for years to come in the nation's capital, and given his newfound confidence in the box, D.C. have a chance to pounce at any second. 

Acquiring winger Lloyd Sam from the New York Red Bulls has also been beneficial to the attacking style of United. The 32-year-old, who featured in plenty of big matches with the Red Bulls, put in one of his best performances of the season a week ago as he contributed to two goals in D.C.'s playoff-clinching win over NYCFC. 

Mullins and Sam have taken some of the attention away from Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta, who was the club's top attacking target for the first five months of the season.

Since opposing defenses can't key in on one player now, Acosta will have more space moving forward, especially when the back-and-forth postseason affairs begin. 

And then there's Neagle, who emerged as a super-sub in August and September with two goals and two assists. The former Seattle man also added three goals as a starter, including a brace against Toronto on October 2. 

The D.C. defense has complemented the offensive firepower and even added to it at points during the recent spell of good form. 

The defensive line led by center-back pairing Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum has conceded three goals in the last four matches, all of which have been victories. That number is much better than the 15 strikes let in from July 31 to September 16 when the team was hitting its stride. 

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid has kept the club in quite a few games during the course of the regular season, but he can't do it all if the Black and Red want to make it to the MLS Cup, although the United States international might be able to achieve the task if he tried. 

D.C.'s path to the MLS Cup could end up being an easy one if they continue to play like they have over the last month. Most of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference have shown signs of weakness that can be exploited by the right game plan, which is where Olsen's managerial experience comes into play. 

The former United States international led the Black and Red to the Eastern Conference semifinal in 2012 and 2015 and helped the club rebound from an atrocious 2013 to earn a playoff berth the next year. 

Olsen has also done a great job working with his squad this season given the long-term injury issues the Black and Red have faced.

Midfielder Chris Rolfe, who was the club's top player a year ago, has been out with a concussion, while defenders Chris Korb and Kofi Opare are both out with injuries. The D.C. coach has also had to deal with the absence of central midfielder Marcelo Sarvas and full-back Sean Franklin in recent weeks. 

In any other season, Olsen would've been in the running for MLS Coach of the Year, but Pablo Mastroeni in Colorado, FC Dallas' Oscar Pareja and Vieira are the favorites to receive that honor. 

Regardless of who D.C. ends up playing in the knockout-round match, they should have an upper hand on either Montreal or Philadelphia.

The Impact have had a good amount of ups and downs this season, and the Didier Drogba drama from the last week doesn't exactly help a team's focus on the postseason. Montreal's attack has plenty of weapons—with or without the former Chelsea man—but their defense is a bit concerning as they've recorded just three clean sheets since the start of July.

The easier matchup for D.C. would be the struggling Union, who backed their way into a playoff berth on the penultimate Sunday of the regular season. No matter how awful D.C. play in that match, they should win due to the lack of preparedness and effort in the Philadelphia squad. 

When it comes to the semifinal and final rounds, United face a solid chance of advancing against either Toronto or NYCFC, who both still have questions in defense despite the stellar attackers in each lineup.

The biggest matchup problem for the Black and Red, or any team in the East if we're being honest, is the Red Bulls and their trademark pressing system. The good news for United is they've earned five points from three matches against their top rival in 2016, including a pair of come-from-behind 2-2 draws. 

D.C. may not have a chance to challenge the Red Bulls for a 180-minute series if they settle in and defend against Bradley Wright-Phillips, Sacha Kljestan and Co., but they do have the capability to strike early and find vulnerabilities in the press. 

Anything is possible when it comes to the MLS Cup, which will most likely be played at a Western Conference venue if D.C. come out of the East. The road environment shouldn't hurt United's blueprint for success by that point in the season. 

The MLS Cup final may still be a month and a half away, but if you're looking for a dark-horse contender to get behind, hopping on the D.C. bandwagon right now is for you. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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MLS Player Rankings: BWP Remains on Top, Piatti, Mullins Surge Up List
MLS News
Tuesday, 18 October 2016 09:33

As the best teams in Major League Soccer jockey for position in the standings, the league's best players are all trying to knock Bradley Wright-Phillips from the top spot in the Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings. 

Despite the efforts of many, Wright-Phillips kept his No. 1 spot for another week after a splendid performance at Red Bull Arena on Sunday.

Beneath the New York Red Bulls striker is a group of forwards rounding into form at the right time, an unexpected new addition to the top 10 and plenty of D.C. United talent thanks to the Black and Red's recent form. 

Our player rankings take into account the last four performances from a certain player, with the most recent one holding the most stock. 

Continue reading to see who else was named to the Week 33 edition of the Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings. 

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MLS Team of the Week: Piatti, BWP, Accam Impress in Week 33
MLS News
Monday, 17 October 2016 08:51

The penultimate weekend of the Major League Soccer regular season didn't produce too much in terms of drama, but it did set the stage for what should be a thrilling Decision Day on Sunday. 

Two of the remaining playoff positions in the Eastern Conference were secured by D.C. and Montreal during the first round of matches on Sunday. New England failed to capitalize on a Philadelphia loss as it fell to Chicago.

The quintet of Western Conference matches that followed left us wanting more as only five goals were scored, three of which came out of Dallas and Seattle. 

Although the overall play across the league wasn't spectacular, there were some individuals who shined as their teams locked up spots in the postseason. 

Continue reading to see which 11 players were selected for the Week 33 MLS Team of the Week. 

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Resurgent Seattle Sounders Benefiting from New Mentality Under Interim Boss
MLS News
Friday, 14 October 2016 04:01

Rock bottom for the Seattle Sounders came at the end of July. 

Two days after their miserable performance against Sporting Kansas City on July 24 resulted in a 3-0 loss, the Sounders parted ways with longtime boss Sigi Schmid, who led the club to four U.S. Open Cups and the 2014 Supporters' Shield. 

“Initially it’s tough," Sounders defender Chad Marshall told Bleacher Report in a phone conversation. "Sigi was a huge part of this club. He was the only head coach they had since coming into MLS. He was a big part of the success and won a bunch of trophies. It was sad to see him go. I know how much he cared for the club and wanted us to do well." 

Since Schmid left the club and Brian Schmetzer took over as interim boss, the Sounders have won seven, drawn four and lost just one match to move into fourth place in the Western Conference. Schmetzer, who was an assistant under Schmid, brought a new approach to training that motivated everyone from the start.

"When Schmetzer took over, he instilled his philosophies and how he wanted things to work," Marshall said. "Training instantly became more demanding, more physical, and I think that’s raised the level of players."

"We call them work days," Marshall said. "Every day is a work day so you know you’re going to be working out on the field and it’s going to be taxing, but you know it’s going to make you better in the long run."

"From the beginning, he’s been about that, playing both sides of the ball and really just being motivating and caring about the team overall," Marshall continued. "He’s come in and done a great job getting results. It’s a credit to him and the attention to detail he brings every day." 

Marshall credited Schmetzer's insistence on playing both sides of the ball as one of the key improvements that has led the Sounders to the cusp of a playoff berth after being left for dead in July. 

"Schmetzer has been good about getting good effort from all the guys on both sides of the field," Marshall said. "I think maybe that wasn’t something that was harped on at the beginning of the year, but guys are definitely bringing it on both sides of the field, which I think has helped us sure up the defensive side and not leaking goals and getting results." 

The 32-year-old center back, who is in his third year with the Sounders, has been a part of a back line that's conceded 13 goals in the 12 games Schmetzer's been in charge for. Four of those tallies came in a loss to the Portland Timbers on August 28. 

Marshall received the September Player of the Month award for Seattle's superb form as they rose up the Western Conference standings. 

"I’m happy to accept it, but I know it’s a team award," Marshall said. "There’s a bunch of guys on our team deserving of that honor." 

The extra commitment from the players in front of the back four has tightened up a defense that is only going to get better as Panama international Roman Torres gets more minutes under his belt. 

"Getting Roman was a big thing," Marshall said. "He’s been huge for us in the back." 

Since Torres returned to the starting XI on September 10, the Sounders have let in four goals over six matches. The club's latest clean sheet came on Wednesday night at home against the Houston Dynamo. Unfortunately for the Sounders, they were unable to lock up a playoff spot since the match ended 0-0. 

But with two games remaining on the fixture list, the Sounders are in good shape, as they sit in fourth with 45 points entering matches with FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. 

“I think everyone’s still optimistic," Marshall said. "Obviously we know we missed out on an opportunity (Wednesday) night. It would’ve been nice to clinch a playoff berth last night at home, but spirits are still high."

"Guys are disappointed, but we’re not down ourselves," the center back said. "We still have two games left. There’s points out there to get so hopefully we can keep our form going and get that playoff berth." 

The other key reason why the Sounders have surged up to fourth is the play of summer transfer Nicolas Lodeiro. The Uruguayan entered MLS on a tear as he contributed to at least one goal in eight of his first nine starts. 

"We made some good acquisitions in getting Nico and Alvaro (Fernadnez) in," Marshall said. "Nico’s been huge for us in connecting the midfield and the forward line and getting guys involved in creating chances." 

Lodeiro's playmaking ability has boosted the goalscoring of rookie Jordan Morris, who is now the focal point of the attack after Clint Dempsey was ruled out for the rest of the season with a heart condition. 

Although MLS carries its own postseason idiosyncrasies that Lodeiro and Morris haven't experienced firsthand, Marshall's confident their big-game experience on the international level will help them thrive throughout the remainder of the 2016 campaign. 

“I think they get it," Marshall said. "Nico’s played in huge games. He played in World Cup qualifying in South America. That’s intense. Jordan’s been in that world too. They know how big it is." 

The rest of the squad is also aware of the intensity of the playoff race since the Sounders have been treating each match like an elimination contest since Schmetzer took the reins. 

"To be honest, every game’s been like a playoff game given the position we were in earlier this year," Marshall said. "We needed to go on the run we’ve been on to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. We’ve looked at it like every game is a playoff game. I think guys are ready."

The Sounders will approach Sunday's trip to FC Dallas and the home finale against RSL on October 23 with an increased intensity from the one they've been playing with due to the enormity of the situation. 

"We know we still have two games and we need to get points," Marshall said. "Who knows what’s going to happen below us and where everyone’s going to finish up two weeks from now. We have to keep our form going and try to get as many points as possible." 

“It’s that time of year," Marshall said. "Points are crucial for everyone. Even though Dallas has clinched a spot, I think they’re super pumped and want to win the Supporters’ Shield so they’re going to come out the same way as if they were fighting for a playoff spot."

"We know they’re going to be tough games," Marshall continued. "Every game is a tough game in MLS and we kind of went through the same situation last year where we had to get a win on the last day against Salt Lake."

"We’re familiar with the pressure. We know it’s going to be tough and they’re going to be grind out games I’m sure We just have to make sure we’re tuned in and focused and bring the right mentality to the games."

Since the Sounders have been playing with an increased sense of urgency for three months now, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make a deep run in the playoffs. 

In a league known for the unexpected, the Sounders winning MLS Cup on December 10 after being given a death sentence in July would still come as a shock to many.

MLS Cup is a long way from Sunday, and even if the Sounders miss out once again on the ultimate goal, a new foundation has been set for success to continue in the Pacific Northwest for years to come under a new regime. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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Colorado Rapids on Accelerated Path Toward Winning Trophies in 2016
MLS News
Thursday, 13 October 2016 10:43

The path to achieve a string of advantageous goals was set out during the preseason by the Colorado Rapids. They just didn't think they'd travel down that path so fast in only one season. 

After finishing with the worst record in Major League Soccer's Western Conference a year ago, the Rapids have the inside track to win the Supporters' Shield, which is awarded to the team with the most regular-season points. 

“We set very tangible goals, clear goals as a group, and had a pathway and process in which we’re going to achieve those things," Colorado manager Pablo Mastroeni told Bleacher Report in a phone conversation.

"I think when you clearly define what you want to achieve, the road you want to take to get there and what it’s going to take to get there, I think things become a little bit more achievable because they’re always in sight," Mastroeni continued. 

"Looking back, if you would’ve said we’d be in this place, I would say that’s where we want to go, but I think you’d still go, 'Wow, that’s quite an achievement,'" Mastroeni said. 

The Rapids enter Thursday's match with the San Jose Earthquakes two points back of Western Conference leaders FC Dallas, but the clash at Dick's Sporting Goods Park is the game in hand Colorado have on the current top club in MLS. 

Colorado can ascend into the top spot in the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings with a win over San Jose, and there's a decent chance they'll stay there with results against the Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo to end the regular season. 

If the Rapids were to end up with the Supporters' Shield, it would be a massive victory for the club after plenty of recent struggles. The Rapids haven't qualified for the postseason in three of the last four seasons and they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs since winning the 2010 MLS Cup. 

"I think it would validate all the changes we made in the offseason and I’m not talking about players in particular," Mastroeni said. "I’m talking about the mindset of not only the locker room, but the entire organization.

"We really made great strides in the way we operate," Mastroeni said. "It would mean a lot because what we’ve been through the last two years has been an absolute struggle." 

The Rapids have reached this point thanks to a few shrewd acquisitions, strong defensive performances and some valuable veteran leadership. 

One of the biggest moves of the offseason came at the start of the new league year as the Rapids picked up midfielder Micheal Azira in the waiver draft from the Seattle Sounders. Azira has formed one of the best midfield partnerships in the league alongside Sam Cronin. The duo may not be known on a national level, but their teammates know how much they mean to the club. 

"I started this thing at the beginning of the year with the core values we’re going to live by," Mastroeni said. "The three are: being a good teammate and quantifying that, doing all the little things in games, [secondly], be the best player on the field and perseverance, a guy that has a tough time but finds a way to manage through."

"All year long these guys have been voting on who these players are in the locker room after every game," the Colorado boss said. "The players have taken accountability for their performances and then voting every game who’s the player that best represents this. Cronin and Azira are literally all over that locker room. They’re all over the board where we have these names and the games."

"I think it’s a reflection of how important their teammates think they are," Mastroeni said. "I think without these type of players everything crumbles and these guys have been the backbone, along with guys like Axel [Sjoberg], [Jared] Watts and Bobby Burling, who have really been immense in being the backbone of the group."

The entire defensive unit has been stellar for the Rapids as they've let in a league low 29 goals in 31 matches. The Rapids have also proven they can play in tight matches as they've won eight contests in 2016 by a 1-0 score. 

With a grind-it-out mentality already instilled in the players, the challenges of the postseason may end up being a bit easier on the club hungry to pack a punch in November and December. 

"I think the reason why we’ve won more of those games than not is because the mentality of the group is strong," Mastroeni said. "We believe that it doesn’t matter when the moment comes, that we’ll find the right moment to score. And then because of the way we defend as a group, we’re able to keep other teams off the board long enough for us to find the opportunity to score." 

"When you get into the playoffs, the games have a lot more emotion and are played with a lot more passion," the former United States international said. "There’s a lot more mistakes being made and teams aren’t willing to risk everything in a home and away contest."

"What we’ve tried to do as a group is play the same way at home as we do away," Mastroeni continued. "I find a lot of comfort in our ability to have this mentality that where we go doesn’t matter. We try to play the same type of ball we’ve been playing all year and I think that suits us well." 

An added amount of leadership from United States men's national team regulars Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, as well as Albanian Shkelzen Gashi and Republic of Ireland forward Kevin Doyle, has also helped the Rapids form a brand-new identity. These players have made a mark on the budding stars in the group like Axel Sjoberg and Marlon Hairston. 

"I think the glue of the group are all the young pieces that have a burning desire to do something with their careers and achieve some great things," Mastroeni said. "The pathway for these guys becomes more tangible when you see guys like Jermaine, Tim and Gashi who have actually achieved those things these guys want, which is playing international football, playing Champions League football and playing for their national teams." 

"As a player, I could impact the locker room in a different way," the former Miami, LA and Colorado man said. "But as a coach, now you rely on your experienced players to carry your message. Not only carry it, but live it every day." 

"These guys carry themselves like true pros and it’s no accident that they’ve had the kind of careers they’ve had," Mastroeni said. "The ability to live the message of professionalism is what they bring on a day-in and day-out basis."

Even if the Rapids don't end up with the Supporters' Shield, they have all the ingredients to put together a deep run into the postseason. Few teams are as organized as Colorado, and although they don't have a superstar that will carry them to MLS Cup, they have a squad full of confident players that are ready to show what they've built in front of a national audience. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Quiet Leader Bradley Wright-Phillips Pushing Red Bulls to the Top of MLS East
MLS News
Friday, 07 October 2016 00:08

Bradley Wright-Phillips isn't your typical striker. 

The New York Red Bulls forward is stellar in front of the net, but he doesn't possess the flash and flair of many of the big personalities who play his position across the globe. 

That's why the praise of his leadership abilities from his manager and captain can catch outside observers off guard at first. 

The scorer of 21 goals in 2016, and 66 in 105 matches over his three seasons in Major League Soccer, has moved into a greater leadership position in 2016 after a challenge from second-year Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch. 

“When Jesse first came here, he demanded that he didn’t just want goals out of me—he wanted me to be a voice in the changing room," Wright-Phillips said after his side's recent 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Union. "I tried to be a leader on the field. I'm trying every week to do those things.

"It’s not really in my character. But that’s not good enough for Jesse. I try to do what I can to help the team." 

Marsch said: "He’s stepped up his leadership in such a big way. The times he chooses to speak, the things he says, the commitment he has to this group has led us in so many ways. And it’s obviously led to him having clarity and confidence on the field." 

Wright-Phillips isn't required to speak on every occasion, but when he does, the rest of the squad listens intently.

"He’s one of the best players this club has ever seen, and when you have a guy with the pedigree and the ability he has, people will listen to him," Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty said. 

Wright-Phillips makes plenty of noise with his high level of production in the final third for the Red Bulls, but you won't see any flashy celebrations out of the only player ever to score 20 or more goals in an MLS season twice.

Just a simple few hops and a fist pump come from Wright-Phillips after most of his goals before he rejoins his team behind the halfway line.

With flashy superstars such as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco stealing the headlines every week with spectacular goals, sometimes Wright-Phillips gets lost in the conversation for Most Valuable Player, but he's made his presence known over the last few months. 

The 2014 Golden Boot winner, who tallied 27 goals that season to capture the trophy, has scored 12 of his 21 strikes since the July 24 New York derby, in which he bagged a brace in a 4-1 victory over New York City FC.

During the same span, the Red Bulls have extended their unbeaten run to 14 games and moved to the top of the table in the Eastern Conference.

However, they are nowhere close to securing the top seed in the postseason just yet, as they're level on points with NYCFC. The drama each week in the playoff race is something Wright-Phillips and his teammates don't like to get caught up in.

"It’s fun," Wright-Phillips said. "It must be great for the neutral to watch. I think it’s been very exciting. While you’re in it, it’s hard to get the emotion of it, and you just have to think about what you have to do, but it’s good. It’s nice and competitive."

"It’s been a great, very MLS-type season," McCarty said. "Teams jockeying for positions, teams going on big winning streaks and some going on some losing streaks.

"We started the season 1-6, and if you told us we’d be fighting for first at this point, people would’ve probably called you 'crazy.' But this team has a lot of fight and character, and we’re a veteran group." 

The competition at the top of the table between the pair of New York sides has helped push the Red Bulls deeper into their unbeaten run. 

"I see a New York [City] team that’s very good, committed and organized," Marsch said. "I think that team doing well has driven us in so many different ways. It has made us hungry and driven us to get better and do better to be the best."

Marsch continued: "That’s where we’re at right now, and we’re going to stay focused on that, focused on ourselves. I think we’re being pushed by a lot of different things right now, and our group is responding." 

Many have tried to water down the streak put together by the best team in the East because the Red Bulls have dropped a few two-goal leads, with the most recent slip-up coming on the road in Toronto on Sept. 18. But that is something they don't expect to happen again. 

"After the Toronto game, we drew a line in the sand and said 'this has to stop,'" McCarty added. "We challenged every single guy in the locker room. If you’re on the field at the end of the game, it’s unacceptable to concede leads anymore.

"We need everyone to do that. It’s been a team effort. Just because we’ve conceded a couple leads at the end of games, we’re not going to let that define our season." 

The Red Bulls went down by one and then gave up a one-goal lead in their match against Philadelphia, but they responded with a game-winner from McCarty to take all three points from the critical Eastern Conference contest. 

"After the game, when it’s all said and done, I’m glad we went down because it’s good to see the character of the team," Wright-Phillips said. "As soon as they scored, we played better. It almost like we needed that. You don’t want to depend on those things, obviously, but we reacted well." 

One race Wright-Phillips has kept a distant eye on is the one for the Golden Boot. Just like their clubs at the top of the East, the 31-year-old Englishman and Villa are tied at the top, both on 21 goals. 

Villa climbed back into the race with a two-goal performance against Houston Dynamo in Week 30, while Wright-Phillips moved level with the Spaniard with his strike against Philadelphia on Saturday. 

Wright-Phillips admitted he went into the Philadelphia game with his mind on the Golden Boot race but added it usually doesn't creep into his head as he's playing. 

"When Villa scored two [against Houston], I was like 'what the hell, man,'" Wright-Phillips said. "I hate to go into games thinking about goals. Unfortunately, this game I went in thinking about goals." 

The strike the Englishman delivered in the 3-2 victory impressed his manager, who continues to be amazed by the skill Wright-Phillips possesses.

“What a great goal," Marsch said. "Talk about a confident take. He just ran after that, and I had the perfect angle for it, and I’m thinking to myself 'just nice and easy.' And then he absolutely buries it.

"His form, his confidence, so much of it stems from his leadership."

With confidence flowing through the veins of Wright-Phillips, and his team continuously on the upswing, the sky could be the limit for the original MLS franchise still searching for its first championship. But first, a clash with the Columbus Crew awaits on Oct. 16 during the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

“It’s obviously good to be in first, but at the end of the season, that’s when it matters," Wright-Phillips said. "We take it one game at a time." 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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MLS Player Rankings: BWP, Villa in Direct Battle for Top Spot After Week 30
MLS News
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 10:21

The competition between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC runs deeper than the fight for the No. 1 playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Bradley Wright-Phillips and David Villa are in a fierce individual battle for the top spot in the Golden Boot race and the Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings. 

Each striker enters the final two matches of the season with 21 goals and the potential to score more in the tussle for home-field advantage in the East. 

Beneath the two top scorers on the list of the league's best in-form players are a defensive-minded player on a hot streak in front of net, a red-hot super sub turned starter and a pair of impressive netminders who enter at the bottom of the list.

Our player rankings take into account the last four performances from an individual, with the most recent showing carrying the most weight.

Continue reading to see who landed where in the Week 30 edition of the Bleacher Report MLS Player Rankings.

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MLS Team of the Week: Villa, Kamara, McCarty Stand out in Wild Week 30
MLS News
Monday, 03 October 2016 08:51

Week 30 was a massive week for a few clubs looking to secure the best possible position in the Major League Soccer postseason. 

The Montreal Impact and D.C. United made moves in the Eastern Conference as they overtook Philadelphia for fourth and fifth, respectively, with a pair of victories. 

Seattle made a similar jump in the Western Conference as they downed Chicago and Vancouver in the last seven days to jump up to fifth place. 

We selected our latest Bleacher Report MLS Team of the Week off the weekend matches as well as the four contests that were played on Wednesday. Our best XI is shaped in a 4-3-3 formation to accommodate an extra forward who shone over two games. 

Continue reading to see who was named to the Week 30 edition of the Bleacher Report MLS Team of the Week.

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Ambitious Atlanta United Make Bold Statement with Hire of Gerardo Martino
MLS News
Friday, 30 September 2016 05:57

Before the business end of the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season begins, the hype for the 2017 campaign has started thanks to ambitious expansion side Atlanta United. 

Atlanta, who will join Minnesota United as newcomers to the league next year, stepped into the spotlight with their hire of former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino on Wednesday. 

Martino will take control of a club that has made it clear from day one that they want to contend in year one. Before inking Martino to the role of head coach, Atlanta secured the signature of Trinidad and Tobago international Kenwyne Jones to be the club's main scorer. Argentinian winger Hector Villalba and Irish midfielder Chris McCann are also part of the growing group of new recruits. 

The 53-year-old Martino, who finished second in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa America with Argentina, enters MLS with high expectations given his pedigree. 

But it won't be smooth sailing from the start for Martino, since he'll have to navigate the murky waters of the MLS acquisition methods. Martino admitted he's familiar with the basic rules of MLS but is still working on understanding the intricacies. 

“The first thing you do when you become involved in a project like Atlanta United is to become informed," Martino said through a translator during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. "I started to become familiar with the rules since there was a possibility of coming here.

"The fundamental rules I do know," Martino said. "I don’t know all the rules, but I work with people that know them well. I do think that the rules that exist in the league are made to create a good competitive level." 

The key for the Atlanta front office over the next month is to surround Martino with a coaching staff that understands the ins and outs of MLS in order to build the best roster possible in the club's expansion season. 

“We’re hoping to get the support staff lined up over the next month," Atlanta United president Darren Eales said. "We’re going to put together the best support staff possible that will give Tata the best possible platform to ease into MLS." 

Setting up the staff as early as possible would benefit Atlanta greatly, because once the final whistle is blown on MLS Cup on December 10, the process to get ready for 2017 will ramp up considerably. 

Three days after MLS Cup, Atlanta and Minnesota will participate in a five-round expansion draft. If Martino and his yet-to-be-named staff do enough research beforehand on the players available, they should be able to get plenty of value for their opening season. 

There's no guarantee those players will remain on the roster as the club grows in further seasons, but having five MLS veterans in the squad will help ease the transition into the league as Atlanta shape their identity. Only two players drafted by Orlando City in the 2014 Expansion Draft remain on their roster, while New York City FC have four. 

NYCFC got great value out of the process, as they acquired Thomas McNamara with the 16th selection of the draft; Orlando didn't, as they traded away a few players for various types of compensation. Atlanta most likely won't be able to benefit from Orlando's strategy due to the drop in picks from 10 to five. 

With the Expansion Draft minimized, Atlanta will have to rely on their scouting network and the style of play Martino wants to institute in order to mold the rest of the roster. Having a high-profile manager like Martino should help the club attract some big names that may not have considered the Southeastern United States as a possible destination in the past. 

“It’s a project that starts from scratch, it’s not just shaping team, it’s finding players and establishing a philosophy," Martino said. "It’s not a job proposal you find every day." 

"Our job is to present a philosophy mainly for the first team and then work in conjunction with the academy to make sure this philosophy aligns," Martino said. 

One thing potential acquisitions for Atlanta have to keep in mind is the track record of recent expansion coaches and foreign managers in the league. The last few years have given us plenty of examples in the failure department. 

NYCFC sacked Jason Kreis after one season and Adrian Heath was unable to survive year two at Orlando City. If you look back deeper in the history books, Montreal, Vancouver and Portland all let go of their initial managers before their second season of existence ended. 

Managers from overseas also don't have the best history in MLS, with Owen Coyle's disappointing tenure with the Houston Dynamo being the most recent example. 

Building a team from scratch won't be an easy task for Martino, but he has some assets that the previously mentioned expansion bosses didn't have. He has a certain amount of clout when it comes to recruiting potential signings due to his previous positions. 

We won't see former Barcelona players or Argentinian first-teamers in Atlanta's first starting XI, but we will see a good amount of talent from all parts of the world aligned for the opening whistle of the 2017 season due to the connections Martino has across the globe. 

One thing Martino would be wise to exploit is the success of South American designated players in MLS. Some of the best attacking midfielders the league has seen have come from that part of the world, which just happens to be a portion of the globe Martino knows well. 

If he is able to pluck a Diego Valeri or Ignacio Piatti type of player from South America, Martino won't have to worry too much about chance creation with Jones already in the fold at striker. Martino's background in youth development could also help Atlanta work the South American market when it comes to the up-and-coming stars. 

FC Dallas' Carlos Gruezo, Luciano Acosta of D.C. United and Orlando City's Cristian Higuita are just a few of the young South Americans who have made an impact right away with their respective clubs in MLS. The young talent is there, it's just a matter of Martino and his staff finding the right players for the system they want to play in. 

If Atlanta can implement that strategy as well as attract a big name or two from Europe, they have a real shot at becoming one of the six playoff teams in the Eastern Conference around this time next year. It's a long process to get there, but Atlanta have taken some ambitious steps to get there in their first year. 

Martino has plenty of factors going against him as he enters MLS due to the lack of success from others in charge of expansion sides, but the Argentinian is different than all of his predecessors. With Martino instilled as head coach, Atlanta have the opportunity to alter how first-year sides in MLS approach their entrance into the league. 


Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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