MLS Week 9 breakdown: Atlanta’s growth and the Galaxy’s stars

ATLANTA, UNITED STATES - APRIL 28: (L-R) Daniel Lovitz of Montreal Impact , Hector Villalba of Atlanta United during the match between Atlanta United FC v Montreal Impact at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 28, 2018 in Atlanta United States (Photo by Peter Lous/Soccrates/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, UNITED STATES - APRIL 28: (L-R) Daniel Lovitz of Montreal Impact , Hector Villalba of Atlanta United during the match between Atlanta United FC v Montreal Impact at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 28, 2018 in Atlanta United States (Photo by Peter Lous/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

Where Atlanta United have improved, another LA Galaxy loss and more thoughts on MLS Week 9.

We’re almost at the end of April, already. Some assorted thoughts on Week 9 of the MLS season:


Atlanta United have been markedly better at breaking down bunkered defenses this season. This is a crucial maturation. The decline of parity in MLS, driven by teams like Atlanta, has decreased the talent on other clubs, which creates mismatched games like the one on Saturday. To overcome their obvious talent disadvantage, the Montreal Impact sat deep, left Ignacio Piatti alone up top and punted the ball to the Five Stripes.

In the past, Atlanta’s star attackers struggled to conquer this. They would resort to individual dribbles and bad hits from distance, unable work without space to run. It’s a psychological challenge for a lot of talented teams; it’s clear they’re good enough to break through, but they just couldn’t.

Montreal executed their style almost to perfection. They were compact and organized, and when they stole a goal in the 13th minute, it looked like they might also steal a result. The score was still 1-0 midway through the second half. But after the Impact handled the ball in the box, the floodgates opened.

Miguel Almiron and apparent free-kick maestro Kevin Kratz both scored braces and Atlanta pulled away with a 4-1 home win, again overcoming their park-the-bus demons. This win follows victories over Vancouver, Minnesota and D.C. United, potential trap games against teams that defend first.

More and more Five Stripes opponents will employ this strategy as the season goes on, making Atlanta’s ability to defeat it pivotal.

There were some bumps in the road. It took them a while to score, after all, and they lumped too many low-percentage crosses into the box:

The game-plan was to build through the left-central channels, where Ezequiel Barco spent much of his time, and then switch to space on the right. That was their most successful method of disjointing Montreal’s block, but rather than using combination play and movement to take advantage of the space, they often loaded the box for Julian Gressel crosses. There are better ways to utilize switches of play.

Gressel can deliver a dang good ball, though, and with Barco drawing defenders alongside Almiron, they were more effective than ever in tight spaces. They rendered Montreal’s airtight organization moot with superior talent. Atlanta have made a habit of doing that recently.

Candy Paint

Sometimes possessing superior talent is not enough to put you over the top. That’s the lesson the LA Galaxy, five games into the Zlatan experience, have learned.

They have two wins and three losses in those five matches, including Saturday night’s 3-2 home loss to the New York Red Bulls. For the first time, they had Giovani dos Santos healthy and in the starting lineup alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic, playing a 4-4-2 with dos Santos up top with Zlatan and Ola Kamara — who has only ever been a number 9 in his MLS career — on the left wing.

A lineup that featured all three of those players in addition to right winger Romain Alessandrini had the potential to get killed defensively. That didn’t happen to the disastrous extent it could have — mostly thanks to Ola’s diligent defensive work — but the Galaxy were weak down the spine and struggled to connect in attack.

With Jonathan dos Santos out with a knock, Sebastian Lletget was Perry Kitchen’s partner in midfield. Two-man midfields are at a disadvantage from the start anyway, but the Red Bulls had too easy of a time breaking through the middle. They also took advantage of space on the flanks on the counter, particularly when Bradley Wright-Phillips drifted wide. BWP finished with a pair of assists.

Dos Santos struggled again. He didn’t do a good enough job of connecting LA’s attack, forcing Zlatan to drop deep to receive the ball. They’d be better served moving Lletget (or Emmanuel Boateng) to the wing, pushing Kamara back up top and replacing dos Santos with a center midfielder. That’s a tough decision for Sigi Schmid, but one he has to make.

Next: The 10 best teams in MLS history


The best team in the league

This is between Atlanta and NYCFC, who won again this week. We’ll keep in New York City this week for their clinical 3-1 home win over the previously unbeaten FC Dallas.

David Villa scored his 400th all-time goal, becoming the fifth active player to reach that milestone. The other four are Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That’s pretty significant company. Let’s also appreciate that two of those five players are playing in MLS.

Villa has a good argument for being the best Designated Player in MLS history. Robbie Keane and Diego Valeri are the other two that merit significant consideration in terms of on-field contribution.

The worst team in the league

Despite their snap-breaking win on Saturday, this one’s gonna have to stay with Minnesota United. They defended poorly against Houston again, but they came back from an early deficit and picked up a 2-1 victory. Darwin Quintero is legit.

Unheralded player of the week

Jordan Harvey had a good game for LAFC in their groundbreaking 1-0 win over Seattle. He was up and down the flank from his left-back position all game, and he put a number of threatening deliveries into the box. He was one of the few players that stood out from this game.

Random result of the week

The New England Revolution continued their quietly good start to the season with a 1-0 home win against the west-leading Sporting KC. A lot of VAR controversy in this game, part of a very VAR-centric week.

Predictable result of the week

It’s hard not to go with ATL’s 4-1 win over Montreal. That result seemed like a given from the beginning, given the Impact’s recent problems with defending.

Goalkeeper Howler of the Week

Well, it has to be Stefan Frei:

It was this stoppage time error that gave LAFC their 1-0 home-opening win. Frei is an above-average MLS keeper, and he’ll move on. But this was a rough one.