Seattle impresses in big win over Leon win, NYCFC also sharp, Fulham cruising, Balogun scores, and more
March 09, 2022
WEDNESDAY WAS A GOOD day for MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League and that was the big story of the day in American soccer. In Europe, things went completely as expected with the Yanks at Fulham continuing to coast to promotion while Brenden Aaronson and Salzburg bowed out of the Champions League with a decisive loss to Bayern Munich.
There were plenty of other stories to cover, so here are some thoughts on it all.
Seattle coasts past Club Leon
In any other year, an MLS team defeating a Liga MX team in the CONCACAF Champions League by a 3-0 scoreline would be impressive. Even if the game was played in the United States, that would be seen as a massive victory.
Roldan to Roldan to Montero.. it’s 2-0 Seattle over Club Leon. Good stuff for Seattle pic.twitter.com/4I589iQZLF— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 9, 2022
The Seattle Sounders defeated Club Leon by that 3-0 scoreline but Seattle was so impressive that the result was actually disappointing. Seattle was all over Leon from the start of the match. Despite Leon having over 65% possession, almost all of the dangerous opportunities were from Seattle.
Seattle’s plan was to sit back and then once in possession, quickly exploit the space behind Leon’s midfield and backline. When looking at all of the chances, Seattle should have won this game 6-0, at least. Leon goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota was terrific in keeping it as close as possible heading into the return leg.
Seattle lost its first two games of the MLS season but is clearly prioritizing the Champions League right now. What made this win over Leon even more impressive is that it happened without Nicholas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz who are arguably the two best Sounders.
There were a bunch of things in this game that just worked well for Seattle.
Roldan’s big night
For one, Cristian Roldan put on a huge performance. He drew the penalty that was converted by Freddy Montero for the opening goal. He then assisted to Montero for the second goal moving down the right side. On the final goal, he assisted to Jordan Morris from the left side. He was all over the place and was constantly wreaking havoc.
His numbers were great, but they only tell part of the story.
Cristian Roldan: # for Seattle in 3-0 win vs Leon— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 9, 2022
5 key passes
1 drawn pen
3/3 long balls
5/11 ground duels won
Following the game, Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer spoke about Roldan’s emotional edge that he brings to the games. Teams feed off it. That is part of what gets lost on his game.
“Cristian’s emotional ties to our success is what I prefer to look at,” Schmetzer said about Roldan. “You can go on SofaScore, FotMob, or look at all the data you want, but his emotional leadership on the field… is what makes him a special player.”
“That’s Cristian,” he added. “He never gives up. He never quits. Whether it’s the first minute or the 94th minute, that’s his emotional contribution to the team. It is far and away greater than any statistic that you guys can throw at me.”
People might not get his national team role, but it isn’t big these days. He’s typically only used as an occasional substitute, and this was true in the Gold Cup as well as in qualifiers when the entire team is there. He’s not taking anyone else’s spot. He’s there to bring a spark, whether or not he plays. Against Leon, he showed that he can be a true difference maker at times.
Vargas’ impressive maturity
Remember the name Obed Vargas. He’s one of the top 2005-born American players at this early stage and is still just 16. Despite his youth, he has been earning minutes for Seattle and got the start against Leon in central midfield. It was a massive stage for a young player to go against a top Liga Mx team but he completely looked the part.
Seattle might have someone special on their hands and they know it too.
“I would hope some of the scouts from Leon or some of the other bigger teams in Mexico would take notice, although I don't want to lose the kid,” Schmetzer said of Vargas. “But certainly he belongs in the team. He has played at a level where he belongs on the field.”
Vargas is a native of Alaska which makes him a rarity in American soccer. He’s also the son of Mexican immigrants and that is going to start the Dual National Panic machine. It’s understandable because he’s eligible for the next two U-20 cycles. There are plenty of chances at the youth level to give him opportunities instead of forcing him onto the full team.
Vargas was called up to the last U.S. U-20 camp in January and in an exclusive interview with ASN, head coach Mikey Varas said this about Vargas.
“Obed [Vargas] did really well at the camp, and I would say Obed was one of the biggest surprises at the camp,” Varas told ASN last month. “I have given Obed the challenge to play his way into this group. He is a really strong player and it's a tough position. But he did a really, really well. He's a top talent.”
That last sentence is viewed in a different light because now most people have seen that for a 16 year old, he’s pretty darn good. Not many players that age can help lead an MLS team to a comfortable win over a Liga MX team like Club Leon.
He’s one to really follow this MLS season.
Morris still getting sharper
Jordan Morris had a baffling game. He was routinely getting into dangerous positions but you could still see the rust of someone who missed almost all of 2021 due to an ACL injury. He’s been back since November but is only now playing regularly.
His finishing was snakebit for almost the entire game and he let the ball get away from him at some clear advances to goal.
But then in stoppage time, Morris had a goal that gave Seattle a 3-0 goal which could still end up being critical.
If Morris can get back to the level he was at in 2019 and 2020, Seattle and the United States national team will be huge beneficiaries. At the club level, he puts up numbers that are truly among the elite designated players.
He’s not one for every situation. He’s not as effective breaking down bunkers or shooting from distance. But when the game opens up and there is space, he’s tough to stop. He’s still not back to the level he was at in 2020, but he’s getting there.
The second leg
The second leg will take place on Thursday, March 17 at Estadio Leon. There is a world of difference going into this leg up 3-0 as opposed to 2-0. Still, the Sounders did not put the game away when they could have.
If Leon had 67% possession in this game, they will have over 70% at home – at least. Chasing the game in Mexico is never easy and this game will be ridiculously taxing. The Sounders have the edge and should be considered favorites, but they can’t allow an early goal and concede momentum. If they get Ruidiaz and Lodeiro back, it will be only better.
NYCFC gets past Comunicaciones
Played in front of a very pro Comunicaciones crowd in Hartford, NYCFC got the result it wanted in the “home” leg against the Guatemalan Champions. The MLS Cup winners posted a 3-1 victory and should be in command heading into Tuesday’s visit to Central America for the second leg.
There were some pretty goals scored by NYCFC in this game. With Taty Castellanos, Maxi Moralez, and Santi Rodriguez, NYCFC has offensive talent.
Defensively, however, NYCFC has some issues. NYCFC wasn’t always in control of this game, they won it with individual talent. Systematically they left Comunicaciones with too much space and this conceded too many opportunities. They definitely need to be tighter in the second leg.
NYCFC have a great shot to advance to the semifinals where they will face the Seattle/Leon winner. If they are cleaner in their defensive half, they could be a real threat in this tournament.
Fulham continue to coast
Fulham routed Swansea City 5-1 on Tuesday to tighten its grip atop the Championship table. It becomes difficult with each game to say anything new about the club’s American duo of Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson who are just consistently solid every game. Their performances are often overshadowed by Aleksander Mitrovic who scored again and now has an astonishing 35 goals in 33 appearances this season.
But the left side of the defense is rock solid because of the American duo. It was in this game, although it was made a bit easier with Swansea City getting reduced to 10 players in the 42nd minute.
Ream: 93 touches, 85/91 passing, 9/11 long balls, 9 recoveries— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 8, 2022
Robinson: 92 touches, 49/63 passing, 4/7 long balls, 6 crosses, 4 interceptions, 4/4 aerials, 2/4 ground duels.
Both Americans play well and go 90, per usual. Fulham coasting to promotion https://t.co/MTtqcQidTm
Fulham now has a 14 point lead atop the table and there is seemingly no stopping them.
As for the American duo, particularly Tim Ream who is heading to his third promotion, their monetary value is huge. Over the past two decades, owners of Championship clubs spend a fortune trying to put together a roster that can get promoted. The value of promotion to the Premier League is worth £170 million in some estimates. Being a big part of that means you have provided huge value as a player. Ream has certainly added a ton of value to his teams over the years.
Salzburg bounced by Bayern
After playing Bayern Munich to a 1-1 draw in Salzburg in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 knockout, the return leg in Germany was always going to be much harder for Red Bull Salzburg. U.S. national team midfielder Brenden Aaronson was impressive in that first leg and has been dominant in the Austrian Bundesliga since his arrival from the Philadelphia Union in 2020.
The return leg, however, was harder on the Austrians than anyone expected with Bayern romping to a 7-1 win. Brenden Aaronson started couldn’t do much against one of the best teams in the world.
Aaronson will surely win another Austrian Bundesliga this season and likely another Cup to give him a perfect run of domestic silverware (on the heels of also winning the Supporters Shield in Philadelphia just before leaving).
He’s done remarkably well in Austria but with this loss, he’s maxed out of what he can do there. He almost certainly will be onto greener pastures in the summer. Maybe it’s to Leeds Untied who saw multiple offers rejected or maybe it is elsewhere. The future is very bright.
Balogun scores first pro goal
American-born Folarin Balogun, 20, scored his first goal at the first team level when he found the back of the net for Middlesborough in an otherwise very disappointing 4-1 loss. It was a matchup of two teams trying to break into the Championship promotional playoff positions and this convincing loss sent Middlesbrough into eighth place.
Balogun’s goal took a lot of luck and an epic mistake from Sheffield Untied keeper Wesley Foderingham.
Ok.. long time fans of this site know that we have a big tent on this feed. We accept bad back passes, reckless dribbles and all sorts of questionable plays out of the back. One rule: a failed clearance is not a #WPIOOTBGW. But we can’t help ourself here pic.twitter.com/Arbpmx7WW9— When Playing It Out of the Back Goes Wrong (@wpiootbgw) March 8, 2022
There still was something to like about the goal for Balogun – who was subbed into the game in the 60th minute. It was heads up of him to pounce on the mistake. His first tough was rough and it forced him into a tough angle finish – but he was able to execute it.
There have been rumors that Balogun is contemplating switching to the United States internationally (without inside info on him, my guess is that he will at some point). He was born in New York but returned to England when he was very young. He grew up almost entirely in the London area and represented England at the youth national team level as he was a member of Arsenal’s academy. He is also eligible for Nigeria through his parents. In 2019, he declined an offer from U.S. U-20 Tab Ramos to switch and play for the United States at the 2019 U-20 World Cup.
Now on loan at Middlesbrough, he is getting to play consistently at the first team level. Balogun has now only scored once but he’s been dangerous since joining Boro in January. He’s hit the post a bunch of times and drew a penalty over the weekend. Overall, he’s done well and looks lively and talented.
If he decides to play for the U.S. internationally, he might get a look in summer depending on how other forwards such as Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike, Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, and Gyasi Zardes are doing. None of those players have cemented the No. 9 spot, so more competition is welcome. A strong start to a professional career, however, doesn’t always last. It’s still too early to rate Balogun, but he appears more promising than some other dual nationals who have been linked to the U.S. team (or youth teams) in recent months.
Turner’s absence looms
Not much has been said about U.S. national team goalkeeper Matt Turner’s injury which has kept him out of the first two games of the MLS season for the New England Revolution. Head coach Bruce Arena finally offered some hints on Tuesday and it didn’t look promising for the Revolution regarding their upcoming CONCACAF Champions League knockout against Pumas.
It also didn’t sound promising for the U.S. national team and the big March window for the final three World Cup qualifiers (baring a requirement to play in the playoff).
Bruce Arena on Matt Turner: "He got hurt in a practice game against LAFC in LA, whenever that was in early February, I don't know the exact date. Just a foot/ankle injury. Timeframe? Probably a couple of weeks from now that he'll be available.” #USMNT #NERevs #SCCL22— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 8, 2022
The big thing was “probably a couple of weeks.” Now if Arena is talking about Turner playing for the Revolution, maybe he was referring to after the upcoming international window? That doesn’t preclude him from playing for the U.S. team. But Arena also might be referring to when Turner is able to play at all. If that is the case, Turner is probably out for the March window with the U.S. team.
Combined with the injury to Zack Steffen, the U.S. team is looking at the March window with either Sean Johnson or Ethan Horvath in goal. Johnson has been the third keeper the entire World Cup qualifying campaign although he hasn’t appeared in a game. Horvath played the past four games for Nottingham Forest and was strong in the Nation’s League final last year in the win over Mexico.
Johnson might have the edge given that he has only continued to play well at the club level and won MLS Cup in December with NYCFC. Typically when the first two goalkeepers are unable to play, the number three becomes the number one unless he’s screwed up and lost his spot or the number four has played so well that he has leapfrogged the number three.
Johnson hasn’t played poorly, but has Horvath done well enough to leapfrog Johnson? Johnson also has the edge in that he’s been consistently training with the team since the Gold Cup and the four World Cup qualifying windows. He has developed a level of comfort with the team over that time. It will be interesting to see how Berhalter decides it should Turner and Steffen be unable to go, as it appears.