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Magic Mukhtar and ANOTHER goal from behind half-field: 5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 19

Just six games were contested on Matchday 19 as many teams enjoyed a week off before having to do it all again this coming Wednesday. With 29 teams, the league schedule can easily become discombobulated, especially with rescheduled matches and bye weeks. To accommodate this, MLS Matchday 19 gave these teams a chance to catch up and re-level the playing field. While there may have been fewer games, the quality on display was as high as ever.

5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 19

#1. MLS players on international duty

The muted matchday also helped teams deal with the international break. Back in December when the season schedule was released, the league was presented with the opportunity to play through the FIFA international windows in June and September and 13 clubs chose to play. This is the first of those windows, which means these teams are not necessarily all at full strength.

Columbus was without last week’s headline grabber, Lucas Zelarayán, who was busy bagging two goals and an assist for Armenia in a 4-2 win over Wales. Orlando City was hit hard as stars at both ends of the field were unavailable for their side’s trip to New England. Forward Facundo Torres was called up by Uruguay while goalkeeper Pedro Gallese suited up for Peru against South Korea this week. MVP candidate Dénis Bouanga was also called up by Gabon and missed LAFC’s matchup against Sporting Kansas City. 

MLS needs its stars and wants to avoid playing without them at all costs. These windows present logistical challenges when it comes to fitting a long season in such a cramped and condensed timeframe, especially with breaks for the All-Star Game and the month-long break for the Leagues Cup. But sometimes, the games just need to be played, whether Zelarayán is there or not. 

#2. NYCFC winless in its last 10 games

The Big Apple has been hosting some pretty terrible soccer this season. In 2022, NYCFC and the Red Bulls were some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but nine months later, they both sit outside the playoff spots and NYCFC is winless in its last 10 games in all competitions. 

City earned a draw at home against Wilfried Nancy’s Crew thanks to a stoppage-time equalizer from 22-year-old Gabriel Segal. Despite registering more expected goals (xG) than Columbus, Nick Cushing’s side couldn’t find the back of the net, a trend that has become increasingly worrying. NYCFC has been held scoreless in five of its last 10 games and scored just six goals during the same period. 

The only thing remotely saving the team’s blushes is its chance creation. New York’s blue half creates a respectable, but not great, 1.34 xG per game, but only scores once on average. This underperformance means the team is better than their results would indicate, but not by much. If Cushing isn’t careful, he could get the same treatment as Gerhard Struber before too long. 

#3. Tyler Miller finally gets chipped

Last week, members of the media thought it had finally happened. DC United’s goalkeeper, Tyler Miller, has been specifically instructed by Wayne Rooney to play a much more aggressive and advanced role this season and was fully aware of the inevitable consequences. When Atlanta United’s Giorgos Giakoumakis rounded the 30-year-old, well outside of his box before caressing the ball into the gaping net from a tight angle, everyone assumed that was it. Lesson learned. Now, a week on from that embarrassing mistake, it’s truly happened, just as Rooney predicted.

At home against Real Salt Lake, Miller was pushing up, again, well beyond the limits of his penalty area. This should be fine as it allows DC to “put more pressure on up the field,” according to his coach. The problem was, they didn’t. Instead, RSL midfielder Pablo Ruiz was given too much time, spotted the American off his line and let fly from 68.24 yards. Miller tried to save his blushes, but couldn’t stop the shot destined for the top corner. 

Last week it was Zelarayán. Now, Ruiz. Will there be another next week? The week after that? Rooney has said, “It’s a bit risky.” Well, now that risk has finally been realized and his side has what to show for it exactly? Actually, quite a bit. 

Aside from sitting in the playoff spots, DC United has the fifth-best defense in MLS according to expected goals against (xGA) and generates the 10th-most xG per game as well. The discrepancy is they haven’t actually scored as many and they’ve conceded more than they should. Living on the wrong side of the mean can make a season appear bleak despite being extremely successful. 

Maybe they’ll even out and start winning some games soon, but Miller’s positioning shouldn’t change. If you want a bike, then you’ve gotta pedal. These difficult times don’t change that this experiment has been beneficial in the long run. Keep at it, and they may just keep their spot in the playoffs. 

#4. LAFC wins for the first time in almost a month

It feels strange to see LAFC earn three points. Almost a month has gone by since they last put a tally in the victory column, after a run of five losses and one tie in all competitions. Steve Cherundolo’s heavily rotated side traveled to Kansas City with the hope of changing their fate, but Sporting’s incredible form as of late ensured this would be no walk in the park. 

Alan Pulido gave the hosts a 1-0 lead from the spot, which they would take into the break. LAFC came out flying, equalizing just three minutes into the second half through Denil Maldonado. They’d swap one point for three in the dying moments as Carlos Vela found himself onside and one-on-one with just Kendall McIntosh to beat in Kansas City’s net. He calmly slotted his shot past the Oakland native and secured the 2-1 win for the visitors. 

The win moves LAFC up to second in the Western Conference, only behind St. Louis City on goal difference. It’s easy to conjure cliches like, “form is temporary, class is permanent,” but with this team, it feels real. They lead the league with 1.90 xG per game and have difference-makers not just on the pitch, but on the bench as well. If that was a crisis, then the league should be terrified of them on a good streak. 

#5. Hat trick Hany 

It’s getting a bit much now, don’t you think, Hany? Much like Haaland in the Premier League, checking to see who scored for Nashville SC feels like a formality. 

“Oh, cool, they won 3-1! So how many did Mukhtar score?” 

Against St. Louis, the German bagged his fourth career hat trick and became the third player in league history to record at least 50 goals and 30 assists over a three-year span. His third on the night was particularly special as he danced between the opposition’s midfield with the grace and elegance of a ballerina before surging forward and finishing a well-worked team move with a perfectly placed finish into the far post. Simply inevitable. 

The reigning MLS MVP now leads the league in goals, with his 13 tallies accounting for 46% of his side’s goals this season. Add in his six assists and that total jumps up to 68%. All this on a team fighting for the Eastern Conference title. 

So the question that comes out is, how sustainable is this formula? The idea of a superstar carrying a team to victory rarely exists in MLS. Players win games, teams win titles. Mukhtar has won his side many games, but they’ll ultimately keep coming up short until they add a consistent supporting cast to help Hany out when he’s not at his best. 

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