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LAFC’s statement win and welcome to Finnesota: 5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 25

Along with two thrilling Gold Cup semifinals, Wednesday featured a final midweek MLS matchday before teams take a break from interleague play. New signings across the league hit the ground running as the push for the playoffs begins to approach its thrilling climax in a few months. 

5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 25

#1. Referee recourse in MLS

It’s not very often that the powers that be admit wrongdoing. Such actions typically only worsen the strained relationship players, coaches and fans have with the sport’s officials, but that changed this week. On Matchday 24, referees on the field disallowed a goal that cost New England a point, and after a few days, PRO Referees, the organization in charge of match official assignments, admitted “an error was made, and the goal should have been allowed.”

While discussing the mistake on MLS 360, former official and current rules analyst Christina Unkel made an excellent point regarding any potential recourse. When asked if there was any chance New England could be given the goal, especially if the point proves crucial in the standings, Unkel said, “I’m pretty sure every team has been affected by a refereeing decision.”

This week, another controversial decision attracted much ire from fans when Cincinnati FC defender Nick Hagglund was called for a handball in his penalty area. In the replay, it's difficult to tell exactly where the ball struck his arm, but it's definitely near the shoulder area, leading to much debate online and in the studio.

The penalty, which was converted by New York, did not alter the result, however, as Cincinnati went on to win 2-1, it proved again that even in the face of adversity, FC Cincinnati finds a way to win. 

Referees are not perfect and should not be held to a perfect standard. There is so much going on in a match that small things occasionally are just going to slip through the cracks. That’s sport. That’s humanity. Not everything can be perfect, especially not in a game as wild and random as soccer. The officials deserve respect, and admitting they were wrong was a massive step towards a better, healthier relationship between the sport and the people who make it possible.

#2. Nightmare in Nashville

Losing to Philadelphia is generally nothing to be too upset about, but Nashville’s most recent loss to Jim Curtin’s formidable bastion of consistency is a particularly difficult cross to bear. The defeat marks the fourth time in five matches that Nashville SC has been held scoreless, all of which they’ve gone on to lose. 

During this stretch, Gary Smith’s side has conceded six goals, keeping one clean sheet in a 2-0 win over D.C. United. However, Nashville is by no means bad. The team is slightly below average in both expected goals (xG) and expected goals against (xGA), but they have conceded the least of any team in MLS to this point, letting in just 19 goals in 23 matches. 

They’ve amassed seven clean sheets this season, which looks great on the surface until you realize they themselves have been shut out on eight occasions. 

When Hany Mukhtar is on, he is an easy MVP candidate. His 13 goals and seven assists account for two-thirds of Nashville’s goals, meaning if you can shut down the German, the rest of his team will likely not be able to make up for his absence. 

The club should look to bring in some more reinforcements to help diversify its portfolio. Another method of attacking besides letting Hany run the show would be dangerous, potentially turning this good team into a force to be reckoned with, akin to the transformation currently going on at Real Salt Lake.

#3. Atlanta’s agony

It’s incredibly frustrating to see a club with the talented weapons Atlanta boasts not able to win games consistently. MVP candidate Thiago Almada, Golden Boot contender Giorgos Giakoumakis and Miles Robinson in defense have not been able to earn more than 35 points. The club sits sixth in the Eastern Conference, just one point clear of the incredibly unreliable Orlando City SC. Against New England, Gonzalo Pineda’s side had an opportunity to make a statement but ultimately fell silent.

A pair of early goals for the Revs doomed Atlanta despite a late consolation from Machop Chol, and just like that, another two-game winning streak, if you can even call it that, is ended. Atlanta has only once won consecutive games this season, giving fans a two-faced team that wouldn’t know consistency if it bashed them over the head.

So what needs to change? To be completely honest, it’s difficult to say. Atlanta ranks among the best clubs in both xG and xGA, and they score the third most goals per game in MLS with 1.78. Defensively, however, they are the second worst, conceding 1.61 goals per game, 0.31 more than they would be expected to. Be that luck or something else, it needs to change soon, though it is difficult to make that happen. 

#4. Welcome to Finnesota

Finnish striker Teemu Pukki is not used to warm welcomes. The former Norwich City player has played nearly his entire career north of the 45th parallel, featuring for Schalke 04, Celtic and Brøndby among others during his career. Now finally, he’s headed south. 

Minnesota United’s Allianz Field sits just over three miles south of the important geographic mark, though his new fans have made him feel right at home since he joined. 

Upon his arrival, the former Norwich striker was welcomed by the entire state as they celebrated “Finnesota Day,” a special holiday created to honor the legacy of Finnish people in Minnesota and specifically their newest attacking prospect. 

In his first start for the club, he rewarded them with a textbook finish for United’s second in a 3-0 win on the road against Houston. This marks the second time the Dynamo have lost at home this season, as Adrian Heath’s side joins Seattle as the only other club to achieve the feat. 

So clearly, he can still do it in MLS, but whether or not Minnesota has the boost to make a genuine playoff run remains to be seen. The club has had its share of issues both in attack and defense, but the combination of Emanuel Reynoso and Pukki may be exactly what fans need to sing Wonderwall more often. 

#5. LAFC’s statement win?

This week’s marquee matchup featured the two teams fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference as St. Louis City visited LAFC. After a tense first half in which the hosts failed to register a shot on target, the gloves came off in the final 20 minutes.

Captain Carlos Vela broke the deadlock before Stipe Biuk doubled his side's advantage in the 82nd minute. In added time, Jose Cifuentes put the match to bed with an emphatic finish. The result takes LAFC within striking distance of St. Louis at the top of the table. Just two points separate the clubs with one matchday remaining before the summer break for the MLS All-Star Game and the Leagues Cup.

Both teams are on a relatively poor run of form, with three losses in each of their previous six games. Since June 5, LAFC has faced an overloaded schedule that has seen them play 10 league games while every other team has played between five and eight. St. Louis has been missing several key pieces due to injuries, namely forward João Klauss, though Eduard Löwen did make his return in the later parts of the match against LAFC. With a lengthy break for both sides, it will be interesting to see what happens when play resumes in August. 

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