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Lucho for MVP and St. Louis City's stunning freekick: 5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 26

League play has come to a halt but watching Matchday 26, you’d never be able to tell. With the All-Star Game around the corner and the highly advertised Leagues Cup set to kick off in less than a week, teams were still in high gear across the league. 

5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 26

#1. Lucho Acosta the hero as Nashville sees red

A top-of-the-table clash in the Eastern Conference proved telling as Supporters’ Shield-leading Cincinnati showed its class to once again to come from behind as they beat Nashville 3-1. Following a disallowed goal in which Argentine Lucho Acosta pickpocketed United States and Nashville center-back Walker Zimmerman before scoring brilliantly but was deemed to have committed a foul as he stole the ball, the American international scored to put the pressure on the hosts. Acosta would get his goal as he equalized from the spot but it all unraveled from there for the visitors. 

Nashville earned itself a pair of red cards for the second time in as many games and felt the consequences of its actions as Cincinnati scored twice to secure the result, including a well-worked second that was assisted by MVP candidate Acosta and a third courtesy of new Designated Player signing Aaron Boupendza.

The loss marks the first time in club history that Nashville has lost three consecutive games and sent them down to fourth in the Eastern Conference, just one point clear of Orlando City who has a game in hand. Five losses in its last four games speak to the shocking form the club finds itself in, so Nashville will be looking at the All-Star Game/Leagues Cup break as a way to reset and come back stronger for the final part of the season. 

#2. D.C. stands for “Disaster Class”

Murphy’s law was in full effect for Wayne Rooney’s side in Foxborough after a deflating 4-0 loss to their neighbors to the north. Few will argue that New England isn't the better side. It was an expected win for the hosts, but the way it happened said much more about D.C. than it did about the Revs. 

All but one goal featured elements of sabotage, but none was a more perfect summary of the match than the final finish, a self-inflicted wound by D.C.’s Brendan Hines-Ike. Up 3-0 and enjoying yet another breakaway, New England sent a low cross into the box where the trailing defender simply couldn’t get his feet sorted quickly as he stumbled over his own two feet and sent the ball flying into a helpless empty net. 

The District will host the league’s All-Star Game and Rooney will coach the side as they take on last season’s Premier League runners-up, Arsenal, at Audi Field. Hopefully, the Englishman’s tactics will be a bit more sound for the match that will feature the biggest names in MLS, though admittedly it hardly matters. What does matter is that United is still very much a bubble team and a good final run of games could keep them in the playoffs but a bad spell could just as easily bounce them out. 

#3. Columbus remains incapable of winning on the road

Just when it looked like the Crew might be able to reverse course and finally get a good result on the road, old habits got the best of them. After a mighty two-goal comeback spearheaded by the unequivocal Lucas Zelarayán, Portland’s Sebastián Blanco scored his first goal of the season, sending Columbus home pointless. 

Initially, the visitors were traveling West in search of their third road win of the season, but two quick goals from the hosts deemed that nearly impossible before a half hour had passed. Zelarayán’s two brilliant goals gave his side hope, but ultimately, the loss sent Columbus tumbling down the standings and now one of the league’s most free-flowing and entertaining sides sits sixth behind Orlando, who earned an impressive 2-1 win on the road in Atlanta.

Winning on the road is crucial to being successful in MLS, as it helps teams earn home playoff games, but as it stands, Columbus will be playing the majority of its hopeful postseason campaign on the road, where it has proven time and time again that it simply cannot win. It would be a completely fitting way for this team’s season to end with a devastating loss on the road in October after yet another dominant display that came up just short.

#4. St. Louis is the set piece capital of the United States

There really isn’t much about St. Louis that hasn’t been said yet. They have been a joy to watch this year as they’ve turned one of MLS’ traditional weaknesses into their greatest strength, showcasing phenomenal depth all season. They’ve also developed a helpful knack for scoring goals from set pieces, as yesterday proved.

Against Inter Miami, who were fresh off the official unveiling of Lionel Messi, the hosts showed the gulf in class between themselves and the worst team in MLS. A pair of brilliant headed goals put City up but it was the third that stood alone. 

A spectacularly unorthodox freekick that found the far corner by catching out a naive Drake Callendar in Miami’s net was the final dagger to go top of the Western Conference by four points. 

#5. Shoutout to the keepers

Standing between the sticks is the last line of defense. The margins between superhero and scapegoat are incredibly fine for goalkeepers, but some revel in that risk. With legends of the game gracing the pitch, MLS is no stranger to great keepers. This year is no exception, but there are five showstoppers who are having particularly impressive campaigns. 

There are several ways to judge keepers, but two of the most effective are save percentage and post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (PSxg-GA). The former is fairly self-explanatory, but the latter is a sport-obsessed statistician’s dream. 

PSxg-GA takes the season-long expected goal model and interprets it based on how likely the goalkeeper is to save each shot before subtracting the number of actual goals conceded. All you really need to know is that positive numbers are better. 

Leading the league is St. Louis City’s Roman Bürki with a staggering +5.8 PSxg-GA, meaning that without the Swiss stopper, St. Louis would be expected to have conceded nearly six more goals than they did. The expansion side currently sits atop the Western Conference with a league-best +16 goal differential and there’s no doubt that Bürki is a major part of that record. 

In the Northeast, three keepers have followed Bürki’s lead as their sides sit near the top of the Eastern Conference. New England’s Đorđe Petrović leads the league in saves (93) and is second in save percentage (80%). The man he trails is Nashville’s Joe Willis, who has saved 81.4% of the shots he’s faced this season. Philadelphia’s Andre Blake does not lead any statistical categories, but he is in the top 6 for both save percentage and PSxg-GA despite only playing 13 games this season due to injuries and most recently the Gold Cup. 

One final worthy name is San Jose’s Daniel, who has only played 11 games this season due to a knee injury that kept him sidelined for just over two months from March to May. In those 11 games, however, the Brazilian has been incredible, saving 77.8% of the shots he’s faced and accumulating the highest PSxg-GA per 90 in the league with +0.35. Good goalkeepers win games for their teams and these five are some of the best in the business.

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