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Stock Up, Stock Down: Vanzeir steps up for Red Bulls, St. Louis stuck in rut

April 8, 2024, by Sacha Kljestan | Courtesy of www.mlssoccer.com



Well, that was fun!


We also had Lionel Messi’s return from injury, some El Tráfico drama, big wins from the New York Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and Seattle Sounders FC starting to look more like themselves. The list goes on.


Here’s where I have Stock Up and Stock Down after Matchday 8. Give me a shout at @SachaKljestan with your thoughts.


STOCK UP


New York Red Bulls


Are we seeing the early signs of a fourth Supporters’ Shield-winning season for the Red Bulls? I’m not fully there yet – there are a lot of matchdays ahead – but there’s no denying the 2024 version of this team has come together quickly and has a higher ceiling than in recent years.


That all surfaced in Saturday’s 2-1 win at reigning Shield winners FC Cincinnati, which leaves Sandro Schwarz’s side atop the league table with 14 points from seven matches. There’s a lot to unpack from the game – Emil Forsberg returned and played nearly 80 minutes, Frankie Amaya scored against his old team and Carlos Coronel made a few big stops. It even mattered little that Lewis Morgan, the Golden Boot co-leader with six goals, missed a penalty kick!


But let’s not lose sight of Dante Vanzeir scoring his first goal of the season, completing a beautiful Cruyff-style turn off Forsberg's through-ball before finishing confidently. I still think the Red Bulls are a DP No. 9 away from being in the “trophy frontrunners” crowd, but we’ve been clamoring for the Belgian forward to show his goalscoring potential, to turn chances into end product. Full credit to him for delivering and for also reaching a league-leading six assists.


Should Vanazeir continue being a complete player alongside Forsberg and Morgan, plus a true No. 9 this summer, look out.


Vancouver Whitecaps FC


Vanni Sartini, speaking after last weekend’s 4-0 rout of Toronto FC, proudly proclaimed his Whitecaps to be the best team in Canada. That’s bold… and correct, at least for now!


Vancouver are top of the league table on points per game (2.17). If it weren’t for a late-game collapse against Real Salt Lake, they’d have started the year six games unbeaten. They’ve got serious momentum heading into a top-of-the-West home match vs. the LA Galaxy on Saturday (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), trying to keep the good times rolling at BC Place.


What’s going right in Vancouver? Fafà Picault has been an impressive free-agent pickup, contributing a team-leading 3g/2a. The one-two punch of Ryan Gauld and Brian White is gaining momentum with two goals apiece, and Andrés Cubas remains rock-solid in the No. 6 role. Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka has big saves in him, too.


There’s still another level for the Whitecaps to reach – Canadian international left back Sam Adekugbe is only just returning from a nagging injury, and the club has an open Designated Player spot. But Sartini’s team, at the very least, looks ready to remain in the top tier of a wide-open Western Conference. They’re becoming one of the must-watch teams every week, stylistically and in terms of entertainment.


Philadelphia Union


Who had the Philadelphia Union as the last undefeated team of 2024? Not many, I imagine, but this is what Jim Curtin’s battle-tested group brings – a level of dependability and know-how with grinding out results.


So it was on Saturday at Nashville, when the Union flipped the tactical script in the second half and got goals from Julián Carranza and Dániel Gazdag to leave GEODIS Park with a 2-1 win.


By that I mean the club reverted to their proven 4-4-2 diamond midfield, then had their stars step up with goals in crucial moments. Backup goalkeeper Oliver Semmle continues to deputize admirably for Andre Blake, too.


Zooming out, Philly have rattled off three straight wins now that they’re out of the Concacaf Champions Cup. That exit, sealed nearly a month ago with an embarrassing 6-0 defeat at Liga MX’s Pachuca, could have derailed this team. Instead, they’re 3W-0L-3D (12 points) and can soon claim the East lead. Wake-up call received.


All that talk about the roster going stale or this team sticking together for too long was valid. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it motivated Curtin’s team to prove everyone wrong, to show their mix of established stars and young talent is still a proven winning formula. Curtin says it for a reason: Philly are at their best when doubted.


Atlanta United


Goalkeeper assist! Atlanta United left Citi Field with a 1-1 draw vs. New York City FC, largely thanks to Brad Guzan – and it wasn’t just his two clutch saves.


The highlight came in the 65th minute when Guzan collected the ball, picked his head up and unleashed a perfect punt into Edwin Mosquera’s path. From there, the speedy winger crossed to Jamal Thiaré for a headed equalizer. With two passes, NYCFC’s defense was undone. What a counter-attack.


It’s a great moment for my former USMNT and Chivas USA teammate, who’s had to fight to keep his job in 2024. Atlanta’s front office brought in Josh Cohen during the offseason, and the USMNT pool ‘keeper has some Champions League experience. Plenty of folks were calling for Cohen to start right away, too. But manager Gonzalo Pineda has stuck with Guzan, and so far he’s backed that decision by reminding everyone why he’s been Atlanta’s No. 1 for almost seven seasons.


Giorgos Giakoumakis chasing the Golden Boot, Thiago Almada as a premier No. 10, young fullback Caleb Wiley. There’s plenty to like about this year’s Atlanta team. But don’t lose sight of this: The 39-year-old’s still got it!


STOCK DOWN


Nashville SC


A few weeks ago, following a 2-1 win over Charlotte FC, I thought Nashville were turning a corner. Not so fast.


After Saturday's 2-1 loss to Philadelphia, Gary Smith’s team has won just one of seven league games this year. And the most worrying part is how their longstanding identity of being a defense-first team is slipping. A big part of that is center back Walker Zimmerman and right back Shaq Moore being out injured, but simple mistakes on set pieces and in transition are lingering like a bad cold.


There’s still the fact that DP forwards Hany Mukhtar and Sam Surridgehave combined for just three goals. They were injured earlier this year and broader issues exist around them… but we keep mentioning this because it persists. Nashville will go as far as Mukhtar and Surridge take them.


Maybe we’ll see some player movement before the Primary Transfer Window closes on April 23. Smith took the uncharacteristic step of calling for reinforcements in Saturday’s post-match press conference, which tells me some bigger questions are being asked internally:


St. Louis City SC


First off, St. Louis were an incredible story in 2023 – new to the league, top of the Western Conference standings, breaking expansion-club records, qualifying for Champions Cup, drawing incredible crowds at CITYPARK. What an addition to MLS.


But it’s not easy to replicate those successes, especially since everyone knows what to expect. And so early into 2024, St. Louis have a league-leading five draws – including Saturday's 0-0 match against FC Dallas where goalkeeper Roman Bürki came up big (four saves) and striker João Klauss couldn’t turn any of his seven shots into a goal.


St. Louis haven’t been bad, per se, and if they win just two of those tight matches they’re back among the West leaders rather than below the way-early playoff line. That doesn’t make the start any less frustrating if you’re a St. Louis fan, though.


Bradley Carnell's side pride themselves on a “team is the star” mantra, embedded in a high-pressing system. That can be mighty effective, but there are inherent limitations as well. Having star midfielder ​​Eduard Löwen out with a hamstring injury isn’t helping, either.


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