Southwest of downtown Orlando, former Arsenal and Barcelona superstar striker, and current Montreal Impact manager, Thierry Henry, knelt for eight minutes and forty six seconds after kickoff on the sweltering sideline of field 17 to memorialize George Floyd’s death at the start of the third match during the MLS is Back tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. This was a powerful gesture from a legendary man well known for power and class, both on and off the field.
Juxtaposed with the world’s elite soccer leagues and federations, the MLS is transparently second class because the typical quality of play is choppy, halting, lopsided and inconsistent. Although MLS fans occasionally witness the gift of a rare, superlative combination play, or a curling long-range goal, historically, anecdotally, I’ve felt there is more than enough – and because the league must compete with the rest of the gargantuan American sports universe – evidence to prove why the MLS remains dramatically less popular than the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
But life is long and opinions change; and after the first and second ten-minute blocks of Thursday evening’s New England Revolution-Montreal Impact matchup, I felt what I can only describe as a refreshing wave of new optimism for the MLS and the league’s future quality of play; because the intensity and skill of the game in total, and especially in the players’ passing, but in their footwork and hard challenges too, were altogether, nothing short of electrifying.
The New England Revolution’s percentage of possession began increasing exponentially at the twenty-fifth minute mark. They seriously threatened Impact keeper, Clément Diop for the first time too. And it seemed that throughout the whole first half, the Revolution’s passing seemed superlative, more creative, and crisper than at any other point in their truncated season thus far.
Floridian heat is a beast of burden not unworthy of the hyperbolic tone The Sports Network’s announcers’ emphatically reiterated during the opening minutes. While the sun finally dipped behind the verdant palm tree studded horizon, and as the ferocity of the match accelerated and intensified, it began apparent, that by the thirtieth minute’s water break stoppage, an astonishing, and nascent truth was evident: the MLS is an entirely new beast. Since the coronavirus sports shutdown, the MLS, as of this evening, might just be the absolute best version of its own strange form of American sports entertainment since the league’s initial wet-firecracker-ed inception.
Although halftime arrived without a single goal from either side, I felt abuzz with anticipation for the next forty-five minutes; because I recalled the previous evening’s Floridian showdown – played for not too much more than bragging rights, early in the tournament’s group stage play – in which Inter Miami CF broke open a tight, scoreless deadlock in the forty-seventh minute when Juan Agudelo’s scorching redirected shot found the bottom left corner of the rippling Orlando net after a sly, sweeping cross from Victor Ulloa. All of this action abruptly forecast, and predicted – proved? – the best, high-quality – world class? – soccer from these MLS is Back fixtures will invariably take place late in the day – and not during the matches that begin at 9 A.M. – and in bulk, too, it seems, for the majority of matches, deep in their second halves, in the final minutes.
Who doesn’t love a dramatic finish?
What’s more, I’ve never seen anything like the ten minute stoppage time addition at the tail end of the Floridian throw down. But I got one last night.
And, then, Nani, one of the few Orlando City players, and former English Premiere League superstars worth watching – who does not suffer the typical dimming stardom associations of the comprehensively washed up Americans often assign the MLS’s biggest names – and maybe the only legitimately threatening player thriving from within the expanding league’s most egregiously mismanaged club, Orlando City, supplied all the virtual fans at home a mainline jolt of the dramatic, in the form of brilliant kill strike, slotting home a gem of a goal, after a deflection, just before the double-headed Floridian match eclipsed the ninety-eighth minute.
This league might actually become something of a hotbed of exhilarating high-quality play.
So, again, maybe the once fledging MLS is a consummate, new beast. Throughout ten minutes of the Impact-Revolution’s second half, spectators witnessed; and the TSN announcers confirmed all we saw; a complete inversion of the first half’s style. The Montreal Impact adjusted their tactics and were the far more aggressive side, domineering in possession, stifling on defense. Even though this hustle culminated with no actual goals, despite four amazing chances at the back of the Revolution’s net through the fiftieth minute, they pushed into the opposition’s half of the field with an ebullience that, to me, felt almost visceral from my easy spot on the coach.
Just north of ten minutes after halftime, the seven million dollar Argentinian transfer, and designated player, and front-facing-topknot/man-bun clad, Gustavo Bou, controlled a knockabout pass in stride at the top of the box, and then ripped a knuckling, ascending rocket over Impact keeper, Diop’s outstretched right glove that rushed up inside and nearly ripped through the back of Impact net’s top shelf.
Boom. One-Nill. Revolution.
In the sixty-third minute, the Revolution came agonizingly close to doubling their lead over the Impact, when a low-slung cross briskly traversed the entire length of the Impact goal mouth, though it skidded out wide, ultimately untouched.
After a crystalline close-up shot of a nervous, perplexed Henry slumped, seated and socially-distanced from his players, I overheard some spitfire French instruction erupt from the sideline during an injury timeout in the sixty-seventh minute, as it seemed the Impact tried orchestrating some sort of reconfiguration in tactics, so the Revolution did not flat-out dominate possession for the closing twenty minutes.
But Henry’s pleading was of no consequence. None of the Impact substitutions made a difference throughout the remaining Revolution-dominated minutes during the opening match for Group C in the MLS is Back tournament, as it was all Revolution down the stretch. The veteran Bruce Arena-led squadron closed out their twenty-plus shot assault on the Impact net by repeatedly testing the keeper, Diop, with a claustrophobic and looming style of relentless high pressure punctuated by deftly in-swinging cross after volleyed flick and blistering hard shot after shot.
Six minutes of stoppage time made no difference, and the victorious Revolution marched off Field 17. Rarely, in the whole wide world of sports can a match with just a singular scoring play feel this compelling. But that is where we are in a nation ever-primed for sporting obsession, and craving, amidst this ongoing pandemic’s second wave what most if not all sports fans and writers must agree on: that this entire thing feels resolutely different, strange, because this is a new beast.