The sixth week of the MLS season saw several coaches breathe serious sighs of relief after crucial results from a few teams that badly needed them.
The Chicago Fire recorded their first win of the season on Saturday and while it was an ugly match where the Columbus Crew played the better soccer, the Fire weren't about to give back the three points.
Neither was Orlando City, which rallied from a 2-0 deficit to put together the Lions' latest comeback in a 3-2 win against a Portland Timbers squad still searching for its first win under Giovanni Savarese. Jason Kreis would surely have started to feel the heat if his team dropped another home game, but Dom Dwyer helped Orlando City post a second straight win.
The LA Galaxy weren't able to recreate last week's magic, with Sporting Kansas City doing well to contain Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his 28-minute cameo, and the rest of the Galaxy attack over 90 minutes. Tim Melia made 10 saves on the night, while the woodwork stopped three other Galaxy shots.
One of the surprises of the early season, the New England Revolution, posted a second straight win, with veteran defender Andrew Farrell delivering the celebration of the weekend after scoring the first professional goal of his six-year career.
These are just some of the storylines from the weekend. Here is a closer look at MLS Week 6:
Schweinsteiger's sweeper stint
Bastian Schweinsteiger probably didn't envision himself being deployed as a central defender when he first signed with the Chicago Fire, but the German star showed once again what a team player he is in the Fire's 1-0 win against the Columbus Crew.
Schweinsteiger started the match in a sweeper role for the Fire, in the heart of a 3-5-2. He is no stranger to dropping deep and setting up shop in the defensive third at times later in matches to help protect leads, but that was where he started out against the favored Crew on Saturday after looking good in the role last week in a draw against Portland.
Fire coach Veljko Paunovic is light on reliable central defenders who can distribute out of the back, so he turned to the former Bayern Munich legend to fill the role on Saturday and he did it well before eventually shifting back into a more familiar midfield role later in the match.
"Bastian is one of the players that can play any role, and definitely he helps our defense to feel more confident and more organized, and also helps the team in that way," Paunovic told reporters after Saturday's win.
"Definitely I want to help Bastian to enjoy more. His personality is amazing because he accepts the roles knowing that he's going to help the team. We have to figure it out to help him to have a better game in front of him. It's going to take some time, and I'm very grateful that he stays confident and very reliable and helpful."
The Fire's defense has struggled to replace central defender Joao Meira, who left after the 2017 season. Christian Dean was expected to step in and start alongside Johan Kappelhof, but a combination of lingering foot issues and poor play have made it clear he doesn't appear to be the answer. Couple that with an injury to regular starting right back Matt Polster and you wind up with Paunovic beginning to consider shifting Schweinsteiger into a sweeper role on a more regular basis.
The shift isn't without its issues. Schweinsteiger, for all his qualities, has some glaringly obvious deficiencies as a defender, mainly his lack of quickness and weakness in the air. The tradeoff is his ability to read the game and put himself in good positions to break up plays and spark the attack from a deep role.
Schweinsteiger's new role shouldn't be a long-term solution, but it can do for now while the Fire defense gets healthy, and while the front office looks for more reinforcements.
"We are fixing things, and I think fixing the defense, which [on Saturday] looked better, but we still conceded a lot of opportunities," Paunovic said. "We still have to do a better job there, and just build on top of this important win that gives us some confidence, but there is still a long way to go."
As much as there is a clear need for a central defender, the Fire's top priority remains signing an attacking midfielder. The team's poor start to the season has only magnified the need to add a difference-maker to the attack.
Central defense remains an area where depth is needed, but Schweinsteiger appears ready to serve as a stop-gap measure, at least until Polster returns from injury and someone like rookie Grant Lillard or veteran Kevin Ellis can show enough to allow Paunovic to return Schweinsteiger to his more natural central midfield role.
Timbers endure painful end to brutal road trip
The Portland Timbers were fully aware that the start of the 2018 season would be a difficult one, with a five-game road trip scheduled to open the campaign due to renovations at Providence Park. That, coupled with the process of adapting to new coach Giovanni Savarese, figured to lead to some early issues.
Two draws and three losses later, the Timbers return to Portland still searching for their first win. The club is especially feeling the pain from a brutal 3-2 loss at Orlando City that saw the Timbers squander a 2-0 lead in the span of 10 minutes.
Saturday's collapse raised fresh questions about the state of the Timbers, but it also overshadowed the reality that Portland played well for 79 minutes before fading in the Florida heat. It marked the second straight match in which the Timbers squandered a lead.
"I have to take responsibility for the result," Savarese said after Saturday's loss. "I take the full blame of the result and the players gave me everything. They’ve been traveling five games away at the end we were tired. It was a long trip. The weather from snow to hot and you can see at the end the guys were breaking down all over the place because its been a long five games away. But as I said, I take full responsibility for this defeat.”
Savarese took the heat, but he was certainly not the only one to blame. A terrible penalty call drawn by what looked like a Dom Dwyer dive helped gift Orlando City an equalizer to make it 2-2, but then Portland's defense broke down, with Dwyer maneuvering past Timbers central defenders Bill Tuiloma and Larrys Mabiala to blast home the winner from close range.
The grind of their five-game road swing, which has taken them across the country multiple times, surely played some part in their late-game swoon on Sunday but the Timbers' inability to manage the lead is what did them in.
It was just the kind of game they used to be able to utilize Darlington Nagbe to help see out, with his ability to keep possession now a trait that is sorely lacking on the current Timbers squad. You could argue that not having the injured David Guzman also played a part, but the lack of a midfielder who can keep the ball like Nagbe is something that could keep haunting the Timbers even after they return home.
As disheartening as Sunday's loss was, Savarese can look at the five-game road trip and point to positive signs. His men were in every one of the five matches save for the 4-0 blowout loss to the New York Red Bulls. Returning to the friendly confines of Providence Park will provide a much-needed boost, but the pressure is now on. Anything short of a win against Minnesota United on Saturday will signal serious alarm bells, especially with unbeaten New York City FC on the schedule after that.
The road trip is over. It's time for Savarese to show why the Timbers chose him to be the man to replace Caleb Porter.
It was far from a banner week for MLS officiating, and while bashing MLS referees is a tradition that has been around since the league began, this past week was particularly rough on the men in the middle. There was plenty of complaining about VAR and some of the decisions that were overturned, but more blame needs to fall on the referees who made decisions that required tide-changing overturns.
Referee Baldomero Toledo was ready to issue Portland's Sebastian Blanco a second yellow card for a dive in the 19th minute against Orlando City, only to have VAR show it was actually a penalty foul that Blanco suffered. In Atlanta, Ted Unkel whipped out a first-minute red card on Atlanta United's Chris McCann that would have swung the match in LAFC's favor from the start. VAR helped overturn those calls, but MLS referees need to get major calls like that correct to begin with because VAR isn't always going to fix their mistakes. It didn't fix Toledo's penalty call against Alvas Powell for a perfectly fair challenge on Dom Dwyer.
VAR is supposed to help overturn terrible decisions, but it shouldn't also lead to referees making more of them.
Atlanta United may have found a solution to its central defender depth issues by finally handing Miles Robinson his MLS debut. The former number two overall MLS SuperDraft pick held up well in Sunday's 5-0 win against Los Angeles FC. Michael Parkhurst's veteran savvy helped the youngster, as did Brad Guzan's presence. Robinson avoided bad mistakes, and played it safe with the ball. The 21-year-old still needs more experience, but he showed enough on Saturday to merit more minutes when Atlanta United is down defenders.
When the Vancouver Whitecaps traded away Tim Parker, they did so banking on Jose Aja and Aaron Maund being able to fill the void as Kendall Waston's partner in central defense. Maund started out as the starter, but Aja has been given the nod in recent matches and has underwhelmed. He was poor in Vancouver's 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, and while Vancouver has still started the season with a good record, Carl Robinson will need one of his center backs to step up and show they're reliable if the Whitecaps are going to be a serious contender in the West.
Best of MLS Week 6
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Julian Gressel's excellent work as Atlanta United's right wingback caused problems for LAFC, as his goal and assist set the tone for Atlanta's big win.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Sporting Kansas City went on the road and stifled the LA Galaxy, preventing Zlatan Ibrahimovic from working his magic.
ROOKIE OF THE WEEK: Orlando City forward Chris Mueller scored his first professional goal to spark the Lions to a 3-2 comeback win after being down 2-0.
GOAL OF THE WEEK: Sporting Kansas City winger Johnny Russell set the bar this week with a nifty move to dance through the LA Galaxy's defense