Let’s start with the obvious: Inter Miami is in first place and the reason is Lionel Messi.

The Argentine superstar has 10 goals and 12 assists in just eight games played in 2024. On Saturday night, he came out in the second half against the New York Red Bulls and took the game over. Messi set an MLS record with five assists, all in the second half, and added a goal to earn a second mark for most goal contributions in a game.

Luis Suarez was the main beneficiary with a hat-trick (and an assist) during the match and now has 10 goals himself this season.

It turns out those guys are pretty good. However, Inter Miami needed to build a team around its core of older Barcelona stars: Messi, Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. It has required some salary cap gymnastics, complicated further by injuries. In their first preseason game of the year, Miami midfielder Facundo Farias suffered a season-ending injury. It was probably the worst complementary player to go down and Miami still hasn’t found a winger to replace him.

Miami has a handful of other key players who have also missed time with injury this year including Benjamin Cremaschi, Federico Redondo, Diego Gomez and Alba. Three of those four would have been in the starting lineup on Saturday if healthy.

But Miami has not stopped building the squad around Messi as they shove all the chips into the middle of the table and aim for an MLS Cup. The addition of Paraguayan midfielder Matias Rojas has the potential to be a real game-changer in terms of the depth Miami will need to navigate the long MLS season.

Rojas, as one person working in the league told The Athletic when he signed, is a designated player for pretty much any other MLS team. And he probably would’ve been a DP for Miami, too, if not for a unique situation in Brazil. (Goal.com reported last summer that Rojas’ salary at Corinthians would be around $1.44 million.)

Rojas left his contract with Corinthians by voiding the deal due to several late and unpaid image rights payments. According to Globo, Rojas claimed more than $1 million in unpaid image rights from Corinthians and sought not just to terminate his deal, but to get full payment through the life of the deal, which ran through 2027. Corinthians has appealed to FIFA but put out a statement that said, “FIFA granted Matías Rojas permission to carry out his professional activity, guaranteeing only the right to work. In relation to any amounts that may be owed, the case still depends on FIFA’s arbitration decision.”

On Saturday against the Red Bulls, Rojas showed his DP-level quality.

The 28-year-old midfielder entered the game and immediately changed it with his vision and runs through midfield. Rojas’ first finish was pure quality, a burst to get away from defenders and a left-footed strike back across the goal inside the far post.

Despite playing in just his second game with Inter Miami, Rojas demonstrated strong chemistry with Messi. His second goal showed the connection – Rojas’ run, Messi’s gorgeous pass through RBNY’s back line and Rojas’ chipped finish.

Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said they knew they wanted to work Rojas into the team slowly – he hadn’t played consistently in a month – but Martino said Rojas had shown chemistry with the team in training sessions.

“Matías is a player who has a lot of quality; he is a footballer who has an enviable left foot and what we are looking for is to take him little by little,” Martino said. “I think today we saw a very good 45-minute version of Matías and we hope this continues.”

The problem now is unlocking exactly where to play Rojas, Martino said, but as Inter Miami gets healthy, the Paraguayan has provided yet another dangerous option to employ.

Of course, you can probably put him anywhere on the field as long as Messi is being Messi. So far, that’s been good enough for Miami to sit comfortably in first place. 

Paul Tenorio

San Jose finds its way, sort of

Optimism and good vibes have been in short supply for the San Jose Earthquakes this season, but maybe — just maybe — the last two weeks will jumpstart a sluggish 2024 season.

The Quakes delivered their best performance of the season on Saturday with a 3-1 win over LAFC in front of 43,774 fans at Levi Stadium.

It wasn’t just the result over a rival that could give San Jose a jolt, it was the nature of the performance. DP winger Cristian Espinoza delivered a great performance with two assists, key winter-signing Amahl Pellegrino scored and, perhaps most importantly, club-record signing Hernán López came off the bench for his debut at halftime.

“Soccer is an easy thing when you have confidence,” Pellegrino said. “To get a huge win like this with a good performance, too, makes things easier.”

Though LAFC had the (slight) edge in goal difference, game states played a key role. San Jose scored a goal from a corner early then extended its lead to 3-0 in the 59th minute.

In his debut, López flashed the quality that convinced San Jose to complete a club-record deal of around $6 million to sign him on deadline day of the primary transfer window. It was a surprise he was cleared to play on Saturday. The initial plan was to unveil him to the fans at halftime, but his work visa came through earlier than expected and he was available for selection.

“It was something that made me a little nervous, I’m not going to lie,” López said. “But I took it in stride. I was prepared for it and excited to get out there and show what I’ve got.”

It was just San Jose’s second win of the season and the team still sits bottom of the Western Conference, but it’s only May and the MLS season is long. They have a pivotal stretch coming up, entering the U.S. Open Cup in the round of 32 on Tuesday followed by a few key MLS games to potentially build on.

Tom Bogert

MLS Next Pro loans

Although the Chicago Fire suffered another defeat at home, this time 1-0 to New England, Saturday provided a milestone moment for Omari Glasgow. The winger made his MLS debut in the 79th minute, checking in for Brian Gutiérrez. The 20-year-old is already a vital player for the Guyana men’s national team with 16 goals in 22 senior caps. He also led all players with seven goals in the 2023-24 CONCACAF Nations League B, helping the Golden Jaguars earn promotion into Group A to test themselves against teams like the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Glasgow’s debut is a product of one of the league’s newest roster mechanisms. Chicago signed the winger from its MLS Next Pro affiliate, Chicago Fire FC II, utilizing a short-term agreement to bring Glasgow into the fold. The stipulations around such a loan are clearly defined: a club may sign a player, age 25 or younger during the league season, from its affiliate to a maximum of four short-term agreements (up to four-day contracts) each season. An individual player may be included on up to four MLS league season match rosters each season; however, that player may appear in no more than two MLS league season matches.

To some club sporting executives, the limiting structure around these loan-ups limits their effectiveness for the player involved. There isn’t currently a tracker of all short-term loans on either the MLS website or the Next Pro. Working off club press releases, there have been 21 short-term loans to date in the 2024 season. Of those cases, only five players saw the field in an MLS match, totaling 68 minutes of action. Loïs Mensanvi (Minnesota United) is the only player to appear in two MLS games, while Georgi Minoungou (Seattle) also made his MLS debut this weekend.

These players are often called in to fill the squad during international windows or instances when multiple first-teamers are otherwise unavailable. If they represent the proverbial “31st option” on a team, one wouldn’t expect them to log major minutes. Nevertheless, the narrow window of involvement limits the impact on the young player who gets a rare work-study opportunity with the first team.

“You can only play the academy player two times, then you have to give him a contract,” one chief soccer officer told The Athletic. “That’s difficult given roster restrictions. I don’t think that provides a good flow to develop players.” The CSO added that players seldom get more than one training session with the first team, limiting the chance they’ll pick up training habits from their older temporary teammates.

Jack McGlynn scores back-to-back golazos

For the second time in four days, Jack McGlynn launched a laser shot into the back of the net with his special left foot. Saturday’s encore was an even better strike than Tuesday’s golazo.

The goal clawed back a point for the Philadelphia Union, who drew on the road against D.C. United.

“For my money, you can’t score a much better one and in a better moment,” head coach Jim Curtin said.

The U.S. youth international continues to impress and develop. The 20-year-old has long had suitors abroad, but the Union believed McGlynn’s development was best served in Philadelphia a bit longer than previous players like Brenden Aaronson, Paxten Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

It’d be hard to argue against the progress.

McGlynn has already accrued 109 first-team appearances before his 21st birthday. Each year, his importance and responsibility increase. Last season, it was clear McGlynn was the best forward passer out of the midfield, the one most likely to break lines. He embraced it. This year, the coaching staff has pushed him to shoot more. This week, at least, he’s certainly embraced that, too.

The central midfielder was a constant for the United States Under-20 side last cycle, culminating with a starting role at the Under-20 World Cup. He’s a lock to play a role for the U.S. Olympic team this summer and a transfer could be right around the corner, either before the European summer deadline or the following January.

Philly has preferred to keep its players through the season, something that is also hard to argue given the team’s success and the deals they’ve eventually earned for both the Aaronson brothers and McKenzie, all of which stuck around until January.

Teams in England and elsewhere in Europe have long had McGlynn on their radars. The timing seems right for a move in the next nine months. Picking the right next step will be crucial.

Shot-stoppers’ spotlight

Historically, marquee matchups between the Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy have been prime showcases for some of the league’s most prolific attackers. On Sunday, it instead was a second-half showcase for a couple of veteran goalkeepers.

Both teams sent in nine shots after halftime, managing an identical two on target. In truth, each attack could have offered a greater threat. The LA Galaxy lacked its usual verve in transition as Riqui Puig missed out due to yellow card accumulation. Although the Sounders racked up attacking third touches to earn a 62.2% field tilt advantage, the final quarter-hour saw many players in possession pointing and shouting at teammates, begging for some off-ball movement.

Despite lengthy gaps between shots faced, both goalkeepers stayed sharp to protect a clean sheet. After dealing with a hamstring injury in the early months, Stefan Frei looked like his usual cool and collected self. The Sounders legend stymied Joseph Paintsil from point-blank range before the referee blew the play offside, then managed a crucial stop on Diego Fagundez.

His opposite number, John McCarthy, is still acclimating after leaving one Los Angeles team for the other this offseason. A longtime deputy for Philadelphia and LAFC, he has rewarded the Galaxy for finally entrusting him atop its goalkeeper depth chart — a similar long-awaited breakthrough that’s reminiscent of Brad Stuver’s exploits since Austin FC debuted in 2021. McCarthy has been among MLS’s finest shot-stoppers in the season’s first trimester.

McCarthy was one of two goalkeepers that two-time reigning Western Conference champion LAFC allowed to leave in free agency — Maxime Crepeau joined the Portland Timbers after a two-year stay. Both McCarthy and Crepeau have provided good shot-stopping value compared to expected goals conceded, with the table above accounting for shot volume.

Worryingly for their former employer, their replacement, storied French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, has been among the league’s worst at preventing goals in the season’s early months. LAFC was on the wrong side of San Jose’s statement win, with Lloris caught flat-footed on the opening goal and in no-man’s-land as he was far too slow to close the angle on the Quakes’ second.

The underlying numbers warned this might happen as the 37-year-old is firmly in his twilight years. Undoubtedly, LAFC will hope his big-game prowess will remain timeless through the season.

Jeff Rueter

(Top photos: Getty Images; USA TODAY Sports)