After a near four-month-long interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the MLS made its return on July 8 with the World Cup-esque MLS is Back Tournament. Nearly two weeks into the league's revival, a pair of former North Carolina men's soccer standouts have had noteworthy performances this summer.
Pineda, who scored 17 goals during his four years in Chapel Hill despite spending the majority of his time as a midfielder or defender, had about as close to a perfect debut as one can hope for. The Chicago Fire rookie earned a start against the Seattle Sounders on July 14 and either assisted or scored on each of his team's goals in a 2-1 win.
With the ball at his feet deep in his own half, Pineda launched a clearing long ball up to the midfield line where teammate Robert Berić shrugged off a Seattle defender so only Yeimar Gómez Andrade stood between himself and the Seattle goalkeeper. A quick cutback touch from Berić towards the middle of the field allowed the Chicago striker to create enough space to collect himself and slot the ball into the bottom left corner of Seattle's goal in the 52nd minute.
Following an equalizer from the Sounders, the Fire won a corner in the closing minutes of regular time, giving them the opportunity to score a late game-winner.
Chicago's Gastón Giménez drove a low cross into the six-yard box that managed to slip through a crowd of players before Pineda caught his defender sleeping and drifted into a pocket of space at the back post to meet the ball. A quick tap-in was all it took for the former Tar Heel to put it in the back of the net for the first goal of his professional career.
Pineda's second game of the tournament, though, was less impressive as the Fire suffered a 2-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes. Although he earned another start at center back, San Jose dominated the play — the Earthquakes finished the match with 62.7 percent possession — and a second-half yellow card contributed to Pineda being subbed out in the 72nd minute.
Berhalter, who was born in London but grew up in Ohio, only appeared in 16 games in his lone season for UNC before returning home to play professionally for the Columbus Crew.
His professional debut for the Crew came on July 11 in the the waning minutes of a 4-0 win over FC Cincinnati after all of the goal-scoring action had come to pass. The silver lining was that his father and U.S. men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter was in attendance for his son's first MLS game.
Berhalter's performance in the final minutes of the Crew's dominant win over their in-state rival was enough for head coach Caleb Porter to ask the young midfielder to start the following match against the New York Red Bulls as one of the key distributors in the center of the pitch.
In just his second match as a pro, the 19-year-old held his ground in the defensive midfielder role during the Crew's 2-0 win and was a key piece of Columbus' impressive first half.
From the fifth minute to the 35th minute, the Crew easily controlled the battle of possession against the Red Bulls, while Berhalter finished the first half with more touches than any player on either squad. Although Berhalter was unable to pick up a goal or assist, he was on the field for both of Columbus' goals before being subbed off in the 57th minute of his first start.
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