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MLS Watch Grid for 4/22-23/2023
In which I call both Toronto and Chicago worth watching
Window 1: 6:30pm
Free Window Winner: FC Dallas at New York City FC
In this, a rarely occurring cross-conference battle played on the little field at the backup baseball stadium that nonetheless many NYCFC fans seem to prefer to their little field at the normal baseball stadium, we see our only match between two teams in the top ten of the league table. New York City seems to have found themselves back in their now-comfortable (though still kind of baffling position given the way that they entered the league in their expansion season) position as a not-particularly flashy but still pretty effective attacking side despite some trembles early on that Nick Cushing couldn’t continue what Rony Deila got rolling.
Jesus Ferreira comes in riding high off of a goal against Mexico in that weird little friendly that apparently they played on Wednesday and a goal in their match against Real Salt Lake that apparently they played last Saturday. It looks like Dallas will be lacking Alan Velasco, which is disappointing, though I never know what to expect out of great attacking talent on that little field, hell I never have any idea of what to expect out of anybody save for Keaton Parks and the recently returned Slim Jimmy Sands (read: Complete and utter above-average consistency) on that little field. Either of those little fields, for that matter.
Season Pass Window Winner: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC, I’ve recently learned, is not only fielding a team in Major League Soccer this season, but they also haven’t lost since the first week of the season! They are riding a seven match unbeaten streak! They’re tied with LAFC for the longest current unbeaten streak! They’ve flown under the radar partially out of spite, because I think everybody’s disappointed in how they made all those big-money moves on Italian guys last year and neither have really shown out the way that one would hope, and partially out of mild disinterest, as six of those seven matches in this current unbeaten run have been draws. They haven’t been as exciting as they should be, but they’ve been treading water in a way that will pay dividends if they do, at some point, start to play up to their potential this season. Toronto at the moment is similar to Orlando City, in that there’s reason to believe that they’ll start looking like the team they should be at some point, and you’ll want to be watching when they finally do. It’s all about potential energy.
Philadelphia, at least in MLS play, should draw your attention for the same reason. We know how good they can be based off of their CCL performances so far and the fact that their team is about the same as the one that was a Gareth Bale header away from the MLS Cup last year. They haven’t found their way quite yet in-league, as they currently sit at tenth in the Eastern Conference with only two wins, but they’re worth watching for the sake of potentially seeing that first moment where The Union that we know so well show themselves.
I think it’s more likely that Toronto finds itself in this match than Philadelphia (It might have to be post-CCL for them), but we have two pretty even teams that should be better than they’ve been, and I hope that we see the goals begin to flow forth.
Window 2: 7:30pm
Season Pass Window Winner (By Default): Los Angeles FC at Nashville SC
This one’s a bit of a tough sell, the one reason I’d give for Season Pass viewers to turn to this match would be out of some interest in seeing the final unbeaten MLS team finally take a loss. I was criticized by Nashville fans a few weeks ago for saying that Nashville could be an exciting team to watch, but I’m starting to come around to their side of things. Nashville in 2023 is an internal struggle between one of the league’s most exciting players in Hany Mukhtar and one of the league’s most effective-but-not-all-that-exciting coaches in Gary Smith. Gary is currently winning. They’re choking teams out: They’ve conceded the fewest goals of anybody this year (LAFC has conceded the second-fewest with one fewer match played), but they’re 22nd in terms of goals scored (LAFC is fourth).
Maybe LAFC draws something out of them? Maybe an early Bouanga goal forces Nashville to open up? I don’t know. I would love to see something of interest come from Nashville, but I’m doubtful at this moment. You’re probably best off just sticking with whatever you started with.
I guess “By Default” is not the correct term, as I’m implicitly calling it more interesting than Houston and Miami, but I suppose I just mean that it’s not gonna jump off of the screen at you. Houston and Miami doesn’t interest me either, though as soon as I get the chance to write about this fun upstart Dynamo team in an exciting matchup, I will take it! Miami’s just fallen off of a cliff in terms of watchability from last year.
Window 3: 8:30pm
CHOOSE YOUR OWN *FREE* MOUNTAIN ZONE ADVENTURE!
For the first time this season, we’ve got two matches in the Mountain Zone kicking off at the same time, and they’re both available for free, and they’re both… only tenuously interesting. We have two away teams coming in hot off of big wins last weekend: St. Louis and San Jose. Both sides of the Rocky Mountain Cup have been uninspiring. Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids have proven, in recent weeks, to be superior to this league’s absolute worst teams (Charlotte, Kansas City), but still mediocre against the league’s best. It’ll be a huge success for either team to reach that technical playoff qualification slot at ninth in the West.
The away team should theoretically win, so we’ll have to dig a bit for any extra intrigue (fitting for both cities’ histories with digging for stuff, what with the gold rush in Denver and the books in Joseph Smith’s yard in Utah). I am going to lay out my reasons to watch either match, and you get to decide which intrigues you more.
St. Louis CITY at Colorado Rapids:
For St. Louis and Colorado, we’ll learn how St. Louis’s pressure fares in the altitude. Can they keep that up for a full match? Will they get tired in the second half, and if they do, can Colorado capitalize on it? One of the fun things about St. Louis’s early success this year is that they’re both winning and winning in an interesting, analyzable fashion. With everybody else that’s finding early-season success, we have a historical context for what we expect of them: Seattle’s back to their typical quality, but they’ve adapted a bit tactically, LAFC has continued at the level of quality they held last season, but with Denis Bouanga scoring goals in fashions different from those that Chicho Arango brought, New England’s looking not quite as dominant as they did in 2021, but they’ve found their defensive identity again. With each St. Louis CITY SC match, however, we learn something fully new. We ask questions and get answers completely bereft of historical pre-emption. We’ve never seen St. Louis CITY, with their unique and so-far very effective brand of defensive pressure, play in the Commerce City altitude, and we’ll have the chance to do so this weekend. That’s reason enough to watch, I’d think?
San Jose Earthquakes at Real Salt Lake:
San Jose’s starting to look like a genuine contender in the Western Conference, and they’ll have the opportunity to potentially break into the top 3 of the Western standings with a win in Salt Lake this weekend. Looking back at the season preview articles written on them, many seemed to believe them capable of progression this year, but with a lower ceiling than the one they’ve reached a quarter of the way into the year – The highest predicted placement in their season preview article had them at 8th in the West, a mark they’re on pace to break. They’re an incredibly fun attacking team, with a genuine golden boot candidate in Jeremy Ebobisse, a sleeper MVP candidate in Cristian Espinoze, and a great defensive addition in Jonathan Mensah. They won 3-0 last week, they play another struggling conference foe in RSL this weekend, and they get Austin next weekend before LAFC comes up to Levi’s Stadium to face them on May 6th. If they can dominate this match and the next one like they did against SKC, they’ll add a lot of intrigue to a match that I don’t think many expected to be intriguing when it was announced.
I wish that I could say something about why Real Salt Lake is an interesting team, but I’ve got nothing. RSL, probably more than anybody else, feels nondescript. Montreal’s failure is at least interesting in how swiftly they’ve collapsed in the wake of Wilfried Nancy’s departure, SKC and the Galaxy were at the very least supposed to be better than this, so there’s something interesting in the despair, Miami at least has the possibility of Lionel Messi maybe joining in the summer, and a lot of people go to see Charlotte FC lose, so there’s intrigue in that sense. RSL’s just sort of spinning in the wind, fodder for other teams to prove themselves. I guess that's a reason to watch them, to see if you finally learn a little about them?
Window 4: 9:30pm
Free Window Winner (By Default): Minnesota United FC at Seattle Sounders FC
If they lose this weekend, I’m calling it: The Loons are safely ignorable again. There was a period during which I didn’t like watching them, but they were winning, and if they lose three straight, I’m gonna avert my eyes until they either A) give me a reason to look their way again or B) I see a match at their stadium when I go visit family in Minnesota this summer, which will be mid-July, in all likelihood.
Artisan’s Choice: The Angst Cup — Austin FC at Los Angeles Galaxy
I whined so much about Real Salt Lake’s boring struggles this season because I find that complex, interesting struggles like the ones defining both teams in this match can be as fascinating as a matchup of two top-table teams. Right now, my “most interesting for any reason, good or bad” top five in MLS looks like this, with a short explanation for each:
5. Orlando City SC – Potential Energy Champion, could turn great at any moment
4. Austin FC – Unexpected Angst as the brashness of last season turns to inexplicable mediocrity early this year
3. Sporting KC – Personal connection plus purgatorial nature of this impotence coming at a time in which it’s financially and contractually unrealistic for the most powerful person in the organization to face any professional consequences for it AND WE’RE BRINGING BACK DOM DWYER?
2. St. Louis CITY SC – Caillou’s Corollary: Each day we learn some more about them
1. LA Galaxy – Total angst from every feasible corner of the organization, fan revolt, inability from the front office to do anything to assuage the fan revolt, they were supposed to be good, LAFC’s emergence, transfer sanctions underlying it all
On Saturday night, we’ll be getting a matchup between far and away the number-one most-angsty team in MLS and the third-most angsty team in MLS, both of whom have disappointed, both of whom have been embarrassed, both of whom are having to face the cold reality that, a quarter of the way in, this season is not shaping up to be what they though it could be, neither of them have built on the foundation from last year, neither of them could get past LAFC when that opportunity was presented to them. We have a matchup of two teams here that are beginning to recognize that something about them is honestly broken, that they are in a situation requiring a humility completely anathema to either organization, be it the long-cemented but gradually becoming dusty trophies of the Galaxy or the recently exploded laminated hubris of Austin. It’s the 2023 MLS equivalent of the first Tyson-Holyfield fight, where part of the intrigue comes from the bruised prides of both participants.
Maybe somebody gains a foothold in this match. Maybe somebody gets the win they need to push them back into the Western Conference picture. Maybe we just get two pissed off, anxious, angsty teams, in front of an intentionally sparse and angsty crowd, throwing glancing blows at one another deep into the night.
Window 5: Tuesday, 3:30pm
My hand hovers over the button. Do I have the gumption to do it? Can I say it? It takes guts, bravery, conviction, and a complete disregard for what I know from historical context… But I will push it. I will say it:
The Fire Are Interesting To Me
There. I’ve said it. I’m going to recommend, and I’m going to try to put my full chest into doing so, that you watch this match between Atlanta United and the Chicago Fire because the Fire are participating in it. You should, of course, watch because Atlanta’s participating and hosting, they have Thiago Almada, et cetera, et cetera, they’re here for the reasons they’re always here and there’s a certain aura to a Sunday afternoon game at the Benz that always draws my eyes there – I think it’s the fact that, as the sun descends, it shines right into the eyes of their supporter section, which I think adds to the atmosphere somehow, just knowing they’re singing through the pain makes the match matter more.
Chicago, though…. I want to give them their flowers. Last year, at their best, they held teams to zero goals and also scored zero goals themselves, and at their worst, they couldn’t hold teams to zero goals and also scored zero goals themselves. As of recent, they’ve flipped that on its head: They have only a single defensive shutout this year, but they’ve scored multiple goals in four of their last five matches. More succinctly, they are volatile! Volatility means watchability!
We haven’t had much volatility in MLS this year outside of Chicago and Atlanta, who are two of only three teams that have both scored and given up double-digit goals to this point (Philadelphia is the other). Chicago’s also getting their goals from a variety of sources, as they have seven unique goal-scorers, the leader of whom is the grizzled veteran Kei Kamara! Let’s see some classic explosiveness this Sunday afternoon.
I know that I am in the minority among most fans, but I enjoy the condensed Saturday evening schedule for the most part. I appreciate having one big standout game on a Sunday afternoon like this, though, and I hope it bears fruit!
Who’s Off This Week:
Vancouver! You’re off this week! My favorite thing about your city is that they filmed one of my favorite movies, Hot Rod, in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, so maybe go visit the street where they filmed the riot scene. Don’t actually go cause a riot, though. I would love to say “wait for the Canucks to get eliminated in the playoffs for that,” but I’ve just looked at the playoff schedule on ESPN for the first time and they’re not in the playoffs, so… I don’t know. Seems like a fun place, I’m sure you’ll find something to do. If you can’t, consider watching my new YouTube Video that I put up this week:
I guess, non-Whitecaps fans, I encourage you to watch that video as well. Everybody else, let’s enjoy the soccer!