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MLS Watch Grid for August 20th, 2023
We're back to regular MLS matches, and on a Sunday, no less!
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AAAAAAARE YOOOOU READYYYYYYYY
*energetic, painful-sounding scat-singing*
ARE YOU READY FOR THE PLAYOFF CHASE? ARE YOU READY FOR TEN OR SO MATCHES OF ALL-OUT HIGH INTENSITY PROFESSIONAL SOCCER? WE’RE FUCKING BACK TO NORMALITY AND IT HAS ME HALFWAY BENT OVER AND LIKE GYRATING AND SHOUTING INTO A MICROPHONE LIKE DAT-DAT OOH DAT AHH AH D’UNH D’OOH AH AH!
The Leagues Cup was great. It was an interesting and enriching experience, or at least it was up until my team was knocked out, at which point I saw behind the curtain and realized it to be a cynical, pretend, cash-grab tournament built to drive Apple TV subscriptions and ticket sales. That nightmare is over now: Miami and Nashville will play for a trophy on Saturday, and on Sunday, we get back to our regular grind.
As I stated last month, there was a fun sense of novelty surrounding the 2023 Leagues Cup tournament. Along with the obvious new addition in Florida, we’ve also been able to learn and adapt in real time to so many brand new concepts. We learned about the wait of shame for those who underperform in the group stage, we got to experience the pitfalls and joys of tiebreakers that come from three-team groups, and we tasted truly unique varietals of sour grapes that we’ve rarely if ever had the opportunity to experience in such quick succession. Some novelties remain: Will a Leagues Cup hangover affect those who make deep runs as heavily as the CCL hangover does? Where does a Leagues Cup trophy rank in the hierarchy of possible trophies? Have the Union earned a place up to turn the holy trinity of snakebitten MLS teams (New England, The Red Bulls, and Dallas) into a tetrad? Is there some irony to the Union being snakebitten given that their mascot is a bipedal snake?
Finally, what does this final stretch of the season look like? MLS is now presenting us a post-Leagues Cup condensed final sprint to the finish line. The jostling that so defines the regular season will only intensify into something like a churning or a quaking. Teams currently considered safe will fall to pieces, teams currently grasping for straws will reach said straws, contenders will be cemented, both in the sense that some will be locked into a contending position and the sense that others will have the equivalent of the unique footwear fashioned by mobsters applied to their shoes and find themselves awash at the bottom of a river. I’ve never seen something like this in MLS, where so much is on the line in such a condensed time period, so I really don’t know what to expect to see — other than the Rapids missing the playoffs — but I’m very excited to see it come to fruition.
Off we go!
Note: Out of Necessity, I’m trying to coin “The Sprint” as the phrase I’ll use to describe the stretch of the season after the Leagues Cup but prior to the playoffs.
Window One (6:30pm):
Game of the Weekend: FC Cincinnati at Columbus Crew
We kick off our return to the regular season with the best team in the league over the first two-thirds of the season meeting what I consider the most narratively interesting team over the first two-thirds of the season in a heated rivalry matchup at Lower.com Field. The Hell is Real was unique for a bit, in that it had the heat and venom and Being Pissed Off of many other MLS rivalries despite the fact that the two teams had not met while both stood in playoff qualification positions before this year. Before 2023, the most significant Hell is Real was still probably the original match from the 2017 US Open Cup, when Djiby Fall and the still-USL FC Cincinnati team upset Gregg Berhalter’s Crew. Incongruence and mediocrity can render a rivalry quickly dormant. Just look at what’s happened to the Atlantic Cup, once the pre-eminent showdown of the Eastern Conference, now not even the Window Winner for the 6:30pm slot this weekend. The Ohioans were able to keep the flame of being pissed off at one another alive despite this.
Both teams are entering on equal amounts of rest, having lost out of the Leagues Cup Round of 32, and both bring in new blood in the attack. Cincinnati’s striker Aaron Boupendza scored in his first MLS match on July 15th against Nashville, who has already helped Brandon Vazquez awaken from what had been an under-performing campaign in 2023. Vazquez totaled five goals over Cincinnati’s three Leagues Cup matches, one more than he’d scored in MLS so far in 2023. This new attacking outburst, combined with the near-MVP form of Luciano Acosta and one of the league’s best defenses (second at the moment to Nashville for fewest goals allowed in 2023), Cincinnati looks set to cruise to their first Supporter’s Shield.
The Crew present another novelty of the Leagues Cup — A team that has changed significantly since the middle of July. Lucas Zelarayan, their maestro, the hero of the 2020 MLS Cup, the Crew’s centerpiece Argentine number 10 for the 2020s following the lineage set by Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the 2000s and Federico Higuain in the 2010s, is gone, his contract bought by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Fateh. In his stead, they’ve added a few new players: They signed USMNT wingback Julian Gressel from Vancouver, who’s been one of the league’s best crossers of the ball since his early days with Atlanta. They signed French center-back Rudy Camacho from Montreal, reunited with coach Wilfried Nancy after anchoring the defensive backline for Montreal’s near-Shield winning effort in 2022.
Immediately after the sale of Zelarayan, they made perhaps the most significant signing, bringing in Uruguyan midfielder Diego Rossi from Turkey’s Fenerbahce. Rossi had a phenomenal tenure with LAFC — He was a part of the 2019 Shield winners, made All-Star teams in 2019 and 2021, and made the Best XI team and won the Golden Boot in 2020. Rossi was a quietly phenomenal player during his time in LA, overshadowed in the spotlight by the magnificence of Carlos Vela, so to see him returning to the league on such an exciting team I think is reason enough to watch this one.
This was a summer defined by significant signings — The glitz and ballyhoo of Miami’s near-total midfield overhaul in July is the most obvious, but a number of good teams made moves for the sake of gaining ground during The Sprint: Salt Lake signed Chicho Arango, Nashville signed Daniel Surridge, Vancouver signed Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe. I don’t know that any good team did as much to get better as the Crew did, and this new-look team has its first test at home against a bitter rival that also happens to be the best team in the league. This will be an intense battle, there’s going to be a huge contingent of traveling fans from Cincinnati as always, the match is sold out, I will be attending (!!!), and the emotional stakes here that either team can take from a victory are huge: Cincinnati can, much as they did against Nashville before the break, re-establish themselves as this year’s juggernaut, and Columbus can finally punch above their weight and establish themselves among the conference’s contenders in the season’s final stretch.
I’m Interested In This:
Minnesota United FC at New York City FC
I was prepared to write about Minnesota as one of the teams feeling the best about the potential to improve their MLS standing post-Leagues Cup, but the bitter taste of the 5-0 domination they suffered in Nashville complicates that a little bit. They had been one of a group of Western teams struggling to hold on to a pre-established identity in 2023 along with Austin, Seattle, and the Galaxy (truthfully, something like half of the West can list themselves in this category to some extent), but they appeared to find themselves again during the Leagues Cup, with the connection between Emanuel Reynoso and Bongokuhle Hlongwane proving fruitful. The defensive identity off of which they sustained themselves early in the year faltered during the tournament, as they gave up thirteen goals over their last four matches of the tournament. I’ve considered New York City something of an enigma, one certain to make a big signing in the summer to help put themselves back on track, but they didn’t really do that (as much as I like Maxi Moralez) and the Neymar rumors never came to fruition. They’re in danger of slipping from “enigmatic” to “completely listless” in a manner of weeks; Minnesota might be able to give them a nudge in that direction.
CF Montreal at Toronto FC
I suspect that I’m being a bit too nice by still considering New York City ‘enigmatic’ and ‘liable to slip into listlessness’ rather than already there, but I know what listlessness looks like this year, and it is Toronto FC. Toronto was simply flailing out there, and now they’ve shipped their most effective young piece across the country to Vancouver. This match against Montreal might be their final chance at feeling some semblance of pride in 2023, after this, I don’t know what they do. They remind me (and I apologize to my Canadian readers for dropping an American reference like this into your section) of my college days in the mid-2010s with the University of Kansas Marching Jayhawks. Our football team in those days would secure a losing season mathematically by the seventh or eighth game of the season (and would have spiritually secured it about a game and a half into the season) and leave us watching with vague hopes that something slightly interesting might happen – Baker Mayfield might make a lewd gesture at us, for example – completely auxiliary to the football actually happening. This is what we might watch Toronto for. Maybe spoil Montreal’s season to some extent on Sunday and call it a year.
Window Two (7:30pm)
Window Winner: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire FC
Both of these teams came into Leagues Cup strongly, both probably feel alright about their performances in the tournament, and both have current playoff positions to protect over The Sprint. These teams are defined by polar opposites – Chicago has Xherdan Shaqiri, the quintessential well-compensated late-prime European MLS midfielder while Orlando has Fecundo Torres, the quintessential well-compensated early-prime South American MLS midfielder. At striker, Orlando has a young player of the year candidate at Duncan McGuire while Chicago has one of the longest-tenured players in the league in Kei Kamara. In goal, Orlando has the proven international-caliber veteran in Pedro Gallese, while Chicago has the rising domestic talent in Chris Brady. Orlando turned from a disappointing to promising once they finally started scoring goals in late-June, while Chicago went from listless to promising by finally racking up some shutouts in late-June. These are two strong, complementary teams, with a shared exigence of retaining the positive momentum that carried them into the Leagues Cup break, and that should produce a fun match at Soldier Field on Sunday evening.
Window Three (8:30pm)
Window Winner: Austin FC at St. Louis CITY SC
We have two good teams here, both of whom have been stewing on disappointing Leagues Cup exits for three weeks. These two both left the tournament with zeroes in the points column, neither of them accruing so much as a point off of a shootout loss, and unlike Toronto or Colorado, that was something of a shock for both of them. I imagine they’ll both be raring to prove something in this match, both to themselves and to the rest of the league, which has not had to think much about either of them in the interim period. I expect both teams to come out with something of an emotional edge here.
I think it’s a little more significant for Austin, who looked really good in June and July and I imagine still feels miffed about the way that their first meeting in Austin back in February went down. Any result here will have a toll on them – Win, and you’ve beaten the best in the West and positioned yourself to compete in a still very winnable conference. Draw, and you’ve taken a tough point on the road and shown a resilience that you’ve lacked. Lose, and oh fucking god here we go again. We’re fucking doomed, it’s fucking over, punt on the season, trading Diego Fagundez was the team basically signalling that they’ve known it all along.
St. Louis is just hard to pin down at this point, aren’t they? They’re obviously good. However, it’s not a good thing that I have to keep reminding myself that they’re obviously good. The 2023 St. Louis season actually reminds me quite a lot of the 2022 Austin season – unexpected, undefinable, with success found in spite of what the advanced metrics guys might say should happen – but with a key difference being the way they’ve been prone to laying eggs in big matches in a manner that Austin wasn’t during the 2022 regular season. Austin had those two huge wins over LAFC last year, and St. Louis has lacked statements like that since the end of the Spring – They had chances to do so against Nashville, LAFC, and even Club America, and did not, or at least did not make the statements they wanted to. They’ll be on center-stage at 8:30pm, playing the only game of the window, and they’ll have the chance to wash the memory of those Leagues Cup flops away from our minds and get us all firmly back on board with their expansion season of destiny.
Window Four (9:30pm)
Window Winner: San Jose Earthquakes at Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The schedule-makers could not have given us a better pairing for the return of After Dark MLS action. What two teams have provided late-night silliness like these two? We have, on one hand, the team whose supporters routinely grow more and more shirtless as a mass as the night rolls on, and on the other, the team that went into 19 rounds of penalties on the first night of the Leagues Cup. We have two eccentric spirits colliding: The Quakes team trying to rekindle the ‘Goonies Never Say Die’ era against the Vancouver Nightcaps, who are committed to entertainment once the sun sets, sometimes at their own expense, but this year primarily for their benefit. They both come in as playoff contenders, San Jose currently in 6th and Vancouver in 7th in the West.
Both have made some interesting additions – Vancouver’s added potentially the best right back in the league in Richie Laryea and bring back an international-quality left back in Sam Adekugbe. San Jose’s added American forward Matthew Hoppe, and though I’m not sure how he’ll fit in among a very good set of forwards, he might come on as a late sub and provide the sort of late-match goal scoring we expect from the Quakes and the late-match goal concession that we expect from the ‘Caps.
Artisan’s Choice: Atlanta United FC at Seattle Sounders FC
Here, we have the third of three matches between teams who failed to qualify out of the Leagues Cup group stages, and I think this is the most perversely intriguing, as both teams seem to be in fascinating emotional states. Both teams are defined by a sort of paradox – By the numbers, they’ve been successful in 2023, but that success has been accompanied by an undercurrent of dissatisfaction from their fanbases. Both are above the playoff line as it stands, which would be an improvement over their 2022 finishes, but they both set such high standards for themselves in the late-2010s that mere playoff qualifications are inadequate to supporters. They both had moments of genuine impressiveness early in the year, like Seattle’s 3-0 domination of the then-Shield leading St. Louis and Atlanta’s 5-1 thrashing of Portland, but both fell into a sort of uninspiring swampiness in the summer. They’ve both been prone to dropping games against rivals – Seattle’s lost to Portland, Vancouver, and LAFC this year, Atlanta’s suffered losses to Orlando, Miami, Nashville, Charlotte, and the Red Bulls if we still consider that last one a rivalry – and their shared Leagues Cup ineptitude felt microcosmic. Atlanta’s defense was completely picked apart by Leo Messi and Miami, which we could’ve expected, but their vaunted attack was gormless when they needed to come through the most. Seattle was completely overwhelmed by Salt Lake and then dropped an early lead against Monterrey at home.
When I think of both of these teams, I see that moment in Mortal Kombat matches that comes between the depletion of the losing fighter’s lifebar and the enactment of the fatality, when the loser stands still and rolls their head around in a daze, waiting for the final blow to finally come for them. I hope that we see these two show some sign of life here, some sort of the intensity and hot-bloodedness they’ve both lacked to this point in 2023, let those humiliations in the Leagues Cup drive you to get better, or at least let them get you mad enough to lash out in an entertaining fashion.
Who’s Off This Weekend?
A solid chunk out of everybody’s off this weekend. If you played in the Leagues Cup semifinals or were scheduled to play against a team that played in the Leagues Cup semifinals, you’re off this weekend. If you’re [INSERT WINNER OF THE LEAGUES CUP FINAL ON SATURDAY NIGHT], enjoy your victory! Everybody else, enjoy the Sunday soccer!