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MLS Watch Grid for August 25th, 2023
I think I flipped the layout accidentally, you'll figure it out
Window One - 6:30pm
Game of the Weekend: Nashville SC at Atlanta United FC
Inter Miami had a sort of heliocentrism over the course of the 2023 Leagues Cup, presenting something of an interpretive canvas upon which opponents could judge themselves. They played six MLS teams en route to the Cup win, each interpreting their result differently. What we have here is a matchup between the team that left their Heron encounter feeling the worst about themselves in Atlanta against the one that left their encounter feeling the best about themselves in Nashville.
Now, maybe the Union left feeling worse than Atlanta did because they hosted, their expectations were higher, and the loss further cemented an unfortunately and ironically snake-bitten run for them, but certainly nobody looked worse in their performance against Miami than Atlanta United did. My order of best to least, for the record: 1. Nashville, 2. Dallas, 3. Orlando, 4. Charlotte, 5. Philadelphia, 6. Atlanta
Despite the fatigue that may set in after having played a few additional matches compared to the rest of the league, I think Nashville has to feel good about their chances over The Sprint. The addition of Sam Surridge, who played very well for them in the Leagues Cup run, with three goals in the tournament and an assist in the final, to a team that’s already set up quite well in the Eastern Conference. Though the Supporter’s Shield is an unlikely target due to the 13-point difference between the Yotes and FC Cincinnati at the moment, they should believe themselves capable of making a run for a high seed in the playoffs, and their Leagues Cup run should give them the confidence that they can make a deep run once they get there, unlike in the last two years.
Despite the tumult of this year and their flame-out in the Leagues Cup, Atlanta finds themselves at the same point total as Nashville and only a spot beneath them in the Eastern Conference standings. Despite their road-game woes and their defensive ineptitude so far this season, Atlanta’s coming off of a shutout win in Seattle off of two goals from Giorgios Giakoumakis. They had maybe the second best response of any team that failed to make the Leagues Cup knockout round (St. Louis’ domination of Austin being the best) and now they have the chance to knock down an excellent Nashville team at home and reposition themselves in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
We have two confident teams with rising expectations, both featuring genuine stars in the attack. There’s always a sizeable chunk of traveling fans in this rivalry due to the proximity of the two cities, so the atmosphere will be fun, and I think the play on the turf at the Benz will match it. More eyes may have turned to another team in the Southeast, but we should get a phenomenal battle for the region in Atlanta tonight.
Season Pass Window Winner: Inter Miami CF at New York Red Bulls
I’ve had this one circled since the Messi signing was announced, though it’s not exclusively for soccer reasons. There’s the historical aspect – Though David Beckham’s first appearance in MLS play had already come, his first start and the moment of his real arrival in MLS regular season play happened on the road against the Red Bulls in a 5-4 barnburner in August 2007. Though it’s uncertain whether he’ll start, there is something cool about Lionel Messi’s first MLS regular season appearance potentially coming against the Red Bulls as well. That game happened in the old Giants Stadium, while this one’s happening in a building with an odd history in Red Bull Arena. There have been significant matches at Red Bull Arena since its opening in 2010: It hosted the Eastern Conference finals in 2015 and 2018, the USL Final in 2016, and an ill-fated Men’s World Cup Qualifier between the United States and Costa Rica in 2017. It is a really nice stadium, and the Red Bulls have consistently played good soccer there, but it’s lacked the sell-out crowds and raucous aura of other MLS stadiums built around the same time, like Philadelphia’s Subaru Park or Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park.
Well, this one’s a sell-out. There will be a lot of people there on Saturday, many of whom, probably most of whom, will be there to see Inter Miami and more specifically Lionel Messi. We’ve seen the traveling Miami circus breathe liveliness into buildings like Dallas’ Toyota Stadium and even Miami’s own DRV PNK Stadium that we hadn’t seen in a long while, if ever before, and I’m really interested to see the energy and atmosphere in Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Red Bulls fans are a unique bunch of their own – proud, long-suffering, and often spiteful –and I don’t imagine that they’ll be completely gracious hosts to the influx of Messi-obsessed newcomers, either. Especially if the Red Bulls get off to an early lead, I think it’ll be a fascinating match to see develop.
I’m Interested In This: St. Louis CITY SC at Orlando City SC
Here’s a fun quirk – It’s the first ever matchup between two teams named “City SC” in MLS history! We’ll call it the Tale of Two Cities Derby or something like that. More interestingly, both teams are coming off of big wins last weekend! Orlando went on the road and beat Chicago 3-1 and St. Louis got the bad taste of their Leagues Cup performance out of their mouth by blowing out Austin 6-3 at home. Much like Atlanta/Nashville, both of these teams must feel good about their chances over the remainder of the season at this point in time. St. Louis still has a good shot at challenging for the the Supporter’s Shield, especially if Cincinnati’s recent struggles continue, and I think that they’ve silenced, or at least quieted, many of those who believe this season to be a fluke success so far. One negative trend that St. Louis can reverse here is their poor road form against Eastern Conference teams: They’ve lost to Columbus, Nashville, and Chicago twice on the road so far this year across all competitions, though they did pick up a win against hapless Toronto in July. Though Orlando started slowly considering the high expectations that they brought into 2023, they currently sit at fourth in the Eastern Conference, and I think they’re enjoying the relatively low profile that they’re keeping at the moment considering their Floridian partner’s new additions. I could see them quietly continuing to win over the coming weeks, maybe we see them finishing the season in second or third when the dust settles – They have a chance to keep building momentum with a great home showing against a strong St. Louis team tonight.
Window Two - 7:30pm
Free Window Winner: Austin FC at FC Dallas
This is our first peek at FC Dallas in twenty days! Do you remember that night in early August? Messi and Miami looked beatable, FC Dallas looked like the pacey attacking team we thought they’d be this year, Alan Velasco looked like he was worth the price, and the game that played out adjacent to the US Soccer Hall of Fame looked like it belonged within its walls! Though they lost on a truly incredible collapse – one of unfortunately many for FC Dallas, this one rivaling George John’s own goal in the 2010 MLS Cup final against Colorado and Chucky Lozano’s stoppage-time winner for Pachuca in the 2017 CCL Semis – I think many left that match feeling pretty good about FC Dallas’ chances over the remainder of the 2023 season. Though they’re currently sitting outside of the playoff race, they have a chance to make the same sort of statements that a number of other teams (Certainly St. Louis, Houston, and Columbus, and probably Atlanta, Minnesota, and Orlando as well) did last weekend with emphatic wins – They deserve to be considered competitors over the rest of the season.
Their first opponent is one of the stranger entities currently shambling their way through MLS at the moment: Austin FC. Austin had the chance to show themselves as Western competitors last weekend, and they instead stepped on a rake and hit themselves in the crotch, America’s Funniest Home Videos-style. This weekend, they have to face their in-state rivals in Frisco, and for the sake of their emotional health, they desperately need to step up for this one. If they follow up their terrible Leagues Cup showing with two straight embarrassing losses, there’s a potential for a terrible collapse over the rest of the year – Jesus Ferreira and FC Dallas will relish the opportunity to set it in motion.
This has turned into a bitter rivalry for both teams over the past two seasons, and there’s a potential for this match to have knock-on effects over the rest of this season. FC Dallas wants to remind everyone that they are the team we saw go toe to toe against Messi and Miami, and Austin just needs something to go right for them.
Window Three - 8:30pm
Window Winner (By Default): Houston Dynamo FC at Real Salt Lake
What a week for the Houston Dynamo! They blow out Portland last Saturday and they took a dramatic win over Real Salt Lake to qualify for the US Open Cup final on Wednesday. Both participants in that mid-week match in the oppressive heat of Shell Energy Stadium that went into added extra time will meet again this weekend, this time in Utah. I imagine that both are very fatigued, so I can’t imagine we’ll see a virtuoso performance from either side, but that game also got fairly chippy, and as a former summer camp counselor, I know that tired, hot, and spiteful can be a volatile combination.
Window Four - 9:30pm
Artisan’s Choice: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers FC
It began and ended with the same thing: A humiliating loss to the Houston Dynamo. The long arc of Oregonian history that came to an end with a 5-0 loss in the Shell last Saturday had its seeds paradoxically planted on the artificial turf of Providence Park on November 5th, 2017. The Timbers, first in the West, with league MVP Diego Valeri, saw both the match and Western Conference semifinal round which contained it slip away as Mauro Manotas fired from well outside of the box, saw his shot skip over the hands of Jeff Attinella, and scored. He ran to the corner flag in front of the Timbers Army and put his hands to his ears, well aware that he’d sent the Dynamo on to the next round. Caleb Porter was fired, Giovanni Savarese would be brought aboard, and he’d send the Timbers on a fantastically entertaining and broadly successful journey over the following seasons. The Savarese era brought about Two Western Conference championships, the first MLS Cup Final ever hosted in Portland, and, god-willing, the only MLS is Back Tournament trophy ever to be awarded. Savarese’s Timbers made their bones off of sneaking into the playoffs and having miraculous runs to the final, and it seems like they’ve run out of them over the last two seasons. Too much became too much last weekend after the Dynamo racked up five goals on Portland in just over an hour.
This weekend, we’ll see a talented, but inconsistent Timbers side attempt to get back on something of a track. They’re only five points beneath the playoff line as it stands, and they face a fellow Cascadian team in Vancouver dealing with a similar crisis of consistency. I think all three of them are dealing with that this year. Vancouver’s struggled to win on the road this season, so if the Timbers are going to get their new interim coach, Miles Joseph, a win to begin his tenure, they stand a good chance of doing so here.
Window Five - 3:30pm on Sunday
Window Winner (By Default): Seattle Sounders FC at Minnesota United FC
For Free, on FOX, we have the Seattle Sounders, a group whose bruised pride was only further bruised with another home loss last Saturday, traveling to Minnesota to play a Loons team feeling absolutely great about themselves after shutting out New York City on the road. I was a little worried about Minnesota’s psyche after their dream run to the Leagues Cup quarterfinals was ended so violently in Nashville, but they look to be getting right back on track! It looks like Bongokuhle Hlongwane, who left the NYCFC match with a knee injury, won’t need surgery for his injury and will be out there on Sunday, which is significant, especially given Teemu Pukki’s lack of influence thus far in black and blue. I consider Seattle to be basically listless until further notice, I have no idea what’s going on there. It was almost sad watching them against Atlanta, it was a little like when a college basketball powerhouse limps into the NCAA Tournament as a low seed, where you recognize the jerseys and some of the players, but the gravitas they used to carry is gone.
As a graduate of one of those college basketball powerhouses, this game has me thinking back to my time in the marching band watching our woe-begotten football team (I was a late-Weis, early-Beaty veteran). We’d frequently have matchups in which our game in which our Beloved Jayhawks, winless save for the FCS buy-game, would welcome an undefeated, #4 ranked Oklahoma or Texas or Baylor team into our stadium. We’d have this phrase — We could have a “Trap Game” — to which we clung in order to have some semblance of faith in our chances that weekend. “Trap Game” implies basically that the other team would be so much better than ours that they’d forget to care about playing our game at all and we’d sneak out an upset. This feels like it’d have to be a “Trap Game” if it will be an interesting game at all.
Who’s Off This Weekend:
The Rapids! Oh, thank goodness that you guys get a weekend off. I sympathize with you and this awful season through which you’re suffering. Do what you guys do! Bike out to the mountains, kayak down a river, see somebody at Red Rocks, spark up a DuBois, or ideally all of those within the span of a few hours. Everybody else, enjoy the soccer!