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MLS Watch Grid for June 17th, 2023
A Quality over Quantity Weekend featuring an Intraconference Showdown
MLS brought us much less noise off of the field last week than it did in the week prior, and, fittingly, the condensed schedule this weekend produces a lower quantity of matches, but features three highly interesting matches in Foxboro, Kansas City, and Nashville.
Window One: 2:30pm
Window Winner By Default: Columbus Crew at New York City
I’ve started to feel vaguely sympathetic for New York City hosting in this window. Why make them stand out? Why make them be the only game on? Can’t they suffer quietly? We sit currently in the midst of a terrible period for the Pigeons, who just passed the two months winless mark, forced to treat back-to-back scoreless draws as better than nothing, playing not particularly inspiring soccer. At the very least, last week’s match against Real Salt Lake in Sandy was overshadowed by LAFC’s immolation in Houston, the Union/Earthquakes match, and Zelarayan’s midfield chip in Chicago. They have nowhere to shelter this week, NYCFC is stuck playing in the mid-afternoon! People who just bought the MLS Season Pass to watch the new guy are going to turn this match on out of curiosity and see a team that seems to be in an absolutely terrible head-state playing on a baseball field, and that’s unfair.
Columbus has struggled a bit on the road regardless of the opponent, so if they follow up their dramatic win in Chicago off of the aforementioned Zelarayan chip with a win in The House That A Very Late Career Andrea Pirlo Built, it will be worth celebrating.
Window Two: 6:30pm
Window Winner: Orlando City SC at New England Revolution
What we have here is a complementary matchup. We have creative midfield talent in
Fecundo Torres (with an assist and three goals in the last two matches) [UPDATE: Torres, along with Orlando starters Pedro Gallese and Wilmer Cartagena, are on international duty. The Revs are missing a bunch of guys, but they’re always missing a bunch of guys] and Carles Gil, emergent strikers in the young American Duncan McGuire and the veteran American Bobby Wood, who has been scoring goals with some frequency in recent weeks, and though the standings don’t reflect it at this moment, this feels like it could be a potential first-round playoff series. The Revs have teetered just above the jostle of the rest of the East, and Orlando’s starting to fight their way upwards in the standings, unbeaten now in six, dominating each of their last two matches, and now looking to take points in a stadium in which they might need to win to fulfill any conference championship ambitions they may have.
They Will Play The Game: Real Salt Lake at DC United
It is hard to recommend RSL, and it will remain hard to recommend them until Chicho Arango arrives next month. They are getting healthier and they’re at least not embarrassing themselves, but I’ll admit that I’m not clamoring to watch them. DC, on the other hand, must take the games that come to them. DC United must make their lay-ups at home. The last time that the crowd at Audi Field saw United, they dropped a two-goal lead to Montreal, so they really have to show the ability to finish strongly.
Window Three: 7:30pm
Game of the Weekend: St. Louis CITY SC at Nashville SC
It’s hard to succinctly define St. Louis — They started so strongly and scored off of so many giveaways that there was an air of ‘Is this a gimmick that will be figured out?’ surrounding them in the broader discourse, then they stumbled pretty hard in April, but I think the last month or so has only calcified that they have a very good team, certainly among the best in the Western Conference, and I wouldn’t be that surprised to see them hold on to that spot all the way to the end of the year. The one bucket of cold water to pour on them is that they’ve been miserable on the road since the beginning of April, outscored 7-1 since the beginning then in road matches.
I don’t think I’ve said it directly yet, but this feels like a year in which the East is stronger than the West. Nobody’s taken off in the West the way that Cincinnati, Nashville, and Philadelphia in the East have, and many of the teams expected to perform well to begin the year haven’t done so. If you look at J. Sam Jones’ pre-season Power Rankings article from February, it comes into picture how many of the teams in the West have underperformed compared to expectations. The Top Eight in the West in that preview were LAFC, Austin, Seattle, LA Galaxy, Dallas, Portland, Kansas City, and Salt Lake, and each of them has stumbled in some capacity – LAFC has looked great at points, but they were so focused on Champions League that they’re in something of a pickle with a condensed schedule and a fatigued team right now. Seattle’s also looked strong at points, but they’ve dealt with injuries to many key players again. Austin, Kansas City, and Portland each stumbled out of the gate and are only regaining their footing months into the season. Dallas has been consistently successful, but they haven’t been able to score the way that they should be. The Galaxy and Salt Lake have both been in a constant spiral it seems. There is a gap at the top, nobody’s really put a strong grasp on it the way that the best in the East have, and St. Louis finds itself filling it here in mid-June, even though they’re not flying the way they did right out of the gates in March.
The one caveat to the East/West divide is that the best Western teams have beaten the best Eastern teams a few times. St. Louis is the only team to defeat Cincinnati to this point, 5-1 in CITYPARK in mid-April. LAFC beat the Revs 4-0 in April. San Jose defeated Philadelphia just last weekend (And, of course, the caveat to each of these is that the Western team hosted). As the league’s expanded, there have been fewer and fewer opportunities for intra-conference play, so these matches are some of the only opportunities we’ll get to directly judge which of the two conferences is producing better teams during the regular season. St. Louis here has a chance to get a win over Nashville, currently second in the East, to match their win over Cincinnati. If they can do it on the road, I think it’ll further cement that St. Louis is a legitimate contender at the league-level, and it’ll further complicate the idea that the East is the superior conference this season.
Nashville’s been phenomenal as of recent, especially at GEODIS Park, and I think their strength in the central defensive spine, both with Dax McCarty and Sean Davis in the midfield and Jack Maher and Lukas MacNaughton (Walker Zimmerman will be absent on International Duty) on the back line, should match up well against the potent combination that Jared Löwen and Nico Gioacchini have become for St. Louis since injuries sidelined Joao Klauss. Nashville’s spine is experienced, high quality, and therefore likely less liable to give the sorts of attacking-third turnover opportunities on which St. Louis has thrived as well. At the same time, we’ve seen Roman Burki keep the ALLCAPS in matches this year, and he’ll likely have opportunities to make great saves against the MVP favorite in Hany Mukhtar.
This really should be a fun match, this is a very travellable distance for St. Louis fans as well, so I think we’ll get a fun in-stadium atmosphere for it to boot, if you only watch one match this Saturday evening, make it this one!
Artisan’s Choice: LAFC at Sporting Kansas City
Immediately after their loss to Club Leon, I had the sense that the three matches immediately following would basically determine the remainder of the summer for LAFC. They’ve now lost twice to Houston, once at home, and their best result is a nil-nil home draw against Atlanta. Their last goal was the one that Denis Bouanga scored in Leon in the first leg of the Champions League Final. This is just not what you expect out of the Black and Gold. Watching LAFC these past few weeks has been like watching that bizarre Cam Newton-led New England Patriots team during the 2020 season, or the 1999 Lockout Year Chicago Bulls team that retained none of their major players from the 1998 championship season. There’s a swagger, a confidence, a competence that you expect from LAFC, and they’ve looked far from themselves out there since the end of the CCL Final, in a way that’s quite fascinating to the neutral viewer.
Tonight, they come to Kansas City to face a resurgent Sporting team. Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda have played well enough to justify the number of ‘wait until Pulido and Kinda come back’ comments that drove me mad in the early season, Nemańa Radoja’s been incredibly valuable since his return, and though I will always hesitate personally to say that SKC’s a favorite this season given how me showing confidence in them has consistently been followed up with the team struggling to open a door that dumps a bucket of water on them, I think this is a bad road matchup for the purpose of LAFC getting right. If they don’t snap out of this, they could see an uncharacteristic slide befall them all the way to the Leagues Cup break.
Window Four: 9:30pm
Window Winner By Default: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose might have the best pair of wins in the Western conference, stopping LAFC’s early-season unbeaten streak back in May and last weekend snapping Philadelphia’s 9-match unbeaten run as well. I’ve wanted to call them the best team in the West, at points they’ve looked the part, but they have this nasty habit of getting a big win and following it up with a mediocre performance against a team they should beat. In April, they looked absolutely dominant, beating Sporting KC 3-0, and then immediately lost 3-1 in Utah. In May, they upset LAFC in Santa Clara and then immediately went to Carson to lose to the last-place Galaxy. Now, they’ve just shocked Philadelphia at home, and they have a team in Portland, of whom I think they should make relatively easy work, coming into PayPal Park, but I don’t know quite what to expect given their propensity to stumble off of the top of the podium.
Portland has been the absolute enigma of this MLS season. I have been perhaps too verbose in proclaiming that I don’t enjoy watching the way that they play, but they’ve been winning enough to stay above water, and in a broadly enigmatic Western Conference, that’s more than enough to get to the playoffs, which was the situation from which they made their two MLS Cup runs in 2015 and 18.
I want to say that this matchup is MLS’s McGillicutty and Green — San Jose will try to play their exciting, wide open, sideline-to-sideline, swing-passing, high-paced attacking style of soccer and Portland will commit to stopping that and not offering much on their own. However, the Timbers did have a couple of good counter-attacking moments against FC Dallas and they scored off of a nice cross in from Evander to Diego Chara. They were able to turn Dallas over and probably could have had a few more had it not been for some clutch saves by Maarten Paes. Evander, specifically, has started to come into his own for the Timbers, and they’re running hot off of two straight clean sheets. Maybe an early Quakes goal could open up the Timbers a bit, they might get more bold on the counter-attacks, and perhaps it gets fun! It’s a late window at PayPal park, the Ultras’ shirts will be off, and they’ll be closing out the evening of Major League Soccer, so I’ll be watching.
Who’s Off This Week?
Uh, well… Most of you. I don’t have the time to think up regionally-specific jokes for everybody, but I know we’re all in a country with a participant in the Concacaf Nations League final on Sunday, so get prepared for that! Everybody else, enjoy the soccer!