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MLS Watch Grid for June 24th, 2023
A lot of teams are shorthanded this week due to the Gold Cup, which will leave each match more susceptible to being decided by individual greatness. This week, I’m highlighting a key matchup to define intrigue for each of these games. We have a big Eastern Conference clash and four matches at the 9:30pm window, a fully compacted slate tonight. The weather’s warming up and the defenses are thinner and more fatigued, which means the goals are starting to flow more freely in MLS. Here’s what to look out for this evening!
Window One: 6:30pm
GOTW: Nashville SC at Columbus Crew
Featured Matchup: Hany Mukhtar versus Lucas Zelarayan
We are starting strong this weekend with a matchup between two fun, strong, yellow-clad Eastern Conference teams. Columbus has looked so good at points, Tom Bogert called them the most watchable team in MLS in his Athletic column this week, and I’m inclined to agree with him. While they don’t have the largest gulf in MLS between home and road form1, they’re much better at Lower.com Field than they are away from it, with a 6-1-1 home record and a 2-5-2 away record. They’ve played the East’s upper-crust of Cincinnati, Nashville, and Philadelphia each once on the road, and they’ve lost each of them. This is the Crew’s first opportunity to face off against the conference’s absolute best at home (though their home wins over Atlanta and DC United should not be ignored), and they have the opportunity to make huge statements about their place in the conference when those three teams face them in Columbus over the rest of the season.
Nashville finally fell back to earth this week, losing a match in MLS for the first time since mid-April on the road in Montreal. They have Walker Zimmerman back fully from his Nations League duty, though to the Yotes’ credit, they were still very solid defensively even with the former Defender of the Year absent. The Gold Cup will take its toll on both sides – Midfield ball-progressor Aidan Morris is out for Columbus, while forwards Fafa Picault and Jacob Shaffelburg plus midfielder Anibal Godoy are out for Nashville.
All of this really strips this matchup down to one of the most entertaining individual pairings we’re likely to get in MLS this season: On one side, Hany Mukhtar, who’s scoring and assisting with a level of consistent excellence on par with former MVPs like Sebastian Giovinco or Preki. On the other, Lucas Zelarayan, the one man whose highlights, though they come with less consistency, have shined at points brighter than Mukhtar’s, especially in the last month. There are only so many players of these two guys’ quality, entertainment value, and production in the league – In my eyes it’s a relatively short list with them, Lucho Acosta, Thiago Almada, Sebastian Driussi, and Carles Gil with that sort of ‘You have to watch what happens when they intersect’ aura around them2, and it’s very smart on the part of Apple and MLS to have this one available for free this evening.
I’m Interested in This: Club Feet of Montreal at Charlotte FC
Featured Matchup: Bryce Duke versus Ben Bender
I don’t have one of the special Apple TV boxes that can do the multi-box streaming stuff, but I do have my fabled Two Televisions Setup, and on the smaller one, I’ve tended towards putting on one of these team’s matches in the past months. Both of these teams seem capable of outplaying themselves in a way that presents new, unique heroes in every match, and I’m hoping we see the two of them meet in that 8/9 playoff match in October.
Bryce Duke has brought what I can only describe as #SpiteSwag to CF Montreal since his trade there. He’s brought a flair up north that they’d lacked after losing so many of their best players in the off-season, he’s turned himself into one of their most effective players, he scored the deciding goal in the mid-week against Nashville, and since Montreal will be lacking a couple of players for Gold Cup duty (Zachary Braut-Guillard with Canada, Aaron Herrera with Guatemala), I’m looking for him to make magic against a Charlotte backline that’s proven very capable of having magic made against them. Besides, when you think of somebody coming into the state of North Carolina, pissing everyone off for a bit, then leaving, don’t you think of the name Duke?
Charlotte’s starting to look a bit like Nashville and New England, where a large part of the ship is built out of underrated domestic or otherwise long-tenured MLS veterans and is bolstered by creative foreign talent, except in Charlotte’s case, the foreign talent hasn’t shown up the way that they need. Jaylin Lindsey, Brandt Bronico, and especially their mid-week brace scorer Ben Bender have started to come into their own this season. Bender came in last season with the pressure of being the #1 SuperDraft Pick on a struggling expansion team, a phenomenon which has negatively affected the early careers and visibility of talented prospects like Robbie Robinson, Frankie Amaya, and Abu Danladi. He showed flashes at points last year, and he’s been a consistently positive presence with Charlotte, so he’s worth honing in on for this match.
Window Two: 7:30p
Free Window Winner: Chicago Fire at Sporting KC
Featured Matchup: Alan Pulido vs Kei Kamara
The history of the striker position for Sporting Kansas City is a fascinating one. It seems like most of the other 90s MLS teams3 have one historically iconic striker – Robbie Keane in LA, Wondo in San Jose, Twellman in New England, McBride in Columbus, Bradley Wright-Phillips with the Metro/Bulls, Razov in Chicago, Diaz Arce in DC, and I suppose I can’t think of a singular guy for Dallas or Colorado either here, but my point here is that Kansas City’s history with the no. 9 position is checkered, with a lot of success, but no one singular claimant to the throne. Digital Takawira was the original, Miklos Molnar had his season of greatness in 2000 then dipped, CJ Sapong and Diego Rubio both served the role well at points, Dom Dwyer might’ve had the best individual season for a striker in KC in 2014 and scored one of the most significant goals for the club during the 2013 playoffs, but there’s no singular icon. In my experience, the most beloved striker in KC history4 was Kei Kamara, due to his goal production and ambassadorial charisma during the club’s turnaround at the turn of the 2010s. He’ll play back in Kansas City for what may be and is certainly near the final time in his lengthy, successful career, and he’ll come into the match at 144 total MLS goals in his career, one short of Landon Donovan in second place on the all-time MLS goals leader standings.
Alan Pulido, when he came to Kansas City in 2020, was intended to become and at points has looked the part of Sporting Kansas City’s all-time iconic striker, though injuries have negatively affected his tenure in blue. He’s certainly looked excellent since his return from injury in April, with 7 goals and 3 assists tallied in fewer than 1200 minutes.
The Fire is a difficult team to write about in any extended capacity, though they managed an upset road win over a hot Timbers team in Portland in the mid-week with goals from Kamara and Fabian Herbers both assisted by their young midfielder Brian Gutierrez, whose stock has risen immensely this season. I don’t know that they’ll figure it out to the point where they’re a playoff contender this season, but they’ve pieced together some fun soccer since the installation of interim manager Frank Klopas and they’ve started scoring relatively consistently, to the point where I think they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on during matchdays.
Window Three: 8:30pm
NOTE: Houston/Austin was originally scheduled for 7:30pm, but was delayed an hour due to heat
Season Pass Window Winner: Houston Dynamo FC at Austin FC
Featured Matchup: Hector Herrera vs The Collective Whole of Austin FC
Houston, as mentioned, is really good at home and not really good on the road. Consistent home winning combined with a conference whose teams struggle to do anything consistently has them in striking distance of second place with a win tonight! I spent all of that time saying they were laser-focused on seventh place and here they are pushing for the top of the West!
Hector Herrera has been excellent this year, but he had some critical comments about the apathy in his team’s fanbase and the poor attendance at their many home wins which will loom over this match. It’s timely that he’d make those comments right before playing the in-state rival about whom it’s very difficult to be apathetic. Nothing riles up a fanbase, especially a Texan fanbase, quite like an intersection with Austin FC’s unique brand of brashness. After a rain and lightning delay, Austin ran a train over FC Dallas at home on Wednesday on the strength of several of their less heralded players – Julian Cascante and Nick Lima got assists, Gyasi Zardes, Diego Fagundez, and Ethan Finlay scored the goals – so while it’s tempting to frame this as Herrera versus Driussi, Austin’s going to need to rely on the sum of its parts if they want to win two in a row and take a firm grasp on Copa Tejas here tonight.
Window Winner: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake
Key Matchup: Both of these teams versus Joe Bush’s Expectations of both of these teams
I have, at points, referred to both of these teams as boring, inept, and not worth watching, though they’ve both shown flashes of excellence at points. Real Salt Lake’s Pablo Ruiz had a phenomenal chip of the keeper in DC last Saturday, and they followed that up with a win in St. Louis on Wednesday. They’re now unbeaten in their last four, with four wins, three draws, and one loss in their last eight matches. They still haven’t won a match in Sandy since mid-April, which is weird, but they’ve clawed out of the cellar both in terms of results and in terms of watchability as of recent, and the incoming addition of Chicho Arango combined with the instability of the Western Conference suddenly has me sliding them quietly into the Dallas/Vancouver/San Jose/Houston pocket of teams that might find themselves surprisingly close to the top of the West at season’s end.
Minnesota left a bad taste in our mouths the last we saw them in a 4-0 road loss to Montreal. However, they’ve somehow managed to get two full weeks off since then, an impressive feat in MLS nowadays. Hopefully, they come into this match rested and healthy, and maybe the excitement of the striker rumored to be joining them later this summer (Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki) will have them playing with the same gusto that’s encompassed RSL since the start of the summer.
This match could be the beginning of something new for both sides, this could be the moment, when we look back at it all when the dust settles, when we started to really believe in whichever of these two made the improbable late-season run and ended up atop the West. It might not be, but nothing’s truly impossible in the West at the moment. Nothing save for the Rapids winning at home, that is.
Artisan’s Choice: LA Galaxy at Colorado Rapids
Key Matchup: The Colorado Rapids versus Dick’s Sporting Goods Park
I love that there’s one major league city in the US that has this specific home advantage unmatched by anywhere else. There are a lot of cities where it gets hot and humid in the summer, there are a lot of cities where it gets cold and snowy in the winter, but there’s only one American major league city in which the lungs get less oxygen, the home run balls fly further, and the opponents tire more quickly. You’d think that the Denver team that plays the sport requiring 90 minutes of running would be able to use this to their advantage, but that isn’t the case. The Rapids are winless at home so far in 2023, though they got one of their few road wins over the Galaxy back in May. The Galaxy are hot off of two straight draws, which is better than what they had been doing, but their outlook at the moment with Chicharito out and no ability to sign new players from outside of MLS has them trudging along in sort of a daze, probably ready to write the year off and begin anew. With the expanded playoffs and the long season, nobody’s out in MLS yet, but Colorado and the Galaxy are absolutely down and it’s hard to see how they get up. Either team will really savor a win here in this one.
Window Four: 9:30p
Season Pass Window Winner: St. Louis CITY at San Jose Earthquakes
Key Matchup: Luchiball versus Das Gegenpress
None of these four bedtime window matches really stands out above the rest, so I’d probably just keep the TV on MLS 360 if you have access to it. San Jose/St. Louis has probably the most intrigue and the best stylistic contrast of any of these.
These two teams have more identifiable tactical identities than most in MLS – both run, but St. Louis runs at you and San Jose runs everywhere around you – and both are looking to get back from disappointing mid-week losses. St. Louis was dropped by multiple goals at home, and San Jose was absolutely abysmal against the team that used to be them.
St. Louis was such a well-constructed machine early in the year, but they’ve run into a problem in which the most significant parts that made that well-constructed machine run have been only partially replaced, and now the machine’s leaking oil and giving up goals to teenagers. I’m more inclined to believe that the high-tempo attack of San Jose is just incompatible with the summer in Houston, and thus, their loss was something of an aberration which might not be repeated at home. St. Louis needs to get back on track, and now that they have the pesky habit of dropping points at home, it heightens the significance of a road test like this.
Free Window Winner: Orlando City SC at Seattle Sounders FC
Key Matchup: Big Dunc versus Credit, The Sounders versus The Cold Light of Day
In the midweek, Duncan MacGuire, the rookie striker from Creighton that Orlando picked in the SuperDraft, who is currently averaging about a goal every 81 minutes, definitely scored a goal and did not take credit for it. You can check the video, even though he tries to avoid the shot, it hits his foot, which changes its trajectory ever-so-slightly enough to get it past Joe Bendik. Ojeda tries to credit him and he apologizes for getting in the way! That is a level of selflessness and humility uncommon in a striker, and I think that karma along with the instability of Seattle’s defensive backline and their abnormal home struggles will shine down upon Big Dunc and help him get a few goals uncreditable to anyone but him. If it’s not him, they’re missing like half of everybody else, so I don’t know who it’d be.
Seattle seems to be playing with their food a bit, acutely aware of the fact that it’ll take a string of like five good games late in the year to finish atop the Western Conference if they want (granted, that laissez-faire approach left them in second with a first-round match against Salt Lake back in 2021 rather than with the first-round bye). They seem to suffer from some kind of ennui, like they hit the mountain-top last year, tasted the fruits of the Club World Cup this year, and they’re unfulfilled by having to return to playing LAFC in the midweek then Orlando on Saturday in late June. They’re edging dangerously close to wondering what the point of it all is anyway, finding symbolism in how the turf is plastic, feeling like the rave green used to seem more vibrant, thinking the Soundwave’s songs all sound the same, unable even to laugh at the antics of Sammy Sounder or Drew Carey anymore. The Sounders need a gap year backpacking across Europe, or a summer in a socialist collaborative farming commune, or a new Macklemore album, or a transformative experience eating peanut M&Ms in a rental home with a pile of Dilaudid awaiting the fate of a former criminal colleague, or at least they need to beat a shorthanded Orlando team at home to snap out of the funk.
Who’s Off This Weekend:
FC Dallas! You’re off this weekend! Lucky for you, your main guy’s going to play for the United States Men’s National Team in the Gold Cup this evening, so perhaps just pull up Paramount Plus to get the full FC Dallas experience.
Everybody else, enjoy the soccer!
That’s either Houston, who can only seem to win at home, both in the sense that they rarely draw or lose at home and also only have one road win, or Colorado, who comes into this weekend with infinitely more instances of both road wins and fans running the length of their field during a weather delay than home wins.
Jesus Ferreira’s getting there, Ryan Gauld and Cristian Espinoza are on the fringes, Emanuel Reynoso can work his way back up there, and there’s the new guy coming to Fort Lauderdale later to take into consideration as well
I’m counting Chicago, I don’t have a clean way to say ‘The Originals Plus Chicago’ and I’ve been reprimanded for referring to Chicago as an ‘Original’ before, so I’m resorting to “The Other 90s MLS Teams” here, also I’m treating both San Joses as the same
Though he played on the right side with relative frequency with KC as well