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MLS Watch Grid for May 27th-28th, 2023
Storylines, Theses, and The MPDBASPDOIOB
For what feels like the third or fourth week in a row, this one got away from me, but I’m finding myself so excited about the MLS season right now. We are about forty percent of the way through, most teams have about twenty matches left, there are about ten between now and the Leagues Cup break and then another ten after that. The feeling-out period is over, and many of these matches are starting to feel important. I spend most of my time in this one discussing the wider storylines of the season in full, showing why these particular matches will matter to the players and fans rather than just why they might be fun soccer (though they will still be fun soccer). Every match on Saturday will be exclusive to Apple TV+ unless you’re in Canada, in which case the Whitecaps will be on TSN. Apple is also now offering a free one-month trial subscription for the Season Pass if you’d like to try it out. On to the games!
Window One: 6:30pm
Window Winner: Atlanta United FC at Orlando City SC
There is something kind of poetic about Orlando and Atlanta playing the weekend after the official Rivalry Week ends. Orlando/Atlanta is in the pantheon with Salt Lake/Kansas City and Union/Bulls as rivalries unrecognized by title, league, or Heineken, but known to those deep in the weeds as genuinely venomous for an amalgam of reasons, be they near-proximity during eras in which closer rivals hadn’t yet existed, playoff history, and ideological differences. These come and go (we don’t build up Chicago/New England or Dallas/Chicago or Galaxy/Kansas City like we did in the early 2000s, when everybody met several times per season and inevitably in the playoffs consistently). Orlando, in 2015, was the first team to recultivate the Southeast for MLS after the demise of Miami and Tampa Bay in the early 2000s. Atlanta was the first expansion team in proximity to Orlando, joining in 2017. For a good three seasons, these two teams fought for control of the southeast, and Atlanta thoroughly won control of it in that period. A deep resentment set in for Orlando City fans, who suffered through five seasons before their first playoff appearance and seven before their first trophy while the fans north of the state line saw their team win the MLS Cup, US Open Cup, and Campeones Cup in their first three seasons.
Orlando’s been the superior team since 2020, but that residual resentment still burns within their fanbase, as they haven’t yet reached the heights of the Five Stripes’ early years. I make sure to watch the Atlanta/Orlando match at Exploria every season. The Wall is a uniquely emotionally affected supporter’s section in MLS. Adrian Heath, even after leaving Orlando, said it was one of the hardest places to play for that reason: They’re not a choir, it’s not 100% consistent singing and cheering regardless of the result. They will get down when the team gets down, and that makes it more intimidating for the opposition when they get up. Add to this the mounting frustration in Orlando regarding the underperformance of Oscar Pareja’s team (His Dallas team won a trophy in his third season and then disappointed in his fourth, too) and we’re due for a fascinating atmosphere in Central Florida on Saturday. A win for the Lions will bring us an invigorated crowd and a poor performance will give us a palpable angst. The match on the field has potential, too – Orlando has good momentum having dispatched Miami last weekend on the road, and Atlanta’s volatility has not ceased. Our eyes will be drawn to the dynamic midfielders, Atlanta’s Thiago Almada and Orlando’s Fecundo Torres, but I point you to the two strikers, Atlanta’s Giorgios Giakoumakis and Orlando’s Duncan McGuire, who have grown into their roles since joining in the pre-season, and both have the chance to cement themselves as heroes with big performances here.
I’m Interested In this:
Philadelphia Union at New York City FC
I’ve come to something of a thesis on the Eastern Conference that I’ll try to bring to a close when discussing the Sunday evening match, but to put it bluntly: The Eastern Conference is a logjam. It feels like there’s at least one or two momentous Eastern Conference matchups each week. This one doesn’t present itself as loudly as Hell is Real did last weekend, but I’m thoroughly intrigued. I consider the Union to be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference, in the echelon with Cincinnati and New England, even though the injuries and the CCL prioritization left them with a slow start. They find themselves in a unique position here: They have championship-level ambition and expectations, but they have little leeway to reach it. They cannot afford a slump over the rest of this year if they want to challenge for the shield, and even a top-four slot in the conference isn’t guaranteed. They’re finally starting to play like the Union – they got a signature, dominant win over New England last week – but they can’t afford to have another slump. Every game they play will have extra pressure to it, and it seems like the heartbreaking fashions in which they’ve gone out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons is starting to compound with the postseason heartbreak that their fellow Philadelphian teams have suffered. Add to that the fact that Jim Curtin’s contract is coming to an end this season, and you have a tension that will make every match from here-on-out in 2023 fascinating.
New York City is fascinating as well, as there’s a potential to them that’s hard to define. I think they’re good, surely, even though they’ve been winless in their last four matches, and while roughly a third of the league seems like they could use a consistent striker, New York City is up there with Nashville and New England in that they look like a consistent striker will get them from challenging for to actively hoisting silverware. New York City’s also running with an anonymity that’s uncharacteristic of teams in that city. They lack big stars, they don’t play flashy soccer, they’re defensively pragmatic, they struggle on the road, and yet, I don’t feel ridiculous in believing that they can be a good team. Like the Union, the season is starting to feel short for them, and these games have been so significant in the past few seasons that I could see this match being very entertaining as well.
Artisan’s Choice: DC United at Toronto FC
It is easy to suffer in relative anonymity in MLS. It is easy to lose uninterestingly in MLS. Part of what’s made this season so interesting to me is that a few of the league’s most recently mundanely underachieving teams (San Jose, Houston, Chicago, DC United) are finding themselves competent or better this year, leaving the bottom of the league fertile for teams that writhe loudly. The Galaxy have Puig and Chicharito and Vanney and nonetheless fail to score, Kansas City is more and more frantically clinging to an era slipping away, Austin was so brash and gave up two of the most thematically satisfying goals to their detractors within a week and a half of one another to start the year, but perhaps the most intriguing of any of them is Toronto FC. Toronto has an established coach, two foreign superstars who were theoretically ushering in a new era of foreign signings to MLS, American and Canadian national team veterans dotting the roster, a level of relevance in their region that’s unique among MLS teams… But, at best, they’ve managed to grit out a few 1-1 and 0-0 draws this year. They were supposed to be so much more than this under Bob Bradley, but nothing is working, and now their matches carry an uncomfortable intrigue. They staved off this sort of perverted watchability when they were barely keeping themselves on the rails early on, but now they’re kind of a fascinating disaster, with stars unafraid to complain to the media and fans turning on the players.
At the beginning of last year, with Bradley and Insigne incoming, I didn’t think we’d get to this point this soon, tuning in to TFC matches with a sense that the Bob Bradley era might end so prematurely, but there is no way that a team with this many big name-players, this much pressure to get back to success, and this much money flowing around, could struggle in an uninteresting fashion.
Apologies to DC, who can cement themselves in the ‘mundanely good’ category with a win here, for not speaking much on you, but I’m starting to have a tenuous sort of faith in you and I’d be surprised if TFC does the less interesting thing and breaks their slide, even at home on Saturday.
Update: I wrote that entire section prior to seeing the article by the Athletic’s Paul Tenorio, Joshua Kloke, and Tom Bogert about the culture at TFC. What a fascinating entity we have out there in Ontario. Not since the Toni Braxton debacle of 1997 have I seen a team in such a jealous fog.
Window Two: 7:30pm
Window Winner: Austin FC at Houston Dynamo FC
Last week, with a quietness unfamiliar to them, Austin won two matches in a row. They went up to Seattle and beat the Sounders, then came back home and snatched a late win off of a Gyasi Zardes goal against TFC. We live today in the midst of Los Verdes’ first winning streak since early April, and I’m finally willing to say that they might play a watchable one against Houston here in the 7:30pm window.
Austin was a delight to watch in 2022, I’ll never forget sitting down for that late-summer match against LAFC and watching them cruise, barely struggle with the league leaders. They had an aura not dissimilar to one of those tiny little private pious Christian college basketball teams that goes on an inexplicable run in the NCAA Tournament, like a St. Peters or an Oral Roberts or a San Diego State, where you ride the wave as a viewer and let the magic rush over you. In MLS terms, they were like the 2013 Timbers or the 2011 Union, a recent expansion team operating primarily on good vibes, and the issue with operating on indefinably good vibes is that, when they turn to indefinably bad vibes, you have to first do the work of defining what’s gone wrong before you can get any better, and that can take a while. This team’s winning looks so different from last year, the free-flowing magical goals of 2022 have been replaced with ugly, gutty headers off of deflections late in the match, and I’m intrigued. Houston’s stumbled a bit as of recent, but I’ve realized that their table is much smaller than the rest of the league. Houston is one of the least pretentious teams in MLS. They are not thinking of Shields, they’re basically laser-focused on an Open Cup run and something like seventh place in the West. If they get there, they’ll be happy about the year, and they can build in 2024. The “Shoot for the heavens and if you fail, you’ll land among the stars” concept does not exist for them right now. They are content to shoot for, like, the top of the hill in Bob-Omb Battlefield, and once they land there, they can fight the King Bob-Omb and learn his patterns and then come back and shoot higher next time around.
Nonetheless, this one will matter to both sides – Unlike the first match between the two (a 2-0 home win for the Dynamo), this one will count towards Copa Tejas, a trophy that Houston has yet to win. With a win on Saturday, Austin can start to believe in themselves again and Houston can continue the slow march towards competence.
I’m Interested In This:
Vancouver Whitecaps FC at St. Louis CITY SC
If the Eastern Conference is a logjam, the Western Conference is a collection of enigmas. I don’t know that I can pin anybody in the West down. Maybe that’s why I was so keen on defining Houston as a collection of unambitious pragmatists in the last part, but I feel like every pick in the West has some structural problem that they can’t fix. Evander’s not consistent enough yet, Luchi Gonzalez teams struggle with consistency, Josh Wolff might be wilting in the sun, Reynoso’s having his whole deal, Alan Pulido’s having his whole deal, Lletget’s having his whole deal. Even the surest things come with baggage, like LAFC, who have several games in hand on Cincinnati for the shield, but will play them with an additional eight matches of wear and tear from CCL (and I suspect they’ll make a Leagues Cup push as well) and Seattle, who is again struggling with injuries and has now dropped matches at home to Kansas City, Austin, and Vancouver.
St. Louis looked to be speedrunning the 2014 Timbers problem, using an impressive set of metas and skips to spend a month as the 2013 Timbers before crashing, and, of the two teams who played in St. Louis last week’s River Runner Ruckus, we learned less about CITY than we did about the horrible blue team. I still don’t know if they’re sustainably good, but in a mosaic of other teams that I’m not sure about, that does not make a lot of difference.
I have decided to stop struggling with the Whitecaps. I had the idea to track on a daily basis whether I consider the Whitecaps good or not, and I have elected to eschew that. I accept that they are completely, fully enigmatic, and they’re very comfortable with their lack of consistent identity. They will show up some nights as they did last weekend in Seattle, and they will look like a potential Western Conference challenger. On others, like two weekends ago in Portland, they will look like they all collectively Quantum Leaped into their own bodies at kickoff. There is no point in expecting things from the Whitecaps, they will play the games and we will have to decide what we think when the dust all settles.
I don’t know what to expect from either team meeting in St. Louis. This could be the game of the season just as well as both teams could walk out and stare blankly at one another for 90 minutes.
Window Three: 8:30pm
Window Winner (By Default): FC Cincinnati at Colorado Rapids
Colorado’s back to uninterestingly bad again. Last weekend was a huge win for Cincinnati, and there’s a part of me that wants to posit that this could be a sneaky road let-down game, but they already had a sneaky road let-down game against the Red Bulls in the Open Cup, and I’m about 100% out on the Rapids at the moment.
Window Four: 9:30pm
Window Winner: FC Dallas at San Jose Earthquakes
Last week, I introduced the concept of the Balogun Boost, which insinuates that Folarin Balogun’s commitment to the United States Men’s National Team will inspire American strikers in MLS to lock in and start scoring more goals in pursuit of a potential Gold Cup roster call-up. The results so far have been inconclusive, and depending on whether you define it, the current MPDBASPDOIOB (Most Prolific Domestically Based American Striker Post Declaration of Intent of Balogun) is either a tie between Gyasi Zardes and Jesus Ferreira at 2 MLS goals or Corey Baird, who had 3 in the Open Cup last week.
Regardless, I think the list of American Strikers with genuine shots at Gold Cup Call-Ups is relatively short – Jesus Ferreira, Jeremy Ebobisse, Brandon Vazquez, and maybe Gyasi Zardes, Duncan McGuire, and Brian White (I’m counting Jordan Morris as a winger for this exercise) – therefore, any meeting in which two of these players will cross paths is worthy of consideration. Tonight, we have Jeremy Ebobisse and Jesus Ferreira, both of whom are significant parts of two exciting attacking squads here.
Window Five: Sunday at 2:00pm
Window Winner By Default: Portland Timbers at Sporting Kansas City
Window Six: Sunday at 7:30pm
Game of the Weekend: Columbus Crew at Nashville SC
Here is the thesis that I teased about the Eastern Conference: Cincinnati is the best team in the East, maybe the best team in MLS, but from spots #2 to #10 or so in the East, I don’t think there’s a ton of difference in quality. If Cincinnati’s the gold standard in the conference, the 100th Percentile, then, at their best, Nashville at #2 all the way down to New York City at #10 is a difference between 95th and 90th percentile. Even those in the conference’s cellar, like Montreal and Chicago, have looked excellent at points this year.
At the moment, even in a nine-team playoff field, the East might see a pretty good team miss out on the postseason. Every match between the top ten as it stands in the East feels like it carries a sort of season-level importance that I don’t always feel about matches this early in the year, and they all certainly carry an emotional level of importance that’s higher than I typically feel now. It is true that any points dropped here can be made up later, but with the scheduling set up the way that it is in the East, each team only plays everyone else twice, once at home, and once on the road. Especially considering the importance of home-field advantage in MLS and the fact that every playoff team will have to play away from home in the first round, this late-May Sunday evening match between a very hot Nashville team and an inconsistent Columbus team feels like it could be quite important.
The Crew feel like they’re better than their current standing reflects, and that statement seems like it’s based off of better evidence than when I say the same thing about Dallas or Vancouver in the West. They flattened Atlanta, they beat DC United on the road, they went on the road and drew New England at their best, they looked absolutely capable on the road against the top team in the standings last weekend, but they didn’t get any points out of that match. However, they’re in eighth in the conference currently and haven’t had a big road win since early April in DC. They won’t get another chance to prove themselves in Cincinnati this year, and this Sunday’s match will be the only chance they get to prove themselves in Nashville. If they have cup aspirations, they’ll likely have to go through both TQL Stadium and GEODIS Park in the playoffs to get there, so losing both of these matches will leave them bereft of the confidence that having gone there and having won might bring them in October.
Nashville is my one thesis-breaker, as they’re starting to look like they could break away from the pack and stand up there with Cincinnati as the conference’s upper-crust, especially as they’re an incomplete team as it stands, looking to sign a dedicated striker in the mid-summer.
Columbus is not coming out of Cincinnati unconfident, and Nashville should be feeling great about themselves – One team can reach up and grab one of only a few remaining statement road wins on their schedule, and the other can cement itself in the upper echelon of the conference, and I’m excited for it.
Who’s Off This Weekend:
LAFC’s off again? Huh. Well, prepare yourselves for that big match against Tigres in the mid-week! Everybody else, enjoy the soccer!