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MLS Watch Grid for September 2nd-3rd, 2023
In this one I tell you, in earnest, to watch the Galaxy and Dynamo
Window One (2:30pm)
Window Winner (By Default): Vancouver Whitecaps FC at New York City FC
We have a weird one on a Saturday afternoon in Queens! These two don’t meet often, being on opposite coasts and in different countries and all, so there’s a degree of novelty that I suppose could bring you into this match. This is the Whitecaps’ first match in the House that Mix Built since 2018 – the two played to a 2-2 draw in that one, with goals from Nicolas Mezquida and Erik Hurtado for the Caps and goals from Jesus Medina and a then-teenage Argentine striker on loan from Torque named Taty Castellanos, who scored his first goal with NYCFC in that match. Both of these teams are in the midst of hard-to-define seasons. The Pigeons have gone on stretches of decent mediocrity (the Spring, when they couldn’t lose at home and couldn’t win on the road), near-total mediocre equilibrium (the Summer, when went unbeaten in eight matches, seven of them draws) and now they’re fresh off of breaking a three-match losing streak in a 2-0 defeat over CF Montreal. Their transfer of Gaby Pereira in July seemed like something of a white flag for the season, but they showed that they still have some life on Wednesday.
Many, myself included unfortunately, started to dig Vancouver’s grave after they gave up a late goal to lose their last match at BC Place to San Jose before starting a 7-match stretch of road games. Vancouver, like NYCFC early on in the season, has been very unsuccessful on the road and fairly good at home over the course of the year, and they looked poised to suffer through this stretch. However, I’ve come to find out that it’s quite hard to dig figurative graves in that BC Place artificial turf, and the Caps have taken surprise wins in their last two matches in Portland and Chicago, and they stare down a team that should probably be a beatable, or at least drawable, foe on Saturday afternoon.
Window Two (6:30pm)
Window Winner: Orlando City SC at FC Cincinnati
There was a moment or so last week in which it looked as if Cincinnati’s leisurely trot to the Supporter’s Shield was in some sort of doubt. They were blown out by Columbus, then lost in the Open Cup semis, but just as the question of “Could St. Louis challenge for the Shield?” started to play its way across our collective lips, they smashed New York City at home and came back on the road in Atlanta with the help of exactly what they needed to see: Some Lucho Acosta wizardry and a dependable Brandon Vazquez tap-in. Now, here they are, ten points clear of St. Louis, games against Charlotte, Toronto, and the Red Bulls ahead of them over the rest of the Sprint, and at least a hand firmly on the shield.
They welcome Orlando to TQL Stadium, who finds themselves in an absolutely delicious situation for them: They’re flying under the radar, they’re no longer the most-discussed team in their own state, they’ve quietly won or drawn eight of their last nine league matches, and they’re not drawing a ton of eyes or chatter for it. Here, Orlando has an opportunity to reach up and slap the team at the top of the league in a fashion similar to what the Crew were able to do a few weeks ago. It’s hard to get a road win in Cincinnati, but if they do, the Lions have a chance to get up to second place in the East.
Cincinnati’s most recent losses have come at the hands of teams featuring either the best player in the world or a defensive midfielder like Aidan Morris or Dax McCarty putting in a great shift, and Orlando just brought back their longtime stalwart in the defensive midfield, Junior Urso. If they can hold Acosta and Vazquez back enough, Aaron Boupendza doesn’t find the form that FCC spent so much to see from him, and one of their consortium of potential goal-scorers steps up, Orlando could get a huge win here. That’s easier said than done, of course, as most everybody who doesn’t employ a Ballon D’Or winner that has challenged the full-strength Cincinnati team in TQL has found out this year.
Window Three (7:30pm)
Free Window Winner: Charlotte FC at Nashville SC
Both of these two are coming off of tough draws in the mid-week. Nashville’s had a whirlwind of a past week, getting blown out on the road in Atlanta before holding Miami scoreless on the road, while Charlotte saw what would’ve been a great week turn into a still-very good week when they followed up a 1-0 win over LAFC by dropping a 1-0 lead to Orlando’s Martin Ojeda in the 88th minute. Charlotte has yet to decide if they’re going to be a consistently good team this year, and I worry that they’ll forget to do so before the season ends with them again just outside of a playoff spot, but they will definitely be consequential. Most of the current Eastern playoff field will play them once more before the season’s end, and the Miami team that needs to more or less go unbeaten between now and the end of the year to slip into the ninth-place spot will play them twice in a four-day span. Charlotte has a phenomenal chance to mess up somebody’s chase for seeding, and they can still fight their way into the playoffs. Nashville looked so good coming out of Leagues Cup, the addition of Sam Surridge alongside Hany Mukhtar seemed certain to put them firmly in the East’s top four, but somehow they’ve fallen to seventh at this moment in time. Fortunately for them, Charlotte’s defense has been the cure for struggling attacks, so we might see Nashville execute to their offensive potential at home the same way that they executed to their defensive potential in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.
Season Pass Window Winner: St. Louis CITY at Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC is in a peculiar spot right now – For the second year in a row, SKC is healthy, scoring, winning big, and looking like one of the best teams in the West right in time for the playoffs to be more or less out of reach. It’s not impossible, but the margins for error are very, very thin, and the remaining schedule is very hard – Every remaining team on the SKC schedule either currently sits above their conference’s playoff line or employs Lionel Messi. In comes St. Louis, still first in the West, who beat the hell out of the Wiz during the two teams’ first match back in May, who will in all likelihood be playing a de facto home game given the gulf in jadedness between the two fanbases and the closeness in proximity between the two cities. Some KC fans, I’ve heard, are even kind of okay, sort of spitefully satisfied with the idea that the front office will have to look out of their suite and see just how badly they’ve lost their fanbase, but that is an unsubstantiated rumor.
It would be wrong to say that St. Louis can more or less end Kansas City’s season here if they play their cards right – SKC’s playoff hopes were dashed back in April – but they can basically ensure that any hope the team on the other side of the East still holds for a postseason bid is dashed. Sporting has to win this, both to stay in the playoff race and to make up for the embarrassment of the match the two played in May. Outside of the match against Chivas in the Leagues Cup, there is no single more important match that Sporting KC will partake in this season, and Sporting KC looked about as good as they have in any match all year in a 3-0 rout of San Jose last week – so, neutrals, if you’re going to watch a single Sporting KC match this season, make it this one! We have the top team in the West against a team that, when healthy, can play like one of the top teams in the West!
And if St. Louis dominates, I think there is high potential for the KC fans to genuinely turn. I think, to an extent, that Peter Vermes is coaching for his job here, less likely in the immediate, Giovanni Savarese sense unless it gets really bad, but man, if he ends this year with no playoffs for the second year, two (maybe three!) bad losses to an ascendant St. Louis, and mediocre performances against the cavalcade of other rivals (it is sort of funny that, if St. Louis doesn’t definitively kill Sporting’s season this weekend, all of Minnesota, Houston, Salt Lake, and St. Louis for a third time will get the chance to do so in September and October), I cannot see that year-end interview going well.
Window Four (8:30pm)
Artisan’s Choice: Colorado Rapids at Real Salt Lake
What the hell has happened to Salt Lake? It wasn’t even a full month ago, it was August 4th, that they were beating the brakes off of the defending champions of Concacaf in the Leagues Cup, and since then, they’ve been outscored 12-2 in their last four matches across all competitions! I was thinking we had a genuine Western Conference contender out in Sandy, now they’re in free-fall! I know that the answer is basically that Pablo Ruiz is very good, and the knee injury that has sidelined him since that Leagues Cup loss to LAFC has correlated precisely with the team’s downfall, but my god, to fall this badly is just astounding.
A few weeks ago, I put forward a theory defining the post-Leagues Cup Colorado Rapids as Major League Soccer’s control group. We have done all of the learning we can about Colorado this season, and all that is left to do is use them as a point of comparison for everyone else. So far, LAFC defeated them 4-0 at home, and Minnesota defeated them 3-0 at home. From that, we can make what I think is a reasonable syllogistic inference that Los Angeles is a goal superior to Minnesota at this moment in time.
I make that point to say that we will learn something about Salt Lake from their performance in the Rocky Mountain Cup this weekend. 3-0 win? The past four games have been an aberration! 1-1 draw? You’re definitely on a slide, but it’s not as bad as some say. A loss of any kind? OH GOD, NO, MAYDAY! MAYDAY!
Window Five (9:30pm)
Game of the Evening: Houston Dynamo FC at LA Galaxy
Who do we have, but the two hottest teams in the Western Conference! That’s right! Houston just beat a really good Columbus team at home and dominated Salt Lake in Utah. The Galaxy, who have struggled all year, are coming off of a 3-0 win over Chicago and just outlasted San Jose 3-2 on the road! Both are unbeaten since the Leagues Cup break!
I don’t know what this version of the Galaxy is, but I want to see it continue to work. They made a series of signings in August during their Leagues Cup vacation – 2023 Artisan’s Choice XI Watch-list member Michael Barrios from Colorado, Edwin Cerillo from Dallas, 2022 Actual Best XI snub Diego Fagundez from Austin, veteran striker Billy Sharp from England’s Sheffield United, and veteran Center Back Maya Yoshida from Germany’s Schalke 04. Yoshida was a favorite player of mine during my Premier League-fan days, which is normally a bad sign given how long ago my Premier League-fan days were (I still have a Southampton jersey floating around my closet though), but he’s been a pretty solid addition to the Galaxy back-line so far!
He’ll have to stand up against the rapid-onset… of The Corenaissance. That’s right, The Baird of Avon, the Grizzly Baird, the Stanford Stunner, is here. Corey Baird has scored in his last three MLS matches and six of his last eight across all competitions.
The Galaxy, much like Sporting KC, still technically have a shot at making the playoffs, have only lost one match since the end of May in MLS, and have found the offensive edge that had me believing in them as an MLS Cup favorite way back during those optimistic days of February. This really could be a fun one in Carson!
Window Six (Sunday at 6:30pm)
Window Winner By Default: New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union
The Bulls died last weekend against Miami, when they ceded basically everything including their gift shop to Lionel Messi. Philadelphia can bury them further on Sunday evening.
To The Social Media Team of The Red Bull: I fully consent to and encourage you to put this in your Twitter video when you end up sneaking into the playoffs again at the year’s end
Window Seven (Sunday Past Bedtime)
Game of the Evening: Inter Miami CF at Los Angeles FC
I had something of a bit planned in which I wouldn’t mention any Miami matches from here to the end of the season, but their nearly-impossible-but-not-fully-impossible chances at a playoff berth are a weakness. They’re still in it – They have ten matches left in MLS (plus the Open Cup final), at the moment the likely number to cross to finish ninth place in the East will be around 42 points (this is based off of current ninth-place Chicago’s points-per-game rate multiplied by 34), they’re currently on 22 points, so they’ll have to keep up a 2 points-per-game pace to get there. This is a tall task, and getting only a draw in the Nashville match on Wednesday, one of a decreasing few home matches remaining in which Miami will have their full-strength lineup including Messi, Drake Callendar, and Benjamin Cremaschi among others. It really would have helped them to have won that one on Wednesday, especially as they’ll have to travel all the way across the country to play LAFC, which will kick off at 11pm Eastern on Sunday night.
LAFC has been about as good as ever this season at home, and particularly at home against opponents from the Eastern Conference – In three home matches against opponents from the opposite coast in 2023, they’re unbeaten, and haven’t conceded a goal in any of them: 4-0 over New England in April, 3-0 over Philadelphia in the second leg of the CCL semis in May, and a mid-week 0-0 draw against Atlanta in June. That East-to-West coastal trip has been generally brutal to teams traveling cross-country this year – Out of twelve matches across all competitions, teams located in states or provinces bordering the Atlantic have won only two matches in Pacific states and provinces: Charlotte defeated the Galaxy 1-0 in Carson on May 27th and Atlanta defeated the Sounders in Seattle 2-0 on August 20th.
Miami’s already facing off against one of the best teams in MLS, and all of the additional stuff (fatigue, climate, travel, international duty) just adds to the uphill challenge they face in this one. Still, this will be Lionel Messi’s debut in Los Angeles! Miami still hasn’t lost a match since the beginning of the Leagues Cup! It’s yet another big challenge for this new-look, now-contending Herons team: Can they go to Los Angeles and get a necessary result against the defending Cup and Shield winners? Maybe the formula they developed in Harrison last weekend, in which they pack it in and defend for the first hour or so before bringing on Messi to put in a kill-shot, will work again here. It’ll be much harder to keep Denis Bouanga and Carlos Vela out of the net than it was to keep the Red Bulls’ forwards, but it is as good of a formula as any.
The odds are long, but they’ve been long many times over the last few months, and Miami has found a way to pull through in every match they’ve played so far. If you’re able to stay up for it, you might see Miami’s playoff hopes take a severe blow, you might see another incredible bit of Messi artistry, and, regardless, you’ll see a great atmosphere at the Banque for it.
Who’s Off This Week:
Toronto FC! You’re off this week. I don’t know what you guys do for fun there, even when I lived in Ontario I didn’t figure out what you guys do for fun there — I don’t know if you get Amazon Freevee up there, but there is a channel that airs Kids of the Hall reruns 24/7 if you need something to fill your time.
Everybody else, enjoy the soccer!