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So You're Out Of The Leagues Cup (Part 1)
9 MLS teams stumbled into a 3-week break this August and must figure out how to spend it
The 2023 Leagues Cup has been more intriguing than I expected it to be. This is not to say that I thought it'd be terribly boring initially – I had high hopes for the contrasting styles of both leagues meeting in such an intensely competitive format over a short period of time – but I was not expecting for such subtextual intrigue to come from it. The total novelty of the 2023 Leagues Cup has forced viewers to adapt to its idiosyncrasies in short order. Every day seems to bring something different: We saw brand-new three-team arcane tiebreaker scenarios play out. We saw multiple players miss two penalties in a single shootout. We saw Atlanta try to defend the best player in global soccer. We experienced Jillian Sakovitz and Andrew Wiebe on the Leagues Cup Wrap-Up show serving not as a nightcap, but as a lead-in for Women's World Cup coverage to follow. I got to experience the harrowing ordeal of trying to go to sleep after a high-pressure Sporting KC match that kicked off at 9pm local time.
It's all new, frightfully new, and though this novelty will wear off in the future, I'm choosing to embrace the confusion that such novelty brings. This weekend brought about another new phenomenon: The Layoff of Shame. If you failed to progress out of your group, as nine MLS teams did, you're met with a punishment that Major League Soccer normally reserves for setting the regular-season points record: Three weeks off with no matches.
Everyone will react to this differently. It might be a chance to rest up, it might be a chance to accumulate rust, it might be a time to grind in Final Fantasy XVI, it might be a time to field offers for your best players from Saudi Arabia. It's up to each team individually. What follows is a list of interpretations for these free weeks. This is purely my interpretation, you may feel free to dispute it. These teams are divided on the variable word or phrase to finish this sentence:
These Empty Weeks Are Filled With...
LA Galaxy –
If any team should be most disappointed in their failure to progress out of the group stage of the Leagues Cup, it's the Galaxy. The Galaxy, lifeless in the first three months of the season, sat up and took three or four very heavy hope and life-giving breaths in June and July. That dramatic July 4th win in the Rose Bowl over LAFC might be the biggest emotional win that any MLS team has had during the 2023 Regular Season, other than perhaps San Jose's win in Santa Clara over LAFC and St. Louis's domination of Kansas City in May. If the Galaxy were going to do anything this season, they would've done it in Leagues Cup – They seemed to be set up to win in knockout tournaments, they have a club history of competing with teams from Liga MX, they have one of the most talented players in the league, and they were peaking at the right time... But 'twas all for nought. The Galaxy entered the Leave Brian White Open sweepstakes, he showed up at the door of Dignity Health Sports Park with one of those big checks in a fashion that Ed McMahon apparently never actually did, and the Galaxy's Leagues Cup run is now over, and I'm inclined to believe that their MLS season is over just as well.
Were this high school, the Galaxy came to the Leagues Cup as a once-and-perhaps-still promising boy in the midst of a humbling junior year – Perhaps their parents' marriage crumbled, they had disappointing performances in whatever athletic endeavor in which they partook, an embarassing text screenshotted by a crush and posted on an Instagram – with salvation presented by the Spring Talent Show, in which they planned to win over their friends and detractors alike with a brilliant, inspiring speak/sung rap/monologue about their life over a tastefully complex piano solo, which if pulled off properly could win over even their greatest detractors, only to get nervous and wet themselves twenty seconds into the performance to the laughter and catharsis of everyone.
Run of the Mill Disappointment:
Toronto FC –
Toronto and LA arrived to this tournament in a similar boat. Both teams came into the year with trophy ambitions and large payrolls, both teams have seen those dreams crumble in relatively fascinating fashion, and the Leagues Cup presented them both with one final real chance at triumph in 2023. The only difference here is that Toronto did not set themselves up well to take something out of this tournament. Were this high school, Toronto entered this year as sort of an exhibitionist whose main act was to stand up on a desk and wet himself, an act he'd played out four or five times in various settings over the course of the fall and spring semesters to the point that it wasn't even interesting anymore. Upon entering the spring talent show, they walked to the microphone, scanned the crowd, said simply “You know what I am here to do.”
“Wet yourself, Toronto!” a few shouted from the back, though from fewer voices and at a volume lower and with a tenor less affected than Toronto would've liked – and all in English, they'll notice in retrospect, a recognition that will turn an anhedonic session in their bedroom accompanied the same CD copy of Elephant Shell that accompanied many anhedonic sessions prior into a full-on ugly cry session into the pillow from the understanding that both the Hispanophone voices that they once humiliated in years prior and the dependable Francophone voices they've always been able to nudge don't even stop to look anymore – and Toronto obliged, wetting their inexplicably pink shorts thoroughly, though few viewers gasped, fewer jaws dropped, and none were left all that surprised or impressed.
Not All That Much Suprise Nor Disappointment:
Colorado Rapids –
The Leagues Cup was as much Colorado's final real chance to win something in 2023 as the rest of their compatriots at the bottom of the league table, but neither the optimism of the Galaxy and Miami nor the desperation of Toronto reflected onto them. Colorado entered this tournament in the midst of a season defined by poor performance and continued to perform poorly. I don't know what they do now. I guess they try to play well in their final stretch, hope that Darren Yapi and Cole Bassett continue to develop, and hope for 2024 to be one of the years, like 2010, 16, and 21, in which they strike out of nowhere.
CF Montreal –
Montreal feels like the one MLS team here who can – as Wikipedia tells me is the French version of simultaneously having and eating a cake – avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre (possess both the butter and the money you have to spend on the butter). They don't strike me as all that devastated to go out. They had few expectations of winning the tournament, they earned a memorable win over Pumas in penalties, they're still in the thick of the Eastern conference playoff race, they'd probably be happy with a playoff appearance given everything that they lost in the off-season, and it's ultimately DC United's fault that they were eliminated anyway. They're still on course for their main prize, and their first match after the break is another opportunity to kick TFC while they're down.
Part Two, on Ego-Deaths and Recenterings, will follow tomorrow.