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So You're Out of the Leagues Cup (Part 2)
We continue to discuss empty weeks ahead of Austin, Atlanta, San Jose, St. Louis, and Seattle
This is a continuation of the idea from yesterday’s post. Nine MLS teams failed to qualify for the knockout round of the Leagues Cup. They now have time off that they didn’t want to have off. What follows is how I think they should interpret this time off, presented as the final word of this sentence:
These Empty Weeks Are Filled With...
Atlanta United FC –
Atlanta came into the Leagues Cup in bizarre circumstances. For the Galaxy, this was it, this was genuinely their one chance to do something of substance in 2023. Atlanta is still in the playoff picture in the East, entering the Leagues Cup break in 7th with the caveat that it was hard to believe in them as a contender for the MLS Cup due to their defensive ineptitude. I can't say that my interpretation of Atlanta's defensive prowess has gotten much worse due to their performance against Inter Miami and Lionel Messi – He's scored with ease against much better defenses in much better leagues – but it certainly didn't help their case. The more damning statistic was the one goal scored between their two matches. They couldn't do the one thing they do well against a Miami team that could be forgiven for not bothering to defend and a Cruz Azul team that entered the Leagues Cup break with the worst Goal Differential in Liga MX. So what are they, now? In a tournament that has featured all manner of 4-3 and 3-2 scorelines, I thought an Atlanta team whose only real option seems to be outscoring opponents was a feasible contender, but this was not the case. Who is this version of the Five Stripes, then?
You have three weeks to figure this out. The fans are currently entering what I call the Fire Zone, where incredible success at the franchise’s start makes a decline to mediocrity sting even worse. It’s hard to go from expecting MLS Cups and Champions League runs to accepting playoff appearances as successes, but this is what they must re-orient themselves to accept during the break.
Austin FC –
The 2023 Austin FC season reminds me of the 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps season, in that they make me wish there were more people around me in my general life who cared about MLS outside of just their home team to share revelry in the literary perfection of a team's season. The diptych of Austin's charmed 2022 season, one defined by gorgeous soccer and underlined by a brash supporter-base, coach, and owner waging a season-long session of gripes against the season-preview articles that ran on the league website in March, culminating in effigies of Extratime Radio hosts set aflame, being followed in 2023 by perhaps the three worst and loudest extra-league losses any MLS team has suffered, first to Haiti's Violette in the Dominican Republic and Liga MX doormats Mazatlan and Juarez at home, all while nobody cares to notice their high-effort, genuinely interesting and in-a-sense inspiring regular season turnaround, reflects a tale of pride coming before the fall so unreasonably cut and dry that it ought to be acted out by Goofus and Gallant.
In a strange sense, I'm probably most optimistic about how Austin can take this break. Austin is in the midst of one of the tropes of fiction with which I have found myself most enthralled in the past few years, the Imbruglianic nude-and-sobbing-on-the-bathroom floor moment of recognition that the peeling wallpaper of pretense and gravitas can no longer hold, that the lying to oneself must cease, that the cards have been dealt and it is time to accept one's lot and place for the moment – Gloucester at the bottom of the cliff, Don Gately flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, Woody the Cowboy yelling at Buzz Lightyear in the Pizza Planet parking lot – Austin FC is a Major League Soccer team. They must first accept this. They must first win something within MLS, they must commit themselves first, foremost, and only about winning in Major League Soccer before they can try to ascend it once again. The West is vulnerable, Driussi is healthy, Zardes is producing, and I suppose they've now lost Diego Fagundez, which is not beneficial for this cause, but they now at least have only the one and can focus only on it.
San Jose Earthquakes –
The Quakes, scoring no goals in losses to Portland and Tigres, performed about as disapppointingly as Atlanta and Austin did, but they did so much more quietly and less distressingly. The mindset I had around the Quakes was actually similar to that of Atlanta, in that they'd shown a propensity to outscore opponents when necessary in MLS this year, which I thought could put them in a good place for this tournament. It would not have shocked me if they'd not only made it out of the group, but made a deep run in the tournament, and it would not have shocked me if they'd fizzled out like they did. They're in a boat very similar to Austin's in the Western standings, one could even say identical on points, so these weeks will give them the opportunity to rest and ready themselves for a still possible run for the top of the West.
St. Louis CITY SC –
I decided in May to stop reading too deeply into anything surrounding St. Louis. Every time that I think the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin, they'll look like the best team in the West, and every time that I think they're a serious contender, they'll lose and lose badly. This is why they're here in re-centering and not in one of the more panicked categories – In their short history, I have only ever been wrong about St. Louis. They're still atop the West, they're going to be a playoff team, they're more than a gimmick, et cetera, and any statement that they should be emotionally dislodged at the moment will surely prove hyperbolic once they cruise to the top seed in the West, win their first series, then lose to a more experienced team in the second round to proud applause from the faithful at CITYPARK.
This should be good news to St. Louis fans, as for any other upstart team, losing the way they did at home to Club America could absolutely shatter a group's psyche. There were some true out-classings that took place in the Leagues Cup group stages: NYCFC 5-0 over Toronto, RSL 3-0 over Seattle, Monterrey 3-0 over RSL, and Miami 4-0 over Atlanta as standouts in this department, but I don't think anyone else was so thoroughly outclassed by an opponent the way that St. Louis was. There was a bit early on in that match, as Club America easily passed their way around and through CITY's pressure to a chorus of Oles from fans of Las Aguilas, in which of the commentators said “They're not used to their fans being outnumbered here” and I really think that had an effect on them. For the first time, everything that had just worked for St. Louis stopped against Club America, the magic and joy that's defined their season was hit head-first by an uncaring external presence, it reminded me most in MLS terms of Salt Lake losing at home to Monterrey in the second leg of the 2012 Concacaf Champions League final and most in extra-MLS terms of this clip from Peep Show. We don't know yet, and I tend to be wrong about them, but this is the sort of humiliating loss that can destroy a team's mystique. Other teams have survived them, and they probably will as well, but that was bad.
They were, I believe, the first MLS team eliminated from the competition (though Montreal played their last match two days before St. Louis did, they had to wait for DC and Pumas to decide their fate a day later on the 29th), and they also don't get the benefit of playing a tired team on their first match back, as they host fellow non-qualifiers Austin FC on August 20th. I have a feeling that this will be a significant one, as both teams fell to Earth in Leagues Cup, but I'll touch on that in a few weeks.
Seattle Sounders FC –
What an enigma this team has become. The Sounders, the first MLS team to have any sort of Leagues Cup run, the team that has beaten the most Liga MX teams of anyone in MLS – Tigres UANL, Santos Laguna, Club Leon, and Pumas UNAM – in the past three years, flamed out of the 2023 Leagues Cup in an almost depressing fashion. West 2 might have had the most historical intrigue of any group. Monterrey and Real Salt Lake met again in the same place where it all went down in 2012, for one, then Seattle and Monterrey had their past intersections in CCL in the early 2010s as well. Seattle and Real Salt Lake's intersection here had layers and layers of intrigue. RSL served, alongside the Bruce Arena Galaxy teams, as the cruel truth that crushed the plucky upstart Sounders in so many playoffs around the turn of the 2010s, and they took down the Sounders in an infamously suffocating fashion during the 2021 playoffs. There are few thorns in the Sounders' side quite like RSL, and they presented perhaps the only foil for Seattle in terms of a Leagues Cup-specific historical sense.
This is a statement that I'm sure would be considered a Hot Take if anyone cared enough to dispute it, but I will bravely make it anyway: Of its pre-historic era, meaning 2019-2022, the Leagues Cup is most haunted by Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders. Other MLS teams had their stamps – The Galaxy were the first to win a round, Sporting KC was the first to outwardly shirk the competition entirely – but nobody made a more forceful stance on the pre-2023 Leagues Cup than Salt Lake and Seattle did. They both took the pre-2023 Leagues Cup seriously in different senses – Seattle took the 2021 Leagues Cup seriously by competing treating it earnestly as a competition worth winning, and they nearly did so, and RSL took the 2019 Leagues Cup run seriously by treating it as a cynical cash grab, chasing after a cat and having their head coach get fired for verbally abusing a referee. They both built this tournament, in a sense, Seattle lent it competitive credibility and RSL lent it the extra-athletic weirdness that I feel defines authenticity in American soccer just as much. For RSL to defeat Seattle the way that they did, I feel it put a stamp on the tenor of the whole tournament: This will be more entertaining than serious and more eccentric than efficient.
I said last month that Seattle struck me as depressed more than anything, having no more worlds left to conquer as an MLS team, so I think they have to take these weeks to just figure out some reason to get back in gear for the remainder of the 2023 season. I keep saying that the West is open, the West is vulnerable, and part of the reason why I keep saying that is that the Sounders are vulnerable. The Sounders (and the Timbers) have been the Western Conference over the last deacde, and when your vanguards are limping, your whole conference is limping by proxy.
They've been in the Top 4 since the beginning of the season, and yet, they've rarely been able to find the dominating gear that I think we all expect them to find around now. With Cristian Roldan out again with his unfortunate recurring concussion issues, I don't know how they find it. They tend to do so, they've almost always done so in my lifetime, but they have to find that consistency that's best defined them under Brian Schmetzer again. Maybe these free weeks provide them the space to take a condensed, spiritual gap year in which they find themselves again. Maybe they go backpacking around the forests of Northeast Washington rather than the forests of Southeast Asia.