When you’re lost in the desert, everything looks like an oasis.
Fear not, my parched friends, you didn’t drag yourself through a long winter for nothing. We’ve got water bubbling up out of the sand. Not enough to quench our thirst, but enough to wet the lips and trust that the motherload is coming.
No, I don’t think that was a dramatic way to say Major League Soccer’s Week 1 schedule is out and that means the full slate is one step closer to being available for public consumption.
Here are the five matches I circled immediately, though I’ll have you know all 13 have a special place in my heart. Water is water when you’ve been wandering around the desert.
LAFC vs. Austin FC (Saturday, April 17 on FOX)
Firsts are fun! Austin FC’s first-ever MLS game could be fun ... or it could be a reminder that the bar they must meet is higher than they can currently reach.
Speaking of high, Carlos Vela at full powers is like a drug. I need it. I want it. I must have full preseason, fit-and-ready Vela on my television regularly. Last time we got that Vela, he put up 34 goals, 15 assists and made his team the greatest regular-season side in MLS history. Aesthetically, I like watching LAFC and don’t need an excuse to do so, plus they’ve got something to prove in 2021.
They also have a couple questions that need answered.
Who plays up top? Danny Musovski, who quietly scored five goals in 629 minutes? Corey Baird, acquired via trade from Real Salt Lake? Diego Rossi? Vela? Other? Who plays right back? Does Tristan Blackmon hold on to a place in the XI or will Kim Moon-hwan impress Bob Bradley enough during preseason to be in the lineup on opening day? But, most of all, can they recapture their 2019 form?
Meanwhile, everything is a question for Josh Wolff and Austin and every game will provide threads to the final answers. I think they’re going to be a playoff team in the Western Conference, but finding out if I’m right or wrong is the fun part. Will their stars play like stars? Will Wolff’s vision come to life in his first year as a manager? What will Austin FC be in a soccer sense?
Orlando City vs. Atlanta United (Saturday, April 17 on UniMás, TUDN)
I hope Josef Martinez comes off the bench in the Concacaf Champions League so his first start back from knee surgery is at Exploria Stadium. Poetic stuff. How will the supporters he’s dominated and mocked for years welcome him back? Will Martinez still have the explosiveness and reckless desire to score goals that made him basically unstoppable from 2017-2019? What will Atlanta United look like under Gabriel Heinze anyway?
Maybe the balance of power in this rivalry shifted thanks to Oscar Pareja’s cultural alchemy and an Orlando side stronger than it’s ever been. Maybe hapless Orlando and preening, proud Atlanta United is the old world order. There are emotional stakes here, and real potential for the absurd. That’s a promising mix.
Nashville SC vs. FC Cincinnati (Saturday, April 17, ESPN+)
You might be thinking, “Huh? You skipped Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United, CF Montreal vs. Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers and Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution for this?” I did, and I did it because I think the Week 1 stakes are high for both Nashville and Cincinnati.
For Nashville, what better time to prove they’re not a defense first, 10-men-behind-the-ball side than against a team with -68 goal differential over the past two seasons? Want people to believe you’re going to be more expansive? Blow out Cincy at home. Score three or more goals on opening day. Look the part. Prove that 2020 was but the bedrock for a much more expansive project.
Cincinnati are just trying to prove they’re not a complete train wreck/tire fire/wooden spoon candidate. I’m not proud of it, but I haven’t been able to look away. Brenner AND Jurgen Locadia in the XI? Potential to allow five goals OR put up a shock win? Sold.
Inter Miami vs. LA Galaxy (Sunday, April 18 on ABC)
Better believe they put the international stars on ABC.
We’re settling for Instagram videos from Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez for now, but he’s gotta score goals once the games start. Who will he have around him? Not going to lie, I don’t know. That’s for Greg Vanney to figure out. His job will not be easy in 2021, and I couldn’t begin to predict what that opening day lineup will look like.
Meanwhile, I still think Phil Neville has the toughest job in the league among new managers. The expectations are real, and the squad has more than enough quality to deliver. So will they? I hope so, because it’d be a shame if we didn’t see MVP-level play from Gonzalo Higuain. I’ll invoke Robbie Keane’s name again here. There’s no reason Higuain can’t perform at that level.
Columbus Crew vs. Philadelphia Union (Sunday, April 18 on FS1)
Reloaded MLS Cup winners against Supporters’ Shield winners attempting to run it back after selling two Best XI players. You know I’m signing up for 90 minutes of that. Plus, it’s one of the final games at Historic Crew Stadium!