Leagues Cup is a wrap. The US Open Cup is down to its championship final (sources tell us it’s Lionel Messi’s left foot vs. the greater Houston metropolitan area on Sept. 27). Sunset’s arriving earlier, Labo(u)r Day looms, the kids are getting back to school. And all that points us towards hard moments of truth in Major League Soccer.
The Leagues Cup pause has made explicit what used to be an instinctive shift across the league at this time of year: “It's go time. Now or never,” in the words of Inter Miami CF defender Kamal Miller.
With two months left in the regular season, the home stretch is here, and there’s no longer any margin for error. Those who wish to be playoff teams must stack up the results that ensure it, otherwise acknowledge that it’s not on this time around. If you’re on track to claim the Supporters’ Shield or a high seed (and thus home-field advantage) in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, you must kick on and secure it, or risk it being snatched away.
It should surprise you none that we start with a flock of birds from Florida who have both the steepest hill to climb and the most luxurious equipment with which to attack it.
Though they’re new to these shores, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets know that type of urgency well. It’s fueled their capture of literally dozens of major trophies over the years, most of them won together at FC Barcelona and Miami’s Leagues Cup run the most recent.
As you may have heard, IMCF’s woeful, months-long winless skid in league play left them a ton of ground to make up. Coming into the weekend, the Herons had 18 points from their first 22 MLS matches, leaving them 14 points back of the ninth-and-final Eastern Conference playoff spot currently occupied by the Chicago Fire.
Their intense schedule of the past month left Gerardo “Tata” Martino with little choice but to give his veteran duo some rest as they visited the New York Red Bulls Saturday night. So beyond the newcomers in the sellout crowd at Red Bull Arena wondering ‘when do we get to see the GOAT?’ the big question in Harrison was whether the Messi Effect would persist even when he’s on the bench.
A young Miami XI featuring two teenage homegrowns and all three of their new U22 Initiative signings was sturdy enough to stand up to RBNY’s high press, ride their luck and even conjure the opening goal, a key aspect of their Leagues Cup run and a habit that makes literally everything else so much easier. It set the stage for Messi to ice things with the most divine of give-and-goes with his fellow substitute Benja Cremaschi. And so a pragmatic recipe for Miami sustaining their midsummer magic begins to take shape.
“The fact that the Red Bull defenders don’t track the best player that’s ever played the game is crazy. But this pass is the goal,” noted RBNY cult hero Mike Grella on MLS 360. “Cremaschi doesn’t even know that that pass is a thing. [Messi] leads him with the pass. He puts him into motion, he puts him into life with that pass … he just makes it look so easy.”
With the fear and awe he inspires, the scheme-breaking capabilities of his individual brilliance and the aura that leads opponents to become postgame autograph seekers, Messi is living rent-free in other teams’ heads, and that makes Miami even tougher to face.
Nostalgia was thick in the air at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Atlanta United christened their “404” third kit, a street-art-flavored tribute to the 1990s heyday of the city’s fertile hip-hop culture, with the likes of Monique and Goodie Mob on hand for Nashville SC’s visit. And sure enough, it felt like the old days down on the FieldTurf, too.
The Five Stripes romped all over an NSC side that looked acutely Leagues Cup-hungover, with willing legs stretching the field as Thiago Almada dictated and dimed like few others in MLS can. You’d hardly have known these teams entered the day tied in points in the East race.
Though the game model has shifted under Gonzalo Pineda, if you squinted, you might just see the outlines of Miguel Almirón in the way Almada ran the show, scoring once and setting the table for the other three tallies. There are hints of the old Josef Martínez in the way Giorgos Giakoumakis stalks and scowls up front at the tip of the spear, and here it was Nashville playing the role of overmatched Southern rival like Orlando City once unhappily did.
And that tenacious collective hunger? Hoo boy…
Yet it was also pleasantly ironic that two newcomers were so essential to ATL playing like the ATL we once knew.
Summer reinforcements Tristan Muyumba and Xande Silva have instantly brought new dimensions to deep midfield and the left flank, respectively. Muyumba looks like just the kind of intelligent, unyielding terrier needed to bring shape and bite to the center of the park. Silva has the kind of opulent technique and flair that those big Benz crowds holler for, and is gelling mighty quickly with Almada in terms of movement.
Miami’s 2-0 win underlined the massive psychological advantage they now possess. Baseball heads will remember the turn-of-the-century Yankees teams that Gotham so adored, whose closer Mariano “Sandman” Rivera was such a dominant pitcher that opponents basically had to win games in the first seven innings because the guys in pinstripes only had to be within striking range when ‘squeaky bum time’ was nigh.
Maybe other teams can better exploit the Messi-less moments IMCF must inevitably weather this fall; Tata himself pointed out that he’ll miss at least three games due to international duty with Argentina. The Red Bulls did not, and so Miami are no longer in last place, their climb officially underway.
At the risk of stating the obvious, early goals are absolutely vital at this point in the season; they set the terms of engagement and weigh on the minds of those who concede them. Every single one of Saturday night’s winners did so by scoring first, and there was only one exception to that last weekend as well.
Early leads can give the impression that one side is playing downhill. Such was certainly the case with Aaron Boupendza’s 6th-minute finish in FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 dispatching of New York City FC. Or the Philadelphia Union’s comfortable 3-1 road win over D.C. United, very much a ‘here we go again’ sensation for the Audi Field faithful, who showered their team with boos at the halftime and full-time whistles. Self-inflicted wounds sting the worst:
“We got into some great areas. But if you give the goals away we gave away, then you’re not going to win games,” said D.C. coach Wayne Rooney, and… yup.
With this result slotting in alongside scorelines of 6-0, 7-1, 4-1, 3-1 and 5-1 over the past several years, Philly continue to own their I-95 near-neighbors to such an extent that the matchup fails to truly resemble a rivalry despite concerted efforts in that direction.
In-form Columbus did much the same to break the spirits of hapless, drama-plagued Toronto FC in their 2-0 home win, new boy Diego Rossi opening his Crew account 21 minutes in with some clinical poaching. TFC have now gone more than three months without a win across all competitions and reports of internal dissension have made the rounds yet again, with superstar Lorenzo Insigne alleged to have stomped off the training ground in defiance of interim boss Terry Dunfield.
Out in Kansas City, it took Daniel Salloi – set up by the excellent, impudent Johnny Russell – just three minutes to breach the resistance of the confidence-deprived San Jose Earthquakes in Sporting KC’s 3-0 victory. And Real Salt Lake tasted the bitter pill of their former homegrown Corey Baird opening the scoring after nine minutes in the Houston Dynamo’s 3-0 win, RSL’s second loss to La Naranja in the span of four days thanks to their tense extra-time Open Cup semifinal at midweek.
RSL have run ahead of Houston in the standings for most of the year and the eye test would suggest they’ve been a better and more complete team along the way. Yet they’re now just two points ahead of the Dynamo – who might, might just be edging towards ‘dark horse’ status with ace center mids Héctor Herrera and Coco Carrasquilla on song – not to mention deprived by them of both sides’ best chance at 2023 hardware thanks to Wednesday’s result.
Therein lies a fundamental reality of the MLS stretch run: Though Messi and Miami are making it look pretty right now, that’s not a requirement for an effective autumn push. FC Dallas’ Nkosi Tafari has clearly learned that lesson.
“You don't really need to be playing the best footy, you just need momentum and form,” the center back said after his 97th-minute header, the latest matchwinner in club history, dug out a 1-0 win over the 10 men of Austin FC on a characteristically sweltering August night in Frisco, Texas. This was an ugly rivalry dub, but a necessary one considering the two sides’ close proximity in the midst of the West’s congested playoff-chasing pack.
“Our last game was August 6,” pointed out FCD boss Nico Estévez. “Usually when you have your first game [in a while], you are a little bit sloppy. The tempo and the rhythm of the game, you are a little bit behind and you can see that…
“What people don’t realize is we have been playing with the heat from like, two months already or two and a half months, training every day, playing games, and it’s very, very difficult, very difficult to handle mentally. And I think we had that mentality that even though it was tough, it was hard, at the end to make a difference with that goal.”
Their epic Leagues Cup Round-of-16 duel with Miami showed everyone how high Dallas’ ceiling is; by the looks of it, the tropical galácticos are now the de facto litmus test of quality and mettle for their MLS peers. On Saturday FCD showed us what the corresponding floor looks like for serious contenders.
Not so long ago we had a fairly distinct picture of what the floor looked like for NYCFC. For several years the Pigeons have been one of the East’s most consistent, recognizable outfits in both philosophical and competitive terms. Vitally, it all felt sustainable even as individual protagonists, the likes of David Villa, Patrick Vieira, Taty Castellanos and Jack Harrison, came and went.
That now looks very much in doubt after the Cityzens’ thumping at the hands of FC Cincy. Statistically, this one was more even than the scoreline suggests, so coach Nick Cushing could plausibly complain about small margins, finishing variance and expected goals, and did.
“What you saw tonight was a team that is full of confidence, top of the league, against a team that is bruised because of maybe not getting the result in Minnesota [last week],” he said postgame. “And we come away to Cincinnati and in a game that’s 4-3 in goal chances, they score all three of theirs and we have a zero.”
It’s also true that NYC worked to improve their squad over the summer, with seven signings since the start of July and limited time in which to knit it all together into something coherent and fluid, showpiece striker Mounsef Bakrar under particularly intense (and not entirely fair) pressure to contribute right away.
Yet that theme cuts against the bigger picture. The 2021 MLS Cup winners are now 1W-8L-8D in league play since late April. which leaves them 13th in the East table, six points below the playoff line on a flaccid pace of 1.0 points per game. Then there’s the sudden, unexplained absence of captain and defensive anchor Maxime Chanot, who was simply termed “unavailable” with no further explanation.
“Ultimately, we bring the guys that are ready to play and, you know, we have three guys today [linchpins James Sands and Santi Rodriguez were injury scratches] that weren't ready to play,” said Cushing when asked about Chanot. “So we move forward.”
The Pigeons can now look forward to five straight home games, albeit at three different venues, with the first three at Yankee Stadium and one apiece at Citi Field and Red Bull Arena. If they don’t rack up points over the span, their streak of playoff qualifications dating back to 2016, their second season of existence, is probably cooked.
It’s looking quite similar for the team they defeated in that memorable 2021 MLS Cup final at Providence Park. The Portland Timbers lost again there Saturday, 3-2 to Cascadia enemies Vancouver, sinking to 12th in the West with no new-manager bounce following the dismissal of longtime head coach Gio Savarese during the week. A major winter rebuild looks increasingly inevitable.
The RCTID bunch have won just twice in the league since mid-May and have taken on some textbook bad-team tendencies. Most notable this weekend was an untimely meltdown by Designated Player Evander, whose undisciplined, unnecessary foul on Richie Laryea in the Timbers penalty box handed the Whitecaps their third goal and snapped his own team’s momentum after they cut a 2-0 deficit in half via Felipe Mora’s fine header in the 53rd minute.
That’s an attacking player – and Evander was carrying a yellow card! – clumsily hacking down an opponent moving away from the goal to break his own team’s back. Even his composed late finish to provide some late drama at 3-2 couldn’t redeem that mistake. When your best players aren’t your best players, it’s very difficult to prosper in MLS.
Amid all the chatter about Miami, Messi, Atlanta and other louder talking points, three East sides quietly banked victories which may prove vital in retrospect.
Up in Quebec, CF Montréal continued to defend their Stade Saputo fortress (they’re now 9W-3L-0D at home) with a tight 1-0 win over New England. CFM’s George Campbell, like his fellow center back Tafari down in Texas, crowned an excellent defensive display by ranging forward to add a striker’s clinical late finish, and send the Revolution back across the border with some uncomfortable questions to ponder.
Given that Revs playmaker Carles Gil was superb at times, and unlikely to see an audacious long-range chip over Jonathan Sirois clang off the woodwork, it’s tempting to wonder if this was the type of occasion where they’d claim at least a point if Djordje Petrovic was still in their nets instead of settling in London after his big-money transfer to Chelsea FC.
That may be unfair to Earl Edwards Jr., who made two saves and was not the reason the Revs lost. But the departure of a dominant goalkeeper can carry a psychological toll, and the continued suspension of head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena further adds to the unsettled air around the Foxborough side. At least New England have games in hand on their closest pursuers in the standings.
Orlando are now level with the Revs and Philadelphia on points after their 2-1 home win over West leaders St. Louis, paced by the quality and leadership of their young winger Facundo Torres, who bagged a brace.
The Uruguayan is now up to 10g/4a and his ‘team selfie’ goal celebration gives the impression of a talent ready to push his team on in a fashion similar to Almada in Atlanta or Lucho Acosta at Cincy. We’ll learn a lot more about his capacity to do so when the Lions visit Cincinnati and NYCFC and host Columbus and Miami over the coming month.
Credit is also due to Charlotte FC, who spring an ambush on LAFC – who beat them 5-0 in this fixture a year ago – at Bank of America Stadium to suggest that they may yet have something to say about the East’s postseason push. English midfield vet Ashley Westwood was influential well beyond his gorgeously-taken goal with 82 touches, 85% passing completion and two key passes, 3/5 duels won and seven recoveries, and he’ll need to extend that level of performance for them to climb the standings.
With those big, loud crowds and fast turf, BofA can be a very challenging setting for visitors, as Orlando may discover on Wednesday. What’s tougher for The Crown’s postseason hopes is their rugged remaining schedule. After OCSC, they must visit Nashville, Cincy and New England in addition to daunting home dates vs. Philadelphia and Miami. Christian Lattanzio and CLTFC have their work cut out.