Take a deep inhale through your nose. Do you smell that? You do? Good. That’s the smell of rivalry. I bet you didn’t know rivalry had a smell. Well, now you do. It smells like that.
With Rivalry Week starting this weekend, several teams across MLS will have the chance to battle some of their most hated opponents. Who has the most to lose from this weekend’s clashes?
Let’s take a look at a handful of these big Matchday 12 games.
MOST TO LOSE: Toronto FC
WATCH: Apple TV - MLS Season Pass | Saturday, 7:30 pm ET
Let’s be honest for a minute: CF Montréal, after losing their coach and several key players, had low expectations coming into 2023. Even with three straight wins and Bryce Duke improving their attack, there are plenty of questions about their ability to climb the Eastern Conference table.
But out of these two teams, it’s Toronto FC – fresh off a loss to Montréal in the Canadian Championship quarterfinals Tuesday – who have the most to lose in the latest Canadian Classique (and in this season overall).
Bob Bradley’s team has some big problems on their hands. They’re currently 13th in the East, two spots below Montréal. They’re yet to put together two consecutive positive performances in 2023. They lack proven MLS depth, which was supposed to matter less with two genuine attacking stars in the frontline. But Lorenzo Insigne, one of those stars who makes more money than any other player in the league, looks sluggish and isn’t producing.
Per TruMedia, Insigne is getting nine more touches per 90 minutes this year than he did last year, but all nine of them are coming outside of the final third. He loses patience with his teammates, so he drops deeper. But when he drops deeper, he’s no longer in goal-dangerous areas, which has led to his xA dropping from 0.28 per 90 to 0.18 from last year to this year.
As a whole, Toronto have spent less time in the final third this year than last year. That could be due to injuries to key starters leaving the ball progression to under-qualified backups, or it could boil down to Insigne’s lack of discipline. Or it could be a bit of both. Either way, signing Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi propped open Toronto’s trophy window. As things stand, it certainly doesn’t look like they’re prepared to hop through that open window any time soon.
But maybe a rivalry win against Montréal could help them get back on track? That’s what Bradley will be hoping for.
MOST TO LOSE: New York Red Bulls
WATCH: Apple TV - MLS Season Pass | Saturday, 7:30 pm ET
It’s been a difficult last few games for both of these teams, there’s no doubt about that. NYCFC have dropped two straight matches and are in the middle of a five-game road trip (if you can count a game in New Jersey as part of a road trip, that is).
The New York Red Bulls, though, are in a more concerning place right now. They’re last in the Eastern Conference. They’re playing without a big-time DP due to suspension. And now they’re being forced to find their feet under new manager Troy Lesesne after Gerhard Struber’s departure earlier this week.
Lesesne, who was part of Struber’s coaching staff, has never been the head coach of a top-flight team before. The 39-year-old’s last head coaching experience came in the USL Championship with New Mexico United, so this will be a new challenge for both him and the entire RBNY organization. Now, having your first MLS match come against your club’s biggest rivals? That’s not an easy introduction.
When you look at the numbers, the Red Bulls should start improving. Per FBref, they have the fourth-best xGD per 90 minutes in MLS this year, and they currently lead the East in that metric. They’re creating more chances than they’re allowing, which is a sign of a good team. For some reason, things just haven’t clicked yet for this Red Bulls team. Maybe this weekend’s Hudson River Derby will be the start of a new era for RBNY. The pressure is certainly on.
MOST TO LOSE: Atlanta United
WATCH: Apple TV - Free | Saturday, 7:30 pm ET
If you’d asked me a month ago who would have more to lose in a game between Atlanta and Charlotte, I would’ve said Charlotte. After all, Atlanta came to Charlotte and took their northern rivals to task earlier this season, cruising to a 3-0 rout. But now, with Charlotte looking at least somewhat steady and Atlanta looking very fragile unless all of their best players are on the field together? Well, now the pressure has flipped to Atlanta’s side of this rivalry.
In Thiago Almada, Atlanta United have a player who can win them games. That’s been established already this season (see: Matchday 1 especially). But when Giorgos Giakoumakis isn’t in the lineup to stretch the opposing backline from his striker spot? Or when Atlanta United’s midfielders have to break through a compact block or get out of tight spots against a pressing defense? That’s when things start to get messy for the Five Stripes.
Charlotte FC will give Gonzalo Pineda’s team more space to operate than most – per Opta, Charlotte press more than all but seven teams in MLS, so there should be space for Atlanta in important parts of the field. Per FBref, they’ll also give Atlanta more attacking opportunities than most. So far this year, Charlotte have allowed 1.59 xG per game, which is the second-highest total in the league.
With Atlanta right now, though, there’s a real question about whether they’ll be able to exploit (and then contain) Charlotte this weekend. They’ve averaged a negative xGD over their last four games and have been out-created by Toronto FC, the Chicago Fire, Nashville SC and Inter Miami.
They did it once already this year, so collecting three points from a game against Charlotte FC should be the expectation for Atlanta United. Living up to those expectations given their recent form could be more difficult.
MOST TO LOSE: Austin FC
WATCH: Apple TV - MLS Season Pass | Saturday, 8:30 pm ET
Talk about a roller-coaster ride…
Austin’s life in MLS has been full of ups and downs. After finishing second-to-last in the Western Conference during their expansion season back in 2021, Josh Wolff’s team finished second in the West last year. Now, they’re back down towards the bottom: through 10 games, Austin are 12th in the West.
So which version of Austin FC, at least of the two we’ve seen over the last calendar year, is the real one?
Are they the high-flying, dynamic attacking team who went 1W-0L-2D against FC Dallas last year? Or are they a middling attacking team that struggles to turn possession into chances? Right now, it looks like the latter. This year, Austin have averaged 51.4% possession, but rank just 16th in MLS in xG per 90, according to TruMedia.
With stats nerds like me pushing up their glasses and telling the world Austin over-performed last season, it’s up to Wolff’s team to respond. Winless in their last seven games, something has to change for Austin FC. The pressure is on against a solid FC Dallas team, and it won’t be easy with star Sebastián Driussi out with a groin injury.
MOST TO LOSE: LA Galaxy
WATCH: Apple TV - Free, FS1 | Sunday, 9:30 pm ET
This is the easiest one of the bunch. We’re only a third of the way through the 2023 season, but the San Jose Earthquakes have already rebuilt their reputation.
Under new coach Luchi Gonzalez, the Quakes are playing highly-skilled, mostly-effective attacking soccer. Cristian Espinoza looks like a Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunner, the players are adapting to Gonzalez’s 4-3-3 shape and tactical principles, and they took down LAFC over the weekend by a 2-1 scoreline. For now at least, life is good in San Jose.
But if the Quakes have already rebuilt their reputation, the LA Galaxy are fighting to save theirs. Through 10 games, the Galaxy are second-to-last in the West. They’ve won just one regular-season game this year. They missed on both of their winger signings over the offseason, Memo Rodríguez and Tyler Boyd. New fullbacks Julián Aude and Lucas Calegari don’t look like they’re ready to truly impact games in the way that the Galaxy need them to impact games. And head coach/sporting director Greg Vanney? Well, he’s struggling to figure out a way to get all of the pieces to fit together.
Instead of being a high-flying, clever possession team headlined by the most talented player in MLS in Riqui Puig, the Galaxy have been dreary. They don’t have a consistent shape, and it doesn’t look like they have a clear idea of how to improve moving forward.
In a California Clásico where the Quakes have little to prove after taking down LAFC last weekend, all eyes will be on the Galaxy on Sunday.