Top Things to Watch in MLS this Week

The Pitch - Week of Sept 19

33 MLS Players Called Up for Final World Cup Preparations 

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As countries around the globe prepare for one final tune-up before Qatar, rosters for the September 2022 FIFA international window are brimming with MLS talent. Thirty-three MLS players have earned call-ups to 13 World Cup-bound nations, with MLS’ regional influence highlighted by 11 players earning the nod for Canada, eight for the United States, and one each for Costa Rica and Mexico.

Among the USMNT call-ups are MLS Goalkeeper of the Year contender Sean Johnson of New York City FC and Golden Boot presented by Audi contender Jesús Ferreira of FC Dallas. Sixteen players on the U.S. and Canadian rosters have spent significant time in MLS academies or played at least three seasons in MLS before moving abroad, including Bayern Munich defender Alphonso Davies and Leeds United midfielders Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams.

Four MLS players were called into Ecuador’s camp ahead of games against Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Qatar, while Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada earned his first-ever call-up for Argentina this month. Almada’s recent run of form has kept Atlanta United in postseason contention down the stretch, as he is tied for second among first-year MLS players in goal contributions with 17, including six goals and 11 assists this season. Martín Cáceres returns to duty for Uruguay after signing with the LA Galaxy this summer.

A pair of UEFA stars will rejoin their nations as well, with Los Angeles Football Club forward Gareth Bale and Chicago Fire FC midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri earning call-ups to Wales and Switzerland, respectively. Bale, who will face the USMNT during the World Cup group stage, and LAFC sit atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, while Shaqiri leads all first-year MLS players in goal contributions with seven goals and 11 assists in 2022.

Below is a list of the most represented MLS clubs among World Cup-bound countries in the September FIFA international window:

1.  Los Angeles FC (6)

2.  CF Montréal (5)

3.  Seattle Sounders & Toronto FC (3)

4.  FC Dallas (2)

5.  14 clubs (1)

USA vs. Japan to Mark Memorable Heritage Moment for Kellyn Acosta

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LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta takes pride in his Japanese-American heritage, and will bring a special family sentiment into Friday’s international friendly between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Japan (8:25 a.m. ET, ESPN2 / TUDN / UniMás). As the 27-year-old prepares to take on his paternal grandmother’s native country, where his father was born and raised until age 10, the midfielder will face Japan for the first time in his international career.

Acosta has become a mainstay for club and country after playing in 21 of 22 matches for the U.S. in 2021 and 30 of 32 games for LAFC this season. With Yunus Musah unavailable in the September international window, Acosta will be critical in orchestrating the strings in the midfield. USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter has also emphasized his leadership as Acosta’s 52 appearances for the Stars and Stripes are the second most on the roster behind only DeAndre Yedlin of Inter Miami CF (74 appearances).

By playing at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November, Acosta would make history, becoming the first Japanese-American to do so for the U.S. That accomplishment is significant to him after he spent time learning about his culture and the history of Japanese people in the United States earlier this year. As Acosta continues to trailblaze in MLS and for the U.S., Friday marks a special moment in his illustrious career.

Packed Stanford Stadium Welcomes Return of the California Clasico

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Forty thousand fans will pack Stanford Stadium for the first time since 2019, when the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy meet on Saturday evening in the 79th edition of the California Clasico (10 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+). The match will have major implications on the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs picture, as the Galaxy need a win or draw to stay above Real Salt Lake for the seventh and final position in the Western Conference.

For the ‘Quakes, there is high anticipation for their return to Stanford Stadium following a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a rescheduling of this match from June 25. San Jose has had the Galaxy’s number in the venue, producing a 5-1-2 record with a remarkable four come-from-behind victories in the rivalry.

With the Galaxy eyeing two straight road wins in the California Clasico for the first time since 1997-98, they will look to their superstar midfielder Riqui Puig. The 23-year-old playmaker had three assists against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday, becoming the first Galaxy player since Landon Donovan in 2014 to accomplish that feat. In a packed house in Northern California, will Puig and the Galaxy bolster their case for the postseason?

MLS-LIGA MX Rivalry Returns for Leagues Cup Showcase This Week

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With the newly reimagined Leagues Cup set to kick off in 2023, this month’s series of Leagues Cup Showcase matches will give fans and followers a taste of how the MLS-LIGA MX rivalry will evolve with more meaningful competitive opportunities against one another.

FC Cincinnati and their dynamic offensive trio of Brandon Vázquez, Brenner, and Luciano Acosta take on Chivas to kick things off on Wednesday, September 21 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 / UniMas / TUDN). Nashville SC and Landon Donovan MLS MVP-frontrunner Hany Mukhtar host Club América, who sit atop the LIGA MX Apertura standings, later that evening (9 p.m. ET, ESPN / Univision / TUDN) in a matchup of two elite sides from MLS and LIGA MX. Leagues Cup Showcase wraps up on Thursday when Real Salt Lake host the reigning Apertura and Clausura champions Atlas FC (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2 / TUDN / UniMas) at the newly-renamed America First Field.

MLS will look to finish the year strong against LIGA MX and set the tone for what is to come during next year’s Leagues Cup.

The Race for the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs Heats Up

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With just two weeks remaining in the MLS regular season, the intensity continues to ramp up in the race to the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. Only six of the 14 places in the postseason are locked, and only six teams have been eliminated from playoff action, leaving 16 teams in contention for the final eight playoff spots. 

Last week, two clubs - the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas - punched their tickets to the postseason. The Red Bulls clinched their 13th consecutive trip to the playoffs, equaling the league record currently held by Seattle Sounders FC (13, 2009-21), while FC Dallas earned their 19th playoff berth in the 27-year history of the club. 

With the international window this week, only one team can be eliminated from playoff contention – the Colorado Rapids - by virtue of an LA Galaxy victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, Sept. 24 in the California Clasico (10 p.m. ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs Kick Off This Weekend

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After a dramatic MLS NEXT Pro Decision Day on Sunday, the final eight-team field is set for the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs. The first round, the Conference Semifinals, will take place this weekend at the home of the two higher-seeded teams in each conference.

The Conference Semifinals schedule is as follows:

Eastern Conference

Saturday, September 24

Columbus Crew 2 (1) vs. Rochester New York FC (4) – Historic Crew Stadium (3 p.m. ET)

Toronto FC II (2) vs. Philadelphia Union II (3) – BMO Field (7 p.m. ET)

Western Conference

Sunday, September 25

St Louis CITY2 (1) vs. North Texas SC (4) – TBD (7:30 p.m. ET)

Tacoma Defiance (2) vs. Houston Dynamo 2 (3) – Starfire Sports Complex (10:30 p.m. ET)

Fans will be able to watch every match of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs live via enhanced broadcasts on mlsnextpro.com.

Columbus Crew 2’s Jacen Russell-Rowe Wins MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot

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Columbus Crew 2 forward Jacen Russell-Rowe left no room for doubt on Sunday, scoring four goals in the last game of the regular season to run away with the MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot title

Russell-Rowe entered Sunday only one goal ahead of North Texas SC’s Bernard Kamungo in the race for the league’s scoring title and finished the day with a five-goal advantage. Russell-Rowe totaled 21 goals in 19 games for Crew 2 in the regular season, leading the team to the best record (55 points, 16-3-5) in MLS NEXT Pro and the Eastern Conference’s top seed in the upcoming MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.

Russell-Rowe will be back in action this Saturday when Crew 2 hosts its first game of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs against Rochester New York FC at Historic Crew Stadium (3:00 p.m. ET, mlsnextpro.com).