Midweek matches in muggy midsummer air. Fresh faces on rotated squads amid injury and international absences as the games – and miles – pile up. Maybe even an occasional stormy weather delay gets thrown into the mix for good measure.
The summer grind has arrived in MLS, and Thursday night’s brace of Eastern Conference derbies underlined the specific challenges entailed there, as well as the traits that are important for navigating it.
On paper, your eye might not be drawn to the 1-1 draw in the cross-Jersey high-press extravaganza between the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union and the 2-2 deadlock shorthanded Atlanta United dug out at Nashville SC. Yet both were big, big results for the visitors, however.
“My players have shown me that they never put down their arms, and showed me the courage to play, with and without the ball. The moment we went behind on the scoreboard, they kept trying and fighting,” said ATLUTD coach Gabriel Heinze in Spanish after his bare-bones squad fought back from a second-half deficit, and a harsh Jake Mulraney red card, to deny their Tennessee near-neighbors a home victory thanks to 18-year-old homegrown Jackson Conway’s first MLS goal.
“I don't look at the name they have on their backs. I'm going to war with the guys who want to go to war with me," Heinze added.
Heinze knows something about defiance, a key mental trait in these situations and often a decisive factor in retrospect, when the standings are tabulated and playoff places awarded at season’s end. You’ve all heard of “six-pointers,” those big games where victory is doubly valuable because it also deprives the adversary in equal measure.
I’m calling games like Thursday’s “two-pointers,” because these draws mean more than just one point in your column – they snatch two away from in-conference opponents who are direct competitors for postseason qualification. Denying RBNY and Nashville home wins under these circumstances reflects favorably on Philly and Atlanta’s readiness for the draining weeks ahead.
“Of course, anytime you can take points on the road against a rival is big. You guys see how tight the table is,” said Union boss Jim Curtin, whose side weathered a DOGSO-red card-penalty kick gaffe from goalkeeper Matt Freese via Sergio Santos’ 85th-minute equalizer at Red Bull Arena.
“There's no team in the East that’s running away with it. There hasn't been much separation, so a point goes a long way, this year maybe more than ever, because we only play each other. We don't go play the West, we're going to kind of cannibalize each other.”
He’s right: In contrast to the strong pace set by Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and the resurgent LA Galaxy in the Western Conference, just eight points separate first-place New England from ninth-place Columbus in the East table. Consider also the sight of the Revs and Orlando City being badly ambushed by basement-dwelling opponents over the past few matchdays, as well as the intra-conference-heavy schedule that is a lingering consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's going to be a fight to get into the playoffs, and just numbers-wise and statistics- and data-wise, I don't think you're going to see a lot of separation this year like we've seen in past years,” added Curtin. “Put it this way: You're a three-game win streak away from moving to the top of the Eastern Conference. So you can see Toronto get momentum last night; Chicago is playing really good soccer, I thought they looked amazing last night.
“There's good teams, don't get me wrong, but it's not clear exactly who the front-runners are. I think we're all good, no one's great … Every point matters in a major way.”
Notably, and conversely, Thursday’s home teams were left infuriated by their lack of killer instinct. RBNY coach Gerhard Struber’s public utterances hinted at the hair-dryer treatment he likely doled out to his players as they slipped against a rival built in their image.
Meanwhile it’s the latest in a sequence of dropped points for Nashville at Nissan Stadium, where they remain undefeated (4-0-5 record) but constantly frustrated.
“I can't tell you how disappointed I am. Probably more so than any result since I've got here,” said coach Gary Smith. “I think we've squandered three, four, five points here, minimum. If you set your standards at being a top-six team, challenging [for honors], that disappoints me.”
Struber and Smith know that their teams fluffed their lines on Thursday, and what risks they'd court by allowing it to continue. We’ll see how others across MLS handle such tests after a brief pause for the opening days of this summer's Concacaf Gold Cup.