Voices: Andrew Wiebe

Weekend Cheat Sheet: Huge El Trafico & more to watch for in Week 29

MLS clubs set a record with 14 games in one night on Wednesday, including a second straight Campeones Cup triumph. Raphael Wicky officially parted ways with Chicago Fire FC on Thursday morning. There are 13 more games this weekend as the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs push gains steam, and Concacaf World Cup qualifying resumes next Thursday.

Take care of yourself, folks. This train isn’t slowing down until early December. Let’s dig into Week 29.

Austin FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Welcome to MLS, Moussa Djitte

WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter

BetMGM ODDS: Austin +140, Draw +260, RSL +160

You already saw his first Austin FC goal. I think this clip is more indicative of Moussa Djitte’s potential in this league. I audibly gasped when I watched him eat up Sega Coulibaly live.

Finally, go read this from Tom Bogert on Damir Kreilach, one of the best players (and people) in MLS who doesn’t get spoken about in those terms enough.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo FC
Daniel Salloi, non-PK Golden Boot leader

WHEN: Sunday, 4 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter

BetMGM ODDS: Sporting -200, Draw +333, Houston +450

Every time we talk Daniel Salloi-for-MVP, my mentions fill up with folks reminding me “\\\ has scored __ penalty kicks to pad their goal total, and Salloi has none.” Your persistence paid off.

Here are the non-PK Golden Boot leaders for 2021, led by, you guessed it, Daniel Salloi!

  • 15 – Daniel Salloi
  • 13 – Adam Buksa
  • 13 – Raul Ruidiaz
  • 13 – Ricardo Pepi
  • 12 – Hany Mukhtar
  • 12 – Gustavo Bou
  • 12 – Chicharito
  • 12 – Damir Kreilach
  • 10 – Valentin Castellanos
  • 10 – Chofis
  • 10 – Felipe Mora
  • 10 – CJ Sapong

I only included those in double digits. Current Golden Boot presented by Audi leader Ola Kamara (17 goals) just missed out with nine goals from open play – he’s scored a league-leading eight from the spot, nobody else has more than three, and even missed a penalty kick on Wednesday night – a stat that ought to help D.C. United supporters understand why he’s not currently an MVP candidate.

Sporting KC have taken five penalty kicks this season. They’ve made all five. Johnny Russell is the current taker (2/2), while Alan Pulido (2/2) and Gadi Kinda (1/1) have also taken the responsibility. Imagine, in this alternate universe that I am cooking up, that Salloi (clearly the team’s most productive, consistent and game-changing player this year) got the honors from the jump. He might well be at 20 goals already!

Turns out, Salloi HAS thought about it. He just decided that being a good teammate was more important.

Carles Gil is your 2021 MVP – yeah, yeah we still gotta vote on it – but you gotta respect what Salloi is doing, both as a goalscorer from the run of play but also in pursuit of the bigger prize. Sporting Kansas City certainly wouldn’t be second in the Western Conference and chasing another MLS Cup without him.

Portland Timbers vs. Inter Miami CF
Timbers wake up at the right time

WHEN: Sunday, 5:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes

BetMGM ODDS: Portland -165, Draw +275, Miami +425

Form matters, especially this time of year. It covers up April, May and June blushes. It delivers home playoff games. It separates the MLS Cup pretenders and contenders.

After losing 6-2 to the Sounders and 3-1 in Austin, the Timbers looked decidedly like pretenders. These days, the script is flipped, and it’s starting to feel like Portland are among the ranks of the contenders. Here are the league’s top five teams over the past eight games:

  • 19 points – New England Revolution (+ 8 GD)
  • 19 points – Portland Timbers (+10 GD)
  • 18 points – Seattle Sounders (+7 GD)
  • 18 points – Atlanta United (+8 GD)
  • 17 points – Vancouver Whitecaps FC (+6 GD)

Matt Doyle has written repeatedly about what’s changed for the better. Sebastian Blanco is closing in on his MLS is Back Tournament level, Diego Chara is a true No. 6 again, playoff Dairon Asprilla is showing up in the regular season and Gio Savarese got his guys back on the same page (nothing wrong sitting back a little when you crush teams on set pieces and counter-attacks).

Straight up, I expect the Timbers to beat Inter Miami by multiple goals at home this weekend.

I think they’re going to host a playoff game, and nobody is going to want to see Portland come into their building in the postseason. They still have some shaky moments defensively, but they’re starting to look scary again at just the right time.

LA Galaxy vs. LAFC
Desperation, thy name is El Trafico

WHEN: Sunday, 8 pm ET
BetMGM ODDS: LA Galaxy +140, Draw +260, LAFC +160

The MLS meme ecosystem grows in strength every day. This hit pretty hard ahead of 2021’s third and final regular-season El Trafico.

Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs?

Those five words just about sum it up for Greg Vanney’s free-falling Galaxy (losers of three straight, five of their last eight and currently clinging to sixth in the Western Conference) and an LAFC side facing the very real prospect of missing the playoffs followed by what could be transformational change in the offseason.

Let’s start with LAFC, who have been on a non-stop rollercoaster since last winter’s incredible Concacaf Champions League run. Up. Down. Up. Down. A Club World Cup berth snatched away, injuries galore, transfer drama and performances that often pass the eye test (and the xG model) but come up short in the results department.

If you chunk up their last 14 games, the pattern really jumps out.

  • Games 1-7: 0-5-2
  • Games 8-11: 3-0-1
  • Games 12-14: 0-3-0

“There are individual mistakes,” Bradley said after a 2-1 home loss to the Timbers on Wednesday, “but collectively we've got to find a stronger way to stick together and not give up during a year where, man, it’s been incredible how many tough moments we've had to deal with.”

This moment is a culmination of all the others, an El Trafico played with LAFC’s season quite literally on the line.

LAFC are four points below the playoff line. Their next four games are at the Galaxy, home against San Jose and FC Dallas and on the road in Minnesota. Common sense says they need to win at least three to keep the playoff door cracked ahead of a season-ending stretch that sees Seattle and Vancouver come to the Banc then a trip to Colorado on Decision Day.

Hey, nothing creates momentum out of thin air like El Trafico! Maybe it’s LAFC turn for an iconic moment in this rivalry.

Maybe Carlos Vela will deliver it? Probably not. Vela’s been out with a hamstring injury since late August and Bradley said a week ago that his star player could be available against the Galaxy. At that time, he wasn’t training fully with his teammates. Put it this way, I am not holding my breath that we’ll finally see Vela and Chicharito on the same field in MLS.

And if it doesn’t happen now, it may never happen.

Vela’s contract is up at the end of the season and his future is a massive question mark. Bradley, who will surely field interest from the growing number of clubs looking for a head coach, is in the same contractual situation. The decisions made this offseason will ripple for a long time in downtown LA. We might be witnessing the end of an era.

Meanwhile, the Galaxy are trying to manifest the good vibes from earlier in the season.

“Patience, perseverance, resilience and believing. There's nothing else we can do … and grinding,” Chicharito said after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss, a game in which he lamented his own profligate finishing but struck a hopeful note after Anderson Julio’s golazo gave Real Salt Lake a win in stoppage time that saw Pablo Mastroeni’s team jump LA in the standings.

It’d be easy to fall into doom and gloom, but that won’t help the Galaxy now. Chicharito is right. They’ve got to find a way to believe. Again, what could be better for LA’s mental state than a rivalry win that both ends their winless streak but also hammers a nail in the coffin of their rivals?

“For me, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a big lesson, a turning point for this group,” Vanney said Wednesday night, “because I feel a different energy in the locker room right now than I've ever felt this entire season.”

Can “different energy” lead to different results? I’d wager Chicharito would say yes, and that might just be enough. Like LAFC, the Galaxy desperately need inspiration. Unlike LAFC, their star player seems poised to deliver in a must-win moment.