Week 9 just ended, and Week 10 is already here. Get used to it. This midweek-to-weekend grind is the MLS way of life in 2021.
Here’s your weekend cheat sheet.
Live in the moment with Daryl Dike
Inter Miami CF vs. Orlando City SC — Fri., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
Most days, Daryl Dike’s life makes it feel like we’re watching a soccer folktale unfold. This is American soccer’s version of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill or John Henry. The legend is growing and it’s growing quickly.
Kid from Edmond, Oklahoma, the son of Nigerian immigrants and youngest of five, watches his older brother grow up and become a pro and play internationally for Nigeria, only for his career to end thanks to injury. His sister takes it a step farther and plays in a World Cup. Despite being off the MLS and Developmental Academy radar, Daryl becomes a college standout and, in less than two years as a pro (during a global pandemic), goes from SuperDraft pick to starter for a playoff team to English Championship darling/near promotion talisman to the brink of a multi-million dollar European transfer and US national team stardom.
The kid is now a young man, but he is still just 21 years old. This is just the beginning for Daryl Dike, American soccer folkhero in the making.
I stopped by Oscar Pareja’s pregame press conference this week because I wanted to understand how Pareja and Orlando plan on managing a player (but also an asset) who is being pulled in a lot of directions. To Europe. To the national team and perhaps the Gold Cup. To do his best for an ambitious Orlando side in the here and now. It’d be a lot for anyone, and so far it seems Dike is managing it the same he always has, with a smile and hard work.
“There are a lot of things happening around him,” Pareja told me. “The possibility to stay in England was there and still is there … My best advice to Daryl is to be present in the moment. If he goes to the Gold Cup, if he gets sold, if he stays in Orlando, he’s just 21. All he needs to do is enjoy these moments and not forget that he needs to be present in what is happening today.”
I don’t doubt Dike understands that. He’s living it, and got two goals in two ways on Tuesday in a whooping of the Quakes to prove that point. Perhaps we should follow his lead and just smile and enjoy it instead of trying to plot out the next move, the what if, the future version of Daryl Dike.
The present version is larger than life, after all, and there’s another chapter to be added to the story on Friday against Inter Miami. You’re telling me Dike can’t put up a hatty against this decimated Miami team? Gotta watch to find out, and we might not have that many more opportunities to watch Dike in MLS.
Carlos Vela looks like Carlos Vela & Daniel Salloi is back
Sporting Kansas City vs. LAFC — Sat., 5:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Guess who smiling again? It looks like the three-week break did the best player in MLS a whole lot of good, and the Western Conference better be on notice.
He’s not quite the “Cracklitos” of 2019 just yet, but Carlos Vela put up a goal, two assists and 2.2 xG+xA in 140 minutes over two games since MLS returned from a lengthy break that gave players an opportunity to get their bodies prepared for the schedule to come. Wednesday’s performance against FC Dallas was Vela’s best of the young season, if not quite his MVP best.
“This is the Carlos my team expects,” he said after the match.
I said on Tuesday’s Twitter Spaces MLS Power Rankings show – Matt Doyle and I hit all 27 teams with special guests LIVE every week at 11 am ET – that something was “off” about LAFC, that something just wasn’t quite right despite one of the most talented rosters in the league, if not the region. I couldn’t put my finger on it in the moment. Was it transfer drama? Had the project gotten stale and disjointed during the pandemic? Was it the pressure of MLS Cup expectations?
The answer was staring me in the face. Duh. All that other stuff is swirling around, but it’s probably as simple as LAFC were missing, as Bob Bradley put it after the match, “dynamic” Carlos Vela. With even a fraction of him, they’re minutes away from Concacaf Champions League glory. Without him, they’re hovering around the playoff line.
Vela is the league’s biggest amplifier, for himself and everyone around him, and it raises LAFC’s ceiling from pretty good to Supporters’ Shield and more. LAFC’s vibe (and, more importantly, their performances and results) change when he’s fit and clearly up for it. The ball moves more quickly. There’s better rhythm, and a willingness to take chances, both with the ball and without.
“He was unlucky to not get some other goals,” Bradley said. “What we love the most is when Carlos is at his best. We use this word ‘dynamic’ when he’s a threat constantly getting in the box looking to slip passes. But when he’s a real threat our team goes up a few notches and watching our team becomes a little more fun. In that regard, it was a really good night.”
It was also at home against FC Dallas, currently occupying the bottom spot in the Western Conference table. Saturday takes LAFC to Kansas City, where Sporting dispatched the Rapids easily, 3-1, in their own midweek action. The level jumps, and significantly so.
Are LAFC back? Is Cracklitos back? It’ll take more than one game to find out.
“We won one game but we have to get a rhythm and win two, three, four in a row,” Vela said. “After that, we can maybe say we’re back at our level.”
As for Sporting KC, who deserve far more than just a final line in this column, I want to give Daniel Salloi, who scored twice on Wednesday and has six goals on the season, a shoutout for saying what we’re all thinking about 2020.
“I would like to, with all due respect, ask everybody to stop talking about last year,” he told reporters. “Yes, it was bad and yes, I did not have enough confidence and now I do.”
Deal, Daniel. Forget it all, I say.
Salloi might like to forget 2019 as well. After scoring 16 times (all comps) during a breakout 2018 season, the now 24-year-old picked up just a goal and an assist in 35 games, 17 starts and 1,700 some minutes over the past two years. The talent is there – “I’ve never lost belief in him,” Peter Vermes said this week – and if Salloi keeps rolling, Sporting KC are going to be an absolute handful and a threat to paint the wall for the first time since 2017.
This is going to be a fun game.
NOTE: I’ll be at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday with my family to attend my first live soccer game since the pandemic began. I hope you get to go to your happy place this weekend, too!
What is Real Salt Lake’s best/ideal XI?
Real Salt Lake vs. Houston Dynamo FC — Sat., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: UniMás, TUDN, Twitter
Wood came on a substitute and partnered Rubio Rubin up top in a 2-1 loss that would have been a big road point if not for an unlucky handball. Given the reinforcements in Sandy – and it’s not just Wood – I am going to take a crack at Freddy Juarez’s best XI, with a big of a Bob Bradley 4-2-2-2 for the USMNT look.
GK: David Ochoa … Love a guy who is both a great shot stopper and can inspire a Panenka penalty with his on-field commentary/demeanor!
FWD: Rubio Rubin, Bobby Wood … We saw a little of this against Seattle, and it seems Wood would play a little underneath while Rubin makes runs in behind. That could definitely work!
That feels like a playoff team to me, a borderline one, sure, but in and around the line all the same. I hope RSL prove all the preseason doubters wrong (me included!). By the way Houston are in the same boat. Big underdog-comes-good vibes in this one.
Which Matias Almeyda will we see in the Cali Clasico?
San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy — Sat., 10 pm ET
WATCH ON: UniMás, TUDN, Twitter
I hope I don’t need to explain to you that crazy stuff happens in the Cali Clasico, even if it isn’t being played at Stanford Stadium. It always gets a little Goonie. Wondo is still around. Cade Cowell’s look is very 80s. Chicharito has some chaotic energy to him, for sure, and the Quakes are the soccer equivalent of a fault line. They either stand tall or straight up crumble.
Basically, anything could happen.
You’ll know which way it’s going based on Almeyda’s body language.
Austin need a striker, and they know it!
Austin FC vs. Columbus Crew — Sun., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
Quotes like that are inevitable when you’ve scored once in six games and have an open DP spot. Austin need a goalscorer. They know it, everybody knows it and the underlying numbers bear it out (6 goals scored, 12.126 xG on the season).
Time to get cracking, Claudio Reyna!