MLS is back, and not a moment too soon. We spent the past three weeks wandering alone in the domestic soccer wilderness. We’re better for it, stronger and more resilient. Though we had other outlets, absence made the heart grow fonder.

Week 8 means a return to domestic normalcy, a return to a 13-game weekend – starting with a Friday doubleheader on MLS LIVE on ESPN+ – that revolves around the MLS debut of Q2 Stadium in Austin and some prime intraconference matchups (I see you, Galaxy vs. Sounders!).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also cast an eye fondly to Columbus, where one of this sport’s most ordinary/extraordinary buildings hosts its final MLS game. I suspect those of us who’ve been to Crew Stadium for a USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier, an MLS Cup night or just a Wednesday night with the Nordecke will keep the memories well and truly alive. Columbus host Chicago Fire FC (7:30pm ET | MLS Live on ESPN+) Saturday for their final game at Historic Crew Stadium before opening their brand-new Lower.com Stadium.

This is your cheat sheet. Enjoy the weekend!

Somos listos, Austin FC!

Austin FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Sat., 9 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)

Welcome home, Austin FC! Bienvenidos a casa, Verdes!

This is a special week in Austin and for MLS. I will never get tired of celebrating soccer-specific stadiums, no matter how many we open. Every single new building seems to set the bar even higher, and that’s no different for Q2 Stadium. First, the US women christened the joint. Now, Austin FC come home for the first time after gamely picking up a point per game through a grueling, season- and life-opening eight-game road trip.

Word is the Anthem, Los Verdes and La Murga are grinding on an epic tifo. Jorge Chavez, an Anthem member, told us on Extratime driven by Continental Tire that the supporters’ section figures to have, at minimum, a 20-person band for every single match (and perhaps even up to 50 instruments). They caught some flack for it, but they’ve been practicing for a reason. The supporters are going to be rocking, repping the city they either grew up in or adopted as their own.

The only question, really, is whether the team can take make the most of their home-field advantage to claw their way into the playoffs in Year 1, starting against the Quakes. If they don’t open the building with a win, it’ll go against history. There are 20 teams who have opened stadiums built from the ground up. Their collective record is pretty astounding: 13 wins, five draws and just two losses (FC Cincinnati this year and Toronto FC to open BMO Field).

So yeah, three points really ought to be the expectation for Josh Wolff and his team. Of course, that’s just the beginning. There are 51 points available at Q2 Stadium in 2021, and Austin FC will need to pick up as many as possible to have a chance of competing for MLS Cup in their expansion season.

Here’s how their starting position, in points per game, measures up against teams who’ve done a season-opening road trip (minimum six games) to bridge the gap to a new stadium.

  1. 2 PPG – LAFC (2018) | 12 points from 6 games (4-2-0)
  2. 1.57 PPG – Columbus Crew (1999) | 11 points from 7 games (5-0-2)*
  3. 1.38 PPG – Toronto FC (2016) | 11 points from 8 games (3-3-2)
  4. 1.29 PPG – Toronto FC (2015) | 9 points from 7 games (3-4-0)
  5. 1.17 PPG – Portland Timbers (2019) | 14 points from 12 games (4-6-2)
  6. 1.14 PPG – Houston Dynamo (2012) | 8 points from 7 games (2-3-2)
  7. 1.11 PPG – Chicago Fire (2006) | 10 points from 9 games (2-3-4)
  8. 1 PPG – Austin FC (2021) | 8 points from 8 games (2-4-2)
  9. 0.9 PPG – Sporting KC (2011) | 9 points from 10 games (1-6-3)
  10. 0.5 PPG – Los Angeles Galaxy (2003) | 4 points from 8 games (0-4-4)

*Shootout era (3 pts for a win, 1 pt for a shootout win, shootout loses and losses 0 pts)

Austin FC might be toward the bottom of that list, but the difference is tenths and hundredths of a point and they’re also the only expansion team other than LAFC (the clear and obvious outlier) to start their life as a club on the road. In short, they’re in fine position.

The logical next question is how many of these teams used home-heavy schedules down the stretch to make the playoffs? The answer is, somewhat incredibly, every single one of them, though we can quibble about the importance of that stat given the Galaxy qualified in 2003 with a losing record.

How’d each team do that? Well, in large part by picking up points at home, of course. Here are the home records for all the teams that came after 2010, to keep our comparisons to the modern era of MLS, in chronological order.

  • Sporting KC (2011) – 9-2-6 (33 points from 51 available)
  • Houston Dynamo (2012) – 11-0-6 (39 points from 51 available, undefeated)
  • Toronto FC (2015) – 11-5-1 (34 points from 51 available)
  • Toronto FC (2016) – 8-3-6 (30 points from 51 available)
  • LAFC (2018) – 9-1-7 (34 points from 51 available)
  • Portland Timbers (2019) – 8-5-4 (28 points from 51 available)

What does that tell you? That a winning record at Q2 Stadium is the minimum requirement for Austin FC to entertain making the playoffs and that 30-plus home points would put them in good position to accomplish that goal. Can they do that? The journey begins Saturday night.

The MLS Cup timer is ticking in downtown Los Angeles…

LAFC vs. Houston Dynamo — Sat., 9 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)

You might not think it, at least on first glance, but this is a prime entertainment value matchup. LAFC and the Dynamo have met seven times in MLS, and neither has a clean sheet to show for it. There are goals in this one, and Houston’s 1-1 draw earlier in the season shows that can stand toe-to-toe, even if their road form (2-24-4 in their last 30 games) is atrocious.

Tab Ramos is trying to get the Dynamo to play in a way that gets more than the sum of their talent, which isn’t a knock but the reality when you look at a roster that simply doesn’t have the star power or explosive attacking options that Bob Bradley can run out there. So far, that’s going pretty well for Houston. They’re fifth in the Western Conference, even if there are some red flags as well (negative goal differential, tied for the most goals allowed in the West).

Patience is a virtue in Houston. I’m not sure that’s the case in Los Angeles, which makes every single game interesting for LAFC supporters and those of us looking in (and who may have predicted this team would do the double … AKA me).

Sure, they have time to be patient with Carlos Vela – better for him to be healthy come the late summer and fall than healthy now and beat up then – but this project demands more than just hovering around the playoff line. It demands results. It demands MLS Cup contention, and probably even more than that. The clock is ticking.

Vela hasn’t been a consistent, dominant force since 2019 (perhaps you could include LAFC’s run to the CCL final at the end of last season). Diego Rossi remains the subject of transfer speculation. He’ll have to be sold, you’d think, eventually and perhaps as soon as this summer. Eduard Atuesta signed a one-year extension, and the expectation is that he’ll be sold as well. Brian Rodriguez is stuck in limbo – Almeria were not promoted to La Liga and therefore didn't trigger his sale clause – and LAFC have to wonder if he’s the best use of their third DP spot regardless.

In short, there is pressure. That’s how it should be for a club like LAFC. They got nearly a month to regroup, to get Vela rested and healthy. What will they look like on the other side and what will it tell us about their trophy aspirations? We shall see.

Big ups to Jim Curtin and the Union, big question marks for Atlanta United

Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union — Sun., 2 pm ET

From being booed in his own stadium to signing the most “no $%#@” contract extension possible, it’s been a journey for Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union. I got nothing but love for both the manager and the club. They’ve built the right way, and the future of both looks brighter by the day.

I love watching Curtin’s teams play and it seems other teams hate playing them, and I’m not sure there is a better compliment than that.

Strangely, this is an MLS matchup that we haven’t seen in awhile, not since 2019 in fact. That’s not to say these two sides don’t have recent history. The Union took Atlanta down in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals a little more than a month ago. The Five Stripes have been fine so far – they’re figuring it out game by game – but Gabriel Heinze doesn’t have a signature win.

This could be one, though there’s a big question about who plays up top given Josef Martinez’s absence for Copa America.

MLS LIVE on ESPN+ Game of the Weekend

Toronto FC vs. Orlando City — Sat., 7:30 pm ET

Two words: Daryl Dike. The man, the myth, the growing legend is back in Orlando wearing purple and going through the paces in training.

Most people, myself included, figured his time with the Lions was over, that he’d be put on ice and sold on the back of an incredible loan spell with Barnsley and a strong, camp-ending performance with the US men’s national team. Oscar Pareja tried to tell us, though. Through it all, Papi kept saying how much he was looking forward to having Dike back in the team, and here we are with a chance to watch him play (perhaps off the bench?) on Saturday.

Is this just a bridge to the Gold Cup, where the 21-year-old could be the man up top for Gregg Berhalter? Is Dike just staying fit and in the headlines ahead of what seems like an inevitable transfer when the summer window opens? Is he straight back into the Orlando team to play big minutes until those scenarios transpire?

No clue, to be honest, but I do know I don’t plan on missing a single minute he plays in MLS.