Here’s your Week 3 cheat sheet. Just make sure your Sunday night schedule is cleared. You wouldn’t want to miss the Chicharito show in Seattle on FS1 at 9 pm ET.
No Carlos Vela, no problem?
Houston Dynamo vs. LAFC — Sat., 2:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)
Carlos Vela’s 2021 is off to a confusing start. First, the accidental-but-in-hindsight-clearly-the-right-decision substitution in Week 1. Then, out for Week 2 because of the quad tightness from Week 1, plus a missed COVID test.
I remain Team Bob Bradley Should Never, Ever, For Any Reason Risk Carlos Vela’s Health, but from a neutral perspective it is a bummer that we’ve gotten a grand total of 22 minutes from the 2019 Landon Donovan MVP so far. I wouldn’t expect to add any time to that total on Saturday in Houston, though there is good news for Bradley and LAFC.
No MVP, it seems, but a Golden Boot winner’s return is a decent consolation prize. Bradley got creative against Seattle, playing Jose Cifuentes as a false nine with Danny Musovski also out. Will he have to get creative again? I’ll be looking out for that lineup tweet, I know that.
I don’t have much to say about the Dynamo, so I won’t say anything just yet. I need to watch them more. This is a good chance to do so on national TV (or Twitter, if that’s your jam).
Can Nashville SC turn Moneyball production into points?
Nashville SC vs. Inter Miami — Sun., 1 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN 3/4 in Canada
First, the big news. Gonzalo and Federico Higuain look unlikely to be available on Sunday for Phil Neville and Inter Miami. In case you missed it, the Higuains' mother, Nancy, passed away less than 48 hours after they combined to drop the Union in Philly.
Most things are bigger than soccer, if we’re being honest with ourselves, and my condolences go out to the Higuain family. The game will be here when they’re ready to return to it. In the meantime, family first.
While Neville didn't rule them out entirely during his pre-match availability on Thursday, he did say that the two had returned to Argentina to be with their family.
You’ll remember that Gonzalo was unavailable last year in the playoffs when these two teams met. Nashville won that game, something they’ve yet to do in two matches this season against what most assume to be non-playoff competition (sorry, Cincinnati and Montréal) despite peppering opposing goalkeepers with an absurd amount of shots (49) and shots on goal (21), both of which lead MLS.
Even more encouraging for a “Moneyball” side working to dispel a reputation as a staid, defense-first outfit, Gary Smith’s boys lead the league in xG (5.263), though they’re actually underperforming that metric by more than a goal. There’s good (they’re creating lots of great chances!) and bad (they’re finishing those chances at a rate below the mean!) in that.
You can’t dig into the numbers without acknowledging Nashville have been chasing deficits through the first two weeks. Thus acknowledged, with a grain of salt and crucial context inserted, let’s take a closer look at chance creation from 2020 to 2021…
In 2020, Nashville created 4.5 shots per game (36.7 percent of their total shots) via crosses. In 2021, again through two games in which they were attacking packed in defenses, that’s up to 12 shots created via crosses per game. That stat alone might be a flag, a la the Galaxy of the past few years. Is it creativity and efficient chance creation or just low-percentage crosses thanks to game state? They’ll answer that question as the sample size increases.
Here’s are some more encouraging statistics. Nashville are top of the league in shots per game created via transition (9), up from 4.27 in 2020. Those shots are also producing a higher xG rate (12 percent would be expected to result in a goal) than last year. Smith’s team is also pressing more effectively high up the field. They’re not sitting back. They’re attacking defensively, then going to goal, creating almost double the shots they did last year via the high press. So far, they just haven’t finished at an average rate.
Might that just be FC Cincinnati and CF Montréal bunkering and praying for a lead to hold? It might be. Every game is another chance to find out, but the early indications are positive for Nashville even if the scorelines leave something to be desired.
CHICHARITO IS BACK! But are the Galaxy for real? Sounders, come on downnnnnn!
Seattle Sounders vs. LA Galaxy — Sun., 9 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
Six shots – all on goal – and five goals (on 1.732 xG) to show for it. That’s the Instagram of 2021 starts for Chicharito, all the right filters to make hand-chosen beautiful moments look even more perfect and curated as the heart-eyes emojis roll in from all over the world.
Perfection can’t last forever, and we’re about to find out whether the past 180 minutes are a reflection of reality, the competition or perhaps even just a little luck.
MLSsoccer.com’s own Joe Lowery broke down this week how Chicharito is scoring his goals and whether it’s sustainable. You should open the column in another tab, read it and then come back here to finish the cheat sheet. I’ll wait.
Good stuff from Joe, huh? I hope you took the time to watch the goals again and really analyze/understand the how and why of where these opportunities are coming from.
This is an instance in which I sort of throw out xG (HERESY!!!). With Chicharito and the Galaxy, the final touch isn’t what concerns me. Javier Hernandez sniffs out and finishes chances in and around the six-yard box better than just about anyone in the world, 2020 notwithstanding. I expect him to outperform his xG when his shots come from six yards and in, which they have in 2021.
My concern would be that the Galaxy are not going to be able to create those opportunities against elite competition. What’s unsustainable, in my opinion, is the quality of scoring/shooting opportunities that LA are creating.
They’ve got 13 shots in two games and nearly 70 percent have been on target. They’re by far and away top of the league in average shot quality (0.194), per Second Spectrum, which is xG per shot. For reference, Seattle led the league with a 0.119 mark in 2020. Average shot quality, boiled down, is about shot creation and selection. The higher it is, the more high percentage your shots are in xG terms. Basically, how many of your shots are expected to lead to goals? Right now, LA are expected to score 20 percent of the shots they take, and they’re significantly overperforming that!
On the flip side, the Sounders are playing with three center backs these days, and the mandate from Brian Schmetzer is going to be “Overcommunicate about Chicharito’s movement and put a body on him at all times in the 18-yard box.” I don’t have to tell you that that’s not anything new or groundbreaking. I just expect Seattle, after seeing Hernandez score five times in two games, to be better at executing it than Inter Miami or the Red Bulls.
We shall see. I’m not sure how you could justify missing Chicharito play right now.
#PlayYourKids 22 under 22 Game of the Week
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC — Sat., 2 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+
Before we get into my #PlayYourKids Game of the Week, I just have to drop this quote from Cade Cowell, the youngest starter in Major League Soccer, for our collective enjoyment. God, I love this 17-year-old bull of an attacker, who you might have seen curl a dead-on assist with the outside of his boot before Reto Ziegler-ing Matt Hedges to score with his left last weekend.
I don’t know what to say about that other than it gives me goosebumps and you should watch Cowell and the Quakes host D.C. United (11 pm ET, MLS LIVE on ESPN+) on Saturday night.
Busio’s positioning might just be the story of the season for Sporting KC. I say that because his place on the field seems to be determined by the health and productivity of other, more veteran players. Alan Pulido is hurt/not ready to start? To the No. 9 you go, Gianluca. Pulido can play the second half? You’re a No. 10 again!
We got both last weekend against Orlando City, and though Busio got a goal playing up top in the first half, he looked better when Pulido came in and he could play the number he asked for before the season began. Here’s hoping the El Tri international is good to go from the jump against Real Salt Lake so we can see Busio in his more natural habitat.
Teenage American No. 10s, give me more of them. Same for homegrown “villains” in MLS.
Ochoa went full heel last weekend in Minnesota. Surely you saw it, and surely you saw the afters and the postgame comments from the Loons players and Adrian Heath. Clearly, there were a lot of emotions flying around, and now Ochoa is going to have to deal with the fallout of putting his foot through that ball, namely all eyes on him to see if he has both “edge” and the abilities to make said edge an asset and not a curse.
You better believe the Cauldron is going to be talking to him. You better believe every nook and cranny of his performance is going to be analyzed. I hope he gives a sly smile to the haters and does his thing. I’m rooting for you, David.
MLS LIVE on ESPN+ Game of the Weekend
Minnesota United vs. Austin FC — Sat., 8 pm ET
I’m hoping the Loons are going to be just as fired up about being winless through two games as they were about Ochoa’s postgame antics! I will always watch Bebelo Reynoso play, and perhaps this will be the game Wanchope Abila gets into Heath’s XI.
Meanwhile, Tomas Pochettino is back after last week’s scratch for registration reasons. Austin won without him in Colorado, can they do the same against what should be a desperate Western Conference contender?