Soccer never stops. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
And so, after no less than 17 games across MLS and the Gold Cup between Tuesday and Thursday, it’s the weekend again, which means 17 more games mashed into two days, including a Saturday afternoon clash between Atlanta United and the Columbus Crew on ABC (3:30 pm ET).
Like I said, mostly a blessing and sometimes a curse. This is your Week 15 cheat sheet.
The Father is back
Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew – Sat., 3:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes
It’s been a shocking week-plus in Atlanta. Turns out, Gabriel Heinze isn’t the Five Stripes’ post-Frank de Boer savior after all. The Argentine playing legend was supposed to bring entertainment value and results. The rest of us are entertained – drama sells, of course – but the results never materialized.
Atlanta United were better/simpler/more effective midweek at FC Cincinnati, but it’s best not to hang your hat on a comeback 1-1 draw. Now, a home win against the defending MLS Cup champion Crew with Josef Martinez possibly back in the starting lineup for the first time since May? Yeah, you can get excited about that.
I remain in awe at the way Martinez owns that city. It takes two things for an athlete to be a cultural icon of that magnitude. First, individual and team success. Duh, you knew that. Golden Boot, MVP, MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Campeones Cup (#neverforget) champion. Second, fans have to sense that you’re genuine about the relationship you have with them as well as the place you represent.
Here’s what Martinez said about his future at Atlanta United following Heinze’s dismissal:
- "I have this year then I have two more years. The first time I came here I said this is my club, this is my city and I love to be here. I want to retire here. I love this club."
- “I get emotional. Since I’ve been here, people have treated me like another son. When I’m on the field, I try to give my all to repay that love I receive from the fans. As long as I’m wearing an Atlanta United shirt, I’ll give my life for this team.”
I know those are just words, but I’d be tearing up if I was a Five Stripes supporter. That man loves you and he loves your club. They call him the king for a reason, and I can’t wait to see how Mercedes Benz Stadium welcomes him home on Sunday.
Atlanta United needs Josef Martinez. They need him to be happy. They need him snarling. They need him throwing himself at every ball in the six-yard box. They need him scoring goals. If he’s back, maybe this is a playoff team after all.
ESPN+ Game of the Week
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting Kansas City – Sun., 9 pm ET
I know, I know. You’re going to have to two-screen this one so you don’t miss the US men’s national team in a Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica. Like I said, a blessing and a curse.
There might not be anything that gives me more joy than Brian Schmetzer rolling out a team with five teenagers (an MLS record) in Austin … and taking three points away from home. Obed Vargas was the third-youngest player in the history of the league! Reed Baker-Whiting was the sixth youngest ever! That’s not supposed to happen, but it’s all coming up Sounders right now.
Try as we might on Extratime to gin up interest in CF Montréal's Wilfred Nancy for end-of-season award love, Schmetzer’s Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year lead is vast at this point. Good luck to anyone trying to reel him (or the Sounders) in.
The challenge for Seattle is that their injury and international absences make two games in four days exceedingly difficult. The expectation is that their lineup against Sporting KC, a clash of the top two teams in the Western Conference, will have Raul Ruidiaz and perhaps Kelyn Rowe from the jump. At this point, it doesn’t matter who plays in Rave Green, they’ve got a chance to beat anyone.
Sporting KC aren’t just anyone. They, along with Seattle and New England, are in a class by themselves right now as both MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield contenders. They’ve got international absences (Alan Pulido, Gianluca Busio), too, just in case you thought the Sounders were the only ones juggling missing starters.
As good as Sporting have been – 27 points, second in the West and third in the Shield standings – there’s a feeling they could be even better. Case in point:
That’s an incredible stat, with two different possible conclusions, both of which are right.
- Sporting are stupid resilient. They come back, and they come back a lot.
- Sporting trail more often than they’d like and are FORCED to come back. They could have more than 17 points from those situations had they not trailed. Case in point, they just left two on the table in a 1-1 midweek draw with San Jose.
Given the absences and the potential for both teams to be drastically different come playoff time, this isn’t a litmus test. It’s just a damn good game and an interesting managerial test for both Schmetzer and Kerry Zavagnin.
Vaccinations work, folks. I took my two shots proudly and haven’t looked back.
#22Under22 Game of the Week
D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls – Sun., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN+
The first Atlantic Cup meeting of the year comes in July, and there’s a chance we could see up to eight 22 Under 22 eligible players in the starting lineups. Play your kids, indeed.
We’ve got a 50-50 shot at Hernan Losada putting both Kevin Paredes, one of the most exciting left winger/wingback prospects in the league and USYNT pool, and Moses Nyeman, a silky central midfielder who already has 1,087 MLS minutes to his name at age 17, in D.C. United's starting XI. Griffin Yow, 18, could come off the bench, too.
Incredibly, that figure could be six for Gerhard Struber’s RBNY, requiring some bullet points:
Clark just returned from an appendectomy and is headed to RB Leipzig in the winter, Paredes’ career is gaining traction – he just spent a few days training with the USMNT – and has reported interest from City Football Group, while Nyeman is getting looks in France and Belgium. This is important and interesting, especially if you base your interest on European interest.
I base mine on who is fun to watch play and whose improvement curve is ramping up. All of these guys are fun and all of them are getting better as they get more opportunities, but I’m going to be watching Tolkin, who won the starting left back job and hasn’t let go. Same goes for Carmona, a Venezuelan youth national teamer who’s following in Casseres’ footsteps.