We'll go into detail on the big storylines below but be sure to have ESPN+ on throughout the evening, where eight games will be screened. If you want my advice, keep an eye on Columbus Crew vs. Nashville SC at 7:30 pm ET.
Atlanta's new manager bump begins
FC Cincinnati vs. Atlanta United — 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
Amazingly, only 13 games into the season, we've already talked about this before with Toronto. The New Manager Bump isn't technically a thing. Bad teams fire managers at the team's lowest points. It's not necessarily surprising or a sign of a larger influence at work than when a team slightly improves from a low point.
However, when you're a team like Toronto, where there's genuinely absurd talent at more positions than most teams, sometimes you just need to have someone in charge whose tactics don't hinder the team. Just put the players in their best positions with a familiar plan and let them cook. That can take you a pretty long way. For a while anyway.
Atlanta … well, clearly doesn't have absurd talent at more positions than most. That's especially true over the last week or so as injuries have piled up and George Bello, Miles Robinson and Ezequiel Barco have headed out on international duty. Even when all those pieces are there, I'm not sure where I'd rank the current group in Atlanta in terms of talent. I'd put the backline plus Santiago Sosa as the deepest midfielder up there with any other team in the league in terms of ability. The rest of the midfield and a front three led by a still recovering Josef Martinez? Not so much.
So what exactly is Atlanta's new manager bump going to look like under an interim manager? And will it matter long term?
Well, first things first, it genuinely seems that a cultural weight has been lifted off of everyone in the Atlanta United organization's shoulders with the departure of Gabriel Heinze. The quotes and anecdotes that have emerged over the last week indicate that exact feeling in Atlanta. Short-term and long-term, that seems like a bonus. As long as that culture is improved by the third managerial hire in the last three years and not immediately sent back into the one that's permeated the team over the last seven months.
Tactically it's a different matter. Interim manager Rob Valentino is faced with a few different choices. He can continue to use the tactics Heinze attempted to drill into the team over the last few months or he can revert back to something a little simpler. Something without man-marking through the midfield and a less possession-based attacking style.
The difference between his situation and the situation in Toronto though is that Toronto could revert back to many of the same principles installed by Greg Vanney over the years as a reference point. Atlanta and their cast of largely new players, have now had four different people in charge of the team over the last year. They don't have that reference point. For now, I'd imagine that simpler is better as the team resets, recovers and waits for the next full-time manager to lead them.
We'll see if any of that pays off against an FC Cincinnati team that doesn't look like a world beater or anything, but has looked much improved over the last few weeks. Atlanta aren't being given a layup right out of the gate here. Especially not at TQL Stadium. Who knows if the bump is even going to come.
Another chance for LAFC to prove everyone else right
Portland Timbers vs. LAFC - 10:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes
A hilarious amount of MLS writers, bloggers, hot-take artists (me!) and anyone else in this ecosystem saw LAFC returning in force this season. That's not just the league website, that's around the media-sphere. Considering that they were bringing nearly everyone back from a team that nearly and should have won last year's Concacaf Champions League once they got healthy, that didn't seem insane.
Then Carlos Vela got hurt about 20 minutes into the first game of the season, the team kept making dumb, backbreaking individual mistakes and dropped points they otherwise should have won, and everyone started to look kind of silly and, ya know, totally wrong for picking them to finish first in the league and maybe even win every available trophy.
Now though … Now, we're starting to get back to looking like the geniuses we are. I can't really claim this one because I got frustrated with the inconsistent results about eight games in and came close to bailing on this team as a contender entirely. I think the phrase I used to some extent was something like "maybe they finished seventh last year and are seventh now because they're just the seventh-best team in the conference." Which isn't an insane take. And it probably came more out of disappointment that LAFC weren't going to turn back into the scorched earth hell machine that powered through MLS in 2019.
The thing is though, they don't need to be that to push for the top spot in the league by the end of the year. Right now, LAFC are fifth in the West. Just eight points off the top spot with a game in hand. If you care about those kinds of things, with nearly two-thirds of the season to go. They're third in the league in expected goal differential and seem to be improving as time goes on and Carlos Vela stays healthy. If Vela can remain healthy and start scoring like he did in spectacular fashion against Real Salt Lake over the weekend, then this team is primed to make a big push the rest of the way. Throw in the fact that they appear to be on the verge of adding another talented forward to the fold, and it almost feels imminent.
I'll note that it does feel like I've written this before. And I don't know quite how to balance my optimism with my understanding that this team just hasn't found the gears it's capable of finding for a long, long time now. I go back to their loss to Sporting Kansas City a few games ago that just felt so imminent as soon as they made one crucial mistake. That's just kind of been their MO for a while.
But that feels like a breakable habit. And if they can come out tonight on national TV and break down a solid Portland Timbers team that's going to sit deep and counter with the express hope that one or more of those crucial mistakes will appear to give them the win, then maybe it will be the kind of confidence boost and signal to the rest of the league that LAFC isn't content with a middle-of-the-pack finish in the West this season.
Because what they haven't done this year is take down good teams. In fact, against the teams I'd consider "playoff-level teams," they've picked up four points in six games. If they're truly going to turn it around and prove everyone correct, then they have to find the gear that lets them compete with the league's best. They could find it tonight. But I'd be scared to get your hopes up.