A couple housekeeping notes before we get to your regularly scheduled Week 23 preview.
First, I think The Movement is the best thing we do at MLSsoccer.com. It’s an intoxicating mixture of the game, the people who love it, the culture that surrounds it and the curiosity and empathy soccer can inspire in all of us. Calen Carr puts his heart and soul into the show, and I cannot recommend the latest episode – Football & Faith: Being Muslim in MLS – enough.
Second, I got the lowdown on Wayne Rooney’s decision to swap D.C. United for Derby County from The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer and the full rundown of MLS transfer deadline day from former Montreal Impact technical director Adam Braz on Thursday’s Extratime. Now’d be a good time to choose a segment to listen to before you continue on.
- Peak pettiness in US Open Cup + Mason Toye for USMNT? (2:56)
- Why Rooney swapped D.C. for Derby County w/ Pablo Maurer of The Athletic (12:05)
- Everything you need to know from MLS deadline day w/ Adam Braz (26:26)
Now, onto the five questions:
Can anyone stop LAFC?
caption here | USA Today Sports Images
The New York Red Bulls will give it a try on Sunday to conclude Week 23 (10 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info). Only the Portland Timbers have won at Banc of California Stadium this season, and that was in the U.S. Open Cup. In other words, good luck!
Honestly, just give LAFC the Supporters’ Shield already and be done with it. They’re the league’s best team, and it’s not particularly close. They’ve got a 10-point advantage on the East-leading Union with two games in hand, a 13-point head start on Atlanta with one game in hand and a 14-point lead in the West. They’re on pace to shatter every MLS record for single-season dominance. Bob Bradley won’t let them get comfortable, either. Shield first, then MLS Cup.
Let’s put it this way, I will print this column out and eat it if they aren’t lifting the Shield come Oct. 6 (or more likely even sooner). I do not think LAFC will be stopped, in the regular season at least.
I, like most of the MLS All-Stars I talked to in Orlando, always make time to watch Bradley’s team play. The Red Bulls have plenty going on, too. Here’s what I’ll be watching come Sunday night:
Which Adama Diomande will we see? Christian Ramirez is gone. Time for the dominant Diomande from a year ago to come back and give LAFC yet another best-in-class goal threat. In case you weren’t paying attention, the 29-year-old is starting to get there (four goals, two assists in the last five games). Prior to that, though, he’d scored once since March 10. Add a rampant Diomande to Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi and LAFC are liable to start dropping five spots on everyone.
Will Aaron Long be distracted by his own transfer saga? Long is a “foundational piece” for the Red Bulls. He wants to move to Europe. The Red Bulls don’t want to sell him. These things happen. Thing is, the scoreline can start adding up quickly against LAFC if you’re even a little bit preoccupied by anything other than Vela and Co. Long’s a professional, and I don’t for one second question his effort. He’s human though, just like the rest of us.
How could you miss Zlatan vs. Wayne Rooney?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, left, and Wayne Rooney in their days as teammates at Manchester United | Reuters
You can’t. This is probably our only opportunity to see the two legends clash in MLS (Sunday, 7:30 pm ET | FS1 — Full TV & streaming info), barring an unlikely (but not impossible) MLS Cup matchup. Unlike LAFC-Red Bulls, which East Coasters will have to stay up to watch, you won’t even have to sacrifice any sleep. Make time.
I already wrote about Rooney and D.C. United this week. My hope is that with his future set, Rooney returns to his MLS best and drags Luciano Acosta along with him. Having Ola Kamara to lead the line ought to put LuchoRoo in more comfortable positions. Last fall was special, and I want one more taste of the dynamic duo before we bid adieu to the both of them, assuming Acosta signs elsewhere as a free agent. It may not happen. D.C. have won twice since May 12.
As for the Galaxy, I’ve got nothing but respect and admiration for general manager Dennis te Kloese. He stayed patient, he got creative and he made sure Cristian Pavon ended up in Los Angeles. As Matt Doyle pointed out this week, he’s still got a team that mostly looks “meh” and remains over reliant on Zlatan, which isn’t the worst thing in the world if we’re being honest.
Then again, said Zlatan-reliant team missed the playoffs last year – sorry to bring up Decision Day, Galaxy supporters – and truthfully nobody is safe in the Western Conference other than LAFC.
Either of these teams could win MLS Cup. Either could end up the biggest collective disappointment of 2019. Either Zlatan or Rooney could do something that goes down in MLS history. Only one way to find out. Just watch the game.
Will New York City FC take advantage of their games in hand?
Valentin Castellanos, standing middle, and his New York City FC teammates celebrate his game-winning goal in Thursday's 3-2 home win over the Houston Dynamo | USA Today Sports Images
Same question, different team every year. Over in the Western Conference, the Timbers are in the same boat, only they play 10 straight home games.
Thursday was touch and go. The blue side of New York would have dropped points to Houston had Taty Castellanos, he of seven goals and three assists in just over 1,000 minutes at the age of 20, not delivered late to seal a dramatic home win in a weather-delayed match at Yankee Stadium.
Those were an important three points in New York City FC’s quest for at the very least a home game in the playoffs. It was, by definition, one of their games in hand, a midweek match in which no other teams played. They’ll have three more home midweek matches the rest of the way, all opportunities to climb the table in exchange for less turnaround time for weekend games.
Now, you’ve still got to win games in hand to make them count, and then you’ve still got find a way to recover for Saturday and Sunday and get resutls there too when the schedule starts getting busy.
This Sunday will be a good test for the rest of the campaign. Can NYCFC bounce back? Did Torrent manage his roster well? The good news is that he was able to rest the likes of Maxi Moralez and Anton Tinnerholm ahead of Sunday’s trip to Mercedes Benz Stadium (3:55 pm ET | ESPN — Full TV & streaming info).
Which players will I have my eye on?
Minnesota United's Darwin Quintero | USA Today Sports Images
Xavier Arreaga (Seattle Sounders) – I’m not able to watch a game casually and tell you in great detail about the actions of one player. I have to be more intentional about it. There’s no Chad Marshall (or Roman Torres) to bail the Sounders out anymore. They need Arreaga to come good. So far, in four starts, he’s made big plays and also allowed some. I’m planning on watching the 24-year-old Ecuadorian closely on Saturday when the Sounders host Teal Bunbury, Gustavo Bou and the Revs. He’s part of the club’s long-term spine, after all.
Dom Dwyer (Orlando City) – More on the Lions below. Here’s what Doyle wrote in his Tiers of MLS column this week: “Live by the mercurial striker, die by the mercurial striker. The season's probably done, but if Dom suddenly gets hot (he's entirely capable of scoring 10 goals in their last 10 games), then we could still see this team in the postseason.” I’m rooting for Dwyer to make it interesting in the East.
Darwin Quintero (Minnesota United) – Is it just me, or does Quintero look a bit … disinterested? Apart from the U.S. Open Cup, in which he leads the tournament in scoring, the Colombian has two goals and two assists in MLS play since April 19. The heady days of March are long gone. Quintero doesn’t seem comfortable with the players and movement around him. If Minnesota are going to keep climbing upward and perhaps even make some noise in the playoffs, they need Quintero to rediscover his 2018 form, starting Saturday in Dallas.
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
Toronto FC's Drew Moor, left, and Liam Fraser celebrate during their 2-0 victory over the Ottawa Fury in first leg of the Canadian Championship semifinals Wednesday | USA Today Sports Images
Easy one for me: Toronto FC hosting Orlando City on Saturday at 7:30 pm ET. Why? It’s a true six-pointer, of which there will be many the rest of the way.
If Toronto FC win this one and some results go their way, they’ll jump the line and be a win or two away from the possibility of hosting a first-round match in the playoffs. That’s good! This team has enough talent, including an influx of TAM players this summer, to credibly believe they can challenge for their second MLS Cup in three years.
If Toronto lose it, the gap between 7th and 8th could grow to four points, depending on the Revs’ result in Seattle … and the Reds would be tied with Orlando on 32 points. That’s bad! There’s already pressure on Greg Vanney, and the prospect of another year outside the playoff field (with one extra place available) would be a bitter pill to swallow.
For Orlando, the pressure’s not as high, but it’s not nonexistent.
The Lions have never made the playoffs. They just lost at home to a rival they’ve still never beaten in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal. Josef Martinez laughed at them on Insta stories. The non-playoff consolation prize is dead, and a bunch of guys are playing for their jobs. Teams below the line can’t wait around for results to come their way. Time to go for it.
Enjoy the weekend! We’ll see you after LAFC-RBNY (or Monday morning on your work second screen) to wrap up Week 23 on Matchday Central.