MLS is back. Three words and nine letters I’ve been waiting to type for four months. The longer-than-normal wait is over, and I hope you’re ready for what comes next.
When the clock hits 8 pm ET on Friday night and the whistle blows in Houston, there’s no turning back. Ready or not, we’ll embark on a 459-game journey together … and that’s just the regular season. It’s a lot of soccer – a lot of OUR SOCCER – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Come Monday, you’ll head to MLSsoccer.com to read Matt Doyle’s Monday wrap. For most leagues in North America, there’s an iconic “What happened and why does it matter?” column that’s must-read no matter who you support. The Armchair Analyst is that for MLS. It takes time and consistent excellence/entertainment to build that brand and that following.
I’m going to do my best to make sure this weekly “Three Big Questions” preview bit becomes must-read, too. It’s a big ask, and it won’t happen overnight (or perhaps even this year – or ever). Like every team in the league, we’re entering Week 1 not knowing exactly who we are or how this is going to work. This column is a work in progress, and a blank slate. I’m not afraid to chop and change.
With that in mind, hit me with your suggestions. What do you need to best prepare for each matchday? What will get you as jacked as I am to watch and process the action from every single weekend? What will make this a truly must-read preview? I’m writing this for all of us, and I’m open to suggestions.
Into the breach we go…
The father is back, but has the balance of power changed in the South?
Orlando City vs. Atlanta United - Sat., 3 pm ET
WATCH ON: UniMás, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)
Mention Josef Martinez’s return (and salacious preseason quotes) to Orlando City fans. Mention Orlando City’s Papi-led renaissance to Atlanta United fans. Now sit back and watch as the world burns.
This is one of the most publicly vitriolic rivalries in MLS, and that’s because every match is another opportunity to upend the balance of power, which used to belong exclusively to the Five Stripes but is now a 50-50 challenge between two clubs and two fanbases who have no qualms about coming in on each other two-footed and studs up.
And even though the boogeyman is back – Josef’s scoring record against the Lions is an absurd seven goals in six games, plus iconic mockery when he’s not even on the field – Orlando City have every reason to believe they’re not the scrawny kid that got pushed around for three years to the tune of seven losses and two draws. Why can’t they be the bullies now? Why should they be afraid of post-ACL Josef after a handing Atlanta their own 0-fer in 2020?
Needless to say, pitting these two on opening day is going to set the tone for 2021 and what comes next. Gabriele Heinze could return this Atlanta team to the playoffs, but if he loses to Orlando and the Lions finish higher in the table, he’s going to hear about it. If Oscar Pareja’s team reverts back to the little brothers, they might just see another billboard paid for by Georgia dollars on their daily commute.
Needless to say, the narrative vein is rich with this one. When will Josef be ready to be Josef again after some average-at-best CCL performances? Can Alexandre Pato fill the ever-expanding shoes of Daryl Dike? Is this the year of Ezequiel Barco? Are Nani and Mauricio Pereyra poised for dominance or an age-related drop off?
How on earth can you justify missing this game when you can watch it for FREE on Twitter ANYWHERE?
In the weeds question: Will Alan Franco be available for selection? That seems unlikely, which is a shame.
Are Austin FC ready for the best (or close to it) that MLS can offer?
LAFC vs. Austin FC - Sat., 6 pm ET
WATCH ON: FOX, Fox Deportes, TSN4 in Canada
The first indication that LAFC were going to fall on the “not just competent, but potentially very good” side of the MLS expansion team spectrum was an opening day victory in Seattle in 2018. If there was any lingering doubt about the project, it was erased by Diego Rossi’s goal and a big road win against the MLS Cup finalists.
Now, that isn’t to say there weren’t bumps on the road for Bob Bradley and Co. They blew the very first El Trafico – or, perhaps better said, Zlatan blew it for them – and Atlanta United laid a 5-0 smackdown on the black and gold a week later. Still, that first result helped set the tone for a playoff season and style of play that vaulted them to the top of the MLS heap.
The beauty of expansion for the neutrals is you learn something every week. With LAFC, we learned that they were determined to stick to an aggressive, attacking style of play no matter the situation or the opponent. We learned Bob Bradley (rightly) saw more in Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing than anyone else ever had. We learned that LAFC got their DPs about as right as you can get them.
All of that still holds true, and it’s why I picked Carlos Vela to lead LAFC to a double this year. They are that good, and they are hungry to prove it. That starts in Week 1 and it doesn’t end until their hoisting the Philip F. Anschutz trophy (or fall short in their quest).
So what will Austin prove? What will we learn about them week to week? To start, it seems their style of play is just as set as LAFC’s was in 2018: 4-3-3, outside backs that like to get forward, dual No. 8s that can interchange and do it all, electric attackers on the wings and an open competition up top complete with open DP spot. Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like LAFC.
For all the talk about Tomas Pochettino, I’m just as intrigued by Cecilio Dominguez and Rodney Redes. They’ll be the keys to a healthy attack. Meanwhile, the story of the club might just be Matt Besler’s potential resurgence. He could be a force multiplier on the backline via his experience, communication and distribution. He wasn’t that at the end in Kansas City, but a change in scenario can do wonders.
Austin won’t have to wait long to find out how they measure up. It starts Saturday, against the best MLS can offer.
In the weeds question: Who starts in goal for LAFC? Is Kenneth Vermeer or Pablo Sisniega consistent enough to backstop a Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup team? Furthermore, will the backline in front of them clean up the errors that plagued them in preseason and 2020?
I suppose the second question will answer itself, but the eye test and underlying numbers (both allowed more goals than the expected goals they faced) suggest they’ll need to be a good bit better than in 2020. As for who starts, Vermeer and Sisneiga both got a run out against the Revs in the final two preseason games. It’s still an open question for a team that doesn’t have many.
Are Inter Miami ready to meet expectations? What expectations are fair for the Galaxy?
Inter Miami vs. LA Galaxy - Sun., 3 pm ET
WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes, TSN3 in Canada
This might be the most fascinating match of the weekend, and not because of David Beckham’s split loyalties. You could tell me just about anything about where these two clubs will fall at the end of 2021, and it’d be plausible if not entirely believable.
They’re both dice rolls, and I like to watch dice rolls. You never know what you’re going to get.
Miami’s expectations ought to be clear by now: make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and entertain doing it. You don’t get to sign Gonzalo Higuain, Rodolfo Pizarro and Blaise Matuidi and play in South Florida then just be OK. Ask Diego Alonso how that worked out. The good news is that Chris Henderson added some top-end MLS nous (Kelvin Leerdam, for instance) to a roster that has more than enough talent to meet expectations.
The most interesting thing about Inter Miami at the moment isn’t actually star focused. Those storylines are obvious. It’s Robbie Robinson’s role. Taylor Twellman suggested on Extratime’s Week 1 preview podcast that Robinson is poised to be a “target winger.” Think Kei Kamara on those press-happy Sporting KC teams early this decade. That would let Higauin drop to connect and Brek Shea or Joevin Jones to overlap like crazy while Robinson plays to his strengths.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Miami passed on Daryl Dike not once but twice. This is Robinson’s chance to quiet some of that talk.
Meanwhile, Instagram videos aren’t going to quiet the talk around Javier Hernandez. Only goals – and lots of them – will do that. I think he could be poised for a comeback season, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a slow start. Why? Because both the wingers and the No. 10 are new. It’s going to take Samuel Grandsir, Kevin Cabral and Victor Vazquez (or Efra Alvarez) some time to get their movement and timing down to provide the service Chicharito needs.
In the meantime, Greg Vanney’s big wish is to see the Jonathan dos Santos of old reemerge from the training room. If the Galaxy are a playoff team, it’ll be because he elevates everyone around him. Healthy and in form, dos Santos might be the best defensive midfielder in the league. Same goes for Sebastian Lletget when it comes to two-way midfielders. Meanwhile, the backline is much improved, if not still a little thin at centerback.
So what expectations are fair for the Galaxy? I think it’s that they’ll be a work in progress until, at least, the summer. For now, Vanney is rolling the dice and seeing what works, and I’ll watch that any day.
In the weeds question: Does Ryan Shawcross really have enough left in the tank to deal with the rigors of MLS? The man’s resume and reputation are unquestionable, but he was going to hang up his boots before getting the call from Miami. If he isn’t up to it, we’ll know by summer. After all, can he do it on a hot day in South Florida? We’re going to find out.
#PlayYourKids 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR Game of the Week
New York Red Bulls vs. Sporting KC - Sat., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+
How often do we get to watch two American teenage attacking midfielders start (I hope?) in the same game? Never? Almost never? Basically never?
We better enjoy the Caden Clark experience while we can. He burst onto the scene so quickly last year in New York that the crest on his jersey isn’t going to change at the end of the year but his address almost certainly will. Soak up every minute. He’s got the potential to be a future star for both European club and country.
Gianluca Busio, meanwhile, has been more of a slow build. That’s a crazy thing to say about a 18-year-old with 50 first division games and six goals and six assists. Slow build! He started playing when he was just 16. Here he is now, asking for the No. 10 and promising more goals and assists. If that’s not worth watching, nothing is.
ESPN+ Game of the Weekend
Please do not groan. Give me Nashville SC vs. FC Cincinnati (Saturday, 8:30 pm ET).
If Nashville can’t put up goals on Cincinnati, then those questions about their attack and bus parking are going to stick around. If Cincinnati can’t get anything out of Bruchocadia (Brenner-Lucho-Locadia), then they’re in big trouble once again. But maybe Nashville blow them out, and maybe Bruchocadia has some LuchoRoo magic. That’d be fun.
It’s just the first game of the season, so there are no final answers to be found, but this matchup has USL Championship juice from seasons past. It could be weird. I will watch weird.