Kickoff 8.15.23
What you need to know

Leagues Cup semifinals

The night begins at 7 pm ET on Apple TV as Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF take on their biggest test yet against the Philadelphia Union. Then, Nashville SC will try to be a giant killer and take down CF Monterrey at 9:30 pm ET on Apple TV. Winners go to the final with a trophy and a whole bunch more on the line.

Concacaf Champions Cup qualification on the line tonight

The semifinalists tonight aren’t just playing for a spot in the Leagues Cup Final. They’re playing for a spot in next year’s expanded (and rebranded) Concacaf Champions Cup (The Artist Formerly Known As CCL). The top three finishers in Leagues Cup will qualify. Tonight’s winners are in. Tonight’s losers still have a chance in the Third-Place Game.

RSL midfielder Ruiz out after knee surgery

Real Salt Lake will likely be without Pablo Ruiz for the rest of the 2023 MLS season, as the club announced Monday the midfielder recently underwent knee surgery to repair his right meniscus. Ruiz is expected to miss 4-6 months after suffering a non-contact injury in last week’s Leagues Cup defeat at LAFC. The 24-year-old Argentine has been stellar for RSL this season, tallying four goals and six assists in 17 league matches (15 starts).

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Your Leagues Cup Kickoff

Happy semifinal day to you and yours. I can’t undersell this, it’s going to be amazing. There’s plenty to get to here. Let’s talk it out with some help from our world-famous watchability meter, The Plusometer ©*.

(*The closer to 50 the more likely the game is to be extremely entertaining)

About tonight

Philadelphia Union vs. Inter Miami CF | 7 pm ET

WATCH ON: Apple TV - MLS Season Pass
Plusometer score: 49.8/50

You know the rule: We don’t give out 50s. But we can get close from time to time. This is as close as it gets. How can you not be totally fascinated by this?

Look, it’s not about whether or not Philadelphia can stop Lionel Messi. There is no secret “Stop Messi” tactic. Now, someone is going to say something totally ridiculous like “Just foul him!!!” Dear god, y’all, have you seen how he moves? You have to be able to catch him in the first place to foul him. It’s like watching prime Barry Sanders footage and being like “I don’t understand why the other team didn’t tackle him???” He’s constantly receiving the ball in space, getting it off his feet quickly and, when he does decide to carry the ball forward, he’s doing the kinds of things that remind you why he’s the best player of all time. I remain very annoyed at the “Just foul him!!!” discourse and I reserve the right to use this newsletter to stand on this particular soapbox for the next three years.

Anyway, look, it’s not about whether the Union can stop Messi. They won’t. No one has. It’s more about whether the Union can exploit the rest of Inter Miami’s readily apparent deficiencies. We saw Dallas do it in Frisco the other night and come up just short. Inter Miami didn’t suddenly stop being one of the worst defensive teams in the league. The Union, with their physicality and direct style of play, feel almost uniquely situated to remind us of that.

The Union’s ability to hit in transition isn’t the biggest factor at play here, though. There is exactly one universal truth in MLS: Soccer is hard, but road games in MLS are harder. We’ve seen this version of Inter Miami play one road game so far and they needed an incredible own goal and a world-class free kick and a penalty shootout win to advance. It’s still not entirely clear why road games in MLS are so much more difficult than every other league in the world, but I do know that we won’t be able to tell exactly how good the Herons have become without a few more data points away from Fort Lauderdale.

That being said, this is about the biggest data point we’re going to get. The Union don’t lose at Subaru Park. They just don’t. They’ve lost four whole times in their last 54 MLS home games. That’s it. And it’s the best mark in the league over that span. If Inter Miami survive this one, then I think we’ll officially be out of reasons for skepticism.

CF Monterrey vs. Nashville SC | 9:30 pm ET

WATCH ON: Apple TV - MLS Season Pass
Plusometer score: 44/50

We can’t lie here. This is an uphill battle for Nashville. They’re a solid group, but man, Monterrey are a heat-seeking missile of a team. Just when you think you’ve been able to throw them off your trail, they come circling back around at speed and with force. What they’ve done in this tournament so far has been remarkable. They’ve shrugged off serious challenges from last year’s CCL champion and MLS Cup champion. They’ve cruised past RSL, Portland and Tigres. And they’ve done it all while playing on the road. Rayados are on a different level than everyone else.

But it just takes a couple of breaks. And all it takes to have those breaks matter is some stingy defensive work and a moment or two of quality going forward. Nashville seem set up pretty well to earn a couple of breaks. They’re comfortable absorbing pressure and breaking out with Hany Mukhtar leading the charge. Mukhtar, with help from new DP forward Sam Surridge, certainly has an excellent moment or two in him at any time. The formula to get a win here isn’t much different from what Nashville have done for the majority of their existence.

Ok, maybe they haven’t tried to use that formula against a team with this kind of ability before. However, they feel well prepared to execute it better than anyone else has against Monterrey so far. It’s a long shot that it pays off in the end. But, then again, Nashville lost a game in this tournament and then won it about 10 minutes later. We probably shouldn’t be too concerned about the odds.

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Good luck out there. If no one else is going to do it, might as well be you.