Starting a new competition in 2019 is difficult. The NBA is facing problems themselves starting a mid-season knockout tournament despite college basketball having multiple trophies for grabs.
Major League Soccer itself is a new-ish competition in the grand scheme of things. Most cup competitions around the world are old, too. The Leagues Cup, before kicking a ball, met skepticism. People don't like change as is, particularly in the storied game of soccer.
That's fine, it's natural. But this thing is here to stay and it's going to be fun. Liga MX vs. MLS? Yes, let's do it.
Anyway, I love when MLS teams & Liga MX teams play each other. Got two tonight in the @LeaguesCup. We'll be doing a pregame show (you can watch @MLS) – me, @andrew_wiebe & @CharlieDavies9 at your service.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 23, 2019
More importantly in the short-term context, it's another trophy up for grabs. Also? Ball stands. Get juiced. Let's get into the games from the inaugural night of the Leagues Cup.
When it rains
It's been that kind of season for the Fire.
In a new competition, with a clean slate between MLS games and three short wins away from a trophy, it was another new look and new lineup for Veljko Paunovic's side. They started in a 4-3-3 in a heavily rotated starting XI despite being a long-shot to dig out of the grave and clamber over the playoff line.
Let's get the bad out of the way: They lost 2-0 to Cruz Azul, getting outpossessed and outshot handily in the process. They lacked conviction and creativity moving forward whenever they did recover possession; it was a basic, watered-down, knockoff brand cup of coffee all night long. Przemyslaw Frankowski never got going in transition. Richard Sanchez wasn't sharp (though his mustache definitely was), a few of the younger and rotational pieces failed to move the needle. Nemanja Nikolic spurned another chance from within the six-yard box and it'd be getting comical if not for the human element (this can't possibly be easy for someone who has won the Golden Boot in three separate countries.)
Phew. Okay. It wasn't all bad, you know.
Homegrown fullback Andre Reynolds looked legitimately promising, which is huge considering they are very light at that position. For all Cruz Azul's surface-level stat dominance, they didn't quite pass the eye test nor were they overly dominant. A makeshift backline held fine while under siege all night, with Grant Lillard a standout in central defense. It took a golazo from Roberto Alvarado amid from a long throw in to break the deadlock then didn't create many more chances before the second goal on the counter. It was a first-choice XI, too. How different would things have been if Nikolic nodded in from four yards instead of heading over?
Lastly, Bastian Schweinsteiger walked into the midfield when he entered from the bench. Things have not gone great with the German in defense lately and, as one of the best midfielders of the last 15 years, it might be time to bring him back there. Sure, his athleticism is not what it once was. But stick him in a midfield three and let him dictate possession. The Fire have tried a bunch of things this year, mostly to no avail. Why not that next?
The random wrinkle is that Schweinsteiger was playing No. 10 when he came on the field. It was fun, but that ain't it, chief. Still. More fun than central defense.
Oh, it was nice to see you again, Yoshi Yotun.
Find a way
Who doesn't love a penalty shootout? Wednesday night, perhaps Tijuana fans didn't. But neutrals do.
The LA Galaxy beat Xolos 2(3)-2(1) after penalties, becoming the first MLS side to book a spot in the semifinals. It was more rotation from an MLS team, as the Galaxy largely left the starters behind. Xolos, meanwhile, called on all their stars.
Tijuana's front four, even without Gustavo Bou, were frightening. The Galaxy backline, anchored by Giancarlo Gonzalez and Dave Romney bent but didn't break. They did enough to get the game to penalties, where Matt Lampson stood on his head, saving three (!) penalties.
The Galaxy spent much of the game on the backfoot, struggling to establish tempo. The defense stood strong enough and they were awesome on set pieces, both attacking and defensive. Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces.
It's pretty tough to understate just how strong a prospect Julian Araujo is. He has become the Galaxy's first choice right back, in short order. He spent El Trafico playing an unfamiliar right midfield and it worked seamlessly. Taylor Twellman noted this on the broadcast against Xolos: It's abnormal to see a player his age to excel in defensive situations as he does. He doesn't panic. He's on his way to becoming as important to his team as Paxton Pomykal already is to FC Dallas.
He did pick up a second yellow in the dying moments of the match, making him unavailable for the semifinal against Cruz Azul. How costly may that be for the Galaxy?
Elsewhere, LA looked disjointed at times in transition, though that is liable to happen with a 17-year-old at No. 10. Efra Alvarez picked up another start and while he couldn't quite get into full rhythm, he picked up an assist on the game-tying corner kick. Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces.
Oh, it was nice to see you again, Oscar Pareja.