Happy Labor Day Weekend, folks, happy chilling and happy soccer-ing.
Let's get right to the questions ahead of Week 26 in MLS:
What now for Darwin Quintero and Minnesota United?
Adrian Heath took a big risk leaving Quintero out of Minnesota's starting XI in the U.S. Open Cup final loss to Atlanta United on Tuesday. Now, he'll have to use every bit of his man-management skills to keep the Loons on course.
I get the logic behind the decision. Quintero doesn't do a lot on the defensive side of the ball and he doesn't run in behind enough these days to be an out-and-out lone striker. Stacking a midfield three of Ozzie Alonso, Hassani Dotson and Jan Gregus to clog the midfield at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against an in-form Atlanta made sense. Accept that a lot of the game would be spent defending, each of the 11 puts in their shift, frustrate ATLUTD and look to get a goal in transition or on a set piece.
It all makes sense, but does it outweigh the risk of benching your best attacker in a cup final? Not to solely play the result, but I'm not sure it does. A mercurial if streaky talent, Minnesota's best version has Quintero in the lineup. He's integral to their attack, which bogs down to a reliance on crosses and set pieces without him all too often.
That's just the sporting side; The human side of the decision is even trickier. It can't be easy for a player to rebound from that: Biggest game of the year, trophy on the line, leading scorer left healthy on the bench? Quintero himself admitted those human frustrations.
“I was very surprised, I was upset, I was frustrated, especially being the lead goalscorer in the tournament, I wanted to be there,” Quintero said via Pioneer Press' Andy Greder. He also added: “This season has very much taken me by surprise. I haven’t played the games, nor the minutes, that I would have liked. I haven’t felt the same level of confidence from the coach.”
As the Loons prepare for a visit to mighty LAFC (Sunday, 10:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada), now what? In another match where they'll likely be without the ball much of the game against the league's most imperious attack, will there be room for Quintero? What message would playing him against LAFC but not a cup final send? What message would not playing him in either of these huge games send?
Can Seattle build on Cascadia Cup win?
What a difference a week makes.
This time last week, the Seattle Sounders were limping into Providence Park for a match against the Portland Timbers. Low on form and confidence, and without a win in four weeks, Seattle were slipping from second in the West to back in the pack. And, as you've heard ad nauseam, the pack is separated by just six points from second to 8th.
One big win (and big performance) later, the Sounders are back into a tie for second place. A loss would have had them in a three-way tie for the last playoff place. Semantics! Still, the win was huge.
“This win was good for a lot of different reasons,” Brian Schmetzer said after the match. “Cascadia Cup, my sanity, coaches sanity, players sanity, fans sanity. This was a big performance, a gutty performance, and that’s the Seattle Sounders.”
Can they build on this or will they slip again? That will be answered on Sunday against the LA Galaxy (6:30 pm ET | FS1, TVAS). The Galaxy are one point behind the Sounders and when the two teams met mere two weeks ago, LA were unlucky not to win despite being down a man for 84 minutes. Yep, it was that kind of run for Seattle.
After spending much of the season as a box-to-box No. 8, Nico Lodeiro was pushed higher in the attack to his more natural No. 10 role against Portland. Because he's a really good player, he was really good playing deeper this season. But it's just not the most valuable way to utilize one of the best chance creators in MLS. Let's see if that continues on Sunday or if he's dropped back to the 8.
Better duo: Gil and Bou or Jozuelo?
Both the New England Revolution and Toronto FC will go as far as their top tandem takes them. But with the teams clashing on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | TSN, MLS LIVE on ESPN+), which is the better duo: Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou or Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo?
First, counting numbers:
- Bou has 5g/1a in 598 minutes, Gil has 9g/12a in 2,422 = total of 14g/13a in 3,014 mins
- Jozy has 12g/5a in 1,287 minutes, Pozuelo has 9g/9a in 1,913 mins = 21g/14a in 3,200 mins
Slight advantage Jozuelo.
- Bou has 2.79 xG + 1.04xA, Gil 6.88 xG + 7.89 xA = total of 18.6 xG+A in 3,014 mins
- Jozy has 7.33 xG + 2.67 xA, Pozuelo 5.95 xG + 8.33 xA = total of 24.28 in 3,200 mins
Advantage Jozuelo (though Bou's small sample size is most obvious here).
Third, team success:
- With both Bou + Gil starting, Revs are 4-1-2 (2.00 PPG). WIth one or none, they're 5-8-3.
- With both Jozy + Pozuelo starting, TFC are 5-2-3 (1.80 PPG). With one or none, they're 5-8-3.
Slight advantage Bou and GIl (we need a catchy nickname STAT – Bil? Go? BoGil? BoGo?).
What did we learn? Not much. We already knew how good each of these players are and we already knew how vital they are to their teams. It's a huge game for both sides at Gillette Stadium. The Revs are sitting in sixth place on 38 points while TFC are tied for seventh, just a point behind. It's a chance for both to push some space between them and the playoff line. It'll likely come down to which star duo outperforms the other, the old school My-Turn-Your-Turn playoff basketball Alpha style. Let's go.
Oh, back to the leading question: Gil and Bou have the form, and boy are they electric, but, it's not enough to move the needle past Jozeulo. Yet. Maybe that changes after Saturday.
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
It's a top-of-the-table clash out East: Philadelphia Union vs. Atlanta United (Sat. 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, DAZN).
Not just a big game in the standings, it's the opportunity for a statement result for the Union. It's their chance to show they really are different than past iterations of the club that's never won a playoff game in 10 seasons. It's their chance to show they really are different than last season, a good team that played good soccer, but suffered a subpar Knockout Round playoff exit.
The Union have been top of the East most of the season, a spot they only recently relinquished, on a tiebreaker, to surging Atlanta. Have they been taken seriously as the favorite to represent the conference in MLS Cup? Not really. The doubt of fans and media alike can be a tough thing to shake when the pedigree isn't there. A convincing performance against the defending champs at the business end of the season here wouldn't hurt.
Stepping back from overly idealistic intangible points, they could also use the real life points in the standings. No one wants to go to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the playoffs. No one really wants to go to Yankee Stadium, either. Home-field advantage could go a long way for Philly.
As for Atlanta, they're almost playing with house money at this point. The Five Stripes have emerged victorious from all but one game they've played since mid-July, winning two trophies in the process. Riding form and cutthroat title swagger, it'll take a lot more than one game to derail this train. Still, that cutthroat title swagger dictates that every game must be won.
Who are the players to watch this weekend?
(In the spirit of self-deprecation, a quick update on how my three choices did last time: Two didn't start and the other exited after just 28 minutes with an injury, so, you know, things are going well here.)
Brian Fernandez (Portland Timbers) – This could apply to any of the Timbers' stars, like Diego Valeri or Sebastian Blanco, but let's go with Fernandez here: With two home losses in a row against good teams, how will Portland bounce back against another good team in Real Salt Lake?
On this homestand, the Timbers needed a pair of second-half goals to see off the last-place Vancouver Whitecaps, then barely beat the Chicago Fire 3-2 despite going a man up when already leading 2-0. What gives? Now is when the stars step up. Fernandez, who landed in Portland like a meteor on a blazing goalscoring blitz, has slowed down. He's tallied in just one of his last five starts.
Albert Rusnak (Real Salt Lake) – On the other side of that match, it's huge for RSL, too.
Their 2018 almost crumbled under two blowout losses to Portland at the end of the season while chasing a playoff place. They appeared to have no business being in the playoffs before the Houston Dynamo stunned the Galaxy on Decision Day. It's time to show the league that they're better, that they are a legitimate threat in the West.
As a proud New Jersey native myself (I know, I know, adding "proud" is redundant given the nature of us brash Jersey folk) the game takes on special meaning. I grew up watching Howard – ditto for so many across the country, but knowing he was from the same area was really cool. He, too, is proud and humble, one of the good dudes around these parts.
Howard has been looking forward to this game for a while. I do hope the fans at Red Bull Arena honor him in some way, perhaps a tifo, but at the very least, a decent round of applause for one of the country's greatest-ever players, who got his professional start in the shadow of where RBA now stands, with the North Jersey Imperials, and then the MetroStars.