No time for an intro this week, let’s just get to it.
As always, I recommend hitting play on Thursday’s Extratime, a special Heineken Rivalry Week edition, as you read. Friendly reminder: Matchday Central has pre- and postgame shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
- 6:55 – “Overall cool dude” Max Bretos on historic LAFC, El Trafico
- 21:46 – Mike Conti drops Atlanta United knowledge on a couple “idiots”
- 34:13 – Remi Garde out, Wilmer Cabrera in … Patrice Bernier explains
Do LAFC need to win El Trafico (and MLS Cup) to go down in MLS history?
The pedantic answer to that question is, “Of course not, LAFC could easily win the Supporters’ Shield and set a single-points record without a win on Sunday against the Galaxy (10:30 pm ET; FS1). Same goes for MLS Cup.” Only we’re not pedants here, and the real answer to those questions is a little more complicated.
Let’s start with El Trafico. From a math perspective, it’s close to nothing. From an emotional perspective, it’s everything.
Bob Bradley himself couldn’t convince me this game doesn’t mean more. The man is far too competitive for that, his team reflects his personality and I can’t imagine the smug satisfaction from the other side has gone over well with anyone in that locker room. None of them want to hear the phrase “never beat the Galaxy” again as long as they live. Only one way to make sure of that.
LAFC need to win El Trafico. They need to shed the baggage. They need to make sure the Galaxy don’t have an annoying “yeah, but…” qualifier come 2020. Need isn’t mathematical. It doesn’t have to be logical. It’s pure desire, and it’s what’s made this rivalry so special from the jump.
For neutrals, the Rivalry Week capper seems destined to deliver yet again, more on that down below, but I think the more interesting question here was actually the one in parentheses. It might be too early, but I’m doing it anyway, such is the club’s sustained brilliance and singular drive.
Do LAFC need to win MLS Cup to go down in MLS history?
I think they do. Why? Legacy. Legacy is more than just supremacy. It’s the story we tell, the way we remember a team.
For Toronto FC, it was an unprecedented treble, the culmination of a worst-to-first transformation, Sebastian Giovinco’s blinding brilliance and validation for a pair of US national team stars after bitter disappointment. Atlanta United skipped walking entirely and ran their way into hearts, minds and the record book, both on the field and off. They re-defined the parameters for success, collective and individual, and club ambition in MLS. That’s their story.
So what’s LAFC’s story? And what will it be when all the soccer is played for the year?
If they win MLS Cup, it’s pretty straightforward. Their story is the tale of an expansion team that reached the pinnacle of soccer, that played the game in its purest, most effective form and showed the rest of the league that there’s another level to aspire to. Best team and best player in the history of MLS. Period. No arguments. Even a treble can’t stand up to that.
But if LAFC don’t? The playoffs are a crapshoot, after all. You never know.
If they don’t, then they’re the best team ever … that couldn’t quite win the big one. They’re the team that set the league alight from March to early October, but couldn’t get the job done at the Banc in a knockout game … again. They’re among the all-time greats, no doubt, but they don’t stand alone. This is the weight of expectations that great teams carry.
Bobby Warshaw disagrees with me. Bobby’s argument is that what LAFC are and have been is enough. That the way they play, the way they prepare, the way they built their squad merits all-time status. I’m not so sure. New York Red Bulls supporters will tell you that Supporters’ Shields are nice, but they’re not the end all, be all. No matter how they do it in elsewhere, playoffs are the final measuring stick in North America.
As of Friday morning, LAFC are sitting on a 19-point lead in the Western Conference and a 16-point cushion in the Supporters’ Shield race. I don’t think I’m in any danger of printing out a previous column and eating it, the safest bet of my life. The first traditional trophy of the MLS season – I still see you, Campeones Cup – effectively belongs to LAFC.
But if they want to be remembered forever? It starts with an El Trafico win, and it ends with a confetti shower in downtown Los Angeles. We’re watching history in the making. What story will be written when it’s all said and done?
Which rivalries hold the most potentially for pettiness?
Here is my unscientific ranking for potential pettiness based on gut intuition and my own selfish desire for rivalry ridiculousness. You are free to disagree. Let’s just hope we get good soccer and a little something else this Heineken Rivalry Week.
1. El Trafico
C’mon. Was there another choice? LAFC are playing for history, and they’re playing to get the Galaxy monkey off their back. As for the Galaxy? It sort of feels like they’re just enjoying playing the troll.
That’s a billboard of Zlatan Ibrahimovic staring down Carlos Vela outside Banc of California Stadium. Reddit tells me there’s another of Zlatan tossing Latif Blessing aside like a rag doll. This is the same Zlatan whose elbow sent Mohamed El-Munir to the hospital in the club’s last meeting then, after the final whistle, was spotted telling LAFC assistant coach Zak Abdel to “go home.”
Wanna go to the game? Good luck. Honestly, when it comes to this particular match, Zlatan is worth whatever you’ve got to pay to get in the building.
So let’s see, the environment is gonna be bonkers thanks to The 3252 and traveling Galaxy support, LAFC are juggernauts that badly want to prove their winless start in the rivalry is just a fluke and Zlatan has a national stage, plenty of see-or-be-seen energy to feed on and memories from all his epic El Trafico exploits dancing in his head. That’s spicy.
LAFC want to humble the Galaxy. The Galaxy want to keep playing the little-brother card. Yeah, this could get petty.
2. Orlando City vs. Atlanta United
This is just an excuse to repost Josef Martinez’s Instagram story following Atlanta United’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal win. Josef’s face, the shaky zoom, the caption, the way he says “Orlando,” the laugh, the tongue, the guy laughing in the background, the sick patio setup, the way he savors whatever the hell that is in his hand. This is performance art.
And that epic troll job came after Orlando fans booed every Atlanta United player in their sight, Martinez included, at the All-Star game just for being Atlanta United players. How will The Wall welcome Martinez and the rest of the Five Stripes after fresh rivalry trauma? I don’t think anyone will have to guess where they stand in the minds of the supporters.
That goes for Orlando players and coaching staff, by the way. Just as they’ve never won against Atlanta, the Lions have never made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Not an impossible chance that both those things hold true through 2019, and that’ll be on the minds of everyone in the building from the opening whistle. The place is going to be crackling with nervous energy and pent-up frustration.
Meanwhile, every game Atlanta plays at this point feels like a soap opera of sorts. Lots of buildup, a couple controversial moments, dramatic saves and goals and every little detail under the media microscope. Right now the vibes are good, and there’s no better way for Orlando to throw off the vibes than some annoying fouls and generally annoying rivalry behavior.
3. Canadian Classique
One word: urgency. I almost went with desperation, and I don’t that would have been hyperbole. This is, for both playoff and pride reasons, as close to a must-win game for both teams as you can get without elimination in play.
Montreal’s urgency is obvious. Out goes Remi Garde with seven regular-season games and the Canadian Championship final (against Toronto FC, no less) remaining. In comes Wilmer Cabrera, just dismissed in Houston himself, to try to inspire the squad on the fly. Road game ahead of a home-heavy finish? Doesn’t matter.
Garde is gone because the form and body language was bad, and this is the Canadian Classique. The supporters care. The players care. The Impact are above the line, for now, on tiebreakers. They don’t look likely to stay there unless something changes. It just so happens Toronto FC are sitting on 34 points as well. No pressure, Wilmer, Montreal just needs you to salvage their season!
Greg Vanney knows a little something about pressure, too. Less than two years ago, Toronto were the toast of MLS, treble winners and arguably the league’s best-ever team. Now, the Reds are on the brink of missing the playoffs in back-to-back years, and not for lack of star power and spending, this summer included. Five of their last eight are on the road, which means home wins are necessities.
Get the picture? The Classique already has a colorful history – and both these teams are in the sort of position in which things can get emotional quickly. The stakes are such that even a small spark could set this game off, and both teams have the sort of strong protagonists capable putting of flint to steel.
Remaining rankings, sans lengthy explanation for the sake of time. It’s Friday after all.
- 4. New York Derby (NYCFC vs. Red Bulls)
- 5. Cascadia (Portland vs. Seattle)
- 6. Hell is Real (FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew)
- 7. Texas Derby (Dallas vs. Houston)
- 8. Rocky Mountain Cup (Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado)
Which players will I have my eye on?
FWDs Valentin Castellanos & Heber (New York City FC) – In 2018, Castellanos looked like he was a player without a natural position, a young, relatively proven face lost in the shuffle as the club transitioned from Patrick Vieira to Dome Torrent in the middle of the year. This season, the only thing 20-year-old Argentine is losing are opposing centerbacks to the tune of 10 goals and five assists in less than 1,400 minutes played.
Castellanos is putting up numbers, but he’s still a hot-cold player. And right now he’s hot, five goals and two assists in four games. Heber is hot, too, three goals and an assist in those same four matches, three of them wins for NYCFC. Between the two, they’ve put up 22 goals and nine assists. It’s not David Villa MVP-caliber stuff, but it’s more than enough production by committee to fuel the conference’s best team, a title the blue side of New York has a legitimate claim to, although Castellanos may miss out on the NY Derby.
Of course, the magic man behind the duo is still Maxi Moralez, who is quietly leading the league in assists and will almost certainly end the season with the second-most helpers in MLS history behind Carlos Valderrama’s 26 in 2000 for the Tampa Bay Mutiny. All three will be looking for revenge for the Red Bulls’ 2-1 home win earlier this season. First place could be up for grabs.
MID Pedro Santos (Columbus Crew) – For more than a year after signing from Braga, Santos looked completely lost in the final third. One goal and nine assists in 47 games, including goose eggs in eight playoff games, was not the return the Crew were hoping for when the club shelled out a club-record transfer fee for his services in 2017. Designated Player bust went the chorus, and it was hard to argue.
Now? Columbus’ fortunes are down as a team – one of two club averaging less than a point per game, the other is Cincinnati … hell is real, alright! – but Santos’ personal production is up (9 G, 3 A). And it’s not just ho-hum stuff, tap-ins and the like. The 31-year-old is showing previously unseen a knack for the spectacular. Was he capable of this all along? Maybe it just took time for the Portuguese to settle, perhaps he’s better playing the role of good player for a bad team or none of the above.
No matter the explanation, Santos is a wildcard in the best way right now. Better believe I’ll be watching Gyasi Zardes, too. Gut-punch, point-blank miss in the first meeting a couple weeks back. Zardes could have won that game. He could have been the hero. Maybe he’ll play the hero this time around.
MID Eduard Atuesta (LAFC) – Best XI. The 22-year-old Colombian ought to be in it. This is not one of those MLS hipster takes. I’m not seeing anything that others are missing. Atuesta’s put it on tape all year. And yet, in a season in which LAFC is on everyone’s lips, he still doesn’t get the hype his performances deserve.
Come Sunday, go out of your way to look out for the metronome-like way he dictates LAFC’s play, every possible passing technique in his bag. Marvel at the body control and silky touches to evade pressure and open up the field. Shake your head when he pops up to pick off that pass that almost led to danger or nick the ball off your 10’s foot. He’s got the highlight reel, too, always a threat to thread a through ball through the lines, passes that seem to roll, bocce-ball style, to a stall on their target’s foot.
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
The national television slate has enough soccer to fill your entire weekend, but if you need even more MLS in your life, here’s a reason to watch three Saturday games that didn’t quite make the marquee.
New England Revolution vs. Chicago Fire (7:30 pm ET)
I don’t know about you, but I really want to see Bruce Arena coach in the playoffs. So, of course, the Revs haven’t won in the month of August. The Fire are going the other way. Bad results for most of the season have made way for three wins in four. The East is so wide open that Chicago are just a point out of the playoff field.
It seems crazy to me that a match with huge playoff implications featuring Bastian Schweinsteiger, Gustavo Bou, Nico Gaitan, Carles Gil and Dax McCarty would be on the undercard, but that’s MLS in 2019.
Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United (7:30 pm ET)
No Wayne Rooney. Lucho Acosta out of sorts. Three wins in 16 games for D.C. United. If the Union don’t win this game, I don’t think they finish atop the Eastern Conference and get that bye/home-field advantage in the playoffs. Time to win a game you ought to win.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (10 pm ET)
Matias Almeyda’s Quakes might be running out of gas. Or maybe their man-marking style just doesn’t translate to road games. It’s not surprising that this three-game slide corresponds with three straight games away from Avaya Stadium. Well, San Jose are back this weekend (on short rest) with the worst team in the Western Conference in town. Are they fading? Or was that a schedule-related blip? We shall see.