MLS thoughts as regular season nears end, Cincy wins Shield, St. Louis wins West
October 02, 2023
THE WEEKEND IN MLS saw FC Cincinnati win the Supporters Shield, St. Louis City win the Western Conference regular season, and a bunch of other teams provide some playoff clarity. While there wasn’t a lot of clinching or eliminating on the mathematical front, we have a good idea who right now is contending for the play-in game, the playoffs, and homefield.
In recent weeks it was a jumbled mess. But this past weekend brought a little bit of order.
Also, we also know most of the MLS representatives for the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup (aka the CONCACAF Champions League
- Vancouver Whitecaps
- Inter Miami
- Nashville SC
- Philadelphia Union
- FC Cincinnati
- St. Louis City
- Houston Dynamo
- 2023 MLS Cup Champion (or the closest team if one of the above wins)
Overall, it’s not a bad group. It would be helpful to the league if the last spot went to a strong team such as Orlando, Atlanta, Columbus, or LAFC who can push for the title.
As for this past weekend, here are my thoughts on it.
FC Cincinnati wins Supporters Shield
That is how you rebuild a team. For the first three seasons since moving to MLS, the team was awarded the Wooden Spoon and it seemed as if it would always be stuck in the mud.
The team made two consecutive catastrophic mistakes that proved to be devastating. First, the club remained way too loyal to its own USL program. It kept Alan Koch and a bunch of the players from its last USL season. It did not recognize the jump up or the new league.
Wouldn't be here without y'all ???????? pic.twitter.com/NVlTrXJ4fN— S - FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) October 2, 2023
Once it became clear that was not the way to go, it made another poor decision it to just go for the random European approach for front office personnel, coaches and players. That was also a disaster as the club’s Dutch sporting director Gerard Nijkamp hired Ron Jans and then Jaap Stam as the head coach. The results were laughably bad – especially with Stam who was a big name player but has yet to manager after the Cincy debacle.
Then, all of a sudden, the club decided to pivot from Dutch and head towards the Philadelphia Union with Chris Albright as the Sporting Director and Pat Noonan as the head coach. The result was the playoffs last year and the Supporters Shield this year.
That became official on Saturday night when Cincinnati travelled to Toronto and came away with a 3-2 win. Coincidentally, that result likely gives the Wooden Spoon to Toronto who looks a lot like Cincinnati under Stam. We will see if John Herdman is the revolutionary that can do for Toronto what the Union guys did for Cincy.
In this game, Brandon Vazquez scored two goals and it is a great thing to watch. Vazquez is on the edge of the U.S. national team, and he is likely to get sold this offseason. But he is also not distracted and clearly wants to win before he leaves. He remains emotionally invested in Cincy’s goals. Across all competitions, Vazquez has 14 goals in 21 games.
There remain questions for Cincy after this season. How do they replace Vazquez? How many more big years does Luciano Acosta have left? For now, Cincinnati looks good. For them not to win MLS Cup, someone is going to have to TQL Stadium and come away with a win. That’s going to be very hard.
St. Louis CITY wins West
St. Louis CITY wrapped up the Western Conference regular season title and a spot in the 2024 after a CONCACAF Champions Cup following a 4-1 rout over Sporting KC.
St. Louis CITY has such a wonderful balance of players. They have three forwards who have eight goals or more. I love how younger players who have struggled have gone there and rebuilt their careers – Aziel Jackson, Indiana Vassilev, and Niko Gioacchini.
They are a tough team to play against and they are unrelenting given how deep they are. Against Sporting Kansas City, St. Louis scored all four goals between the 73rd and 85th minutes.
It’s an open question whether that depth will translate over to the playoffs when teams aren’t focused on the long game, but rather are absorbed in the present. St. Louis struggled in Leagues Cup while more veteran MLS teams did much better.
As for Sporting Kansas City, the lost their focus towards the end of the game and were run out of the building. It was very lopsided. They’ve not lost two of three and are in a very bad place.
They only have two games to make up a growing gap between themselves and the playoff line (they only trail Dallas by two points, but Dallas has a game in hand. After that, they trail San Jose by four points having played the same number of games).
If Sporting Kansas City doesn’t get a result next weekend in a tough trip to Real Salt Lake, they’re almost likely done. That’s not easy as Real Salt Like is good at home and is trending upward.
NYCFC rising above the rest
In a time when almost all the bottom half of the East is tanking, NYCFC has answered the call and play well with a lot at stake. They didn’t win on Saturday but playing to a 1-1 draw in Miami puts them on track to host the play-in game. NYCFC never replaced Castellanos with people who could put up similar numbers. But at their best, they can still be a hard-working team that grinds out results with defense and scoring chances created on individual efforts. That is how this one worked with Santiago Rodriguez.
As for Miami, they equalized late and nearly found a winner when a shot off the crossbar bounced down but not across the goal line in stoppage time. That bounce might change their season.
Can Miami make the playoffs? If they win against Chicago, they still have a very real chance. Three of their final four games are against teams out of the playoffs. The other game is against Cincinnati – and who knows what Cincy’s approach will be after securing the Shied.
Slicing through the defense ???? pic.twitter.com/htOBaemvwE— New York City Football Club (@NYCFC) October 1, 2023
Miami is a tough team to read but we don’t know when Messi will get back. We also don’t know how the rest of the players will handle the intensely congested schedule that remains. It’s possible, but they’re going to need some luck – and also that teams like the Red Bulls, Chicago, DC United, or Montreal don’t all of a sudden catch fire.
Miami against NYCFC in the play-in game, in New York, would be fun.
Top of the East
The East doesn’t have too much drama among the playoff teams. We know the regular season winner, and we also know the teams that will make the playoff above the play-in game (Orlando, New England, Philadelphia, Columbus, Atlanta, and Nashville).
When you look at those six teams, there isn’t a big gap between any of them.
If anything, I think Philadelphia looks the most vulnerable. Yes, they played to a 1-1 draw away in Columbus – and that isn’t easy. Yes, they also did so while rotating its squad without several starting players. But it’s also true that Philadelpha has had five draws in a row (three of which were at home).
Philadelphia has played well but hasn’t looked like a dominant team. They’re consistently good – but going far in the playoffs means being explosive – like we’ve seen from Orlando, Atlanta, and Columbus. Can they reach the levels of those teams when they’re at their best? Because in the playoffs, they will likely face a team at their best at some point.
Orlando looked very good, again, in the 3-0 win over a fading Montreal team that is winless in six games and has a -18 goal differential that is third worst in the entire league (ahead of only Toronto and Colorado).
????? “It's good news for us when our players keep that mentality to go forward and define the games in the key moments."— x - Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) October 2, 2023
If you want to look at the top half of the East, what interesting is that each of the teams in spots 2-6 all have a remaining schedule with opponents in spots 1-7 (with the exception of Columbus’ last game against Montreal). It is not easy for any of these teams.
Based on form, Orlando seems to be in the best position right now. They were very impressive against Montreal and they look like a team who could be peaking heading into the playoffs.
New England finally managed a win under Clint Peay and it came against a fading Charlotte team. The Revs have a game in hand and are in third place, but still seem a step behind the rest of the East’s playoff teams right now. They seem vulnerable to being overtaken.
Columbus drew at home to Philadelphia, but were the better team. I am a fan of Columbus in the playoffs but a key for them is to get inside the top four, to ensure they have an advantage in the first round (which is two of three games).
Atlanta didn’t play this weekend and they certainly have a lot of talent which can win them postseason games. But I don’t think they have the defense to stop the East’s other teams.
Bottom of the East
New York City has finally risen above the mess and should host the play-in game. The 1-1 away draw over Inter Miami was another positive showing that this team is separating itself from a very poor bottom half of the table. Combine that with NYCFC having two winnable games against DC United away and then Chicago at home to finish the season.
While Charlotte isn’t out of it yet mathematically, it’s time to stop talking about them as a team that can sneak into that play-in game. They’re winless in six. Yes, their next two games are winnable but expecting this team to climb now isn’t realistic. Their last two games are against Miami, and that isn’t easy if Miami has a pulse.
The Red Bulls are also in the same boat. Mathematically they’re still alive, but their 1-0 loss to Chicago at home on Monday was telling. Their last two home games were against bad teams in Austin and Chicago and the team secured just one point. Even while Cincinnati is going to rotate its lineup having secured the Shield, the Red Bulls are extremely unlikely to go to Ohio and win on Wednesday.
The one bit of good news for the Red Bulls is that the club gave a debut for Julian Hall, the uber-talented 15 year-old homegrown who came on in the second half against Chicago. He is widely regarded as one of the better American players from his age group.
"The signing of Julian is one of the biggest moments in this club's history in terms of the attention and the clubs that were after him are on the highest level," Red Bulls head coach Troy Lesesne. "For us to secure a young talent like that, and him to have the trust in us, is very important, and I think it sends a clear signal about what we're building now. Julian is going to be a big part of what we build in the future."
That leaves us with Montreal, DC United, the Chicago Fire, and Inter Miami vying for the last spot to visit NYCFC in the play-in game. This is a tough, tough one to predict right now because the form is incredibly inconsistent.
DC United showed a lot of fight in its 2-2 away draw over Vancouver but DC only has two games remaining.
A lovely volley, Klichy ???? pic.twitter.com/ryuVuUKK5m— D.C. United (@dcunited) October 1, 2023
We’ll know a lot more on Wednesday. If DC wins at Austin, they might take it. If DC doesn’t win at Austin on Wednesday, it’s hard to see them making it. The problem for DC regardless is that if the Chicago – Inter Miami game on Wednesday ends with a winner (seems likely), that team then looks to be in the drivers’ seat.
The only curveball remaining is Montreal. It seems unlikely they’re reverse their skid, but that’s what we said about Chicago a week ago. Montreal hosts two difficult Western Conference teams in its next two games. A win over Houston on Wednesday would change Montreal’s fortunes dramatically for the better. But it also seems unlikely based on how Houston is playing right now.
The Top of the West
Outside of St. Louis winning the West, RSL is in a great spot to finish second. Their big win away over LAFC on Sunday moved them into second. Now, their final three games are against teams below the playoff line (home vs. SKC, at LA Galaxy, at Colorado).
Cristian Arango is the striker that can carry this club. What the win over LAFC did, however, was answer three very important questions about RSL: First, they are beyond the funk after Pablo Ruiz injured his knee. That injury seemingly sunk the team but they have now found their way without him. Two, the Jefferson Savarino social media spat against his own club (he was suspended for poor defense, the club said publicly it was a personal reason, and Savarino called them out on twitter) didn’t linger. Three, the team can win tough games on the road.
CHICHO RISES UP LIKE A SALMON!!!!! pic.twitter.com/0U30O086Zl— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) October 2, 2023
Another big question we will learn the answer this week is whether Houston will experience a continued hangover after winning the Open Cup. That tends to happen. The team was lackluster in its 0-0 draw with Dallas on the road.
The interesting race is who will avoid the play-in game. The big game in this regard is Dallas vs. Colorado on Wednesday. Dallas will make-up its game-in-hand and could and should win. Dallas has been rotating its squad heavily due to congestion, but this game is extremely important for Dallas to not only secure the playoffs, but also contend to be beyond the play-in game.
Bottom of the West
This isn’t nearly as dramatic as the East. Most likely, the top nine teams will all finish in the top nine – with the order still TBD.
Sporting KC essentially needs to win out and that seems unlikely. Minnesota is even with SKC on points but has played one fewer game. To make that up, they visit LAFC on Wednesday and if they lose (likely) they will then likely need to win out.
The Galaxy has four games remaining, so they’re still alive but their next two games are at Seattle and at Minnesota and their schedule is very congested (playing through the international break).
The only thing keeping this interesting is that Minnesota and Sporting Kansas City play on Decision Day. Absent a draw, one of them will finish with at least 41 points.