MLS analysis

Portland, Dallas, & NYCFC the big winners, Chicago & Minnesota big losers in midweek action

ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers up his big picture thoughts on the midweek MLS games
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 21, 2023
4:05 PM

WEDNESDAY SAW A full slate of MLS games and teams are now entering the final month of play before the playoffs start. But this weekend helped setup the story over which are the real races, which teams mean business, and which teams are looking for next year.

My first takeaway is on Miami’s playoff push – but it’s from the other direction. It’s not about Miami’s improvement that is giving them a chance (and I’ll get to Messi’s injury in a little bit). That is only half the story.

The other half is that the bottom half of the East is dreadfully terrible right now. If only one of these teams caught fire, Miami would not be able to catch them. But it is so bad right now, that Miami can rest Messi and still catch them.

Think about this. The last five games for each of these six teams have resulted in just five total wins. Only NYCFC has won more than once in its last five games among these six teams. Montreal hasn't won in four games. DC United hasn't won in three games. Chicago hasn't won in six games. The Red Bulls haven't won in five games.

Miami is essentially chasing a playoff line that is barely moving. Now, they playoff line set by DC United is just five points away – and Miami has played two fewer games. Of Miami’s six MLS games remaining, just two games are against playoff teams.

The hardest of those six games is this weekend at Orlando and Miami will play without Messi. If Miami somehow wins that game, the playoffs go from unlikely to likely. Then their schedule becomes one of the easiest imaginable.

The fact that the remaining teams in the playoff hunt can’t seem to raise their level is disappointing. For the Red Bulls, the disappointment stung even more. On a day when former manager Gerhard Struber (fired on May 8) led Red Bull Salzburg to a 2-0 away win over Benfica in the Champions League, the Red Bulls blew a lead and settled for a 1-1 draw at home against a bad Austin FC team.

Anyway, here are some more thoughts on some of the games.


Inter Miami thrash Toronto.


Miami hosted Toronto on Wednesday and the beginning was the same old story. Toronto blew a bunch of chances, and eventually Miami put their chances away. The result was a 4-0 win.

The big difference in this game is that both Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi were forced out in the first half, both just before the 40th minute. Afterward, Tata Martino said it was muscle fatigue. Messi missed Argentina’s second World Cup qualifier (a 3-0 win over Bolivia) on September 12 and then Inter Miami’s 5-2 loss to Atlanta over on Saturday.

"They trained normally and we felt like they were ready to play," Martino said after the game through an interpreter. "I don't believe it's anything new or anything worse than what they had before. It's fatigue. We don't think it's a muscular injury. That's also from a conversation that I just had with [Lionel Messi]. But we have to continue being careful and we'll look at him the next few days."


But that raises the big question: why even risk Messi in this game? Inter Miami has seven games remaining (six in the regular season and the Open Cup final) and there will be a lot of schedule congestion. Messi can’t play every minute. This game would have made far more sense to have Messi on the bench as a sub if needed. Toronto has the single worst record in the league and Miami was playing at home. They didn’t need Messi to beat Toronto (in fact all four of their goals came after he left the game).

This seemed like the right time to chance it without Messi.

As for the rest of the game, Miami played great without the Argentine great. Robert Taylor was exceptional (as he has been since Messi’s arrival) and youngster Benja Cremaschi scored the team’s second goal on a pass from Taylor.

Cremaschi isn’t consistent yet, but he’s got a big upside. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with him for both club and country (we don’t know which one) in the year ahead.


St. Louis draws LAFC


The league’s marquee game of the night between St. Louis and LAFC ended in a 0-0 draw in Missouri. Even though it was a draw at home, the result was far more helpful to St. Louis as it simply limits the opportunity LAFC has to make up ground.

Sure, St. Louis clinched a playoff berth with the draw, but the real talk is about finishing first in the West – which would put them in the CONCACAF Cup (aka Champions League).

As for LAFC, they weren’t all that disappointed with the result. Head coach Steve Cherundolo praised his team after the game.

LAFC is still a good team, but they seem to lack the explosiveness they had last year. It’s a lot harder this year and the team wasn’t great in the CONCACAF Champions League final or the Leagues Cup – which should give pause for the playoffs.

Right now, they’ve played one fewer game than both St. Louis or Seattle and they trail St. Louis by six points and Seattle by one. LAFC also has just one win in their last five games. Three of their final five games are also away from home.


Dallas gets big win


The biggest winner of the day was Dallas heading to Utah and defeating Real Salt Lake 3-1. After falling behind, Dallas scored three goals in the second from Paul Arriola and two from Jesus Ferreira. RSL meanwhile continues to implode from the season-ending injury to Pablo Ruiz. Prior to that, they looked a team who could go deep in the playoffs after signing Christian Arango. They’ve lost four of five but are still safely in the playoff positions at fifth place.

The big question for RSL is how one injury can cause an entire team to implode? Was the team that vulnerable or is there something else wrong?

But the West is far different than the East. In the West, teams are playing well and are gaining ground.  That means RSL has to get its act together.

This was a huge win for FC Dallas that took over the final spot in the West and has either a game or two in hand from the surrounding teams. Dallas is a good team, but the problem is that the next three games are hard (Columbus at home, away at Philly, away at Houston). A win and a draw from that list would be huge. We will see if this win gives them confidence.


Chicago’s implosion


Until two weeks ago, the Chicago Fire were in a playoff position. But the end of the season has been extremely painful. Over their last six games since the restart after Leagues Cup, Chicago has just one point. In this game, no one was expecting Chicago to get anything from an away trip to Columbus but this was a bad effort regardless of the expectations.

The lowest point was a red card to Shaqiri in the 64th minute. He has been one of the biggest disappointments in recent high-profile MLS signings. He simply hasn’t turned up when asked.

 As for Columbus, they could make a deep run in the playoffs and maybe win it all. Diego Rossi and Cucho Hernandez are the firepower needed. Hernandez now has 13 goals and 11 assists in 22 games. Hernandez had a hat trick in this game and has MVP numbers.

Afterward, Wilfried Nancy called Cucho the “best modern forward in the league.”


Minnesota and the Galaxy


The Galaxy trailed 3-1 at home on Wednesday to Minnesota but rallied for a 4-3 win behind a hattrick from Billy Sharp and a winner from Diego Fagundez. For Minnesota, this was inexcusable in a playoff race where the surrounding teams like Dallas and Portland are winning.

A few weeks ago, I thought the Galaxy were going to surge and make the playoffs, but the Galaxy stumbled, and other teams play well. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. The Galaxy have six games remaining compared with most other teams in the race having five. They just have to find ways to win some tough games – like away to Portland and Minnesota.

If they do that, the final game against Dallas at home on decision day could be the big one.

As for Minnesota, they are playing far below expectations and cannot hold onto leads. Surrendering losing goals after the 80th minute in back-to-back games is not the mark of a focused team. There of their last five games are at home and they must win at least two – starting this weekend against St. Louis.


Evander rising in Portland


Sometimes teams get bumps from new coaches, but Portland’s rise since firing Gio Savarese in after the 5-0 loss to Houston on August 20th is another level. Not only does the team have four wins and a draw in their last five games, but the record designated player Evander is now finally producing in ways the club hoped. He has three goals in his last four games and is dominating the midfield. The latest coming in Saturday’s 2-1 win over San Jose.

They’re in the playoff positions and still have a lot of work to do, but they’re trending in the right direction and have an impact player who is making differences.

As for San Jose, they’ll probably be okay but they’re heading in the wrong direction. They need a win badly and host Nashville on Saturday.


Other notes


NYCFC is the only team outside of Miami in the 7-15 spots who has won more than one game in their last five. That came on Wednesday in an impressive 2-0 win over Orlando at “home.” That puts NYCFC in the race for the final playoff spots that no one seems to want. The DC United game on October 7 will have huge playoff implications.

Orlando had a golden chance to turn the top of the East into a genuine race given Cincy’s loss on the day. But instead, they put forth their worst game of the season.

DC United drew Atlanta 1-1 at home. Yes, DC United needs a win but this was a pretty good result given how well Atlanta has been playing. Ted Ku-DePietro is turning into an exciting player this season and he could feature on the Olympic team.

The Red Bulls drew Austin FC 1-1 in a game that should exclude them from the playoffs. Their only goal came from an own goal and defensively, they couldn’t hang onto a 1-0 advantage. They’re tough to watch. Austin FC is also extremely disappointing, and fans are fed up with Josh Wolff.

Seattle got an expected 2-1 away win over Colorado – the worst team in the league. Other teams are certainly more disappointing than Colorado. But even when a team like Toronto has a terrible year, people are angry and ownership has made an ambitious coaching hire with John Herdman. Do we get the sense Colorado is set to make an ambitious move?

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