With USMNT youth & vets in action, Toronto - Philadelphia headline weekend
October 02, 2020
WHEN THE CALENDAR turned to October this past week, the MLS regular season entered into its final phase. It hasn’t been easy and it’s been very unusual, but it has been interesting to follow how teams have grown or struggled through it all. What we’re left with, are deserving teams pushing for the top seeds and the best chances of winning MLS Cup.
In the weekend ahead, two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference meet with Toronto and Philadelphia. That game will feature heavy doses of U.S. national team and U.S. youth national eligible players. It also features a top team trying to squeeze one more year out of its current group with another team breaking to the league’s top group.
Also in the East, Orlando City hosts the New York Red Bulls. Orlando has been one of the most surprising teams in the league and Oscar Pareja is a strong candidate for the Manager of the Year. The Red Bulls look as if it wasn’t wise to write them off in the way others.
Out West is a different story. The East seems to have dependably good teams and dependably bad teams. The West is full of uneven and wildly unpredictable play. Where else can San Jose lose two games by a combined score of 11-1 and then turn around and beat LAFC? How can the Galaxy be so much worse with Chicarito on the field and then succeed when he is on it?
The only thing predicable in the West is that Seattle is good and is once again the favorite.
Overall, the youth numbers in the league remain sold. Players eligible for the United States and Canadian youth national teams continue to not only earn significant minutes, but also play significant roles in big results.
It is not only the “highly rated” youth players like Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Jeremy Ebobisse, and Julian Araujo who are delivering consistently impressive performances, but there has also been a steady group of young players who are making their first major professional inroads in 2020. This would include Cole Bassett, Eryk Williamson, Henry Kessler, and lately Anthony Fontana who are all impressing.
Here is my notebook for this weekend’s games
Toronto – Philadelphia
Saturday 7:30pm EST
This is the best domestic game of the weekend for American fans, by far. On the field, it is significant in how it relates to the top of the standings – and the Supporters’ Shield race. It is possible that the winner of this game holds the best record in the league afterward - depending on a Columbus loss.
From an American perspective, the game features two of the best young American managers in Jim Curtin and Greg Vanney. There is also a host of players who have represented the United States national team at the knockout rounds of the World Cup and even the Confederations Cup. Toronto has Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Omar Gonzalez while Philadelphia is captained by Alejandro Bedoya.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, features two of the best young American players in Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie – two potential national team players who both could feature at the Olympics. Aaronson is likely headed to Red Bull Salzburg after the season while scouts continue to circle for McKenzie. For Toronto, forward Ayo Akinola had a strong MLS is Back tournament and is now starting with Altidore. The Canadian-American is a candidate for the U.S. U-23 team in 2021.
Philadelphia’s youthful approach isn’t limited to those players. Anthony Fontana, 20, has scored four goals in his last three games and Matt Real has impressed at left back.
Both teams play an attractive style of soccer. Toronto designated player Alejandro Pozuelo won the league’s Player of the Month for September while Argentine midfielder Pablo Piatti has also been an important addition in 2020.
Philadelphia doesn’t have designated players of Toronto’s caliber but it is very well rounded and is generally solid across the field – and Andre Blake has been the best goalkeeper in the league
With two of the best teams taking part combined with the American players and coaches, this should be a good one.
Orlando City - New York Red Bulls
Saturday, Oct. 3: 4:30pm EST
Two weeks ago, the Red Bulls were in a downward spiral after head coach Chris Armas was fired and interim manager Bradley Carnell lost his first game. The normally uber-pessimistic Red Bull fanbase was convinced the organization was in a hopeless state and that there was nothing positive on the horizon.
The past week has been great for the Red Bulls with a pair of consecutive 4-1 wins over Miami followed by Montreal. The club now looks on the path for a return to the playoffs. But Miami and Montreal are both bad teams. Can the Red Bulls beat a higher-seeded playoff team?
Believe it or not, Orlando is now one of the East’s best teams and perhaps the most improved team in the league in 2020 under new manager Oscar Pareja. Not only is Nani a top designated player, but the team is getting big production out of American winger Chris Mueller and forward Daryl Dike. As it builds towards the playoffs, the team should only improve as Portuguese left back Joao Moutinho returns from injury and Brazilian forwards Matheus Aiás gets his paperwork completed.
Despite not being at 100%, Orlando is still pretty good. The Red Bulls meanwhile are starting to play up to the sum of their parts. Newly acquired midfielder Dru Yearwood is gelling into the midfield while stalwarts Kaku and Danny Royer are performing like they have done in years past. U.S. Olympic hopeful Kyle Duncan continues to be a top fullback and Cristian Cásseres is gradually growing to the Tyler Adams role in midfield. Finally, in central defense Aaron Long is beginning to play like the national team-caliber player he was in 2018.
The Red Bulls aren’t there yet and there are still big holes – like at striker – but it is a team that can win games and get to the playoffs. But this game will show if they can be more than the bottom feeding team they have been in 2020.
FC Dallas - Columbus Crew
Saturday, Oct. 3: 8:30pm EST
Two of the league’s original teams will meet on Saturday with top-seeding playoff implications on the line. Columbus comes in holding leads in both the East and Supporters’ Shield races. But other teams are gaining. Dallas, meanwhile, sits in third place in the West and the team looks for consecutive playoff appearances under Luchi Gonzalez.
FC Dallas has generally been strong this year behind its youthful core – which Luchi Gonzalez has been managing recently with heavy squad rotation. Players such as Jesus Ferreira, Brandon Servania, Ricardo Pepi, and Tanner Tessmann have all been moving in and out of the starting lineup. New U.S. U-20 right back Bryan Reynolds has, however, been playing on a regular basis.
But Dallas has been held scoreless in each of the past two games – a 1-0 loss to Atlanta United and a 0-0 draw with Orlando last weekend. Gonzalez has to find a way to get his team to produce. Ferreira has been cold recently and both chances and finishing has struggled.
Dallas has a difficult task ahead of it on Saturday night when it hosts a Columbus team that has the league’s best record behind strong goal scoring from U.S. international Gyasi Zardes, skillful midfield play behind Darlington Nagbe (when healthy) and a game-changing designated player in Argentine playmaker Lucas Zelarayan. But if Columbus falls in this one, Philadelphia or Toronto will overtake Columbus for the East lead should that game not end in a draw.
San Jose - LA Galaxy
Saturday, Oct. 3: 10:30pm EST
This game is tough to preview, but it is interesting, nonetheless. It is hard to write about because both teams are impossible to predict. San Jose sits bottom of the West with a league-worst -20 goal differential. Last game, however, was one of the most surprising upsets of the season when San Jose rallied for two late goals to down LAFC 2-1. Prior to that win, San Jose lost its previous two games by a combined score of 11-1.
San Jose coach Matias Almeyda brings emotion to the job, but the club has been notoriously uneven with its performances and its direction. He has brought youth into the mix with Cade Cowell, 16, receiving meaningful minutes while U.S. U-23 (and occasional U.S national team) defensive midfielder Jackson Yueill continues to be an important player for the team.
The emotional celebration after Yueill’s winner against LAFC was fun to watch but the team needs a lot of work to win with consistency. It seems, however, that whenever San Jose isn’t being blown out, they are dramatic. There is no middle ground with this team and that makes it, at least, fun.
Like San Jose, the Galaxy are another struggling team with an Argentine manager. While San Jose’s up and down performances are erratic, the Galaxy’s strugglers are more perplexing because they revolve around its star forward Chicharito.
When the Mexican forward is on the field, the Galaxy has been terrible – being outscored 11-3 over 509 minutes. In the 661 minutes Chicharito is not on the field, the Galaxy are outscoring opponents 14-10. The Galaxy’s record is 4-1-1 without Chicharito and 0-5-2 with him.
Part of the problem is that the team changes its complete style whenever Chicharito is on the field. As an elite poacher inside the box, Chicharito needs service to succeed. This is far different than the Zlatan days where the Swedish star could create for himself. When Chicharito is involved, the rest of the Galaxy players tend to adopt a different approach and look for him.
The Galaxy has plenty of talent beyond Chicharito. Cristian Pavon might be the best player in the league. Jonathan Dos Santos is also a big designated player. Sebastian Lletget is a U.S. international. Julian Araujo is a key player on the U.S. U-20 team. So with it hovering just one point out of last, it is easily the league’s biggest disappointing team in 2020.
The playoffs are not out of reach for either of these teams. If there is a winner in this one, it will be within striking distance of a post season spot.
New England – Nashville
Saturday, Oct. 3: 7:30pm
The forgiving format in the Eastern conference has both New England and Nashville in solid position to qualify for the post season. Unlike the Western Conference, which sends eight teams directly to the first round of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference sends six teams to the first round while teams in places 7-10 participate in a play-in round.
In this game, resurgent New England is in fifth place but just one point clear of qualifying directly to the first round. Nashville, meanwhile, is in eighth place – just two points clear of a spot in the play-in round. For an expansion organization, that is a relatively strong position at this stage of its first season.
Each of these teams have had decent 2020 seasons, so far, because of defense and goalkeeping. The Revolution has scored just 15 goals in 14 games but has conceded just 12 goals. Matt Turner has played a big part of that and should be in the mix for the United States national team. Another “under the radar” player to watch in this one is American rookie central defender Henry Kessler who is certainly now in the mix for the U.S. U-23 team.
Nashville has scored just 11 goals in 14 games but has hung around by virtue of conceding just 15 goals. Initially there were fears that this team would struggle in its first season in a similar manner to Cincinnati. That has not been the case due to its experienced defense up the middle. It hasn’t been a pretty team to watch but it has been scrappy and effective, given its talent level.
Elsewhere around the league
Due to the COVID outbreak among the Rapids team, the Portland – Colorado games has been postponed. The setback has come at a tough time for the Rapids which had been winning recently behind strong efforts from several young American players like Cole Bassett, Sam Vines, and Jonathan Lewis. The break, however, is probably welcome for a Portland team that has an old core of players which is heavily taxed during the condensed 2020 schedule.
Led by Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro, Western leading Seattle host a struggling Vancouver team on Saturday night that is poised to miss the playoffs again.
DC United is one of the worst teams in the East in 2020 and Atlanta is a shell of its former self but still has a chance to limp into the playoff round with a few wins down the stretch. These teams meet on Saturday.
Minnesota has been a mixed back in 2020 but still more up than down. Currently sitting in fifth place, it is heading to the playoffs again while Cincinnati is still a bad team but is only two points out of a play-in round position in the East. These teams meet up on Saturday night.
Inter Miami has not had an easy debut season and it is lucky fans haven’t been allowed into games, otherwise it would be running the risk of turning off South Florida in its first year. On Saturday, it hosts a New York City sitting in sixth place but is only ahead of its rivals, the Red Bulls, on goal differential for the final automatic playoff spot.
Former United States World Cup teammates now managers will face off again when Tab Ramos and Houston welcome Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. Sporting sit safely in fourth place and are playing for a spot that would allow it to host a first-round playoff game. Tab Ramos, in his first year as manager, is just two points out of a playoff spot but is in an uphill climb after selling Alberth Elis to Boavista this month.
Montreal and Chicago are both holding the final two play-in spots in the East and the two will face off on Saturday in hopes of solidifying their position.
Seventh-place Los Angeles FC visit eighth place Real Salt Lake in the league’s only Sunday game. This game is important in the playoff race as both teams are even on 18 points. The loser in this game could be overtaken if Houston wins. LAFC has been very disappointing in 2020 as its defense has cost the team significant points. The absence of injured Carlos Vela has been costly but offensive production hasn’t played up to the remaining sum of its parts. Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake has dealt with an ownership scandal and inconsistent play. But a win in this game, would put it in a strong position to sneak into the playoffs.