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MLS Grab Bag, Week 3: League tears down Trump's wall

Friday 16th March 2018

Welcome to the 2018 season’s third edition of MLS Grab Bag. Each Friday we’ll review midweek news, preview key weekend matches, and explore other interesting developments.

Tear down the wall

The USSF has been slow to act on the negative attitude Donald Trump’s immigration policy and insulting remarks about foreign countries engendered towards its 2026 World Cup bid. To its credit, Major League Soccer has not. While the US President continues to lobby for a wall on the country’s southern border MLS has entered a new partnership with Liga MX, opening doors between the two competitions.

The deal creates two new marquee matches between the leagues.

First, a Super Cup dubbed the Copa Campeones (Champions Cup) will be played annually in autumn between the MLS Cup holders and the Supercopa MX winner. The latter is the annual title match between Liga MX's Apertura and Clausura champions, as the Mexican competition features a split-season format. To begin, the Champions Cup will be a single match rather than a two-legged tie. MLS Cup supremos Toronto FC will host the inaugural match on September 19 at BMO Field.

In addition to the Copa Campeones, an All-Star competition between the two leagues is in the planning stages. The current MLS All-Star format pits the league’s best against a touring European club preparing for their season. It has been in place since 2005. Nine Premier League sides, including Manchester United, Tottenham, and Arsenal have appeared, as have Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. This year’s event is scheduled to be held in Atlanta United’s 75,000 seat Mercedes Benz Stadium on August 1. No opponent has been announced as yet. The date may be too soon for Liga MX to commit. Their 2018 Apertura season schedule may already be set. It’s one thing to postpone one fixture so a club can compete in the Copa Campeones, another to set aside an entire match day to pluck players from various teams.

The partnership between the leagues will also help develop youth and grassroots programs that straddle the border in addition to combining philanthropic efforts and resources.

Taking it to extremes

The Washington Post is reporting local side DC United is about to complete an incongruous double.

Last weekend the Black-and-Red provided the opposition for Atlanta United, who not only share DC’s name but team colours--imagination, please--in their home opener. The match set a new attendance record for the league when 72, 035 came out to help Gerardo Martino’s high-octane attack get back on track after an embarrassing 0-4 thrashing at BBVA Compass Stadium to Houston Dynamo. Tata’s troops responded with a 3-1 victory in which the entire attacking trident, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba, and Miguel Almiron, scored.

This weekend DC United are set to play before the smallest recorded crowd in MLS history. Their new Audi Field isn’t quite ready for matches yet. Unlike Mercedes Benz Stadium, it won’t be shared with an NFL side, and therefore will be much smaller, seating 20,000. The ground will feature several shoppes, restaurants, and a complimentary bike valet (?) on match days, but in the interim, the team must play two home games at alternate venues. The first will be at the Maryland Soccerplex, which seats only 5,000. Attendance for the match is expected to be less than the 3,702 who attended a Chivas USA match in 2014.

Barring a late rush on tickets, DC United will have played before the largest and smallest MLS crowds ever in the space of a single week. Players will probably tell their grandkids only half the story.

MLS making a CONCACAF Champions League statement

It wasn’t a comprehensive announcement of intent, given Seattle Sounders crashed out of the competition, but Major League Soccer has taken an aggressive step towards toppling Liga MX’s CCL dominance. Entering the quarterfinals MLS was 2-18 against Mexican opposition in the knockout rounds. They doubled their win total this week.

On Tuesday, New York Red Bulls completed their sweep of Tijuana with a second 3-1 victory over the Xolos, this time at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Luis Angel Mendoza lived up to his “Quick” moniker, giving Tijuana hope with a strike in the tenth minute. Diego Cocca’s side couldn’t make up further ground, however. Academy product Tyler Adams had the home side on the board just before the half-hour. Second-half substitutes Marc Rzatkowski and Alejandro Romero Gamarra made boss Jesse Marsch look a genius by putting the game away with goals on 70 and 76 minutes respectively. NYRB draw Chivas de Guadalajara in the semifinals.

On Wednesday, MLS Cup holders Toronto FC journeyed to Monterey to face Torneo Apertura champions Tigres UANL at Estadio Universitario. TFC brought a 2-1 advantage from the first leg at BMO field but were sweating Tigres’ away goal.

The match unfolded slowly. Before the quarter-hour the Reds were forced to sub out injured defender Justin Morrow but remained tightly organised when Auro Junior took his place. Rafael Carioca’s own goal in the 65th minute gave TFC control, forcing Tigres to open up and pursue the match. Eduardo Vargas’ header levelled terms on the night and cut the aggregate deficit in half five minutes later but the Reds took even less time to answer Tigres’ challenge. Sebastian Giovinco buried a free-kick in the near upper-90 to restore the two-goal aggregate advantage, give Toronto two-away goals, and compel Tigres to score three in the final 17 minutes plus stoppage time to progress. Andres-Pierre Gignac nearly managed it, sneaking in at the back post to peg one back then converting a penalty. The Frenchman ran out of time however and Toronto will face Club America in the semifinals.

Sounders couldn’t grab the Goats by the horns to make it a clean sweep on the week for MLS franchises. Carrying a 1-0 advantage into Estadio Chivas, Seattle were outclassed on the evening. Chivas cruised into a date with New York Red Bulls behind second-half goals from Oswaldo Alanis, Eduardo Lopez, and Jesus Godinez. Sounders playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro didn't make the trip with a sprained foot.

The semifinal matchups are slated for the first and second weeks in April.

Weekend’s best

Nine matches are on tap in MLS this weekend, eight on Saturday.

The Sunday match sees a battered Sounders squad journey to struggling FC Dallas for a late afternoon start. As yet, there is no word whether Nicolas Lodeiro will be available or any of the other walking wounded in the Seattle squad. Regardless the lineup his side faces, Oscar Pareja needs to get his young group on track. In 2017, the Toros followed up two Western Conference first-place finishes with a tumble to seventh. Pareja’s bunch opened the season two weeks ago with a one-goal draw against similarly scuffling Real Salt Lake, the same team MLS newbies LAFC demolished 5-1 last week.

Saturday offers four intriguing matchups. Retooled Orlando City visits undefeated NYCFC in the first leg of a tie that produced two thrilling matches in 2017. New Lions playmaker Sacha Kljestan may still have hard feelings for City following his time with New York Red Bulls. Unbeaten Philadelphia Union welcome doubly unbeaten Columbus Crew to the Talen Energy Stadium. The Crew’s future home is still up in the air. The Union don’t care. North of the 49th parallel the battle between Upper and Lower Canada resumes as TFC visit Stade Saputo to take on Montreal Impact. If you’re confused why Ontario is Upper Canada when it’s lower on the map than Quebec, it’s because early explorers had to sail up the St Lawrence River to reach it. Don’t feel bad; it confuses every public school student in Canada too.

The weekend’s tastiest matchup also involves a Canadian side. Vancouver Whitecaps put their perfect record on the line against Atlanta United at BC Place. The Caps have won both their matches by 2-1 scores. Montreal and Houston are both playoff contending teams. Failing to keep clean sheets against either wouldn’t be a worry if a squad not carrying Atlanta’s firepower was coming to town.

This one is a tactical dilemma for Carl Robinson, who got his all wrong in last season’s playoff. Does he park the bus and hope for the best in just his team’s third match in the campaign? Or does he try to put Tata Martino’s squad on the back foot as Wilmer Cabrera and Houston Dynamo did a fortnight past? History is on the bus’ side.

Race for the MLS Cup

Here are the top five favourites to be crowned 2018 Major League Soccer Champion following two weeks’ play:

5. LAFC -- The Wings will undoubtedly maintain their perfect record this week. Bob Bradley’s side is one of the five clubs with a bye in Week Three.

4. Atlanta United -- Tata’s boys responded to the embarrassment of losing 4-0 in their opener by dusting off DC United 3-1 before 72,000 home supporters. Now they traverse the continent, passports in hand, to face the Whitecaps in the Pacific Northwest. The win over DC proved the Five Stripes could still score like a seven nation army. Now the team must prove they can produce on the road.

3. Vancouver Whitecaps -- As already noted, Carl Robinson is punching well above his weight when trying to outthink former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo Martino. Coming up with a plan is only half the battle though. His squad must execute it. Can the Whitecaps make their boss look like a genius?

2. Columbus Crew -- Gregg Berhalter’s Crew still has one foot out the MAPFRE Stadium door with no further news emerging on the team’s threatened move to Austin, Texas. The team isn’t paying attention to the controversy, however, focusing instead on each match as it comes. Thus far, the Black and Gold have upset MLS Cup holders Toronto FC and won a wild affair against Montreal Impact. This week’s match against Philadelphia Union promises to be another difficult encounter.

1. New York City FC -- City are also perfect but below the Crew in the table on goals scored. They face a test this week. In 2017, Patrick Vieira’s squad played Orlando three times, all in the season’s first half. In the campaign opener on March 5th they fell to the Lions in Disneyville 1-0. In April Orlando pulled the trick again, winning 2-1, this time in the Bronx. Third time pays for all though. City went back to Florida in late May and, along with the t-shirts and mouse ears, brought home a 3-0 victory. They’ll want to put the rivalry to bed early this season.

2018 MLS table after two weeks' play.
2018 MLS table after two weeks' play.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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