Throwing Major League Soccer into an international competition against teams that are already well into their seasons seems unfair. But it also provides a bit of spontaneity to what MLS sides are able to accomplish. That is if you actually win, of course.
That's the beauty and complexity of CONCACAF Champions League.
Austin FC found out the hard way in what was the most surprising series of the five MLS representatives. The third-year club was riding high coming into this season after a great 2022 that saw them reach the Western Conference final. But 2023 has been anything but kind to El Verde, and the shocking loss and early exit from the tournament at the hands of Haitian club Violette AFC will certainly sting for a while.
For starters, the opponent was a team that hadn’t played a professional game in almost a year. Due to political unrest and corruption in Haiti, the situation for local soccer teams has been bleak, and there was a chance this series might not even happen. Luckily it did, despite the first leg having to be played at a neutral site in the Dominican Republic. Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff went into that match with a rotational lineup and was overwhelmed as they took a demoralizing 3-0 loss.
The second leg at Q2 Stadium in Austin was a bit different as Austin pressured throughout the 90 minutes, but it was only able to muster a pair of goals, inevitably falling short of what was needed.
The lesson is clear: do not underestimate CCL games, opponents and chaos.
Orlando City for sure didn’t do that because they had perhaps the toughest matchup of the first round facing Liga MX’s Tigres UANL. And after leaving Mexico with a stalemate it seemed like the Lions were in good shape to return to Florida and hopefully advance. The Mexican side had different plans and made things difficult for Orlando, despite heroics from goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, as the 1-1 draw ended in Orlando being ousted due to the away goal rule.
Two of five MLS teams were gone just like that.
The Philadelphia Union, which many lauded as the squad best equipped to follow the Seattle Sounders’ success as a CCL champion, took care of business at home with a 4-0 win over Alianza of El Salvador in the second leg and moved on. The Vancouver Whitecaps, the weakest MLS representative on paper, smashed Real España 5-0 in the first leg, which basically punched their ticket to the next round without issue.
Defending MLS Cup champions LAFC had a great showing in a 3-0 win in Costa Rica against L.D. Alajuelense. The return leg in Los Angeles got a little shaky as they conceded the first two goals and were sweating it out a bit before Carlos Vela came to the rescue in the 83rd minute to put it out of reach.
LAFC will now play Vancouver in the quarterfinals, guaranteeing that at least one MLS team will reach the semis. If the Union are able to beat Liga MX’s Atlas in their matchup, they will advance to the semifinals against the winner of that LAFC-Vancouver tilt, which would mean an MLS representative will play in the championship game.
A lot has to happen for that to pan out, and as CCL has already shown us: prepare for anything.
Best team in MLS is…
At some point “luck” runs out and you have to just accept the fact that St. Louis City is good. With a 3-0 victory over the Earthquakes, they became the first expansion club in MLS history to win their first four games. Twelve points and sitting pretty atop the standings just like nobody expected. Besides just winning, it’s the swagger this squad is showing that stands out the most. Labelling them as underdogs before they played an actual game is one thing, but they’ve shattered that moniker along with any expectations, or lack thereof.
“The boys were angry from day one, that no one believed in them,” said head coach Bradley Carnell. “So yeah, we've got the chip on the shoulder.”
It’s way more than a chip. The playing style is convincing, the pressing is suffocating and the energy is infectious. João Klauss is establishing himself early in the Golden Boot race with three goals already. Eduard Löwen and Nicholas Gioacchini have been massively important in anchoring an attack that’s tied for a league-best 11 goals. And the best part is this squad has just simply bought into the process while creating epic history. Two sold-out games at home adds to their two road wins in extremely tough places like Austin and Portland.
Say what you want about it being early — or any other excuse you might come up with to avoid giving St. Louis its deserved credit — they seem to thrive off that and enjoy it anyway. But once again, this is not a fluke.
Atlanta United is indeed back
When Atlanta entered MLS in 2017 and had instant success by winning the Cup in 2018, it was simply an announcement. That was the standard they would follow. The Five Stripes took the league by storm, set attendance records and enjoyed every second of what was happening. But things changed as relationships faded, star players came and went with more bad memories than good. The club regressed terribly as it cycled through head coaches. What we’ve seen so far in 2023 is reminiscent of those early glory days, though. Three wins and one draw, 11 goals scored with just three conceded.
We knew Thiago Almada was going to be very good, but maybe not this good. It seemed he might’ve learned a thing or two from his teammate Lionel Messi at the World Cup because he can’t stop scoring these absurd free kick goals.
Thiago Almada is special. 🇦🇷
4 goals, 4 assists in 4 games. pic.twitter.com/fT7VhpZmX3
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2023
The 21-year-old World Cup champion has an MLS-best four goals and four assists already. Every game that passes you just see his transfer value increase by millions. Then there’s 18-year-old Caleb Wiley, who has burst on the scene and has three goals himself. Life is so good for Atlanta that Giorgos Giakoumakis finally made his first start and scored instantly as part of the 5-1 rout over Portland.
The confidence and freeness Atlanta is playing with right now is a complete change from what we saw last year. It’s restoring the feeling that made fans and neutrals so excited to watch this team on a weekly basis.
Mixed emotions for winless Galaxy
Two draws and a loss in three games isn’t the worst, but scoring just a pair of goals is a bit concerning for the LA Galaxy. Having your star designated players out already due to injury certainly doesn’t help. And having a somewhat divided fanbase is a headache for all involved. Saturday night’s home opener in Carson, California, was supposed to be a celebration, as it typically is. Instead, due to displeasure with the front office and president Chris Klein, it was headlined by a protest that took over in front of the stadium before the game.
Giant banners, flags and signs demanding the removal of Klein caught the attention of people both in and outside the stadium. Those same rowdy supporters, which are the ones that lead chants during the game and create the energy, decided to not attend the actual match as part of their boycott. The crowd inside was surprisingly better than expected with an attendance of 23,112, but the silence and lack of constant chanting that has become tradition is hard to ignore. Ironically enough, it was the Galaxy’s best performance of the season, but they still were unable to get that first victory.
“I’m grateful for the people that came in the stadium and supported the group,” said head coach Greg Vanney after the 1-1 draw vs. Vancouver. “We’ll keep focusing on trying to win games, and whoever wants to be in the stadium, we’re going to try to entertain them."
This seems like a standoff with no real end point anytime soon. What needs to come soon is putting one in the win column or else the noise is only going to multiply.
What to make of Revs?
How you respond to a loss can tell you a lot about a team. The New England Revolution would like to completely wipe last week’s 4-0 defeat to LAFC from their minds if they could. It was uncharacteristic for them but a necessary reality check. Head coach Bruce Arena basically chalked it up to the team just not being as good as the defending champions, and that’s fine to say because it’s accurate. LAFC is on a different elite tier with very few teams in the league. But it’s not far-fetched to say that New England is right in that following group in terms of a team that can really compete this season.
The 1-0 win over Nashville won’t necessarily flatter anyone, but finally getting them to concede a goal is a huge victory. And having Gustavo Bou, who wasn’t with the team this preseason as he awaited the process of his green card, to score that goal is immense. Not only was it the Revs’ third win of the season, it was the third clean sheet too.
Defensively, they might be one of the better teams in MLS as Dave Romney gets more accustomed and DeJuan Jones keeps blossoming. Matt Polster is easily one of the most underrated players in the league and covers an absurd amount of ground. Noel Buck is among the most exciting young players and is showcasing his quality more every time he steps on the field, playing well beyond his age. Dylan Borrero has the skill and promise to be a game-changing player — even Bou said he reminds him of former Revolution standout Tajon Buchanan.
Djordje Petrovic is probably the best goalkeeper in MLS.
If it seems like this is just running off a list, it’s because it is. It’s to show how strong New England is in so many different areas, and that’s without mentioning former MVP Carles Gil, who is dealing with an injury. With him back in the mix, this team is not to be taken lightly. There are, of course, areas of improvements in the roster and with certain players, but you shouldn't sleep on the Revs whatsoever this season. They're just a few years removed from a record-setting Supporters’ Shield-winning season and seem equipped to have a very successful 2023.
Or you can take Arena’s unsurprising approach: “First four games of the season means absolutely nothing.”