By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 28, 2020) US Soccer Players – Somehow, it’s only August in a year that feels like it’s been going for a decade. To say that 2020 has messed with our rhythms, as Americans, as sports fans, as people, would be a dramatic understatement. With a pandemic wreaking havoc on the sports schedule and massive societal issues requiring immediate attention, 2020 has done an excellent job of making us forget what passes for normal.
2019 was normal. 2019 delivered a Major League Soccer season almost exactly like the 23 that came before it. Yes, MLS added considerably more teams than they subtracted over two-plus decades. Yes, MLS regularly tinkered with the playoffs. We can’t forget why the 2001 regular season ended early. Still, most of the seasons since the first one in 1996 were straightforward affairs. A set number of teams playing a set number of games on a predetermined schedule. Then playoffs, then an MLS Cup final. Fin.
By this point in the 2019 season, the MLS campaign was mature enough that we had a good idea of who was good, who was not, and who would need a strong push down the stretch of the regular season schedule to get into the 14-team playoff field. 2019 was the first year of the expanded, single-elimination playoff format, putting home-field advantage front-and-center as teams jockeyed for position.
Late August is the traditional start of the make-or-break period of the calendar. No one in 2019 had any doubt about the best team in the league. LAFC grabbed first place in the Western Conference on March 25 and never relinquished the top spot. Bob Bradley’s team also had firm control of the Supporters’ Shield as September dawned, ahead of Atlanta United by 14 points.
Carlos Vela was in the midst of his record-breaking season, but the league’s consensus top squad still had a hurdle it couldn’t clear. The end of August brought another round of Major League Soccer’s Rivalry Week games. LAFC faced the Galaxy at Banc of California. The game ended 3-3, with both Vela and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring twice.
Ibrahimovic rubbed it in with his goals, celebrating in front of the LAFC’s supporters and saying after the game with classic Ibrahimovic humility, “What can I say? I enjoy it when I play against them. I enjoy to play in this stadium.”
Vela exited that game early, under protest, due to a slight hamstring injury. His pair of goals brought his total to 27, three back of the all-time single-season record set by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez in 2018.
There have been a pair of El Trafico games played in 2020. One of them took place at MLS is Back in Orlando, where LAFC took apart their crosstown rivals 6-2 sans Carlos Vela. The second went down just this past weekend when the Galaxy grabbed a measure of revenge at Dignity Health Sports Park with a 2-0 win. No fans, no Zlatan, half the Vela, but a healthy dose of the same enmity.
Speaking of Atlanta, the defending MLS Cup champions not only sat in first place in the Eastern Conference on August 27, but they were also celebrating the second major domestic trophy in club history. The end of August brought to a close the 106th edition of the US Open Cup, with the final taking place at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Georgia.
More than 35,000 fans showed up to watch United secure the title with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United. Despite the inconsistent nature of his first season in Atlanta, Argentine forward Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was the undisputed hero of the night. Martinez’s goal in the 16th minute eventually proved to be the game-winner.
Sitting here a year later and in the aftermath of Frank de Boer’s firing, it’s easy to forget that things were pretty good for Atlanta United just one year ago. It wasn’t just the Open Cup title or the club’s standing as the top team in the Eastern Conference, a spot United would cede just a week later via a 3-1 loss to Philadelphia). Atlanta was only a few weeks removed from a remarkable achievement that only it could claim among MLS teams. They beat a Mexican club in a final.
There was plenty of debate about the importance of the game that pitted the reigning MLS champion Atlanta United against the winner of a playoff between Mexico’s last two half-season tournament winners. That turned out to be Club America. The inaugural Campeones Cup in 2018 hadn’t drawn much attention, though the intent of Liga MX and MLS to bring the two leagues into direct competition was picking up steam.
Club America manager Miguel Herrera raised the stakes, letting Atlanta know that his club plays for trophies and this one counts. With a challenge hanging in the air and 40,000 fans in the stands, de Boer’s team found three goals and defeated the Mexicans 3-2. Whatever the importance of the Campeones Cup, the win added to the credentials of the third year MLS team. It also renewed hope that MLS would soon end Mexico’s dominance in the Concacaf Champions League.
In retrospect, August of 2019 was the high-water mark of Frank de Boer’s tenure in Georgia. Though he would eventually push his team to the Eastern Conference final a few months later, the joy of that late summer run and the two trophies it delivered would stand out of de Boer’s only real achievement.
August of 2019 and it’s sheer normalcy is hard to fathom from our current viewpoint. The Philadelphia Union, a team that rarely made much noise before that season, was fighting for first place with NYCFC and Atlanta this time a year ago. It was then that the Union truly became contenders in the eyes of most observers. While the club ended up in 3rd-place by the end of the regular season and fell in the conference semifinals, the campaign lifted them to a new stratosphere in the minds of MLS fans.
The new normal of higher accountability for MLS head coaches was front-and-center this time last year. 2020 has delivered just a single coaching change due to the small number of games. August 2019 was a maelstrom of turnover among coaches. Freddy Juarez at Real Salt Lake, Ron Jans at FC Cincinnati, Robin Fraser with the Colorado Rapids, Davy Arnaud with the Houston Dynamo, and Wilmer Cabrera, fired by Houston and replaced by Arnaud, with the Montreal Impact all took over in August.
It’s not worth stating the obvious, but we’ll do it anyway. 2020 has been just a bit different. By the end of August 2019, MLS teams had 26 or 27 games on their records. MLS hopes to get to 28 total this season and will rush through a congested schedule to get to that number in time for a playoff tournament.
The world hopes to return to normal next year. For MLS, that means fans in the stands, an All-Star Game in the books, two different competitions with Mexico played or in progress, the Open Cup, and much more that we might have taken for granted.
The rhythm is off. We only need to look back to this time last year to understand just how much.
More From Jason Davis:
- Saint Louis FC’s ending
- The Vancouver Whitecaps, Alphonso Davies, and the search for success
- St Louis City begins to build
- The new MLS transfer window
Photo by Katie Gillen – Atlanta United