By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 20, 2022) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer delivered school night action on Wednesday with ten games spread across the country. Some midweek rounds can slip by without getting the notice they deserve. With games on top of games in a league with 28 teams, it can be difficult to fully appreciate one match night of results.
Wednesday’s round included a couple of notable wins for clubs working to convince the rest of MLS, and perhaps themselves, that they are contenders. A healthy dose of confidence from a win that sends a message can go a long way towards building a reputation.
No club hovering around the top of the table in either conference has more to prove than Austin FC. The second-year team surprised observers with a fast start to the season but failed to earn full marks from league analysts because of the relative weakness of its schedule. Austin benefited from an opening two weeks against FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami, teams that started in the midst of rebooting most of their rosters.
Those opening week opponents succumbed to an overwhelming Austin FC attack that hit its stride early. Scoring 10 times in two matches was impressive, but a wait-and-see assessment of Austin followed Josh Wolff’s team in the second and third months of the season.
Austin collected wins here and there but largely struggled on the road. Against the West’s better teams, Austin came up short of proving its credentials. Wolff’s team entered Wednesday night’s visit to first-place LAFC on a two-game losing streak against the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.
With those results in mind, Austin’s 2-1 win at Banc of California Stadium won’t wash away all doubts about its ability to hang around the playoff race in the West. It does, however, put the club into first in the West and the Supporters’ Shield standings for at least a few days.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver’s return to the lineup was a boost for Austin. He missed two games with a knee injury suffered against the Houston Dynamo on May 3 and while Austin’s defense didn’t collapse in his absence, the team operates more effectively with him in net. Stuver’s shot-stopping will get the headlines (he made six saves against LAFC), but he’s also a part of the club’s possession-based philosophy.
In a league dominated by pressing, Austin stands out for its commitment to keeping the ball. Stuver’s play with his feet is a crucial part of that approach.
Sebastian Driussi keyed Austin’s biggest road win to date with the pass that sprung Diego Fagundez for the eventual game-winner. Though Luciano Acosta and Jesus Ferriera have stolen away some of the early season MVP candidate spotlight, Driussi still deserves a place in the discussion. Driussi-to-Fagundez was something of a reversal of roles for Austin. Fagundez is at the top of the league with seven assists, while Driussi is in the race for the Golden Boot with seven goals.
It is certainly possible to pick apart Austin’s record by each individual result. But claiming the top spot in the West following the win in Los Angeles suggests there’s enough of a platform for the Austin FC to make a run at real success this season. Only those hunting for reasons to doubt Austin can find fault with a win away at what many considered to be the league’s best team.
Austin’s message what a matter of convincing. For NYCFC and the Seattle Sounders, Wednesday was more of a reminder.
The defending MLS Cup champions extended their unbeaten run to six with a quick trip down the coast to Washington to beat DC United 2-0. NYCFC finished the job by halftime when Taty Castellanos converted a penalty kick with a clever chip to give his team the eventual game-winning margin. NYCFC was the favorite and did what a favorite is supposed to do.
New York’s early season results suffered thanks to a Champions League campaign that took them to a semifinal. Head coach Ronny Deila did what any MLS manager must do while fighting on two fronts and rotated his team to take the best possible shot at the continental title. After NYCFC’s ouster at the hands of the eventual CCL-winning Sounders, the club’s play in the league improved dramatically.
The numbers tell the story of NYCFC’s rise. Deila’s team is first in expected goals and tied for third in expected goals against in MLS. Since a wild 5-4 win over Toronto FC on April 24, NYCFC hasn’t conceded a goal in MLS play, a stat that is a credit to both the club’s defense and its ability to dominate the ball and limit the opponent chances to get forward.
When you’re always worried about NYCFC’s potent attack, it’s difficult to get your foot on the ball and send numbers forward. NYCFC wins by making offense a good defense.
NYCFC took 16 of a possible 18 points since losing to Seattle in the Champions League. Despite not having a consistent home venue, the defending champions have pulled themselves into 2nd-place in the Eastern Conference. They now looked primed to take over the top spot as soon as Sunday when they welcome the reeling Fire to Citi Field.
The message the Sounders sent on Wednesday night wasn’t as loud as Austin’s or as obvious as the noise NYCFC is making. Unlike those two teams, Seattle remains stuck below the playoff line. What they also have is a winning streak thanks to a narrow 1-0 win over Houston in Texas. The lone goal of the game came via a Raul Ruidiaz shot that deflected off of Dynamo defender Sam Junqua. It was not Seattle at its best, but it didn’t need to be. The Sounders can out-talent most teams in the league, winning games even when coming up short of their lofty standards.
The Champions League took a lot out of Seattle, but the expectation was always that Brian Schmetzer’s team would rocket up the table as soon as the campaign to win the continental title was over. Seattle’s landmark victory in the tournament produced a well-won hangover that delayed the club’s ascension in the West.
Seattle still sits in 11th, but the delay is over. With multiple games in hand on the rest of the conference, a mostly healthy squad, and momentum, the message is out. The Sounders are back.
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