By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 1, 2023) US Soccer Players – For 27 of the 29 MLS teams, the opening weekend that extended into Monday was just the first of 34 games that will determine the playoff field, and, ultimately, the 18 clubs that will compete for a championship this season. One of 34, and there’s plenty of room for optimism for some of the clubs that came out on the wrong end of the scoreline in the first round.
Maybe no club that lost in the opening weekend had more positive momentum flowing from last year’s showing than Austin FC. League observers spent the first half of 2022 wondering if the move of Josh Wolff’s team into the upper echelon of the Western Conference was a fluke. By the end of the regular season, with Austin in second place and set for home-field advantage until the Western Conference final, those voices were quiet.
The opening-day loss to expansion side St Louis City caught plenty of people by surprise. A glaring mistake from Austin contributed to the loss by gifting St Louis a goal, but Austin conceded two other goals that were preventable.
An injury to starting center-back Julio Cascante suffered in the first 10 minutes changed things for Austin. Per a statement by Austin FC on Tuesday, the club confirmed that Cascante will miss at least eight weeks with a severe left abductor strain, leaving Wolff to work out a plan to cover for one of his starting defenders.
Wolff is an excellent coach who turned his team from an also-ran into a contender in one season. As difficult as it might be to lose Cascante, a week of planning should give him time to find ways to cover for the injury. And don’t forget, Austin has Sebastian Driussi.
Driussi started his 2023 campaign with a peach of a goal in the losing effort. Clubs will work hard to shut down last year’s MVP runner-up, but his quality means he’ll have plenty of chances to impact games. Having a difference-maker like Driussi puts Austin in elite company and promises many better days to come.
Highly touted Austin ended Saturday disappointed with a loss at home on Saturday. The Houston Dynamo had more reason to feel like its opening day loss wasn’t a fair reflection of its effort.
The Dynamo started the new campaign under new head coach Ben Olsen on the road in Cincinnati. FCC is a preseason darling, tapped by pundits around the country to be a contender for trophies in 2023. Houston’s task, which mostly centered around slowing down Cincinnati’s vaunted attack, seemed monumental.
And yes, Cincinnati took all three points on goals from Sergio Santos and Obinna Nwobodo. But it was Houston that controlled long stretches of the game and Houston that went home feeling better about the overall performance.
“We need to give credit to Houston – they were good today,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said after the game. “Their midfield three really controlled the game, and you could see the ability for them to move the ball and move forward was just connecting passes in a more efficient way that we were able to. When we did turn them over, too often, we lost the next pass, and it became us chasing the game a little bit.”
The midfield three identified by Noonan includes Artur, Coco Carasquilla, and Designated Player Hector Herrera. The Dynamo dominated the ball in Cincinnati, ending with a 63-37 percent possession advantage. Expected goals favored Houston at the final whistle, another sign that the Dynamo had the better of play.
Optimism also reigned with the last game of the opening round, Portland’s 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City on Monday, rescheduled due to weather. Sporting gave up an early goal to Juan Mosquera when his low shot sneaked between the legs of goalkeeper John Pulskamp. Sporting would go on to outshoot Portland 12-7 for the match and force four saves from David Bingham. Vermes pointed to the energy and effort that had Sporting on top for much of the game. “We were all over their goal, all over them,” he said. “And unfortunately we couldn’t put one in.”
Remember, Sporting is still awaiting the return of DPs Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda from the injuries that kept them out for most of 2022. Goals win games and Sporting didn’t manage any in the loss. But there’s enough help on the way in the form of returning players from injury to believe that the goals will come. In all other phases of the game, Sporting can rightfully claim to have been the better team in Portland.
The numbers say that Sporting deserved more in Portland. That’s cold comfort when only points, not advanced stats, will get the club back into the playoffs. But this was just week one.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
More From Jason Davis:
- Three clubs looking to take another step in MLS
- The expectations for Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, Atlanta’s Thiago Almada, and Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira in 2023
- The USMNT players on clubs in contention for promotion from the Championship
- Toronto FC as a contender in 2023
Photo by the Houston Dynamo