Week 22 Preview: what you need to know
On the road again
Generally speaking, it was a good week. The Legion put up 6 goals at home, including its first ever hat trick, on the way to a crucial 6-point week. Sacramento Rising did the Championship proud by making it to the Open Cup Final, the first lower division team to do so since the Charleston Battery in 2008. They did so on the back of a heroic performance by goalkeeper Danny Vitiello. Still, we move on, and at this point almost every game has some importance.
The most important part
The Three Sparks’ last league meeting with Atlanta United 2 will be this Saturday at home (6:30pm). A repeat of the 3-3 game in Kennesaw a month ago should not be under consideration. The Legion are sitting in 5th place, the highest away seed in the playoffs, having leapfrogged the idle Detroit City last week. They are 2 points behind the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and 1 point behind Memphis 901, and 3 points ahead of Detroit. Area Code FC have 2 games in hand and Detroit has 1 game in hand. There is currently little room for maneuver.
Since that last game, Twonited lost 3 straight on the road before drawing with Las Vegas Lights at home last week. The losses were to FC Tulsa, San Antonio and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, none of which should be surprising. They were outscored 11-1 over those 4 games, including a 5-0 drubbing by San Antonio.
Also since the previous game Atlanta saw its captain – and probably its best player – Robbie Mertz defect to Pittsburgh. But that doesn’t mean they are without threats. They still have Tristan Trager and Jackson Conway, tied for the team lead in scoring with 6, and plenty of others can score as well. They have not changed their attack-at-all-costs approach and remain dangerous on the counter. That being said, they are young and weak at the back. Despite scoring 28 goals – just 1 fewer than the Legion – they a negative goal differential of 30. If the Legion play the way they did against Loudoun last Wednesday, it could be another blowout.
On top of that they are playing for a club in turmoil. Atlanta United is struggling in MLS, due in large part to a staggering number of injuries, and has a fan base close to revolt. Superstar Josef Martinez is unhappy and is closing in on the end of his contract. They have front office issues as well. Founding team president Darren Eales just went back to England to take the same position at Newcastle United and other key executives, in particular Carlos Bocanegra, are under the microscope. Twonited as a team are somewhat insulated from that, but they practice with the first team and clearly know what is going on. In general, it’s a mess over there.
Prediction: I’m going with another multi-goal win for the Legion to keep the team at least in shouting distance of a home playoff spot. The Three Sparks will not have forgotten the last game. Having given u 3 goals in that game, they have given up just 3 in the 4 games since and will not be in a mood to let the same thing happen on home turf.
Best of the rest
The action kicks off tomorrow with the New York Red Bulls II hosting Memphis (6:00pm). Barring a miracle, Memphis will move up into 3rd with that one. Later on New Mexico United play Sacramento (8:00pm). That’s 2 good Western teams on a roll right now and should be entertaining.
Alongside the Legion game are a couple you need to keep an eye on. At 6:00pm Indy Eleven welcome Pittsburgh. The Eleven have pretty much fallen off a cliff this season, but if they can take points from the Hounds that will help the Three Sparks immensely. Kicking off at 6:30pm are Tampa and Detroit. The Rowdies are on a 6-game win streak right now and Detroit are fading a bit. Dropping points in Florida will make that game in hand a little less useful. At 7:00pm is Louisville City v. Charleston and at 7:30pm is Memphis v. Hartford. Those both look like locks for home wins.
Later on in the West cellar-dwelling Orange County play the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (9:00pm). The Switchbacks are looking to right the ship after a rough stretch of games, most recently a 0-4 beatdown by Phoenix Rising. The biggest draw, especially for Legion fans, should be San Diego Loyal v. San Antonio (9:00pm). That’s the top 2 teams in the conference, although San Antonio is a massive 7 points clear with a game in hand. But the important issue is that the Legion have to play them both. San Diego is in town next week for a huge game and San Antonio comes the second last week of the season. Some definite oppo research there.
Not much else this week; week 23 will be busy with games every day except Thursday from Tuesday through Sunday.
Back in the Old Country
The EFL Championship started back up last week, and our friends in blue over the pond are back in action. Like Atlanta, they have been having problems on and off the pitch, and are now under the guidance of a new manager, John Eustace. His tenure started off with a lackluster 0-0 draw at Luton Town. Luton finished 6th last season, so that’s not really all that bad for a team expected to fight to avoid relegation this campaign. Next up is a home game against Huddersfield Town on Friday at 1:45pm Central. Huddersfield were 3rd last time around, but lost in the playoff final and so were not promoted to the Premier League. A fairly daunting start to the season for Birmingham City. Then next Tuesday the EFL Cup begins. Also known as the Carabao Cup (and formerly as the League Cup) it is not to be confused with the bigger FA Cup. Birmingham will play Norwich City (again at 1:45pm), who were relegated from the EPL this year. Another tough game. There is no official US stream for either game (although the EFL Cup is also carried on ESPN+).