Week 23 Preview: what you need to know
Major implications and a chance to make a big statement
The Legion have scored 12 goals in their last two home games and the attack finally looks to be clicking along with the already powerful defense. The team is in the best form of the season. Can they keep it up?
The most important part
Saturday evening at 7:00pm will be the team’s biggest test in a while. The San Diego Loyal, visiting for the first time ever, have established themselves as a contender in their first non-COVID season. They are of course best-known for their head coach, US legend Landon Donovan (also a part-owner, as is USMNT player Deandre Yedlin), but things just start with that.
Right now they are second in the Western Conference on 46 points from 23 games. That’s just 5 points better than the Legion, but the West is probably a tougher conference, truth be told. Moreover, they made a big statement last weekend, beating the league-leading San Antonio FC 3-0 and extending their win streak to 4 games. That last win is significant not just in itself, but also because San Antonio are a counter-attacking team much like the Legion. Which is to say, the Loyal know how to handle that strategy.
The game was close, scoreless in fact, until Donovan subbed in Kyle Vassell after 62 minutes. The Northern Irelander, who joined the team this season, is on 11 goals in 19 appearances. After they scored all 3 goals, including one by Vassell himself. That, combined with 65% possession and limiting San Antonio to just 9 shots and 3 on target, was what made all the difference. They played the game in a 3-5-2, which was a 1-for-1 match with the Texans. That’s a pretty defensive setup, of course, and it will be interesting to see how it fares against a 2 or 3-man Legion attack. One thing is for sure: the Three Sparks cannot revert to the 4-2-3-1 in this game. Scoring chances will be pretty much non-existent if they do that.
Vassell isn’t San Diego’s only threat. They lead the league in scoring with 52 goals. Thomas Amang on 8 and Evan Conway on 6 are also seriously dangerous. However, they have also allowed 36 goals, so it’s surprising that they were able to keep a clean sheet last weekend. In fact, as a team they have only 5 clean sheets and regular starter Koke Vegas (whose actual name is Jorge Ruiz Ojeda) has just 4.
One thing the Legion have going for them is that the Loyal play Wednesday evening. Granted, it’s against the Monterey Bay Union at home, but the game is a late kickoff ahead of a long cross-country trip. And the Union aren’t a total pushover: they are on a 3-game win streak of their own.
Prediction: So, we have a team that scores in bunches against a team that is very miserly in defense. We also have a team that has struggled to score but has recently exploded in attack against a team that is pretty leaky at the back. That looks pretty even all told, but I have think the Loyal are the better team here. I would not be surprised by a draw, although I would in fact be quite happy to get 1 point this weekend, but frankly I have to go with a Loyal win.
Best of the rest
This week gets an early start tonight with New York Red Bulls II hosting Atlanta United 2 (6:00pm). I would say something has to break, but both teams are already pretty broken.
A couple of important games tomorrow: as noted above San Diego play Monterey Bay Union (9:00pm), but earlier in the evening The™ Miami FC play FC Tulsa (6:00pm). Tulsa have been up and down lately and are now missing JJ Williams, but they had last week off and if they can take points from Miami it will strengthen the Legion’s (already solid) position in the standings.
Friday’s 3 games feature 6 teams that have been struggling. The Baby Bulls (again) play the Charleston Battery, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks play El Paso Locomotive and Orange County play Phoenix Rising. For neutrals, not much to grab the attention there.
Saturday, on the other hand, is massive. First, at 6:00pm the Pittsburgh Riverhounds play Memphis 901. That’s two very strong teams just above the Legion in the standings. A Pittsburgh loss combined with a Legion win would see the good guys into the home playoff spots, but of course rooting for Area Code FC is a tough nut to swallow. At 6:30pm Atlanta host Miami, so with a double-game week against lower-ranked opponents Miami has a chance to move up as well. But that will partly depend on Detroit City, who kick off at the same time against Oakland Roots. The Roots are 10th in the West so are not the greatest of opposition, but Detroit has been feeling the effects of a thin roster lately. They are 6 points behind the Legion with a game in hand, so dropping points is important.
A third 6:30pm game is also big: Louisville City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies face off with first place in the East on the line as well as Tampa’s 13-game unbeaten streak. Definitely put that one on your list to watch later.
Not much going in the late games out West, and Sunday’s only game (LA Galaxy II v. New Mexico United 7:00pm) isn’t exactly a barnstormer in the making.
Back in the Old Country
As I write this, the Blues are engaged in their Carabao Cup match at Norwich City, having earned a big 2-1 win over Huddersfield on Friday, putting them briefly top of the table. They are still tied for second after the remaining weekend’s games were done. They have another double-game week coming up. On Saturday morning they play at Cardiff City (at the ridiculously early hour of 6:25am, and it’s on ESPN+!). Cardiff beat Norwich in the first week, so this afternoon’s result might indicate how things will go on Saturday. Then on Tuesday they are home to Watford (1:45pm, no US stream), who are also in that 2nd place tie.
Update: As we publish this, the Norwich-Birmingham game is 2-2 late in the second half.