Well, with the exception of the Loons’ last match, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the first Leagues Cup was a successful endeavor. Not only for the Loons, but for MLS, Liga MX and fans of the clubs that took part (...well, maybe not as much for Club Puebla, but you get the gist). And, candidly, we suppose it didn’t hurt to have the world’s greatest soccer player not only participating but making it all the way to the Final to play against some other club that plays great when they have 11 players and their opponents have 10…no, I’m not bitter at all…I promise. But, as George Constanza would say, now is the time to de-sour and sweeten up on this Loons squad that fought hard, got down and showed the kind of intestinal fortitude that will be needed from them for the remainder of their MLS regular season. Oh, and the fact that there are 13 other teams that probably won’t be totes cool with MNUFC climbing the standings unobstructed. So, saddle up and let’s take a ride through what remains of the very wild, very weird Western Conference.
| First, How ‘Bout Those Birds?!
While it goes without saying, we’ll just say it…fans that had the displeasure of watching the Loons matchup with Nashville SC shouldn’t let that match sour the body of work we saw from the Black and Blue in Leagues Cup play. Minnesota was able to fight their way to the Quarterfinals of the tournament by maintaining a balanced defensive approach that held up against opponents with formidable attacking capabilities, combined with an aggressive counterattack that could break out and convert at a moment’s notice. That isn’t exactly surprising to longtime Loons fans, but developing an attacking third that can score on a regular basis changes the way opponents will play the boys moving forward. Even as Reynoso, Bongi, Pukki and company continue to congeal, the Leagues Cup run gave the impression that this version of the Loons attack can flip the script on what the rest of the West has expected from our club in the past.
While currently sitting just outside the Western Conference playoff picture, the point differential amongst teams in the West tells us there will be plenty of movement in the standings over the final stretch of the regular season. With twelve games remaining and momentum building from their performance in the tournament, MNUFC has an opportunity to reclaim the reins and take control of their MLS destiny. If Reynoso can continue to distribute the ball in magical ways and Bongi can keep mashing, the Loons have every capability to rise up the ranks in the West and turn heads in the playoffs.
| Cream of the Crop: LAFC, St. Louis CITY, and Austin FC
After a month of Leagues Cup play, MLS gets back to regular season business, but what can we expect from some of the top clubs out of the West? Elimination in the group stages has kept some teams off the pitch for an extended period of time. Will some come back a little rusty? Or, feed off the momentum built from a strong performance in Leagues Cup? The points race is tight, so parity in the seeding is a definite possibility. But, one club that seems more of a certainty to stay in that comfy one seed to two seed is LAFC. Simple as it sounds, LAFC is still LAFC. They’re the reigning champs for a reason, and during Leagues Cup, the wins were notched were of the emphatic variety, bringing the hammer down on Juárez and RSL. And, in what would end up being their elimination from the tournament, LAFC looked to be the better squad for a majority of the match before Monterrey would burst their bubble. LAFC’s body of work in the Leagues Cup may not have ended up nabbing them a trophy, but it did serve notice to the rest of the West that they will need to bring their best against the champs if they hope to knock off the top of the mountain.
If LAFC’s run of form during the tournament looked like a sign of things to come, then St. Louis CITY’s performance would serve as a bad fever dream for the club that currently holds the number one seed in the West. While they were unable to make it out of the group stages after losses to Columbus and Club América, I don’t believe CITY is headed for a nose dive in the standings. At least not yet.
In fact, I believe we will see very soon if the long layover has CITY restarting the season with a bang or a whimper. Soon, as in this Sunday, when they face another club with the potential to stay put in the top part of the standings, Austin FC. While the fightin’ McConaughey’s saw their own unceremonious group stage exit from the Leagues Cup, prior to pausing the season for the tournament, Austin had appeared to be finding more of the form that they surprised the rest of the league with in 2022. The Loons found this out the hard way in July, and if St. Louis isn’t able to shake off the bad vibes of a bad Leagues Cup performance, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Austin pounce on them and reestablish the momentum that was building before the Cup.
| Stock Rising: FC Dallas
Even though a loss by shootout would end their Leagues Cup run, FC Dallas still showed they are a legitimate threat to make some noise in the West as they begin to round out their season. Jesús Ferreira has been looking the part and finding the net. Seeing Dallas go toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Messi and the Miami Soccer Machine was impressive. It's one thing to go the distance with a team that just happens to feature the greatest player in the world, but Dallas itself has the kind of talent that can run-and-gun the net. We’ve seen this story before, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it project Dallas into the top four seeds when all is said and done.
| Stock Falling: Vancouver Whitecaps
From a business sense, I understand why it would make sense for the club to trade Julian Gressel prior to his contract expiring. From a rest-of-the-regular-season standpoint, I don’t think it will be something that bodes well for their success in the final stretch of 2023. Similar to el Rey’s style of play, Gressel had a sizable role in creating scoring opportunities and distributing the ball within the Whitecaps attacking third. We know how much the Loons missed Rey until he returned to the team. I have a feeling it will be the same kind of feeling in Vancouver, only without the happy homecoming.
| So, Who or How Will The West Be Won?
Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t Lose. Oh, and picking up points in the standings, something I feel like the Loons are primed to do. They are hitting their attacking stride at the perfect time to leapfrog some clubs currently hovering above them. If Leagues Cup was a taste of what a legitimate attack can do with our ever-consistent defensive unit in tow, I believe our boys will not only nab a playoff spot, but might even get up to the top four. And sure, that might be a little lofty, but Kevin Garnett told me anything is possible and he wasn’t wrong. They may only get to the cusp of a hosting spot, but I think the playoffs will be another springboard for success and could even set up a postseason run.
But, aside from what the playoffs hold, I do believe that the Black and Gold empire will, in fact, strike back and reclaim the top seed in the Western Conference from St. Louis CITY when the sun sets on Decision Day. That’s not to say St. Louis is about to slide out of the upper tier clubs in the West, but I do see them as having the highest potential for losing some ground amongst the top four. Besides the Loons being troublemakers for the rest of the conference, FC Dallas has that dark horse feel to them. I see them rising up the ranks to push or pry their way into the two or three spots when the dust settles.
Now, give me a “YEE-HAW” and saddle up, because the West is in for a wild finish no matter where the chips fall!