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Golazos galore and Messi's new team is really bad: 5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 18

Imagine Lionel Messi, getting ready to play with his national team after another grueling yet fruitful season. He’s just come off a legacy-defining World Cup and a Ligue 1 title before shocking the world as he announced his intentions to leave Paris Saint-Germain to join Major League Soccer. 

As he settles down in China ahead of a few international friendlies, I’d love to think he might sit down and say, “Right, let’s see what this league is all about,” before quickly subscribing to the MLS Season Pass after he realized the games aren’t on TV. Given what transpired, I hope, with every fiber of my being, that he tuned in to MLS 360 and witnessed the madness on MLS Matchday 18. 

5 takeaways from MLS Matchday 18

#1. Messi’s new team is really bad

Unless you've been plastered to the underside of a rock for the past week, this shouldn’t be news. Lionel Messi, possibly the most extraordinary human to ever play the sport, announced he has chosen to join Major League Soccer and will play for Inter Miami. 

Already, his announcement has had massive ramifications. Inter Miami’s home and away ticket prices have skyrocketed, as has the club’s follower count on social media. Numerous high-profile names have been linked to South Beach, and soccer in the United States sits on the precipice of the largest boost in popularity the sport has ever seen. All this over an announcement of intent. 

Now, if he does make the switch to play his home games at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale before FC Barcelona can conjure up a hypothetical 7th lever, how will the World Cup winner fare stateside? 

In short, he’ll be up against it. 

Rather than intricate passes between himself, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, Messi will be sharing the ball with 18-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi and an out-of-form Josef Martínez. He’ll be swapping a team averaging over two goals per game in Ligue 1 for a side that has been held scoreless seven times in 17 games. 

No doubt, the American first division is not at the same level, talent-wise, as one of the five best leagues in the world, but Inter Miami is near the bottom of MLS standards. The club is just two weeks removed from firing manager Phil Neville and aside from a spot in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, has nothing to show for it. 

Inter has the third worst expected goal-differential (xGD) and is somehow still underperforming thanks to an attack that is allergic to finding the net and a defense that hasn’t kept a clean sheet since March 4 against Philadelphia.

Make no mistake, Messi is still an incredible player. This season in Ligue 1, he registered 32 direct goal contributions with nine goals and six assists coming since the World Cup. More impressively, he overperformed his expected figures in both statistics. And just a quick reminder, he’s about to celebrate his 36th birthday later this month. 

The thing about MLS is that it’s considerably more difficult to buy wins. One player rarely makes a difference. Look at the LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Toronto FC. The best teams build consistently good squads with talent distributed across the pitch rather than just signing a superstar and hoping he can drag the team to wins. LAFC, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Seattle are some of the best examples. When you look at the common denominators between the best teams and the worst teams, it’s clear to see that consistent squad strength wins both games and championships. 

I’m reminded of a Saturday Night Live skit centered around the ficticious “Romano Tours". If Inter Miami is bad now, and then they sign Messi, the Inter Miami team with Messi will be the same bad team from before, just with more shirts sold and way more disappointed fans in the stands. Does that make sense?

Signing Messi might help some, but hoping Messi will guide Miami to success is like plugging a singular hole in a strainer. There are way too many problems to solve and an aging superstar attacker will likely not be enough. 

I hope I’m wrong. I hope we get to see Messi in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium or a three-game series in Cincinnati. Messi is clearly different from his peers, but I feel that his struggles could actually help grow awareness around the world of the skill level in MLS. If he were to walk in, score four against New England, and go home, that wouldn’t look great. But if he was held scoreless game after game and Miami continued to lose, it could potentially show the world that North American soccer is a force to be reckoned with. 

#2. Could LAFC’s schedule be coming back to bite them?

Steve Cherundolo’s team has been punched in the teeth and looks completely stunned. Alongside FC Cincinnati, LAFC has been the side to beat this season. Led by Dénis Bouanga, the team has looked unstoppable, both domestically and in continental competition, but a poor run of form at the worst time has ended one title charge and left the other seeing stars. 

In the sweltering heat of Houston, LAFC utterly melted. A 4-0 loss on the road marks five straight games in all competitions without a win for the current champions, and worse yet, they have to do it all again in Los Angeles on Thursday. Given the club’s progression in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), several games were rescheduled, and, as a result, LAFC faces a cramped midseason schedule for the next two weeks. 

Last season, Seattle was in a similar situation, having made the CCL final. After becoming the first MLS team to win the title, the Sounders won just one of their next four league matches, losing three in that span. They dropped to 12th in the Western Conference and never recovered, finishing the season one spot higher. 

The difference between the two sides is LAFC still sits third in the West with several games in hand. If those games become losses, then Cherundolo’s side could be in trouble, though with this team, that “if” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. 

The Galaxy’s noisy neighbors are the best team in the league in xGD thanks, largely, to their absurd 1.99 expected goals (xG) per game. This is a tough stretch, but if there’s a team that can make it to the other side, it’s LAFC. 

#3. Alan Pulido scores a brace despite transfer rumors

The turnaround in Kansas City has been remarkable. From a hopeless cause to playoff contenders in a matter of weeks, the word meteoric feels insufficient. At the heart of this turnaround is Mexican Alan Pulido.

This season, the 32-year-old returned from a long-term knee injury that saw him miss the entirety of the 2022 MLS season, and his impact has been clear to see. His four goals in all competitions and a brace in his side’s most recent win over Austin FC have been key as Sporting continues to play some of the best soccer in the league. 

All this is happening with a cloud over the attacker’s head as he is being heavily linked with a transfer back to C.D. Guadalajara in Liga MX. Pulido is a favorite among Kansas City’s supporters who will be hoping their star at least finishes his contract with the club, which runs until the end of the season. 

#4. Minnesota loses big in Montréal

The Loons have been hopelessly stuck in the middle of the table all season. Eight points adrift of both first and last place, seemingly destined for the one-off play-in game. The club was hoping the return of Emanuel Reynoso would bring about positive change, but after two games, the Argentine still has no goal contributions and Minnesota is now winless in its last four. Yet, following his side’s 4-0 loss to CF Montréal, head coach Adrian Heath had some interesting words. 

At first glance, you’d think Heath was crazy for making a statement like that after such a lopsided result. But when you take a look at the xG from the match, you see it was just an absurdly unlucky night for the Loons. Not only did Minnesota underperform in front of goal, but Montréal also scored four goals from just 1.5 xG. Misfortune at both ends of the field rarely ends well and that was exactly the case on the day as Heath and his side got a deafening dose of the North Star bell as punishment.

Over the season, Minnesota has teetered between average to slightly better than average defensively, but the team’s attacking output has been shocking. The Loons create the 13th most xG per match, but score 0.55 fewer goals per game than that metric would suggest. 

Reynoso’s return should be a step in the right direction, but he hasn’t quite hit the ground yet. He’s only seen the field via brief substitute appearances so once he is fit and ready to start games, there should be a tangible improvement thanks to a player who finished last season with 17 goal contributions in 30 games. If not, questions should probably be asked of the management. 

#5. Golazos Galore

With 29 clubs and stars lining every roster, wonder goals are, by no means, a rarity in MLS. On social media, the league asks the public to vote from the four best strikes to determine the Goal of the Matchday. This week, the poor admin has the unenviable task of narrowing it down to just four.

Lorenzo Insigne continued his hot streak as he scored a stunning effort in Toronto FC’s third consecutive tie. The former Napoli man attacked his defender from the left wing and cut inside onto his favored right foot. He found a yard of space near the corner of the penalty area and curled his shot into the top corner at the far post. 

Raúl Ruidíaz found the back of the net on the road against Charlotte FC to give Seattle its second lead of the night. With a drop of the shoulder and turn away from goal, the Peruvian let fly from distance, and found the side netting spectacularly. 

In the second half, Charlotte’s Ashley Westwood scored a goal of his own to equalize. His shot from the edge of the box was similar to Ruidíaz’s but my goodness, they were both beautiful to watch. 

From the impressive to the downright audacious. While already leading LAFC 3-0 in the dying moments, Houston’s Franco Escobar controlled a lobbed pass with his chest and decided to shoot from some 25 yards out. His millimeter-perfect looping volley caught out a stranded John McCarthy in goal and rattled the underside of the crossbar before bouncing off the ground back off the crossbar and finally into the net.

Xherdan Shaqiri thought he was the hero against Columbus, and for about five minutes and 24 seconds, he was right. The former Bayern winger scored late to equalize for the Chicago Fire, but deep into stoppage time, the Crew’s Lucas Zelarayán popped up with a moment of brilliance. Straight from a turnover inside the center circle, the 30-year-old caught Spencer Richey off his line and unprepared. He let fly from just over 60 yards and turned one point into three. Goal of the matchday might not be enough, this might be the goal of the season. 

The Earthquakes experienced a similar phenomenon in San Jose. With the score tied, against the high-flying Philadelphia Union, Miguel Trauco called game with a thunderbolt from deep.

In Vancouver, Cincinnati finally tied after six consecutive victories. For a bit though, it looked as though Luciano Acosta had stolen all three points with a sublime chip in the 83rd minute. 

The next day, St. Louis City’s Nicholas Gioacchini scored his side’s lone goal against the Galaxy with a deft and acrobatic flick past Jonathan Bond. 

The league is full of talent and the fact that eight goals of this quality were scored on the same matchday speaks to that. I just hope Messi was watching. 

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