Welcome to Matchday 2 of the MLS season. There is always a strong tendency to put too much stock into the revelations of Week 1. It makes for a tricky board to navigate.
Is St. Louis CITY SC for real? Is Minnesota better off without Emanuel Reynoso? Were predictions of back-to-back Wooden Spoons for D.C. United premature? One could argue that there are more unanswered questions after Week 1 than before the season started.
Before we get into this week’s picks, we will recap last week.
Last week’s review
We turned in a successful Week 1 going 50/50 on our four picks and turning a small profit by betting on a Federico Bernadeschi goal (+188) and a Nashville SC win (+100). We lost two bets as FC Dallas inexplicably lost at home to Minnesota United and San Jose squandered a 90th-minute lead to lose to Atlanta United (more on that one in a second).
The net total: + 0.66 units.
San Jose’s loss dealt an early-season heaping of a bad beat. The Earthquakes took an early lead via a goal from Jeremy Ebobisse. Atlanta had a golden chance to equalize in the 39th minute, but Luiz Araújo skied his penalty. The Earthquakes did well to limit Atlanta to attempts outside of the box. In stoppage time, that did not deter Thiago Almada. The World Cup champion hit two golazos to not only equalize but win the match for the Five Stripes. A legendary comeback win for Atlanta, and an all-time bad beat for us.
Now that we have wrapped up last week, it is on to the Matchday 2 picks…
Columbus and D.C. United bring the fireworks
Talented attackers and shaky defenses create an ideal scenario for multiple goals. Both Columbus and D.C. United featured in five-goal games on Matchday 1.
For Columbus, Philadelphia handled the bulk of the scoring taking advantage of a backline struggling to adapt to life without Jonathan Mensah. Adaption really is the operative word to describe Columbus’ defense. With Wilfried Nancy’s arrival, the Crew switched from a back four to a back three formation. This move requires Steven Moreira, a fullback by trade, to adapt into a wide center-back role. Elsewhere, veteran center back Josh Williams did not even make the bench for the match against the Union. It appears that Wilfried Nancy is purposely blooding in youngsters, like Philip Quinton, from the club’s title-winning MLS NEXT Pro side. It is a sound strategy in the long run but may come with short-term growing pains.
D.C. United gave up a pair of goals but scored three of their own on way to a thrilling season-opening victory. As we mentioned last week, D.C. United is in the midst of its own youth movement. Matai Akinmboni, 16, earned the start for Wayne Rooney’s side. Akinmboni showed well for a teenager, although he did concede a penalty that resulted in Toronto’s first goal. It was a soft foul. However, credit to Richie Laryea ‘s veteran savvy to get Akinmboni to swing in his leg.
With growing pains a theme for both backlines, there is enough firepower on each team to capitalize. For Columbus, Cucho Hernández and Lucas Zelarayán form one of the better one-two attacking punches in the league. On the other side, Christian Benteke has a career full of bagging goals at the highest levels, and Mateusz Klich showed his quality from long range in Week 1. Between them, there is a goal in it for each side.
Both Teams To Score (-125) 1.0 unit
A quiet night in Chicago
In the Windy City, I expect the opposite: a low-scoring affair.
This is Chicago’s first match of the season, being the team so irrelevant that the league office stuck them with a bye on Matchday 1. The Fire is relatively unchanged, in terms of incoming signings, from last year’s squad which finished 2022 with a paltry sum of just 39 goals – the second-lowest mark in the league. They failed to score in 6 of their 17 home matches, including an August meeting with NYCFC. This match came during the depths of the Pigeons’ despair as it was their only positive result during a seven-match stretch of otherwise losses. Chicago recently added Kei Kamara but anything more than a substitute appearance in this match would surprise.
NYCFC struggled out of the gates last week as they were blanked by Nashville SC. The Pigeons amassed only 0.4 expected goals (xG) with only one memorable chance inside the box. Help is reportedly on the way via Santiago Rodriguez and James Sands, but neither will suit up for this match.
Ezra Hendrickson is no stranger to defensive tactics. I expect Chicago to take note of Nashville’s playbook and force NYCFC to try and break down an organized block. Given my outlook, I am placing a pair of wagers that both point to a quiet night in front of net.
Under 2.5 Total Goals (-110) 0.5 units
Both Teams Score – No (+105) 0.5 units
Klauss strikes again
St. Louis CITY SC shocked the MLS world this week with a stunning upset in Austin. Between the surprise win and this week’s home opener, there is a lot of buzz around the MLS newcomers. Obviously, the occasion, CITY SC’s first home match, dominates the narrative. It will surely be a soccer spectacle in St. Louis, but there is still a game to be played on the pitch.
Charlotte may not have been as porous as Austin’s defense, but the Crown failed to defend their throne in Week 1. They conceded 15 shots (5 on goal) for an expected 1.4 goals in the 1-0 loss to New England. The backline largely held together, but the club is breaking in a new center-back tandem after the recent trade for Bill Toiloma.
It is also worth remembering how dreadful Charlotte was on the road last season (3-2-12). They were tied for the fourth-worst away record in 2022. Until they demonstrate differently, I will expect more of the same.
Back to this weekend’s hosts, the winning goal in Austin came via a transition moment with João Klauss. The Brazilian striker proved to be the focal point of the expansion side’s attack. However, transition movements are not the only way he will find the scoresheet in 2023. In the 15th minute, Klauss nearly found via a header off a darting run in the box. At 6’3”, Klauss can be a load in the box, and he is expected to serve as the club’s penalty kick taker.
Frankly, everything about this match’s betting line has not caught up to what we witnessed last week. St. Louis may not make the playoffs, but they look like they will avoid a Wooden Spoon. The betting lines still price this match as one between a playoff team and a bottom dweller. At +200 to score, there is value in getting a home team’s best goal scorer against a dreadful road team.
Klauss Anytime Goal Scorer (+200) 1.00 unit
If you are forcing me to bet on Nashville
It is hard to bet on your own club. On one hand, you know the ins and outs better than most linemakers. On the other hand, bias can cloud judgment.
I went back and watched the Red Bulls’ Week 1 match. Despite the final score, Red Bulls dominated the match. It really was a flattering scoreline to Orlando. Outside of Facundo Torres’ penalty kick, the Lions generated no shots on goal and just 0.3 xG. NYRB’s press gave Orlando fits, and they never figured out how to progress the ball behind New York’s backline. On the other end, Red Bulls generated 1.2 xG on 14 shots. There were several moments that felt like razor’s edge chances, an inch or two difference, and the Red Bulls runaway with a road victory.
In the previous two meetings, Nashville is 0-1-1 against NYRB. Nashville’s speed on the wings could open up avenues for the Coyotes that weren’t available to Orlando. The key to beating the 4-2-2-2 energy drink soccer system is to quickly exploit the wings. As the four midfielders crowd the central areas of the pitch, it becomes incumbent on the fullbacks, John Tolkin and Cameron Harper, to provide the width in their attack. When a turnover occurs, NYRB’s backline can become stretched if the ball races ahead of the now out-of-position Red Bulls fullback.
Unlike Orlando which positions its wingers as half-space occupiers, Nashville has the personnel and tactics to get vertical and exploit those moments. We saw last week how Shaffelburg and Picault constantly ran into those vacated areas of the pitch. Look for Gary Smith to provide similar instructions this week.
NYRB is expected to continue to be without its new DP striker, Dante Vanzeir, as he sorts out visa issues. Even without Vanzeir, I think there is a goal in this game for Red Bulls as they capitalize on a moment of chaos before the Coyotes can set back into their stout two banks of four.
With that, I am going out on a limb with a pair of bets aiming at a draw.
Draw (+240) 0.5 units
Correct Score, 1-1 (+575) 0.5 units
MLS Fantasy Tip of the Week
It was a brutal start for my fantasy MLS season. The big guns of F.C. Dallas and F.C. Cincinnati failed to tally any goal contributions. Instead, it was the Philadelphia Union duo of Daniel Gazdag and Julián Carranza that stole the show in Week 1. Even with a tougher matchup against Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus Crew, the Union home juggernaut continued into the 2023 season.
This week, I am still keeping an eye on players who are likely to rise in value over the next few weeks. These players usually come from one of two buckets, new acquisitions and younger players who took over starting roles.
In the new acquisition bucket, I am currently targeting Luis Abram ($5.3m – D – ATL). Abram signed with Atlanta four weeks ago and was brought in to start next to Miles Robinson. Internationally, he is Alexander Callens’ center-back partner for Peru (and we have all seen how excellent Callens was in MLS). Abram did not start in Week 1 against San Jose but did enter in the 80th minute. It may be another week before he makes his first start, but Abram is worth watching closely. If he starts against a Lorenzo Insigne-less Toronto FC, Abram will be one of the best value plays in Week 2.
In the younger player bucket, I plan on rostering Jackson Ragen ($5.5m – D – SEA). Ragen, 24, does not cleanly fit the profile for a younger player in a sport renowned for featuring teenagers. However, he has earned a starting center-back role over Xavier Arreaga. For fantasy purposes, his cost has not yet caught up with his role as a first-choice starter for what promises to be one of the league’s best defenses. The Sounders shut out Colorado in Week 1. With a matchup at home against Real Salt Lake, Ragen and the Sounders have favorable odds of pitching another scoreless game.
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