Austin vs. LAFC, Portland vs. Seattle: A Week 27 doubleheader gem on ESPN
“Los Angeles doesn’t scare me, at all.”
Official-introduction press conferences don’t always serve up head-turning headline fodder. But Emiliano Rigoni treated us all to that fun little gem on Monday as he made his first media appearance in Austin FC’s Verde and Black, showing a delightful disregard for the hoary old sports cliché about not giving your opponents the proverbial ‘bulletin board material’ in the run-up to a big game.
Austin FC vs. LAFC
We, content creators, appreciate you, Emiliano, even if you just got here. And why not have some fun with it? ATX’s new showpiece signing navigated the paperwork and logistics just in time to be in the mix for LAFC’s visit to Q2 Stadium tomorrow night (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), a weighty clash of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the MLS Western Conference standings and two legitimate MLS Cup contenders, a fixture LAFC defender Jesus Murillo did not hesitate to call “one of the biggest games of the season” on Wednesday.
“It’s a very nice situation,” noted Rigoni, sounding like the big-game player his new club needs him to be, “because it’s the final stretch of the season where we have a lot of responsibilities and I think we have everything to be able to face [LAFC] in the best way.”
The schedule gods don’t often bless us with a match this laden with meaning at this point in the season, let alone on a prominent national-television placement. And with those six words above, Rigoni gave a hint of the magnitude of Austin’s confidence and enthusiasm as they aim to beat the Supporters’ Shield frontrunners for a second time this year.
The Verde handed LAFC their only home setback of the season back in May, a 2-1 result that heralded the central Texans’ climb from expansion strugglers to trophy hunters and one that the Angelinos’ head coach, Steve Cherundolo, acknowledged rankled his side – and left them hungry for a taste of revenge this weekend.
The likelihood that a road win here would also effectively kill off any lingering Austin hopes of catching the Black & Gold in the standings only stokes that further.
“The table, everybody can read,” Cherundolo said on Wednesday. “So there is something at stake in this game for both teams. Certainly from an Austin perspective, a game they would feel like they want to and have to win. We have a little different situation here in LA, so we have prepared our guys accordingly. But the nice thing about this group is, I don’t need to tell them: They always play to win, and that will be our stance in Austin as well.”
Rigoni’s declaration, and the SoCal-CenTex antagonism it may help get bubbling, is just one more ingredient that makes Friday night’s MLS doubleheader on ESPN (on DAZN in Canada) such a tasty occasion.
Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Immediately after Austin-LAFC comes the latest installment of arguably the league’s most timeless rivalry, a Cascadia Cup clash between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC at Providence Park (10 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes) that finds those old enemies in real trouble at the wrong end, from their perspective, of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoff race.
Locked on 33 points each – albeit with Seattle holding a game in hand – the Timbers and Sounders find themselves in 8th and 9th place respectively in the West, outside the postseason places and short on momentum as they reach the business end of the calendar, a time of year where both traditionally have thrived.
One of these two clubs has represented the Western Conference in every MLS Cup final since 2015, a striking streak that points to both their consistent competitiveness and their ability to shift into higher gear right when it matters most. And yet this time around, most anyone picking the Rave Green or RCTID crews to make a cup run is doing so based on their historical track record rather than their current mediocre form.
“The playoffs are still within reach, but I do agree with everybody in the room and all the fans that time is running out,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said after a home loss to Real Salt Lake earlier this month. “We’ve got to figure this out very quickly.”
While there’s just enough rope left to leave out the “last chance cafe” talk this weekend, both of these PacNW heavyweights are all out of lagniappe at this point. And when a derby is also truly a six-pointer to this extent, it makes for must-see TV, whatever your allegiances.
“If we’re on top, if we’re on the bottom, this is a huge game, for me the biggest rivalry in MLS. So this never disappoints; it’s going to be a huge, huge game,” said Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese this week. “And especially because of where we are, both teams with a need of points, I think it’s going to make it even more important.”
Most teams in this situation would kill to be hosts, let alone at the cauldron in Goose Hollow that PTFC call home. Yet the visitors have generally been superior in this matchup for the past several years, often doing damage on the counterattack, against the run of play.
That makes this something of a gut check for the Rose City supporters as well.
“For our fans, we expect them to be supporting us 100% all the way and we feel that even within that, we have to make them proud – and win the Cascadia Cup, because that’s another thing for us that is important,” said Savarese.
“So there’s so many, so many things to talk about about this game that makes it so interesting. But the good thing is that the guys have been working well, they’re mentally focused on on this game. We have already spoken about last game enough and we’re ready to play.”