Orlando City’s playoff push is hitting the home stretch this month, so it felt like the right time to bring back the Weston Weekly! We’ll be here Tuesdays to break down what’s going on in Orlando, around the league, and throughout the world, plus what games I’m especially interested in for the week ahead.
In Orlando: Pereyra purring
Nani and Chris Mueller’s exploits this year have been well-documented, and the stats back it up–13 goals and 11 assists between the two of them in all competitions this year puts them among the very best winger pairs in MLS. But just as crucial to Orlando’s 2020 success has been their diminutive but brilliant No. 10, Mauricio Pereyra.
The Uruguayan was brought in last summer from Krasnodar, one of the top clubs in the Russian Premier League. Despite struggling to get up to speed after three months off, Pereyra dished out three assists in six appearances, the quality of his passing and vision obvious to anyone who saw him. The main question with Pereyra was whether or not he’d be able to hold up his end defensively, especially considering how much Oscar Pareja asks of his attacking players on the other end of the field.
Pereyra has answered that question with an emphatic “yes.” His counter-pressing, in particular, has been tenacious throughout the season. Pereyra is second on the team behind Sebas Méndez in ball recoveries, despite playing a much more advanced position. Add his defending to his continually impressive attacking–Pereyra leads Orlando City in chances created from open play, key passes, and dribbles–and it’s evident we’re dealing with one of MLS’s best all-around midfielders.
Around MLS: Can anyone catch the East’s top 4?
MLS changed the playoff format for 2020, a sensible solution in a shortened season where there are fewer regular season games to weed out the top teams. In the 14-team East, 10 teams will qualify for the postseason, while the top six teams will automatically reach the quarterfinals and the top four will host games in that round.
Even with nine games remaining, it seems pretty clear which four teams can start planning for playoff soccer in town. Columbus, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Orlando have created a gulf between themselves and the rest of the conference, both in the standings and with their play on the field. FiveThirtyEight have Orlando City as the fourth-best team in the East, and the Lions have a 69% chance of hosting a quarterfinal. The next contender is New York City FC, who have 20% odds.
And it does seem that NYCFC, and their New Jersey neighbors the New York Red Bulls, have the best chance of removing Orlando from the top 4. Not only are they probably the two best teams outside that elite foursome, but they each play Orlando within the next three weeks, Red Bulls doing so twice.
RBNY looked dead in the water as recently as a week ago, but back to back 4-1 wins over stragglers Inter Miami and Montreal have brought them up to 20 points. Interim head coach Bradley Carnell has resumed playing Kaku as a No. 10 after former manager Chris Armas alternated between putting him on the wing and dropping him altogether, and the Paraguayan international has responded well, with a goal and an assist last weekend against the Impact. Daniel Royer has come back to life as well, with 2 G/2 A in his last two games.
We should have a much better idea of where the East stacks up after Orlando and the Red Bulls finish up their home-and-home on October 18.
Throughout the World: Les grandes équipes
The UEFA Champions League group stage draw is this Thursday morning, as the world’s premier club competition gets set to kick into high gear after the October FIFA break. Most of Europe’s biggest names will be involved in the tournament, which, like everything else, has a condensed schedule thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
But who will take home Ol’ Big Ears in 2021? Here are my two favorites:
Bayern Munich - A club that looked lost a year ago has been revitalized overnight by Hansi Flick, a longtime assistant and sporting director with the German national team who has thrived since being named Bayern manager last November and looks like world soccer’s next big time coach. Bayern return most of the team that took home the Champions League last season, including 55-goal forward Robert Lewandowski, and add electric winger Leroy Sané from Manchester City. The German giants have to be considered favorites to repeat.
Liverpool - Jurgen Klopp’s Reds won the Champions League in 2018/19 and followed that up with the club’s first-ever Premier League title, marking a return to the top of English soccer after a thirty-year wait. Liverpool reinforced their squad over the summer as well, signing midfield wizard Thiago from Bayern and promising winger Diogo Jota from Wolves, who scored on his Premier League debut against Arsenal on Monday.
Bayern Munich and Liverpool are clearly the two best teams in Europe at this point, but there are plenty of other candidates to bring home club soccer’s greatest prize:
Real Madrid - Zinedine Zedane is the king of this competition, having won three in a row with Madrid from 2016 to 2018. The Frenchman is back and fresh off a La Liga title, with stars Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos surrounded by a very young and very talented group of complementary players. The untested nature of the kids could hold Real Madrid back, but the upside is massive. They need to get Eden Hazard healthy.
Manchester City - A Champions League outside Barcelona remains the great white whale for Pep Guardiola, who has seen his record-setting City team knocked out in the quarterfinals in three consecutive campaigns. City appear weaker this year than in any of the last few, but they’re still one of the most talented (and expensive) sides in Europe, and have perhaps the best creative player in the world in Kevin de Bruyne.
Paris Saint-Germain - PSG finally overcame their own quarterfinal curse last year, reaching the final before falling to a superior Bayern Munich team. There are questions at the back and in central midfield, but no one should be counting out a team fronted by Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
Juventus - The Bianconeri barely escaped with their ninth consecutive Scudetto but bowed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16. Cristiano Ronaldo returns to lead Juve, now managed by club legend Andrea Pirlo and featuring USMNT star Weston McKennie in central midfield.
Barcelona - Are they a mess? Yes. Should they be on this list on the merits? Absolutely not. Do they still have Lionel Messi? Yes. So they’re a contender.
What Weston’s Watching this week
Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund, DFL-Supercup (9/30, 2:30p, ESPN+) - It’s not a league or European game, but it is another edition of der Klassiker, and teams have been treating these games much more seriously in recent years. Fresh off a UEFA Super Cup win over Europa League winners Sevilla, Bayern will relish the chance to knock off their archrivals again.
Liverpool vs. Arsenal, League Cup (10/1, 2:45p, ESPN+) - The League Cup is great. You get to see a bunch of young sides play with reckless abandon, as most of the big managers either don’t focus on or actively disdain (ahem, Klopp) the domestic cups, and especially the FA Cup’s baby brother. This is the best match on paper for the fourth round.
Juventus vs. Napoli, Serie A (10/4, 2:45p, ESPN+) - Napoli finished a disappointing seventh in Serie A last year after barely losing out to Juventus in 2018/19. They are reinforced, have scored eight goals and conceded none in their first two league games, and are hungry for revenge.