It may have taken a few days longer than expected, but we finally have an MLS schedule. As you can imagine, schedule release day is one of the compound’s favorite days of the year. We were somewhat ok with the delay as our compound was split between boycotting the World Cup (that crew is off somewhere in the South Pacific-they sadly didn’t take my travel recommendations since they are staying at a White Lotus resort) and those salivating over every Messi pass back with our chickens.
Now that we are in Festivus season and we can begin to plan our travels for 2023, here are the top 9 things that stand out to me in this schedule:
- Eastern Conference Opponents
The league office had 6 very logical opponents for Austin FC in the East this season, namely the 6 teams in the East that we didn’t play last year. We could finally make the trip to Columbus, which would be a lot of fun in a sick way, and split the Toronto, New England, Chicago, Philly, and NYCFC matches between home and away.
Well, we got Toronto at home and New England away, which made sense. However, we also got the Red Bulls and Inter Miami away (who both came to McKalla last season) and DC United and CF Montreal at home. While they are new venues for matches, I would have expected those matches in 2024 or 2025 rather than 2023.
My gut says that we will have a lot of people who want to go Fort Lauderdale to see Inter Miami right before July 4th and turn that into a vacation. I can’t say a nice vacation since South Florida is incredibly unpleasant that time of the year, but I expect it to be a match where Speedo FC will really shine (if you recall, their debut was at home against Inter Miami last season).
Labor Day weekend in New England is lovely. It’s the best time of the year up there. Too bad, it’s also when everyone in Boston moves if they are renting. Between college kids moving in and renters are all types shifting between equally substandard, overpriced housing, it means that this trip could be the second most expensive road trip in club history behind last year’s Grand Prix Derby in Montreal.
Finally, we have the Red Bulls in New Jersey on a Wednesday night. It’s a perfectly unremarkable match that will hopefully have as much MLS chaos energy as our 4-3 loss at home to them had last year. At least we get a chance to avenge that loss.
2. Most Challenging Road Trip
It’s honestly too early to determine our most challenging road trip since much could change with CCL and US Open Cup. However, assuming we play Violette in CONCACAF Champions League (visa issues have the tie in a bit of limbo) on Tuesday March 7th and then Real Salt Lake on Saturday March 11th, that’s an insane road trip. It’s over 1800 air miles from Austin to Santiago, Dominican Republic to play a match in a tropical climate. Then, four days later, the guys in verde would be playing 2841 air miles away at 4500 feet above sea level at America First Field in Sandy, Utah. Getting a result in both of these matches seems impossible unless we run out a B side in the Dominican Republic.
As of now, we also have a 3 match road trip in July with the July 1st trip to Inter Miami followed by a July 8th trip to Minnesota, and a July 12th trip to Vancouver. Last year, we picked up 9 points on a similarly timed swing to Charlotte, Denver, and Atlanta. A big stretch of points at that point in the campaign could prove to be incredibly valuable.
Even with all of the road success last season, Austin FC hasn’t won a road match since July 30th in Kansas City as the last 5 road matches of last season (including LAFC in the playoffs) were all losses. Returning to the winning form on the road is going to be key to 2023.
3. 3 Time Opponents
With the uneven MLS schedule, each team in the West has to play 1 or 2 3-time opponents. Austin FC drew 3 matches against both of our Copa Tejas rivals in Frisco and Houston. We go to Houston twice and Frisco comes here twice, which is the inverse of the 2021 season. Frisco and Houston only play each other twice, but I strongly suspect that Houston will travel up to Frisco for another match during Leagues Cup. Overall, 6 Western Conference teams play 7 Eastern Conference opponents if they only have 1 Western 3-time opponents. Austin may end up in that situation in 2024, but who knows when San Diego/Vegas/another Western team will enter the league. My understanding is that won’t happen until 2025, but in the world of MLS, you never know, especially when San Diego has a stadium ready to go.
4. Byes and Lazy River (on paper in December)
As we know, it’s nearly impossible to predict who is going to be strong in this league year in and year out. However, as Austin FC fans, we loved to see the start to this campaign. Like last year, this season starts with 2 matches at home. The first match is against expansion side, St. Louis CITY, which has taken an approach to building a roster that appears more fit for the Bundesliga than MLS. While I think CITY will have a better inaugural campaign than we did, I fully expect to get all 3 points in the home opener.
The next match against CF Montreal presents another strong opportunity for 3 points. Montreal finished better than us overall on points last year. However, Montreal has lost their head coach, their only DP, their leading goal scorer, their top defender, and more. While I think Montreal will be able to have a decent rebuild, they should not be in their stride in the second match of the campaign. I don’t expect 10-1 cumulative wins in these matches, but I think it’s fair to expect 6 points before starting the CCL campaign.
Every team in the league has at least one Saturday off with this schedule. Austin gets our Saturday off early in the season on Saturday April 1st before the likely 2nd Round CCL matches kick off against Club Leon or Tauro FC. It’s not a perfect placement, but it’s a pretty good spot for a bye. There are also some midweek windows that we don’t play (as of now).
5. Murder’s Row (as of now)
After the aforementioned bye, the schedule gets real challenging quickly. Assuming we get past Violette AC (either by victory or forfeit), the schedule gets busy. Here is what it could look like:
Tuesday April 4th: Away to Leon or Tauro
Saturday April 8th: Away to LAFC (they are likely at home in CCL that week before if they get past Alajuelense)
Tuesday April 11th or Wednesday April 12th: Home to Leon or Tauro
Saturday April 15th: Home to Vancouver (Possibly in CCL as well)
If we make a CCL run to the semis (or beyond) and with US Open Cup, we could play 2 matches per week most weeks in April and May. The fixture congestion is possible, and it would be a great problem to have.
6. National TV Games and Timing
With Apple MLS Season Pass, there are only 34 matches on National TV, this season, which is way less than in the past. That being said, I was really surprised that our home opener against St. Louis CITY, was not selected for national TV, since St. Louis is really excited for the team. If I were the league office, I would have put that match as the national lead over Nashville vs NYCFC on big Fox. It’s also crazy to see that the El Trafico at the Rose Bowl is only on Season Pass, but I believe every match is front of the paywall for the opening weekend.
At this time, we have 4 regular season matches on National TV (all of these matches are also on Season Pass), which are all different kickoff times than the new traditional 7:30 PM local kick.
4/8 @ LAFC is kicking at 4:30 PM on FOX
8/20 (Sunday) @ St. Louis CITY is kicking off at 8:30 PM on FS1 (Nearly every league match is on a Sunday that weekend since the Leagues Cup final and 3rd Place games are that Saturday)
9/17 (Sunday): Home to Portland at 7:30 PM on FS1
9/24 (Sunday): Home to LA Galaxy at 8:30 PM on FS1
For CCL, those matches will not be on Season Pass at this time. Currently, TUDN/Univision has the Spanish rights and no one has the English rights. If no one gains those English rights, there will likely be free streams on YouTube as what happened in CONCACAF League. Fox has purchased these rights in the past.
7. Leagues Cup
2023 will be the first year with the new Leagues Cup format with all 29 MLS teams and all 18 Liga MX teams. With the exception of LAFC and Pachuca as league champs, the remaining 45 teams will be divided up into 15 groups. Austin FC will host 2 Leagues Cup matches in the group stage. Assuming I understand the format correctly, Mazatlán will be coming to Austin along with another team based on geography. Of the 15 unassigned teams, 13 are in MLS and 2 are in Liga MX. My gut says that FC Juarez gets sent here as an unassigned teams at this Texas adjacent club, but maybe we end up with the Rapids, Sporting Kansas City, or St. Louis CITY (I already said I expected Houston to end up in Frisco).
In what other league in the world would the playoff format be unknown at the time of the schedule release!? It is rumored that the league is moving from 7 teams per conference to 8 teams per conference in the playoffs, which makes some sense with expansion. However, moving from a straight knockout tournament to a group stage tournament would double the number of matches in the playoffs. This proposed format with 4 groups of 4 followed by a quarterfinals knockout stage sounds great for TV and home fans. It sounds awful for traveling fans, but we know MLS doesn’t care about us.
9. Will Next Pro Sync Up?
Finally, we’ll have Austin FC II this season, which I will only refer to as Austin FCito. MLS often tries to schedule MLS Next Pro matches in alignment with the main MLS matches. I am really hoping that we can pull off some away doubleheaders where our fans can see both the main MLS matches and Next Pro on the road. Very few clubs have pulled off Next Pro support on the road, but I have no doubt that we can do it, if schedules align.