One thing we love about MLS at the Guardian is its lack of a definite article. Just as we tend to point out to strangers that the “the” in the Guardian is not capitalised, so we like to say “it’s ‘Major League Soccer’, not ‘the Major League Soccer’”, before retiring smugly to bed.
So this week is always the worst week of the year for our delicate selves, as we cope with a sudden influx of European footballers attempting to ingratiate themselves with “the MLS this” and “the MLS that” as their teams raid the savings accounts of teenagers in middle America by staging pre-season warm ups. And now a repeat offender, Frank Lampard, has gone one further and actually elected to stay in “the MLS” – having signed for the New York City FC.
We’ll look forward to welcoming him in the near future but for now, with all those friendlies taking place, it’s a diminished MLS programme this weekend.
It gets under way with the Colorado Rapids hosting Chivas USA at just the right time, with Chivas having come to the end of a mini-winning streak at DC United last week. Not that Colorado will be full of confidence, as last week they were on the receiving end of that rarest of phenomena – a Portland Timbers win. The Rapids still look like a side searching for an identity under Pablo Mastroeni.
Toronto FC host Sporting Kansas City in Saturday’s first match, and that’s an intriguing one. Toronto are coming off a couple of draws, while Sporting have fended off European interest to secure Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to long-term contracts. With Dom Dwyer contemplating an All-Star snub, this looks like being a decent examination of Toronto’s playoff pretensions. We asked Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red to give us the low down on Toronto’s form:
It's been a frustrating few weeks for Toronto FC results-wise, with just seven points from six games since the World Cup break, form which has seen them remain in third place but now with a significant gap to the top two teams, Sporting Kansas City and DC United. Handily enough, that's the next two fixtures for TFC, so there's an immediate chance to reel in those clubs a little.
Despite the results, there are encouraging signs that TFC are trying to play a smarter, more possession-based game as opposed to the often ugly, defensive counter-attacking style they stuck with before the break. That brings us to the main thing to watch for here: just how Michael Bradley is used. There is no question he's the best midfielder in the squad but Ryan Nelsen seem to be having trouble figuring out where to play him and how to play around him. Will Bradley be the attacking option at the top of a diamond midfield? Perhaps one of two box-to-box midfielders in a fairly flat 4-4-2? Maybe he'll be in the No10 role in the middle of a 4-3-3. We've seen all of those recently and the team has yet to look convincing in any of them.
With Jermain Defoe suspended, the other question is where the goals will come from. Fellow DP striker Gilberto got his second of the season last week – hopefully the start of a hot streak.
Things have got really tough for the New England Revolution. They just can’t seem to get out of a tailspin of bad results, as their lack of defensive width is repeatedly exposed. FC Dallas did the damage last week in a 2-0 win over the Revs in Texas. Not that the Revs can blame the road for their problems – home or away, they’re just not firing. And with the Columbus Crew having ended their own lean spell with a victory over Montreal, the Revs might have another nervy night on Saturday.
FC Dallas are on the road this week, looking to follow that win over the Revs with another positive result against the enigmatic Vancouver Whitecaps, who have drawn their last two following a shock home loss to Chivas, though they should maybe have taken all three points against Real Salt Lake last week. Before that Chivas game, the Whitecaps had beaten Seattle at home, and Chivas aside they are steadily picking up points. That’s pretty much in line with Carl Robinson’s slow and steady work at the club, where he has been trying to avoid the overhauls of seasons past, especially during transfer windows. Dallas have been through one mini-overhaul of their own this season, when playmaker Mauro Diaz went down injured. With Diaz back, and with Fabian Castillo making his presence felt, Dallas are beginning to look like a force again.
Yet to look consistently like a force in any shape or form, the Montreal Impact limp into Sunday night, when they take on the Portland Timbers. A forced formation shuffle had the Timbers looking impressive in their win over Colorado, and Caleb Porter might be tempted to stick with 4-4-2 as he tries to get some momentum for a team who have been a shadow of their 2013 selves. Ditto Montreal, unless your 2013 sample size only includes the collapse in the run-in that saw them scrape into the playoffs, only to crash straight out in a flurry of red cards.
Roger Anthony of the Timbers Army gave us his take on Sunday’s road trip:
Once again, the Portland Timbers think they’re ready to roll. Last week, they ended a 10-week stretch without a home win. Granted, the 2-1 triumph came against a Colorado squad that was five starters short by game’s end. Nevertheless, the win and the arrival of Premier League veteran Liam Ridgewell created the feel of a fresh start.
But is it? For the 15th time in 20 games, Portland conceded the first goal. Even in the team’s 4-1-0 streak of road success earlier this season, the club had to climb out of a 1-0 bunker three times. Conventional wisdom says that’s not sustainable.
So what to do? Well, most of the turning in the turning-point win over the Rapids came during the second half, when F Maximiliano Urruti and MF Gaston Fernandez replaced ST Fanendo Adi and LW Steve Zakuani. With those changes made (and with Colorado’s dangerous Deshorn Brown sidelined by injury), Portland fans got to see the team’s offensive potential turned loose at home. The sample included an eight-player, 10-pass build up that led to Diego Valeri’s 77th-minute game-winner.
The obvious move is Fernandez for Zakuani. But while Zakuani seems tethered to the left touchline, La Gata tends to creep toward the center of the field. The Timbers tried going without a true wingman early in the season, with 0-4-3 results. If they start slowly yet again, Coach Caleb Porter won’t hesitate to shuffle his full deck of cards.
Finally, on Monday night, the LA Galaxy head up to the Seattle Sounders for an all-West Coast affair. The Sounders haven’t played in MLS since beating Portland a couple of weeks ago – they drew one of those friendlies 3-3, with Tottenham Hotspur – and come into the game celebrating a league-leading five players getting All-Star call-ups. LA, meanwhile, thrashed New England but then capitulated 2-1 to Sporting KC last week, before losing a friendly of their own to Manchester United. By the small matter of a 7-0 scoreline.
The Galaxy's recent seasons have tended to fall into a pattern of awkward scheduling and attendant inconsistency at the start and increasing focus as the year goes on. Now would be a good time for this year’s team to settle into winning coherence.
We’ll be back on Tuesday morning to find out what if anything we’ve learned in our usual “five things” column. Or should that be “the five things”? No.
Schedule (all times EST)
Colorado vs Chivas USA
Friday 9.30pm, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (Altitude, TWC-Deportes)
Toronto FC vs Sporting KC
Saturday 7pm, BMO Field (TSN2, RDS2, KMCI-38)
New England vs Columbus
Saturday 7.30pm, Gillette Stadium (CSN-NE, TWCSC-OH)
Vancouver vs FC Dallas
Sunday 5pm, BC Place (TSN, RDS2, TWCSN-TX)
Montreal vs Portland
Sunday 8pm, Stade Saputo (UDN, ROOT Sports, TVA Sports)
Seattle vs LA Galaxy
Monday 10pm, CenturyLink Field (ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN D, TSN2)