After midweek Champions League exertions, MLS is back with a full program this weekend, as everybody except Sporting KC returns to action. And other than New England's trip to Seattle on Saturday afternoon it's all in-conference, so we might begin to see the standings stretching out a little bit more significantly after this weekend. Looking at that one inter-conference game, normally you'd say that with Seattle being the only winless side in MLS, a home game against New England represents just about the easiest chance they'll have for a win. But their Champions League efforts in Mexico won't have helped, so who knows if this is where they break their streak.
Chicago broke their winless run with a late flurry of goals against New York on Sunday and are hoping that kick starts their season. Houston is not the most promising venue these days to try and get a run going, but they'll be playing a team who just lost to another winless side, Portland Timbers. Portland are at home again, to San Jose on Sunday night, hoping that the visitors have another one of the meltdowns they summoned against Vancouver last week, when Victor Bernardez and Alan Gordon left the field at the same time to change boots, only to watch the Whitecaps waltz through the remaining nine Quakes to score what had looked an unlikely equalizer.
Vancouver were rather light on firepower last week, with Kenny Miller and Darren Mattocks out. Perhaps they'll get lucky again against RSL on Saturday afternoon, with Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman going off to get Jason Kreis tattoos. RSL were beaten rather tamely against rivals Colorado last week. (Another first win — are you watching Seattle?) The Rapids may actually get more of the typical fire of a rivalry game against the combative Chivas USA on Saturday night. Chivas room-mates LA Galaxy stay on the road after their Mexican adventures – they're at a Dallas team who must still be shaking their heads at allowing Toronto back into the game after holding a 2-0 lead with a few minutes to play. Dallas still top the overall standings, though.
Toronto are at Philadelphia, with the Union just beginning to show signs of life. They out-shot a Columbus side who had the better (mostly unconverted) chances last week, and earned a creditable draw. The Crew now face a difficult task in going to Eastern Conference leaders Montreal, who had an off-week to regroup after losing their 100% record in Kansas City.
Two teams who look like they need a long regroup are DC and New York, both stuck outside the playoff positions in the East and coming into their second rivalry game of the season on the back of defeats to Eastern sides. When the teams met a month ago, DC were battered by the New York attack but did not give way in a 0-0 game in which Bill Hamid performed heroics.
Montreal Impact vs Columbus Crew
Sat 2pm, Stade Saputo (TSN, RDS2)
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
Who would have thought that after looking at the 2013 MLS schedule that the Montreal Impact will be first in the East? Not only is the Impact first but also the sophomore club has accumulated 12 points out of a possible 15. After losing 2-0 to Sporting Kansas City in the Wild Wild Mid-West, Montreal came back home and enjoys a bye week after the LA Galaxy game was postponed (CCL Semi-Final for LA). Even though a bye week breaks rhythm and momentum, players will definitively enjoy more time to rest and adjust.
Alessandro Nesta's recovery is going well and he is expected to start against the Columbus Crew. What is great news for the defense is also great news for the stability of the team as a whole; not that Karl W Ouimette was doing a bad job – au contraire. And the latest player on trial with the club, Daniele Paponi, has been offered an MLS contract. The Italian striker has shown enough in practice and his potential arrival can change the formation and style of play of the club. With Zarek Valentin on loan in Norway, question marks are rising around the future of Andrew Wenger, who has not started a game yet.
What is the real story of the week for the Impact? With 10 to 20 cm of snow falling before Saturday's game, the Impact-Crew game is already tagged as the MLS Winter Classic.
Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
After last week's game, Robert Warzycha spoke of the need to win at home, since the team should feel more comfortable – maybe he should feel more comfortable attacking at home. After a poor first half, he was quick to make a change and take off the defensive-minded Agustin Viana and bring in Jairo Arrieta to add some more offense and they improved. This week though, we are likely to see a reversion as Warzycha will look to be more defensive on the road at Montreal, once again causing a debate of who starts and who sits as there will be an odd man out. Ben Speas has earned his spot, Dominic Oduro is hit and miss, as he showed again last week, Arrieta has been a vital part of the attack but lost his spot to international duty and Eddie Gaven is, well, Eddie Gaven. Warzycha mentioned guys taking the spots for granted – who knows, maybe this week Gaven goes to the bench.
I would prefer to see them attack with attackers, with one holding midfielder and let the backs focus on defending. Warzycha's tactics and preferred line-up with two defensive midfielders relies on width being provided from the backs but that leaves gaping holes in the defense when they inevitably turn it over. Although he made a change at HT last week, his preferred formation has been successful on the road so far this year and that is good enough for him. I predict a draw.
Philadelphia Union vs Toronto FC
Sat 4pm, PPL Park
Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
Coming off perhaps their best performance of the season, Philadelphia and their fans have reason for optimism. New acquisition Conor Casey put in a second straight good shift and has given the team something it's never had: a true target forward who can score.
The question of the day, of course, is where this leaves Union fan favorite Sebastien Le Toux. Both strikers signed in the offseason, with Le Toux returning after a year in exile with Vancouver and New York. Union manager John Hackworth has yet to regularly deploy the two together. With fellow striker Jack McInerney scoring regularly, Hackworth faces the potentially pleasant problem of having to find room for three quality strikers in the line-up.
Meanwhile, former Union captain Danny Califf returns to PPL Park for the first time, now as a member of Toronto FC. Toronto looks vastly improved, and Califf is sure to get a unique response upon taking the field. Like Le Toux, he was an extraordinarily popular player in Philadelphia, his blue-collar playing style and personal relationship with the fans unique in the fabric of Philadelphia sports. Few can forget the time he showed up for a birthday party fans threw for him outside PPL Park before a game. They don't make many like Califf, and Philadelphia fans haven't forgotten it. But coming in on an opposing team, he'll face at least some jeers during the game. To deprive him of that might be a sign of disrespect.
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
Darel Russell's spectacular last-minute equaliser last week stopped the story from being too much about worry over TFC's form. The late comeback was merely a mask for some worrying signs, as once again the midfield struggled to create chances. John Bostock, Hogan Ephraim and Reggie Lambe were once again fairly anonymous and it took the introduction of Justin Braun up front alongside a woefully under served Robert Earnshaw to get things going.
Though the defence has been earning some well deserved compliments, that was the third consecutive game allowing two goals, so all isn't rosy there either. It was always going to be that way though this year, TFC remain a team in transition. Reinforcements are on the way though and the big story (finally) this week was the disclosure, though unconfirmed by the club of course, of the second mystery Argentinian that Toronto have been pursuing.
Matias Laba is a 21-year-old who made Argentina's Under-20 team and is a regular at first-division side Argentinos Juniors. Sounds impressive, and as a defensive midfielder he definitely fills one of TFC's many holes. A report from Argentina mentioned a transfer fee of $1.5m, which would presumably be tacked on to his wages for salary-cap purposes, making him a DP. Given how controversial Julian de Guzman's tenure as a DP DM was, that would certainly be a big gamble from Kevin Payne and co if true.
Seattle Sounders vs New England Revolution
Sat 4pm, CenturyLink Field (Univision Dep)
Sam Chesneau, Gorilla FC, Seattle:
With the Sounders coming up short in Torreon last week against Herculez Gomez and Santos Laguna, 2-1 on aggregate, its almost as if the new season is just beginning. Their overall play against the Liga MX side was honorable – that they had Santos on the brink was great to see, and we finally got to see that Shalrie Joseph clearly has some stuff left in the tank to contribute a great deal, its no doubt what the front office was thinking in signing him. What many have been wondering throughout the week is when Oba Martins will start wrecking havoc against MLS defenses, and it needs to start now, because the Sounders attack has been non-existent thus far during this campaign.
While the rest of the national media tried to troll and insinuate that the sky is falling, many of the fanbase, while irritated at the results of the first four matches, were focused on Concacaf play and the potential to represent in the Club World Cup. Unfortunately that chapter has come to a close, and we'll have to wait at least two more years until that opportunity returns.
Which brings us to this weekend's match against Joseph's old squad, the New England Revolution. Anything less than three points at home is just not acceptable. Not only do the Sounders need a win, but they need an emphatic one. The team haven't looked that bad overall, but their finishing has been atrocious, and that should turn around as soon as possible. Now that there aren't any distractions with the international calendar and Champions League, its full throttle to get out of the cellar immediately.
For a team so far out on the periphery, the Revolution would need to build up some serious momentum in order to move the needle in the Boston sports world. After years of neglect the club is working with no margin for error. Even if they do everything perfectly, the club stands to be an afterthought for the foreseeable future. Netting only one goal in four matches isn't going to them any favors. The league scheduling two byes in the first six weeks also isn't helping.
It really is too bad that the Revs don't have more of a following, as a certain member of the squad needs all the support he can get in the coming weeks and months. Kevin Alston has played 116 matches for the Revs since they drafted him in 2009 but has been forced to take a leave of absence from the club after being diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. While he is expected to make a full recovery and eventually return to the pitch, Revs supporters have been blindsided by the news and are planning to show their support for the right back with a tifo display in their next home match. The Midnight Riders will be putting together a charity event to support Alston. Expect more details in this space next week.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake
Sat 4pm, BC Place (TSN/RDS2)
Benjamin Massey, Editor, Maple Leaf Forever, Vancouver:
The Whitecaps' biggest story is uncertainty. Vancouver got a tough, exciting draw in San Jose, which would normally be great. But there are so many questions about whether the Whitecaps were good or lucky: on the one hand, Vancouver had loads of possession and passed the ball very well through midfield, but San Jose got most of the scoring chances; their goal was a thing of beauty whereas Vancouver's came because two Earthquakes didn't know how shoes worked. Then there are questions of the "should Nigel Reo-Coker be sent off" and "was Andy O'Brien dragging Steven Lenhart up by his jersey the most awesome thing ever" variety, which are equally fun. It was very nice of Fotis Bazakos to give us so much conversational material!
So the Whitecaps' last game was uncertain, and so is their next one. Martin Rennie rotated the line-up heavily in San Jose; will he go back to the regulars at home against Salt Lake? Kenny Miller is fighting a hamstring problem – will he be ready to go? For that matter, are Salt Lake, who have played four of their first six on the road, as mediocre as their record makes them look? This week in Whitecaps land, nobody knows anything.
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
It's been one of those weeks that, at best, depresses. We've been watching other clubs fail in the competition we nearly won; we've seen veteran players have unusually poor performances and young players looking as inconsistent as one would expect. In short, it's exactly what Real Salt Lake might have been expecting at the season's start, but it's not easy to take.
Injuries are clearing up, though: Javier Morales is back in full training and could see 90 minutes soon and Chris Wingert is in full training and could make the bench on Saturday. Nat Borchers is back fully and looking like the intelligent head we need guiding the young players in defense. Even second-string players are back in the mix, with only Cole Grossman definitely out for the weekend.
Saturday sees us travel to Vancouver, to a country in which RSL has simply never won. It's also the end of a long mostly-road-trip that is as difficult a start to the season as any. Five in seven, then three consecutive matches at home. There's a sense that, should RSL make it out in one piece – the season gets a bit easier to manage, but only if the inconsistency can be ironed out. Young, developing squads are destined to have this problem, and it's only become more clear that Jason Kreis's side is no exception.
DC United vs New York Red Bulls
Sat 7pm, RFK Stadium
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
Solid defense, anemic offense. Along with the occasional arm to a throat, this is the ongoing story of DC United. Dwayne DeRosario was injured in a closed-door game with Richmond two weeks ago and was held out of the game at Kansas City, where United fought hard to hold KC at bay – though that plan was thwarted by a late goal to send them to defeat. The lack of goals has fans and the team asking questions. Do United need time for the attack to gell? There are certainly newcomers that need to adjust, and it's apparent that players are not consistently on the same page. Do United have the right players? Are United playing the right players? A favorite whipping boy is Lionid Pajoy. He can get into dangerous spots, but squanders them with poor shooting (on the rare occasion when he shoots), and doesn't seem to connect with other attacking players. Carlos Ruiz has shown some attacking flair, and also some moments of "meh", though Ben Olsen has seemed to label him as not quite fit, which, when looking back, seems to be a favorite code phrase for Olsen when he doesn't seem to prefer a player, see: Branko Boscovic, Hamdi Salihi. The Red Bulls come to town this week, the energy of a rivalry game could help elevate the team to bring them out of their attacking slump.
Dan Ryazansky, editor, Metrofanatic, New York:
Despair, despair, and some more despair. Just your usual week in Metro-land, and the season is not even two months old.
In three years under "Clever" Hans Backe, not once did his teams blow a lead in a regular-season game. In six games under Mike Petke, that has happened twice, including last weekend's 3-1 loss to Chicago. One can say that New York was the better team for most of the match … but is rather irrelevant when the final whistle sounds.
The roster, as it appears, seems ill-constructed, with free-kick stud Juninho proving useless when the other team has the ball. Tim Cahill, a man without a position (yet with a multimillion paycheck) roams the field, forever unable to find the goal. Peguy Luyindula, a forward in name only, is terrific until he starts getting close to the goal. Titi Henry, when he is not hurt, is still Titi Henry. So that's good. When he is not hurt.
And then we have Luis Robles, who arguably had his worst game in New York, and newly-signed Kevin Hartman breathing down his neck. Will this be the week we see the most accomplished keeper in MLS history finally step on the field?
Oh, and NY is playing DC. F@#k DC.
FC Dallas vs LA Galaxy
Sat 7.30pm, FC Dallas Stadium (NBCSN)
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
The big story this week is two-fold: one being the fallout from giving up a two-goal lead for the second time in six games, the other being a small piece of good news in El Capitan's return to Frisco.
The reactions to the Toronto game are split. Some fans are not worried that we drew on the road at this point of the season, but others – like myself – are worried that we're starting another bad habit (we're still scarred by last year's "one red card/one injury per game" rule). Stepping out of panic mode for a second, however, Andrew Jacobson and Blas Perez scored two beautiful goals, and the way we dominated the game for 85 minutes showed that we might just be a first-place team after all. The boys just need to learn that first place teams play for all 90 minutes.
This week is what most of us are calling the real test: LA Galaxy at home. Landycakes and Robbie Keane are back, but the fact that LA never makes it easy for us makes them that much more fun to beat. George John's precautionary sub in the Toronto game was just that – precautionary – so we should have a full, healthy squad ready to deliver a full, healthy ass-kicking.
Josie Becker, Editor, LAG Confidential, Los Angeles:
The main story at the club this week actually isn't anything to do with MLS but rather the Concacaf Champions League. The Galaxy suffered an abrupt exit from the competition at the hands of Monterrey Wednesday night and now face a quick turnaround to take on FC Dallas. Dallas have started out hotter than anyone in the West, so certainly this is no easy task.
Fortunately for the Galaxy the back line has been excellent, keeping clean sheets right out of the bat and keeping Carlo Cudicini from having to make too many saves. Omar Gonzalez in particular has been playing out of his mind. There was a brief fatigue dip after his time with the US national team, but in Monterrey he was just spectacular, getting to any and all loose balls like he had radar for that kind of thing.
Less encouraging is how things have gone on the offensive end. With Landon Donovan on walkabout, homegrown players Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean got a chance to show their stuff, with encouraging results. However, when called on to be primary strikers, it was clear they needed pairing with an experienced forward. So it wasn't surprising to see the veterans get their spots back, but it has been odd to see them playing down. Robbie Keane suffered an injury in World Cup qualifying and has since looked average. Donovan's still finding the game. Mike Magee now has to re-find his place and goals aren't coming, which worries.
Chivas USA vs Colorado Rapids
Sat 10.30pm, The Home Depot Center
Alicia Ratterree, The Goat Parade, Chivas USA:
Chivas USA are coming off an unexpected bye, so it has been pretty quiet around the team lately. I think, overall, fans are basking in the great start the team is off to, and want it to continue. For the team itself, several key players have been struggling with injuries of late, and giving them a chance to recover during the week off should hopefully help. In particular, Juan Agudelo and Oswaldo Minda are dealing with hamstring injuries, but there is hope they will be able to feature Saturday against the Colorado Rapids.
Can Chivas continue their winning streak against Colorado? On paper, it certainly looks like they can, but the Rapids have shown a tenacity in recent weeks despite facing a massive injury crisis themselves, so I'm not expecting a walk in the park for either side. This is certainly a winnable game for the Goats, but hopefully they didn't pick up any rust during their break.
Todd Haggerty, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:
Forget the injuries and the team's position in the standings – the Rapids beat RSL! The Rapids scored early, saved a penalty and held on for three points to help erase some of the supporters early season misery. Clint Irwin has already ascended in to legendary status as he continues to impress week in, week out. This week the 'Pids pay a visit to Chivas USA, typically the league's marquee match-up. On paper this looks like a road loss as the Goats are flying at the moment and the Rapids may be set for a letdown after a big win. However, I expect a draw as the Rapids seem to be developing some chemistry on the pitch.
Houston Dynamo vs Chicago Fire
Sun 5pm, BBVA Compass Stadium (UniMas)
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
This week is all about the streak. The players and coaches may say it's not on their mind, but it's on the fan's minds. The Dynamo are shooting for an MLS record 35 games unbeaten at home, which dates back to June 2011 and Robertson Stadium.
This weekend, Houston will host the Chicago Fire, who are coming off their first win of the season. The Fire will be looking for nothing but a victory as they started the season poorly and are looking to make up ground. This Chicago team was hailed in the preseason as an Eastern Conference contender, and they'll be eager to start proving they are. There isn't a better challenge for them than this week's match-up. Most importantly for Chicago, they'll be looking to do what no other team has been able to do – even CCL finalist Santos Laguna. And that's to beat Houston at home.
The Dynamo could potentially be without Will Bruin and Boniek Garcia again, who are nursing injuries. It's evident their presence was sorely missed last week against Portland. If Houston wants to keep the streak alive, the midfield will have to be better and the defense can't make mistakes. Something tells me the outcome on Sunday will be different than Portland – after all, it's at home, the perfect place for the Dynamo to get back on track.
Scott Fenwick, Editor, On the Fire, Chicago:
Spring is in the air in Bridgeview this week. No longer is the Fire winless. No longer does the club have just one goal to its name. And no longer is Chicago considered the worst team in MLS. But with three of the four top squads in the Eastern Conference remaining on their April docket, cautious optimism predominates.
After a win at home versus a lackluster New York side the #FireKlopas hashtag has buried itself in the Twittersphere, but it could surface again if Chicago can't get decent results from its next three. First up, the Fire will enter the oven at BBVA Compass Stadium, a fortress that's seen Houston Dynamo win 16 games, draw six and lose none in its sweltering confines since opening in 2012.
As Chicago gets its squad back to full strength after a rash of injuries, and Klopas continues to figure out his tactics, Sunday will undoubtedly mark the Fire's sixth different starting line-up in as many matches. And with the med sheet thinning out, the big question is whether center-back Arne Friedrich will make his 2013 debut this weekend. Since the Die Mannschaft veteran's arrival in 2012, Chicago is 14-3-4 with him at center-back and 4-9-3 without him.
The other big story this week? Bobblehead night. That's right. After a fan poll, 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year Austin Berry will become the second player in club history to have his likeness immortalized in the great American statuesque sporting tradition. The first Fire man to have his own bobblehead? Cuauhtémoc Blanco, of course.
Portland Timbers vs San Jose Earthquakes
Sun 10.30pm JELD-WEN Field (NBCSN)
Roger Anthony, Timbers Army, Portland:
As the club prepares for a rare home-and-home duel with San Jose – the two teams meet again on 21 April – the conversations have been less about the defending Supporters' Shield champs and more about the Timbers' ongoing problems in the back. Portland looked dominant against Houston last week, posting the season's first clean sheet and holding the Dynamo to a far-from-dynamic two shots on goal. This despite losing two players to injury in the first third of the match – center-back David Horst to season-ending knee surgery, and midfielder Diego Valeri to a flying elbow from Houston's Jermaine Taylor. A post-game statement from referee Ricardo Salazar labeled Taylor as "careless, but not reckless." Fans were left to wonder how that benevolent "Well, he didn't mean to …" philosophy might apply to an own-goal – or, alternatively, to players trying to sneak back on to the pitch after a mid-match shoe change.
Even prior to Horst's injury, the club was looking around for CBs: Ex-MLS defender Raushan McKenzie was in for a tryout, but let go. Meanwhile, fan polls, always a guiding light, have shown widespread support for signing Sounder-killer and US forward Herculez Gomez. With Horst out, Portland is astoundingly thin at center-back: 20-year-old starter Andrew Jean-Baptiste, now going into his 11th MLS match, is third in seniority at the position. Shy on CBs and facing two straight against the Bash Brothers? The Timbers just won pretty. This week, they'll have to win gritty.
Robert Jonas, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
Six weeks into the season and the Earthquakes have a 2-2-2 record: not too shabby considering that the team has fielded five different starting line-ups in those six games. That diversity is set to continue for the short term, but for all the right reasons. With each passing match, San Jose is set to welcome back another first-choice starter from the infirmary. Two weeks it was Alan Gordon getting his season debut and last weekend it was Steven Lenhart. Next up on the list of returnees is winger Marvin Chavez followed closely by right-sided partner full-back Steven Beitashour. The last piece of the puzzle in getting the 2012 Band of Goonies back together is not currently on the roster, but perhaps Simon Dawkins would welcome a return from the EPL benches to the lush green pastures of MLS. That summer transfer window is just around the corner…
A scheduling oddity awaits San Jose over the next two weekends, as a trip to Portland is followed up by a return to Buck Shaw Stadium for a home-and-home series between the Timbers and Quakes. Chris Wondolowski, with three goals this season and a host of near misses, has scored three in his last two meetings against the Rose City men. His brace off the bench led the team to a 2-2 draw in last September's clash, and his conversion from the penalty spot in the season's last match famously gave Wondo a share of the MLS record for goals scored at 27. The Quakes' MVP will be at the head of the offense as he tries to lead San Jose over the next two weeks to their first ever victory against Portland.