Welcome to Week Nine of the MLS season - a season which is now a quarter of the way through for some teams and barely begun for others, with the vagaries of scheduling a 19-team, four-timezone league.
What's definitely over is MLS involvement in this year's Champions League. Santos Laguna and Monterrey played out a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the final in midweek — a game that Herculez Gomez warmed up for by exercising his thumbs.
But qualification for the next Champions League (or maybe the one after that — it's sequentially very confusing) got under way in Canada in midweek, as the MLS teams Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver got together to play "spot the odd one out" with Edmonton. Advantage Vancouver and Toronto after the first legs.
Toronto are back in action this weekend when they play a New York side who have either won two out of their last three, or are due a defeat (given that they're currently alternating wins and losses). It kicks off around 2pm, so as always with Toronto games this season, you might want to tune in around 3.40pm. Immediately after that game Montreal return from a brief MLS break to host Chicago, who are inching into form, after a win over a poor Columbus side give them another three points. And then Vancouver make it a trio of Canadian home games, when they face Dallas for the second consecutive week. They got no joy in Frisco, going down to a 2-0 defeat. Can they halt Dallas's momentum back in Vancouver?
Columbus looked very one-dimensional against Chicago last week, and DC have been a surprise flop so far this year. Either one team gets their confidence back at the expense of another this weekend, or that one could be a stinker. Also suffering — New England, who came back from New York on the end of a 4-1 result, though two late goals distorted the complexion of that one. They face a Philadelphia team for whom Jack McInerney has hit a purple patch in front of goal, and who will not feel daunted by a trip to their Eastern Conference rivals on current form.
An intriguing game after that, when Sporting KC begin a home stand against one time perennial bad travelers Portland, who came within minutes of getting out of San Jose with three points. Sporting rather tanked against LA at the end of a big travel week, but that one could be an entertaining and hopefully illuminating game, regarding the credentials of those two. Likewise RSL and LA will be meeting in a repeat of the game that turned LA's season around last year, when they cam from behind to reignite a faltering defense of their title. Both teams start in the top three in the West, both 8 points back from Dallas, though the Galaxy have played two fewer games.
Saturday night is rounded off by surprise package Chivas trying to recover some of their very early season swagger when they meet a San Jose team who are just beginning to get key players back from injury. That could be a very physical game (he understated). And Chelis may make a speech about sardines. Houston meet Colorado on the loan game on Sunday, with both teams coming off "meh" weeks. Colorado helped Seattle earn their first win of the season last week, and Houston labored against Toronto before scoring a late equalizer in a game that saw them lose Taylor to a rather harsh red card. But with Houston at home, Colorado, like the Five things we learned editor, will be hard pushed to get anything on Sunday.
Richard Farley and I will be back on Monday-ish with that Five things we learned column, but for now that choir you can hear warming up is our regular guest commentators preparing to fill you in on the main stories for their team this week. See what they have to say then fill in the gaps in our comments section and we'll see you on Monday.
All games listed as ET.
Toronto FC vs New York Red Bulls
Sat 2:00PM, BMO Field (TSN, RDS)
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
There have been three stories around TFC this week. The first being TFC's repeated injury time self sabotage, 3 times already this season, wins have been turned into draws, and no-one seems quite sure how to stop it. This Saturday's game is sandwiched by the two legs of the first round (also semi-final) of the Canadian Championship against Montreal. Debate has raged as to how heavily the team should be rotated, should a 5th straight Championship be pursued, or focus left very much on the league, all that sort of thing. In the end, there were 9 changes to the starting lineup, but TFC still got a 2-0 win against a similarly weakened Montreal squad.
The final story is relating to players coming in. Argentinian Maximiliano Urruti's deal finally fell through after months of chatter, the Kevin Davies saga was mercifully briefer, but for a couple of days it looked like the 36 year old would be coming over to Toronto. He's not, meaning the search for help for Robert Earnshaw up front continues. The other Argentinian TFC have been pursuing, defensive midfielder Matías Laba, looks like he will actually make it over here. Though TFC have said nothing, Argentinos Jrs put out a statement confirming the sale, with a transfer fee reported at $1.35m. Only 21 years old, if he can adapt well to MLS, he could be a vital player for years to come.
Dan Dickinson, Sports editor, Gothamist, New York:
It's strange - coming off a three game week, I would've expected the noise around the club to be around the pretty poor showing to Sporting Kansas City, where the team either misfired or self-destructed, which Juninho earning a two game suspension thanks largely to Jimmy Nielsen's award-winning performance in "The Ball That Struck Me". But instead, many have focused on the two wins - a strong performance against DC at RFK, and the first real beat-down of the year at home against the Revs. Six points out of nine is a favorable haul for the week, even if they were against the two worst teams in the East. Perhaps most of the relief comes from eight different players being involved in goals in the Saturday game, giving a firm indication that most of this team may be able to contribute to the score sheet in ways other than "lump the ball to Titi".
Saturday brings the first game of the season against Toronto. While many will agree Toronto has improved this year, it'd be hard to start worse than they did in 2012. Yes, they're undefeated at home, but they've let late goals slip in their last four games. The Red Bulls main concern may be psychological, as they've alternated between W's and L's for the last six games. Coming off the win on Saturday, their pattern would seem to doom them to a loss this weekend - hopefully the cycle will be broken at Ryan Nelsen's expense.
Montreal Impact vs Chicago Fire
Sat 4.00PM, Stade Saputo (NBCSN, TSN, RDS)
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
It's yet another Canadian Hangover for the Montreal Impact. For potentially the fifth consecutive year, Montreal look unlikely to take the Voyageurs Cup home and are facing the second consecutive elimination by Toronto FC. There is still some hope as the Impact is down 0-2 in the first leg and still has a chance at home at Stade Saputo on May 1st. The loss against Toronto FC also showed the gap between experienced players and younger inexperienced ones on the Impact's squad. Opting to focus on the MLS season, Montreal did not necessarily ignore the Canadian Championship but at the same time, the club took the realistic path by resting the big guns.
With the Chicago Fire coming to town, said big guns (Di Vaio, Nesta, Arnaud and Felipe) will be back in the starting XI and with a chance to continue their winning tempo at home, having not lost at home up until now. The question of team depth and a dependence on older injury-prone players is definitely feeding the #IMFC social media sphere. The delicate balance between winning and development is always a challenge for any club. Is it too early to expect the Montreal Impact to have the maturity level of a Sporting Kansas City? Most probably — but it is not too early to look at team depth for options on the fly during a game, meaning more effective players or maybe players with more MLS/Pro soccer minutes under their belt.
There has been a palpably-elevated mood this week as Fire fans bask in the glow of defeating Columbus at home and most of the grumbles surrounding Jeff "That Jerk Who Used to Play For the Revs" Larentowicz have diminished greatly following his game-winning header and celebration in front of Section 8 and the Harlem End. Despite some doom-saying predictions of an inevitable Oduro hat-trick, the squad put in a fantastic defensive effort and neutralized the freaky fast one while at the same time creating chance after chance until their reward came late in the game.
Chatter has increased following the acknowledgement by the club of long-rumored interest in Śląsk Wrocław midfielder Sebastian Mila. Though a creative mid may not be first and foremost on the Fire's list of needs right now (ahem... goal scorer) there is still plenty of interest surrounding the prospect of a new "Seba" (in place of the departed Grazzini) pulling the strings on the field.
The club heads off for its first visit to Stade Saputo on the weekend, and while some MLS clubs might be daunted by Montreal's northerly climate, do not forget that the matches played at Toyota Park this year (not to mention training) have been undertaken in very cold and windy conditions. We will likely see a similar lineup to the one that took down the Crew, and look for the Fire to apply pressure from the forwards on back on an Impact team that prefer a slow buildup to balls over the top.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs FC Dallas
Sat 6:00PM, BC Place (Univision Dep.)
Benjamin Massey, Editor, Maple Leaf Forever, Vancouver:
Are the Whitecaps underachieving? They got smoked 2-0 in Dallas, then mid-week needed a lot of luck and some awful refereeing to overcome NASL side FC Edmonton in the Voyageurs Cup. The Edmonton miracle was Vancouver's first victory since the second game of the season, and the locals are restless. The knives, once sheathed, are coming out again for Martin Rennie and his mid-2012 "ruining the culture of the team" bogeyman.
By the numbers, the Whitecaps really aren't doing badly. But there hasn't been a really satisfying game all month and fans seem ill-inclined to be patient. Above everything else, a good game against Dallas is needed just to get morale back up.
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
It's been a good week, because we're coming off what was just a really solid win against Vancouver. In fact, despite our position in the standings, it was perhaps the first game this season where the team really looked like they came together and looked like a good side. This was a dominant win, with good goals. It wasn't ugly, it wasn't getting lucky in a crapshoot and it was against a good time. That said, people who've been saying we've had an easy schedule so far — I don't buy it. Colorado may be a team we beat regularly in the regular season, but they're our nemesis in the post-season and LA are obviously a good side. Any time we play in our conference, there's pressure and they're difficult games. But we've got the results and the points and a little bit of a buffer, so even if there's a dip at any stage we should still be pretty close to first place. That said we're going up to Vancouver for the return this weekend and that's always a rough place to play, with them wanting revenge for what our team did last week, and also the nasty artificial turf (that's where we lost David Ferreira for a year and a half to injury). I'm going to predict either a 1-1 or 2-2 draw.
Columbus Crew vs DC United
Sat 7:30PM, Columbus Crew Stadium
Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
The Crew's very poor outing last week has created a lot of stir amongst the Crew faithful. First and foremost, it is inexcusable to give that type of performance against that team — rivalry games should elevate players to the next level. Zero shots on goal against one of the worst defenses in the league to now and giving such a poor effort is indefensible.
The effort seemed to be lacking but it's increasingly clear the league has figured out how to play Columbus. This much was acknowledged by Chicago players/staff via postgame comments. Columbus' offense runs through Federico Higuain dropping into space and then facilitating from there. Shut down his ability to get the ball and be effective and you neutralize the Columbus attack.
A couple weeks ago Robert Warzycha said that guys are taking their positions for granted and that a change was needed. Yet he has trotted out the same starting lineup for the past 4 games. Warzycha is very predictable in what he does in his lineup but also in his tactics and his inability to make adjustments. It was clear their tactics weren't working last week as Chicago was fully prepared but the only change he made was through substitutions. The plan was the problem, not the pieces.
Warzycha has promised changes this week but does that mean personnel or tactics? It will take a rethink of his preferred 2 holding midfield lineup to shake things up and noone thinks he is capable of it.
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles
It appears that the lack of goals and offense has finally gone public. GM Dave Kasper and Coach Ben Olsen addressed this with the media, they're apparently looking for help to replace the injured players. Olsen gave hints that the solution could be on the bench, which is helpful, because we've seen that the answer isn't on the field. The team is facing confidence troubles and are perhaps trying to hard. The solution may be a player on the field, but maybe that player needs to step back for a game in order to get back on track. Many think Carlos Ruiz must start to be effective. Ruiz's strength is ability to get into a defender's head, and that's nearly impossible to do in the last 20 minutes of a game. If we're going to have Ruiz, we must embrace the 'full effect' of what Ruiz is.
United's defense, which has carried the team through this season, cracked against Philadelphia, allowing 2 goals in 11 minutes and 3 in 26. They'll need to bounce back this week in Columbus. In an effort to get back into the game, defensive unit, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jacovic, Daniel Woolard, Chris Korb and Perry Kitchen were very obviously trying to kick start the offense as the continually pushed forward. But at this point we're missing what Andy Najar and Branko Boscovic brought to the 2012 team.
New England Revolution vs Philadelphia Union
Sat 7:30PM Gillette Stadium
The trip to Red Bull Arena is something of a pilgrimage for Revs fans. The five hour long bus ride from Boston to Harrison brings the most dedicated supporters together with just the right mix of optimism, time, and beer to make long lasting relationships. The trip makes fans into supporters.
This year, the trip proved to be an event that those involved will never forget.
A lot of credit has to be given to those fans who regularly reside in the South Ward and elsewhere throughout Red Bull Arena. The local fans met the 300 fans from New England to march into the stadium as a sign of solidarity in response to the events of Marathon Monday. The scenes outside the arena were emotional, moving and really hard to put into words. There was the impressive "New York Stands with Boston" banner unfurled coupled with the chants of "Boston Strong". Then inside the stadium Revs fans displayed banners of their own, showing their love for this city and the support of the team.
Personally, it was an incredible experience. I lived in Watertown and currently reside in Cambridge. People tried to cripple our city with bombs and fear but the city as a whole came together and didn't let that happen. The tight knit soccer community that I am a part of through the Midnight Riders and AO:Boston switched seamlessly from the group of people I watch matches and have beers with down at Parlor Sports to a support group full of people willing to listen, share stories, and just be there during the wild week.
On the field, there is hope that the Revs will benefit from a week of relative normalcy and can start to answer some of the mounting questions they face this season.
Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
Jack McInerney and Conor Casey are the hottest strike duo in MLS right now after combining for three goals and an assist in Philadelphia Union's 3-2 road win over D.C. United, but all anyone can talk about is the baby-faced killer from Georgia. Player of the week? Check. Future U.S. national teamer? Check. Could he win the Golden Boot? Check, check. The Jack Mac hype machine is in high gear now that the 20-year-old poacher leads MLS in goals.
But Casey seems a forgotten man, despite playing his best game in two years. Not only was the former U.S. international responsible for the game's two goals, but he put in a solid defensive shift, provided good hold-up play, and even sent in some good crosses. The match capped a good run of form that has Casey proving to be the target man Philadelphia had unsuccessfully sought for years.
The 31-year-old Colorado native's Indian summer has surprised many. Casey had been one of the league's best strikers playing for his hometown Colorado Rapids from 2007 through 2011, netting 48 goals in 101 starts and earning the MVP award when Colorado won the 2010 MLS Cup. Then he tore his left Achilles tendon in 2011, scored just two goals in 2012 under a new coach, and was released. Now he's apparently back, finally fully recovered. With McInerney and a solid back line, he's a key reason Philadelphia sits in the table's top half.
Now if the Union can just fix their midfield...
Sporting KC vs Portland Timbers
Sat 8:30PM Sporting Park
Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:
Most Sporting KC fans probably want to forget last weekend's performance against Los Angeles. The 2-0 loss ending a shut-out record was frustrating as Sporting struggled to put much together despite fielding the same staring XI week after week. This week's home match against the Portland Timbers may provide some relief. The Timbers are undefeated in their last five matches and looking for their first road win of the season. Timbers Coach Caleb Porter and Co. seem to be building confidence, while Sporting KC will work to recover from the setback suffered at the Home Depot Center.
Sporting's first team may be suffering from a bit of fatigue, but thankfully the KC Cauldron is gearing up to fuel to the best possible home field advantage. All signs point to the competition spilling into the stands. The Sporting KC supporters have big plans for Saturday's match, with calls to volunteers for game day preparations receiving great response. Porterball may not be sufficient to get the Timbers the road win they're after.
Michael Pearson, Timbers Army, Portland:
Caleb Porter hopefully learned a valuable lesson away to San Jose, don't ever let up 1-0. Especially against a team renowned for late game comebacks and whose style of lofting balls into the box is exactly how the Timbers ended up giving up the late tying goals. Against San Jose Timbers seemed in control for the first 60 minutes or so. While it wasn't the domination we've seen against others, there seemed to be enough possession to get the first goal. It came from Diego Valeri, back from his concussion, but subbing him off shortly after the goal changed the dynamic in the midfield and San Jose responded with sustained pressure in the form of long-balls into the box. It was a dangerous combination, eloquently illustrated when substitute Adam Jahn poked in a ball off a header in the box in stoppage time. 1-1.
While the draw was nice, Timbers fans had to be slightly disappointed in the loss of 2 points. Its important to note though that this team last year probably was incapable of even being in that position, and even if the late giveaway surely reminded many of the bad days of 2012, this team has indeed looked better, even if its not quite 100% there.
Up next, Timbers turn their sights on to one of the few teams in MLS that can rival the Timbers for aesthetic beauty, and who probably best represent where the Timbers hope to be soon on the field. The Kansas City game should feature plenty of fireworks and hopefully some of the best soccer we've seen in MLS this year.
Real Salt Lake vs LA Galaxy
Sat 9:00PM, Rio Tinto Stadium
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
Real Salt Lake could be missing key personnel, with Chris Schuler in doubt following a hand break on Saturday, Kyle Beckerman still working back from a dislocated rib, and Luis Gil struggling with ankle concerns. All three could certainly play, but their replacements, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Yordany Alvarez and Sebastian Velasquez, respectively, have shown well during 2013 and will not cause too much grief should they start, even against an attacking LA Galaxy side. Of some question, too, is who exactly will start alongside Alvaro Saborio. With Olmes Garcia getting the nod last week, he might be set to start again as Jason Kreis looks to establish continuity in his side. But with Robbie Findley and Joao Plata right behind him, there'll once again be some questions about who starts.
Facing LA Galaxy on Saturday, RSL will be facing one of their longer-standing rivals — one the fans have very much taken to, and one that has consistently produced fantastic on-pitch action. But rivalry aside, both teams will be hopeful to establish some dominance in the crowded West, and with RSL in its first home stand of the season, a win will help establish some confidence with the season only getting hairier ahead. Establishing continuity in the lineup may have to wait another week, but with unprecedented squad depth on hand, and international absences to make a mark through the summer, the benefits to forgoing continuity now could be seen further down the road.
Brian Lynch, Angel City Brigade, Los Angeles:
The Galaxy came back into form against Sporting Kansas City after getting a little banged up in the CONCACAF Champions League. The team has started to click again, particularly the traditional back line. This week they head to Utah to take on RSL who dispatched Chivas last week. Beating RSL at Rio Tinto is never easy and that won't change this time around. The Galaxy may well be without Robbie Keane who's nursing an ankle injury, as well as Landon Donovan who's still got a little bit to go to get to 100%. Youngsters may get a chance to shine with both Jose Villarreal and Oscar Sorto being available to fill in the gaps. The two teams have played some of the best games in MLS history and this week's game shouldn't be any different.
Chivas USA vs San Jose Earthquakes
Sat 10:30PM, The Home Depot Center
Alicia Ratterree, The Goat Parade, Chivas USA:
This week, Chivas USA are dealing on the field with two consecutive 1-0 losses, and a pileup of injuries and suspensions. While there's been no update on the status of the key injured players like Juan Agudelo and Miller Bolaños, two starters, Edgar Mejia and Bobby Burling, are suspended for Saturday's match against San Jose. That could prove very costly in both defense and midfield, as the Goats never had considerable depth on the back line or in the holding midfield role, but given the injuries in those positions, it looks like Chelís is going to have to work some magic if Chivas are to get a result.
Off the field, it has also been an eventful week, with two major stories dropping. First, midfielder Oswaldo Minda claims he hasn't been paid his full salary for five months, a story that is all-too-common in Latin American leagues, but which is practically unheard of in MLS. The team and league deny his claim, so it is unclear if there will be a resolution soon, but Minda has also alleged that the team has left him out of the lineup because of the salary dispute, not because he is injured.
Second, and more significantly, reports emerged that Chivas USA, along with Chivas de Guadalajara, is for sale and could be bought by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. Although these reports have come up in the past and current owner Jorge Vergara has been quick to silence rumors, this one might have some legs. What is concerning is where Chivas USA sits in Slim's mind, since the initial report claimed he wasn't keen on the American club. If a sale does go through, will that usher in a new, more progressive era in Chivas USA's history, or could it spell the end of the club in Southern California? No one knows, and speculation is rampant.
"Nerdy Gales", Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
Last Saturday the fans were in celebratory mood even though the San Jose Earthquakes still haven't beaten the Portland Timbers in regular MLS play (0-2-5). There was one giant birthday party in section 108 at Buck Shaw stadium – the 1906 Ultras celebrated their 10th birthday with a titanic tifo that spilled over into adjacent sections. They were still in joyful mood, even after the probation handed out after last week's Portland trip – they're banned from road trips, using profanity and igniting smoke bombs.
Celebrations continued throughout the stadium with the first appearance of Steven Beitashour and Marvin Chavez in the starting XI – the latter so keen to get going when he came on in the 60th minute that he didn't break stride as he ran on, and headed straight to the ball to take a free kick (duly whistled back by the referee). The Buck Shaw shindig concluded with another score for the newest Goonie and super-sub, rookie Adam Jahn, who planted a 93rd minute equalizer, leaving the final score at 1-1. Stop me if you've heard this all before…
It remains to be seen if our celebrations carry over to HDC against Chivas USA – Chivas have purposeful flank play reminiscent of the 2012 Quakes (and ineffective thus far in 2013). Chivas coach Chelís is looking to redress the wrong end of two consecutive 1-0 score lines with extra PK practice. At the same time, the Quakes squad is returning to full strength – will their errant passing disappear and finishing reappear? Both teams are eager to return to winning ways, which promises a lively game.
Houston Dynamo vs Colorado Rapids
Sun 5:00PM BBVA Compass Stadium (UniMas)
Zach Woosley, SB Nation, Houston:
The big story for the Dynamo this week is injuries and suspensions. Jermaine Taylor is definitely out, serving a one game ban for his sending off against Toronto FC. The only thing more ridiculous than the red card (it was a common foul at worst) is MLS's stubborn refusal to overturn the card. So with Taylor out, Eric Brunner will be called upon to fill in on the back line.
The Dynamo's depth will be further tested with Brad Davis (groin) and Adam Moffat in doubt for Sunday. Both left the TFC game with minor injuries and their status is up in the air at the moment. Boniek Garcia should be ready to return, allowing Andrew Driver to shift over to the left wing if Davis cannot go.
Up front Will Bruin is still working back after missing the last two games and Omar Cummings just can't seem to get fit after knee surgery at the beginning of the year.
At this point it's all about getting through this stretch and avoid exacerbating injuries by rushing anyone back too fast. This is why Dom Kinnear gets paid the big bucks of course.
Tod Haggerty, Centennial 38, Colorado:
The Rapids improbable three game winning streak came to a dramatic halt against the Sounders last weekend in match that must have shaken, for those who witnessed it, one's belief in the beautiful game. On top of the tepid display, the Rapids managed to lose another player to injury in pre-game warmup (Buddle) and another midway through the match (Wynne). I can only imagine that the Rapids' insurance premium is going to go up quite significantly. This weekend the Rapids travel to Houston, which I guess if one has to travel to Houston that this is the best time of year to do so, to play yet another consistent Dom Kinnear led team. Given the Rapids' injuries, inability to convert chances and that their most creative player is a 35 year old right back (Brian Mullan), I can only envision a dramatic 3-0 road loss. However, from what I've heard, once all of the injured players are back the 'Pids could easily contend for 6th place in the Western Conference. Oh to be a Rapids supporter, at least low goals are better than no goals.