Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us … US Soccer celebrates its official 100th birthday today, Friday, which is nice. As opposed to the Guardian staff, who simply feel a hundred after a couple of late nights covering disappointing MLS results in the Concacaf Champions League this week. Both Seattle and LA went down to defeats against Mexican opposition, who were in no mood to offer birthday gifts.
Perhaps Sporting KC and DC United will be jumping out of a cake on Friday night for their Eastern conference clash. Sporting ended Montreal's 100% run last week, while DC are rather struggling to put points on the board. The hosts will be hoping to build on last week's result and start to gain some momentum.
Saturday kicks off with Toronto hoping to celebrate Dallas's role in the rich tapestry of US soccer history by sending them back from Canada without any points. Toronto almost beat the Galaxy last week, till a late Jose Villareal goal thwarted them, and they'll want to go one better against the early Western Conference leaders as Ryan Nelsen's reconstruction project and Robert Earshaw's goal run continues. Then Philadelphia, killed off by a late Thierry Henry goal in New York last week, head up to Columbus, for whom the bye week maybe came at the worst possible time, after their road win in Washington last time out.
On Saturday evening, NBC will be showing the Rocky Mountain Cup clash between Colorado and RSL, with the hosts' injury problems reaching epidemic proportion and the visitors coming into the game having extended the Sounders' poor league start last week. They've also been insulting each other via ad parodies and old-school TLC tunes, which is all rather fun/odd, depending how you see these things.
Timbers fans will be hoping to see the fun/odd sight of their players holding up large cross sections of Redwood tree trunks as Timber Joey carries out his one-man deforestation campaign. The Timbers showed spirit to pull back two goals against the Rapids last week, but the Dynamo, on current form and with Will Bruin finally off the mark for the year, are looking dangerous.
San Jose play Vancouver to round off Saturday, with both playoff teams from last season coming off chastening losses – the Quakes going down 2-0 to Houston and the Whitecaps losing 2-1 to Chivas USA. The 'Caps still look confident but their speedy young strike force have made one or two hasty decisions that have cost them dearly in the last couple of games and Martin Rennie will be looking to correct that. San Jose and Chris Wondolowski are looking a little … human so far this year.
The weekend is rounded off with Chicago hosting New York on Sunday, in ESPN2's weekly game. New York's Mike Petke called the Fire a "sleeping giant" of sorts in terms of their results not matching their personnel. He could have been talking about his own team though – last week's victory over the Union gave him his first win as head coach in four attempts. New York traditionally struggle in Chicago, so it will be interesting to see if the hosts can get their season back on track after a 4-1 humiliation against Chivas two weeks ago.
Never humiliated (because they have no shame), our usual cast of beat writers, fan reps, bloggers, podcasters, and goal hangers are here with their weekly stories from each of their clubs. See what they have to say below, add your predictions and we'll see you on the other side on Monday morning with Five things we learned.
All kick off times are ET
Sporting Kansas City vs DC United
8.30pm, Sporting Park
Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:
Sporting KC ended Montreal Impact's short-lived winning streak with a 2-0 victory at Sporting Park. With Chance Myers returning from injury and Matt Besler returning from international duty, the celebrated backline – Besler, Aurélien Collin, Seth Sinovic, Myers – started together. Benny Feilhaber had a great game, leading Sporting KC in key passes. Claudio Bieler scored early in the first half and Graham Zusi scored in the second, both assisted by Feilhaber. This was a most welcome victory, as Sporting KC has had a bit of a shaky start to the campaign.
More good news for the club followed on Wednesday when US Soccer announced the induction of manager Peter Vermes to the US Soccer Hall of Fame. Elected via the veterans ballot, Vermes joins Joe-Max Moore, elected via the players ballot, as the 2013 inductees. Vermes was an integral part of the USMNT that went to the World Cup after a forty-year absence in 1990, and had 67 appearances and 11 goals over 10 years with the national team, where he played as a forward and later as a defender. Vermes played in Hungary, Holland and Spain, and then after seven years in MLS retired as a Kansas City Wizard, winning the MLS Cup in 2000. The honor is well deserved and is a great reflection of the club. Vermes joins two former Kansas City managers and three former Kansas City players in the Hall of Fame.
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
United needs to find it's attacking and scoring, after managing two goals in four games. That's the major need. United will need to do so, however, without their first choices for attacking players as Nick DeLeon has been ruled out for at least six weeks with his hamstring injury. This likely opens the door for Panamanian newcomer Marcos Sánchez, who has been impressive in his three appearances so far. He missed the last game due to World Cup qualification duty, where he played in both of Panama's matches. Also returning from international duty is Dejan Jakovic, who missed the last game playing for Canada in Doha (naturally), which will return the defensive unit to its standard configuration. United takes on Kansas City on Friday night (not included into the three-year local broadcasting deal), where it'll take on a strong and deep team that will certainly test United's patience and discipline.
Toronto FC vs FC Dallas
Sat 4pm, BMO Field (TSN)
Sonja Missio, 90 Minutes of Hopp:
If you Google the following, "Toronto FC" + "rebuilding," you get 613,000 results in 0.38 seconds. Arguably, not all results would be relevant to the original search topic, but you get the point: "Toronto FC" and "rebuilding" have become synonymous in Toronto sport culture. Normally this would not be a bad thing – teams should always strive to evolve and progress to be better and "rebuilding" does not have to be a negative term. However, when a team has been rebuilding for the last seven years (seriously, check out some of those dates on your Google results) and have (arguably) not actually managed to build anything, then that team may have a problem.
But then, enter Toronto FC: Season Seven … for the first time in the club's history, something is actually being re-built. It's happening slowly and it's happening steadily, but it's happening. Toronto is entering April on four points and with an urgency to win that has not been seen in Ontario's capital for a while. Whether it is beginner's luck from first-time coach Ryan Nelsen or disciplined leadership from seasoned MLS guru president Kevin Payne, a team is starting to take shape – and, more importantly dominate – at BMO Field. On Saturday, Toronto takes on their former striker Eric Hassli and his new club, FC Dallas. With four games of steady improvement under the club's belt, it is time to see if this is finally the TFC their fans have been waiting for.
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
The big story around the club is told in the standings: 12 points in March. It's one of the club's best starts and we've never done anything like this under Schellas Hyndman. You think of a top-of-the-conference side and you think of a well-oiled machine, but that's not what we're doing. It's scrappy at times, we're still trying to find our rhythm, and basically we're winning ugly. But winning.
Eric Hassli's up against his two old teams, in Toronto then Vancouver in a couple of weeks. He's not the kind of player who I think will be fired up to score against his old team out of spite – I mean, it'd be nice! – but in truth he's been a little peripheral so far. Most of the fans understand he's coming back from injury and are not expecting too much when he comes off the bench. Partly that's because we're winning and partly because it's early in the season. If he's still at that level of influence mid-season people will rightly be demanding more.
Other than him, it's a pretty full squad right now, with no injuries, so very unlike last year, when there was a new injury every week or so it seemed. Of course as soon as I've said that I'm nervous again. That's just where we're at – things are going well, but with this side it could still all go wrong.
Columbus Crew vs Philadelphia Union
Sat 5pm, Columbus Crew Stadium (UniMas)
Ben Hoelzel, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
During last week's bye, supporters have debated who will start in the attack? Due to injuries and international call-ups the Crew have utilized three different wingers: the must-start Eddie Gaven, new signing Dominic Oduro and surprising second-year homegrown Ben Speas. All have played exceptionally well. Speas filled in for Gaven while injured. When Gaven returned Jairo Arrieta was gone with Costa Rica. Oduro moved to the top of the Crew's 4-4-1-1 and Speas stayed on the wing.
This combination worked well, beating DC away two weeks ago. But one does not simply sit a proven goal-scorer like Arrieta, especially when he has formed such a lethal partnership with Federico Higuain. With everyone available this weekend against Philadelphia, Coach Robert Warzycha has some tough decisions to make. Some fans want to see a change in formation to a true 4-4-2, where the Crew would drop one of their two DCMs, move Higuain to ACM and deploy both Arrieta and Oduro up top. But a change in formation is highly unlikely. Warzycha will likely sit Speas and start Oduro wide. Personally, I would start with Oduro on the bench. He could come on either out wide or as a striker depending on how the game is developing. Oduro has devastating speed that could really punish a tired defense late in a game.
Philadelphia has never even earned at a point at Crew Stadium. This is unlikely to change this weekend and could provide a good opportunity to tinker with line-up.
Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
Much of the talk around Philadelphia Union surrounds line-up selections. On one hand, that's ingrained in the Union fan culture after two-plus seasons of Peter Nowak's bizarre line-ups. On the other hand, it's a timely discussion, considering Bakary Soumare requested a trade after Amobi Okugo remained a starting center-back rather than return to midfield, the recent acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Kleberson, and manager John Hackworth's deployment of defensive midfielder Michael Lahoud in wide midfield roles.
The Union midfield has lacked fluidity most of the season. Some blame defensive midfielder Brian Carroll for being too one-dimensional. Others point to Lahoud's deployment in wide roles, where he adds very little to the attack. Meanwhile, Danny Cruz continues to get starts at right midfield but has yet to show he is more than a fast, hustling player with poor touch. Hackworth has often deployed midfields with just one reliable attack-minded player (Michael Farfan) due to injury (Gabriel Farfan), international duty (Keon Daniel) and coach's decision (Roger Torres).
Many observers believe Okugo should return to defensive midfield, where he has shown good passing vision, and allow Soumare to start at center back. Some call for Torres to get minutes after an impressive preseason. Still others believe the experiment with Ray Gaddis at left-back has already failed due to his weak left foot. Kleberson's arrival could improve the situation. So should Gabriel Farfan's return to health. The sky isn't falling but in Philadelphia, fans always prepare for that eventuality.
Colorado Rapids vs Real Salt Lake
Sat 7.30pm, Dick's Sporting Goods Park (NBCSN)
Richard Bamber, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:
It's hate week. RSL are in town on Saturday for the second of three Rocky Mountain Cup games. It's a little bit weird to have two of the three games over within the first month. Just a quirk of the scheduling, but with the rules of the Cup as they are, goal difference doesn't count (unlike the Cascadia Cup), so if RSL were to win at the weekend that would be the seventh straight Rocky Mountain Cup and a mark against Oscar Pareja early in the season.
RSL are possibly not as strong as in previous years as they're in a transitional moment, but then you look at the Rapids injury list and you'd have to be the harshest, harshest critic of the coach to not feel sorry for him with the number of first-choice players from the spine of the team, who are out: Matt Pickens, Diego Calderón, Pablo Mastroeni, Jaime Castrillón, Martin Rivero — not to mention the doubtful players like Edson Buddle and Jamie Smith. To make matters worse, another first-choice central defender, Drew Moor, is serving the second game of his red-card suspension.
It's a tough hand and for the most part people are patient with Pareja (when it comes to cross sections of fans you always discount the 5% of extreme boo boys and the same amount of Kool-Aid drinkers). It's definitely his team now, and the squad on paper is younger, and more talented than last year's – we just don't know when we're going to get to see them …
Denzel Eslinger, RSL Perspective:
Real Salt Lake had what was their most impressive performance of the season in the first half of their 2-1 win over the Sounders last weekend, and now they must take that momentum into the second leg of the Rocky Mountain Cup as they will head to Denver to face the Colorado Rapids on Saturday. RSL could benefit from a longer performance from Javier Morales, who made his first appearance of the season as a late sub against Seattle, and could get Alvaro Saborio back as well. The first match between these two was a 1-1 draw, and the energy and anticipation of this second leg should lead to an entertaining match, one of the few appearances of either team on National TV as NBC Sports will be broadcasting the match. Rookie forwards could be the story line in this one as Devon Sandoval (RSL) and Deshorn Brown (Rapids) have shown well early in the MLS season.
Portland Timbers vs Houston Dynamo
Sat 10.30pm, JELD-WEN Field
Michael Pearson, Timbers Army, Portland:
Despite the best efforts of team captain Will Johnson (who, by the way, looks increasingly miffed the more soft goals his team-mates give up) the Timbers remain winless this season. They've looked like a different team from last year, when any opponent lead seemed to require a herculean effort the team wasn't able to provide. That's a positive change, but Timbers have never even held a lead yet this year, and against Houston that doesn't appear to be the easiest record to break. The gelling attack of Will Bruin and Giles Barnes, combined with a midfield that may be one of the best in MLS, have Houston already looking like a team capable of getting to the finals for a third year in a row.
The question this week is that now back in the friendly confines of Jeld-Wen field, does Caleb Porter revert to a more attacking lineup, benching Jack Jewsbury for a more attacking player like Kalif Alhassan or Frédéric Piquionne, or if he stays with a more defensive arrangement in an attempt to prevent the early first goal. I haven't been wild about the "coverage" Jewsbury has supposedly provided to the back four, and believe many would rather see Porter stick to his plan to be more aggressive at home. But its obvious that this team; and the back line in particular; are very much a work in progress. There are heartening signs the Timbers are close to putting it all together and logging a complete 90-minute performance, but they aren't quite there yet and I'm not sure anyone, even Porter, can say when everything will click into place. Here's hoping it all starts on Saturday against the Dynamo.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
The Dynamo are fresh off a 2-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes – and it feels good. MLS's biggest threat, Chris Wondolowski, has never scored against Houston and that unlucky streak for the former Dynamo continued last weekend.
The game was probably the most complete for Houston this season and a sign of positive results to come. Giles Barnes continues to impress and was definitely the man of the match, while it was nice to see Will Bruin get his first goal of the season. It will definitely be interesting to see how Omar Cummings is used by Houston at this point considering how effective Barnes has been. Cummings was obviously traded for to be a starter, but his injury has given the opportunity for others to shine and Barnes has certainly done that.
As for the upcoming week, the home unbeaten streak gets put aside for an all familiar question. Can Houston turn around their road results? In recent years, the Dynamo have been one of the poorest teams on the road and they won't want to repeat those results in 2013. They lost in Dallas and won't want to start the year with two losses. Houston looks like one of the strongest teams so far in the early part of the season, but road success will be a key if they want to remain a contender.
San Jose Earthquakes vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Sat 10.30pm, Buck Shaw Stadium
Lisa Erickson, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
After the crushing defeat by the ZombieQuakes last week, San Jose fans needed something to boost their spirits. After getting seven points or being better than .500 in the month of March with so many Earthquakes in the hospital ward, one would think that would be enough to put a smile on the faithful's faces. But alas, the Earthquakes decided that wasn't good enough and thus announced on Tuesday that both Twin Towers should be well enough to be in the 18 this week against Vancouver!
Yes, it is true that Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart are now considered well enough to get in a few minutes of playing time. "Flash" did see the field for 20 minutes in last Saturday's match, much to the surprise and happiness to all in Quakes-Land. But the player that everyone outside of Quakes Country loves to hate is the true story. Will the "Blond-Haired Bedlam" torment the Whitecaps defense? Will the stadium errupt in overwhelming joy just by seeing the new #16 take the pitch? (Yes, this year Lenny #16 & Gordo #24 swapped jersey numbers, proving they are truly one person.) Will the resurrection of the Bash Brothers mean more goals for the struggling San Jose offense? (Last year, they had 23 goals between them.) Will Wondo now feel that he has the freedom to roam and poach goals from every corner of the opponent's box? The answers to these questions will give the fans hope of a new tomorrow.
Brenton Walters, @CapsOffside:
The tide seems to have changed for the Whitecaps. Two wins to start the season has turned quickly into two losses. Our midfielders, who all looked quite good in those first two games, played a couple of stinkers. And to top it all off, we have a keeper situation brewing. It's left us all bereft of joy and wondering what is going on. We're all at sea up here in Vancouver.
Well, what's going on is we've gone on the road and faced two good teams. Our road performances since entering MLS have been dreadful. A lot has been written about how we performed during those losses: we've been aggressive, pressing, playing decent attacking soccer. No matter – we haven't won, and last I checked, no one hands out style points. (Though if they did, Chelis of Chivas would win, hands down.) In a way, though, both of our losses were predictable. Houston are an excellent team with depth and were unbeaten in 32 games at home. Chivas are surprising everyone with their pressing and their quick attacks. They were also a tad lucky. Oh, and Kenny Miller continues to show his value to this team.
Two straight losses but no one's hitting the panic button just yet, nor should they. I would categorize the two losses as annoying – we'll hit worrisome if we also lose in San Jose and troubling if we then lose at home to RSL. Still, we're hearing grumbles. If we get a result in San Jose, expect the grumbling to stop.
Chicago Fire vs New York Red Bulls
Sun 5pm, Toyota Park (ESPN2)
Dan Martin, Whiskey Brothers Aught Five, Chicago:
A real sense of ennui set in among Fire fans after the loss to Chivas USA. It was good to have a bye week approaching so that important players who had been out injured could heal, and so that the club's coaching staff would have a chance to right the ship. The fact remains, though, that the Men in Red have taken one lousy point out of a possible 12 so far this MLS season and a 1-0 loss to the NASL's Minnesota United during the off-week (that also led to an injury to the scorer of the Fire's lone 2013 goal, Patrick Nyarko) did absolutely nothing to raise fans' spirits.
The injury bug has bitten hard in the early season, it's true. For example, in each of the four games so far, Frank Klopas has started a different player at right-back, and some of those replacement players have, in turn, been injured. This is a results game, though, and despite the season still being very young, there has been plenty of open speculation about changes at the top.
On the optimistic, brighter side, veteran leaders Arne Friedrich and Logan Pause have returned to full training, promising to shore up the weak back line that has allowed nine goals thus far. Joel Lindpere and Sean Johnson have returned from qualifiers as well, having secured points for their nations. In recent seasons the Fire have suffered midseason falterings followed by successful turnarounds – perhaps it's just happening a bit earlier this year?
Tim Hall, author of "The view from 101" for First Touch, New York:
The Red Bulls finally figured out how to get the round thing over the stripey bit with two goals against the "always there when you need to break out of a slump" Philadelphia Union. The form had been there virtually from the word go this season, but there were some difficulties finishing at times. With goals from Dax McCarty and expensive substitute Thierry Henry, New York fans will hope that the first win of the year will also help the team permanently find their scoring touch. On the other half of the ball, the defense was again solid against Philly, and managed to avoid that one major mistake that must always be watched for when playing the high line/possession style that coach Mike Petke seems intent on playing.
Next comes a trip to Chicago. Don't let Chicago's one-point-in-four-matches record fool you, they're a good team with plenty of MLS experience, including former Red Bull midfield stalwart Joel Lindpere. Add in the fact that New York is just 3-12-6 away to Chicago, all-time, and not only will the Metros need to overcome a team desperate for a result, but a bit of history as well.