MLS Week 21: reviews and previews

• Shield leaders Real Salt Lake host Sporting Kansas City
• Former frontrunners Montreal Impact and FC Dallas meet
• USA vs El Salvador - Guardian live mbm, 4pm ET Sunday

Silly season is getting sillier and sillier and hotter and hotter. After Tuesday night's adventures in torpor, where Costa Rica and the USA proved once and for all that no matter what the weather conditions they can play grim soccer at each other, it was back to wondering how Arsenal were doing against Vietnam and whether Wayne Rooney was about to sign for Toronto FC having been "sold on the project".

Regardless of who might be shaking a grinning Tim Leiweke's hand on the platform marked "designated player" in a few weeks' time, Toronto have some more pressing business in hand to take care of — namely the arrival of New York, whose form is swinging rather wildly at the moment. They beat Montreal 4-0 last weekend, so Toronto probably fancy their chances. Then again, they themselves were just beaten by a Chivas USA side who hadn't won in 14 games...

Montreal meanwhile, are hosting Dallas in a game that looked a couple of months ago to be a battle between two teams guaranteed to win their respective conferences, and now looks like a battle of two teams wilting in the summer heat. Which one, if either, can regain momentum?

Another team who are struggling for consistency this season is Seattle, who lost yet again last week and face a Colorado side coming off a midweek win over New England. The Revs led at half time in that game, but now must try to regroup for a road game against Columbus on Saturday evening.

A nice little battle at PPL Park beckons on Saturday evening, when Philadelphia take on Portland, whose ears have probably just about stopped ringing from the cheers and chainsaws that greeted their last gasp victory over LA last week. The Galaxy have a chance to regroup at home on Saturday night, but it won't be easy. They're up against a Vancouver team who've been one of the form sides of the early summer.

Not the only form side though. That honor is shared with RSL, who seem to have shrugged off the effects of losing several first team stalwarts to Gold Cup action, and have strolled to the top of the Supporters Shield standings with a run that included their first ever win in Texas last weekend. They face a Sporting KC team who are on a run of their own, despite some rather patchy home form. That one could be a great game.

Chicago's run of great games looks to have ended, at least for now, and that might give heart to a visiting DC team in Saturday's rehearsal for the Open Cup semi-final in a few weeks. The Cup looks like DC's only hope this season, while Chicago are still in touch with the playoff spots, but can't afford to let too much more space open up above them.

Always happy to let space open up in front of them (where their weekly copy should be) — our team of fan reps and writers representing each of the weekend's competing teams. See their take on the week's stories for their team below, add your comments and join us on Monday for five things we learned this weekend. And before that, I hope you'll join me on Sunday afternoon for live minute-by-minute coverage of USA vs El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarter finals in Baltimore. If you need me between now and then I'll be in the Guardian offices repeatedly writing out the phrase "I will not make gratuitous references to The Wire". The game is the game.

All times are listed as ET

Toronto FC vs New York Red Bulls

Sat 4pm, BMO Field (TSN,RDS2)

Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:

Well, TFC have thrown themselves head first out of the transfer window, and so far, it's been a rough ride, with plenty of mixed messages. After getting rid of Luis Silva last week, Danny Califf officially 'retired', becoming a scout for TFC while making it clear this had nothing to do with any kind of career ending injury, as TFC had been insinuating for weeks. Then just before Saturday's game against Sporting Kansas City, it was revealed that captain Darren O'Dea was back in Toronto finalising a transfer to a Ukrainian club, in a very clear salary cap dump. It was presented as 'he got an offer he couldn't refuse, so we won't stand in his way' but O'Dea made it clear in a tweet that this was very much not his idea at all. So far, despite repeated talk of multiple targets and big name DP's, the only addition is Mark Bloom — a left back we got from the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks.

Given all that, it's hardly surprising that the on pitch product has regressed after a fairly solid June. They lost 3-0 against Sporting, a result that flattered them, then followed it up by losing 1-0 to Chivas USA, despite Chivas being reduced to ten men in the first half. Ten hombre Chivas, if TFC fans know anything it's that there's always a new low, but surely it can't get worse than this. The much talked about reinforcements need to arrive quickly.

Tim Hall, author of "The View from 101" column for First Touch, New York:

As much as bloggers with no concept of what supporters actually do would argue otherwise, the real action for the New York Red Bulls is on the field, and it's a team with little identity as the season makes its turn to home. Recent dominant wins over Montreal and Houston should fill the team and fans with confidence, until you remember those were wrapped around dispirited efforts against Philadelphia and Colorado. So it would be easy to say that this team is lost.

However, the first choice defensive pairing of Jamison Olave and Marcus Holgersson have solidified into one of the best duos in the league. Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele have morphed into the attacking options necessary in the midfield. Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill are doing what you'd expect the money men to do (except when they aren't), and Peguy Luyindula looks set to score buckets of goals after getting his first out of the way. So could this be one of those "comes together at the right time" teams that does damage in the playoffs? Well, the first step in proving that is to go in and take care of business against lowly Toronto. Anything less than a convincing performance is unacceptable.

Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids

Sat 4pm, CenturyLink Field

Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart, Seattle:

Being average can suck. Particularly if said average club is doing it in a conference where average isn't good enough. There are many reasons for the average season so far, but most revolve around inconsistent lineups leading to inconsistent play and seven losses with only three of those being of the totally horrific, deserved side of things.

But Summer is coming. Seattle Sounders FC are historically better from July to Playoffs and there are decent reasons to think that they can do so again. The schedule is home heavy, lacks bye weeks and gives Sigi's men a chance to pull points from those ahead of them. It must start with match 18 and the Colorado Rapids. Seattle dominates Colorado historically, but they need to actually snag three points and start climbing out of seventh place.

They will attempt to do so without Eddie Johnson, who was just called back to wear the Red, White and Blue. Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle have to power the offense. The midfield is more than suitable with Alonso's red card removed, Carrasco healthy and Rosales on the field. Marc Burch is likely to reprise his role as crossing specialist on the left. The injuries and absences are tiring.

Todd Haggerty, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:

Speculation and uncertainty reign supreme with the Colorado Rapids right now and I'm not just talking about the results on the field. In a game of two halves, the 'Pids looked awful in the first half of their mid-week tilt against the Revolution before they managed to show some attacking impetus in the second half and grabbed all three points. Week in and week out you wonder what Rapids team will show up, but it is off the pitch is where the guesswork begins. Perhaps the biggest question is in goal: will Matt Pickens get his starting role back or will the Rapids move him (and his salary) and officially hand over the gloves to Irwin (and his more favorable salary)? Maybe we will find out this weekend as the Rapids travel on short rest to take on the Sounders in Seattle. On paper both of these teams are on the outer fringes of the playoff race; however, the Sounders have four games in-hand on Rapids (thanks schedule makers!). On short rest, playing on turf and with the strikers missing sitters, the Rapids will be hard-pressed to come away with anything.

Montreal Impact vs FC Dallas

Sat 7pm, Stade Saputo

Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:

Rumors of firing, contract extension and all in between marked the Montreal Impact's week and that of its head coach Marco Schallibaum. After news that an imminent contract extension was in the works, delivered a bomb of a report via Colombian radio station Antena2 that Juan Carlos Osorio was about to become the new Montreal Impact head coach.

After the club denying the rumor and postponing the mid-season press conference, the upcoming game against FC Dallas became an afterthought. Later in the week, Joey Saputo met the media to share his mid-season thoughts and re-confirm his full confidence in the players and staff. With a focus on fans and season ticket holders, the press conference was also interesting regarding player movements. Victims of a congested midfield, Calum Mallace and Sinisa Ubiparipovic join the ranks of Minnesota United FC via loan. Sporting Director, Nick De Santis, also talked about how the club could improve with 1 or 2 players coming to help in the playoffs and the CONCACAF Champions League.

With FC Dallas coming to town, what was a big matchup 1 month ago is now a game between 2 slumping teams, looking to get back to winning ways and having some kind of momentum. With Marco Di Vaio away in Italy for family reasons, we do not know if the Italian striker will be available for the game.

Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:

The big story was obviously the horrible, inexplicable loss to Real Salt Lake. I don't know what to blame — it's easy to say injuries — but I suppose it ultimately comes back to a theme I've been hitting all year and I see no reason to change the conclusion: the difference when George John plays on this side is night and day. I don't think we've had a win since his latest absence. When he's not there Fernandez seems to do most of the organizing at the back, and it's not what he's good at, so it's a big relief that George John should be back soon. Amd it's also a relief that we're getting some reinforcements in midfield with two new signings. The Brazilian Erick is a defensive midfielder who I believe has traveled with the team to Montreal and then there's the exciting signing of the young attacking midfielder Mauro Diaz, who learned his game at River Plate. Like George John at the back, David Ferreira can't be replicated up front, but some variety in the attack is definitely welcome, as is the fact that we're getting a little more depth just past the halfway point of the season.

Montreal have been on the slide as well. This game could be ugly, certainly nervy. We just need to get...something.

Columbus Crew vs New England Revolution

Sat 7.30pm, Columbus Crew Stadium

Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:

A bye week created a bit of a calm around Columbus. A meaningless friendly against Wigan caused little fanfare or talking points amongst the faithful and that's the way it should be. Most importantly, it means nobody was injured.

A change of formation and tactics just isn't going to happen, so that leaves the lineup to discuss. Some new faces in the lineup recently that have stirred some debate, most notably Will Trapp. Trapp was one of the 5 local products to start vs Portland and he was very impressive. People would like to see him continue in the XI as a partner to Matias Sanchez. Danny O'Rourke seems to have returned to his role from 2008 as Chad Marshall's CB partner creating a vacancy at his CM spot. Has Will Trapp claimed the spot or will Warzycha go with his son, Konrad, who has also started the last 2 games? Or does Matias Sanchez stay on the bench? The return of CM/LB Agustin Viana from injury also adds another element of intrigue to the situation in the defense.

It's only July but the season is into the second half and this game is a big one as NE sit just above Columbus. If the Crew are to be legitimate playoff hopefuls, this is a game they need to win and will look back on it with regret if they don't. With other winnable games coming up, this is either the start of sunny days or just the calm before the storm.

Julie Kumor, Midnight Riders:

The Revolution have no interest in the playoffs. Those 18 guys have better things to do come October – like leaf peeping, brewery tours or learning the fine art of cheese making. I mean that is the only explanation right? Or maybe they are such huge fans of MLS they enjoy watching the other teams possess and play? Even want to help them out by scoring some goals for them. The only difference between the Saturday game against Houston and this week against Colorado – the refs were slightly better and the Revs made an attempt to play the first half against Colorado. Everything else was the same — undone by long range goals and coffin closed by own goals, blood was shed on non-calls by the refs.

The New Englander in me says "THE SKY IS FALLING! THE SEASON IS OVER!" but the realist in me says Heaps went into the Rapids game knowing that the Revs were going to lose, and that was the reason for the line-up changes. Give the regular starters a break because their bigger game is on Saturday against Columbus. The modified lineup looked good for the first 30 minutes, but either the altitude, heat or lack of real playing time got to them. Here is a fun fact about last night: Diego Fagundez was in fact on the field for 90 minutes. THE WHOLE GAME. I wouldn't believe it but the Opta Chalkboard doesn't lie.

Revs need to win in Columbus on Saturday, and without the injured McCarthy, not sure they can.

Philadelphia Union vs Portland Timbers

Sat 7.30pm, PPL Park

Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:

Another game, another opposition red card, and another result for Philadelphia Union. Their 3-1 win over Chivas USA last Friday marked the seventh time in the Union's last 12 games that their opponents have gone down a man due to ejection. The Union are 3-0-4 in those games.

This week, the Union will face one of the league's best teams without one of their own though as manager John Hackworth will miss the match due to suspension after he was also ejected in the Chivas game. The soft-spoken Union coach's ejection was a bit of a mystery. Assistant Rob Vartughian will lead in his stead.

Playmaker Michael Farfan, who struggled this season after being moved to left midfield, flourished against Chivas and scored the game-winning goal with a pinpoint shot into the roof of the net off a close range indirect kick. For the Union, an in-form Farfan has been the potential key missing piece this season. The striker duo of Conor Casey and Jack McInerney has been one of the league's best, Sebastien Le Toux leads the league in assists from the right wing, and the back line has been fairly solid despite some notable missteps. What's been missing is a creative central midfielder to drive the attack. Anyone who saw the unrestrained, fierce joy in the goal celebration by Farfan, an intense but very quiet and reserved player, has to be optimistic that the moment could be a turning point for him and the Union.

Michael Orr, Mao Football, host of Soccer made in PDX podcast:

Caleb Porter got exactly the kind of response he was hoping for in the short-handed Portland Timbers' 2-1 defeat of LA Galaxy last Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field. Having suffered their first loss since mid-March, Portland eked out the dramatic comeback victory and moved to second place in the Western Conference, despite missing captain Will Johnson and defender Pa Kah.

Now back in familiar the familiar territory of preparing for a game following a result, Porter gets Johnson back from the Gold Cup and Kah back from his one-game red card suspension. Apart from Rodney Wallace, who is still with Gold Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica, the first-year manager will have his first choice squad for the cross-country trip to Philadelphia.

Though Ben Zemanski performed well in central midfield, receiving high marks from both Porter and teammates following the Galaxy game, Johnson is the key to Portland's success this season. His return gives Porter better flexibility in substitutes, with Zemanski able to come into several roles, and provides the best possible defensive midfield pairing with Diego Chara.

Philadelphia is Portland's final Eastern Conference road trip this season. August is a very difficult month for the Timbers with three games against Real Salt Lake in addition to Vancouver, Seattle and Dallas matches. If Johnson and the Timbers can take three points against the much-improved Union in their penultimate July match, Portland will be in a good position to withstand a brutal upcoming schedule.

Chicago Fire vs DC United

Sat 8.30pm, Toyota Park

Scott Fenwick, Editor, On the Fire, Chicago:

With lowly DC United in town, Chicago Fire is damned if they do and really damned if they don't. No one will be the least bit impressed with another home win versus a team that's managed two wins and eight goals in 19 games. On the flipside, if the embattled Ben Olson and his troops manage to pull even a point out of Toyota Park this Saturday night, the little hope that remains in Fire Nation this season may be lost for good.

Three points against the league's doormat are a must for the Men in Red, who have cooled off after a six-game MLS unbeaten streak, and now find themselves eight points off the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand on Houston. After two consecutive losses to Sporting KC and Vancouver, the Fire now sits on a 1-7-3 record against teams currently in playoff position. To get a shot at MLS Cup, you've got to be able to beat good teams. So far in 2013, Chicago's done it just once.
Rumors of a new, young Designated Player are afloat. Apparently, an attacking player from the Southern Hemisphere is signed and sealed, with delivery imminent. Good news? Maybe. Unfortunately, the Fire's track record with South American DPs has left much to be desired. The club must brace itself for a backlash from its fanbase if its new man turns out to be another Rafael Robayo, Federico Puppo, or Alvaro "El Flaco" Fernandez.

Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:

After a 0-0 draw two weekends ago without Nick DeLeon and Dwayne DeRosario, United took on the original Chivas in a friendly in which EVERY healthy player on the roster took part in a 1-1 draw. Among those were new acquisitions: Luis Silva (from Toronto FC), Jared Jeffrey (via waiver draft upon his return from Mainz), and Collin Martin (homegrown, previously at Wake Forest), additionally, United fans got a glimpse of other previously unseen players Syamsir Alam, and homegrown Michael Seaton. While all the new players made contributions to the game, Seaton stood out as the 17 year old forward's first touch was a fantastic lunging effort at the endline where he kept the ball in play by putting it in Carlos Ruiz's path on the 18, where it was tucked inside the far post for United's goal. United wasn't done moving players though: Brandon MacDonald, who found himself in Ben Olsen's doghouse, and then passed on the United depth chart by several defenders, was moved to Real Salt Lake. The team is obviously building for 2014 and beyond by getting younger. The added benefit is the depth those young players provide, depth that the United roster did not really have in the early part of the season.

Real Salt Lake vs Sporting Kansas City

Sat 10pm, Rio Tinto Stadium

Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:

Real Salt Lake this week has been a relatively simple affair: Somebody gets injured, another player steps in. I suppose that's simple, at least, but it's inspired some head-against-wall frustration at times. Jeff Attinella has jumped in a matter of weeks from third-choice goalkeeper to first-choice (at least until Nick Rimando returns), center back Aaron Maund steps in for the perennially unlucky Carlos Salcedo (and his poor, now-absent gallbladder), and Brandon McDonald joins as a backup from D.C. United. It's a funny thing, all this, because it's not exactly new: Central defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe has already been ruled out for the season, prompting the step-up from Salcedo; Nick Rimando, Tony Beltran, Kyle Beckerman, and Alvaro Saborio have all left for the Gold Cup — and their replacements have all made the step-up, too, if only on a temporary basis. Inevitably, one is forced to wonder how many absences this side can take.

But combine some unprecedented depth (that should be a buzzword by now, if it's not already) with a newfound tactical flexibility: That's what's been the story of recent success, if we're to be honest. It's not about heart, grit, determination, or even a desire to win. Those things are base-level considerations and should be present in all competitive sides. No, this is a product of understanding between teammates: When one drops out, another slots in, and the tactical understanding doesn't change. But with the tactical flexibility Jason Kreis is starting to exhibit, the long-vaunted diamond 4-4-2 isn't the base of singular approach opponents could have expected. That flexibility has produced results — and Jason Kreis, despite further squad complications, will be looking to use that again on Saturday.

Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:

Sporting KC extended its unbeaten run to five after a 3-0 win at home against ten-man Toronto FC. The win took SKC to the top of the Eastern Conference. And, though expected to beat Toronto, the win gave the team and Manager Peter Vermes a much-needed morale boost ahead of this week's away match against Real Salt Lake, the leaders in the Western Conference and the Supporter's Shield race. More importantly, the team played well in the match against Toronto. Soony Saad recorded his second (21') and third (51') careers goals and Claudio Bieler scored his ninth (63') goal of the season. Well-calculated passing from Saad to Kamara to Feilhaber to Bieler and the out-playing of Toronto's defense were great reminders that SKC belongs at the top.

Real Salt Lake just acquired Brandon McDonald from DC United given that three of the center backs currently on its roster are unavailable due to injury. McDonald will be available for Saturday's match. This will be the first of two road matches, and it may be a tough one. Should SKC fail to earn points at Rio Tinto, it can look forward to a good chance at points against Montreal the following week.

Defender Matt Besler will join the US Men's National Team to compete in the Gold Cup knock out rounds, while forward CJ Sapong has been recalled from Orlando City SC after playing three matches with the USL affiliate and will be available against RSL.

LA Galaxy vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Sat 10.30pm, StubHub Center

Josh Guesman, founder, The Section 108 blog, co-host of Corner of the Galaxy podcast, LA:

Robbie Keane is hurt and the Galaxy continue to falter in the closing minutes of matches. Does it get any worse for Galaxy fans? Oh yeah, Landon Donovan is playing much, much better — but not for the Galaxy.

The 2-1 loss to Portland over the weekend hurts. If only for the reason that we thought the Galaxy had worked through some of those issues of late game collapses. The Galaxy outplayed a very, very good Timbers for 90 out of the 95 minutes played. Marcelo Sarvas, again, played up to the lofty standards we've come to expect. But a lapse in judgement in the first half and the final goal in second half stoppage put an end to any in-season run the Galaxy may have been preparing for.

Now that Keane is out of training and listed as being evaluated "day by day/ week by week" due to a hip flexor injury, more questions arise as to where the offense will come from. Young gun Gyasi Zardes is tops on the team at creating offense from the forward position, but his undeveloped foot has yet to train those chances on goal. Jose Villarreal was in the number one position earlier this year, but hasn't been seen in a game in quite awhile.

Ultimately, the game coming up against an on-form Vancouver Whitecaps will rely on focus for ninety plus minutes, and constant, successful, offensive chances. Now go get that done without Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan!

Brenton Walters, @CapsOffside:

The Whitecaps won again, giving us five wins from six, with the other being a draw. That gives us the best record in MLS over the last six games, equal to RSL.

Chicago came to town with a very good record of late, but true to form lost away and on turf. For the second game in a row there was a sense of confidence about the Whitecaps - even though we gave up a late goal (on the last play of the game), there was never any doubt that we would win. It was a scrappy (and dull) first half but a four-goal second half that featured magic from Brazilian Camilo and rookie firecracker Kekuta Manneh. Camilo's two goals pushed him to the top of the MLS scoring race with 12 and earned him a call-up to the MLS All-Star Wankery. Yay.

Heading into LA with these wins in our pocket will likely give us the best chance we've ever had of getting a result there. So far our record has been dire, but we just beat them for the first time in May so there's hope. And there's a newfound confidence to this team. That, more than anything, is the biggest change from previous years.

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