Clint Dempsey set for home debut in key Seattle-Portland matchup (LIVE MBM on Guardian); Revs look to close playoff gap on Union; and more
So it's that time of year again, when time warps. Just as the European leagues start their long slog towards crowning a 2014 champion, Concacaf starts its Champions League group stages by reminding us of the halcyon days of 2012, when David Beckham was a footballer and San Jose used to win games.
In that nostalgic vein, San Jose actually won last week, and against Sporting KC, no less. And with a game this weekend against a Dallas team who may or may not have broken their slump with a midweek win over Chivas (never wise to see a win over this year's Chivas as "a corner turned"), San Jose may even fancy their chances of getting the consecutive win they need to keep themselves in contention for the 2017 Champions League – or whichever one it is this year's MLS Cup winners go into.
Sporting are back in action on Friday night, against a Chicago team who are in the process of deciding which of the two Chicago sides we've seen this year are the real ones – the bungling season openers or the Mike Magee-inspired serial winners. They've wobbled worryingly of late, and need to steady the ship with games running out. Which brings us nicely to Montreal, who have also lost their grip at the top of the East, though they do still have games in hand (just) on those around them. They face a Houston team slowly picking up speed for their usual sprint finish through the playoffs.
Did someone mention LA? Last year's form team of the second half of the season put four past RSL last week, to emphasise that they still in the hunt for a third consecutive title. Vancouver aren't quite the pushovers they have been in previous seasons for the Galaxy this year, but they will need to be at their best on Saturday night, on LA's current form.
RSL might have thought they had got past a difficult run after last week's LA game and the midweek last-minute draw in Portland, but they are facing a Columbus side, and in particular a Federico Higuain, who seem to be dredging up memories of last summer's decent run of results (they might want to forget about what happened last fall). RSL still top the standings but they are just one of a handful of potential Supporters Shield winners. They are also hosting the US Open Cup final next month, where they'll face opponents in a rather different league. DC are back in action against Toronto on Saturday evening, with both sides hoping for some relief in what has been a rough campaign.
The Revs know all about tough campaigns, but they have been one of the year's surprisingly solid campaigners in the East – keeping the teams above them in the playoff race honest, teams like Philadelphia, who could open up an eight-point gap on the Revs with a win on Sunday evening, or find themselves only two points clear, having played a game more, should New England prevail. Chivas face some similar math when they try to go from hopelessly adrift in the West to (checks the standings …), actually, never mind. The Goats host a New York side who brought their perplexingly poor road form home with them last week in a goalless draw against Philadelphia, and being the unpredictable entity that they are, are liable to score or concede six at the Stubhub Center on Sunday night. (Probably both).
All of which should warm us up nicely for the always sedate game between Seattle and Portland that rounds off the weekend in style (and which you can follow live with me on Sunday evening), and which will finally give Sounders fans a glimpse of Clint Dempsey playing in front of a home crowd. Said crowd will undoubtedly give an equally warm welcome to the day's opponents.
Always a tough crowd – our regular cast of fan reps, bloggers, writers, podcasters etc for each of the weekend's competing teams. See them heckling the week's main stories for their teams mercilessly below, have your say in the comments, enjoy the weekend's action and we'll see you on Monday to find out what we learned this weekend (or possibly next weekend – these Concacaf calendars are confusing).
All game times are listed as ET.
Fri 8.30pm, Toyota Park (NBCSN)
Scott Fenwick, Editor, On the Fire, Chicago:
Sadly, the big story of the week in Bridgeview has nothing to do with the game, its players or its coaches. On Wednesday night, Chicago Fire director of communications Dan Lobring posted an "editorial" entitled "What it means to be a part of the Fire Family", on the team's official website. The piece went viral and immediately blew up the North American soccer conversation on social media. By Thursday morning it was national news.
Prevailing opinion is that Lobring's piece is a public-relations gaffe of massive proportions. Considering the Fire's precarious position in the Eastern Conference table (along with the fact that the club released its 2014 season ticket renewal campaign this week), the front office communique's timing couldn't be worse. After all, Lobring's misguided (and cathartic?) lament comes on the heels of Chicago's poor showing in a crucial game.
The Fire's implosion during a 2-0 road loss at New England last weekend, which included the ejection of head coach Frank Klopas (lip readers noticed that he seemed to call referee Edvin Jurisevic something rather rude) and post-match red cards to starting center-back Bakary Soumare (for going after and putting his hands on a Revs trainer because he supposedly told the big Malian to "f*ck off" while attending to Kelyn Rowe) and assistant coach Leo Percovich (for attempting to break up said altercation), was also, perhaps, indicative of an organization that lacks competent leadership and appears to have spun out of control.
Malena Barajas, co-founder, Women United FC, Sporting Kansas City:
Just nine matches remain in the regular season for Sporting Kansas City as they hang on to the No 1 spot in the Eastern Conference. Last weekend's 1-0 loss to San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium was a disappointment, especially in the race for the Supporters Shield. And, though coach Peter Vermes places some of the blame on two early yellow cards, the fact remains that SKC played a disjointed match. Contributing to a poor performance last weekend was the absence of Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi.
Zusi is likely to be available on Friday for the nationally-televised match against the Fire, yet Kamara will continue to be sidelined. Zusi, who has been out since the All Star Game with a sore quad, was back to training with the team this week, unlike Kamara whom Vermes reports to be making much slower progress.
Chicago's Mike Magee and recent DP signing José Luis Anangono were not able to finish any chances against New England last weekend, but this doesn't necessarily make the two vulnerable. What is vulnerable is Chicago's backline. Soumare will be out serving a suspension, giving way to a more inexperienced player. No word on whether Chicago's communications director will continue to play defense.
A win in Chicago for Sporting will go a long way in building morale as the team prepares to travel to Honduras for Concacaf Champions League play. SKC will head there on Monday with confidence and supplies (care of SKC supporters organized by SKC kitman Mike Flaherty) for a local school. Three points against Honduran side Olimipia will keep Sporting in a solid position to reach the knockout stage.
Sat 7pm, Stade Saputo (TSN2, RDS)
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
Surviving to stay in the playoffs is the Montreal Impact's storyline. Between coaches being ejected and a CCL mid-week loss to CD Heredia, the Impact have their backs to the wall against the Houston Dynamo.
In midweek a young, inexperienced squad took on CD Heredia in a slow game. A 1-0 loss, after an unfortunate Evan Bush mistake, puts the Impact in second place with three points out of a possible six. The most anticipated player for Les Bleus was Adrian Lopez, making his first start as an Impact player. He only lasted 44 minutes or so as the Spanish defender was red-carded, right before half-time, for a late tackle. I am not sure how much fans learned from the Lopez on that evening but it must be important for the club to see the 26-year old get some minutes.
Back at Stade Saputo, the Impact plays the Dynamo, an Eastern Conference foe back from the dead. Surviving the dog days of summer, the Dynamo are eager to get its revenge with a full squad.
Even after resting Marco Di Vaio, Patrice Bernier, Justin Mapp, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari, many of the core players made the trip to Guatemala City. Some are rested, others are not but the team cannot afford to lose against Houston. As much of a cliché as it might sound, the result is the only thing that matters – the Impact need to tame the Orange Crush coming to Stade Saputo.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
What is starting with a busy week of matches and travel is only the beginning for Houston. After making people forget there was a high-profile DP on the field last weekend with a 3-1 win over Seattle, the Dynamo turned their attention to the Concacaf Champions League. While they escaped Trinidad and Tobago with a point, you won't hear complaints from me. Road points in this tournament are always key and now they just need to do what they do best and win at home in the upcoming matches of the CCL.
For Houston fans, the CCL match was an opportunity to get a look at our newest signing, Alexander Lopez. He had a pretty solid match considering he had only two practices with the Dynamo under his belt. This guy is poised to be a big part of the Dynamo run through the CCL and down the stretch in league play, and the excitement around his signing is felt in Houston.
Next up is the Impact on the road. This is going to be an exciting game and I'd expect another great showing from Houston – despite the heavy travel this week. Both Houston and Montreal have two games in hand on the teams above them in the Eastern Conference, but there are a couple of clubs nipping at their heels. The Dynamo are looking to solidify themselves as a contender again, and getting a result in Montreal (which they have never done before) could do that.
Sat 7pm, RFK Stadium
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
Typically, a team would be reeling from a 2-0 defeat on the road to Montreal. But at this point, with no league wins on the road this year (and only two over-all if you include the USOC advance over Richmond), no one is really shocked. The Impact exploited United's backine a handful of times, and some stunning reaction saves from Bill Hamid kept United in the game. Substitute Connor Doyle scored against his now favorite Quebecois opponents (all of his professional goals, two, have been against Montreal), with an assist from Luis Silva who ended his goal-scoring streak at three games, but now has a four-game point streak. United haven't reported any new injuries this week, which is a rarity. Hopefully, the squad continues to heal and return to the field as the prepare for the USOC Final and for the 2014 season as they take on Toronto FC helmed by former United captain Ryan Nelsen – who we would take on our backline in a heartbeat.
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
Things had died down and gone back to normal in Toronto FC news land. Maximiliano Urruti was finally signed up, making an underwhelming debut in Columbus, but that's a good sign, another young and talented player locked in to be part of the team's future. On the pitch, the two-game winning streak has given way to a more familiar two-game losing streak, but we're heading into the second of three "basement battles" (or "toilet bowls", call it what you will) against DC United – that's a good chance to get things back on track.
Then on Wednesday, Matias Laba broke the news on Twitter that he had broken a big toe and would be out for a month or so, and that sense of things slowly getting better was wrenched away from TFC fans once again. Laba has been very very good so far this season in the defensive-midfielder role, making tackles and interceptions to disrupt the opposition attack and being very tidy, if generally unspectacular with the ball. He's a vital piece of the team and a signing for which even Kevin Payne's biggest critics will give credit. Now Ryan Nelsen has to figure out exactly how to replace him, and given this is one of the few games left this season that has any semblance of meaning and that DC's attacking threats are almost all from midfield rather than the forwards, it couldn't come at a worse time. TFC just can't catch a break.
Sat 9pm, FC Dallas Stadium
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
The main story continues to be how bad we are. It's beyond the point of ridiculous; it's just painful. I feel like I could take any of the previous three previews I've written and use them for this week. We lost the last game because we now apparently have two people who can score as opposed to one. Newbie Mauro Diaz scored his first MLS goal – which would have been cause for celebration if Portland hadn't scored first. Cautious optimism slowly spread throughout the FC Dallas camp, but then Darlington "Dream Crusher" Nagbe reminded us that his team is still better than ours. Another game, another loss. Same story, different week.
San Jose at home is up next. The last time we played San Jose at home was also the last time we won. San Jose play dirty, though, so I don't look for much to change. Something has got to give with this team, though, because the fans are at their wits' end.
Nerdy Gales, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
The San Jose Earthquakes are coming off a closely fought squeaker – a 1-0 home victory over Sporting KC. The score line reflects a tight game, and going into the second half the Earthquakes had probably had more of the chances, with a much more effective crossing game. Sam Cronin sent the ball wide to the right, and a deflection sent it on a perfect trajectory towards the feet of Steven Beitashour, who volleyed the ball straight into the box to a lurking Chris Wondolowski, who leaped to beat the defender for the game-winning header – most appropriate on Wondo bobble-head night. Next up, by the way, Steven Lenhart Chia Pet night – I kid you not.
This week, the Quakes have a very tough three-match road trip, the first game of which is this weekend at FC Dallas; next weekend is LA. Dallas are only three points ahead in the Western Conference standings, so the game becomes a true six-pointer. Dallas started the season in spectacularly successful fashion, only to falter (almost as spectacularly) in the second half. San Jose will need to improve their road goal tally to keep their run to the playoffs on track.
Nestled in between the two regular-season games, the Quakes travel to Guatemala for a Champion's League game at FC Heredia on Wednesday. There are few question marks around the players fitness, and Quakes coach Mark Watson will be able to slot in the second-string roster players who were covering for many missing starters early in the season. But for right now, everyone is focused on making the playoffs – MLS road wins are essential.
Sat 9pm, BC Place(TSN2, RDS)
Brenton Walters, @CapsOffside:
The big news in Vancouverland is the imminent return of our "first-choice" centre-backs, Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien. Rennie apparently is blessed with the problem of choice. Considering how good our defence has been at home over the last while, I'm not sure it matters. We've managed pretty well without DeMerit all season.
I'm more worried about what our midfield will look like. This LA team thrives on space, and their midfielders move the ball quickly to attacking players in space. We'll need to be disciplined, attentive and smart. And I wouldn't use all of those words to describe our midfield at the moment. Or all of our backline members …
On the plus side, we're scoring at home, Camilo and Kenny Miller are both on fire, and a good portion of our players seem to really thrive in BC Place.
With one eye on the playoff race, this should be a corker. OK, with both eyes squarely on the playoff race. Because it is bonkers over here in the West.
In the Western Conference there's no such thing as a safe position. The top team is separated from the worst by a simple lapse in judgement. Watching three points slip away in a heartbeat is all that shakes first place from sixth. The Galaxy have been playing this up and down game for the past month. A good result followed by a disappointing result. A firm grasp of third place quickly becoming a temporary hold on fifth.
What was missing? Perhaps a consistent strike partnership between Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan? And what did we see in the last two MLS games from LA? Back-to-back hat tricks from the star duo. Following Donovan's hat trick against FC Dallas, Keane decided to score three for himself against Real Salt Lake. Proving once again, that if teams try to mark one of the Galaxy forwards out of the game, the other one usually ends up making them pay.
Facing off against the Supporters Shield leaders, RSL, no one could have predicted the final score. It wasn't much of a surprise when Real Salt Lake was able to quickly dispossess the Galaxy and score in the 53rd minute. But could anyone have predicted that the Galaxy would answer back, again and again; four goals in total? Three scored by Keane and one by the newest DP, Omar Gonzalez. Once again, giving LA an excellent hold on a playoff spot – for this week.
Sat 9.30pm, Rio Tinto Stadium
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
Real Salt Lake are fresh off a difficult-to-manage match against Portland Timbers in which they were expected to lose: the anticipated absence of Kyle Beckerman was one such reason, but the unexpected absences of Alvaro Saborio (something about a calf) and Nick Rimando (a stomach virus, apparently) only heightened the anxiety at kick-off. And perhaps that anxiety was well-placed, because what took place was a match of intense quality, and if I had less shame I'd say something about it being one for the neutrals.
This match against Columbus Crew (and, inevitably, that Higuain fellow who everyone seems to be so fond of) should be a bit more calm in the buildup, although one might rightly be concerned about fatigue and the problems that come with it. But Beckerman returns, and perhaps Alvaro Saborio recovers, and my word, let's hope Rimando's guts are intact – though his replacement on Wednesday, Jeff Attinella, did admirably. The goal moving forward will be difficult to decide: does Jason Kreis go for the Supporters Shield and with it a spot in the Champions League? Or is the focus on maintaining a strong approach for the playoffs, with the US Open Cup a priority as well? They are difficult questions to answer, but with a squad firing on all cylinders – particularly on the road, where they have scored as many away goals than any team has scored home goals. And so on it goes, with home form the goal – but the answer is rarely so simple.
Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
The Crew used the recipe from their win over New York and copied it to achieve their first back to back wins all season. Another 2-0 win (warming up Crew Stadium for the USA vs Mexico match) capped off by a sublime chip from Federico Higuain, this one even better than his effort the week before. If you haven't seen either, please go and watch them.
Is it coincidence that the first win streak of the season has come at a time when the Crew have gone to a single holding midfielder? I have spent a lot of time in these previews talking about how Robert Warzycha's defensive tactics and preferred two holding midfield setup handcuff the offense. One less guy into the attack and the lack of an attacking midfielder was forcing Higuain to drop way too deep to try and orchestrate – as a withdrawn forward he was spending loads of time in the channel between the midfielders and defenders! Now with Anor pulling the strings from midfield, Higuain is able to sit higher and the offense has been much better.
It is easy to dismiss the wins, as they came against a weakened NYRB and, well, Toronto FC. Let's not forget that TFC just beat this Crew team a couple of weeks ago to bring this organization to a recent low point. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to force a change. Warzycha doesn't usually like change, so as long as the results are coming this formation will stay.
Sun 5pm, StubHub Center (UniMas)
Alicia Ratterree, The Goat Parade, Chivas USA:
Chivas USA had a midweek match on Wednesday, hosting FC Dallas. Heading into the game, the Goats had actually compiled a good record against Dallas the last season and a half, going unbeaten in that stretch, but all streaks come to an end at some point and Chivas lost 3-1, behind two very late goals after gaining a man advantage. It was another gut punch in a season pretty chock-full of those.
The game was not without bright spots, however. The club announced earlier in the week the signing of forward Bryan De la Fuente, who had been with Chivas USA in 2010-11 but had played only five minutes of first-team game time in that stretch. After an unsuccessful stretch with Club Tijuana last year, De la Fuente was a free agent, trying to find an interested team. He played with the new Chivas USA Under-23 team this summer, and impressed the coaching staff enough to earn another contract with the Goats. He got the start right away, against Dallas, and scored his first professional goal. If nothing else, seeing a face from the past make good and find some redemption is certainly something to cheer for in Chivatown.
Tim Hall, author of "The View from 101" column for First Touch, New York:
Few teams if any can play down to the level of their opposition like the New York Red Bulls. After taking thrilling wins against Salt Lake and Kansas City to add themselves into the Supporters Shield discussion, the Metros followed that up by essentially skipping the Columbus match entirely, then sending fans into a coma in a 0-0 draw with Philadelphia. Up ahead are games against the two worst teams in the league, Chivas and DC. If New York are to be anything other than so much heartburn and heartache this year, they need to dispatch these teams with minimal fuss.
Unfortunately New York may play to the level of Chivas without trying. The newest addition to the injury list is defensive stalwart and arguably team MVP Jamison Olave. The domino effect that will have on the lineup and positioning, combined with Thierry Henry's mysterious "here one minute, gone the next" summer injury, mean that a game against Chivas won't be an easy, open-and-shut affair for the Red Bulls. But then again, when is it ever?
Sun 7.30pm, Gillette Stadium
Julie Kumor, Midnight Riders:
I would love to say the story of the week is Juan Agudelo's amazing backheel flick and how the stadium went nuts with excitement as the ball crossed the line, changing the whole Revolution season and Agudelo's mind about joining Stoke … but the truth is the story of the week is confusion. Most of the stadium didn't realize the AR had called a goal and I think my reaction was: "Wow, there is the save of the week."
Confusion reigns about the consistency of play we have seen over the past few weeks of play from this team. Was it Agudelo coming back from injury? Was Reis in net the game changer? I don't think it was AJ Soares. Should I get excited about a potential playoff run? 'Cause for the first time in a few years it is the end of August and our season isn't over. How can I get excited about Agudelo when his Twitter feed is full of his excitement to join Stoke in January? As a US fan, have I forgiven Charlie Davies for his past decisions and is he in game shape for what could be a playoff run?
Here is what I am not confused about – I want the Revs to make the playoffs. I want the team that is going to win the field every game. I want three points from the Union on Sunday.
Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
Philadelphia Union's game this weekend against New England could be the team's most important match for the rest of the regular season. The Union sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 38 points, but fifth-placed Houston have two games in hand. New England sits just outside the playoff picture in sixth place with 33 points, but they have one more game left to play.
All this makes Sunday's match a clear six-pointer. If the Union win on the road, they widen the gap to New England and further secure themselves in a playoff position. If they lose, it puts them neck and neck with two surging teams in New England and Chicago as they head down the final stretch. The Union come in having earned their first road result against New York. Their back line continues to play excellent soccer, and young goalkeeper Zac MacMath has looked better as the season has progressed.
Past matches between New England and Philadelphia have yielded some wild results, a 4-4 draw in 2011 being the most notable. The Revolution have only beaten the Union once in their nine all-time matches, and that was earlier this year. With both teams fielding very good defenses, this could be one of their less eventful matches. But with both teams also deploying some exciting if inconsistent attackers, one never knows when an offensive explosion might come.
Sun 10pm, CenturyLink Field (ESPN2)
GUARDIAN LIVE GAME
Sam Chesneau, Gorilla FC, Seattle:
That feeling where you don't know what to do because you've never been in a situation like this before – that's probably what it must feel like to be a Timbers fan right now, given that their trophy room is pretty barren and now they have a fighting chance to change that. It's fun to see Portland finally finding some success this regular season. With games in hand being horrendously unbalanced in MLS, points per game is the true measuring stick for which the standings should be viewed, and as of now the Timbers are leading the league in that.
So for once, this weekend's Cascadia Cup matters beyond regional bragging rights – there are actually two teams in legitimate contention for the Western Conference lead and Supporters Shield. Yes, Century Link will be sold out, but we already knew that would be the case before the Sounders signed Clint Dempsey. This is probably the biggest match these two teams have played in the MLS era, both teams coming off disappointing results. This should be an epic match for the whole soccer supporting lot in this country. Concerned that DP and leading scorer Obafemi Martins is still questionable after spraining his ankle in Toronto, but the return of Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson (who has a great track record against the Timbers) from the USMNT will provide a significant boost in quality chances that were lacking last week. It's real exciting to be able to potentially see a full attack: 3-1 Sounders.
Portland's chaotic 3-3 draw with Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night, combined with increasingly noteworthy injury and suspension absences, make this weekend's game in Seattle against the Sounders all the more intriguing. Certainly, with this rivalry in particular, there is no question about intensity in the buildup. But with so many key players unlikely to play for Portland, predicting how the game will turn out is a difficult proposition.
Recently, with captain Will Johnson out with a shoulder-blade injury, Ben Zemanski has filled in quite well alongside Diego Chara in the Timbers' vital defensive midfield area. Yet with Johnson perhaps unable to return by Sunday, and with Chara serving a suspension due to yellow card accumulation, Caleb Porter is faced with his first significant decision in that area of the field this season. Under other circumstances, he might simply employ Jack Jewsbury in the role, but the former captain has been out with an ankle injury for several weeks and was not even in the 18 on Wednesday night. It is possible to move Rodney Wallace into central midfield but that would strip the Timbers of a dangerous weapon on the left wing.
As the Sounders are so strong in the attacking third, Portland will need to be sharp in defense. Often that starts with the defensive midfielders, so how Porter deals with the injury and suspension situation could well decide who wins this latest version of the Portland-Seattle rivalry.