Welcome to week seven of MLS, and owing to certain teams false-ing where they should have true-d last week, it’s one of those weeks where rather than MASSIVE HEAD-TO-HEADS™, we’re seeing a few games with teams on a roll against teams who have suddenly found themselves dipping. (Yes, we’re talking to you, Dallas and Toronto – thanks for ruining our “Two teams enter, one team leaves etc” headline, replete with Frisco pun…).
Anyway, we’re contractually obliged to hype the hell out of the weekend anyway, so without further ado we give you the shortlist of teams who might one day be in the same conference as Atlanta … and when we’re not sure what’s going on we’ve enlisted the expert help of our usual gang of bloggers, fan reps, podcasters and beat writers to fill us in.
See what we have to say, add your predictions in the comments below and join us on Monday when Richard Farley will be sharing what he learned after a weekend of MLS surfing and energy drink.
All times listed as ET
Sat 4pm, PPL Park (CSN-Hou +, The Comcast Network)
John Hackworth was left bemoaning defensive errors yet again on Wednesday night, after his Union side gave New York their first win of the season. It meant that the Union, while playing some decent soccer at times, are winless in five – just in time to meet a Houston team who looked equally promising in their opening couple of games and who have lost their last three. As things stand it’s the moveable object meets the moveable object at PPL Park and both sides will feel this is where the rot has to stop.
Sat 4pm, Toyota Park (NBCSN)
After losing their opening game, the Fire have gone on a run of draws. They’ve given up leads, come back late against DC, been within a Mike Magee spot-kick of a win, and not looked bad at times. But like the Red Bulls before Wednesday’s win, questions were beginning to be asked about whether we were witnessing an unbeaten run or a winless streak offset by Quincy Amarikwa coming good in front of goal.
A home game against New England might have looked like a relief a couple of games ago, but the Revs have won two of the past three and even turned Kevin Alston into a goal machine (well, he got one, which is more than he’s done in MLS before now, so the title stands). Perhaps more significantly, they got Jerry Bengtson on the score sheet, and given that it’s his job to score goals, that may prove to be one of the more significant developments going into this one.
Sat 6pm, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (Altitude, CSN-Bay Area)
The Rapids just completed a very successful Canadian mini-tour – turning the game in Vancouver on its head in a couple of moments, and getting the best of the BMO Field morass as much as Toronto last week. We asked Todd Haggerty if the Rapids were an underrated side this year, or if they’d stolen those points (just to see if he got really indignant):
By hook or by crook, that seems to be the theme of the Rapids' 2014 season. It is often said that good teams win games when the play bad, but are the 'Pids good? They are definitely not bad, but one has to wonder if the team is using up all of its good luck so early in the season. On the other hand, the team is surprisingly patient, especially for a team managed by Pablo Mastroeni, as they lull their opponents into making critical mistakes. This weekend's match against San Jose should be a telling one as the 'Pids enter this match as legitimate favorites that should bag all three points. Being a clear favorite at home has its pressures and this could be the match where the bounces, and the calls, go against the Burgundy Boys.
Meanwhile San Jose, they of the teetering fans behind the Buck Shaw Stadium goal, inhaling late winners, can’t buy a win at home. So of course we asked Lisa Erickson why, and whether all things considered they might actually be quite glad to be on the road this week:
The one thing about which the San Jose Earthquakes boasted during their dismal 2013 season was the fact that Buck Shaw Stadium was their home and their fortress. The Quakes just don’t lose at home. It's a small stadium with an average-sized pitch and with the fans on top of the players, rabidly supporting their boys in Black and Blue (or new Red). They had the best home record in the league, having had a 21-match undefeated streak in all competitions. However, all that was changed on 29 March, by the New England Revolution.
Since the 2014 season began, the Quakes haven’t been very scary at home. They are still searching for their first win and are sitting at the bottom of the league with two points from four games. Both those points came from draws with Western Conference opponents; the two losses came against Eastern Conference foes. The Quakes need to get Yannick Djalo, an attacking midfielder on loan from Benfica, a mix of Marvin Chavez’ speed and Simon Dawkins ability to take players on down the middle, on the pitch from the start. Coach Mark Watson needs to stop with the “up the side and cross into the middle”, because all the teams just realize that is what the Quakes do and figure out how to stop it. Until then, I think neither the road nor home will be a haven for the Goonies. They need to get their injuries and tactics straightened out now, rather than waiting until the new stadium is ready to go next year.
Sat 7pm, BC Place (TSN, TWCSN-LA)
The Whitecaps are settling in to life under Carl Robinson – a reign that looked to be progressing perfectly smoothly until a couple of defeats in their last two games, including the first part of a double-header against Saturday’s opponents. That said, the red card and two spectacular strikes that undid them against the Rapids were rather extraordinary, and the Whitecaps certainly created chances at the Galaxy last week, and will be confident of creating more at home.
The difference last week was Robbie Keane, whose three goals in four matches for the Galaxy have seen him pretty much pick up where he left off last year. That said, all eyes will be on Landon Donovan, still looking for that goal what will make him the all-time top MLS goalscorer.
Sat 7.30pm, Columbus Crew Stadium (TWCSC-OH)
Columbus have started well on their travels – undefeated in three. Their sole defeat came at home to Toronto, and they host DC United this weekend, hoping to prove that was the exception to their early season form. Federico Higuain has been in sparkling form again with an attacking Columbus side built round his playmaking vision – he looks like a man playing with the vindication of his coach’s belief not just in him, but what he represents.
DC come into the game on their first winning streak since 2012 – after last week’s rearguard heroics against New York. If they should grab a goal first the stage might be set for another siege. Most intriguing might be if Columbus score first, and we find out just how far this newfound DC confidence can take them (and whether it will include an Eddie Johnson goal).
Sat 8.30pm, Sporting Park (KMCI-38, TVA Sports)
Peter Vermes has been pretty forthright about the dangers of schedule congestion for his team, so while they would have preferred the luxury problem of preparing for a Concacaf Champions League final second leg right now, instead Sporting had a rare off week, following that bruising restating of MLS Cup 2013 against RSL last time out. Has that week off come at the right time, or has it disrupted their rhythm? We asked Mike Kuhn:
For Sporting KC, the week off came at a perfect time. The team just finished up their busy start to the season that saw them play six games in the month of March in league play and the Concacaf Champions League. And this break is the only week KC gets off between the beginning of the season and the World Cup break. Sporting plays just three games in April, but dives right back into the busy schedule in May, playing seven games. Some of those will likely be without Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, with both expected to make the World Cup roster for the USA.
The break will also serve to help the team prepare for this busy stretch, especially in defense. With Besler expected to go to Brazil, and Ike Opara's season ending injury, Lawrence Olum becomes Aurelien Collin's center-back partner when Besler leaves to join the US camp. Olum has experience at the position, playing there quite a bit during the 2012 season, but since the acquisition of Opara has mainly been Oriol Rosell's back up in midfield. The break gives Peter Vermes a little extra time to have an eye at both the short term this weekend against Montreal and the longer term in May and when to sit or play specific players.
Meanwhile, Sofiane Benzaza has watched a somewhat mixed bag of a Montreal team. The likes of Mapp and Felipe have looked adventurous in attack, but looking at the results and individual errors for goals, there is a lot more to be done at the back. That’s what we at the Guardian think, anyway.
Here’s Sofiane’s take:
A quiet transfer market is hurting the Impact. The club choose to depend on Nelson Rivas and Adrian Lopez to help its backline. Both central defenders are still recovering from surgeries and have not dressed.
But the defensive weaknesses are beyond the four-man defensive line. The team have lost any sense of the discipline, intensity and awareness needed to defend properly. They try to compensate by scoring more goals than conceding them. That "duh" moment was brought to you by Captain Obvious.
Joking aside, the Impact want to play quickly with direct passes to Marco Di Vaio. He will be helped by Jack McInerney, who represents depth and 10 goals whether a starter or not. The return of Felipe to his 2012 form was a requirement too for the Impact's offensive success. Justin Mapp is probably the best MLS player not invited to a Jürgen Klinsmann's USMNT camp.
But the spine of the team continues to be Perkins-Mapp-Di Vaio – and if one of those pieces falls, the house of cards falls as quickly as it was built.
Sat 8.30pm, Toyota Stadium (Sportsnet One, TXA-21)
Both these sides come into the game coming off defeats, which seems rather careless. Dallas were stunned by a Clint Dempsey-inspired Seattle comeback while Toronto lost by the only goal to Colorado in poor home conditions and without Michael Bradley or Jermain Defoe. Dallas have dominated long periods of games so far, while often allowing opponents to ease back into contention at crucial periods – something that eventually saw them punished by Seattle.
As for Toronto, well, as we discussed last week, the absence of Bradley and Defoe ushered in a really alarming shapelessness. They had better hope that at least the midfield portion of that duo plays on Saturday, or this could be a long afternoon.
Sat 9.30pm, Rio Tinto Stadium (CW30, FOX 12)
It’s MLS Week seven, and with the Red Bulls having won in midweek, at least one of last year’s conference winners has won a game this season. Not that Portland and Caleb Porter are worried – this weekend’s opponent is only their nemesis.
If you’d asked us pre-season, this game would have been set up as the first moment Porter got another crack at solving the Salt Lake puzzle that confounded his team last year. What’s happened instead is we go into this game with RSL undefeated and Portland winless. So what’s the story?
Well, RSL have dropped a few points late on – continuing a trend that probably cost them the Supporters Shield last season. So first of all we asked Denzel Eslinger whether that was a legitimate worry, even in what has been such a promising start to the Jeff Cassar era:
So it was kinda funny last Saturday afternoon and then on Sunday to see some of the reactions on social media to the late goal and yet another draw – it was almost like people forgot that we had played four of our first six on the road, that we had played the Galaxy twice, Sporting KC and the revamped TFC and had come away from all of that without a loss. For me, I was hoping for six to nine points from those first six matches due to the short offseason, some injury issues and how brutal that start seemed in January. So while I can't say I am excited by the couple of matches we gave up late goals in, what I can say is that for a team that has already used 21 players, had a different lineup every match and is the last team in MLS without a loss … it is pretty impressive.
Now RSL has to play host to the Portland Timbers who haven't won a match yet, a team we faced six times last year, and a team that has some very dangerous players. One upside for RSL is that some guys are getting healthy again – Plata, Gill, Rimando – and while they may or may not see action on Saturday, I expect that the depth of RSL will be able to remain calm, composed and take advantage of a Timber side that is getting a bit desperate. I look for a 2-1 RSL win.
And then we asked Roger Anthony whether the priority for Porter has to be rather less on finally getting a result against Salt Lake, and rather more on working out how best to set up his team. Here’s what he said:
When the 2014 schedules showed an early-season Portland-Salt Lake matchup, it became a winter’s night pastime to imagine how Coach Caleb Porter would counter the claret and cobalt with a fresh start. After all, in 2013 it seemed as if Porter was drawing up his halftime adjustments with a wand. Only twice did the Timbers appear to be thoroughly over their heads last year, and not coincidentally both games were against Salt Lake.
But carrying an 0-4-2 record into a place where they’ve never won, it may be time to put the emphasis on fundamentals. Portland’s climb to the top of the conference last year was built on judicious distribution of the ball. Possession may not be the be-all and end-all of soccer statistics, but for the 2013 Timbers hogging the ball was the first step to dominance.
Porter spent much of this week noting that ball control is both and offensive and defensive tool; Darlington Nagbe acknowledged that the team has been too hurried in the attacking zone. Where last year there was patience, this year’s Timbers rush to tee up shots or thread high-risk passes through stacks of defenders. Where once was chemistry, there is now mere chaos.
With Houston on the horizon next week, Portland has a very real chance of starting 0-4-4. Those short, simple and ultimately so sweet passes of 2013 would look awfully good right now.
Sat 10.30pm, StubHub Center (JOEtv)
Part of the reason for Portland’s ongoing struggles is that last week, Chivas USA came away from Providence Park with a point, having dug in to secure a tying goal from Erick Torres late on. It was no more than they deserved, and they’ll have taken heart from looking at Saturday’s opponents and thinking that Torres will fancy his chances of getting on the scoresheet again, against a leaky Sounders defense.
But the good news might end there for the Goats, if Clint Dempsey continues his current form. Five goals in two games tells its own story. And with Chivas also having lost influential rookie midfielder Thomas McNamara to injury last week, it could be a difficult home stand for them against the side with the second-best road record in the league over the past five years. That is a record that has included some rough games for Saturday’s hosts.
But with Mauro Rosales having a point to prove against his former team and with that Sounders defense still looking like it’ll give opponents a punching chance, this one might not be a foregone conclusion.