MLS week five: fan previews
Now that and has been swept up, let's get back to domestic matters, mindful of – basically, put your coat on before you leave the house. You can always take it off if you're too warm.
So what awaits the suddenly swollen rosters of MLS teams this weekend? Apart from annoying team-mates talking slightly too loudly in the locker room about how bandages are applied "at the national level", we have eight games this Easter weekend, all on Saturday.
First up it's Toronto, who broke the MLS away fan attendance record with the 3,000 they took to Montreal – they'll be welcoming LA, who've been looking quietly impressive in bringing their young players through this year, and who will be further boosted by the return of young hopeful Landon Donovan, who joined up with the team earlier this week, to meet the president and remind him they'd actually met last year too.
Then New York seek their first win of the year at home to Philadelphia. There'll be a fair amount of scrutiny on Union keeper Zac MacMath but in true sporting fashion, New York's lead striking threats, Fabián Espindola and Thierry Henry, are described as "doubtful" if not downright "dubious". Around the same time as that one's going on, New England will be digging up Gillette Stadium in search of goals against a Dallas side who emerged, blinking, at the top of the Western Conference last week.
Colorado will be welcoming Portland to a world of burnt-out snowblowers and soggy American Outlaws scarves, as they try to get their season going. Both sides have shown more promise than points so far, but Portland come into the game on the back of a break following their late grab of a point in Seattle. Might that be a significant moment for the notoriously bad travelers?
Sporting KC have looked underwhelming so far and find themselves facing the league's form team, Montreal. Sporting of course raced out to a seven-game unbeaten run last season, and would be very happy to remind the Impact that they won't have it all their own way this year, but that one could be an interesting test of the way the wind's blowing in the East. Meanwhile, Sporting's nemesis, Houston will be hosting a San Jose team unbeaten in three but yet to quite ignite this year. Houston survived the absence of some key international players to demonstrate some serviceable depth in turning over a Vancouver lead last weekend, to preserve their perfect MLS home record at the BBVA Compass Stadium. A win on Saturday would see them equal RSL's undefeated home record.
RSL and Seattle face each other in a reprise of their Western Conference semi-final from last season, but with both in the unusual position of being outside the playoff spots. A positive result for either team might not exactly plunge the other into crisis ("patience" still seems to be the watchword for both teams), but it may make the gap to the leaders that bit more daunting as the conference gradually stretches out.
Speaking of leaders, second-placed Chivas play a Vancouver team ruing their missed chance to end that Dynamo home record last week. The hosts rode their luck against Chicago's attack in the first half, only to break out the goals in the last half-hour, as they'd also done against Dallas a few weeks ago. Right now, they're kind of fun.
Nobody in the country is more fun* than our regular cast of local experts who'll be helping us look forward to each game by recapping the main stories for their teams this week. See what they have to say, and have your say and predictions in our comments section. And we'll see you on Monday for Five things we learned.
(*possibly unverifiable stat)
All kick-off times are listed in Eastern Time
Toronto FC vs LA Galaxy
Sat 2pm, BMO Field (TSN, RDS)
Duncan Fletcher, , Toronto:
There hasn't really been much of a story at all from TFC over these last two weeks (which given TFC's usual entertaining dysfunction could count as a story of it's own), aside from some brief back-patting over breaking the MLS away fan attendance record with 3,000+ in Montreal and the lead-up to the real home opener at BMO Field.
After a flurry in late February/early March there's only been one recent signing, Ryan Richter from the Charleston Battery. Though he looks to be the sort of versatile depth player who can be a useful piece of an MLS squad, he lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, especially when compared to Argentine striker Maximiliano Urruti, or the much talked about "couple of Hondurans" who still haven't made their appearance holding up a shirt at a press conference.
One player going in the other direction is Matt Stinson, released last week. His status as a homegrown player who'd come through the academy meant his release was met with more scrutiny and questioning than his status as bit part player would otherwise merit. Few academy players anywhere will make it to first-team-regular status, but Stinson looked like he had a chance so it's sad to see him fall by the wayside.
Josh Guesman, founder, The Section 108 blog, co-host of podcast, LA:
The big story probably has to be Landon coming back. He was with the team in DC to meet the president and was training with the Galaxy ahead of the Toronto game, tough I don't think we'll see him there. However it's possible that he may get a few minutes as part of the Champions League games. He spoke to press briefly in DC and was talking about being happy to be back, and having that itch to play when he saw the Galaxy play their first game of the season against Chicago, and similar feelings when he watched the USA v Mexico game. He felt that the break was the right thing and that his club and international coaches understood him, even if they weren't 100% supportive of the decision, and that now he's back and ready to go.
As for this weekend, Robbie Keane is a doubt so we may see the two young strikers Jose Villareal and Jack McBean paired together again. I'd be happy with a draw in Toronto as things stand, but the Galaxy should have the quality to pull out a 2-1 win.
New York Red Bulls vs Philadelphia Union
Sat 3.30pm, Red Bull Arena (NBCSN)
Dan Dickinson, Sports editor, , New York:
For four weeks, fans of the Red Bulls have wondered what the key would be to getting their first win of the year. It's not that any of the performances have been bad, per se – but week in, week out they've been undone by either a strong performer on the other side (Bill Hamid two weeks ago and Marco Di Vaio last week) or a week one of their own (obligatory barb at Roy Miller goes here).
Mike Petke will likely reshuffle the line-up this week, particularly in the attack due to injury: Fabian Espindola reportedly has a hamstring knock, and Thierry Henry's MCL sprain leaves him a deliciously, surly question mark. But the other looming decision may be voluntary, as Kevin Hartman could conceivably bump Luis Robles at goalkeeper. Robles played like a man who knew his job was on the line last week against Montreal, keeping New York in the match at times when they should've been down by multiple goals. Hartman has a unrivaled history in the league, but may still have some rust after being released by Dallas. So my eyes will be between the sticks – on both ends, as Zac MacMath's not-intimidating-at-all form may help New York break their scoreless streak.
Dan Walsh, , Philadelphia:
Freddy Adu is out. Bakary Soumare wants out. Kleberson is in. And the new continues to emerge.
Nine months after John Hackworth took over as manager, he continues to reshape the team in his own image. On Monday, he finally rid his team of the high-priced former prodigy Adu, who had been taking up one-fifth of the team's salary budget to sit on the sidelines at the club's preference. Soumare is a different story, requesting a trade after the emergence of Amobi Okugo and acquisition of Jeff Parke made Soumare surplus at center-back after he returned from last year's injury problems.
With the team playing nothing more than a meaningless friendly against Mexican side Pumas last weekend, the focus was bound to be off the field – but that's nothing new for the Union, who experienced one of the most tumultuous seasons in MLS history last year. What's happening now are the aftershocks of those events. There is hope that Kleberson, a Brazilian World Cup veteran, can be an experienced presence in the center of the Union's struggling midfield.
Now, with a match Saturday against the Red Bulls, the focus should turn back to the games. To the Red Bulls, the Union are little more than a neighboring team down I-95. To Philadelphia fans, the Red Bulls are hated rivals. The Union haven't fared well at Red Bull Arena, but that's probably irrelevant inside Philadelphia's locker room. This match always matters.
New England Revolution vs FC Dallas
Sat 4pm, Gillette Stadium
Christopher Camille, , author of NE tactics blog :
It was hard to take anything away from the Revs' match against , due to the disruptive wind and a lack of Jerry Bengston. One thing that Revs fans are nervous about, however, is where the goals are going to come from. They have only scored one goal this season and have created a very small number of chances.
The Revs are a squad that teams seek to foul in order to disrupt their play. Opposing clubs have no reason to stop this simple tactical trend because the Revs never take advantage of their set-pieces. Currently Lee Nguyen is the main man over the ball in dangerous situations. He is a very technical player but he's never been a consistent striker of the ball. If the Revs want to get anything from matches like this past Saturday they will need to figure out how to win the set-piece battles.
Gina Zippilli, , Dallas:
The big story right now is that we're top of the standings. We haven't been top of the Western Conference for quite some time, and we pulled out a nice win last Saturday. We had a fair number of chances and couldn't convert, then one went in and RSL just kind of fell apart. Fabián Castillo's shot went in from an impossible angle and that broke the deadlock. We got another and then they went down to 10 men and it was fairly comfortable at the end. I'm still a little skittish about saying that the season has truly got going. We've put together a mini-run and that's good, but that performance against Chivas was so horrible that I don't want to say yet that this is going to be a good season. And looking at the standings, I don't know what's going on. Chivas in second in the West? Montreal on top of the East? Let's wait and see...
Colorado Rapids vs Portland Timbers
Sat 6pm, Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Univision Dep)
Todd Haggerty, , Colorado Rapids:
Please wake me up and tell me this has all been a nightmare! The Rapids have been plagued with so many injuries that I don't have the space to list all them here. Add the suspension of Drew Moor to this weekend's fixture with Portland and you truly have a new-look team. Reserve keeper Clint Irwin has stood on his head the past two weeks to keep the team from being blown out. However, one man can only do so much and with the backline in tatters Irwin will need to produce a match for the ages if the Rapids are stay competitive against the Timbers. On a positive note, Edson Buddle might finally make an appearance (I hope he is covered in bubble wrap) and so may Danny Mwanga. Despite the possible attacking additions, I just don't see any way that the Rapids come away with a point this weekend. That being said, there will be beer at the match – hopefully plenty of it.
Michael Orr, , host of podcast:
A bye week during the international weekend has given the Timbers extra time to recover from their 1-1 draw in Seattle and prepare for a rarity in Portland – a winnable away match. Though Caleb Porter's side played more cautiously against the Sounders in using Jack Jewsbury deep in defensive midfield, the new manager's focus has centered on scoring more goals, given the immense possession advantage his team has enjoyed.
Yet Jewsbury's inclusion remains the main topic of discussion around Timbers training. The captain in 2011 and 2012 suffered a hamstring injury early in pre-season and was unable to debut before the club's third game. Porter relied upon Diego Chara and Will Johnson for defensive midfield duties – a pairing that helped lead to better chances going forward but left alarming gaps at the back, particularly when opponents countered. With Jewsbury back in the line-up, Portland's defensive shape was more balanced and they limited Seattle to a single counter-attacking goal at CenturyLink Field.
Colorado away has been a disaster for the Timbers with 3-1, 3-0 and 3-0 losses on file in the MLS era. Portland has taken points from its last two away matches, though they were both against Cascadia rivals – games where the Timbers have over-performed relative to their general road form. With two weeks to refocus and prepare for an injury-depleted Rapids side, Portland will be expecting to take three points on Saturday afternoon.
Sporting KC vs Montreal Impact
Sat 8.30pm, Sporting Park
Malena Barajas, co-founder, , Sporting Kansas City:
Kansas City supporters are still celebrating Matt Besler and Graham Zusi's performances while on World Cup qualifying duty with the US. Besler had a standout performance in his first start with the Stars and Stripes, pairing well with defender Omar Gonzales for the full 90 minutes. This partnership, along with a great performance from goalkeeper Brad Guzan, kept Mexico from another win at Azteca. The nil-nil draw was seen as a victory for the U.S. And in the newly released Overlap iPad magazine, a MLSsoccer.com/Howler Magazine partnership, US manager Jürgen Klinsmann is quoted saying US Soccer is looking at Zusi to fill Landon Donovan's role on the team. Quite the tall order, but a sentiment celebrated by Zusi fans.
Even though both are back in Kansas City, manager Peter Vermes is yet to decide whether Besler and Zusi will play in this weekend's match against the Impact. Led by former Sporting KC captain, Davy Arnaud, the Impact is having a solid start to its season, unlike Sporting KC, which has struggled to find a rhythm. With defender Chance Myers still out with a quad injury, Vermes continues to face limited options. Expect the same squad that faced New England last week to hit the pitch, but with Bobby Convey starting.
Sofiane Benzaza, , Montreal:
Are they for real? Are the Power Rankings lying to us? After four consecutive winning weeks, the Impact are proving to the league that it is no ordinary sophomore club. Keeping the positive from its winning form in the summer of 2012, Montreal is showing good things on the field. Not as dominant as its next opponent, Sporting Kansas City, were last year, but Les Bleus are not feeling the blues at home and away. It's heartwarming to finally see objective praise towards a club that has shown a lot in its expansion year. With a group of experienced players leading the charge, Marco Schallibaum is taking the winning mentality to another level.
Another thing that will not change is the natural alliance between the Impact and Serie A. After Marco Di Vaio and Andrea Pisanu, Daniele Paponi is on his way to Montreal, at least to try out for now. It's surprising to see a 24-year old player making the move to MLS from Italy. Though he is no star, Paponi's potential and age are great news for a club that has quite a few older players. Like they say, when in Bologna do as … or was that Rome?
Houston Dynamo vs San Jose Earthquakes
Sat 8.30pm, BBVA Compass Stadium
Stephen Eastepp, , Houston:
Internationals returning from duty will give the Dynamo a sense of their regular line-up: Boniek Garcia, Jermaine Taylor and Brad Davis are back in practise, so the big question is with two of the three going the full 90 in midweek, will Dominic Kinnear give them a rest and continue to use the bit-part players who did well enough last week in filling in for them? Andrew Driver in particular is someone who a lot of people want to see more of – he's in mid-season form, coming over from Scotland. Unfortunately for him he plays same position as Brad Davis, who only played 20 minutes in midweek.
The other big story is that while San Jose will be a challenging game, it could see Houston match Real Salt Lake's record of 34 unbeaten home games in all competitions. Maybe one more reason to play the more established players. And Omar Cummings is back from injury – he won't start, but we'll maybe see some minutes from him, which will be a real boost.
Robert Jonas, , San Jose:
Preseason nervousness among players and coaches has been supplanted by confidence in San Jose as the Earthquakes have overcome an injury depleted roster to ascend into the top half of the Western Conference to start the 2013 season. And now comes news that the walking wounded may be back in action sooner than later as, for the first time this year, all of the Quakes' first-choice starters participated in training on Tuesday morning. The likes of Alan Gordon, Steven Lenhart, Marvin Chavez and Steven Beitashour should only increase the fortunes of a club that has responded so well to their early season adversity. Expectations of another Supporters' Shield level year from the Earthquakes, as well as deep runs in the Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League, seem even more realistic.
One player that has not wilted under the pressure is defending MLS MVP Chris Wondolowski. After weathering a frustrating start to the season in terms of his own production, the two-time Golden Boot winner scored a goal-of-the-week beauty in the Earthquakes' 1-0 win against Seattle. Wondo's wonder strike could be just the thing to get him back on track for a Quakes offense that has thus far been very inefficient in front of goal. With the on tap – the only current MLS club, including San Jose, that he has yet to score against – the notoriously streaky scorer Wondolowski will look to add to his season tally. As Wondo goes, so does the Earthquakes.
Real Salt Lake vs Seattle Sounders
Sat 9pm, Rio Tinto Stadium
Matt Montgomery, , Real Salt Lake:
shouldn't be in a panic mode. They really shouldn't – sure, yeah, four points from four matches isn't exactly good. It'll hurt us in those power rankings everyone loves so much. Hell, if the season ended today … but it hasn't and it's not about to. RSL has struggled a bit to be sure, with player after player missing, strikers misfiring (bar the ever-dominant-but-internationally-needed Alvaro Saborio), and the midfield looking just a bit too young and naive. Who wouldn't struggle with 11 players out, with only one striker returned from the year prior, and with a younger than ever midfield group? Jason Kreis and company certainly know what needs to be done, and that almost undoubtedly involves the word "patience" in some way, shape or form.
Week five features at its core a match against Concacaf Champions League-focused opponents Seattle; general manager Garth Lagerwey has described it as very important, and though he stopped short of calling it a must-win, it's certainly got a bit of that element to it. With returns for Kyle Beckerman, Tony Beltran, Nick Rimando, Alvaro Saborio and perhaps even Javier Morales, the picture looks to be getting a bit more clear. Still, somebody's got to start scoring alongside that Costa Rican guy, right?
Dave Clark, , Seattle:
When the Sounders travel to Rio Tinto to face Real Salt Lake they will be doing it with one thing on their minds – how do we manage this game to help us on Tuesday against Santos Laguna. Yes, this could mean that Seattle fails to win a match in their first four. This should not be a concern to anyone. The 34-match season followed by playoffs means that a match in late March is not at all vital. The semifinals for the Concacaf Champions League home leg is certainly more important.
With that in mind, Sigi Schmid will balance a roster with two key men coming back from injury (Shalrie Joseph and Brad Evans) and three returning from national-team duty (Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson and Mario Martinez). Going into Salt Lake with a reduced side almost certainly means a loss. RSL is one of the best in the league at guarding their home. The mix of rationalization and panic will not be fun, but priorities will come into place for other teams later in the year. This is the Sounders' time to balance.
The defense will remain stout, though. Michael Gspurning and Osvaldo Alonso are anchors that do not allow opponents to put up goals. The rest of the backline is healthy and playing well. That means the margin will be close. If Seattle's B+ lineup can sneak a goal in they may just come away with a win and preparation for one of their biggest home games in their young history.
Chivas USA vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Sat 10.30pm, Home Depot Center
Julio Ramos, "Chivas Mayor", :
Chivas is the big story. We are big all over the place – surprising people. The way the team are fighting all over the field, the mentality, is great. As fans we're excited to finally see a team that matches the passion of the fans. We can take seeing the team lose, but that mentality, that playing with intensity – it's just vital.
I can't name a most valuable player so far, and that's great. They're a group. I know it's just four games, but for me the moment when I said "this team is for real" was during the Galaxy game when they were down to 10 men and came back and scored to tie the game. I'd been following Chelis [José Luis Sanchéz Solá] as a coach in the Mexican league for some time. I knew who he was, what kind of character and how he motivates players, but of course you never know because each team is different, so we just had to wait. But right now, Chivas is the story.
Benjamin Massey, Editor, , Vancouver:
The Whitecaps are mortal! Panic! Angst! In fact they played one of the better road games in their 2.1 MLS seasons last Saturday in Houston, giving a very good Dynamo team a fair amount of trouble, getting some chances, and only leaving with no points because one of Camilo's free-kicks hit the crossbar and the post rather than going one scintilla of an inch lower or to the right. There was nothing in that game to give even the most panic-prone Whitecaps fan heart palpitations. Alas, when you're off to a 2-0 start then lose a game you deserved to win, the story is always going to be "wait a moment, are we not going to run the table, then?"
Of course, those two season-opening wins were at home against Columbus and Toronto; a reality check was inevitable at some point. With a game at , overachieving thanks to smoke and mirrors, the Whitecaps actually have a chance to inflict a reality check after absorbing them almost exclusively for half a decade! Of course, against that is the biggest little-discussed semi-story of the Whitecaps' week: center-back Brad Rusin has missed practice with minor knee trouble. Rusin has a history of knee injuries and you'll recall that Jay DeMerit has already been put on an ice floe with an Achilles tear. Rusin will probably be fine for the weekend. Probably.