The games have piled up for many MLS teams, which have been burdened by midweek games and next week, in the case of the three Canadian representatives, will also play in the Canadian Championship.
Ten teams played on Wednesday, so rotation of players could present some unusual decisions as to personnel and tactics. The crunch of eight games in May has yet to slow down Toronto FC,
which has won six in a row, but has two big holes to fill with superstar Sebastian Giovinco and centerback Nick Hagglund sidelined by injury.
"now" team is Philadelphia, winner of three straight and rather suddenly just three points out of the lowest playoff rung currently occupied by the laboring Red Bulls, who host TFC this weekend.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United will play just its fourth home game in front of another packed house, and out west, defending champion Seattle hopes its return home can spark a
revival of its lackluster season. Of the 11 league games on offer here are three to watch.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD? If the
Red Bulls can’t beat TFC at home (Friday, TSN2, MLS Live, 7:30 p.m. ET) the transformation of power from two-time defending Eastern Conference champion to 2016 MLS Cup finalist won’t be in
question. Six consecutive victories have vaulted TFC atop the conference, where the Red Bulls roosted in 2015 and 2016. They are currently in sixth, and while still they boast a few of the
league’s top players so patchy has been their form that the possibility that they slide outside of the playoff tier in the next month or so is not far-fetched: caught by a Philly team on the
rebound and/or expansion upstart Atlanta steadily picking up road points.
On paper, TFC is due – if not overdue – to stumble, yet this is the longest break – five days
– its players have enjoyed since they embarked on a brutal run of eight games in May. Working against TFC is the absence of Giovinco; he recovered from a foot injury in time to convert a penalty
kick Saturday in a 3-2 defeat of Minnesota United, but then hobbled off with a strained quadriceps.
TFC head coach Greg Vanney must also replace Hagglund, who suffered a strained
MCL and is out two to three months. Veteran Jason Hernandez is one of several candidates to take his spot in the back line.
New York’s problems are thus: not enough attacking
impetus from the flanks, too many missed assignments and sloppy touches in central midfield, confusion and miscommunication in the back line. More incisive flank play would clear out space and open up
angles for Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan, sharper midfield play would create turnovers and transition opportunities, and a tighter defense would provide the solid foundation
for everything else.
If a pressing team like New York is not in sync, it leaves gaps it cannot plug. Dealing with Tosaint Ricketts, scorer of three goals in the last two games,
and Jozy Altidore as well as a crisp and confident five-man midfield is a severe assignment for the Red Bulls, who have lost three in a row. In a parity-driven league, the more desperate team
– especially at home – often prevails.
SOUNDERS SEEK SOLACE. Speaking of desperation, here’s defending
champion Seattle mired in the muck of a 2-5-4 record up against Real Salt Lake, which ended its own four-game losing skid by rallying to beat New York City FC, 2-1, on Wednesday.
teams have won 11 straight meetings in this series and by a scheduling quirk this is the third consecutive matchup hosted by Seattle (Saturday, MLS Live, 5 p.m.), which prevailed by 2-1 scores twice
last year at CenturyLink Field. It plays Cascadia Cup rival Portland next week at home and needs the bounce of a solid win to build momentum for that battle.
Seattle has been outscored,
7-1, by Chicago and Sporting Kansas City in its last two games but most of those goals were conceded in the later stages with Seattle behind and chasing the game. The back six should be stronger with
left back Joevin Jones off suspension and Brad Evans, perhaps, fit enough to start at right back, which moves Cristian Roldan to his best spot alongside Osvaldo Alonso in
central midfield. In the attack, a bit of luck would help: Sounders shots have hit a post or crossbar a dozen times this season.
RSL snapped its slide with a goal and assist from
Albert Rusnak, but took advantage of a NYCFC team that left David Villa out of the starting lineup traveling to play at altitude on two days’ rest. RSL is 1-4-1 on the road this
year and gives Seattle an excellent opportunity to improve its mediocre home record of 1-1-2.
DYNAMO ROAD WOES. Houston’s
revival is somewhat tainted by a lopsided record. It is 6-0-1 at home and zip-for-4 on the road heading into its first-ever match at Atlanta (Saturday, MLS Live, 7 p.m.)
The only league
meeting between the team this year projects to be high-scoring. Houston is tied for the league lead with 21 goals scored and has allowed 16; Atlanta is right behind at 20 and 15, respectively.
If Atlanta’s pressure yields an early goal it need not press too hard and open itself up to Houston’s potent counterattacks led by Alberth Elis, Romell Quito and Erick
‘Cubo’ Torres (17 goals combined). But if the home team falls behind Houston could capitalize for its first away points of the season. (Elis has been bothered by a hamstring injury and
may not be available.)
Atlanta United has played only one of its last seven games at home and that was a 3-1 loss to D.C. United on April 30. As were the first three games at Bobby Dodd
Stadium, the match against Houston is a sellout (approximately 46,000). The team has set a league record by drawing 147,230 fans for its first three home games; the Galaxy held the previous record of
130,073 fans in the Rose Bowl during the inaugural MLS season in 1996.
Striker Josef Martinez, who scored five goals in Atlanta’s first three games before he suffered a quad
injury while in international duty with Venezuela, and Jacob Peterson (lower leg injury) have been training but are listed as “out” on the MLS injury report. Martinez’s
absence has been filled by a vast supporting cast. Tito Villalba has notched four goals, Kenwyne Jones two, and in the last two weeks rookie Julian Gressel and Carlos
Carmona have tallied their first goals in MLS. In addition to his four assists, playmaker Miguel Almiron has also scored twice.
This is the third game in nine days for Houston,
which is playing on just two days of rest after losing in Philadelphia, 2-0, Wednesday. Its next game is a week from Sunday at FC Dallas, with which it is tied for second (19 points) and offers a
stiff challenge in its quest to join the playoff teams in the Western Conference.