MLS Weekend: Three Games to Watch

After just two rounds of the 2017 season, three teams are already looking a lot better than they did last year, and all three face road tests this weekend that can validate their apparent upgrades.

The Fire plays at Atlanta after posting a win and tie in its first two games, and the Dynamo and Quakes take their two-game win streaks into away matches with, respectively, Portland and Sporting Kansas City.

(There is no MLS game on the ESPN channels this week because of college basketball, tennis and other event coverage. Fox Sports 1 televises the only Sunday game of the weekend, Seattle-Red Bulls, at 7 p.m. ET.)

Here’s a rundown of what to watch for before the Sounders play their first-ever home game as defending MLS champions:
Okay, Atlanta United FC, what can you do for an encore?

Having lost its home opener -- Red Bulls rallied to win, 2-1 -- in front of more than 55,000 fans, AUFC takes on Chicago (Saturday, UniMas, MLS Live/MLS Direct Kick, 4 p.m. ET), the conference’s worst team the past two years – as in losing 37 of 68 games, not an easy task in a sport rife with ties -- but looking quite competitive so far in 2017.

A Fire midfield shored up with offseason additions Juninho and Dax McCarty presents an unfamiliar obstacle for Atlanta United, which has relied on accurate long balls out of the back to release game-breakers Miguel Alimiron and Josef Martinez. They combined for five snow-encrusted goals in a 6-1 rout of Minnesota United last weekend.

Going over the top and thus bypassing the Fire central midfielders could be an effective tactic once again, though AUFC is stocked with skillful players adept at combination play. It completed 73 percent of its passes in the home opener yet at times looked disjointed in the attacking third.

With a first MLS win -- and a dominating one at that -- under its belt and another big crowd expected at its temporary home, Bobby Dodd Stadium, the team will be out impress another national TV audience. The organization is also taking steps to crack down on fans bellowing vulgar chants on opponent’s goal kicks and throwing debris onto the field.

Chicago conceded 58 goals last year – more than any team except Orlando City (60) – and so far this season has limited Columbus and Real Salt Lake to just five shots on target and one goal allowed. Neither of those foes ranks near the top of MLS in potential firepower, as Atlanta certainly does, and thus Chicago will be tasked with riding out periods of sustained and probably intense pressure.

HOT START FOR HOUSTON. Like Chicago, the Dynamo is a team revived as it heads to Portland (Saturday, MLS Live/MLS Direct Kick, 10:30 p.m. ET), where the 2015 MLS Cup champion is also going through a renaissance after missing the playoffs last year.

The Dynamo’s front three of Ronell Quioto, “Cubo” Torres and Alberth Elis is as dangerous as had been anticipated. Each scored a goal in a 3-1 thumping of Columbus last weekend that was a shutout until the 93rd minute, but the midfield play of Alex (two saves) and sharp work of keeper Tyler Deric (three early saves with the score 1-0) played important roles as well.
Houston started out the season by beating Seattle, 2-1, with goals by Torres and Quioto and rode out the last 40 minutes after a Clint Dempsey strike to get the victory.

Look at it this way: one of the few Dynamo players to impress last season, forward Mauro Manotas, has played only nine minutes in 2017. Last year he tied for the team lead with six goals while starting just 10 of 22 games.

Few assignments are tougher than Providence Park for a revamped team heading out on its first road trip of the season, and it’s likely much will be revealed in this game about the Dynamo back line. The Timbers, as expected, routed expansion newbie Minnesota United, 5-1, at home to start the season as Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi both scored twice.

A second caution to Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme in the 34th minute greatly aided a 1-0 Portland victory last weekend at StubHub Center. The Timbers, playing 11-v-11, countered quickly on a cleared Galaxy corner kick in the eighth minute and scored when Diego Chara polished off a nice one-two with Valeri. The goal arose from wonderful ball out of the back by Sebastian Blanco to Chara, who nodded it to Valeri and raced forward to tap in the return pass.

Chara was fined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for feigning contact on a challenge from Van Damme, whose vociferous protest of a foul call earned him his first caution for dissent. After the defender was dismissed, Portland couldn’t break through the 10 men to get a second goal and needed a sharp save from keeper Jake Gleeson in stoppage time to claim the win.

AWAY FROM AVAYA. After San Jose toppled Montreal in its season opener, head coach Dominic Kinnear reminded reporters that the Quakes started 2-0-0 last year and wound up with just eight wins. By beating Vancouver, 3-2, last weekend after falling behind, 2-0, the Quakes are again winners of their first two games and also flush with scoring four goals. (They tallied a league-fewest 32 last season.)

On Saturday (8:30 p.m., MLS Live) the Quakes play their first road game of the season. SKC has yet to score or concede a goal and last weekend at home generated just two shots on target against an FC Dallas team that rested a bunch of starters. Dom Dwyer and newcomer Gerso Fernandes had a fair share of looks at goal (eight shots combined, each put one on frame), and considering the Quakes surrendered two goals in the first 17 minutes to Vancouver on defensive errors, SKC is geared up to test the Quakes back line early and often.

The Quakes certainly look more potent with a quartet of TAM signings -- three attackers and centerback Florian Jungwirth -- and considering stalwart forward Chris Wondolowski has scored just one goal, present many more challenges for an opposing defense. Anibal Godoy has won both games with superb goals from his midfield slot and if SKC comes out too anxious to end its scoring drought, it may leave spaces the visitors can exploit.

San Jose needs points in games like this to get back into the playoffs after a four years of failure. SKC needs to score a goal and go from there.
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