MLS Weekend: Three Games to Watch

The sharp reversal of 2015 MLS Cup finalists Columbus and Portland is one of the intriguing early developments of the 2017 season.

Both fell short of the playoffs last year, the first such occurrence in league history. And both are leading their respective conferences, with the Timbers also atop the overall standings at 4-1-1 (13 points). Columbus leads the East, barely at 3-2-1.

Yet leading the pack in points per game is FC Dallas (2.5) at 3-0-1, followed by Orlando City (2.25) at 3-1-0. Five Eastern Conference teams are tied in the standings with seven points apiece, ranging from fifth-place New England down to ninth-place Toronto FC, which is one of only three teams still unbeaten (1-0-4) at this early phase of the season.

Yes, it’s very early days, but the fast starts by Orlando City and expansion club Atlanta United have already tightened up the Eastern Conference. For all the deserved buzz about AUFC’s potent attack, it’s the Timbers who lead the league in scoring with 16 goals.

No games will be played on Easter Sunday, so the weekend kicks off Friday with a triple-header that includes two nationally televised games on ESPN and UniMas. MLS gets the big-network exposure Saturday when Orlando City hosts the Galaxy on FOX.

On a busy holiday weekend, here are three games to watch.

FIRST CASCADIA CUP MATCH. Of the three Northwest teams, there’s no question which is in worst state.

The Timbers are atop the West, the Sounders are defending champions, and the Whitecaps come home to B.C. Place after being whited-out at Real Salt Lake, 3-0. Their opponent? Seattle, which surrendered a late goal in San Jose to tie a game, 1-1, it seemingly had won with a fabulous goal by Nicolas Lodeiro in the 84th minute. The battle for the Cascadia Cup begins Friday (TSN, MLS Live, 10 p.m. ET).

Head coach Brian Schmetzer cited several errors that preceded Chris Wondolowski’s wide-open tap-in, but the play started in midfield when midfielder Darwin Ceren muscled substitute Alvaro Fernandez off the ball and played it to another sub, Cordell Cato, who relayed up the wing to Marco Urena, who drove it square for Wondo to dispatch.

One of the stats cited by Schmetzer, duels won, favored Seattle in the second half 65-35 percent. But that one lost duel cost his team two away points.

“Sometimes when you come back for a draw like we did in Montreal, it feels like a victory,” Schmetzer said in his postgame comments. “This feels like a loss.”

The Vancouver loss on a snow-encrusted field was its third of the season and second in as many road games. However, the ‘Caps haven’t been tough at B.C. Place either; their 1-1-1 home record includes a 0-0 tie with Philadelphia, a 2-0 loss to Toronto FC, and an impressive 4-2 dismantling of the Galaxy.

Both teams are looking at this rivalry game as a great opportunity to build some momentum and despite the gap in placings – the Sounders are fifth at 1-1-3 – only two points separate them.

“I want to beat Seattle because it’s Seattle,” said Whitecaps keeper David Ousted, whose occasional shakiness in goal is one of several reasons his team is off to a slow start.

Another factor is the lackluster form of ex-Sounder Fredy Montero, who played four seasons abroad before returning to MLS last winter. In 269 minutes of play he has taken eight shots and scored once. As a Sounder from 2009 to 2012 he scored 47 goals and recorded 34 assists in 119 regular-season games.

“To be honest, I’m not thinking about my past with the Sounders,” said the native of Barranquilla, Colombia. “I’m just focused on this game and what I can do better from my last game with the team. It’s a rivalry game, yes, but we need to get three points at home.”

LIONS DEFEND THEIR DEN. After losing its first two home games, the Galaxy downed Montreal, 2-0, last week aided by red card issued to Marco Donadel when he jabbed Jermaine Jones with his elbow. Jones later romped upfield to score the clinching goal.

The next test for the remodeled Galaxy is Orlando City (Saturday, FOX, Fox Deportes, 2:30 p.m.), which is a perfect 3-0-0 in its new stadium after downing the Red Bulls, 1-0, last Sunday. Servando Carrasco headed the only goal from a Will Johnson corner kick and the Lions looked crisp and confident playing in a 4-4-2 diamond formation cast in the mold made famous by head coach Jason Kreis at RSL.

Kaka is not healthy, and Kreis will have to make at least one midfield change; Matias Perez Garcia has been suspended by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for kicking Felipe during a duel. Luis Gil, also formerly of RSL, replaced Garcia late in the game and is the obvious choice to start against L.A.

Regardless of deployment, the midfield battles will be fascinating to watch. Jones and central partner Joao Pedro are ironing out their wrinkles as they find ways to free up newcomer Romain Alessandrini, whose three goals and two assists have accounted for all but two of the Galaxy’s seven goals. Against Montreal, Gyasi Zardes got only his second start since late August, and with those 82 minutes under his belt he should be ready to run at the Lions’ back line.

THE PERILS OF PORTLAND. Opposing teams have a tough enough time at Providence Park even when the Timbers aren’t at their best; despite going winless on the road last year (0-11-6), Portland hammered out a 12-3-2 home mark that was fourth-best in MLS.

It purged its road schneid last weekend by prevailing in Philly, 3-1. So far in 2017, Portland has scored 10 goals at home, though five came in the opener against Minnesota United in a 5-1 victory.
Into this cauldron steps Sporting Kansas City on the last game of the weekend (Saturday, MLS Live, 10:30 p.m.). SKC is the stingiest team in the league to date; in five games it has conceded only two goals and both of them were scored in stoppage time of games that were already won.

SKC has tied the other three games, 0-0, and last week was minutes away from a shutout of the Rapids when it conceded a penalty kick by which the score changed to 3-1. As impressive as the Timbers have been in the attack -- Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri each have five goals, which equals SKC’s team total -- its opponent this week has ridden some clutch goalkeeping by Tim Melia and opportunistic finishing to start the season smoothly.

Playmaker Benny Feilhaber has missed the last two games nursing a strained thigh but is expected to make the game-day squad after training regularly this week. Of course, Portland must deal with the potent left foot of outside back Seth Sinovic, who powered the attack against Colorado by opening the scoring with his first MLS goal and late in the game delivered the cross by which Dom Dwyer bagged his first tally in 2017.

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