MLS Weekend: Three Games to Watch

About one-quarter of the 2017 season has been played, and there are still two weeks remaining until the primary transfer window closes May 8.

After that date only players out of contract can be signed until the secondary window opens in July 10. League rules also require that in-season trades including players be conducted during the transfer windows. (Teams can swap allocation funds, draft picks and all non-player assets outside of these windows.)

The strongest teams in the Western Conference square off, Dax McCarty returns to Red Bull Arena and there’s a Canadian matchup of East and West in Week 9 of the MLS season. There’s a full slate of 11 games this weekend with all but two games being played on Saturday. Here are three that will make for interesting viewing.
 
DAX IS BACK.
No doubt the red-haired talisman will be up for the challenge as the Fire seeks its first victory over the Red Bulls in nearly two years (Saturday, MLS Live, 7:30 p.m.). Chicago managed a 2-2 tie at Toyota Park last year to halt a run of three straight NYRB wins, but the Red Bulls have not been beaten at home in their last 18 games and this season have outscored teams, 7-0, at Red Bull Arena.

Yet it will be a big ask of U.S. U-20 Tyler Adams to deal with McCarty, Juninho and Bastian Schweinsteiger time and time again, so the earlier New York can get the ball forward to Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and wide men Alex Muyl and Daniel Royer, the better. The Fire is certainly more potent up front, and still not convincing in the back.

The wild card could be Luis Solignac, who never got it going in Colorado (three goals and four assists in 33 games) but has earned assists in the last two games and seems to have found a place with Schweinsteiger and forward Nemanja Nikolic in the lineup.

Head coach Veljko Paunovic will expect a better effort than shown last week in Toronto, where the Fire conceded two first-half goals within four minutes and didn’t score until the 88th minute, when a goal by David Accam may have earned him added playing time. The week before he had assisted on a goal off the bench in a 3-0 defeat of New England.
 
BIG GUNS MISSING FOR WESTERN SHOWDOWN.
In a negative sense, FC Dallas and Portland are on even terms for their first clash of 2017 (Saturday, MLS Live, 8 p.m.) Neither will have its primary attacking catalyst.

A strained hip suffered last weekend in a 2-1 defeat of Vancouver has sidelined Diego Valeri, who is on an MVP pace of five goals and four assists in eight games. Forward Fanendo Adi, also the scorer of five goals, returns from suspension.

FCD has been without playmaker Mauro Diaz since October, and in his absence has switched to a 4-4-2 formation that has paired up forwards Max Urruti and Cristian Colman. They have combined for 24 shots and though Colman has yet to score a goal, Urruti has notched three and is going up against the team for which he scored 15 goals in 65 appearances from 2013 to 2015.

“Colman and Maxi with their movements they are always stretching the defenders, and we like that,” says FCD head coach Oscar Pareja, who has also used veteran Javier Morales off the bench and as a spot starter to replicate the wiles of Diaz. As the only unbeaten team in MLS, FCD is getting by without one of the league's best players by defending resolutely and playing more direct.

The Timbers’ defense has been bolstered by the return of centerback Liam Ridgewell, who went the full 90 minutes last weekend after sitting out six games with a sprained foot. Yet he might be a bit short on sharpness to handle Urruti and Colman. He’ll need help from central partner Lawrence Olum, who is also well-known to FCD as an offensive threat. Olum scored twice against FCD last year playing for Sporting Kansas City.

FCD has conceded only three goals in six games, and centerbacks Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman have been nearly impenetrable in the air. Yet even without Valeri, the Timbers can pick teams apart, so central mids Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta have much to do in their own half of the field.


NO, CANADA. None of the three Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, though Toronto FC is tied for sixth on points, trails only on goal difference, and has yet to show any major signs of distress.

For Montreal and Vancouver, who play at Stade Saputo (Saturday, CTV, TSN2, MLS Live, 3 p.m.) the present and future are murkier. Both are among the league leaders in goals conceded, yet also have some hope of better times ahead. The Impact, which is 1-0-1 at home, plays four of the next five at Stade Saputo; for the Whitecaps, ex-Sounder Fredy Montero has rung up three goals in his last two games and leads the squad with four.

The rivals will play all three of their scheduled meetings in the next 30 days. After they battle in league play Saturday, they will square off again in the Canadian Championship next month. In all-time MLS play they are dead even at two wins and two losses apiece, plus a 0-0 tie in 2014, but Montreal has won the last two confrontations, including a 3-2 triumph at B.C. Place in the 2016 season opener.

On the road, Vancouver has been outscored, 8-3, yet it conceded three goals in San Jose after keeper David Ousted departed with an early red card, and three more slid through the snow at Real Salt Lake. However, both Ousted and defender Kendall Waston have yet to exorcise the errors that marred much of their play last year, and last week the Whitecaps didn’t get a grip on midfield until conceding two goals to Portland in a 2-1 defeat.

The Impact also fell behind last weekend, then stunned the Union by scoring three goals, two of them by substitute Anthony Jackson-Hamel. He had also scored off the bench the previous week to help Montreal beat Atlanta United, 2-1,  but with the backing of the home crowd and Ignacio Piatti -- whose goal started the rally in Philly – nearing full recovery from a hip injury, Montreal will seek an early score or two.

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