American Perspective: MLS contenders pull away from pretenders

IT IS EASTER Weekend and it will be a crowded slate of games for American fans with plenty of interesting matchups across the globe. In Europe, many of the leagues are now in the home stretch and the games have a lot on the line. In MLS, the season is still young but there is starting to be real separation between the contenders and the pretenders. 

There is a lot to take in from an American perspective, but here are the 10 games to watch from that angle. 

Los Angeles FC - Seattle Sounders

Sunday: 7:00pm ET

The best game by far this weekend will take place on Sunday when LAFC hosts the Seattle Sounders in a matchup of arguably the two best teams in the league. 

LAFC will be happy to be returning home after being upset midweek in a 1-0 loss away at Vancouver. The loss is probably nothing more than a blip as Bob Bradley’s team has been dominant in most of its games and Carlos Vela is still the early-season favorite for the MVP award. 

This game will be a unique test for LAFC’s backline as the Sounders can score goals in droves and have a well-balanced attack led by Americans Will Bruin, Jordan Morris and Raúl Ruidiaz. It’s midfield of Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan can distribute well. 

LAFC currently sits atop the West at 19 points, which is three better than second-place Seattle. Seattle has played two fewer games and can move into first with a win in Los Angeles – which is a difficult venue for opposing teams. 

Seattle Sounders U-17 vs. Valencia U-17

Saturday: 7:00pm ET

Arguably the best stories in American soccer right now are centered around the next generation of Americans. Youth teams are front and center at the moment as the U-20 team has its World Cup next month, the U-17 team is getting ready for World Cup qualifying, and the U-23s are preparing for Olympic qualifying. Meanwhile, several players eligible for U.S. youth teams are having remarkably successful careers at the first teams of elite European teams. 

Things are trending upward for young players on many fronts. Domestically, that is also the case and the Seattle Sounders U-17 academy team is in the finals of the prestigious GA Cup in Dallas. Seattle advanced to the finals with impressive wins over Flamengo, River Plate, and a 4-0 drubbing of West Ham in the semifinals. 

United States U-17 national team forward Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez has six goals in the tournament – including a first half hat-trick against West Ham. But it is far from a one-player team. The team is balanced and well-prepared as several of the players on the team are also playing in the USL with the Tacoma Defiance. 

For those who want to see the next generation of American talent on display, Saturday’s GA Cup final against Valencia is a good place to start. 

Fortuna Sittard - NAC Breda 

Sunday: 8:30am ET

Two Americans who are having strong seasons in the Eredivisie will meet on Easter Sunday when Andrija Novakovich and Fortuna Sittard host Erik Palmer-Brown and NAC Breda. 

Novakovich, 22, has been hot as of late with five goals in his last 10 Eredivisie games. He has nine goals on the Eredivisie season and one in the Dutch Cup. The Wisconsin native has been a big reason why the club has stayed above the relegation line for most of the season. There is still work to be done as Fortuna Sittard only sits five points from safety with four games remaining. 

For Palmer-Brown, 21, he has come to life in the second half of the season. He has reminded everyone why he was once one of the most talented American prospects. NAC Breda has been woeful and is in last place despite the strong play from Palmer-Brown. Still, NAC is just four points away from being in a playoff to survive relegation. 

The key of the story, however, is that both Novakovich and Palmer-Brown are at their respective clubs on loan. Novakovich with Reading and Palmer-Brown with Manchester City. Both players have probably done enough to at least earn more high-profile loans next season but a strong run to conclude the season will only help their cases. 

Ankaragucu - Konyaspor 

Sunday: 6:30am ET

Tyler Boyd is one of the most interesting dual national players with the potential to play for the U.S. national team but are involved with another national team program. While there are others who are also earning impressive headlines like Kik Pierie’s move to Ajax, or Jordan Siebatcheu at Rennes in France, Boyd is the one who would most likely be willing to switch to the Untied States. Whether or not he switches likely depends on if Gregg Berhalter or Earnie Stewart approaches Boyd. 

But Boyd recently joined Ankaragucu in Turkey’s top flight Super Lig and has taken the league by storm. In nine games, the speedy winger has four goals and four assists. Above it all, he has just been fun to watch with his game changing runs down the flanks, he can either cut in and score or set up teammates for chances. For that alone, American fans should want to check out his games – or at least the highlights. 

Boyd was born in New Zealand to a New Zealander father and an American mother. He was raised in Santa Barbara, Calif. until the age of 10 when he returned to New Zealand to play. He was then transferred from the Wellington Phoenix of the A-League to Vitoria Guimaraes at the age of 20.  He holds an American passport and interviews has said that he has held the door open to play for the United States. 

Schalke 04 - Hoffenheim

Saturday: 2:30pm ET

One thing about Weston McKennie is that he is a quick healer. The Texan suffered an badly sprained ankle in the United States national team’s win over Ecuador last month and it appeared as if he would miss most, if not all, of the remainder of the season for Schalke. 

But this past week, Schalke has been active in tweeting McKennie’s earlier than anticipated return so it seems like McKennie could be ready for this game. 

It would be welcome news for Berhalter to get one of his star players back from the injury shelf and McKennie seems like the perfect fit for Berhalter in that he plays a with such defensive tenacity that he can win a lot of balls in the middle of the field. 

Schalke has had a disappointing season and if McKennie returns, he will be under a new coach as Domenico Tedesco was fired in March and replaced by Huub Stevens -- who previously coached Schalke in 2011-12. Schalke is in 15th place but still six points clear of the relegation playoff position. A win over sixth-place Hoffenheim would essentially seal Schalke’s survival. 

But a return form injury and a fresh start under a new manager would be welcome news for Mckennie and American fans. 

Atlanta United - FC Dallas

Saturday: 4:00pm ET

The 2019 season hasn’t gone the way Atlanta United would have wished. But the good news is that the team put forth its best outing under Frank de Boer last weekend in a 2-0 road win over New England. It was almost by accident as the difference in that game was two superb goals from Ezequiel Barco, who only came into the game as a first-half sub due to injury. But if Barco can play up to expectations (which never happened under Tata Martino), Atlanta might be on to something. 

FC Dallas is riding its talented crop of youth players with either three or four teenagers starting along with Reggie Cannon, 20, at right back. Many of the players on Dallas could feature on U.S. youth national teams this year – including Paxton Pomykal, who could be the engine of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team and might eventually find his way onto the full national team sooner than later as well as a potential sale to Europe. Also forward Jesus Ferreira is dynamic and explosive at times. The Ferreira-Pomykal tandem has been one of the best young American tandems in the history of MLS. 

Atlanta United is not without its own young American players. While Andrew Carleton has struggled to see the field, Miles Robinson has emerged into a quality central defender. 

Despite Atlanta’s sluggish start and Dallas’ relatively strong fifth place start, this will be a big test for the youth of FC Dallas to head into a hostile and large crowd in Atlanta and continue to earn points. 

Reading  - West Bromwich Albion

Monday 10:00am ET

The relegation battle in the Championships is tight as four teams are between 40-45 points with only one likely dropping down. Right now, Reading is in pretty good shape at 45 points but West Brom is a true promotional contender in fourth place. If Reading falls at home to West Brom, it will almost certainly fall closer to the relegation zone. 

For U.S. national team defender Matt Miazga, West Brom boasts the second-best attack in the Championship at 84 goals (just one behind Leeds United which has 85 goals). To give Reading a chance to win, Miazga and his defensive teammates will all need to be in top form. 

Miazga has already had a strong loan with Reading and should be in-line for a step-up next season. But finishing the deal and ensuring Reading’s survival will be the icing on the cake. 

LA Galaxy - Houston 

Friday: 11:00pm ET

In a matchup between two significantly improved teams, both the Galaxy and Houston are strong out of the gate after failing to qualify for the playoffs last year. 

Right now, the Galaxy is in third place in the West with 15 points from six games. Meanwhile, Houston still has not lost and has 13 points from five games. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still one of the most entertaining players in the league but the Galaxy is vastly improved. It is easy to see the Galaxy potentially challenging for a title and Zlatan could lead the way. 

From an American perspective, Sebastian Lletget and Joe Corona have improved the team’s midfield and reserve right back Julian Araujo is a welcome addition of youth as Araujo could feature for the U.S. U-20 team this summer while also being eligible for the 2021 team as well. 

Houston, meanwhile, has a distinctly Latin flair with Alberto Elis and Mauro Manotas playing up to their expectations as team leaders. But American forward Memo Rodriguez also has four goals in four appearances. 

Two teams are playing well but something will have give when they meet up on Friday. 

Toronto FC – Minnesota United

Friday: 8:00pm ET

Toronto was dreadful in the Concacaf Champions League when it was blown out by tiny Independiente of Panama but the team that plays just two months later is vastly different. There have been numerous upgrades across the starting XI but the best has been at forward. 

The partnership between Jozy Altidore, who missed the early part of the season as he recovered from a foot injury, and new Designated Player Alejandro Pozuelo has been extremely impressive. Both players look as if they can be MVP candidates. 

The numbers are eye-opening. Altidore has five goals and two assists in just four games and 291 minutes of action. Pozuelo has two goals and four assists in just three game and 259 minutes. The two have helped Toronto to play its most attractive soccer since the height of the days of Sebastian Giovinco

Minnesota United’s players will have their work cut out for them. The club is coming off the unveiling of its beautiful Allianz Stadium but only mustered a 3-3 draw with New York City FC. While it has many home games remaining, a solid road win would do wonders but everything seems to favor Toronto in this one. 

For American fans, Altidore draws a mixed reaction but he is still the best American forward in the game and having him in fine form heading into the Gold Cup would boost the team’s chances tremendously. 

Newcastle United – Southampton

Saturday: 12:30 pm ET

With Tim Ream and Danny Williams getting relegated out of the Premier League next year, the number of Americans in England’s top flight has dwindled. Yes, Christian Pulisic will move to Chelsea and it is possible that a player like Matt Miazga might find a suitor in the league. 

But DeAndre Yedlin has continued to play consistently in the Premier League and this year he has amassed 29 appearances in the league – which is extremely respectable. But can he continue to grow in the league and become a top level right back? He can but competition is always tight in the Premier League and it would be enormously beneficial for Yedlin to end the season strong. 

There are only four games remaining and Newcastle can climb towards the top 10 if it finishes in impressive fashion. Fortunately, for Newcastle, three of its final four opponents are below it in the table (Southampton, Brighton & Hove, and Fulham) so the opportunity is there for the team to climb. For Yedlin, he should try to give Newcastle no reason to go out and buy a new right back this summer. 

Photo: LAFC

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