American Perspective: Focus on players chasing promotion or spots in Europe

Most of the European leagues are now winding down their seasons and most of the relegation battles are over for American players. Instead, most of the focus is now on those players who are chasing promotion or spots in Europe –- which is exciting. 

In MLS, meanwhile, the big questions are whether the Eastern Conference teams can stabilize and can anyone keep the top three teams in the Western Conference from running away. 

With that in mind, here are the 10 best games to follow this weekend from an American perspective. 

Werder Bremen - Borussia Dortmund

Saturday: 12:30pm ET

Last weekend, Borussia Dortmund blew an enormous opportunity with a loss at home to a poor Schalke team. With Bayern Munich’s disappointing draw with Nurnberg, Dortmund could have moved back atop the Bundesliga standings with a win. Still, it trails Bayern by just two points and the title race remains in play for Borussia Dortmund with three games remaining. 

But on Saturday morning, Bayern Munich will host last-place Hannover and will have a strong likelihood of acquiring three points. That means Dortmund will surely have to win on Saturday away at Werder Bremen.

Christian Pulisic looked lively off the bench last week in the loss but there was only so much the Hershey native could do as Dortmund was reduced to nine players when he was subbed into the game. Pulisic will likely play some sort of role against Werder Bremen and it is not out of the question he starts due to suspensions. 

For Werder, there is the possibility that either Josh Sargent or even Aron Johannsson makes the bench for the game although Sargent’s minutes have almost been eliminated over the past three months and Johannson has been MIA since appearing on the bench a few times last month. 

Derby County  - West Bromwich

Sunday: 7:30am

It all comes down to this for Derby County. For most of the season, the club has been on the bubble of the Championship’s promotional playoff positions. On Wednesday, it had a golden chance to essentially secure the final playoff position but it allowed Swansea City to equalize against the run of play in the second half of a 1-1 draw. 

Now it has arrived on the final game of the season and the formula is simple. A win over West Bromwich at home on Sunday will send it into the playoffs. Anything less probably won’t get it done. It is currently in sixth place for the final playoff position but is just one point better than Middlesbrough and two points better than Bristol City. Middlesbrough is heavily favored in its final game against the already relegated Rotherham United and Bristol City should be able to down Hull City. 

Derby County will almost certainly have to win this game. The problem is that West Brom is a very good team and has already secured a spot in the playoffs. It sits in fourth place and can finish no lower - but could rise into third if it defeats Derby County and Leeds United looses to last-place and relegated Ipswich Town. 

American attacking midfielder Duane Holmes has not played for Derby County in nearly a month but is back into full training and should be able to take part. It is hard to see Frank Lampard starting Holmes in a game of this magnitude after he has been out for so long, but Holmes might just be the critical spark off the bench that Derby need in this massive game.

New York Red Bulls - LA Galaxy

Saturday: 2:00pm ET

Two of the original teams of MLS will square off in New Jersey in what will be a revealing game for both teams. The Red Bulls were unimpressive last weekend but got the result against FC Cincinnati. The season is early, but the Red Bulls could find themselves in a hole if they continue to suffer bad losses. 

The game against the Galaxy will be the toughest challenge of the team’s season and the Galaxy under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto has the best points per game ratio with 22 points through nine games (for second place behind Los Angeles FC which has 23 points through 10 games). 

From any perspective, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is always worth watching. Love him or hate him, he is one of the most talented players of his generation and is in fine form at the moment. But he is also a character that is an acquired taste. Some love his bravado but others see him as over-the-top. Last weekend brought that to a head when he trash-talked Real Salt Lake’s Nedum Onuoha following a goal. Zlatan went to apologize afterward and Onuoha refused to accept it. But this has put the spotlight even more on the Swede heading into the New York media market. 

From an American perspective, this game will give fans a chance to watch some key players on the U.S. national team. Red Bull central defender Aaron Long will likely be part of the Gold Cup team and will have a big challenge trying to contain Zaltan. Meanwhile, Galaxy attacking midfielder Sebastian Lletget will continue to build his case for a big role at the Gold Cup this summer. Also in the Galaxy midfield, Joe Corona is hoping to get back into the mix after a year away from the team. 

From the youth national team perspective, Galaxy right back Julian Araujo, 17, has been impressive this season but should make his first appearance since spraining his ankle two weeks ago against Minnesota. The homegrown signing is expected to be part of the U.S. U-20 World Cup team later this month. 

Heidenheim - Sandhausen

Saturday: 7:00am

Andrew Wooten is approaching his 30th birthday and failed to make the most out of his one national team appearance in 2015, but he remains an intriguing story because right now he is the hottest American forward on the planet -- and it is not even close. It is not that he is scoring goals in droves in the 2.Bundesliga, it is also that his goals have been massively important as he is the player primarily responsible for carrying Sandhausen out of the relegation zone and into safety. 

He has scored eight goals in his last nine games (which includes four goals in his last three games). But Sandhausen hasn’t lost in seven games and with three games remaining in the season, Sandhausen is four points above the relegation playoff position. Fifth-place Heidenheim will be a difficult test for Wooten to continue his streak. 

Could Wooten return to the U.S. national team? It is an uphill climb due to his age and lack of experience, but he is certainly doing everything he can. With 15 goals on the season, he is tied for fourth in the 2.Bundesliga. It is an interesting story to watch Wooten raise his game at a time most American fans stopped following him (he missed all of the 2017-18 season with an injury). If he continues to score, he might just force his way back into the mix. 

Southend United - Sunderland

Saturday: 12:30pm

The only two Americans in England’s third tier League One will meet on Saturday in the final game of the regular season and the game will be very important to both teams, and both players – but for very different reasons. 

For hosting Southend United, the club has tumbled into a relegation battle over the past few months and only occupies 20th place (the final place above relegation) on goal differential over 21st-place Plymouth Argyle. A win would guarantee survival for Southend United but anything less would put it at the mercy of Plymouth Argyle (which would only need a point) or Walsall and Scunthorpe United which could overtake Southend with wins and a draw or loss from Southend. With that many teams within striking distance, Southend clearly needs to win. 

By comparison, Sunderland is dealing with first-world problems. The club has clinched a spot in the promotional playoffs and it is just about placement. Currently in fourth place, it could surge into third with a win and a Portsmouth draw or loss. That would give it the top seed in the playoffs. A draw or loss to Southend, however, could see it tumble to fifth place.. 

Southend United currently uses U.S. U-18 forward Charlie Kelman off the bench. Kelman, 18, is expected to be part of the U.S. U-20 team for the 2021 cycle and has one goal in 10 appearance this season (although that goal won the League One goal of the month in January). Kelman might see the field if Southend is in a position where it needs a goal late in the game. 

Meanwhile, Lynden Gooch remains a regular for Sunderland. He has faded out of the national team picture as the club suffered consecutive relegations the past two years but getting back into the Championship would likely get him back into the player pool. So for Gooch, 23, the playoffs will offer huge opportunities at both the club and international levels. 

Sporting Kansas City  - Atlanta United

Sunday: 9:00pm ET

Are the wheels starting to come off for Sporting Kansas City? Is Atlanta getting its act together under new manager Frank de Boer?

Those are the two big questions heading into Sunday’s game between two of the most passionately supported teams in the United States. 

For Sporting Kansas City, the team has just three draws and a loss in its last four games. Its defense has been a mess with 10 goals conceded from its last three games. How will head coach Peter Vermes respond? It will be a big test. For Kansas City, the team can play well when it is on its game but when there are injuries – like the ones to Roger Espinoza (knee), Matt Besler (hamstring), or Gerso Fernandes (a broken wrist which he suffered last weekend) right now – things can unravel quickly. Sporting will also be without teenage attacking midfielder Gianluca Busio, who was released to play for the U.S. U-17 team. This will be a huge challenge for Peter Vermes to adapt.

Regardless of how injured Sporting Kansas City is at the moment, the team is still better than the Colorado Rapids and Atlanta United struggled mightily to defeat Colorado last week at home. Colorado has one of the worst defenses in the history of the league and Atlanta only won 1-0. It hasn’t been pretty but Atlanta has now won two out of its last three. Can it head into Sporting Kansas City and achieve a result? If it can, Atlanta will finally have momentum for the first time under Frank de Boer

Gent – Club Brugge

Sunday: 12:00pm ET

All four games remaining in the Belgian season are important for Club Brugge and its American goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath

The club currently sits in second place and the club desperately wants to return to the UEFA Champions League again next season. To do that, it will either have to win the league to ensure automatic entry into the group stages of the prestigious tournament later this year. Or it will have to finish in second place and advance to the group stages in the qualifying rounds. 

Right now, Club Brugge trails leader Genk by six points and is ahead of third place Antwerp by three points. It’s opponent on Sunday, KAA Gent, has just one point from its last five games. First-place Genk has a tough game against a red-hot Antwerp on Friday. The odds are slim for Brugge to take over first place but this is the week where it needs to make movement. If Antwerp can take down Genk, and Brugge can beat Gent, it will set the stage for an enormous game next weekend between Brugge and Genk.

Minnesota United - Seattle Sounders

Saturday: 8:00pm

The Western Conference is very strong at the moment and the two Los Angeles teams are deservedly the best in the league. Seattle also wants to get into that mix but two consecutive disappointing draws have seen the team fall four points back of the second-place LA Galaxy. 

For the Sounders, it received a bit of good news midweek when the red card to U.S. national team midfielder Cristian Roldan was rescinded which will allow him to play in this game. Seattle will still be without the suspended Kevin Leerdam, who also picked up a red card in the 1-1 draw against LAFC. U.S. national team fans will want to keep their eyes on forward Jordan Morris as well as Roldan heading into the Gold Cup. 

Minnesota is still not among the better teams in the league but is dramatically improved from its first two seasons in MLS. Last weekend, it defeated D.C. United, 1-0, for its first-ever win the brand new Allianz field. With 14 points through nine games (with mostly away games to start the season), Minnesota is off to a strong start with the perspective of making the MLS playoffs for the first time.  

Right now, Allianz Field plays very well on television and American fans should want to check out one of the best stadiums for soccer in this country. On the field, Minnesota United central midfielder Ozzie Alonso will have the chance to take on his former team in Seattle where he is still a beloved figure among the team’s supporters. 

This game checks a lot of boxes: two playoff-caliber teams, a sold-out crowd in a beautiful new stadium, a nice weather forecast, multiple U.S. internationals taking part, and a popular player going against his former team for some personal drama. This should be a good one. 

D.C. United - Columbus Crew

Saturday: 8:00pm

The Eastern Conference is not a pretty place right now and it is far behind the Western Conference right now in terms of quality. But the Eastern Conference is intriguing from an American perspective because it does have some key U.S. internationals on its teams and there are some teams who could improve over the course of this season with the return of injured players, transfer acquisitions, or a variety of other reasons. 

D.C. United should be among the best teams in the league based on continuity from last season. Unlike the Red Bulls or Atlanta, D.C. is not in the first full year of a new coach and its core remains in tact from last year. But Luciano Acosta has been inconsistent and opposing teams have effectively cut off service to Wayne Rooney

The Columbus Crew started the season well but has fallen apart with four straight losses. Head coach Caleb Porter is at a crossroads right now in terms of getting the team back on track or having the season fall out of control. 

Lost in all of this is a huge slew of U.S. internationals in this game that American fans will want to note. Columbus has starting national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Wil Trapp and forward Gyasi Zardes, who is struggling this year. 

D.C. Untied, meanwhile, starts winger Paul Arriola and U.S. U-20 defensive midfielder Chris Durkin, who will likely be off to the U-20 World Cup soon where he is expected to play a major role for the team. 

Bournemouth – Tottenham

Saturday: 7:30am ET

Emerson Hyndman made his second ever appearance in the Premier League last Saturday in a 3-3 draw against Southampton. In that game, the Texan came off the bench in the 52nd minute and was decent the rest of the way.

Hyndman, 23, is difficult to read because he has not played much but has occasionally shown glimpses of why he was so highly rated as youth player (where he was the captain of a strong U.S. U-20 World Cup team in 2015) while on loan to Scottish clubs in recent years. A central midfielder, Hyndman could get back on the field Saturday when Bournemouth hosts an elite team in Tottenham. 

Hyndman will be entering into the last year of his contract next season and it is very possible that Bournemouth might be looking to sell Hyndman and cash in. If Hyndman plays well in these last few games of the season (where the team has no chance of either qualifying for Europe or being relegated), then he might have a longer list of suitors. 

The number of Americans in the Premier League has dwindled the past few years but Hyndman can still emerge as a very good player. But the days of him sitting on the bench need to end and the process of finding a club he can establish roots needs to happen with whatever appearances he’s given at a very high level with Bournemouth.

Photos: Icon Sportswire, Daniel Herlensky/Columbus Crew Communications

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