By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Apr 6, 2018) US Soccer Players - We’ve seen a little bit of many things to start the 2018 MLS season. While the schedule is decidedly uneven, putting some teams well ahead of others both in terms of games played and points earned, teams are filling roles across both conferences. “Surprise,” “meeting expectations,” “underachiever,” and “dramatically improved from last year” categories already possess a few teams each. We’re starting to get a better idea of who might be good, who could be bad, who is struggling, and perhaps who is even panicking.
A look at week 6 reveals a few matches that might provide a little more information as we attempt to figure out a madcap early MLS season.
Atlanta United vs LAFC
Atlanta returns home after a trip to Minnesota that produced three points for the Five Stripes. It wasn’t pretty, with the winning margin coming from a Francisco Calvo own goal and Atlanta playing down a man for more than a half. Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez’s red card means Tata Martino will be without one of his starting center backs against Bob Bradley’s LAFC. That’s bad news because LAFC boasts one of the best attacks in the League to this point. Marco Urena, Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, and Latif Blessing are a handful even for the best-prepared sides and Atlanta is dealing with more than just the absence of Gonzalez-Pirez.
Also missing will be right back Franco Escobar, sidelined with a concussion for the last three weeks, and potentially left back Greg Garza, who missed most of training this week with a shoulder problem. Atlanta’s depth will get a massive test.
Is a makeshift Atlanta backline just what LAFC needs to regain its confidence after last week’s stunning loss to the Galaxy? Bradley is adept at preparing his team from week-to-week. While losing a 3-0 lead at the Stub Hub Center was a blow to the morale of the expansion side, there’s no reason to expect the group won’t be ready to take the game to a wounded Atlanta team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A win in front of the big crowd in Atlanta would go a long way to helping LAFC reclaim momentum a few weeks out from the opening of Banc of California Stadium at the end of the month.
Chicago vs Columbus
The Fire looks nothing like the team that reached the playoffs in 2017 on the back of rebuilt midfield starring Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Nemanja Nikolic’s can still score goals and leads the team with three, but the problem is making the goals stand up. Chicago is averaging two goals a game through three matches but has shipped eight. Deficiencies in the back line loom.
Coach Veljko Paunovic threw Schweinsteiger into a sweeper role against Portland. The move paid off in some regards, but might not be a long-term solution to the issues at the back. Against the Crew’s style utilizing wide play to create chances, it will be interesting to see how Paunovic plays Schweinsteiger.
The Fire will have their hands full with the Crew, a club with a defined identity and weapons across the front of the formation. Columbus lost at home in painful fashion to Vancouver last week, victimized by the Whitecaps’ counter-attack and the formidable heading ability of Kei Kamara. The Fire won’t come at them the same way, making the tactical battle a different challenge for Gregg Berhalter.
Orlando vs Portland
Orlando scored its first win of the new season with a chaotic 4-3 victory over the Red Bulls at home last week. The Lions will attempt to build off of that triumph against a visiting Timbers side still looking for its first three-point day in 2018.
It’s been rough on the Timbers this season. New coach Giovanni Savarese has had to work establishing his approach with the time while on the road for the first five games of the season. Toss in a bit of drama thanks to Savarese’s decision to drop DP defender Liam Ridgewell and it hasn’t been a smooth start for the new boss.
The bright spot for the Timbers to this point is Argentinian attacker Sebastian Blanco. Blanco has three goals and an assist in four matches, both scoring and setting up a goal in Portland’s draw against Chicago last week. Diego Valeri’s goal against the Fire, his first of the season, means the reigning MVP enters the game in good form.
Orlando is still working towards a full complement of healthy players, five weeks into the season. Jason Kreis’s remade roster is still not fully fit, with Jonathan Spector and Oriol Rossell two presumed starters who will be missing this week. On the good side of things, Dom Dwyer’s connection with Sacha Kljestan is improving quickly.
LA Galaxy vs Sporting KC
What can Zlatan Ibrahimovic possibly do for an encore after his 19-minute star turn in the Galaxy’s madcap comeback win against LAFC last week? His stunning 40-yard volley to tie the first-ever edition of the new LA rivalry game made news around the world. It also announced to the rest of MLS that no matter his recent return from a knee injury, opponents will need to be wary of Zlatan being Zlatan.
As Ibrahimovic works towards full fitness, the Galaxy will likely roll out a starting lineup without him. Ola Kamara will have the job of leading the line against Sporting Kansas City, potentially boosted by the return of Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos to the field. Sebastian Lletget sparked the Galaxy last week and will again be central to pushing LA forward. The defensive was a mess against LAFC in the first-half last week. Sporting KC's options don’t compare to those of LAFC, but Felipe Gutierrez is dangerous.
Sporting’s already gone through an identity crisis in a season barely a month old. After starting the campaign by giving up nine goals through four games, Peter Vermes’s side held DC United scoreless last week. With the shutout came a dip in attacking form, though. Sporting is still sorting out the balance, something that will be difficult to do in LA with a limited book on how the opponents might play with the return of several injured players and the addition of Ibrahimovic.
More From Jason Davis:
- Does Minnesota United get enough respect in MLS?
- El Trafico and the MLS rivalry game
- How does a soccer club keep its identity?
- The Galaxy tries again, this time with Zlatan
(Photo by Robin Alam - ISIPhotos.com)