By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jul 13, 2018) US Soccer Players - Cresting the hill that is the halfway point of the MLS season doesn’t generally reveal much. There’s still so much left to play for, and the secondary transfer window has only just opened. Even as clubs scramble to reinforce their squads during the signing period, they also must navigate crucial games in the heat of the summer. By the time August rolls around, the league could look very different.
What is nominally a new beginning, if only because the human brain likes to split things like long soccer seasons into more manageable chunks, gets underway on Saturday with a slate of fascinating matchups. Four of them stand out.
New York Red Bulls vs Sporting Kansas City
The Red Bulls threw Chris Armas directly into the fire last week. Quickly promoted to take over for Jesse Marsch, Armas the club for the first time against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. New York fell 1-0 to their cross-river rivals. Given the timing, that's a result that can only somewhat end up on the new boss’s ledger.
Armas’s first chance for redemption and an inaugural win as Red Bulls head coach comes Saturday evening when Sporting Kansas City visits Red Bull Arena. If there was ever a good time to play Sporting, it might be now. Peter Vermes’s side has slipped a bit in recent weeks and arrives in New Jersey with a three-game winless run.
Sporting dropped two points at home last week when TFC rallied to score a 2-2 draw at Children’s Mercy Park. The uncharacteristic defensive lapse came in part because of a turnover by 19-year old Wan Kuzain, a Sporting homegrown product with immense potential who is still learning how to play at the top level.
Another 19-year old will be in the spotlight at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. Reports of a move to Europe for Tyler Adams bubbled up again this week. Armas stated after training on Thursday that he expects Adams to remain with New York until the end of the season.
Injuries are a concern for Sporting, who recently lost Khiry Shelton for two to three months after knee surgery. Felipe Gutierrez remains out, as does Jimmy Medranda. Per Vermes, Opara is healthy and could return to the lineup.
DC United v. Vancouver Whitecaps
A game pitting the last-place team in the Eastern Conference against the sixth-place team in the West wouldn’t normally rate as "major", but there’s something special about this one. Saturday night’s clash will the first-ever game played at United’s brand new home, Audi Field. A twenty-two year wait for a stadium to call their own will finally come to an end when the whistle blows to start the match between DC United and the Whitecaps. The result matters, but not nearly as much as on any other day.
Whether the stadium opening represents a new era of success for United is the question, but Ben Olsen and company will be eyeing a win. Wayne Rooney make his Black-and-Red debut should help. Rooney spent the week training with DC and presumably adjusting to the sticky Washington heat ahead of the first game after the transfer window officially opened.
Of course, the Whitecaps want to play spoilers. Carl Robinson’s team sits just above the red line in the Western Conference and could use the points towards playoff qualification. Vancouver grabbed three points at home last week against Chicago in a game that saw Kei Kamara score twice and teenage phenom Alphonso Davies impress again.
Atlanta United vs Seattle Sounders
The Sounders arrive in Atlanta carrying what, for them at least, is a bit of momentum. It will be a significant challenge to maintain that momentum in front of 45,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
Seattle’s most recent outing was a goalless draw in New England, where the Sounders managed just one shot on target. Scoring has been the biggest problem for Brian Schmetzer’s team in 2018. It's a major reason why the club signed Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz from Morelia of Mexico ahead of the summer transfer window.
Now that the window is open, Ruidiaz is eligible to play for the Sounders provided he receives his work visa in time. Fitness is an issue, something Schmetzer addressed in comments this week. Dropping Ruidiaz immediately into the starting lineup without so much as a training session seems an unlikely step, no matter how desperate the team is for goals.
Atlanta’s confidence is high after a 2-0 win in Philadelphia and its place atop the combined standings. United has adjusted to life without Darlington Nagbe and Greg Garza, flexing its depth to remain the best team in the league. That said, their lead over NYCFC is just three points.
United’s own summer signing, defensive midfielder Eric Remidi, has not yet arrived in Atlanta and won’t play a role in the game. There’s really not much more to say about Tata Martino’s team, other than that the expectation will be a win over the Sounders on Sunday.
LAFC v Portland
If Atlanta is the league’s best team, LAFC might be it’s second-best. On recent form, Bob Bradley’s team has a strong argument that they belong with United as the MLS elite. Last week’s 4-1 romp over Orlando City at Banc of California Stadium wasn’t the club’s most impressive win to date because of the level of the competition, but it doesn’t hurt the argument.
May signing Adama Diomande is on a torrid goal-scoring pace. The Norwegian striker, who played for Bradley at Stabaek in his native country, has nine goals in his first seven MLS games.
The Timbers might take issue if left out of a conversation about the league’s best team. Portland is on a run of 11 games unbeaten that stretches all the way back to April 14. The combination of Diego Valeri and Samuel Armenteros is paying large dividends on the attacking end of the field. The defense has established itself as a competent enough unit.
When the two teams face off in LA on Sunday, LAFC will have to contend with Valeri and Armenteros on one end, while the Timbers defense tries to slow down Diomande. Carlos Vela figures to be back in the starting lineup for the home side, after playing a substitute role on his return from the World Cup last week.
LAFC can conceivably pull into first place with a win and an FC Dallas loss or draw.
More From Jason Davis:
- The Red Bulls and NYCFC hope for continuity
- Miami changes the MLS expansion model
- The simple math for the Sounders and Toronto
- Will things change for Seattle or Orlando?
Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com