By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 21, 2019) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer is back! Are you ready to catch the fever? Ready or not, with three major international tournaments currently taking attention away from club competition, MLS will get back to its schedule with a set of seven games this weekend. Think of the limited slate as a way to ease back into the season after the Gold Cup break. Going a full 12-game round might have been too much for anyone to handle.
Because every one of the teams playing this weekend will be missing key players still away on international duty, coaches will have the difficult task of cobbling together something close to a fully competitive squad. The points still count, after all.
A pair of Open Cup rounds gave a few sides something to do during the break, though most of them chose to use the tournament to give minutes to young players and reserves. On the one hand, that means everyone should be fresh. On the other, there's bound to some rust involved. Here's a look at every match on the schedule with a refresher as to where things stand.
FC Cincinnati vs LA Galaxy
FCC welcomes the Galaxy to town amidst a difficult inaugural MLS season. A one-game bounce following the installation of Yoann Damet gave way to a four-game losing streak ahead of the Gold Cup break. Throw on top the indignity of crashing out of the Open Cup at the hands of former USL rival St Louis, and times are rough in the Queen City.
The Galaxy is missing a host of names due to international duty and injury, including the club's most important midfield player, Jonathan Dos Santos. LA will have Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the attack, but the makeshift lineup could be ripe for the picking in front of what will be a Nippert Stadium sellout. The Galaxy have a tenuous hold on second in the West despite looking fragile defensively.
Chicago Fire vs Real Salt Lake
One of two 8th-place teams in the East hosts the 7th-place team in the West on Saturday in Bridgeview. The Fire season has taken on a lame-duck feel with the news that the club intends to bolt for Soldier Field next year, despite some decent signings during the primary transfer window. Ahead of the Gold Cup break, head coach Veljko Paunovic and captain Dax McCarty both made strong statements about the effort levels in Chicago. That's a bad sign of things to come.
RSL will hope the pause in the season washed out of their system the poor play that led to a three-game losing streak across all competitions leading into this weekend. Mike Petke's team is deeper than most, but the inconsistency of the first half of the campaign speaks to some holes in the roster. Saturday in Chicago coming off a break is a good chance for RSL to prove they're more than just an also-ran.
FC Dallas vs Toronto FC
The balance of Saturday clash in Frisco between FC Dallas and Toronto FC looks tilted in the Texan club's favor. Though FC Dallas is missing a handful of internationals, it's the Reds that are more short-handed. Starters Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio are all away for the Gold Cup, forcing head coach Greg Vanney to play with second choice players in key positions.
FCD might have the advantage in the middle of the field thanks to the return of phenom Paxton Pomykal. Before leaving for US U-20 duty at the World Cup in Poland, Pomykal was launching a breakout season at the center of Lucho Gonzalez's formation. Pomykal is chomping at the bit to get back to MLS play, a good sign for a team trying to consolidate its playoff position in the Western Conference.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Colorado Rapids
One of two intra-conference battles on the schedule will go down at BC Place on Saturday when the Whitecaps play host the Rapids. Colorado was one of the few teams that probably didn't want the Gold Cup break to come. After firing head coach Anthony Hudson and installing Conor Casey as interim boss, the Rapids strung together a run of five games unbeaten, four of them wins.
Vancouver could have a psychological edge on Colorado. They did beat the Rapids 3-2 back in May. This isn't the same Rapids team that lost that game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and the Whitecaps will be dealing with a number of difficult absences. Defenders Doneil Henry and Derek Cornelius are away with Canada at the Gold Cup, as is starting goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. A belief that Vancouver has improved under Marc Dos Santos hasn't been backed up by enough points to pull the club into the playoff spots in the West.
Portland Timbers v. Houston Dynamo
Portland's second crack at a first home win of the season comes this weekend when the Dynamo visits the expanded Providence Park. Working in the Timbers favor is Houston's lack of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto, both of whom are with Honduras at the Gold Cup. The Timbers have plenty of quality international players, but few are regular call-ups for their national teams.
While Houston will be without its most dangerous attacker, Portland will send out their Argentine trio of Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, and Brian Fernandez. Fernandez, in particular, is in excellent form, having scored in each of his first three league games since joining Portland from Necaxa last month. With another goal, the striker will tie an MLS record for consecutive games with a goal to start a career.
Portland and Houston are the two teams who have played the fewest games in MLS to this point in the season, 13. It's a credit to the Dynamo and reflective of its good start that the club sits solidly among the playoff teams in the West. The last-place Timbers can take solace in that fact as they work to build playoff credentials of their own in 21 games back-loaded with home dates.
Columbus Crew vs Sporting Kansas City
The Crew took four points from a possible 30 between the middle of April and the last game before the Gold Cup break on June 1. Sporting took eight points over the same period. This is a game between teams accustomed to making the playoffs and competing for championships currently sitting in 10th-place in their respective conferences. A whiff of desperation will be in the air at MAPFRE Stadium come Saturday.
Columbus doesn't have Gyasi Zardes or Will Trapp because of the Gold Cup and has already said goodbye to Zack Steffen. Sporting doesn't have any international absences and will have an advantage over the Crew. Columbus lost to Atlanta United on Wednesday night in the US Open Cup. Columbus will also be without Federico Higuain with the Argentine playmaker out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
Most important for Peter Vermes's team against the depleted Crew is taking control of the game. Sporting is best when it can dictate terms, a function of Vermes's preferred possession-based high-pressure style. So far in 2019, injuries have prevented SKC from living up to that identity. Several key injury absences including Roger Espinoza and possible Matt Besler still loom large.
More From Jason Davis:
- The USMNT, Mexico, and Concacaf's new schedule
- Preview: Everybody else at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup
- What the break means in the Eastern Conference
- What is Philadelphia in MLS?
Photo by Brad Self - ISIPhotos.com