By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 26, 2019) US Soccer Players - On Saturday, MLS took a half-step towards a full launch into the post-Gold Cup break period with a six-game schedule. On Wednesday, the league will do it again with six games across the country. The consideration given to the Concacaf championship happening at the same time in the United States was always limited. Once again, a slate of MLS games will conflict with Gold Cup group stage matches.
Five of the six games will overlap with the USMNT vs Panama in Kansas City. The choice to play domestic league matches while the national team is in the spotlight will never stop being strange.
Still without a select group internationals, MLS teams hit the field on Wednesday night either looking to start the second-half of the season on the right foot, continue the positive step taken on the weekend, or makes the best of a second chance. To call it a mixed bag doesn’t do it justice. Drilling down on what to make of this part of the schedule, with the added wrinkle that teams are already making moves ahead of the secondary transfer window opening on July 10, is difficult.
If there’s a simple theme to the six games on the schedule, it’s that of a team currently in a playoff position facing off against one below the red line or on the verge of dropping below it. That doesn’t mean that the team higher in the standings is always the favorite. Key absences have weakened many, and form is a factor in trying to handicap the result.
Lest we forget, home-away splits in MLS are dramatic. Home teams are almost always expected to get at least a point out of a match, even if the visitors are among the best teams in the league.
The home team facing the longest odds on Wednesday is Toronto FC. The Reds host Atlanta United at BMO Field in a game that a few months ago would have felt decidedly different. While Atlanta United sputtered getting out of the gate under new head coach Frank de Boer, Toronto FC looked something like their 2017 selves.
Atlanta was winless in its first four matches, scoring just two goals and dropping points at home to both FC Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Toronto was unbeaten in its first four games of the year, collecting wins over the Union, the Revolution, and NYCFC to open the campaign.
TFC has just two wins since, with the last one coming back on May 4. On Saturday in Frisco, a weakened Toronto team suffered a heavy 3-0 loss to FC Dallas. The loss put the club’s playoff position in jeopardy, now tied on points with 8th-place Chicago.
Though he’s just one of many players who have dropped off and injuries and international duty is likely a bigger factor in the winless run, Alejandro Pozuelo’s fortunes mirror that of TFC. When Pozuelo arrived in Toronto, he took the league by storm with four goals and four assists in his first four games. Nine games later, Pozuelo has added a single goal and a single assist to his total.
Atlanta won’t have Josef Martinez or Ezequiel Barco at BMO Field. De Boer has already announced that Open Cup hero Brandon Vazquez will start in Martinez’s stead. The former is with Venezuela at Copa America, the latter picked up a knee injury and will miss two weeks. Toronto is missing Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, Chris Mavinga, and Auro with the last two due to injury.
Atlanta has designs on the top spot in the East, currently held by the Union. Philadelphia returns to league action post-Gold Cup break with a trip to New England to play Bruce Arena’s Revolution.
New England is the team looking up at the playoff places, but the new attitude Arena brought to the job turned a disastrous season into one with renewed hope. The Revolution’s four-game unbeaten run doubled the club’s point total from the first 12 games of the season and has it just three points back of seventh-place Toronto.
The proof that Arena’s impact is more than just temporary would get a lot stronger with a win over Philadelphia. The last time the two teams met, the Union throttled the Revolution 6-1 in Brad Friedel’s penultimate match as manager.
Philadelphia is missing goalkeeper Andre Blake due to Gold Cup duty, but the clash will otherwise feature the best teams available from full rosters. Arena will be making his home debut on the sideline as Revolution manager. If the Union is the best team in the East, this is a game it should win. New England is not the only one who can use the game as a measuring stick.
One of the clubs chasing Philadelphia is the Montreal Impact. It’s hard to make heads or tails of Remi Garde’s team thanks to inconsistent form just good enough to put them in contention for a top seed in the muddled Eastern Conference. The long term absence of Ignacio Piatti robbed the Canadian club of its best player, forcing Garde to put the attacking onus on the like of Saphir Taider.
Montreal’s first game coming out of the break is a home match against the Timbers. The Impact will have the advantage of rest as the Timbers played on Saturday, but the form and confidence advantage will lie with the Western Conference team. That Saturday match was a 4-0 romp over Houston that included a fifth goal in four league games for new signing Brian Fernandez.
Slowing down Fernandez is key to Montreal’s hopes against Portland. It’s reasonable to expect that Timbers manager Giovanni Savarese might rotate his squad with a cross-country trip home leading into a Sunday date with FC Dallas.
The playoff-positioned team versus an outside dynamic will also play out in matches in DC, San Jose, and Frisco.
The end of DC United’s Open Cup campaign last week only added to the malaise that took hold in Washington ahead of the Gold Cup break. Visiting Orlando City isn’t in much better shape, at least in the league. However, two wins in three ahead of the break should have James O’Connor and his team thinking they can steal a win at Audi Field.
The Quakes hit the MLS pause on a four-game unbeaten run and were showing signs of a breakout. Sitting a point back of 7th-place RSL in the race for the playoffs, Matias Almeyda’s team is aiming to leapfrog RSL with a home win against the Dynamo. Houston is hurting after Saturday’s loss to Portland and the absences of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. The trip to Avaya Stadium is the second match in a brutal stretch of five games in 16 days for Houston. Only two are at home.
4th-place FC Dallas gets a chance to jump over Seattle and close the gap on the two LA clubs with a match against Vancouver in Frisco. Fresh off a convincing 3-0 win over Toronto, FC Dallas is riding the excellent play of a host of youngsters who emerged from the club’s academy.
Vancouver’s goals are fairly modest in 2019, but 10th-place is not what the club was hoping for under Marc Dos Santos. The Whitecaps are unbeaten in four games, the most recent result a 2-2 draw on Saturday against the red hot Rapids in Colorado. Carrying the confidence earned from that game is essential to getting anything out of a match in Texas.
More From Jason Davis:
- MLS resumes after the Gold Cup break
- 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
Photo by Howard C Smith - ISIPhotos.com