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MLS Grab Bag, Week 7: Hold your applause, construction delays, and Liverpool/Manchester City American style

Friday 13th April 2018

Welcome to the 2018 season’s seventh edition of MLS Grab Bag. Each Friday we’ll review midweek news, preview key weekend matches, and explore other interesting developments.

MLS slows Dempsey’s roll

Major League Soccer has told Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey he will have to get off their lawn for one more match.

On March 18th, the former Fulham and Spurs striker elbowed FC Dallas’ Jacori Hayes during the Sounders loss. After video review, Dempsey was shown red. He then sarcastically applauded the decision. The elbow drew an automatic one-game ban, which the 35-year-old served on March 31st when Seattle went down to defeat again to Montreal Impact.

The Sounders are enduring a woeful start to the campaign. Coming off two straight MLS Cup final appearances, the Cascadia side has lost its opening three matches in 2018. With the schedule affording them a bye last week, Brian Schmetzer and the squad had two weeks to prepare for Sunday’s match at Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City. Then the league dealt them a blow, handing down a decision yesterday that Dempsey would be suspended an additional game. On the one hand, the US international probably deserves a second game for disrespecting the official. On the other, the entire organisation shouldn’t be penalised by losing so much preparation time to the slow wheels of MLS justice. The decision should have been made in March.

Champions League final set

Tuesday evening offered a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal doubleheader. In the early match, New York Red Bulls couldn’t find a goal at home against Chivas de Guadalajara and were eliminated 1-0 on aggregate. In the late tilt, Toronto FC scored early at the Azteca then held Club America off the board until an added time penalty slightly less dramatic than the one that would come the next night in Madrid. TFC drew 1-1 on the night and progressed in style, 4-2 on aggregate.

Dates and times for the two-legged final have been announced. When it comes to scheduling, CONCACAF doesn’t mess around. The first leg takes place at the Reds BMO Field on Tuesday. The second leg kicks off eight days later at Estadio Chivas in Guadalajara.

NYCFC 4-0 Real Salt Lake

Major League Soccer’s first midweek match took place on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. New York City FC tightened their early-season grip on the Supporters Shield with a comprehensive win over struggling RSL. City let loose 26 shots. Nick Rimando could only stop four of the eight on target. The Sky Blues bossed possession by a nearly 2:1 margin and won a dozen corners to the visitor’s four.

Three goals came in the first half. Ismail Tajouri-Shradi has thrived while David Villa recovers from injury. The Spaniard was watching from the bench when his understudy hit on 12 minutes. The 24-year-old arrived late to find a loose ball in his path just outside the box. He blasted home.

The diminutive Maxi Morales next converted a penalty he had won in dubious fashion. When you’re the one player in the league smaller than Sebastian Giovinco you tend to get calls.

Finally, new hipster signing Jo Inge Berget was sent in clear on Rimando and buried the chance. The Norwegian came over from Malmo but began the campaign on the trainer’s table. He was happy to see action.

Moralez penetrated to the endline then cut back for Ebenezer Ofori to close the scoring on 70 minutes.

Mike Petke’s side continued to struggle but there were signs they may be turning a corner. Real attempted 11 shots and tested Sean Johnson five times. The finished product just wasn’t there.

On Tap

It’s a double dose of Friday night football in MLS.

Philadelphia Union v Orlando City -- The week begins with a clash of styles.

Orlando acquired Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, and Will Johnson in the close season. The midfield was rebuilt that quickly in the wake of Kaka’s retirement. The Lions had also traded for striker Dom Dwyer mid-season. The new group has gelled in short order. Orlando has a dangerous attack and is pushing its way deeper into the playoff spaces.

The Union hasn’t made the same splash in the market. Jim Curtin’s side prefer to grind out results. Their resolve has kept them on the playoff fringe, but with so much talent in the Eastern Conference they likely can do no more.

Vancouver Whitecaps v LAFC -- Both teams are coming off losses. The Whitecaps couldn’t pull a result from their trip to Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah, falling to Real Salt Lake 2-1. Meanwhile, the Wings spring MLS tour makes a stop in Canada. Bob Bradley’s side are on the road while the finishing touches are put on their new stadium in Los Angeles. Last week, the side was burned by the combined might of Atlanta United’s attack and match official Ted Unkel. LA will be looking to regain their early momentum. Vancouver, another side built to grind out results, are strong at home. Their mission will be to keep Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City in sight.

Weekend Fare

There are nine matches over the weekend, seven on Saturday.

New York Red Bulls v Montreal Impact -- A battle between the two clubs straddling the Eastern Conference playoff bubble. The Red Bulls CONCACAF Champions League run has ended. Striker Bradley Wright-Phillips’ torrid form has seemingly cooled. The Impact are coming off an embarrassing 4-0 pasting in New England. Sapher Taider saw red before the quarter-hour mark in that one. The rest of Remi Garde’s squad will be seeing red in a different context at Red Bull Arena. They'll be looking to get back on the winning side. Are we going to see the two sides flip positions?

Colorado Rapids v Toronto FC -- TFC finally banked their first win of the season last week. The MLS champions then went out and booked a place in the CONCACAF Champions League final, which kicks off Tuesday. Being early doors domestically, Greg Vanney will be tempted to rotate his squad, especially Jozy Altidore. The striker limped off in the eighth minute of the semifinal at the Azteca but is apparently fit. It’s a difficult choice for Vanney, given his club are already 13 points adrift NYCFC. Colorado is chasing a playoff place in the West and were eliminated from the CCL by the Reds. There may be a score to settle for Anthony Hudson’s side.

Chicago Fire v LA Galaxy -- Bastian Schweinsteiger played very tiny parts of one-and-a-half seasons with Manchester United. Mostly he trained with the reserves after looking at Jose Mourinho funny. Zlatan Ibrahimovic played the first half of one-and-a-half seasons with United before a cruciate ligament injury ruled him out. Somewhere in there, the two may have made each other’s acquaintance. If so, this match will be a reunion of sorts. With new dad Schweini playing well, the Fire are building momentum. After two losses to begin the campaign, they’ve registered a draw and a win. The Galaxy secretly spawned the virus that swept through European football this week, coming from 3-0 down to defeat LAFC in Ibra’s club debut. He levelled terms from 35 yards then headed home the winner. SKC put a damper on zLAtan-mania in his second appearance but this encounter ought to be high on the fun quotient.

DC United v Columbus Crew -- DC United are another MLS franchise waiting on their new ground to open mid-season. They’ve already played one match in a tiny 5,000 seat stadium and failed to sell out. This time, they are offering fans something more enticing. Because DC is the nation’s capital, and the United States is a nation that likes to blow things up and out of proportion, the club is heavily promoting its home game at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Home to the Navy Midshipmen’s NCAA gridiron team, the ground seats 34,000, nearly double the capacity of United’s new Audi Field. Unfortunately, winless DC is anchoring the Eastern Conference table while Columbus is heavily in the mix for the playoff places. Will fans make the trip to see their side take another hiding?

New England Revolution v FC Dallas -- Apparently, former Premier League goalkeeper Brad Friedel can coach. His Revs are in third place in the East, fresh off a dominant four-goal performance against the Impact. Oscar Pareja’s Toros are doing a solid Atletico Madrid imitation. Not only do their kits resemble the Rojiblancos, so does their league start. FCD is unbeaten in four but has drawn three. That is not what people mean when they call Dallas Big D.  The Hoops are midtable despite the zero in their loss column. To rebound from a disappointing 2017, Pareja would like to get a few more Ws before that first L appears. Can he stop Friedel’s momentum or is another D in the cards?

Portland Timbers v Minnesota United -- After starting brilliantly with two wins, Minnesota has lost its last three. Adrian Heath is looking more like United’s version of Mike Phelan rather than Sir Alex Ferguson. The Loons are tumbling down the Western Conference standings. Portland are already at the bottom; well second from, having been on the road while their Providence Park underwent an upgrade. Gio Savarese is looking for his first win in charge. Controversial officiating cost him last week. This tilt, a home-opener against a slumping side, represents an opportunity to pick up three points. In full Portlandia fashion, the club is pouring the hype on the occasion with an animated video scrapbook.

San Jose Earthquakes v Houston Dynamo -- San Jose tend to hang around the Western Conference playoff spots. This season, their age is showing. The Quakes have slipped to tenth on the Western Conference scale. Hardly seismic. Houston began the campaign well, shellacking Atlanta United in their home opener. Wilmer Cabrera’s side has only picked up a point in their three subsequent games. Hardly dynamic. This one is not worth staying up to the wee hours to watch.

Sporting Kansas City v Seattle Sounders -- The first of the Sunday matches, it’s top v bottom in the West. No Clint Dempsey, last-minute adjustments, SKC on song, expect the Sounders woes to continue.

Atlanta United v New York City FC -- If you slept through San Jose and Houston, congratulations. This is the match not to miss. It’s MLS’ version of Liverpool v Manchester City. Atlanta’s 70,000+ Mercedes Benz Stadium ought to be rocking for the meeting with Patrick Vieira’s Man City satellite. Like the Reds, Atlanta has the firepower to halt City’s unbeaten run. Venezuelan striker extraordinaire Josef Martinez is match fit despite an arm injury. City may have David Villa back in the fold. He was on the bench for their midweek romp. The game kicks off at 2300 GMT. Be late for work on Monday. It will be worth it.

Race for the MLS Cup

Here are the top five favourites to be crowned 2018 Major League Soccer Champions following five weeks’ play:

5. Columbus Crew -- Why wasn’t dropping their home match against Vancouver Whitecaps not enough for the West’s second-place side to bump the Crew off the list? Bias, pure and simple. Despite the result, I have more faith in the Eastern Conference over the long haul, and Carl Robinson is just too cautious for my taste.

4. New England Revolution -- No Lee Nguyen? No problem. The Revs marched into third in the East by humiliating Montreal. Yes, the Impact were a man down for 85% of the match but they didn’t futz around, excuse my language. Brad Friedel’s bunch were ruthless and clinical, ie winners.

3. Sporting Kansas City -- In a more low-key fashion than Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls, Peter Vermes and SKC have moved on from top players. Kei Kamara has worn out his welcome with five clubs, including Norwich and Middlesbrough, since being shown the door in 2013. More recently, Dom Dwyer was traded and Benny Feilhaber allowed to move to LA. But the Wizards top the West and are in devastating form. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s road to a trophy in a sixth country may go through Children’s Mercy Park.

2. Atlanta United -- I told you...

1. New York City FC -- … this is the game to watch!

See you on Monday with the MLS Weekend Review.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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