Wil Trapp - Columbus Crew SC - Celebrate

Matty D. had something pop up, so I’m filling in this week. He sent me a bunch of notes I’ll include throughout. Let’s do it...

Saturday's slate

Montreal Impact vs. New York Red Bulls
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Montreal are holding on for dear life to the last playoff spot in the East. They are six points up on both Toronto FC, who have a game in hand, and D.C. United, who have three games in hand. The Impact only have one win in their last six, though, and haven’t exactly put up fortifications on the spot. Montreal are 5-5-2 against the West and 5-9-1 versus the East; they have all Eastern Conference opponents from here on out.

The Red Bulls enter the game trending the other way. They’ve only lost once in their last 10 and passed Atlanta at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings with their victory over Houston on Wednesday. New York rested multiple starters – Bradley Wright-Phillips, Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence, Daniel Royer and Kaku (and still won!) – on Wednesday, so they should be fresh for Saturday night.

Montreal will win if...

Saphir Taider can keep Montreal calm in the midfield. The Impact win the ball in their own defensive third more than anyone else in the league; the Red Bulls love to counterpress in their opponents' half. Montreal will need to safely transfer the ball forward through or over the Red Bulls’ pressure. If Montreal can successfully do that, Nacho Piatti will have a lot of space to attack in the channels.

Red Bulls will win if…

They bring their A game. The Red Bulls are the superior team. If the Red Bulls don’t show up sleepy, they should win.

New England Revolution vs. Portland Timbers
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

New England are in a tailspin. They haven’t won since the start of July. With that said, they are still just four points behind Montreal (seriously) and the Revs have two games in hand. You’d feel really good about the Revs’ playoff hopes if not for this next part...

They have games at NYCFC, at LAFC, at Toronto and at Atlanta in their five games after this Timbers matchup. It feels like New England really, really, really need this home game to keep pace.

Portland almost found themselves in a similar tailspin, losing their last four, but found a win over a heavily-rotated TFC side on Wednesday. The Timbers returned to their conservative ways, conceding 55 percent possession at home to a Toronto 4-4-2 orchestrated by Liam Fraser. David Guzman played in the middle of Portland’s three defensive midfielders, with Diego Chara to the left and given a more attacking role.

It worked on Wednesday as Chara scored the game-winning goal, but Doyle texted me during the game with a worthwhile question:

“I get why Portland is doing it – Chara is good going forward and Guzman/Paredes provide suitable deepest-midfielder options, but does it get the most out of Chara? And isn’t what’s best for Chara best for Portland?”

New England will win if…

They succeed at the one thing they are good at: turning Portland over in opportune spots. The jury’s back on whether New England can do anything else well (verdict: not really), so they better hope Plan A works on the day.

Portland will win if...

Don’t try to overplay in the midfield. The Timbers have tried to add attacking nuance recently to augment their defensive foundation. They’d like to be able to keep the ball more. But Gillette Stadium is the wrong place this season to work through those growing pains. If Portland care solely about beating the Revs on Saturday, they should bypass the Revs press and set up Diego Valeri, Samuel Armenteros and Sebastian Blanco to run at New England’s defenders.

Orlando City SC vs. Philadelphia Union
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Orlando played well for most of last weekend’s Heineken Rivalry Week game against Atlanta. Carlos Ascues made his Lions debut and looked solid at center mid. As Yoshi Yotun returns from suspension, I’ll be interested to see if Ascues moves to center back to partner Jonathan Spector. Will it be Spector and Ascues with Yotun and Uri Rosell at midfield, or Spector and Shane O’Neill behind Yotun and Ascues?

As Doyle said of the dilemma: “We could have legit arguments over how to best deploy the talent comprising that spine. And yes, ‘talent’ is the right word. Those aren’t air quotes. There are good players in there. So there’s reason for cautious optimism in Orlando.”

Philadelphia have won four straight and six of their last eight. It’s too early to say they’re definitely in the playoffs, but I suspect their discussions in the locker room now center around catching Columbus rather than avoiding the playoff line. Cory Burke has provided the perfect relentless, physical yang to Philadelphia’s possession-based ying; the Union have won seven of the eight games he’s started this year, and the Jamaican has scored in four of his last six starts.

Orlando will win if…

Dom Dwyer distresses Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott. The Orlando forward gave the Union center backs a nightmare last time these teams played.

For all of their success lately, we should still remember Philly’s foundation depends on a 20-year-old and a 23-year-old at center back. Who’s more stressful for a young defender to deal with – considering all factors, not just talent – than Dwyer?

Philadelphia will win if...

Trusty and Elliott handle Dwyer, because I’m fairly confident Philadelphia’s midfield, if they aren’t toast from the midweek game, will control the general proceedings of the game.

Columbus Crew SC vs. New York City FC
8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Both teams enter this game limping a bit. Columbus have Philly breathing down their necks, just one point back, and NYCFC, who have only won once in the last five, have been drifting from the Supporters’ Shield race. Neither team is in danger of missing the playoffs but:

  1. Red Bulls and Atlanta are pulling away from NYCFC, and the third seed in the East could end up playing a surging, fully-fit Toronto team in the first round of the playoffs.
  2. Columbus are 8-2-3 at home compared to 3-6-4 on the road; Philly are 7-4-2 at home and 5-7-1 on the road...so being at home for that playoff matchup matters.

Columbus will win if…

Justin Meram creates goalscoring chances. We’ve seen Crew SC without Meram, and they are a solid fourth-place team. Meram offers the exact wide threat Crew SC were missing. But here’s something that Doyle sent me via Slack for you to ponder: “Is it an issue when Columbus start Meram and Pedro Santos, two wingers who cut inside and often make the field more narrow?”

NYCFC will win if…

This is probably the most difficult one to come up with this weekend. I’ve been racking my brain as if NYCFC are some mediocre team and they need to do something special to win. But I also think that’s because that’s the approach head coach Dome Torrent has taken recently. They’ve tried something new in just about every game, including a funky 3-4-3/3-5-2 against the Red Bulls last weekend.

Doyle: "They play to their talent. For whatever this malaise is – or tactical readjustment, or whatever – they're still one of the most talented teams in MLS."

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo
8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Dallas remain top of the West, but barely. They’re now under .500 since Mauro Diaz left (5-6-2) across all competitions. But it’s not the offense: It’s the defense that’s been a mess. They’ve conceded 24 goals in those 13 games, compared to just 12 in their previous 15. How does that happen?

I’m not really sure. Losing Diaz should have theoretically helped the defense, as almost anyone else would have offered more defensively. But maybe the Unicorn’s composure on the ball relieved pressure and gave the defense the necessary breathers?

Houston rested most of their team in the midweek game at Red Bulls. They have had a tough couple months, losing eight of their last nine games, but taking El Capitan would be a nice victory for the year. Since the teams tied 1-1 in the two meetings this season, the winner Saturday evening gets the cannon.

Dallas will win if…

Doyle: “It's time for Oscar Pareja to break his Maynor Figueroa habit. Their current issues don't all come down to one player, but soccer is a weak-link game. Strengthen that link, and there will be a butterfly effect across the rest of the XI.”

Houston will win if…

Doyle: “Is there any doubt that if Houston had just stuck with last year’s plan of “absorb and counter” they’d be in the playoffs? They crushed Atlanta & NYCFC doing that, but rather than embrace who they are they tried to be a possession team, which turned out to be a catastrophic failure.”

Houston will win if they don’t try to be the team that takes the initiative. One team is going to feast on the other’s mistakes; Houston needs to make sure they are on the right side of that.

Toronto FC vs. LAFC
8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The Bradley Bowl! If you haven’t been waiting for this, I don’t want to be friends with you.

Toronto lost 2-0 at Portland midweek but rested Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, Gregory van der Wiel, Jonathan Osorio, Alex Bono and Drew Moor. Michael Bradley played center back against the Timbers but should return to the midfield against LAFC. Toronto made a bold decision to basically skip a game to increase their chances in this one.

I’m stoked to see how LAFC head coach Bob Bradley sets up the defensive scheme against his son. Supposedly nobody knows Michael better than his father, so will elder Bradley do something special against Michael?  Will he have his midfielders press the TFC captain? WILL BOB PUBLICLY SHOW THAT HE THINKS MICHAEL’S SUSCEPTIBLE TO BAD TURNOVERS?! Will Bob man-mark Michael, similar to what Red Bulls did in the playoffs last year?

Beyond the allure of Bradley vs. Bradley, LAFC other have things they need to sort out, as well. Starting center back and captain Laurent Ciman transferred to French side Dijon this week. Ciman was key to everything Bradley was building. The Belgian was vulnerable to a gaffe every now and then, but his aggressiveness allowed LAFC to play the proactive, possession, counter-pressing style we’ve come to know.

Danilo Silva (who's out for this game) is a good player, but can he play the same style as Ciman? Will Bradley be forced to adjust the things he seemed to be working so hard to build?

Toronto will win if...

Doyle: The Jozy/Giovinco pairing clicks. At this point it seems clear they're mostly going to have to outscore teams, and if those two guys are out there together... yeah they can do that.

LAFC will win if…

Carlos Vela can get the ball to either side of Bradley. The likely TFC back four on Saturday won’t have had many minutes together this year. Moor only has one start since April. Nobody is better at picking apart gaps between defenders than Vela. Look for Diego Rossi and whoever starts at striker for LAFC to run diagonals across TFC’s back four to latch onto through balls.

Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy
10 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Coming down the playoff stretch, teams look at the rest of the schedule and group games into three categories:

  1. Games we need to win to achieve what we want (against the bad teams).
  2. Games we probably won’t win so let’s assume we lose those (against the good teams).
  3. Games we HAVE to win, because the opponent is near us in the table (six pointers!)

The RSL-Galaxy matchup falls into the third category. For my money, it’s one or the other for the last playoff spot in the West. RSL lead LA by three points heading into Saturday night, and that could be doubled or negated by the end of the evening.

RSL will probably need the win slightly more. They finish the season with Atlanta, SKC, Portland x2 as four of their last five. The Galaxy conclude with Vancouver, Minnesota, and Houston as three of their final four. Mike Petke’s group will want a cushion going into the final month.

RSL enter the game having won two on the bounce, while the Galaxy haven’t won in their last five.

RSL will win if…

Justen Glad learned the harsh lesson Zlatan taught him the last time the teams played.

It’s become pretty clear that if you slow down The Lion, you slow down the Galaxy. Glad has plenty of natural tools to be a great player, but he hasn’t filled out his body yet. Zlatan loves the headers on the back post. Is there anything Glad can do to stop them?

The Galaxy will win if…

The easy answer is, “don’t make bad defensive mistakes,” but I think it’s more than that against RSL at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Claret and Cobalt are 9-1-3 at home this year, so they have some things going for them.

Perry Kitchen needs to position himself well when the Galaxy have the ball so RSL can’t get on the run on counters. I’m not sure there’s anything the Galaxy will be able to do if Jefferson Savarino and Joao Plata get going.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes
10 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Quiz: Of the top eight teams in the West, who has accumulated the most points in the last five games?

Yes, it’s Seattle. Then SKC. But after that? Not LAFC or Dallas or RSL. It’s Vancouver, who enter Saturday’s nightcap on a five-game unbeaten run and a point behind Seattle for the 6th playoff spot.

San Jose and Vancouver played last weekend and San Jose almost put a stop to things when they went up 2-0 in the first half, but then Vancouver showed their three pillars of success: set pieces, counterattacks and long balls. On Vancouver’s game-winning goal, the ‘Caps knocked a 60-yard ball straight over the Quakes defense. Had the Quakes never seen tape of Vancouver before?

It was a frustrating moment for a Quakes team that’s been okay lately. They’ve beaten Dallas twice and tied Toronto and RSL. Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking but have been scared to say out loud: Vako is actually pretty good.

If someone could get him to pass, he could be a good MLS attacker. Obviously it’s tough to get a 25-year-old to change his ways, but San Jose should give him a serious ultimatum for the last eight games of the season; if he listens, there’s something there for 2019.

Vancouver will win if…

They don’t allow the San Jose attackers to build any confidence. Vako, Danny Hoesen, Jahmir Hyka and Magnus Eriksson can all be pretty good when they get they confident. I’ll expect Felipe & Co. to do what Felipe & Co. due to keep the Quakes attackers from hitting a rhythm.

San Jose will win if…

They don’t give away set pieces in dangerous spots, let Vancouver run at them on bad turnovers, or allow Whitecaps attackers to run behind them.

Sunday's clash

D.C. United vs. Atlanta United
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

You know what I really dislike? When we start to think a team is good, then said team loses two in a row.

D.C. stumbled hard against Philly, losing 2-0 at home on Wednesday. More than anything, and this may be more concerning than any other potential ailments given their schedule, D.C. looked tired. They didn’t have the same energy to their possession or pressing.

The Five Stripes enter Sunday’s game unbeaten in their last seven. They are on pace to surpass Toronto’s record-setting 2017 season. The only present hiccup? They are behind the Red Bulls in the standings heading into the weekend.

D.C. United will win if…

The defenders make incredible last-second blocks. I’m not sure D.C. have the defending chops – they have one shutout since April! – to stop Atlanta from getting chances; the Black-and-Red tend to struggle when they sit in a lower block and they don’t appear to have the energy stores to press right now. But they do have talented defenders who might be able to intercede at the last second.

Atlanta will win if…

Ezequiel Barco links effectively with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron on the left side of the field. On the right, Tito Villalba has been tearing it up lately. Villalba has a goal or an assist in eight of Atlanta’s last 11 games. Behind Villalba, attacking from his new right back position, Julian Gressel has contributed 10 assists on the year, and one in each of the last two games. Atlanta have a crazy number of weapons. But Barco hasn’t contributed a goal or an assist in his last eight games.

If Barco hits his form going into the last couple months of the season, and Atlanta can balance their attack, the best defendings strategy against Atlanta might be “hope and pray.”

And one last thing…

Will Bruin is one of the gems of this league.