MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Five under-the-radar storylines for MLS Week 19

Games are coming thick and fast across MLS, feeling nonstop with midweek fixtures aplenty, combined with Leagues Cup and even the Concacaf Champions League both returning this week.

Week 19 brings another full slate of league contests from Friday through Sunday, with a ton of enticing match-ups to get stuck into. There are also a number of storylines flying under the radar.

My man Andrew Wiebe has the big stuff covered in his Weekend Cheat Sheet column. Go read that.

Can New England keep rolling without Carles Gil?

  • Matchup: Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution
  • When: Saturday, 8 pm ET
  • Watch: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Two games without their star man, two solid results. New England drew Nashville SC and beat the Philadelphia Union without Carles Gil, a positive sign as the runaway Landon Donovan MLS MVP favorite is out with an undetermined timetable to return. Could be soon, could be a bit longer.

Can their grip on the Supporters' Shield race hold firm?

Looking deeper than just the results in their two games without Gil, both Nashville and the Union rotated heavily against New England, each without at least four or five starters. They travel to Canada to face Toronto FC on Saturday and then host D.C. United on Wednesday. With Gil currently in Spain rehabbing, it's a good bet that he won't be back in time to play Wednesday, though the Revs are particularly tight-lipped when pushed for further specifics.

They still have plenty of talent without Gil, headlined by fellow DPs Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa, rising talent Tajon Buchanan and veterans Matt Polster and Andrew Farrell.

Can Toronto FC go on a run?

  • Matchup: Toronto FC. vs New England Revolution
  • When: Saturday, 8 pm ET
  • Watch: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Toronto have some of the league's brightest top-end talent, with reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo and Venezuelan international Yeferson Soteldo. They have two US men's national team legends in Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. There are prominent Concacaf internationals, via Canada's Richie Laryea and Jonathan Osorio as well as Jamaica's Kemar Lawrence.

Yet they sit bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And the distance to the playoff line isn't getting any closer. They're nine points adrift as the league climbs over the halfway mark.

After facing New England on Saturday, their next four matches are against fellow Eastern Conference teams that are currently below the playoff line (Atlanta, Miami, Montreal, Cincinnati). Pozuelo and Soteldo are back and have had a bit of a run of games. Javier Perez has been named their head coach for the rest of the 2021 season. This would be an optimal time to get some momentum.

What is NYCFC's strongest XI?

  • Matchup: NYCFC vs. Inter Miami CF
  • When: Saturday, 8 pm ET
  • Watch: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

I don't suspect we'll learn the answer to this question this weekend when NYCFC host Inter Miami after a weather-delayed midweek Leagues Cup match, but it's something to keep an eye on.

Ronny Deila's squad has a ton of flexibility, both tactically and in its personnel.

They have been successful when playing with three at the back, with James Sands between Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens, but Sands is also adept as a No. 6 in a 4-3-3.

In attack, Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno were acquired for a lot of money, but Jesus Medina and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi are tied for the team-lead in goals with seven apiece. Likely only two of that quartet can start. Heber will soon return from a torn ACL, giving competition to Taty Castellanos up front, and there's always the presence of veteran playmaker Maxi Moralez. A lot of options, indeed.

How will Colorado evolve with Mark-Anthony Kaye?

  • Matchup: Houston Dynamo FC vs. Colorado Rapids
  • When: Saturday, 8:30 pm ET
  • Watch: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

After a blockbuster trade from LAFC, Mark-Anthony Kaye made his Colorado Rapids debut and was solid. He had four key passes and an 88% pass completion rate during a 0-0 draw against Sporting KC.

Robin Fraser has deployed both a 5-3-2 (3-4-2-1?) and 4-3-3 this season, and Kaye can fit in with either. Is he a piece that can elevate the group? How quickly will he find chemistry alongside Kellyn Acosta and Jack Price? How will the trio benefit each other, as well as Cole Bassett? When Younes Namli returns from injury, will he play centrally as he had earlier in the year or on the wing as he did in 2019? These are good questions to have.

Early signs with Kaye were positive, and now the next data point comes against the struggling Houston Dynamo. The Rapids are fourth in the Western Conference standings and hoping to separate themselves from the pack.

One step closer to D.C. United at full strength?

  • Matchup: Nashville SC vs. D.C. United
  • When: Sunday, 7 pm ET
  • Watch: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

At long last, Edison Flores looks like he's returning to action. Head coach Hernan Losada said the club-record signing will be traveling and he "hopes" to get him minutes against Nashville. That would be a big boost for D.C United.

The 27-year-old midfielder joined the Black-and-Red in January 2020 with much hype as another Liga MX star heading north. The return on investment for a player with his profile and resume in Liga MX has typically been strong. Fellow huge winter 2020 imports from Liga MX have shined, including Lucas Zelarayan and Alan Pulido. D.C. haven't quite yet seen the best of Flores, though.

The Peruvian midfielder has a goal and four assists while cycling in and out of the lineup due to injury. He started 11 of D.C.'s 23 matches in 2020 and only seven of their 18 this year. Losada's group has been rolling without him of late, but how much higher is their ceiling if Flores can find form and a consistent run of games?

They won't be anywhere near full-strength against Nashville, though they haven't been all season either. New signing Ramon Abila will travel but might not debut, as he hasn't played in more than a month. Flores certainly won't be in the starting lineup either. Bill Hamid and Russell Canouse remain out, too. But it's a step in the right direction for a team that's now five games unbeaten, all without a number of starters.

It's a big week. First comes a trip to Nashville — who are unbeaten at home this year — and then they're off to Gillette Stadium to face the Shield-leading Revolution. D.C. are still flying a bit under the radar. Two results in these games, without those regular starters, would be very difficult to ignore.