It’s already Week 5. Let’s get right to it.
Who is the quietest MLS Cup contender in MLS?
Gotta be D.C. United, right?
LAFC and Seattle have been showered with early love, Sporting KC is flying the MLS flag in the Concacaf Champions League, Atlanta United’s struggles generate a mountain of headlines and FC Cincinnati have that new-car smell that everyone loves.
Meanwhile, Ben Olsen’s squad has played close to perfect soccer. Seven goals scored in three games without a single goal allowed. Two wins and a draw, the points they dropped thanks to a goalkeeper’s duel between Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson at Yankee Stadium. Wayne Rooney is rolling. Lucho Acosta is playing like he’s in a contract year. Lucas Rodriguez might have scored the AT&T Goal of the Year before the calendar turned to April. Hamid is backing up his talk.
They go to Orlando on Sunday (6:30 pm ET | FS1, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) with the chance to get people talking about a throwback D.C. team, namely one capable of dominating MLS and doing it. The Lions just went to Red Bull Arena and got three points. Forget pretty soccer, James O’Connor is just trying to make his team hard to play against for the first time in more than a year.
The Black-and-Red collected style points in their last match against Real Salt Lake, a 5-0 shellacking. Meanwhile, Orlando committed 14 fouls against New York. They cleared the ball 43 times (tied for most in a game this season). They completed just 57 percent of their passes (lowest in an MLS game this season). They took away the areas LuchoRoo want to operate in, mucked the game up and waited for their chance. It came, and they won. O’Connor needs results, by any means necessary.
Style comes in handy, but this might be a toughness/patience game for D.C. United. They’re more than capable of mixing it up. It should be a high- intensity match, especially under the lights, on national TV and in front of The Wall in Orlando.
Will San Jose and LAFC develop into NorCal-SoCal rivals?
There’s no El Trafico to throw out the window here. That LAFC and the LA Galaxy would be rivals was a given, but there’s an open question when it comes to the Quakes up north. The first matchup of 2019 comes on Saturday (3:30 pm ET | Univision, Twitter, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski is under no illusions about what it will take to spark the beginnings of a second Cali Clasico.
“We have to win for it to start being a rivalry, that's first and foremost," Wondolowski said.
LAFC won both matchups in 2018, including a wild 4-3 comeback win at Avaya Stadium. More games like that would help, and Matias Almeyda’s man-marking style could inject some physicality and tension as well. San Jose are going to be desperate to get their first win of the season after three straight losses and a negative-7 goal differential to start the campaign.
Perhaps that will up the ante. Anyway, those things take time. No matter the rivalry long play, when Carlos Vela plays you watch.
“I’m working to be the MVP of the league,” Vela said earlier this year, which had to be music to Bob Bradley’s ears and nightmare for MLS defenders.
Every game from here until Oct. 6 is an opportunity to prove he deserves the honor. Good luck keeping him off that left peg.
What are two others things I’ll be watching closely?
Can the LA Galaxy midfield find a rhythm?
All the headlines have been about Zlatan Ibrahimovic (duh!) and Romain Alessandrini. When will the Designated Players return? Good news! They’re back in training, with roles against the Timbers TBD Sunday (9 pm ET | ESPN 2, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada)
I want to watch Zlatan as much as the next person, but, in the near term, I’m more interested in watching the Galaxy’s trio of Jonathan dos Santos, Joe Corona and Sebastian Lletget figure out how to play together. The first two runouts have been encouraging, and they’ve got the potential to be the league’s best midfield. The Timbers are a real test, no matter what the results say so far.
Diego Chara will be well rested following his one-game suspension and the international break. Diego Valeri was the MVP two years ago, and seems to get better with age. One of Cristhian Paredes or David Guzman will help make it tough on LA. You’ve got to track Sebastian Blanco when he drifts inside. Giovani Savarese knows how to make his team tough to play against, and the Timbers need a result by any method.
It’s a big job for the three players Guillermo Barros Schelotto is relying on to set the tone and the tempo. Dos Santos could be the best defensive midfielder in MLS. LA need him to fulfill that potential, and build on his impressive performances for Mexico.
Lletget’s career could be poised to take off if he keeps delivering for club and forces his way into a bigger role for his country. Corona is in his prime with the opportunity to show his quality in front of an American audience every week.
Just imagine ... the midfield gels, Zlatan and his goals return to the lineup, Alessandrini sows 1v1 terror on the wing and the team gets a deal for transfer target Giancarlo Gonzalez over the line. That’s a good team. Time to make it a reality.
How will New England Revolution respond after bumpy start?
One point from 12 available. Three straight losses, two at home. Then came the team meeting to start this week and the quote below from Brad Friedel following a conversation with the Boston Globe’s Frank Dell’Apa, who knows that soccer scene like the back of his hand.
(I’d also encourage you to read this interview the Revs head coach did with MLSsoccer.com national writer Sam Stejskal.)
Those are strong words from Friedel, and questioning effort this early into the campaign is a foreboding sign.
The Revs need to change the narrative swirling around them, and fast. The term “must-win” gets overused, but let’s just say New England REALLY need to get three points at home against Minnesota United Saturday (2 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada). It’s just five games, but pulling out of the spiral can be tough, as San Jose and Orlando found out last year.
Saturday is a litmus test, at least when it comes to effort and togetherness. Will Friedel get a response from his team? The answer could define this campaign.
Which players will I have my eye on?
- Greg Garza (FC Cincinnati) – The US could use more options at left back. Garza is now back from the quad injury that forced him out of Gregg Berhalter’s first national team camp in January. The 27-year-old got his first start of the season against New England in a 2-0 win, and his ability going forward changes the dynamic of FC Cincinnati’s attack. Can he force his way into Berhalter’s team with his play in MLS? Can the new boys win another one at Nippert and make expansion history against the Union (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada)? Worth watching for both.
- Miles Robinson (Atlanta United) – There’s a whole host of reasons to watch ATLUTD Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada). How will they set up without the injured Pity Martinez? Where will Josef Martinez’s service come from? Can Frank De Boer avoid three losses from four? I’m watching Robinson (US U-23 international) for the matchup with Gyasi Zardes (started both games for the US this international break). Zardes started the year with three goals and and an assist in five games between Columbus and the USMNT. Robinson is coming into his own. Should be fun!
Bonus player to watch!
- Doolsta (Philadelphia Union) – If eMLS isn’t your thing, all good. It wasn’t mine, either, until I watched the League Series Two final and sat down with defending champion Cormac Dooley (AKA Doolsta) on ExtraTime this week. A year ago, he entered the Union’s tryout tournament on a lark. He won it, and now he’s a full-fledged pro. His story is incredible, and Esports are booming. Can Doolsta make it three for three and win eMLS Cup? The whole thing is streamed on MLS’s Twitch and Twitter channels on Saturday.
What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?
Marc Dos Santos’ first Cascadia Cup clash Saturday (10:00 pm ET | TSN1, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US) against the Sounders? Yes, please.
It’s all the more fascinating because 1) the Whitecaps haven’t yet won under their new manager and 2) Dos Santos played down the rivalry this week. Here’s the quote.
Here’s what my fellow ExtraTime crew members will be watching. Into the weekend we go! Don’t forget to set your MLS Fantasy lineup.