Behold your MLS Week 4 cheat sheet. 

We’re covering six national TV games (and giving credit where credit is due on ESPN+), so I’m going to be moving fast. Get your soccer-watching schedule sorted ASAP, lest you miss something big. 

I recommend firing up our Extratime interview with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez ahead of Saturday’s El Trafico (8 pm ET, FOX). Good vibes only, from Chicha and for your weekend!

Chasing shadows (and the light) in Los Angeles ahead of El Trafico

LA Galaxy vs. LAFC — Sat., 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: FOX, FOX Deportes

I can’t be the only one who noticed Chicharito’s yin and yang forearm ink and thought to themselves, “Boy, that’s a fitting tattoo for his last year and change.” So I asked Chicharito about it on Extratime, and he explained that for him the tattoo is a reminder of the duality of life, about the shadows that block positivity and the growth and the light that balances it out.

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Incredibly, Saturday’s match at Dignity Health Sports Park will be Chicharito’s first El Trafico. What came before is the shadow, injuries and expectations unmet. What comes this weekend, with fans in the stands in Carson to heighten the occasion, is the light. There is finally some balance in the Southern California soccer universe in which Hernandez is one of two unquestioned stars around which everything else orbits.

But while the Galaxy and Chicharito bask in the glow of early success – two wins in three games, the only loss in Seattle to a potential juggernaut, and five goals for the main man – there’s still a shadow cast over this particular edition of the rivalry: Carlos Vela’s status.

Bob Bradley addressed the health and fitness of Vela on Thursday, but gave no guarantees about his availability for Saturday.

I'm still clinging to what Bradley said before last week’s match against Houston: “I have my fingers crossed that Carlos might be ready for a little bit next week.”

A little bit is not enough for those of us desperate to finally see Chicharito vs. Vela in El Trafico, but it seems, unless I am reading that quote wrong, we’ll have to settle for a substitute appearance at best. That, in my opinion, means the stakes are heavy for the Galaxy and comparably light for LAFC, who will have Diego Rossi back for a second week.

The Galaxy hit the restart button with Greg Vanney, and an El Trafico win at home would give their supporters a cudgel against their in-city rivals and lay another positive building block in this short- and long-term rebuild. LA want to be a better version of themselves, and there may be an opportunity for some light against a Vela-less LAFC.

Rivalry or nahhhhh? We’re about to find out…

Inter Miami vs. Atlanta United — Sun., 1 pm ET
WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN 5 in Canada
 

Rivalries are grown organically, among the supporters, on the field or perhaps even on social media or via headlines drummed up by players and managers. Right now, I don’t think you can say Inter Miami-Atlanta United is a true rivalry, no matter who might want it to be one. 

Unfortunately, 2020 robbed us of the organic matter needed to really ramp up this matchup. There were no fans in the stands, no away trips to get the blood pumping. There was no Josef Martinez to score, preen and instigate. Miami were incomplete, a shell of what they professed to be on the field. 

I’m giving this one a rivalry mulligan. Let’s see what 2021 has in store. Josef has pink hair and seems to be getting his feet underneath him one game at a time. The Higuain brothers are back, and we already saw what they can do in tandem against the Union. There’s a Manchester United connection (and fierce international soccer rivalry) between Phil Neville and Gabriel Heinze. 

There is raw rivalry material here, and both squads have a ton to prove. Perhaps Sunday will light a spark…

Are the Timbers sitting ducks with the Sounders in town?

Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders — Sun., 3 pm ET
WATCH ON: ABC, ESPN Deportes

Cascadia in Portland with supporters in the stands. It doesn’t get much better than that, folks. We can have good/normal things again if we follow the science. This is your reminder to get vaccinated if you haven’t already so we can all have soccer communion together en masse. 

I’m guessing Portland folks didn’t love that headline. Sitting ducks might be a strong characterization, but we’ve all seen how CCL hangovers affect teams at the weekend. It ain’t pretty. Imagine going to Mexico City, playing and losing at altitude against elite competition to get knocked out of the tournament and then returning home to face your biggest rival and, currently, MLS’s top team. 

That sounds like a lot to handle physically and emotionally early in the season, especially given the injury issues the Timbers are slowly coming back from. My gut says the Sounders have an opportunity to make another big statement in this one. Here’s what I’ll be watching…

  • Is Nico Lodeiro back in the starting XI for Brian Schmetzer? Yes, this Sounders team can get even better…
  • How does Gio Savarese counter Seattle’s marauding outside back tandem? The Timbers fullbacks aren’t exactly defensive specialists, so it figures that Diego Chara and Eryk Williamson are going to have extra work helping deal with overloads down either flank. Does that give Cristian Roldan more room to operate? Does it mean Will Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz are 1v1 with the Timbers centerbacks in the 18?
  • Can the emotion of the day mitigate the toll CCL took on the Timbers? This game comes at a tough time, but perhaps Savarese’s willingness to rest starters in the league can pay off here. If the Timbers aren’t up to matching the Sounders energy, it could be a long day.

Who’s the realest? Orlando City or New York City FC

Orlando City vs. New York City FC — Sat., 6 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes

If the Revs lose in Nashville, first place in the Eastern Conference is there for the taking. If either side win it, it’ll be their first three points against a team that’s not FC Cincinnati or the 10-man Union. Who is for real? This match will help us figure that out.

No Alexandre Pato, no problem (so far) for Orlando City. Tesho Akindele remains underrated. He’s quietly effective and understands/does exactly what Oscar Pareja asks of a position that starts the press, drags defenders away from the team's explosive wingers and gets enough goal-scoring chances for a moment or two of glory as well. 

Add Mauricio Pereyra into the mix again, and we’ll see the Lions yet another step closer to full strength and begin to get a more complete viewpoint of what they can be in 2021. 

I think we’re a decent way out from seeing the full picture with NYCFC. Ronny Deila wants reinforcements. This team has quality, but they’re thin in key positions. And yet, they’re winning and convincingly so. If they can win in Orlando, it’ll be proof that their floor is still high despite an incomplete roster and the ceiling can get even higher in the summer.

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The Prodigal Son (Matt Besler) returns to Kansas City with Austin FC

Sporting KC vs. Austin FC — Sun., 7 pm ET
WATCH ON: FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN 1

I’m curious to see how Sporting KC supporters welcome back one of their own. Nobody’s logged more minutes or played more games in Kansas City than Besler. He grew up going to Wizards games. He painted the wall with his hometown team and represented the club and the city in a World Cup. 

In short, he deserves a standing ovation … and probably much more than that. I expect Sporting supporters will show him the respect and admiration he deserves. 

I also expect Austin FC to make life hard for Peter Vermes’ team. So far, Josh Wolff has Austin pounding the gaps with direct runs, forcing defenders to make early, difficult choices and spreading out backlines by attacking the channels. Those are things Sporting have struggled with in recent seasons as well as last weekend against Real Salt Lake.

#PlayYourKids 22 under 22 Game of the Week

FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo — Sat., 3:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: Univision, TUDN, Twitter (English audio)

Ricardo Pepi started last weekend against the Timbers in a 4-1 win. Same for Tanner Tessmann. Dante Sealy scored his first career MLS goal to seal the three points. Paxton Pomykal made his third straight sub appearance. 

Point is, even when Dallas sell, they always have players waiting in the wings, and this crop has the potential to both life the club to new heights but also garner big fees down the line. Watch them while you can. Watch them as they open the Copa de Tejas against the Dynamo.

MLS LIVE on ESPN+ Game of the Weekend

Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose Earthquakes — Fri., 9:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Cade Cowell. Upstart Real Salt Lake. On a Friday night. See you on Twitter.

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