Week 16 already started. Did you miss it?

Minnesota United supporters would really like you to know that they came back twice to draw 2-2 at LAFC. I’d like you to appreciate the fact that we have casual Wednesday night thrillers quarterbacked by Bebelo Reynoso and Carlos Vela. We’ve also got a new Designated Player in Austin to add another exclamation point to a big week in the Western Conference.

It’s just my opinion, but this league has never been more fun to follow and watch. There are so many storylines, star players and signs of progress. It can be hard to keep up unless you’re locked in 24/7.

Because of that, I’m expanding the cheat sheet this week to cover every single game on Friday, Fire-Union on TUDN/UniMas/Twitter in English on Sunday and an MLS LIVE on ESPN+ game (or two) of my choosing. As always, I hope you have MLS LIVE on ESPN+ because you’re going to need it to fully enjoy the weekend.

Before we get to the games, this is very good news for MLS’ Canadian teams and our friends up north!

I had COVID-19. I’m happily vaccinated. Let me tell you, from personal experience, that you don’t want the first without the second. Protect yourself. Protect your family and friends. Protect the children who can’t get vaccinated. Protect us all. Do your own research. I hope you’ll get vaccinated if you aren’t already.

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Soccer Friday on ESPN!

NYCFC vs. Columbus Crew – Friday, 7:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Three.

That’s the number of free-kick goals Lucas Zelarayan has scored against NYCFC … THIS SEASON!

Somewhat incredibly, this is already the third matchup of 2021 between these two teams, both won by the Crew with three of four goals coming from their No. 10’s foot via a dead-ball situation.

Go ahead. Watch them again.

Apart from the potential to be shocked and awed by set-piece artistry, this game could completely shuffle the Eastern Conference landscape. Outside New England, everybody is just sort of hanging around, waiting to or unable to make a power move. Eight teams are within eight points of each other from second (Nashville SC, 26 pts) to ninth (Red Bulls, 18 pts). Whoever wins this game will jump all the way up to second, at least until Saturday night.

Orlando City vs. Atlanta United – Friday, 8 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN5

Just for fun, I thought I’d dig up the lineup from the last Atlanta United regular-season win against Orlando City. Turns out I had to go back nearly two years ago, to another summer Friday at Exploria Stadium: August 23, 2019. On that night, Josef Martinez’s lone goal led the Frank de Boer-managed Five Stripes past James O’Connor and the Lions.

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ATL lineup

Different team, huh?

Even more so considering Tito Villalba, Jeff Larentowicz and Emerson Hyndman came off the bench. How much have things changed from that double-winning team of 2019? Ten of 14 players used that day by De Boer are no longer with the club. Of the four who are still in Atlanta, only Josef Martinez will be available for selection on Friday night.

There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of a man who has a grand total of two MLS goals since 2019, but The Father might have some big-time help soon…

LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers – Friday, 10 pm ET
WATCH ON: ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN5

I’m not going to lie to you. Chicharito is almost certainly going to miss this match, his sixth in a row. “Javi is unlikely this week,” is what Greg Vanney said yesterday. I read that as, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before we risk him against Portland.” Amen, Greg. Protect the man at all costs, I say. That loss to FC Dallas hurt, but there’s a lot of soccer yet to play.

Speaking of Dallas, Vanney’s forward-less starting lineup in that 4-0 loss helps explain why this widely-reported move for Dejan Joveljic seems to be done but not yet announced.

I can’t pretend I have any deep insight to offer about the 21-year-old Serbian center forward (two senior caps) beyond his statistics (20 goals for Austrian Bundesliga side Wolfsberger AC on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt last year), Transfermarkt valuation ($4.4 million), YouTube highlight reel and the fact that the Galaxy pretty clearly need depth at the No. 9 position.

Joveljic seems like a good signing!

Meanwhile, the Timbers are just as busy on the U-22 Initiative front. They signed Santiago Moreno this week from America de Cali. Here’s your quick and dirty scouting report from former FutbolMLS legend and Cali supporter Diego Pinzon.

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In the attack, Giovanni Savarese can now choose from Felipe Mora, Diego Valeri, Jeremy Ebobisse, Yimmi Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Moreno and Jaroslaw Niezgoda (once back from the ACL tear that ended his 2020 season). That’s pretty damn incredible, and a big reason why it seems likely that the Timbers will push their way into the playoffs and stay there in 2021.

I talk all the time about how much this league has changed, in particular regarding roster construction. Below are the leading scorers for the Timbers in 2013, the year Valeri joined the club. Compare the seven names and resumes above with the ones below.

  • Diego Valeri – 12
  • Darlington Nagbe – 10
  • Will Johnson – 9
  • Ryan Johnson – 9
  • Rodney Wallace – 7
  • Frederic Piquionne – 6
  • Kalif Alhassan – 3

That’s a world of difference. How does it happen? Well, money spent AKA ambition.

No, neither the Galaxy nor the Timbers are going to be at full strength Friday night, but that doesn’t mean they can’t go for it. They can, with quality in reserve. Felipe Mora in the air is worth watching. Samuel Grandsir and Kevin Cabral’s continued adaptation to MLS is worth watching. Blanco’s slow and steady recovery is worth watching.

It’s MLS After Dark time on Twitter Friday night! Join us…

MLS LIVE on ESPN+ Games of the Week

Sporting KC vs. FC Dallas – Saturday, 8:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Two words: Ricardo Pepi.

He’s the hottest teenage forward in MLS, and he might just be the difference between bottom-of-the-table FC Dallas and the respectable version.

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Here’s the problem with that math this weekend: FC Dallas don’t have a single point (not one in seven games) on the road, only two of Pepi’s starts (no goals) have come away from Frisco and Sporting KC haven't lost a home game this year. Peter Vermes' team is in their own class (alongside Seattle) in the Western Conference.

Sounds like a big/fun test for FC Dallas and an opportunity for Sporting KC to flex a little and perhaps even grab the Supporters’ Shield lead!

Toronto FC vs. Nashville SC – Sunday, 7:30 pm ET
WATCH ON: MLS LIVE on ESPN+

Toronto FC haven’t lost (two wins, two draws) since Chris Armas was dismissed and have the star-power advantage over Nashville SC. That’s not going to bother Gary Smith much. Muhktar is in MVP form (four goals, three assists in four games) and the team is even better in Year Two … and that’s with their record signing (Loba) still getting acclimated.

The Reds are better than their poor record suggests. Nashville, meanwhile, might be even better than their solid, second in the East record suggests. That coupled with big-name value is a very good mix for neutrals, even if you'll have to double box with the Gold Cup Final.

Will the real Philadelphia Union please stand up?

Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire – Sunday, 6 pm ET
WATCH ON: TUDN, UniMas, Twitter (English audio)

As if we needed reminding, this is not the Philadelphia Union of old. They’re not sitting on their laurels. Fourth place in the East is not good enough, and that’s a wonderful thing for the club and for the league.

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"Right now, I think we're a good team," Jim Curtin told The Call Up this week. "We're not a great team yet, and that's okay. I'm alright with that. We're right at about the midway point. I think we can compete and we can play with anybody right now, but we're not the finished product."

Chicago have a way of making good teams look like the finished product, and the Union are back at full strength with Jamaica’s Gold Cup call-ups returning after a quarterfinal exit. Andre Blake alone is worth points, and Cory Burke adds urgency on the goalscoring front, which has lagged a bit from their 2020 standard.

Can Philly get back to the mountaintop and challenge New England for supremacy in the East? It starts with taking three points at home against the Fire.

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