I feel like this is the weekend that home stretch really begins. Most teams in the league will round the 3/4 pole in the next 10 days, and that makes this next slice of the calendar make-or-break in more than one market.
Ben Baer, with an assist from the great Paul Carr, did a nice job of illustrating what's at stake in what is probably this weekend's highest-leverage game, Columbus at Orlando City on Saturday (7:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE).
"Anything but a win against Crew SC will basically end Orlando’s season, making it one of the first must-win situations of 2017," is what Ben wrote, and I agree with him. So do Paul's numbers:
OCSC simply have to dominate Columbus in the box, but have to figure out how to do it without leaving themselves open to what's become a fairly vicious Crew SC counterattack. It's certainly possible, but given how poorly Orlando City have played since the beginning of May, it seems improbable.
Onto the other highlights of the weekend:
Flight of the Passing Fancy
Portland aren't exactly in a must-win on Friday night when they host the Red Bulls (10 pm ET; FS1 & FOX Deportes in the US | MLS LIVE in Canada), but it feels a lot like a "best not lose." RBNY are on short rest, having played a thrilling, 120-minute US Open Cup quarterfinal on the rock-hard Cincinnati turf on Tuesday night, and will be crossing the country to field what I'm guessing is going to be something less than a first-choice XI.
So if the Timbers don't win this, it's won't just be precious home points dropped; it'll be a morale-crushing blow.
The way I'd expect them to approach this is to allow New York to push up the field, then try to get in behind with two- or three-pass combinations from central midfield to the flanks. Portland do this well – they're good at getting out on the break:
|Team||Total fast breaks||Goals from fast breaks|
|Atlanta United FC||11||2|
|New England Revolution||7||2|
|Sporting Kansas City||5||2|
|Orlando City SC||5||0|
|Real Salt Lake||4||1|
|Minnesota United FC||4||1|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||4||1|
|Columbus Crew SC||2||1|
|New York Red Bulls||2||0|
|New York City FC||2||0|
|Seattle Sounders FC||2||0|
|San Jose Earthquakes||1||0|
The issue is that they haven't been particularly good at finishing once they're out on the break. Perhaps with one of Darren Mattocks or Jeremy Ebobisse in for the injured Fanendo Adi (Timbers fans want Ebobisse, as do I), they will have a little bit more luck at putting those chances away.
Whichever one it is, the Timbers will have a more mobile and vertical option as they drive forward.
I'll also be watching: Aurelien Collin trying to deal with all of that. He was rested on Tuesday, which probably means he's going 90 on Friday. If so, it would be just his sixth 90-minute performance of the season.
Collin, when healthy, is still New York's best center back. They've been cautious getting him back on the field this summer after the injuries of spring, which makes sense – why push it and lose him for another two months? But the time for caution has just about passed, and now they need him to be the dominant presence he was last season when he was able to, at times, lift the entire team's performance.
Update: As it turned out, the Timbers did score on the break, albeit with a game-clinching counterattack, and Collin's presence was decisive for the rotated Red Bulls, until another injury forced him out in the first half. Portland received a big boost by gritting out a 2-0 win on Friday.
At the beginning of July the Chicago Fire were atop the Supporters' Shield standings but staring at their toughest stretch of the season: five of six on the road, with the first four of those road contests against teams above the playoff line. Of those 15 available road points they took just one, and the trip came to a crashing end with a decisive and dispiriting 3-0 loss at Montreal on Wednesday night.
Teams have figured out what to do about Chicago, at least a little bit (volume up for analysis):
Watch the Fire long enough these days and you'll notice a familiar pattern. Teams allow either Dax McCarty or Bastian Schweinsteiger to carry the ball to within about 45 yards of goal, then 1) build a wall in front of them while sealing off passing lanes, 2) force a back-pass, and 3) apply immediate pressure as soon as that back-pass is hit.
This has repeatedly caught the Fire fullbacks out, whether it's been Matt Polster or Johan Kappelhof or Patrick Doody, and the central defense – currently beset by injuries – has not held up under the strain of having to make so many open-field plays.
TFC, who visit Chicago on Saturday (8 pm ET; TSN1 in Canada | MLS LIVE in the US), are not naturally a type of team that likes to give ground in the midfield. But they're clever and disciplined, and if that's what it requires to carve up Chicago (and probably bury their Shield hopes in the process), that's what they'll do.
I'll also be watching: How often Victor Vazquez gets into the box. The Spaniard really does pick and choose his moments – he's not much of a goalscorer. But one surefire way to upend Chicago's apple cart all season has been to just throw more numbers into the 18 and overwhelm them.
Seattle host Minnesota on Sunday night, the weekend finale (10 pm ET; FS1 & FOX Deportes in the US | TSN1 in Canada). This is what happened the last time these two teams met (which was two weeks ago, and also happens to be MNUFC's most recent game):
Seattle are the league's hottest team, having won five of six and are unbeaten in eight. The Loons are among the coldest, with just one win in the last two months.
There's no reason to think this meeting won't be a reprise of the meeting two weeks ago, which ended up 4-0 to the Sounders but could've been 6-0 or 7-0. And now, because I've said that and because this is MLS, there's every reason to think it won't end up as a reprise of that meeting.
I'll also be watching: I'm interested in seeing where MNUFC draw their line of confrontation. Seattle can be hurried into mistakes if you press them, but the Loons are disastrous when they try to get too much on the front foot.
One more thing to ponder:
Happy weekending, everybody.