Armchair Analyst: Your complete guide to the Week 32 MLS slate

Only three full weekends (and one partial weekend) left in the 2018 regular season. Here we go:

Saturday Slate

Montreal Impact vs. Columbus Crew SC
3 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Montreal are going to bunker – it's what they do, and it's what they're best at. But their bunker can be blown up by clever attackers working between the (wildly compressed) lines, as Toronto FC showed last month and as D.C. United showed last week:

Federico Higuain is a much different type of No. 10 than Lucho Acosta. Acosta's an almost pure attacker who has little to do with organizing the game, while Higuain's role is about 180 degrees from that. He moves and organizes and is in charge of system maintenance rather than pure chance creation.

That means it comes down to the Columbus wingers, both of whom dive inside and hit gaps that the passing of Higuain and Wil Trapp create.

So once again, it comes down to this: If Justin Meram and Pedro Santos produce, Crew SC are among the best of the best in this league. If they don't, they're a fourth place team in the conference.

As for Montreal, if the defense holds and they pick up the full three points, they buy themselves another week of life against D.C. United's resurgence. But they need that win – a draw won't do.

Atlanta United vs. New England Revolution
3:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The "flat-track bullies" question has come roaring back to life for Atlanta United, and the numbers make it easy to see why:

That question won't be answered this week. What will be answered – at least in part – is "how will the Five Stripes handle another super-intense, super-physical pressing team?" The Revs have been a horror show for months in terms of actually going out there and getting results, but they still try to play hard, fast and relentless pressing soccer. They commit a ton of fouls and accrue a ton of yellows. They try to make every single play into a 50/50.

Atlanta couldn't handle that last week (against a much better team, but still). In a lot of ways it's probably a good thing to just get back on that horse.

Toronto FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
5 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

The only real question in this one is whether TFC will give Sebastian Giovinco the weekend off ahead of his Italy return (they should, even if he wants to play). There are no playoff implications here – there's no realistic path into the postseason for either of these teams.

Philadelphia Union vs. Minnesota United FC
7:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

What Philly did last weekend in Columbus remains one of the most underappreciated outings of the year by anyone:

  • Fifth game in 15 days
  • Second road game that week
  • Three days after losing a final
  • At an Eastern Conference team above them in the standings
  • Playing a rotated squad

All of that and they got themselves a lockdown scoreless draw that keeps open the real, honest-to-goodness hope of a home Knockout Round game to start the playoffs. Hell, if the Union take care of business in these next two home games, then their Decision Day trip to the Bronx could end up being for third place in the East.

But they have to take care of business, and against Minnesota that means keeping track of Darwin Quintero. More than anything, you can't let him get on the ball and drive through the middle of the field, because when he does that, your defense gets compressed:

Philly have been really good this year at not allowing opposing playmakers to rearrange them like that (Higuain couldn't do it last week). It's a fundamental thing that's a big part of their identity, and it's unlikely they'll forget about it at this point in the season. But it's probably a good reminder to have about what the field's most valuable real estate is.

FC Dallas vs. Orlando City
8 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Dallas are still top of the Western Conference, but it's been a month since they scored a goal from open play. New No. 10 Maxi Urruti has created three chances from open play in that time, and it seems pretty clear that the rest of 2018, from an FC Dallas point of view, is going to be about efforting the opposition into some sort of submission. They have a ton of guys who will run themselves into the ground and haven't really been using the guys that can pass – at least, not the attacking guys – and so far, so good.

There is a new question up top, of course, as Cristian Colman tore his ACL this week and is done until 2019. That could open the door for Dom Badji, who had a promising first 45 minutes with FCD but hasn't really been the same since Ozzie Alonso stomped his foot, or perhaps Tesho Akindele will get another shot at being a No. 9. Both of them put the ball in the net more than Colman, so there's at least some positives to the trade-off.

But really, the overall point is that the Orlando City defense is where teams with questions have gone to get answers all season long. Dallas should be fine here (and if they're not, then they will hear about it in my Sunday night column). 

Sporting KC vs. LA Galaxy
8:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Here's my colleague Bobby Warshaw on SKC:

I think SKC is the best team in the West, and the 3rd best in the league. The way they move the ball, the way they create chances, their ability to lock down defensively (when they're focused). They are one of a few teams in the league that consistently control games. But they've been dropping points, specifically against playoff teams. They play well, they look like the better team, then they end up tying or losing. And I don't know how to explain it, or whether they will stop doing it.

Sporting have fallen relatively flat over the past two weeks after an unusually torrid August and early September. That's typically when SKC's season falls apart, but instead in 2018 they won six of seven – five by shutout – before hitting a couple of bumps in the road the last two weeks.

The last 20 minutes against RSL last weekend, though, looked better. And I'll point to an obvious reason why:

Diego Rubio's not going to keep up his insane scoring rate, which is unsustainable. But he's been lively and precise in the final third pretty much every time he's been on the field since May. They looked something much more like their old selves once he got out there, and while it wasn't enough to get the win, it's enough to remind the rest of the West of just how good this SKC attack has been when it's whole.

And that will likely be the test for the newly reconstituted Galaxy backline. Forget all the Zlatan stuff – he's remarkable and that should be well understood by now. What really matters for LA is that they've gone out and pitched two straight shutouts, and done so by exhibiting a collective buy-in when out of possession.

What I mean by that is simple and uncomplicated, as is their scheme: When they lose possession, they push up and get as close as possible to the nearest opponent. It's not a "high press" in the same way that we see the Red Bulls high pressing, but the principle is the same.

Bobby, however, sees potential issues:

I'm not sure what to make of the Galaxy. The Seattle win was impressive, but the Vancouver victory was tough to gauge. They scored on two penalties and a horrible defensive mistake(s), and didn't exactly carry the game. The defensive intensity has been nice to see, but it's unclear whether it will work on SKC – they have one of the most composed center backs under pressure (Besler) and maybe the most composed defensive mid under pressure (Ilie) so SKC might find a lot of space beyond Galaxy's first wave of pressure.

If SKC are going to punish LA, that's where and when it will happen.

This is the keystone game for a lot of the weekend, by the way. If LA somehow get a win, it makes things much, much more interesting for RSL, Portland and Seattle.

Colorado Rapids vs. LAFC
9 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Things are bleak in Commerce City:

This is another chance for Bob Bradley to figure out if Carlos Vela and Adama Diomande can develop any sort of chemistry in attack.

Real Salt Lake vs. Portland Timbers
9:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

And here is the other truly ginormous game of the weekend – provided that the Galaxy win (again: not a result I'd bet on, but still). If RSL lose at home here, and the Galaxy win, RSL are suddenly in seventh place and below the playoff line. If Portland lose, they stay above the line – but only by a single point, and given how they're playing, the abyss probably awaits.

So this one's big. And the result will hinge upon one big thing:

Portland still rely upon their fullbacks in order to get width into the attack. That makes sense – lots of teams do this. Their best chance in last week's dour scoreless home draw against Dallas came from right back Zarek Valentin pushing up:

But it also leaves them vulnerable when the ball's turned over in bad spots, and means they have a hard time cutting crosses out. Teams have gotten tons of good looks against the Timbers from the wings lately.

Now, RSL are not a get-it-wide-and-cross-a-ton team, but they are a team that nonetheless generates a bunch of their attacks from their wide play. If the Portland fullbacks push too far upfield, look for the RSL wingers to run this game.

The other area to focus on is (duh) central midfield. Sporting didn't get the win last week, but they put RSL under constant pressure and forced more than just a few dangerous turnovers out of Kyle Beckerman and Sunny. Those types of midfield turnovers are what gave the Timbers the runway they needed back in spring and summer when they went on a 15-game unbeaten run (which now seems very long ago indeed). 

Here's Bobby:

I think this game sets up horribly for RSL. I fully expect Portland to go back into their early-15-game unbeaten streak phase and play entirely on the counter. They tried to evolve, it pretty much failed, so they will resort back to the thing that brought them success. RSL will do their thing and try to ball and Portland will ruthless destroy them on the break.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. New York Red Bulls
10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

If this past weekend's huge result over Atlanta is going to matter at all in the grand scheme of things, RBNY need to fly across the country and win this game. The Quakes have been better under Steve Ralston – they've played some pretty, effective soccer, using the ball through the midfield and getting their wingers into positions where they can make plays. But many of the same problems that doomed Mikael Stahre have cropped up over Ralston's 270 minutes, and RBNY should be well-equipped to punish any sort of carelessness at the back and in goal.

Look for San Jose's deeper-lying midfielders to try to play a lot of long diagonals over the RBNY press. If the Quakes are going to find room, that's where it will be.

Sunday Matinee

D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire
1 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Let's take a minute to appreciate the work Wayne Rooney and Acosta have been doing together for United:

That's what the Fire have to stop. Period.

Monday Night Special

Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo
10:30 pm ET | Match Preview | TV & streaming info

Seattle had one of their best performances of the season last weekend, and much of it ran through Nicolas Lodeiro:

His ability to pop up anywhere when Seattle are on the ball is what gives the Sounders their shape, and what makes him so hard to stop. Watch that clip again, and imagine you're the defensive midfielder whose job it is to organize against all of that. What do you do?

We'll find out what Juan David Cabezas's answer is on Monday night. Do not sleep on the Dynamo – their season's over, but they're a much better team with him on the field, and they'd be only too happy to ruin Seattle's year given what happened in 2017's playoffs.

One More Thing to Ponder

You hear that? That is the sound of inevitability.

Happy weekending, everybody.

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