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Wiebe: Are LAFC legitimate Supporters' Shield contenders?

Last year, the Supporters’ Shield was decided by two points, a single result. The difference between playoffs and playing golf in the Western Conference was one point, a single result. The Sounders got a bye and LAFC didn’t, a difference of two points. A single result. You get where I’m going with this.

It’s easy to dismiss what happens in March, April and May as superfluous, but the math in MLS is gradual. Every point matters. If it doesn’t seem that way now, let’s circle back in October and November when home-field advantage matters, if your club is in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs at all.

Seattle’s roar back from the bottom of the table in 2016 was historic. Same for D.C. United’s a year ago. Most teams aren’t so fortunate. Keep up now, or more than likely suffer the consequences later.

Alright, let’s get to it. Hit play on Extratime and settle in. Here are my five questions ahead of MLS Week 2.

Are LAFC a Supporters’ Shield contender?

Bob Bradley’s team is one of the best in Major League Soccer. That’s conventional wisdom that I believe to be true. Are they capable of winning a Supporters’ Shield? Of that, I am not yet sure.

My opinion won’t decide that, of course. What will is what happens on the field. What already happened is that LAFC showed up Week 1, out-toughed Sporting KC and won. That takes some doing, and it was the perfect birthday present for Bradley, even if his team wasn’t exactly Barcelona going forward.

We know LAFC can play stylish soccer, but defensive lapses and soft moments in big situations dropped them from a bye to the Knockout Round, where their season ended. This year, they need to find it within themselves to maintain focus for 90 minutes and respond in kind when the game gets physical. They did that and more in the first of 34 data points, plus the playoffs, in 2019.

Here comes another opportunity on Sunday (7:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) against the Portland Timbers, who have big aspirations themselves after a fruitless trip to MLS Cup. If you want to win the Shield, you’ve got to win your home games. The last three Shield winners all led MLS in that category. Another three points against direct competition out West would be huge for LAFC.

How will Pity Martinez respond to being kicked all over the field in CCL?

If you watched Wednesday’s Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal first leg at El Gigante de Acero, a 3-0 Atlanta loss, you picked up on a theme. Monterrey simply weren’t going to let the reigning South American Player of the Year get comfortable.

It was a bit cynical, but it was also extremely effective.

I hurt just looking at that chart. Anyone would be frustrated by that sort of treatment. So how will Martinez respond?

The answer to that question will likely dictate Atlanta’s fate in CCL. Fact is, we’ve yet to see the best from Martinez in four games with the Five Stripes. He’s shown flashes of the 1-v-1 and playmaking qualities in the final third that made him so dangerous at River Plate, but Miguel Almiron left big shoes to fill. Frank de Boer must figure out how to get the best from his No. 10, or those continental aspirations are going to evaporate quickly, if they haven’t already.

This weekend is another opportunity Atlanta and Martinez got to build belief in De Boer’s system, and a little momentum would go a long way to overturning that three-goal deficit. If last week’s 4-1 loss against Seattle is any indication, FC Cincinnati might be a prime candidate to help the league’s record signing get back in a groove.

Should Martinez (and Ezequiel Barco, for that matter) find the sort of space that the Sounders’ Victor Rodriguez and Jordan Morris did against the new boys in Week 1, the rout could be on at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday (5 pm ET | ESPN in US, TSN4 in Canada). That’s no dig on Cincinnati. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to suffer that fate.

What are two other things I’ll watching closely?

How will the LA Galaxy’s gameplan change without Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

I wouldn’t personally troll Zlatan publicly. Seems like a bad idea. FC Dallas did it, and it seems like it will work out splendidly for them, on the field at least.

OK, so likely no Zlatan, and no Ola Kamara to slot right in, either. To add insult to injury, Romain Alessandrini is out as well, for at least two games per Kevin Baxter. That’s two out of three Designated Players. Fortunately, it’s not all subtraction for LA.

So how does Guillermo Barros Schelotto line up looking for two wins in two games on the road against Dallas? Given LA’s depth up top, Chris Pontius … come on down! [Editor’s note: The Galaxy also signed forward Ethan Zubak on Friday afternoon.] I’m guessing Uriel Antuna and Emmanuel Boateng on the wings and a midfield three of Sebastian Lletget, Joe Corona and Jonathan Dos Santos.

Every game is an opportunity to see how GBS sees his team. What will his XI tell us on Saturday?

Can Minnesota win (gasp) another Western Conference road game?

Two seasons and 34 games away from the Twin Cities, just four road wins. Just four draws, too! Basic math tell you that means 26 losses, including 14 in 2018. Even worse? The negative 49 goal differential (41 goals scored, 90 against).

Then Week 1 brought the Loons their first three MLS points away to a Western Conference opponent – yes, their travels have truly been dire – and Week 2 brings a prime opportunity to make it two for two in 2018. San Jose are figuring themselves out and lost at home to Montreal last week. The Earthquakes won just twice at home last year.

Can MNUFC, led by the brilliant Darwin Quintero, take pick up another three points as they prepare to move into Allianz Field and, hopefully, qualify for the playoffs for the first time? You’ve got to go for it if you’re Adrian Heath.

Which players will I have my eye on?

We started with three in Week 1, and we’re gonna stick with it all season long.

  • Nani (Orlando City) – The game changed for the Lions when Nani and Dom Dwyer came on last weekend against NYCFC. Will James O’Connor start his marquee signing? Where will he play? With whom?
  • Inbeom Hwang (Vancouver Whitecaps) – Despite the loss to Minnesota, Hwang got rave reviews following Week 1. He’s technical as hell, he’s willing to mix it up in the midfield and he’s only going to get better as the Whitecaps get comfortable with each other and the way Marc Dos Santos wants to play.
  • Bill Hamid (D.C. United) – I like that Hamid believes in himself. I don’t think he should be shy about expressing that, so long as he’s willing to deal with the fallout. No excuses now. Believing you’re better than other goalkeepers is one thing, showing it is another. Everyone is watching.

What’s the must-watch ESPN+ game of the weekend?

Instead of just one opinion – I’m taking Seattle-Colorado (Saturday, 10 pm ET) – how about four? Enjoy the weekend everyone!

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