MLS took a quick break, except it didn't feel like a quick break. It didn't feel like a break at all, even.
With two rounds of the U.S. Open Cup between the last league contest, as well as a strong contingent of MLSers at the Gold Cup, Copa América and, soon to start, African Cup of Nations, there was a pause in league play, but none of the characters slowed down much.
Nico Lodeiro is out here starring for Uruguay, scoring ridiculous goals and delivering Man of the Match performances at Copa América. Keaton Parks, handed his first two NYCFC starts in Open Cup play, has flashed the potential that made Benfica see value in him. Uriel Antuna scored a hat trick for Mexico at the Gold Cup, while the United States and Canada have relied heavily on domestic-based players.
See, it was like there was never a break.
This weekend, MLS returns. It's a light weekend still, given all of the internationals gone, but the half-dozen games count in the standings all the same.
FC Cincinnati vs. LA Galaxy | 7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
The LA Galaxy have played two Open Cup games since their last MLS game ... Ibrahimovic didn't dress for either. That's a three-week break in game-action for the 37-year-old since his last appearance on June 2. It comes against Cincy who, to put it mildly, have had their share of defensive issues this season. To put it a bit more spicy: It's more likely Ibrahimovic scores a hat trick than doesn't find the back of the net at all.
FCC have conceded 15 goals in their last four games. Against the Galaxy, they'll be without captain and center back Kendall Waston, fullback Alvas Powell and dynamic midfielder Allan Cruz, among others.
Ibrahimovic certainly should be under strong consideration to be your MLS Fantasy captain as the fall season kicks off. With LAFC off this weekend, this might be the game that Zlatan gets himself back within striking distance of Carlos Vela at the top of the Golden Boot race. Vela is five ahead of Ibra.
Dallas, Toronto and staying afloat
FC Dallas vs. Toronto FC | 8 pm ET | TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US
Below is the form both teams are riding heading into their match on Saturday:
Thankfully, though, each side enjoyed a strong start to the season to keep them buoyed above the playoff line. At the moment, without a number of key players, both are just trying to stay afloat before the reinforcements come. Dallas only just got Paxton Pomykal and Edwin Cerrillo back from the U-20 World Cup, while they're without Reggie Cannon, Carlos Gruezo and Bryan Acosta. Toronto are missing Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and have continue to wait for Omar Gonzalez to debut.
If offered right now, would both teams take a point?
Chicago Fire vs. Real Salt Lake | 8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
Two teams not hit particularly hard by international duty, the Fire and Real Salt Lake should be able to field essentially first-choice starting lineups. The predictable nature of this game starts and ends with the team sheet, though.
Both have careened wildly in performance. On any given day, either look like an "if-things-go-right" dark horse team in the playoffs. On any given day, either couldn't look further from climbing over the playoff line. Goals should be expected, as RSL have played in games with at least three goals for nine straight contests.
Re-visiting a turning point
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Colorado Rapids | 10 pm ET | TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US
The 'Caps had one win in their first nine games, while the Rapids were winless and had just let go of head coach Anthony Hudson, installing Conor Casey as interim boss. The Whitecaps won 3-2 on that day and it was a turning point for both teams.
Vancouver have lost just once in their last seven matches as things are coming together under Marc Dos Santos. The Rapids, after losing one more, are unbeaten in their last five with four wins. What will round two have in store?
Brian Fernandez is appointment viewing
Portland Timbers vs. Houston Dynamo | 11 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
Brian Fernandez has played five games in a Portland Timbers jersey. Not one time has he walked off the field without first having a goal celebration at some point. All in all, between three MLS appearances and two Open Cup games, he has seven goals in five games. If he scores against the Dynamo, he'll equal the record for most consecutive league games with a goal to start an MLS career. That's awesome.
It's almost as if he doesn't have the weight of a club-record transfer fee on him, the weight of being the premier signing to go with a new-look stadium. It's almost as if he didn't deal with controversy as he left Liga MX, as if he hasn't come into a new locker room and city. The way he's excelled is a credit both to the player and whatever the Timbers are doing to make him feel at home.
A quick tangent: Fernandez is so much fun to watch play, but we knew that already. Part of what's been so much fun is the way he carries himself. Keep a specific eye on that. Watch how hard he works for teammates, his response when a teammate attempts to pass him the ball and doesn't get to him (think: the exact opposite of Ibrahimovic.) Watch how he makes it a point to celebrate goals with teammates.
Is this how he'll be forever? Or is this just part of how he's attempting to ingratiate himself to the locker room and fans?
When will SKC recover?
Columbus Crew SC vs. Sporting Kansas City | Sun. 5:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada
Like Toronto FC last year, we've just been waiting for SKC to recover in form following an injury apocalypse during their Concacaf Champions League run. Like Toronto FC last year, SKC have been plagued by near-inexplicable defensive errors.
TFC were expected to bounce back at every turn. They never did, missing the playoffs a year after setting a then-league-record for points in a season amid a treble-winning campaign. How long until form begins to create panic at SKC?
They have a big chance to pick up road points this weekend against a struggling, and ailing, Crew side. On top of their own injuries, including Milton Valenzuela and Federico Higuain, they're one of the teams hit hardest by international duty with Gyasi Zardes, Wil Trapp, Zack Steffen (who will depart for Manchester City after the Gold Cup) and Jonathan Mensah are all gone this weekend. That's six no-doubt-about-it starters from preseason.