Wiebe: Five big questions for MLS Week 19

Happy Friday from Athens. I wrote this column on Wednesday, so if there’s anything incorrect or dumb, blame my editors.

Hit play on Extratime – the crew talked USWNT victory parade, dug into Concacaf’s new World Cup qualifying format and chatted with Philly’s Jim Curtin – and let’s dig into MLS Week 19...

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What’s the must-watch, no-excuses, DVR-if-you-must game of the weekend?

Seattle Sounders vs. Atlanta United. Sunday at 3:55 pm ET on ESPN in the US, TSN in Canada.

You can make an argument for the New York Derby (also Sunday, 6:30 pm ET on FS1 and TSN1), but there’s still Heineken Rivalry Week to come. We only get a single inter-conference matchup between the Sounders and Five Stripes each year, barring an MLS Cup meeting. This one comes at a particularly juicy time.

Why’s that? Here’s your rapid-fire guide to the #narratives:

Pity Martinez: Soon to be loaned or sticking it out?

Two weeks, two pointed public comments from Frank de Boer about effort and the club’s record signing. Pity’s struggle to adapt are well-documented at this point. Meanwhile, the Argentine press are pumping out reports saying he’s leaving on loan and Atlanta United and De Boer are saying there’s no truth to those reports(EDIT: Pity also made some pointed comments on Argentine radio on Thursday). 

Hoooooooooo boy! This ought to be an interesting transfer window. Keep an eye on Martinez’s performance … and his body language.

Are the fully-stocked Sounders an MLS Cup contender?

Nico Lodeiro leads the Sounders | USA Today Sports Images

I think so, but results matter more than opinions.

Seattle went a little cold at the end of May and through June. That shouldn’t have been a surprise given the number and significance of absences for international duty: Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan, Roman Torres, Joevin Jones, Xavier Arreaga and Jordy Delem.

The squad is back. Now can they get back on track and snag a marquee win against the defending champs?

Will the real ATLUTD defense please stand up?

Atlanta had the best defense in MLS before the international break, with just 11 goals allowed in 15 games. Two weeks later, they’ve more than doubled that number to 23 in just four games. The Chicago Fire put five on them. Toronto and the Red Bulls three each.

Were those 15 games more indicative than the last four? Ninety road minutes against the Sounders ought to help reveal the answer to that question.

Will Ezequiel Barco return from injury?

I hope so. I need him to hit 20 combined goals and assists this year for my Baerantee to come good. More importantly, Atlanta need him to become a game-in, game-out difference maker in order for them to 1) reach their goals as a team and 2) sell the 20-year-old Argentine for a tidy profit down the line.

Barco was starting to look like that player before he left for the U-20 World Cup – four goals and an assist in fewer than 600 minutes – but a knee injury has kept him out since he got back from Poland. Perhaps he’ll be ready to change the game off the bench…

Are Toronto FC this season’s D.C.?

The more bang-on comparison to 2019’s rise of Lucharoo, as I’ve written before, is the Timbers. Portland were in last place as recently as June, get the same home-heavy schedule bump and Brian Fernandez is playing the Rooney role of club-changing center forward with aplomb.

But as Matt Doyle pointed out on Mass Confrontation – you can watch Doyle, Bobby Warshaw and myself riff about MLS and roast each other every Tuesday on Twitter and Wednesday on Facebook – the Reds have a claim to the tag of D.C. United Light. I say “light” because though they’re primed to make a run, TFC aren’t buried at the bottom of the East (7th, 23 points from 19 games) and they aren’t going to sign a Rooney-type goalscorer/facilitator.

Thing is, GM Ali Curtis didn’t need to sign that player. Toronto already have him: Jozy Altidore. Now, they just need to keep Altidore healthy. Because when Altidore is healthy and complimented by another top-level attacker, he’s nearly unstoppable and Toronto FC do things like win the treble. Alejandro Pozuelo is the Lucho to Jozy’s Rooney. I can’t wait to see what masterpieces they paint together.

Instead of the big splash – that came when Pozuelo arrived from Belgium for big bucks in the primary window – Curtis has used this window (and TAM) to quickly fill his roster holes. Omar Gonzalez ought to bring an aerial presence on both sides of the ball and help settle a backline that’s allowed 20 goals and won just once in their last 11 games. In theory, Venezuelan Erickson Gallardo fits the attacking profile (speed to get in behind, credible goal and assist threat) that was missing in wide areas.

Ideally, we’ll all of the above on the field on Saturday in the Canadian Classique at Stade Saputo (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, TVAS, TSN in Canada). The league is more fun when teams are close to their best. Speaking of, come back to us Ignacio Piatti!

Which players/matchups will I have my eye on?

Brian White/Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls) – Wright-Phillips’ groin injury at the end of April opened the door, and White (five goals in nine games, six overall) barged right though it and made New York’s starting striker job a real competition for the first time in a long time. BWP is back now, both on the field and on the scoresheet, and Chris Armas has a big decision to make this weekend ahead of the NY Derby.

Does he go back to the club’s longtime talisman, who has 12 goals in 12 games vs. NYCFC, or stick with White, whose form helped push the Red Bulls up the table after a slow start? My bet is White gets the nod. No reason to push Wright-Phillips this early post-injury. Plus, a legendary goalscorer off the bench with a penchant for rivalry heroics is a nice luxury to have for the red side of New York.

Ozzie Alonso (Minnesota United) vs. Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) – Two weeks ago, we got Pomykal vs. Diego Chara. Last week, it was Pomykal vs. Junior Moreno (Venezuela int’l) and Russell Canouse. This week, it’s Pomykal vs. the Honey Badger at Allianz Field. Yes, please.

Dallas and Minnesota are separated by a single point and would meet in the playoffs if the postseason started today. That point is also the difference between a home game in the first round and hitting the road. Time to see how the next big thing in MLS (and perhaps soon the USMNT) does against arguably MLS’s all-time best defensive midfielder.

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

I’m going to be on a boat somewhere in the Cyclades Islands sipping ouzo and living my best life this weekend, but I’d consider firing up the wifi card early Sunday morning (in Greece, Saturday night in US) for Portland vs. Colorado (11 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada). You know, just to get my MLS fix and infuriate my (after two years of near-constant viewership) soccer-weary fiancée.

The Rapids’ first lost in seven games came on July 4 to the Revs. It was a weird one, with multiple weather delays. They’re better than their record shows, though how much remains to be seen. And yet, this is absolutely a must-win for the Timbers. To be this year’s D.C., you’ve got to beat teams below you in the table, doubly so at Providence Park.

But this is MLS, after all. Expect the unexpected. Nobody thought Colorado would beat LAFC, either. Let’s say the Rapids win. They’d be, depending on other results, within as few as five points of the playoff line and six wins, two draws and a loss from their last nine games. There’d be an entire transfer window and 14 games left to bridge the gap. They’ve got to cling to that dream.

For pure entertainment reasons, here a sampling of who you’ll get to watch on ESPN+…

  • Brian Fernandez, bleach-blond goalscoring wizard
  • Kei Kamara, MLS’s No. 1 entertainer
  • Diego Valeri, Timbers legend and former MVP
  • Sebastian Blanco, one of MLS’s most underrated attackers IMO
  • Cole Bassett, 17-year-old Homegrown midfielder with reported Bundesliga interest
  • Diego Chara; c’mon you know how special Diego Chara is

Enjoy the weekend! I’ll see you in a couple weeks.