Wiebe: Five big questions for MLS Week 21

Leagues Cup. Canadian Championship, in two weeks U.S. Open Cup. All-Star Game in Orlando next week. And, of course, a full slate this weekend.

It’s fun, but I’m just trying to keep up at this point. Some highlights from Thursday’s Extratime:

  • First impressions of Leagues Cup (plus James Harden and the RSL Cat) – 5:02
  • Josh Wolff … Good hire for Austin FC? Possible GM candidates? – 5:02
  • Favorite storyline from the 2019 season? LAFC, Revs, San Jose and… – 41:40

Zlatan or Fernandez: Who will steal the show at Providence Park?

The nice thing about Zlatan Ibrahimovic avoiding suspension is we get to watch him Saturday against the Timbers (10:30 pm ET; FS1 in the US, TSN in Canada). I’m sticking to my Instant Replay take — for me, that was serious foul play and a red card — but what the Disciplinary Committee says goes and I’m not complaining about Zlatan vs. Brian Fernandez.

The last time the Galaxy’s walking soundbyte took the field, he scored three goals to make another hefty down payment on rivals LAFC, a club the big Swede currently owns. Zlatan stirred the pot before that game, and he’s dominating the news cycle again this week thanks to the elbow that sent Mohamad El-Munir into surgery and had LAFC calling for a suspension.

Zlatan told reporters that opponents are overreacting to physical clashes with him and he feels “hunted” by the re-adjudication of his play after matches. The 37-year-old has nothing left to prove, and it certainly feels like he uses the brouhaha around him as motivation. I’m not missing a chance to watch him use all this attention as fuel in front of a packed house in Portland.

On the other side, the Timbers have yet to prove all these home games are the elixir that’s going to help them climb into a top-four spot and home game in the opening round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Draws at home against Colorado and Orlando introduced legitimate doubt. Is this team just a counterattacking menace? Can they deal with a packed-in opponent? Can they secure a marquee win at home after LAFC spoiled the opener?

Meanwhile, Fernandez keeps scoring and, like Zlatan, singlehandedly provided the goals that knocked off the Timbers’ biggest rivals last weekend. The only games the Argentine hasn’t scored in are Orlando and Colorado at home and NYCFC on the road. The Galaxy are a tougher opponent, but these are the moments in which the club’s record signing is expected to perform (in other words, score).

Will Fernandez upstage Zlatan? Or will the legend quiet his haters? How about some mix of both? Take away LAFC-Atlanta United and this is the game of the weekend.

New England Revolution, the best story in Major League Soccer?

The Revs are unbeaten since Bruce Arena took over | USA Today Sports Images

I think the no-bias answer to the question is either LAFC or San Jose. Take your pick between historic dominance/individual brilliance or a rags-to-relative riches resurgence led by a master teacher and motivator.

So the answer to my question is no, but my point still stands. The Revs have a real shout for story of the year in MLS! That hasn’t been the case since … 2014. It’s been a rollercoaster of a season, but that’s what makes it so spellbinding for supporter and neutral alike.

First, came hope. What could Brad Friedel do in Year 2? Would Designated Player Carles Gil be the difference-maker the club needed? Then the results went south, the call-outs in the media began, the despair set in and, eventually, Friedel was dismissed. Things were bad, miserable even.

But then came a ray of sunshine in Bruce Arena — I hope you enjoy that mental image as much as I do — and an unbeaten streak that’s still standing and fueled a steady rise up the table and into the playoffs! Gil is a bona fide star, Teal Bunbury put the team on his back, turns out Juan Agudelo should have been a No. 8 all along and the club finally splashed the cash for a proven goalscorer, Argentine Gustavo Bou, who scored a banger on his debut.

In a matter of months, we watched a club metamorphosize before our eyes, and that improbable butterfly is now fluttering toward the postseason. Bruce and the boys host Orlando City Saturday (7 pm ET; MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, DAZN in Canada) on a 10-game unbeaten streak. Simon Borg told me on Thursday he’d teleport to the match if he could. Make of that what you will.

Who is on must-win watch?

Yeah, I know it’s a cliché, but we’re getting to that point of the season.

This weekend there are a few good candidates — Houston at home after saving legs in Leagues Cup or perhaps one of Minnesota or Toronto FC at home against bottom-table teams — but, in my opinion, no team is under more pressure than the Chicago Fire.

The Fire have won just once since May 11. That includes US Open Cup, in which they were bounced immediately by the USL’s St. Louis FC, and Leagues Cup, a 2-0 loss at home to Cruz Azul Tuesday. They’re seven points out of the (expanded) playoff field and tied for the most games played in the conference. They’re in a bad spot. No sense sugar-coating it.

Chicago have 11 games to save their season. The problem is six of those don’t hold much hope. That’s because they’re on the road, where the team hasn’t won this season, losing eight of 11. Maybe the Fire can buck that trend, but even if they do, it won’t matter if they don’t pick up wins at SeatGeek Stadium, too.

Which brings us back to Saturday. D.C. United come to Bridgeview (8 pm ET; MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in the US, DAZN in Canada) with just two wins from their last 11 games. Wayne Rooney just skipped a big match to vacation with his family and rest his legs. Lucho Acosta is likely to be distracted by his own will-he-stay-or-will-he-go saga as the transfer window creeps shut. Olympique Marseille just laid an 8-1 friendly loss on D.C. that left a bad taste in Ben Olsen’s mouth.

To be honest, forget the opponent. The Fire could be playing LAFC and this would basically be a must-win. Wasting another year of Bastian Schweinsteiger would be tragic. It’s been a decade since the last Conference Finals run. The pressure is on, or at least it ought to be.

Which players will I have my eye on?

FWD Mauro Manotas (Houston Dynamo) — I invite you to Google search “Mauro Manotas, Cruz Azul.” What you’ll find is, in Mexico, the expectation is Manotas will be sold to La Máquina in the coming days. The Colombian was not on the Dynamo’s 23-man Leagues Cup roster. I don’t think I’m stretching in saying he’d have made the difference against Club America. He might still do that, just for a Liga MX club in the Apertura. Will he be in Wilmer Cabrera’s lineup with what would be a multi-million dollar transfer looming? We shall see.

MID Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact) – Nacho is back, and on the scoresheet in the Canadian Championship. I’m on record saying this year’s version of MLS is the most compelling I’ve covered, by far, and that’s without perennial MVP candidate Piatti doing Nacho things in what could be his final season in Montreal. His injury has been a massive bummer.

Nacho, no pressure, but we need you back healthy and productive to maximize our MLS enjoyment in 2019. Imagine the Impact and Toronto FC battling for the CanChamp or the final playoff spot/seeding in the East. How about Montreal on the road in the playoffs with a fit and game-sharp Piatti to spoil someone’s party on the counter? Fingers crossed the 34-year-old stays fit.

CB Florian Jungwirth (San Jose Earthquakes) – It can’t all be about the attackers, though I really wanted to put Jozy Altidore in here given he’s scored in three straight games since returning from the Gold Cup and FC Cincinnati could give up a touchdown this weekend at BMO … you get the point. Anyway, San Jose are truly a must-watch team these days. The style of play. The team culture. Matias Almeyda on the sidelines. It’s beautiful to watch. Jungwirth, in particular, is locked in. Nick Lima and Tommy Thompson are the fullbacks. It’s just fun.

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

I’m gonna take Minnesota United hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday (8 pm ET) because I think it will be the most emotionally fraught.

Marc Dos Santos’ squad has one win since May 10. The ‘Caps have lost five straight in MLS and were just bounced from the Canadian Championship by the CPL’s Cavalry FC. Their season is slipping away, if it hasn’t already. Dos Santos told the Vancouver Sun the following after the midweek ‘L’ and tournament elimination:

“I’m very motivated for the Minnesota game. You have to [find] who are the players who are willing to get the club out of this? Who are the players willing to sacrifice to take the next step? If you’re top, if you’re elite … this is not recreational soccer where you need to motivate the kid to play. This is professional soccer. Every time you play, you have an opportunity to bring your value higher, you have an opportunity to get seen. Who’s going to be the player who’s going to bring spark to the team?”

When the phrase “recreational soccer” is used by a head coach, that’s generally not a good sign. Vancouver are desperately trying to avoid a lost season and Minnesota know a thing or two about those from their slow start to life in MLS. Only that was before, and this is now.

These days Adrian Heath’s bunch have some swagger, some justifiable belief. The Loons are fourth in the West, just a point behind the Sounders, with a beautiful new stadium, summer reinforcements and four wins in five. It’s summer in Minnesota! Don’t worry, be happy! This is a sure playoff team, or so they’d like you to believe.

That all feels good, but let’s say Minnesota lose at home to Vancouver and San Jose, Dallas, Houston and Portland all win at home. Pretty plausible, right? That’d put them in sixth place, in the middle of a crowded pack just four points ahead of Real Salt Lake chasing the playoff seven in eighth. That would sober the Wonderwall up real quick, while a win would make this all moot.

Like I said, potentially fraught, especially if the Loons go down early. Enjoy the weekend everyone!