Sebastien Ibeagha – New York City FC – tight shot
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These 5 players need big games this weekend as call-ups mount around MLS

Across youth national teams and senior squads, nearly 130 players from around MLS have been called in for the upcoming September international window.

Their collective void will be felt during Week 27, especially as races for the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs ratchet up in intensity. But their absences also create an opportunity for players to step into increased roles.

Here’s a look at five players who will likely be leaned on, both to propel rebounds from tough results and keep the good times rolling.

Sebastien Ibeagha

One of the big storylines around New York City FC is the impending loss of forward Heber to a thigh injury, though Dome Torrent’s team has plenty of solutions in attack to weather the loss of the Brazilian. Step right up Alexandru Mitrita, Maxi Moralez and Valentin Castellanos.

The puzzle along the backline is less clear, with Maxime Chanot (Luxembourg) and Alexander Callens (Peru) both away on international duty. Both went the full 90 in last week’s Eastern Conference playoff spot-clinching win at Vancouver, while youngster James Sands remains out with a collarbone injury. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is off with the U.S. men’s national team, too.

That gives Sebastien Ibeagha an opportunity to potentially marshal the Cityzens’ defense against the New England Revolution at home on Saturday (3:30 pm ET | Univision, Twitter, MLS LIVE on DAZN). He hasn’t started since July 20, though the 2017 USL Defender of the Year will need to be sharp. His task will involve stopping the likes of Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil, New England’s two Designated Players. The Revs have only lost once since early May, so this won't be a cakewalk – far from it.

Latif Blessing

 

Latif Blessing has six goals and five assists on the year | USA Today Sports

LAFC showed last weekend that they indeed are mortal, as they dropped a 2-0 decision at home to Minnesota United. And while they hold a comfortable 11-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, head coach Bob Bradley will want the Black & Gold firing on all cylinders before the playoffs get underway.

That starts Saturday night when traveling to face Orlando City (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, on DAZN in Canada) with LAFC’s midfield well short of full strength. Eduard Atuesta is with the Colombia U-23s, while Mark-Anthony Kaye is off with Canada. There’s also no guarantee that Carlos Vela (hamstring injury) will return to the XI.

So, what’s left over from LAFC’s fearsome midfield? Latif Blessing, all 5-foot-7 of him. What the Ghanaian may lack in size, he surely makes up for it in influence, going the full 90 minutes in 22 of his 24 starts this season. He’ll need to set the tempo against Orlando, with veteran Lee Nguyen also likely to again start. 

Nicolas Lodeiro

This Seattle Sounders have a whopping 10 international call-ups to deal with this weekend, not to mention long-injuries to striker Will Bruin (ACL tear) and winger Victor Rodriguez (hamstring), then a head injury to midfielder Jordy Delem. Head coach Brian Schmetzer’s lineup Saturday night (9 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+, on DAZN in Canada) against Colorado is bound to be patched together, with few veterans to choose from.

One exception there is Uruguayan maestro Nicolas Lodeiro, who will need to lead an offense that’s missing U.S. national team call-ins Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan and Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz. Other wide options, especially on the left, will also be absent since Brad Smith (Australia), Joevin Jones (Trinidad and Tobago) and Nouhou Tolo (Cameroon U-23s) were called in by their respective countries. Seattle's just absolutely decimated in the final third right now. 

Lodeiro certainly has the chops to lead Seattle’s attack, as he 24 goals and 48 assists in 97 regular-season games for his MLS career. But it’s also fair to ask who steps up beside him, because he won’t be able to do it alone. Seattle have won their last two games and the tight Western Conference playoff pack creates little room for error.

Diego Chara

 

Diego Chara shields Minnesota United winger Ethan Finlay from the ball | USA Today Sports

The Portland Timbers enter the weekend two points out of the playoff places out West, making a win most necessary against Sporting Kansas City at home on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET MLS LIVE on ESPN+, on DAZN in Canada). To do that, they’ll need another massive performance from 2019 MLS All-Star Diego Chara.

Andres Flores (El Salvador), Cristhian Paredes (Paraguay) and Renzo Zambrano (Venezuela) are off with their respective national teams, though Zambrano would have missed anyways after being shown a late red card last weekend. Injuries along the backline also make it likely that Bill Tuiloma, who can play holding mid in a pinch, will again be needed at center back.

That puts an even greater spotlight on Chara carrying the lion’s share of responsibility from the No. 6 spot. SKC will be throwing numbers forward, too, since they’re also currently out of the playoff race. Can Chara, 33, put in another monster performance that defies Father Time? We’ll soon see.

Gerso Fernandes

The 28-year-old winger was having another solid season until an Aug. 10 home match against Real Salt Lake, where he was subbed out after six minutes due to injury. He’s since played a combined 36 minutes across Sporting Kansas City’s last two games, though could start on Saturday night (10:30 pm ET MLS LIVE on ESPN+, on DAZN in Canada) at the Portland Timbers.

Sporting will be looking to make it four straight wins, though forwards Johnny Russell (Scotland) and Krisztian Nemeth (Hungary) are both away on international duty, as is leading scorer and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez (Chile). 

In connecting the dots, that puts some pressure on Gerso to step up and keep SKC’s playoff hopes afloat. They’re only five points out, though four of their last six matches are on the road. Could it be a breakout game for Gerso, either as a provider or finisher? Either way, his game fitness and impact will be tested.

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