Week 13 Preview: RSL takes its unbeaten mark to Seattle; Donovan visits Yallop, Magee in Chicago


The 13th weekend of the MLS season begins on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern with in the Pacific Northwest and ends its nine-match round Sunday night in … the Pacific Northwest? With symmetry at our side, here’s our quick look at what’s on top this weekend in Major League Soccer.

Note: All rankings reflect PST’s weekly MLS Power Rankings.

a.k.a., The game you really should still watch
#3 Seattle Sounders vs. #2 Real Salt Lake, Saturday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Seattle drew in Vancouver, 2-2; Real Salt Lake was held at home by FC Dallas, 0-0

Somewhere, long ago, when the pros and cons of this issue were first discussed, somebody had to make a list of reasons why MLS shouldn’t play through the World Cup. And hopefully, high on that list, they wrote “Unrepresentative product.” A league that’s trying to convince the public of its quality has to worry about a below-standard product, particularly around the World Cup.

Saturday’s game in Seattle is the latest example. In the big picture, the Sounders and RSL are two of the teams most likely to represent the West at MLS Cup, but in the narrow, microscopic, comically irrelevant view of Saturday’s 90 minutes, it’s a game that will be played without Seattle’s Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin. Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, and Álvaro Saborío will also be missing for RSL.

In fairness to MLS, it would have been difficult to anticipate such a sharp increase in players going to Brazil this summer. Whereas the league barely lost any talent to South Africa, this time teams like Sporting, Houston, Columbus and San Jose have been hamstrung. Real Salt Lake and Seattle are in that group, too, though the player that is RSL’s Clint Dempsey (in terms of significance) is still with the team. He doesn’t get as much publicity, and he doesn’t even play the same role, but Javier Morales can have Dempsey’s influence over a given 90 minutes. He’ll be in Seattle on Saturday, as will center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler.

That’s not enough to say Jeff Cassar’s team will win this game, because Seattle has enough talent to manager its absences. It’s just a shame that this game, one which on another date would otherwise be a great showcase for what Major League Soccer can offer, will be played without many of its stars. Even if RSL’s unbeaten record falls, we’ll wonder what how these matchup at full strength.

Prediction: The weekend’s best game.

#15 Chicago Fire vs. #5 LA Galaxy, Sunday, 4:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Chicago lost at Columbus, 2-0; LA beat FC Dallas and Philadelphia, (2-1, 4-1).

Little known fact: A Bruce Arena team leads its conference in ball possession. Real Salt Lake’s number (53.9%) is practically identical, but that revamped, diamond-esque formation the league’s most successful coach is using? It’s holding more of the ball than The Diamond Masters Of Utah, not exactly what we would have predicted from an Arena side.

Frank Yallop, in his first season in Chicago, is defying expectations, too. After building his last San Jose team around a modest midfield of Rafael Baca and Sam Cronin, the Fire has proven surprisingly adroit in the middle. While that hasn’t translated to a great possession number (45), it has translated to chances. The Fire’s fourth in the league in shots per game, with Harry Shipp’s 2.6 key passes (passes ahead of shots) leading the charge.

Arena and Yallop are two of the league’s more successful coaches, but the ways they achieve their success change. The duo’s 2014 squads are showing some of their newer tricks.

Prediction: More Landon Donovan goals.

#7 D.C. United vs. #4 Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: D.C. lost at New England, 2-1; Sporting drew with visiting Toronto, 2-2

By now it’s clear that absences and injuries have made Sporting KC a completely different team, but that’s not D.C. United’s problem. Instead, it’s an opportunity. Though United had problems two weeks ago playing the favorite against Montréal, they have a chance to take advantage of a Kansas City team that’s given up seven goals in its last four games.

Prediction: Benny Feilhaber challenges the 100-pass mark for the second game in a row.

(Note: Eddie Johnson, right, had his red card appeal accepted and will play on Saturday.)

#8 Toronto FC vs. #11 Columbus Crew, Saturday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Toronto drew at Sporting Kansas City, 2-2; the Crew defeated Chicago, 2-0

When Toronto visited Columbus at the beginning of April, and early goal from Michael Bradley sparked a performance that handed the Crew its first blemish. For the rematch, however, Bradley will be with the U.S. national team while Federico Higuaín, playing as well as anybody in Major League Soccer, remains at the wheel for Columbus.

Bradley’s presence would normally drive Higuaín deep to pick up the ball. Without him, Kyle Bekker may have to come up big.

Prediction: A Ryan Nelsen special – early goal; sit on the lead.

#19 Montréal Impact vs. #1 New England Revolution, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: The Impact lost 4-1 at Colorado; New England defeated D.C. United, 2-1

A visit from the league’s hottest team may only highlight what’s become a demoralizing situation in Montréal. Having already expressed disappointment with general manager Nick De Santis, Impact fans may not let the team’s poor performance in Colorado go unnoticed. Even after a midweek draw at Toronto (Canadian Championship), an increasingly disillusioned fan base will want to see improvement.

Prediction: Protest banners in two languages.

11-ON-11? TAKE TWO
#9 San Jose Earthquakes vs. #13 FC Dallas, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: San Jose beat Houston, 3-0; FC Dallas lost at LA (2-1) beat drawing at RSL (0-0)

When Dallas visited Santa Clara three weeks ago, Shea Salinas got himself sent off just before halftime, giving way to an extravaganza of Clarence Goodson and Víctor Bernárdez clearances. If all 22 players manage to stay on the field this weekend, the game should be decided in an increasingly Dallas kind of way: See if Fabian Castillo create more goals than the defense eventually allows. For all Castillo’s speed and talent, that answer’s been “no.”

Prediction: Fans remember how much calmer things were when Steven Lenhart was out.

#17 Chivas USA vs. #18 Philadelphia Union, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Chivas lost on Wednesday to Portland, 2-0; Philadelphia also lost at StubHub Center (to the Galaxy), 4-1

Between actual attendance, television audience, MLS Live viewers, this may end up being one least-consumed games of the year. Maybe Philadelphia’s large fan base will prove that wrong, but on paper, this looks like one of the least desirable matchups of the season.

One team (Chivas USA) has a scorer but can never get him the ball. The other can keep the ball but has no scorers. Enjoy?

Prediction: The ability to take over the #CHVvPHI hashtag.

#16 Portland Timbers vs. #6 Vancouver Whitecaps, Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Vancouver was drawn by Seattle, while Portland’s won consecutive matches at New York and Chivas USA.

Portland’s won two in a row, but what an interesting two they were. It’s 2-1 win in New York saw the losing team create the better chances, and during the midweek win at Chivas, an almost entirely changed team played a lackluster first half before Fanendo Adi scored his first two MLS goals.

That momentum’s probably not enough to overcome Vancouver’s advantages. The Whitecaps are the form side, on full rest and, depending on who you ask, have the better players.

That Portland defense that’s been struggling all year? Against Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, Pedro Morales, and potentially Darren Mattocks, they’ll need to give one of their season’s best performances.

Prediction: Both goalkeepers stay in the general vicinity of their goals.

#14 Colorado Rapids vs. #12 Houston Dynamo, Sunday, 6:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week: Colorado downed Montréal, 4-1; Houston lost at D.C. United at San Jose by a combined 5-0.

So let me just get this straight: One team is at full strength, having lost none of its players to World Cup duty, while the other is missing its two best players? No, I understand Houston knew this was coming. It’s just weird, that’s all. Too bad Rico Clark and Mark Sherrod aren’t around to help.

Prediction: Fewer Shane O’Neill goals.

“Sorry to kill your stories”: Klopp not seeking new Liverpool GK

during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux at Anfield on November 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
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The topic of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a lightning rod for a certain subset of Liverpool fans, but you can count Jurgen Klopp in the group that likes him just fine, thank you.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

The 27-year-old Belgian has been the man between the sticks for Klopp since the manager took over at Anfield, and Klopp is already tiring of the rumors that he’s looking for better in the goalkeeping department.

From the BBC:

“I’m absolutely satisfied with our goalkeeper situation.

“I’m sorry to kill your stories about German goalkeepers and different goalkeepers from Stoke – we are not looking for another goalkeeper.”

Pretty clear cut there. Jack Butland would be nice and all, but Klopp’s fine with Mignolet and ex-Bolton man Adam Bogdan.

Do you think they need better?

Klinsmann backs Altidore ahead of busy 2016; USMNT star “back on board”

Jurgen Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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Jurgen Klinsmann thinks Jozy Altidore‘s tumultuous year ended on an upswing, and expects it to continued into an important 2016.

The Toronto FC hitman had plenty of ups and downs for club, and just as many for country. Whether injuries or form, Altidore wasn’t often the player USMNT fans remember from years past.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But the recently-turned 26-year-old scored six times in his last nine games with TFC to give him 13 on the season, and Klinsmann seems to think his big striker is out of the woods.

From US Soccer:

“Everybody saw that 2015 for Jozy Altidore has been very difficult, a tricky year, but it has become a year toward the end of it where it got stronger and stronger. He had some injury issues and some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. Obviously we had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape he needed to be. In then towards July, August, September, he got more and more into the flow. He started to score goals for Toronto, and he got stronger and stronger for the national team as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Jozy back on board, to plan with Jozy into a very busy 2016, obviously the biggest highlight is the Copa America in June.”

It’s great for the coach to have faith in the United States’ fourth all-time leading scorer, who should catch Eric Wynalda for third this season. Whether Klinsmann will be rewarded for his faith in the striker is another thing altogether, especially in that pivotal, U.S. hosted tournament this summer.

The tricky thing for Altidore, in the run up to the 2018 World Cup, will be for him to prove his merit if players like Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris continue their rises as scoring options.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
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For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
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It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.