Otto Greule Jr/Getty Image

Five things to watch in MLS: Week 3

Leave a comment

While the league’s newest clubs have drawn a lot of the attention thus far in 2017, last year’s final two teams left standing have yet to win in their opening two matches.

[ MORE: MLS Power Rankings — Week 2 ]

PST takes a look at some of the most intriguing storylines as Major League Soccer heads into the second week of the season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Champions welcome Red Bulls in home opener

The Seattle Sounders needed two late goals last weekend to earn a draw against the Montreal Impact, and their first home match of the year presents another challenge.

Although the New York Red Bulls haven’t looked their best in the opening two weeks, Jesse Marsch’s side has come away with six points, and are one of only four teams in the league to win their first two matches.

Brian Schmetzer’s side continues to play without Brad Evans at the back, who is battling a calf injury, and Aaron Kovar but otherwise the Sounders are relatively healthy. The good news for the Sounders is that Clint Dempsey has started the season well, and more importantly he’s overcome issues regarding his heart that kept him sidelined throughout the conclusion of 2016.

There’s little doubt that Seattle will get it together and be in contention at the top of the West again this season, but the Red Bulls certainly present a difficult matchup.

Fire look to remain hot against Atlanta

Atlanta had reason to be disappointed after its opening week defeat against the Red Bulls, but Tata Martino’s team showed just how good they can be in Minnesota.

Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez (3 goals this season) each netted two goals against the Loons in Atlanta’s six-goal outburst up north, but now the newcomers take on a revamped Fire side that has started the season unbeaten.

The Fire midfield has shown the most notable improvement so far since the acquisition of Dax McCarty in the center of the park, while Nemanja Nikolic has provided a strong scoring presence up top after his successful career in Europe.

How bad will it get for Minnesota?

Two games. 11 goals allowed. Definitely not the ideal start for Adrian Heath and co.

The transition for expansion sides has never been easy and certainly well-documented, but did anyone think Minnesota United would be this bad through two weeks?

Meeting a hungry Portland Timbers side (one that looks good enough to win the league) in Week 1 surely wasn’t a favorable matchup to kick off the season, but falling 6-1 to Atlanta in the Loons’ home opener last weekend only piled on the negative sentiment towards Minnesota.

Kevin Molino has already proven to be a strong signing for the Loons, notching the team’s lone goal a week ago, but the rest of the squad has yet to catch up, particularly defensively. Minnesota’s 11 goals conceded is the most an expansion side has ever allowed in the opening two weeks of a season.

Earthquakes, Dynamo face difficult road tests

The two non-playoff sides from last season have started off better than anyone could have expected, and it’s good news for the two clubs that play in the congested Western Conference.

Historically both teams have shared plenty of success in MLS, but the last few years have been anything but that. The Earthquakes have not qualified for the postseason since 2012, while the Dynamo have only done their San Jose counterparts one better by last reaching the playoffs in 2013.

Both clubs have put out predominantly young rosters this season, while mixing in experienced talents like Chris Wondolowski and A.J. DeLaGarza to round out each team. The Earthquakes and Dynamo each played nine starters last week under the age of 30, and both squads are having tremendous early success because of this.

The Dynamo have benefitted from strong performances from players like Erick Torres and Romell Quioto, while Americans Nick Lima, Tommy Thompson and Fatai Alashe have put a stronghold on the right side of the field for the Quakes.

D.C., Crew look sluggish to start season

D.C. United was a playoff team in 2016, while the Columbus Crew are just one season removed from appearing in the MLS Cup final.

It’s way too early to make projections, but both sides have underwhelmed so far through two weeks, especially in the back. New York City FC exposed the D.C. back four last Sunday with a four-goal performance, while the Crew allowed a trio of goals to get past Zack Steffen down in Houston.

Meanwhile, the two sides have a combined two goals to show for their efforts, with both coming from the Crew. D.C. could receive a massive lift if Luciano Acosta is deemed fit to play against the Crew. The diminutive Argentine attacker was a prominent figure in the D.C. attack last season, and he’ll be valuable once again in 2017 if Ben Olsen’s side is to find success.

For the Crew, Ola Kamara and Ethan Finlay have found the back of the net this season but Greg Berhalter’s team will need more production out of attacking players like Federico Higuain and Justin Meram.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.