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TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Fabian Castillo #31 of FC Dallas heads the ball back to his keeper during the first half of an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

MLS weekend preview: Which road squads can defy the odds?

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Only one team is above .500 on the road in Major League Soccer this season, and that happens to be one of only three teams that have lost as many games as they’ve won at home.

So it goes in the parity-driven, massive-travel world of MLS.

We’d love to tell you that San Jose’s eighth place standing in the West means it won’t hold a candle to conference leading Dallas, or that L.A.’s rampant attack will win comfortably in Seattle.

[ MORE: Impact land Italian striker on loan]

But we’d have no right to hold those beliefs in a world where home teams, more or less, have had trouble not finding points.

In most leagues, there are precious few teams whose production isn’t similar at home than on the road. For every Sevilla, Newcastle, or West Ham, there are dozens of clubs that fall along the same fate at home as they do on the road, give or take.

What that also means, however, is that we have an excellent opportunity to use the standings table as a litmus test for who’s genuinely a strong team by taking victories on the road. There’s reason to believe in Colorado (just two losses from eight road games) and NYC (just one road loss in eight).

Who will defy the odds this weekend? A few selections:

Dallas at San Jose

These two foes met in the same spot on May 28, and neither side scored. Oscar Pareja and Dallas have had good luck against Dominic Kinnear sides dating back to the latter’s time with Houston, sweeping the season series. The Quakes haven’t won since May 11, while Dallas has one loss since that same date.

(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Columbus at New England

Surely last season’s East champs aren’t as poor as their results this year, and the Crew will have a chance to prove it when they bring their winless road mark to Foxborough to face a New England team that is leaking goals and has only taken 13 of 27 points at home. The Crew have just two points from their last four games, while the Revs have lost three on the bounce.

Friday
Houston at Orlando, 8 p.m. ET
Dallas at San Jose, 10:30 p.m. ET

Saturday
L.A. at Seattle, 3 p.m. ET
DC at Philadelphia, 7 p.m. ET
Chicago at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. ET
Columbus at New England, 7:30 p.m. ET
Montreal at Real Salt Lake, 10 p.m. ET
Colorado at Vancouver, 10 p.m. ET

Sunday
Portland at New York Red Bulls, 6 p.m. ET
New York City FC at Sporting KC, 8 p.m. ET

Major League Soccer’s Week 4 preview: Crew, Sounders stare down tough slump stoppers

Montreal Impact's Dominic Oduro, right, challenges Seattle Sounders' Zach Scott during second-half MLS soccer match action in Montreal, Saturday, July 25, 2015. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP
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Last week saw just a trio of MLS games due to the international break, but we get a full slate of games this weekend.

[ MORE: Stock up/stock down after USMNT’s wild qualifiers ]

That features two perceived powers, Columbus and Seattle, aching to end early season slumps despite very tricky inter-conference competition.

FC Dallas vs. Columbus Crew — 9 p.m. ET Saturday

We live in a world where there is a very real possibility that the Eastern Conference champion Crew will be without a win after four matches.

That’s because Dallas has looked very good while Columbus has not only failed to cure its MLS Cup hangover, but also has Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp returning from very busy international breaks.

This is MLS, of course, so it stands to reason that Columbus will pick up a huge win. We won’t pick that, though, because Fabian Castillo, Matt Hedges and stuff.

Prediction: Dallas 2-1.

Seattle Sounders vs. Montreal Impact — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

Montreal is flying halfway across a continent for this, which is good for struggling Seattle. Teams tend to find real trouble on these long trips, and Montreal won just one of its five Western roadies last season. Seattle went 5-0 when an Eastern Conference foe came calling in Washington.

So do you bet on form, which would have Montreal picking up three points? Or do you bet on a combination of geography and biology? We’ll meet this one halfway.

Prediction: 1-1

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Los Angeles Galaxy — 10 p.m. ET Saturday

Two teams many figured to be competing for the Supporters Shield tangle in British Columbia with the risk of sinking further off the pace.

The ‘Caps are 2-2 after four matches, while L.A. is 2-1. Vancouver will be without Masato Kudo, who was suspended for his game-winning penalty dive against Houston but has won two-straight, and swept its season series with the Galaxy last season.

Robbie Keane is out 4-6 weeks, and that could help the Canadian side. In fact, coupled with L.A.’s week off while the ‘Caps beat the Dynamo, we bet it’ll make the difference.

Prediction: ‘Caps 2-1.

Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, left, and Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston fight for a head ball in the second half of an MLS soccer game at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., Saturday, June 6, 2015. The Whitecaps won 1-0. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

[ Q&A: NASL commissioner Bill Peterson ]

Picking the rest
New England 1-0 New York Red Bulls — Friday
Chicago Fire 2-2 Philadelphia Union — Saturday
Colorado Rapids 1-2 Toronto FC — Saturday
Sporting KC 1-0 Real Salt Lake — Saturday
San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 DC United — Saturday
Orlando City 1-1 Portland Timbers — Sunday

MLS Cup preview: Real Salt Lake meets Sporting Kansas City to decide Major League Soccer’s 18th championship

SKC fans 3
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KANSAS CITY – Playing careers will be defined and future coaching careers could be shaped Saturday on a bone-chilling afternoon at Sporting Park, where Major League Soccer’s 18th championship will be decided.

Sporting Kansas City will look for its second MLS Cup title overall, but the first for this current bunch, when the match against Real Salt Lake kicks off on ESPN just after 4 p.m. ET.

RSL, meanwhile, will aim for its second championship in five years, with many of the same central figures still around from the winners who triumphed over David Beckham and Landon Donovan in MLS Cup 2009, that one played in Seattle.

Saturday’s coaches are a big part of the plotlines here. RSL’s Jason Kreis was the youngest MLS manager to claim the title when he won in 2009 as a 36-year-old. He’s still considered one of the bright young minds of the business – so much so that well-heeled New York City FC has targeted Kreis as the choice to build their club. We’ll find out soon after Saturday’s contest if Salt Lake’s intense, introspective leader will remain in Utah or aim for something bigger.

On the other bench, a win Saturday for SKC manager Peter Vermes would tick the one unchecked box on his own promising managerial career. Kansas City has been a solid performer and U.S. Open Cup winner over the last three seasons, but this is his first time in the league’s ultimate match. Win Saturday and, who knows, perhaps we’ll all start mentioning Vermes along with Kreis as a potential, future U.S. national team manager.

The other looming story line: We already know Saturday’s match will set a record for coldest MLS Cup yet, much further on the frigid scale than the other chilly championships, rainy nights in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and in Seattle in 2009, and a wind-swept night in Toronto in 2010. Temperatures were in the low 40s for those; they’ll be down into the low 20s at best, and perhaps into the teens at Sporting Park.

An underground heating system should keep the field from freezing; it looked to be holding up fine as Real Salt Lake trained there Friday afternoon.

This is Major League Soccer’s second year under a format that gives host duties to the finalist with a better record. The net out means unpredictable weather, but the atmosphere inside a packed ground will be worlds beyond all those years of neutral-site deciders witnessed by largely indifferent audiences.

How will the game play out? Defensively, most likely, thanks to the dominant figures involved; A majority of the best players at Sporting Park on Saturday will be goal preventers more than goal producers, the goalkeepers, defenders and defensive-minded midfielders.

This crop of crème starts with Real Salt Lake center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler have found the sweet spot lately, a major reason RSL dispatched the two-time MLS defending champion LA Galaxy and then blew past Portland, which was everyone’s stylish choice to win the West.

source: Getty ImagesBut Sporting KC’s pair of center backs stand every bit as respected: U.S. international Matt Besler is the brains and irascible Frenchman Aurelien Collin is the brawn, if you will. Either way, they are quite effective, guiding the way to the league’s top goals against average over 2013.

There are, of course, goal scorers afoot, too. Robbie Findley, who scored in RSL’s 2009 MLS Cup win, has been huge in this year’s playoffs. Playmaker Javier Morales (left, in the middle) has been exceptional, as well, and the ability to find Findley on the break (probably behind one of the SKC fullbacks if they stray too far into the attack) is RSL’s top scoring ploy.

For the home team, during the Eastern Conference finals win over Houston, former U.S. international Benny Feilhaber was finally the playmaking presence everyone thought he could be upon this year’s arrival into the heartland. On their games, he and fellow pass-master Graham Zusi operating out of the 4-3-3 can create plenty of opportunities for whichever forwards are up in something of a rotation Kansas City.

MORE ProSoccerTalk MLS CUP COVERAGE

  • Real Salt Lake

Report says Jason Kreis on sure track to take NYCFC job; the RSL manager just frowns

Looking back on RSL’s top moment as a club, the 2009 MLS Cup

Real Salt Lake in 2013: the “not-so-rebuilding” year

Looking back on 2013: Talking through Real Salt Lake’s path to MLS Cup

  • Sporting Kansas City

What we learned as SKC dispatched Houston in the Eastern finals

Sporting KC’s new way; the team is far more versatile today

MLS Cup 2000 flashback: Meola, Molnar and the SKC heroes

The Benny Feilhaber conundrum; has Peter Vermes finally cracked the code?

Notes from Sporting Kansas City’s Thursday press conference

Sporting Kansas City’s key players

  • Team versus team

MLS Cup positional edges: Goalkeepers

MLS Cup positional edges: Defenses

MLS Cup positional edges: Midfields

MLS Cup positional edges: Forwards

  • MLS Cup general

MLS Cup will close banner 2013 season for Sporting Park

MLS Cup first: manager who are both former players in the league

Debunking the myth of Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake as bitter rivals

MLS Cup history: the three best finals yet

Looking at how the playoff format worked in 2013

MLS playoff preview: Real Salt Lake at Portland Timbers, with the Western Conference title on the line

Emulating the match day experience on display at JELD-WEN Field is something high on Orlando's to-o list.
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Given two weeks, your mind can figure out how to screw things up. It’s funny like that. No matter how much how positive you think you are, how focused you think you can be, the bad stuff has a way of getting in. Strong minds have ways of dealing with that, but most of us can’t help dwelling. We’re always aware of the worst-case scenarios.

For the Portland Timbers, those worst-case scenarios are no longer just mental. Down by three goals at one point in the first leg of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference final in Sandy, Utah, the playoff neophytes had to starefailure in the face. That they responded with a late goal from Frederic Piquionne salvaged their chances of making their first final (making it 4-2 just before the referee blew for full-time), but chasing two goals ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, Portland’s already had to deal with disappointment.

[REVIEW: Four-goal night leaves Real Salt Lake up two on Portland after West’s first leg]

Real Salt Lake, however, could have carried leg one’s energy into JELD-WEN Field, but instead of three or six days between games, the international break happened. With 14 days between legs, their momentum has cooled. Over a shorter period of time, they could have willed themselves to stay focused, concentrated on their short preparation period, and fed off of the positive between Utah and Oregon. Staying in their normal routine, it would have been easy to put blinders on. Instead, the 2009 champions had to ramp down, occupy all that time, and try to avoid thinking about all the ways Portland could crawl back into this match.

In that sense, there’s nothing good that can come out of this break for Real Salt Lake. All these 14 days have done is Caleb Porter a chance to figure out what went wrong in leg one. While Jason Kreis is trying to maintain his team’s focus, Porter can spend two weeks building his squad’s confidence. By Sunday’s kickoff, Portland will have walked through every scenario where they can get back into this contest.

[MORE: Notes on Real Salt Lake ahead of Sunday’s match]

What if Portland scores early on Sunday, a goal that would change the whole dynamic of the tie? And I’m not just talking about something freaky that happens shortly after kickoff. What if Portland scores in the 44th minute? Only down one with 45 minutes left at home, the second half looks completely different.

source: Getty Images
Javier Morales put in a Man of the Match performance in leg one, recording a goal and two assists in Real Salt Lake’s 4-2 victory over Portland. (Photo: Getty Images.)

If that happens, the Timbers don’t have to open up too soon. They don’t have to take undue chances against an attack that put 13 goals on them in five games. Portland can stay with their regular approach, one that will limit the exposure of their center backs and use their pressing high through the midfield to limit RSL’s access to playmaker Javier Morales. Whether you’re protecting or chasing a lead, it’s the type of modest scenario that starts to look very realistic when you’re given 14 days to dwell.

Still, how much that matters in the face of what we know about these teams is debatable. Between the regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and leg one in Sandy, these teams have met five times in 2013. Portland has not only failed to win, they’ve only led for 40 minutes – less than nine percent of the time. They’ve never led by two. Against a team they haven’t beaten since April 2011 (the first time the franchises ever met), Portland not only needs to win. They need to win by three. A two-goal margin only gets them to penalty kicks.

[MORE: Notes on Portland ahead of the West’s decider.]

Real Salt Lake’s leading scorer, Álvaro Saborío, will be out, but he didn’t play in leg one, either. The Costa Rican international also failed to get on the board in the team’s last meeting in Portland, a 0-0, October draw that Jason Kreis called the type of game his team would need to play in the postseason. If they pull off the same trick on Sunday, they’re back in the finals.

Just as every indication ahead of Portland’s finale with Seattle said the Timbers should win that match, there’s nothing in these teams’ recent history that says Portland’s going to their first MLS Cup final. They have a large, unconvincing body of work against RSL – a collection of evidence that tells us they have no answer for Salt Lake. Two weeks might give RSL time to entertain some doubts, but they’re going to have to do a major psych-out job to offset the advantages they’ve shown throughout the season.

Unless Caleb Porter found a magic bullet during the last two weeks, history’s likely to repeat itself, though in a season that’s seen Portland claim their first playoff appearance, postseason win, and conference final berth, it’s not difficult to imagine a breakthrough win over RSL landing them in their first MLS Cup final.

[MORE: Sporting Kansas City punches ticket for MLS Cup; downs Houston in Eastern Conference final]

MLS playoff preview: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City, a place in MLS Cup at stake

Graham Zusi, Mike Chabala
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  • 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and Univision Deportes
  • Kickoff temperatures will be in the 20s
  • The first leg of this aggregate goals series finished in a 0-0 draw
  • Saturday’s survivor earns a spot in MLS Cup 2013; Kansas City would host the league championship it advances
  • Houston has eliminated Sporting KC from the last two playoffs

(Originally posted Friday afternoon)

If it seems like we’ve been here before – Houston visiting Sporting Kansas City in a huge, tense MLS playoff encounter – it’s because we have. Players and coaches from Houston will be drawing on the fond memories, in fact of recent, previous post-season face-offs between these two.

Sporting Kansas City types … not so much.

It’s hard to escape the history factor in this series, so fresh of memory and so meaningful. This is where Sporting KC’s seasons died in 2011 and 2012, in high-stakes matches at Sporting Park on the Midwest city’s outskirts.

It’s all on the line once again on Saturday as Houston visits Kansas City in the second leg of the teams’ aggregate goals Eastern Conference final series. The first leg finished 0-0, which makes it “Advantage KC” for the back half of this one. (If does if you can avoid considering all that recent history, that is, a backdrop that makes things lean a bit more Houston’s way.)

A spot in MLS Cup 2011 was on the line two years ago when the teams met at what was then called Livestrong Sporting Park. Houston’s Andre Hainault and Carlo Costly (neither of whom remain with the club) scored in a game also remembered for an injury to Brad Davis, which took the Dynamo’s best attacker out of the subsequent league final. But Houston advanced that day to meet the L.A. Galaxy, leaving Kansas City and its relentless, pressing ways to wonder about what had gone wrong in a 2-0 loss at home.

(MORE: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s match)

A year later, the teams met again in the same park, this time in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a two-leg aggregate set, just like this year’s. Kansas City needed a two-goal win to even the series that night; the Dynamo had prevailed by a 2-0 margin in the opening leg. This one looked quite different, with Kansas City completely dominating (a 20-3 advantage in shots provides a fair, accurate snapshot) but doing no better than a 1-0 win. That left Kansas City eliminated (2-1 on aggregate) and put Houston on a path to a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.

Kansas City has the look of a team that could play for the championship, a tough-minded, tactically wise bunch that also happens to be the league’s top defensive side. In fact, those loses convinced KC manager Peter Vermes to re-think his team’s commitment to all-out, high-pressure soccer. Now his teams play with just a little more possession and press high more selectively.

Still, at some point those sharp edges of recent history surely must work on some minds around the Kansas City locker room. “The great thing for us,” Vermes said late this week, “is that we don’t have a deficit to overcome, which was the case a year ago.”

(MORE: Notes on the Houston Dynamo ahead of tonight’s match)

The weather will have a fall playoff feel; high tomorrow in Kansas City is expected to be in the low 30s, with temperatures by game time falling perhaps into the upper 20s. The night should be dry, at least.

The other oddity about this one is the big break involved. Both teams had been quite busy in the run-up to the uneventful 0-0 draw in Houston – but there has been almost two full weeks since that one. So the teams will be better rested, at least. Both were cautious or tired or both to open the series, and the result was a contest where the teams evenly divided a total of just six shots on target. It was hardly an advertisement for open, attractive, flowing soccer.

With plenty of time to restore the legs and lungs, not to mention the cold temperatures that will help players stay on the move, Saturday’s match inside a sold out building should have more energy about it. It will, that is, unless the break makes things weird.

“There’s been a lot of time to think about this one,” Vermes said. “We want to play! It’s not easy to navigate the two weeks leading up to this game, keeping the guys sharp.”

The contest certainly has enough star power, with Kansas City center back Matt Besler and playmaker Graham Zusi set to lead the home team. Both were excused from U.S. national team duty over the past week and a half to ensure readiness for this one.

Injuries (well, one in particular) will be a huge influence in how this one plays out; Dynamo do-all midfielder Ricardo Clark remains questionable. This side of U.S. midfielder Brad Davis or perhaps goalkeeper Tally Hall, there is no more important Houston figure.