This upcoming weekend’s round of the Major League Soccer season is already overflowing with potential. Three derby games – Seattle vs Portland, Dallas v Houston and of course Red Bulls v NYCFC – will undoubtedly grab the headlines. They’ll be joined there – presumably – by news of the latest superstar arrival to the MLS and some high drama elsewhere in the league.
Let’s break down the five things we here at Playing for 90 will be looking out for this weekend…
- The New Classic
Though it’s only the second time it will have been played, the nascent New York City derby is already living up to a lot of the hype. Both teams will face off in Yankee Stadium Sunday night in slightly different positions than when they first met in May. The Red Bulls have won just one and lost four of their last six attempts. NYCFC, in contrast, have won three and drawn one of their six most recent games. They’ll be hoping to build on that momentum against their ready-made arch rivals.
Both teams come into the game possibly missing some vital pieces. Sacha Kljestan will be suspended for the second match of the ban resulting from his red card against Vancouver last weekend, while NYCFC’s breakout centre-back Jason Hernandez is in doubt. David Villa, Mix Diskerud and Bradley Wright-Phillips will have to put in good shifts to make up for these losses.
In truth, neither teams’ position in the Eastern Conference table or squad health actually matters all that much Sunday. Like the classic derby rivalries between Sunderland and Newcastle or Everton and Liverpool in the English Premier League, their performance in the league has little to no bearing on how important this game will be. NYCFC’s home support – already regularly exceeding 25,000 per match – will be in full voice, adding to what will already be high emotions on the pitch. It’s almost impossible to predict a result in such a wild and rare atmosphere. All we can be sure of is that it is this week’s must-watch MLS game.
- A Bit Less Intrigue Than Usual
If there’s some rival to the New York derby in terms of passion and watchability, it has to be the class between the two big American clubs in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle and Portland face off against each other just before the New York derby Sunday separated by only four points in the Western Conference. The situation in the West is as tense ever, with Vancouver and LA also in contention for Seattle’s top spot. The results of this match will go a long way to framing just how crowded the conference will be going into the latter half of the season.
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Unfortunately, this match will be soured somewhat by the absence of two of the best players in the MLS. Seattle striker Obafemi Martins will be out of the game due to injury, while Clint Dempsey will be serving the last game of his suspension following his altercation with the ref of the US Open Cup game against Portland two weeks ago. The pair has scored fourteen goals between them, most than half of Seattle’s total goals thus far this season. Seattle has already struggled without them. They’ve lost their two matches since that Cup game against San Jose and Philadelphia, both supposedly inferior midtables teams. Portland will be hoping to add to their misery come Sunday afternoon.
- Toronto Silently Climbing in the East
MLS’ confounding scheduling system often means that there are at least two or three teams that make it this far into the season having played a handful less games than most of their rivals. Such is the case for Toronto. They’ll host DC United Saturday having played fully five matches less than the Eastern Conference leaders.
That discrepancy doesn’t show all that much though. Toronto are fourth in the East, twelve points behind United, and stand to climb even higher if they can take advantage of their games-in-hand.
Their left-field signing of Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus last off-season has proved to be a fantastic investment. The diminutive forward has settled in quickly and often runs circles – sometimes literally – around opposition defenses. Michael Bradley has another season under his belt and it shows. Jozy Altidore has already made a mark, scoring 6 goals in his first 11 appearances. All told, Toronto could be just the team to knock DC United off their perch come the end of the season. Their first chance to do that could come Saturday.
- Pirlo Waits in the Wings
Andrea Pirlo has all but applied for US citizenship it seems ahead of his rumored move to NYCFC. Here he is, looking all of his 36 years, attending a Yankees game last weekend.
It’s hard to guess what Pirlo’s imminent arrival to the MLS means for NYCFC and for the league as a whole. He remains a monumental talent despite his age and would surely earn a start in almost any league in the world. That being said, how much longer could that possibly be the case? The general nature of the MLS will mask some of his deficiencies, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to give one of MLS’ newest franchises multiple years of capable service. More importantly, would NYCFC not be better off building for future success rather than trading on their star players’ past glories?
- The Battle for Second(s)
The New England Revolution and the Vancouver White Caps will each be battling to retain spots in second in their respective conferences. The Whitecaps find themselves in surprising territory in the Western Conference and currently sit above the likes of Portland and Los Angeles. That they’ve managed this without any particularly notable names on their squad only makes their season so far all the more impressive.
They Caps on something of a tear recently having beaten LA and the New York Red Bulls on the road. New England, in contrast, have fallen behind in recent weeks despite being stacked with talent, especially in offense. They’ll have to count on them all the more Saturday if they have any hope of staying in the race against DC United, who they currently trail by ten points.