Tip Sheet: Stern tests await upstarts trying prove their credentials

Sample size often distorts reality at the start of the MLS season. A couple of good performances at the outset can transform expectations without truly revealing how a team will perform over the long haul.

Each successive week offers a chance to acquire meaningful data to sift fantasy from substance. Chivas USA won three of its first five games last year before imploding. New York waited four matches for its first victory before marching to the Supporters’ Shield. Similar stories on both sides of the ledger track back for years.

The protracted nature of this 34-game simply requires more examination before rendering a verdict about the potential for success or failure over the long haul. The sliver of the season already in the books doesn’t supply enough evidence to conclude one way or the other.

Four of the upstarts should find out more about their credentials this weekend. Columbus heads to Seattle to test its deft work in possession against the Sounders at CenturyLink Field. FC Dallas hosts Portland in a battle of two teams who cherish their time on the ball. Toronto FC treks to Real Salt Lake in a daunting test of its newly affirmed counterattacking credentials. Vancouver welcomes Houston for an affair designed to test its mettle against a disciplined, experienced and organized outfit.

One match doesn’t determine the direction or outcome of a season, but it does present a glimpse into the future. The tests ahead for these four sides provide yet another chance to build upon the bright start to the campaign and prolong the positive vibes against established outfits with established track records. And the desperation of those clubs to maintain their perches ensures ample motivation to maintain their side of the bargain.

At this stage of the campaign, there are no charted paths or permanent conclusions. The body of work remains firmly under construction for the strong and the weak. There is plenty of time to rise or fall. And these early challenges produce exactly the sort of information necessary to determine whether those positive early returns constitute a fair reflection of a successful side or a distorted view of how this season will proceed.

Five Points – Week 4

Real Salt Lake must compensate for Joao Plata’s absence through a hamstring injury ahead of the visit from Toronto FC on Saturday.

1. No Joao, no problem for Real Salt Lake?: Joao Plata’s impressive start to the season halted right around the moment he tweaked his hamstring in the 1-1 draw against LA Galaxy on Saturday. The in-form forward promptly ruled himself out for three weeks on Twitter and sparked the inevitable discussion about his replacement against Real Salt Lake. Olmes Garcia holds the inside track to partner Álvaro Saborîo with Robbie Findley (knee surgery) ruled out and Devon Sandoval (foot surgery) still on the mend. Whether Garcia can fill the void left by Plata’s clever and pesky runs in the final third remains uncertain.

2. FC Dallas searches for central midfielders: FCD boss Oscar Pareja will learn plenty about his depth in the middle of the park with Andrew Jacobson (ankle), Adam Moffat (hamstring) and Hendry Thomas (suspension) all ruled out for Portland’s visit on Saturday. This particular match isn’t the ideal time to introduce new options, but Pareja has no choice in the matter. Michel will probably assume one of the two available midfield berths, but the identity of the second player – Peter Luccin? Victor Ulloa? Je-Vaughn Watson? – remains uncertain given the paucity of established alternatives. Expect the Timbers to give the revamped FCD midfield a thorough examination with their tendency to play narrowly and rely on their own midfield trio to dictate the match.

3. Montréal must heed Marco Di Vaio’s advice: Di Vaio sagely noted this week that he and Andrés Romero cannot solve all of the Impact’s issues when they return from suspension for the trip to Philadelphia on Saturday. Montréal desperately needs Di Vaio to come back firing, but the collective unit – from the rickety defense through the misfiring wingers all the way to Di Vaio up front – must improve substantially to procure a result against the Union.

4. Is this the perfect opening for New York?: Two points from three matches hardly represents the ideal return for the Red Bulls. This weekend offers the ideal chance to notch the first win of the season, though. Chivas USA visits with a 16-match winless streak away from home in tow and a selection poser or two to solve with Bobby Burling (right shoulder and elbow) and Oswaldo Minda (right hamstring strain) uncertain to feature. This meeting is exactly the sort of contest where the Supporters’ Shield holders should make a statement of intent after those early wobbles.

5. Will contrasting styles create fireworks or inertia at RFK Stadium?: D.C. United loves to retain possession, but struggles to use the ball incisively in the final third. Chicago prefers to sit back, soak up pressure without the ball and wait for the right time to move forward quickly on the counter. If the Fire can mimic Toronto FC’s success in its own end and on the break from a week ago, then the visitors might find a way to mitigate the potency United’s possession and snatch a result.