MLS Weekend Preview: MLS All-Star Game offers touchstone as season progresses

It takes a moment or two to digest the importance of the MLS All-Star Game. It is a one-off exhibition with no competitive stakes at hand, yet the magnitude of the event always warrants attention. There is an enduring utility to gathering the best players in the league and watching them take the field against a top European club. And it shows in the buzz and the interest generated among casual fans year after year.

From a more practical perspective, this edition of the All-Star Game against Tottenham Hotspur (July 29, live coverage on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Deportes) also provides a line of demarcation for clubs around the league. Once the end of July hits, there is a pressing need to have everything sorted out for the stretch run.

It is a useful marker to have at this stage given the tumult of the first six weeks of this season. Turnover from week to week is up. Scoring is down. And most teams are still toiling noticeably to find their way toward a defined, reliable structure and generating the rhythm required to produce consistent performances week after week.

Several factors explain some of the modest and occasionally underwhelming fare on show so far this season. The FIFA window in March peeled away players from many teams, while the introduction of an extra playoff spot in both conference stripped away some of the desire and some of the impetus to chase a victory with a point already in hand. The uncertainty created by the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations and the corresponding impact on player movement hindered the process, too.

There are more hurdles to overcome over the next few months. Clubs must somehow scrape together enough budget room to make substantive changes during the summer and then integrate the new signings into the team. They must tangle with the pervasive impact of the upcoming FIFA window in June and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July. They must trudge through by any means necessary to accrue enough points to stay in the reckoning.

By the time Harry Kane and his Spurs teammates arrive in Commerce City, those accommodations and alterations must yield an end product. The spectacle on show supplies a target for these clubs to hit their stride. It is now up to them to spend the next few months trying to figure out how to hit that marker on time and position themselves accordingly for the stretch run.

New York Red Bulls — San Jose Earthquakes, Friday, 7:00p.m. ET (UniMas)

Expect the Red Bulls to make life uncomfortable from the outset. Their ability to press high up the field tends to unsettle teams as they attempt to build out of the back. It is a trait worth cherishing against an Earthquakes side more than willing to hoof the ball out and try again somewhere down the line. It is the sort of dynamic the home side must exploit to continue its fine start to the campaign.

D.C. United — Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 7:00p.m. ET

Houston cast aside its recent struggles in front of goal to sweep aside Montréal last weekend. The confidence generated from that display offers some hope ahead of a difficult trek to RFK Stadium. United continues to chug along with its committed work across the board. It is the sort of toil necessary to take full advantage if the Dynamo cannot sidestep the propensity to make one or two errors in the defensive third.

Columbus Crew SC — Orlando City, Saturday, 7:30p.m. ET

Orlando City continued to show its chops in possession in a rather comprehensive victory at Portland on Sunday. City boss Adrian Heath installed a good shape from the outset and watched his players — even with all of the chopping and changing — figure out a way to make the best use of it. This trek to MAPFRE Stadium presents a chance for Orlando City to sustain that progress, but Crew SC — particularly with its midfield three and its ability to keep the ball — will not make it easy on the visitors.

FC Dallas — Toronto FC, Saturday, 8:30p.m. ET (TSN5)

TFC coach Greg Vanney continues to grapple with injury issues as the Reds’ protracted road trip continues. The prospect of installing Damien Perquis in central defense offers an encouraging sign, but the possible absence of Mark Bloom — combined with the one-match suspension for Warren Creavalle — leaves TFC perilous thin at right back. FCD hopes to exploit the chopping and changing in the Reds defense to issue its desired response after an insipid display against Colorado last weekend. The likely return of Matt Hedges offers a potential boost to those efforts, too.

Colorado Rapids — Seattle Sounders, Saturday, 9:00p.m. ET

There is life in Commerce City in the wake of the 4-0 victory at FC Dallas last weekend. Colorado figured out how to make the best use of the talent available and threaten teams accordingly. Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni — back on the bench after serving a one-game suspension against FCD on Friday — expects to see his youthful players carry those lessons forward to combat a Seattle side hoping to welcome Clint Dempsey (hamstring) back into the fold.

Real Salt Lake — Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 9:30p.m. ET

This meeting between two of the top sides in the Western Conference provides a chance for both of them to take stock. The visitors need to produce a better display after a poor outing in San Jose at the weekend. Pedro Morales’ one-match ban makes those efforts more complicated, though. RSL must cope with the Whitecaps’ pace on the break in order to establish the necessary platform to claim victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.

LA Galaxy — Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 10:30p.m. ET

U.S. defender Matt Besler provided Sporting manager Peter Vermes with a moment of relief after he missed the friendly against Mexico on Wednesday. Sporting simply cannot afford to lose any more defenders after Ike Opara sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon last weekend. Vermes must find a way to paper over the cracks to ensure the Galaxy do not present much of a threat.

Philadelphia Union — New England Revolution, Sunday, 7:00p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, TSN2)

There is at least some solid ground emerging at PPL Park in the wake of a pair of consecutive results against NYCFC. Jim Curtin’s side must continue to locate it against a Revolution outfit still searching for its best form. The onus will fall on the visitors to make the best use of those opportunities when the Union venture forward in search of goals.

New York City FC — Portland Timbers, Sunday, 7:00p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes, TSN2)

C.J. Sapong exacerbated NYCFC’s defensive worries by snatching a late equalizer to grab a 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. The manner of the goal should prompt some concern within the camp: Portland prefers to play directly at this stage and that sequence underscored the fragility within the ranks. If the visitors can improve markedly from that poor display at home to Orlando City last weekend, then they could pose some genuine issues.