Sporting KC, RSL headline MLS action
Calling any match an MLS Cup preview seven months before the MLS Cup Final might seem premature. But anyone who has watched Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake play this year knows just why their showdown on Saturday is worth the label.
Not only do Sporting KC (5-0) and Real Salt Lake (5-1) boast the best records in MLS, they are playing attractive attacking soccer along with organized, stifling defenses. Sporting KC and RSL aren’t teams simply on hot streaks either. They really are as good as their records suggest, and they each have a deep and talented nucleus of top talent as good as any built in MLS in recent years.
In a way, it is a clash of generations. The core of RSL was put together in 2008 and 2009, and lifted an MLS Cup title in ’09. Players like Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Jamison Olave, Nick Rimando and Nat Borchers have been the core of a team that has played some of the best soccer in the league over the past four seasons.
Sporting KC is a younger version built by the savvy-drafting Peter Vermes, a group that really came together as a strong unit in the summer of 2011. Players such as Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers ushered in a new era for the club formerly known as the Wizards: an era that could see Sporting KC dominate the MLS Eastern Conference for years.
Dominating MLS is another story, and Sporting KC will have their credentials tested on Saturday by an RSL side that is just as talented, but more experienced as a group. RSL won’t be shaken by the raucous atmosphere at Livestrong Sporting Park, and RSL also won’t be dominated in midfield like some of Sporting’s recent opponents.
If there is a match-up to watch closely on Saturday, it will be the one between Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman. Zusi is leading MLS in assists and has rapidly emerged as the best young American playmaker in the league. Beckerman, who has established his place as one of, if not the best, defensive midfielders in MLS, will have the task of stopping Zusi, who he teamed with in January’s US national team camp.
Not only will that matchup go a long way in determining who wins Saturday’s marquee match, it will serve as a microcosm of the game itself. It will be just one of many high-level individual matchups in a game that should set the bar for just how good the quality of Major League Soccer can be.
Here’s the breakdown of this weekend’s matches, along with my match predictions:
LAST WEEK’S RECORD (5-3), SEASON RECORD (25-18)
There weren’t too many true upsets, though Chivas USA’s comeback win in Portland certainly qualified as the upset of the week. The Red Bulls winning in Columbus wasn’t a surprise, but how easily they did it was a head turner. Sporting KC stayed perfect with a comprehensive win vs. LA, while RSL finished a two-win week with a comfortable 2-0 victory against Colorado.
THIS WEEK’S MATCHES
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. COLUMBUS CREW
The Philadelphia Union have had a week off to regroup and try to sort out the problems that have led to a winless start. The Union defense showed signs of improvement in their last match, and getting Freddy Adu back should provide a boost. For the Crew, the absence of Julius James continues to hurt, but questions about the offense remain, and finding chances against a desperate Union defense won’t be easy. Look for Philly to post their first win of the season. Union 2, Crew 1.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. D.C. UNITED
The suspension of Shalrie Joseph strikes a major blow to a New England side that has relied on his quality to serve as the anchor of the Revs revival. Without him, the Revs could have trouble dealing with a D.C. attack that has shown flashes of brilliance this year. Ben Olsen’s squad is still too inconsistent though.
Clyde Simms has done well in central midfield for the Revs, but without Joseph, New England will struggle to contain D.C. midfielders Dwayne DeRosario and Nick DeLeon, who should create enough chances to help give United a precious road win. Revolution 1, D.C. United 2
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. COLORADO RAPIDS
Brian Mullan makes his first trip to Century-Link Field since breaking Steve Zakuani’s leg, and while that storyline will dominate the lead-up to this match, the better story is the battle we should see in midfield between Sounders' Osvaldo Alonso and Rapids creators Martin Rivero and Jamie Castrillon.
The Rapids didn’t create much in their 2-0 loss to RSL last weekend, but it’s a safe bet Oscar Pareja will look to take a more attack-minded approach against a Seattle side dealing with their own offensive struggles (having gone scoreless in two straight). The absence of Mauro Rosales has taken its toll, but it’s time for Fredy Montero to wake up with a breakout game. Sounders 2, Rapids 1
TORONTO FC vs. CHIVAS USA
You don’t usually hear about do-or-die matches in April, but after starting the season 0-4, TFC heads into Saturday’s match in desperation mode against a Chivas USA side that has suddenly become a killer on the road.
TFC has the weapons to create chances, but Chivas USA’s defense and goalkeeper Dan Kennedy have been very tough away from home. The biggest concern for Toronto continues to be a porous defense that even Chivas USA’s modest offense could find success against. Look for Chivas USA to keep their surprising start going, while TFC stays winless. Toronto FC 1, Chivas USA 2
NEW YORK RED BULLS vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The Red Bulls face their toughest home date of the season against an Earthquakes side playing very good defense and riding the goal-scoring exploits of Chris Wondolowski. Thierry Henry has been virtually unstoppable, and he’ll cause problems for San Jose, even with the presence of imposing centerback Victor Bernardez.
The Red Bulls should score a few goals, but the absence of injured centerback Wilman Conde makes you wonder just how many they will give up. Wondolowski should find the net, but the Earthquakes might struggle to keep up with the Red Bulls firepower. Red Bulls 2, Earthquakes 1.
FC DALLAS vs. MONTREAL IMPACT
The Impact are riding high after posting the club’s first MLS win, but now they face a Dallas side coming off their own confidence-building victory. Brek Shea showed some improvement last week and could be poised for a breakout game, though he will be matched up against U.S. Under-23 national team teammate Zarek Valentin.
The player to watch will be Blas Perez, who continues to impress and should find a goal or two against a shaky Montreal back-line (assuming Donovan Ricketts doesn’t don his Superman cape this week). Shea and Perez lead the way, while Kevin Hartman posts another shutout. FC Dallas 2, Impact 0.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. REAL SALT LAKE
Sporting KC is tough at home, and have played impeccably in defense this season, but they have yet to play a midfield as talented as RSL’s which is good enough to stifle Kansas City’s engine room.
The key to the match for RSL will be defending the flanks well, something they are well equipped to do. If they can contain the damage done by Bobby Convey and Kei Kamara, Sporting KC will struggle to generate chances at home. Look for RSL’s experience to give them the edge in what should be a great match. Sporting Kansas City 1, Real Salt Lake 2
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. PORTLAND TIMBERS
The Galaxy are running out of time to straighten out and look like the championship-caliber team we expected them to be. Playing in the rough Western Conference makes the margin for error smaller, and each disappointing week puts the defending champions into a bigger hole.
LA is facing an equally desperate Portland side reeling from two straight home losses that came after blowing second-half leads. The Timbers need Darlington Nagbe and Kris Boyd to exploit the Galaxy’s defense, but also for their patchwork central defense to keep the Galaxy honest. Look for LA to finally break out of their recent funk and post a sorely-needed victory. Galaxy 2, Timbers 1.
CHICAGO FIRE vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO
The Fire come off a bye week, but also having lost centerback Cory Gibbs. The Dynamo have some big forwards who could cause problems for German defender Arne Friedrich, who should slide right into the Fire lineup. If Friedrich can show his quality, the Fire have the offense to test Houston’s normally stingy defense. Look for Dom Oduro to score one on the team that let him go last year. Fire 1, Dynamo 0.
D.C. UNITED vs. MONTREAL IMPACT
No excuses for D.C. United, playing at home against an expansion team? DeRosario should have a big game in his first appearance against the Impact, while this could be Bill Hamid’s chance to return to the D.C. lineup. D.C. UNITED 1, Impact 0.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Sporting KC could be in for a letdown off the intense match against Real Salt Lake, and just might have trouble on the road against the Whitecaps, who are tough defensively and dangerous going forward when healthy. The Whitecaps might struggle to create chances against KC’s stingy defense, but look for Sebastien LeToux to find the goal needed to earn a home point for the Whitecaps against a tough KC side. Whitecaps 1, Sporting Kansas City 1.