MLS Weekend Preview: Opening fortnight allows teams to find their footing

BY Kyle McCarthy • March 20, 2015

The opening two weekends offered little in the way of consistency. FC Dallas won twice. Philadelphia, Portland and Real Salt Lake drew twice. Chicago and New England lost twice. Everyone else just fought through the learning curve as a new season cranked into gear.

No team illustrates the issues better than Seattle. Sounders FC submitted the standout performance on opening weekend by brushing aside the Revolution 3-0 at CenturyLink Field. The same group then tumbled to a 3-2 defeat against a dogged performance from 10-man San Jose on the same field on Saturday.

The early-season adjustment period isn’t just about the results, though. Teams are in the midst of adopting new systems, implementing new personnel partnerships and testing out philosophies for the duration of this grueling season. Even the usually settled sides -- reliably structured teams like Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City now in the midst transition -- must grapple with new particulars as a season dawns.

MLS allows plenty of time to experiment with its forgiving structure. The protracted schedule combines with an expanded playoff field to provide some latitude for teams to figure things out. As the Revolution showed last season, it is more about peaking at the right time than sustaining brilliance over the course of the season.

There is a caveat worth noting amid the opportunity afforded: The slack only extends so far through these opening weeks. New York scraped into the postseason despite a six-match winless run to start last season, but Portland -- one of the contenders to lift MLS Cup before the campaign started -- missed out after failing to win in any of its first eight games. The Timbers’ plight presents a cautionary tale worth heeding as the tinkering continues over the next few weeks.

Philadelphia Union -- FC Dallas, Friday, 7:00p.m. ET (UniMas)

FCD coach Oscar Pareja faces a quandary as he attempts to make the best use of Mauro Diaz. Pareja substituted his playmaker in each of the first two matches after two rather ineffectual displays, but he understands FCD requires Diaz’s invention to expand the repertoire beyond quick work on the break. The early returns reinforce the effectiveness of relying on power and speed, but FCD must cultivate alternatives to pose a genuine threat at the top of the league. This game should offer FCD a chance to operate in possession if desired. As for the Union, the focus is as much on the man in the middle as it is trying to make sure Fernando Aristeguieta receives enough supply.

New England Revolution -- Montréal Impact, Saturday, 3:00p.m. ET

Revolution coach Jay Heaps must reconstruct his defense once again with captain José Gonçalves (one-match suspension after his second-half dismissal in 2-0 defeat at New York City FC on Sunday) and right back Kevin Alston (hamstring) both ruled out for this fixture. Heaps must ponder whether to make the easiest moves -- Darrius Barnes in the middle, Jeremy Hall on the right -- or venture further afield. It is not the sort of quandary Heaps anticipated at the start of the season, but these first few weeks haven’t exactly proceeded according to plan, either. One potential boon for the Revolution ahead of the Gillette Stadium opener: Montréal is recovering from CONCACAF Champions League exertions in midweek.

Colorado Rapids -- New York City FC, Saturday, 4:00p.m. ET

Mix Diskerud found himself on the ball more often than any other player in the league through the first two weeks of the season. Those figures reinforce his importance to NYCFC’s work in possession and underscore the need to provide him time and space in midfield. Colorado is still trying to figure out its identity, its personnel and its shape in the center of the park, but the unity of purpose -- disrupting Diskerud on the ball and then trying to exploit NYCFC’s back four quickly -- might help the Rapids here.

Orlando City -- Vancouver Whitecaps, Saturday, 7:30p.m. ET (TSN)

Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson faces a selection dilemma on the right flank with Mauro Rosales (ankle) ruled out through injury. Nicolas Mezquida looms as the most likely replacement as Vancouver attempts to impose its particular brand of counterattacking play against an organized outfit. Orlando City must replace Carlos Rivas (hamstring) from the outset, but the focus once again falls on Kaka. If the former FIFA World Player of the Year can wriggle free from Matias Laba and Russell Teibert, then he will find ways to pull the Whitecaps back four apart.

Sporting Kansas City -- Portland Timbers, Saturday, 8:30p.m. ET

Consider this engaging affair as a referendum on the ongoing evolutions in both camps. Sporting Kansas City needs to strike the proper balance in midfield as Peter Vermes continues to experiment with the shape of the side. The emphasis, as always, rests with trying to concoct ways to place the recovering Graham Zusi (foot) into space. Portland is transitioning away from its slavish devotion to possession with Diego Valeri still on the road to recovery. Those tactics produced a pair of goals in the 2-2 draw against LA Galaxy on Sunday and reinforced the utility of featuring Fanendo Adi as a target man and providing plenty of space for Darlington Nagbe to roam. Whether the Timbers will locate similar latitude at Sporting Park is another matter entirely.

LA Galaxy -- Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 10:30p.m. ET

Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric once again played a critical role for his side in the 1-0 defeat to Orlando City last Friday. His error led to the game’s only goal, but his usage on the whole (nine saves through two matches, third in MLS) highlights the need for better protection across the board. The MLS Cup holders grasp how to protect their goalkeeper -- Jaime Penedo (migraine) is in line to return after missing the first two matches -- and work through the inevitable kinks within the group.

New York Red Bulls -- D.C. United, Sunday, 5:00p.m. ET (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)

Expect United to test the revamped Red Bulls back four early and often at RFK Stadium. Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch must make at least one change from the opening weekend draw at Sporting Kansas City after Roy Miller picked up a knee injury, while Ronald Zubar must prove his fitness after departing early from that fixture with a hamstring complaint. Marsch boasts some options to cover those potential absences -- Kemar Lawrence is in line for his debut on the left, while Matt Miazga is on standby if Zubar isn’t fit enough to feature -- as he retools his option. United must still cope without the injured Eddie Johnson (the former U.S. forward is dealing with a heart condition, according to a Washington Post report) and the suspended Fabian Espindola, but Ben Olsen’s side understands how to generate chances even without those two forwards to lead the way.

San Jose Earthquakes -- Chicago Fire, Sunday, 7:00p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1/FOX Deportes)

Avaya Stadium makes its long-awaited debut on Sunday night. This is one of the few moments where the ground itself takes precedence over the fare on the field. The home side enters this game in the wake of a gritty, gutsy 3-2 victory at Seattle last weekend. Victor Bernardez misses this match through suspension after placing his team in a second-half hole at CenturyLink Field. Bernardez’s absence and Paulo Renato’s hamstring injury leave Clarence Goodson (back in contention after a toe injury), Ty Harden and J.J. Koval in the mix to form the central defensive partnership. Fire coach Frank Yallop included David Accam (groin) and Sean Johnson (infection) in his training plans this week as he attempts to correct course after two straight defeats to open the season.