Previewing Wednesday’s slate of MLS matches

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez (21) chases after a loose ball during the Major League Soccer match between the Portland Timbers and Minnesota United FC on June 21, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota United defeated the Portland Timbers 3-2. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez (21) chases after a loose ball during the Major League Soccer match between the Portland Timbers and Minnesota United FC on June 21, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota United defeated the Portland Timbers 3-2. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

A preview of all seven MLS games taking place on Wednesday as we return from the Gold Cup break.

The Gold Cup is not yet done, and many MLS players remain with their CONCACAF national teams, but MLS week 20 is fast approaching. Before we get to the heavy slate of weekend games, we kick off a frantic second half with seven matches on Wednesday, coinciding with the USMNT’s Gold Cup quarterfinal. It’ll be a busy night.

We’ll have previews of the U.S. game elsewhere, but here we look at all of the midweek games:

Montreal Impact vs. Philadelphia Union (7:30 p.m. ET)

The last time these two lower-tier Eastern Conference teams faced off was the Union’s rock bottom, back on April 22. Philadelphia went into that game with zero wins, two draws and four losses in six games to stick them at the bottom of the East; they hadn’t won since August of 2016, and Jim Curtain’s job appeared to be hanging by a thread.

The Union, playing at home against Montreal, another struggling side at the time, jumped to a 3-0 lead, and finally seemed to be breaking a prolonged slump. But they suffered an utter collapse in the second half, giving up two goals to Anthony Jackson-Hamel and walking off the field drowned in boos from the frustrated Philly faithful. 3-3 was the final.

Since, the Union have got up, dusted themselves off and rebounded. Riding more goals from striker CJ Sapong, who’s had his annual “Sapong-for-USMNT” first half push, the steadying presence of Illsinho at the No. 10 position and a combination of Jack Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu in central defense, Philly are now eighth in the conference, five points back of sixth-place Columbus with two games in hand.

Montreal, back to their inconsistent regular season ways, are two points behind their Wednesday visitors. Patrice Bernier and Jackson-Hamel are busy doing work for Canada, slightly weakening an already-depleted attacking corps that is already facing a few more weeks without Ignacio Piatti. These are games they have to win to have a chance at screwing everyone up in November.

New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes (7:30 p.m. ET)

It’s been a painfully mediocre season for the Red Bulls, and we’re getting to the point where the NYRB diehards are starting to lose faith in what once seemed to be a top MLS soccer organization. The early-season 4-2-2-2 try-and-fail section of the year has long passed, meaning it’s their current roster make-up and personnel that is failing them, not some ill-advised corporate directive. Even scarier for the former MetroStars is that coach Jesse Marsch is facing legitimate questions about his commitment to the MLS Red Bulls.

This about sums up the fanbase’s frustration:

Dax McCarty, one of MLS’s best defensive midfielders, and Matt Miazga, a local center-back prodigy who scored a crucial goal for the USMNT against Nicaragua, were once members of a Supporters’ Shield-winning Red Bull core. After selling those players, that core is now only loosely intact.

Their current seventh-place in the east is not good enough for a team with a top chance-creator (Sacha Kljestan) and a top goalscorer (Bradley Wright-Phillips) leading the attack. All the cash they acquired in the above deals, specifically the McCarty one, absolutely has to be spent well this summer. (By this summer I mean now, because it is already this summer. They’re on the clock.)

San Jose’s new 3-5-2 is super entertaining and now features a new and fun young DP No. 10 in Valeri Qazaishvili. Come for the cool new formation, stay for the late Chris Wondolowski winners.

Toronto FC vs. New York City FC (7:30 p.m. ET)

Can you say “marquee matchup?”

These are two of the league’s best four teams, and possibly its two most talented. TFC employ one of the best collections of Designated Players in MLS history as well as never before seen depth, while NYCFC have David Villa, goalscoring wingers, a fast, feisty and smart central midfield, and a couple of goalscoring center-backs.

Let’s talk a bit more about the Light Blues. Patrick Vieira’s done a wonderful job there getting the most out of his lesser-known contributors, like starting full-back Ben Sweat and his calming-down job of goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Watch their entertaining and perfectly executed play-from-the-back strategy, which connects lines all over the field and pulls open opposing teams using coordinated and relentless off-the-ball movement, against Toronto, who high-pressed it to death last November en route to a 7-0 aggregate domination of Vieira and NYCFC.

Also on the topic of Wednesday’s visitors, young No. 8 Yangel Herrera has made Vieira’s job easy and finally given him a notable reason to bench Andrea Pirlo, who has no realistic place in their starting XI. Herrera is a workhorse through and through, and he has a top-tier professional future.

Toronto will be without five (five) key would-be starters due to the Gold Cup: Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Justin Morrow, Raheem Edwards and Tosaint Ricketts. All that depth we love to talk about will be on full display.

Minnesota United vs. Houston Dynamo (8:00 p.m. ET)

Likely the most important thing to know about the Minnesota-Houston matchup is that it is taking place in Minneapolis.

The Dynamo are third in the Western Conference with 28 points, 26 of which have come at home. They’re 0-7-2 (W-L-D) away from Houston, and 8-0-2 at home. Talking about the 2017 Dynamo without mentioning that would be misleading.

But, even with the above caveats, Houston have been a success this year, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Erick Torres has the same number of goals as Villa (yep), Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis set the league on fire when they’re healthy and in Houston, and the midfield have settled down from a couple years of unsteadiness, with new defensive midfielder Juan David Cabezas leading the way. Add in new DP acquisition Tomas Martinez, who will add much-needed possession distribution and efficient forward passing, and you’ve got a playoff contender.

Martinez was officially announced just recently, although it’s unlikely he will be in Wednesday’s lineup. Elis, Quioto, midfielder Boniek Garcia and Torres definitely won’t be around in Minnesota due to Gold Cup action. That means this game will showcase (1) Mauro Manotas, who projects as the long-term starter at striker and (2) their attacking depth. Expect Andrew Wenger and Vicente Sanchez to start on either wing along with Manotas in a 4-3-3.

Minnesota, who notoriously have been horrendous when forced to play non-first-teamers, signed some guys since we last saw them. Sam Nicholson, a left-footed midfielder from Scotland, and New Zealand international defender Michael Boxall arrived after the transfer window opened on July 10. They’re certainly not game-breaking additions but also (hopefully) not another couple of Vadim Demidovs. Progress.

LA Galaxy vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (10:30 p.m. ET)

Vancouver’s first team in a lot of ways resembles Minnesota’s. It’s a simplistic set-up (4-1-4-1, while the Loons employ something of a 4-4-1-1), it relies heavily on the work of a lone d-mid (Matias Laba for the Caps, Sam Cronin for MNUFC) and it makes use of versatile, free-ranging attackers — the likes of Cristian Techera and Alphonso Davies in Vancouver, and the breakthrough creator Kevin Molino for Minnesota.

The obvious difference is that the Caps are sitting in a playoff position at midseason and don’t allow more than two goals a game, which is the Loons’ actual pace (42 goals allowed in 19 games). While one team is clearly better than the other, they’re not much different structurally.

That’s about to change with the triumphant return from injury of Peruvian attacker Yordy Reyna, who has yet to start a game for Vancouver after getting injured in preseason. He’s coming back to the starting lineup soon, very possibly on Wednesday, and his dynamism and attacking creativity will transform a traditionally-defensive Whitecaps side.

LA, meanwhile, saw their season U-turn in May when they got down to the basics and started playing a simple 4-4-2 that coincidentally did not include Jermaine Jones. They spiraled again when everybody left, but now everybody’s back, and if you put any stock whatsoever into the Galaxy’s 5-2 loss to Manchester United you need to reconsider your ability to think critically about the game of soccer.

Portland Timbers vs. Real Salt Lake (10:30 p.m. ET)

One of the many reasons LA’s loss to United means literally nothing is that the Galaxy’s last game before the Gold Cup break was a 6-2 home loss to Real Salt Lake (so RSL are better than Manchester United, if you want to play the stupid conclusions game). RSL are one of MLS’s worst teams.

I have more faith in Salt Lake than others do — they have more talented young attackers than any other MLS team, and it’s not particularly close — and given their easy schedule the rest of the way I don’t doubt their ability to make a run at the red line, but it’s clear they’re a couple pieces off from being a legit contender.

Their first step will be resolving the Yura Movsisyan situation, which very well might be MLS’s most interesting off-field battle since Kei Kamara vs. Federico Higuain of 2015. Movsisyan apparently is at odds with coach Mike Petke, which naturally puts him and his massive contract on the trading block. He could be an interesting Zlatan plan B for the Galaxy.

Portland have their own attacking issues, although of a completely different sort. Their group of talented attackers has already come of age and should be scoring goals consistently like they were in March and April, but that hasn’t happened, and now Portland are off the pace of the top Western Conference clubs. They’ll be without Darlington Nagbe, Darren Mattocks and David Guzman against RSL.

Next: The best under-20 player on every MLS team

Seattle Sounders vs. D.C. United (10:30 p.m. ET)

The curious case of the Timbers’ attacking struggles (relative to their talent level) corresponds well with their Cascadia counterparts Seattle. The Sounders obviously have prevalent attacking talent, among the best in the league, and it hasn’t caught fire yet this season, only getting the Rave Green to seventh in the Western Conference, tied with Vancouver on points.

Jordan Morris has yet to establish whether his best position is on the wing or up top, and that’s something the Sounders will have to figure out sooner rather than later. Morris is best when given open field and the chance to hit the left-center channel, and he’s struggled in a system that relies primarily on Nicolas Lodeiro getting a ton of touches all over the attacking third and controlling play from that area.

Morris’s speed, then, is not utilized properly, and thus one of the primary reasons why he has yet to score in MLS play this season. His touch isn’t exactly deft, and being productive in tight areas, wherever it is on the field, is not yet a strength of his game. Add in Clint Dempsey’s increasing invisibility and you’ve got a recipe for underachievement.

Speaking of underachievement, D.C. United have 14 goals in 19 games. While Seattle’s struggles will likely go away when another DP attacker is added this summer, D.C. do not appear to have any such plans, and this is despite a much worse situation in the standings and much less talent already in the lineup. It also hasn’t helped that they don’t have a serviceable defensive midfielder, and they’ve yet to get all their top attackers from last season’s successful run on the field at the same time due to injuries.

Two struggling teams who need big second halves. At the same time, they are entirely different teams with entirely different ceilings. This should be an interesting matchup.