MLS: Keys to Every Game on Matchday 4
Matchday 4 of the MLS season begins on Saturday with eight games on the schedule. Two more will follow on Sunday. With 58 players on international duty, coaches will have to rotate accordingly this weekend.
The first Cascadia Cup match of the season between the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place is the highlight of Saturday's games.
Elsewhere, D.C. United and the LA Galaxy square off, while FC Dallas meet the Seattle Sounders in a rematch of last year's Western Conference semifinals.
Here are the keys to every match in MLS this weekend.
New England Revolution vs. San Jose Earthquakes: The Revs Attack
New England Revolution haven't scored a single goal so far this season. The return of Juan Agudelo may be the reason why the Revs attack has been sluggish compared to last year.
Agudelo, who rarely played when he was in Europe, has to readjust to the league, and it will take time. In addition, New England had a rough spell during the summer when it lost eight straight games. The Revolution also won just one of their first five matches in 2014.
The Revolution scored just twice in those five games, but finished the season with 51 goals. However, with New York City FC, the New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew showing promise, the Revs players have to start clicking soon.
New England has recorded 28 shots, with just six hitting the target, per MLS' official website. On the other hand, if Agudelo and the rest of the forwards score an elusive goal, surely their confidence will return.
Montreal Impact vs. Orlando City SC: Squad Depth
Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath has a dilemma. Seven of his players are away on international duty, four of whom are starters, per the official MLS website. His Orlando side faces the Montreal Impact, a team with a depleted forward corps.
However, without full-backs Brek Shea and Rafael Ramos, along with midfielders Darwin Ceren and Kevin Molino, there are four huge holes in Heath's lineup.
Eric Avila would be one candidate to play on the wing in Molino's place. Danny Mwanga is another option due to Lewis Neal suffering from a neck injury.
Meanwhile, Harrison Heath could start in midfield, Bryan Rochez may be given the nod up front and Luke Boden is an ideal replacement at left-back.
Injuries are also affecting the squad, per Simon Veness of the MLS Soccer website, so Heath has a lot to think about leading up to the game.
Montreal's only key absentees are Laurent Ciman and Romario Williams, but head coach Frank Klopas is without Justin Mapp and Cameron Porter in attack. Both teams will have to make some major decisions.
New York City FC vs. Sporting Kansas City: Who Replaces Nemec and Espinoza?
New York City FC and Sporting Kansas City are also affected by the international break. NYCFC will not have striker Adam Nemec and SKC midfielder Roger Espinoza is also absent. Both players are crucial to their respective teams, so whoever replaces them will have a tough task.
Patrick Mullins is the potential favorite to partner David Villa up front for NYCFC. Mullins scored his first goal for the club in its home debut versus the New England Revolution, but he struggles with passing and holding up the ball. Tony Taylor, another ex-Revolution striker, could also start with Villa.
Servando Carrasco could be an option in midfield for SKC head coach Peter Vermes. Carrasco was substituted into the team's game last week against the Portland Timbers. This indicates that Vermes might give the nod to the ex-Houston Dynamo midfielder.
D.C. United vs. LA Galaxy: Set Pieces
The LA Galaxy will have a depleted squad on Saturday against D.C. United, especially up front. Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes are on international duty, meaning head coach Bruce Arena has to alter his lineup.
Alan Gordon will most likely start. However, Edson Buddle and Raul Mendiola are in contention to play beside Gordon. Jose Villarreal could even move from the left into a central role.
D.C. United also have issues on attack. Eddie Johnson's heart condition is keeping him on the sidelines and Fabian Espindola is still suspended. Chris Pontius and Jairo Arrieta will likely partner each other again.
Given LA's lack of firepower and D.C.'s inconsistent attack, set pieces will be vital. LA has already scored once on dead balls this season, per WhoScored.com, while United haven't earned a single goal in this situation. Now would be a good time to open their account.
Columbus Crew vs. New York Red Bulls: The Midfield
The New York Red Bulls' midfield trio of Dax McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan was tremendous against D.C. United last Sunday, especially the former.
The Red Bulls triad has a tough test against the Columbus Crew. The Crew will have a sparse midfield without Wil Trapp, who is representing the U.S. under-23 squad.
However, Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter welcomes back Tony Tchani, who was suspended for the team's last match versus Toronto FC. Mohammed Saeid, who was slotted into the starting XI when Tchani was banned, may stay in the lineup with Trapp on international duty.
Saeid was decent against Toronto on March 14, but he turned over the ball three times, per WhoScored.com. The positive is that Tchani, a strong defender in his own right, can cover for the Swede if he commits an error.
The midfield usually dictates the game, so whoever wins the midfield battle will have the advantage in Saturday's game.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers: Counterattacks
The Cascadia Cup match between the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps could be the most entertaining game of the week. Both sides love to attack their opponents on the break and have incredibly fast players.
However, one of Vancouver's speedsters will be suspended for this encounter. Kekuta Manneh received a one-match ban by MLS after his challenge on Orlando City defender Aurelien Collin last week.
The Whitecaps still have Nicolas Mezquida, Pedro Morales and the clinical Octavio Rivero, who has scored in all three matches since arriving in Vancouver.
The Timbers may receive an injury boost, with The Province's Marc Weber tweeting that full-back Alvas Powell will be available for Saturday's game.
If Powell returns in time, Whitecaps' left-back Jordan Harvey could be in for a long night. Dairon Asprilla is also slated to start on the right flank. Rodney Wallace, Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi will likely be in the lineup and will all be deadly going forward.
Houston Dynamo vs. Colorado Rapids: The Spine
The spine of a team consists of the goalkeeper, the center backs, central midfielders and the striker. That being said, the Houston Dynamo will be missing some key "vertebrae" in Luis Garrido, Oscar Boniek Garcia, Giles Barnes and Jermaine Taylor.
Two midfielders (Garrido, Garcia), a striker (Barnes) and a center back (Taylor) will be on international duty for the Dynamo, which forces head coach Owen Coyle to tinker his lineup.
Houston's opponents, the Colorado Rapids, won't have center back Shane O'Neill, but midfielders Marcelo Sarvas, Dillon Powers, Vicente Sanchez and Gabriel Torres will still be available.
Powers is especially crucial to the Rapids' plans. Since Houston doesn't have a few key players, this is a great chance for Colorado to record its first win of the season.
FC Dallas vs. Seattle Sounders: Clint Dempsey's Fitness
Clint Dempsey suffered a hamstring injury that was supposed to sideline the U.S. international for two to three weeks. However, United States national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann told Fox Soccer's Kyle McCarthy that the knock isn't that bad.
The News Tribune's Don Ruiz reported Dempsey told Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid he feels fine. Ruiz also tweeted that Lamar Neagle partnered Obafemi Martins in training, but Schmid downplayed the implications for this weekend's game.
Dempsey's fitness is clearly important. If he returns too soon, he could seriously damage his hamstring and miss a long stretch of matches. However, his partnership with Martins is crucial to the Sounders' success.
If the American cannot start, Dallas still has to be wary of quick, rapid counterattacks. The Hoops managed to combat the Sounders in last year's playoffs, so they'll be ready whether it's Neagle or Dempsey up front with Martins.
Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union: Finishing
The Philadelphia Union had opportunities to score in the first half against FC Dallas last week. However, Zach Pfeffer's red card was the beginning of the end as they succumbed to defeat.
The Union have a chance to redeem themselves against the hapless Chicago Fire on Sunday. Chicago has looked disorganized and players have been deployed in the wrong roles—Shaun Maloney, for example, has played as a deep-lying midfielder when he's actually a No. 10.
The Fire have conceded the fourth-most shots in MLS at 15.3 per game, via WhoScored.com. The Union will have opportunities, but their poor finishing has caused them to languish near the bottom of the standings. These are games Philly have to win if they want to make the playoffs.
Real Salt Lake vs. Toronto FC: RSL Must Expose TFC's Defense
Toronto FC's defense is going to look significantly different on Sunday against Real Salt Lake. John Molinaro of Sportsnet reports up to four defenders could miss the game with injuries. Meanwhile, left-back Justin Morrow is suspended.
Molinaro says TFC head coach Greg Vanney expects Damien Perquis to be fit, but apart from Nick Hagglund and Warren Creavalle, the defensive depth could be extremely thin. Toronto is also missing midfielder Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore. Both players are crucial to TFC's success.
Real Salt Lake will also be missing key players due to international duty. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielders Luis Gil and forward Alvaro Saborio are away, but RSL have coped with these situations before. Saborio was out for most of last season and the team still qualified for the playoffs.
RSL may have three significant players missing, but Toronto has even more absentees, especially at the back. The hosts have the capability of turning Sunday's match into a blowout.
Peter Galindo covers MLS and U.S. soccer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.