MLS: Keys to Every Game in Week 7
MLS Week 7 started early with New York City FC hosting the Philadelphia Union on Thursday in a rematch from last Saturday.
Friday's UniMas game features the undefeated New York Red Bulls against the San Jose Earthquakes at Red Bull Arena.
Saturday has a full slate of matches, beginning with D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo and culminating with the LA Galaxy welcoming Sporting Kansas City in the late kickoff.
Sunday's nationally televised games should be entertaining, with the Union battling the New England Revolution on ESPN2. NYCFC and the Portland Timbers will square off to finish the week.
Here are the keys to every match this week.
New York Red Bulls vs. San Jose Earthquakes: Lloyd Sam
Lloyd Sam is on pace for his best year in MLS. He's already scored three goals (his career-high is five) and has been a constant threat up front for the New York Red Bulls.
The San Jose Earthquakes will be focused on Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Felipe and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but Sam requires extra attention as well.
With influential midfielders like Kljestan and Felipe in the center of the field, Sam is vital to his team with his presence on the flanks. The 30-year-old has great pace, can keep possession and crosses the ball well.
He'll be a dangerous outlet out wide, especially on counterattacks. Given the slowness of San Jose's defense, the Earthquakes better be careful.
D.C. United vs. Houston Dynamo: Counterattacks
The Houston Dynamo and D.C. United love to catch their opponents on the break. Houston is slightly stronger out wide with Brad Davis, so they have an advantage there. However, D.C. has slightly stronger central midfielders in Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud.
Both teams have been strong defensively, which has helped the sides in attack. The Dynamo have conceded just three times this season, and D.C. has allowed only four goals, two of which came in its match last weekend against the New York Red Bulls.
This means that the teams can counterattack effectively. They sit deep, clog the middle of the pitch, close down the wingers and overlapping full-backs, then immediately counter when they win possession.
Because these clubs like to counterattack, it will be interesting to see how head coaches Owen Coyle and Ben Olsen game-plan.
Columbus Crew vs. Orlando City SC: Crew Midfield
Orlando City SC star Kaka has been neutralized in a couple of matches this season. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo were able to contain the Brazilian for most of their matches and stymied the Orlando attack as a result. The Columbus Crew have the ability to do the same.
Tony Tchani is one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS and will likely start beside Mohammed Saeid as Wil Trapp recovers from a concussion, per Adam Jardy of The Columbus Dispatch.
Saeid has performed relatively well whenever Trapp or Tchani have been unavailable due to suspension or injury.
Tchani and Saeid need to close down Kaka and restrict the space in front of him. If the Crew's midfielders are successful, then Cyle Larin, Kevin Molino and other forwards will probably be invisible, just like the game in Houston on March 13.
FC Dallas vs. Toronto FC: The Health of TFC's Defense
Toronto FC's defense has been swamped with injuries. Damien Perquis, Steven Caldwell and Mark Bloom have all suffered knocks this season. Now Warren Creavalle is suspended for the match against FC Dallas on Saturday.
However, Perquis should be able to start, according to head coach Greg Vanney, per TFC's official website. Vanney doesn't expect Caldwell to be fit, so Nick Hagglund should get the nod. Justin Morrow will also be in the lineup, but right-back remains a concern.
If Bloom isn't available due to his injury, one of Jackson or Marco Delgado will probably be included in the starting XI. Regardless of who Vanney chooses, Dallas should have the advantage.
The constant rotation of TFC's defense has hurt the team. The Reds have scored six goals, but have also conceded eight. Dallas' Blas Perez, Tesho Akindele and Fabian Castillo are all dangerous players who have great strength, finishing abilities and, in Castillo's case, pace.
This points to it being a long night for Toronto on Saturday at Toyota Stadium.
Colorado Rapids vs. Seattle Sounders: Clint Dempsey
Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey was ruled out of last week's game against the LA Galaxy with a hamstring injury. Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid is confident that he'll return on Saturday against the Colorado Rapids, per Jeremiah Oshan of Sounder at Heart.
Seattle desperately needs the U.S. international back in the lineup. Without him against the Galaxy, the team looked timid.
Dempsey's strike partner Obafemi Martins looked lost against the Galaxy, Lamar Neagle was ineffective and Marco Pappa was less influential than in previous games.
The Rapids broke out of their shell last Friday against FC Dallas, but if Dempsey starts, Colorado's usually stingy defense will be exposed.
Real Salt Lake vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: Pedro Morales' Replacement
Saturday would have featured a battle between Javier Morales and Pedro Morales, but the latter is suspended for the Vancouver Whitecaps' match against Real Salt Lake. Now head coach Carl Robinson has to decide who will replace the Chilean in his lineup.
Robinson was coy on his ultimate decision this weekend, but he does have a few options, as Michael McColl noted on the Whitecaps' official website:
It's obviously disappointing [to not have Morales]. But it will give someone else an opportunity. Whether that's Nico [Mezquida], Mauro [Rosales] or we choose to go two up top, then someone else will get the chance. But we'll deal with it. There are other options. We could change the system slightly. Whichever way we decide to go, we didn't perform to the levels that we expect on the weekend, but prior to that we've been very, very good, so we won't change too much.
If Robinson opts to keep the same 4-2-3-1 system, moving Rosales into a central role would be fascinating. He's been moved into the No. 10 role a few times since arriving in Vancouver and has looked threatening. It also allows Mezquida to stay in his usual right-wing role.
Whatever Robinson decides, it's going to affect both Vancouver and RSL. The endless possibilities for the Whitecaps make it difficult for the hosts to prepare, but the visitors are on the road and at elevation, so losing their playmaker is a big blow.
LA Galaxy vs. Sporting Kansas City: SKC's Defense
Sporting Kansas City was dealt a huge blow with the injury to center-back Ike Opara. This will force head coach Peter Vermes to rotate ahead of a tough match against the LA Galaxy on Saturday night.
One of Jalil Anibaba, Erik Palmer-Brown or Kevin Ellis will get the nod from Vermes to replace Opara. Whoever features will be facing a fearsome forward duo of Gyasi Zardes and Robbie Keane, who is returning from injury.
Sporting KC might catch a break if LA coach Bruce Arena opts to rest Zardes, who started for the U.S. men's national team against Mexico on Wednesday. However, SKC would then have to deal with a physical striker in Alan Gordon.
The Galaxy will have the advantage due to the lack of familiarity between the opposing center-backs, but SKC had an entire week to prepare. They might be able to pull off an upset.
Philadelphia Union vs. New England Revolution: Central Midfield
New England Revolution midfielder Jermaine Jones returned from injury last week, but was taken off at halftime against the Columbus Crew. Head coach Jay Heaps said that the substitution was planned as Jones continues to gain match fitness, per Fox's Inside MLS.
With a week of rest, the U.S. international should be able to play for at least an hour against the Philadelphia Union on Sunday. Jones will be tasked with covering Sebastien Le Toux, Cristian Maidana or whoever starts in the center of the field for the Union.
Lee Nguyen will be deployed in his usual No. 10 role and will be a danger man for New England. The Revs attack is slowly returning to the form they hit at the end of last season, and Nguyen has contributed to the resurgence.
New England is a balanced attacking team because it can threaten from the flanks and through the middle of the field. The Revolution have the advantage centrally, so it's up to the Union to utilize their width and counter the Revs when they're higher up the pitch.
New York City FC vs. Portland Timbers: Adam Nemec
New York City FC's attack is one of the strongest in MLS on paper. David Villa has two goals in four appearances, but his strike partner Adam Nemec has yet to score.
Granted, Nemec has been away on international duty and is settling into a new country and league. However, he's mustered just one shot on goal, per the official MLS website, and he hasn't had a ton of opportunities.
The Slovak has been involved in the buildup play, which is admirable, but strikers are judged on goals. Villa cannot be the sole provider of goals because he'll eventually suffer from fatigue.
The Portland Timbers will certainly challenge the NYCFC defense. Portland has accumulated 78 shots this season, the third-most in MLS, per the official website. Nemec will need to help Villa stay toe-to-toe with the Timbers on Sunday.
New York City FC vs. Philadelphia Union: Union Wingers
Philadelphia Union wingers Eric Ayuk and Andrew Wenger torched New York City FC's full-backs last Saturday. Both were involved in the scoring and wreaked havoc for most of the game.
NYCFC's defenders have to be wary of these two players. Cristian Maidana also returned to action from injury, so he could feature in this game as well, which gives New York one more attacker to worry about.
However, Ayuk has played well in recent weeks and is a star in the making. Head coach Jim Curtin doesn't think it's a surprise to see how well the 18-year-old has performed, per Ed Farnsworth of the Philly Soccer Page:
[I] can’t say enough about how well the kid has come into a tough environment and not just accepted making the 18, he’s pushed to be a starter, and he’s earned the right to be a starter—I can’t take him off the field after his last two performances. Does he maybe need to pace himself a little bit? I don’t want to take that away from him, but in order to sustain 90 minutes, he’s not quite able to do that—he’s young, he’s still building up his engine, so to speak, and his fitness level.
It appears as if Ayuk may get another start, and if that's the case, NYCFC needs to close him down whenever he's on the ball.
Peter Galindo covers MLS and U.S. soccer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.