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MLS weekend open thread: Your guide to D.C. United’s bye week

Last week was nuts. Can Zlatan et al keep us entertained again?

D.C. United doesn’t have a game this weekend, which has to feel like a small mercy at this point. The Black-and-Red need this time on the training ground to get their act together, and for important players like Russell Canouse to get healthy and make a return to the lineup. Taking off this weekend to accommodate Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League needs might actually be a blessing in disguise; United did not really need a road game against the strongest team in MLS right now.

That leaves us with a void to fill, though. There are still eight MLS matches going on this weekend, and they all provide something of interest. Unfortunately, they’re not that promising as far as United’s spot in the standings goes, with three teams in the East (all in coastal states) hosting teams from the opposite coast. This is another way of saying that three of United’s competitors for playoff spots have probable wins on their hands.

Anyway, before we get too far down that rabbit hole, here’s a little bit about each game this weekend:

New England Revolution vs. Montreal Impact

When: Friday, 7:30pm
TV/streaming: MLS Live, TSN 1 (Canada only)

Both of these sides have done better than most expected out of the gate, with the Revs going 2-1-1 while the Impact have won twice and lost twice. New England’s March is Extremely MLS, though: they have a respectable win at Houston and a creditable draw against NYCFC (making them the only team to avoid defeat against the Pigeons thus far), but they also have a loss to the Union on their record.

Montreal is probably the more interesting team here, having recently deployed a 532 that featured no out-and-out forward. Remi Garde’s side also appears to be improving steadily, having followed losses in their first two games with wins over TFC and Seattle (the latter on the road). That zero-striker set-up feels likely to return tonight, so if you want to see something innovative and/or strange, l’Impact is who you should pay attention to.

Atlanta United vs. Los Angeles FC

When: Saturday, 5:00pm
TV/streaming: ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN3

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is suspended for this one, which is very bad news for Atlanta. While LGP has been erratic this season, he’s still easily their most talented defender, and their options to replace him include their only proven defensive midfielder, a player who has zero MLS minutes, or a wingback. Greg Garza also appears to be a significant doubt, so if Atlanta maintains the 3412 they’ve been running since it helped them trounce D.C., they’ve got some major areas of concern.

LAFC, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with dusting themselves off after letting a 3-0 lead become a 4-3 loss in last week’s preposterous game against the Galaxy. Bob Bradley’s team have, boring jerseys aside, largely been very good outside of the final half hour of last week’s match, and it’ll be important for them to prove that this was a Zlatan-influenced aberration rather than someone figuring them out in such dramatic fashion.

Instead of picking a player to focus on, I’ll just say that this one projects to be very fun. ATL’s defense is probably going to give up some goals, but they’re also a committed high-pressing team, which should unsettle LAFC (who take plenty of risks building out of the back) quite a bit. Both teams have the firepower to turn the issues of their opponent into goals. I don’t want to jinx it, but I expect a shootout.

Philadelphia Union vs. San Jose Earthquakes

When: Saturday, 7:00pm
TV/streaming: MLS Live

Jumping to this one from ATL-LAFC feels like it’ll be a significant comedown. The Union have been shut out in two straight, and largely put most of their eggs in the “win 1-0” basket. Despite adding David Accam and Czech playmaker Borek Dockal, Philly’s attack seems largely shrug-worthy at this point, and their best goalscoring option right now might actually be Haris Medunjanin’s free kick service.

If there’s a hope for fun in this game, it’s probably the Quakes, who have seen 13 total goals scored in their three games so far. San Jose doesn’t look particularly good so far under Mikael Stahre, but they do look like they’re staying committed to playing more open soccer after finally breaking away from Dominic Kinnear last season. They’re a bit naive judging from their attempt to play a double-pivot in which no one really helps shield the center backs, but that’s their problem, not ours.

This game hinges on who gets their way. San Jose, even on the road, will likely send their fullbacks forward, with their “wide” midfielders actually spending more time drifting inside into what is being called a 4222 (I don’t quite think it goes that far, but that’s splitting some particularly nerdy hairs). They’re looking to create goals, and they’re willing to risk space at the back to do it.

Philly, meanwhile, is more likely to try and grind this game out. They’ll play 4231, they’ll foul if they need to, and they’re probably quite worried about their extremely young back four. Last week, the group they sent out set an MLS record for lowest average age. If this game has a staccato feel, the Union are probably going to be just fine with that. Maybe it’s something with teams in the mid-Atlantic, I don’t know.

FC Dallas vs. Colorado Rapids

When: Saturday, 8:00pm
TV/streaming: MLS Live

I don’t have a solid read on Dallas at this point. Their CCL exit at the hands of Tauro FC was humiliating; there are USL teams that would have been at least equal with the Panamanian club. They’ve rebounded with an unbeaten start in MLS, but they haven’t played a good team yet. RSL has been the biggest disappointment in the league in my eyes, while Seattle is a mess right now and Portland is simply not that talented of a team any more.

The Rapids used to be avoidable viewing, but they have at least become more interesting under Anthony Hudson. I don’t think they’re actually good, and a lot of what they’re doing is based on simply working hard and being very enthusiastic (which is not a viable long-term strategy in MLS any more), but they’re at least using an interesting shape in the process. Hudson calls it a 352, but his wingbacks don’t push up very high, and at times new forward Joe Mason is actually more of an attacking midfielder; there are moments when this is a 5311.

That said, they’re making progress. For the first time in ages, I’m actually interested in seeing what the Rapids are truly made of, and if they can push beyond just being a hard-working bunch. They’re more interesting, frankly, than Dallas is right now.

Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew

When: Saturday, 8:30pm
TV/streaming: MLS Live

This game is obviously pertinent to United fans, as the Crew are coming to Annapolis for next week’s “home” game that is basically a playoff game as far as the Black-and-Red go. United has to find a way to leverage what they did right against the Crew (that good start, for example) to give themselves a lead while avoiding the extremely aggravating mistakes that ended up completely wasting that good start by halftime. They’ve also got to get a better handle on the Crew’s set piece design, because if they’re as helpless in those situations as they were last week, they’re probably going to lose regardless of what happens during the open play portion of the game.

So mostly, I’m hoping Chicago can function as a useful scout in this one. They’re willing to high-press, like United is, and their defensive record is actually worse on a goals-per-game basis (they’ve given up 8 goals in 3 outings). If the Fire can figure out how to solve Columbus in Bridgeview, it’ll give me a modicum of hope about next week’s critical game out here in my neck of the woods.

Real Salt Lake vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

When: Saturday, 9:30pm
TV/streaming: MLS Live

It’s fair to criticize Vancouver’s approach to games, which is largely built around long balls, fouling, set pieces, and physicality more than anything else. They’re the least fun team to watch in the league right now. But, sadly, it’s working for them. The Whitecaps have 10 points, and they’re probably solid favorites to beat RSL despite this game being in Utah.

Speaking of the home team, they’re a puzzle to me right now. Last year, they were among the best teams in the league from late summer onward, and only missed the playoffs because of their poor start under Jeff Cassar. This year, though, they’ve looked vulnerable, with blowout losses to LAFC (at home) and TFC sandwiching their sole win, a 1-0 victory at home over what was basically NYRB2.

Orlando City vs. Portland Timbers

When: Sunday, 4:00pm
TV/streaming: ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN3

I’ve got to say, this one feels like it’ll be a blowout. Orlando put it together in the 4231 they’re so obviously built to play last week, and the Timbers attack right now doesn’t appear to be functioning correctly enough to take advantage of a Lions defense that appears...generous, let’s call it.

The Timbers are facing their longest road trip of the season, which generally bodes poorly for any MLS club, and there’s also a good old fashioned talent deficit involved here. Portland has a lot of role players starting right now, particularly in the back, and they strike me as a team that is going to regret not doing more to restock this winter. Hey, that sounds familiar!

LA Galaxy vs. Sporting Kansas City

When: Sunday, 9:00pm
TV/streaming: Fox Sports 1, Fox Soccer Match Pass, Fox Sports Go

The narrative is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic came in and completely changed the Galaxy last week, but we have to give some credit to Sigi Schmid’s tactical adjustments as well. Sure, they needed magic from Zlatan, and some good fortune on their winner, but they also needed to create a platform for any of that to happen, and they did so by inverting their midfield triangle to disrupt LAFC.

Schmid has been very flexible in terms of formation this year. If you go back to the preseason, LA has spent chunks of time playing 4231, 433, 532, and 442, and we’re only in March. That’s very un-Sigi, and it might continue to be a thing as they get Ibra up to full fitness. When he comes into games, it’ll probably be as a second forward for the time being, but eventually LA has to figure out how to incorporate Romain Alessandrini (currently injured) and the Dos Santos brothers into one team.

KC, meanwhile, got back to their basics last week against United. The free-scoring team that couldn’t defend that started the season was replaced by the Sporks we all know and dislike. KC didn’t give United the chance to switch the point of attack very often, and they were comfortable with sacrificing something going forward to make sure that was the case. However, with Felipe Gutierrez sounding doubtful to play, can they actually repeat the trick? A team with Zlatan and Ola Kamara is a lot more trouble to contain than United is, after all.

That wraps it up. Let us know in the comments what games you’re watching, what you’re interested to see, and anything else you’re doing with your weekend away from the Black-and-Red.