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Saturday, 7 July 2012

Foresight – MLS Round 16 Weekend Preview

Four questions to be answered in this the sixteenth weekend of MLS action.

Which struggling contender will use this weekend’s home match to get off the snide?

    Three of the league’s powerhouse clubs – Kansas City, Salt Lake, and Seattle - will be playing home matches on Saturday – against Houston, Portland, and Colorado, respectively. One could be forgiven for having forgotten that in their last combined fifteen matches those three clubs have only combined for three – yes, three – wins.

    Kansas City have fared the best of late after a dismal run surrounding the International break that saw them drop five of their last eleven matches against lowly opposition such as Montreal, Philadelphia, and Portland, as well as losing two meetings with Chicago.

    Salt Lake are winless in four matches – including a run of three straight defeats - and have been shutout in back-to-back matches. The string of three losses represents their worst run since 2007 saw a run of four straight mere weeks after Jason Kreis took over the management of the club.

    Seattle are in the midst of a club record – in MLS – winless streak that has stretched to nine matches with the goalless draw in Salt Lake midweek.

    Of course there are extenuating circumstances: injuries, suspensions, heavy schedules and in Salt Lake’s case, a lack of power in Columbus have all contributed to these unexpected stumbles, but each will be looking to right their proverbial ship and set course for the top of the tables and the playoffs.

    Added to those three is the curious case of Los Angeles.

    The reigning champion Galaxy looked back after rattling off a run of three wins in a week to shoot up the Western Conference table, only to lose the next two – in San Jose and against Philadelphia – both in heartbreaking manner, halting their progress and allowing those they thought to have left behind to make up ground.

    LA travel to Chicago on Sunday.

    Will any of these supposed contenders get back on track this round?

At the opposite end of the spectrum prospects are looking better for four of the lowest ranked clubs in the league. Can any of the struggles rise and reignite their playoff hopes?

    In the West, Dallas and Portland have struggled mightily this season.

    Dallas are riding a twelve match winless streak that is testing the record books, while Portland has not been able to find the consistency required to compete each weekend.

    Despite the poor results both have been slowly putting together strong performances. Portland can draw upon wins against hated rivals Seattle and conference and league leaders San Jose in recent matches as they brace for the rowdies at the Rio Tinto. Dallas has drawn their last two, limiting opposition to a lone goal over the one hundred and eighty minutes, while welcoming back many – but not all – of the players whose absence has been so costly. Their match, hosting San Jose, will be a stiff test, but now is as good a time as any to end the streak.

    In the East, the bottom two – Philadelphia and Toronto – meet in a battle of the basement. The match is a contest for relevance as under the new tutelage of freshly installed managers Jack Hackworth and Paul Mariner both have done better, climbing to within striking distance of the once distant pack.

    It is early days still but wins over LA and KC have announced the Union as a side to be reckoned with for the second half of the season, while Toronto has put together a run of five matches unbeaten. Both are still some ways adrift at the base of the table, but three points would do nicely towards amending that injustice.

With a handful of new additions being introduced to the league, which will have the biggest influence on their new side’s proceedings? And what of those returning from injury?

    Barry Robson in Vancouver; Alex and Chris Rolfe in Chicago; Oscar Boniek Garcia in Houston; Jerry Bengston in New England; Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta in Montreal; Jairo Arrieta in Columbus; to name but a few of the recent additions to MLS over the past few weeks.

    David Ferreira returned to the pitch after a year and a half away for Dallas; Omar Gonzalez made his surprise debut from an offseason knee injury; both are incredibly important pieces for their clubs.

    MLS is always better off having its stars on the pitch, the second half is poised to be excellent viewing.

As teams meet for the second time – which club has learned the lessons of the previous meeting and which will exert domination over their opponent?

    Round Two – Fight!

    One of the positive aspects of the unbalanced schedule is that conference rivals will be forced to beat the teams that they are in direct competition with more often.

    With most of the one-off, cross-conference clashes out of the way in the first few months of the calendar, what remains will be a serious of intense second and third meetings between clubs.

    This weekend, six matches pit teams that have met previously met against one another once more, while a further two are the first match of what will be a three-game series come season’s end. Leaving only one of those less-consequential East-West contests – as Chicago hosts LA.

    As the temperature rises and the tension mounts these six-pointers will come fast and teams will be able to make up and lose ground very quickly. With all five playoff spots on each side of the bracket restricted to that specific conference this year’s race could well be the best in years.

Kansas City v Houston; Salt Lake v Portland; Dallas v San Jose; Chivas v Vancouver; Seattle v Colorado; Chicago v Los Angeles; Philadelphia v Toronto; New England v New York; Montreal v Columbus.

NB – There is some discrepancy as to which number weekend this is. I have taken the decision to overlook the two international weekends of a single MLS fixture as non-existent, hence the designation of round sixteen.

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