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Saturday 28 July 2012

Foresight – MLS Round 19 Preview

Four questions to be answered in this the nineteenth round proper of MLS weekend action:

When Montreal and Thierry Henry square off in another French connection, can the Impact finally get one over on their Francophone opponent?

    New York returns to Montreal for the second time this season in fine form and with a host of starters fit once again. Having keep clean-sheets in their last two matches, back-stopped by new acquisition Bill Gaudette – an old foe and former minder of Montreal’s from the USL days - something they had struggled to do previously, Red Bull will hope to maintain their slim lead at the top of the Eastern Conference.

    Heath Pearce, Jan Gunnar Solli, and Ryan Meara are all available for selection, and for once manager Hans Backe has some positive selection headaches. Rafa Marquez is, of course, not available, but Henry looks to figure, alongside Kenny Cooper and Sebastien Le Toux in attack.

    Montreal appears set to feature yet another central defensive pairing, as Alessandro Nesta makes his MLS debut alongside the convalescent Nelson Rivas. Consistency has been difficult to come by for the expansion side – they despise that label, by the way – and following a disappointing performance in Houston last weekend, they will hope to respond with a result against a headline opponent.

It will be New York and Montreal’s third and final meeting of the season, two other matches – Portland v Chivas and Colorado v Seattle – will also be the final chance each club has at getting points over on their conference rivals. Who will close out the season series on a high?

    New York has gotten the better of Montreal in their previous two meetings, winning 5-2 at home and 2-1 in Montreal, despite playing a man down for a significant portion of the match after Victor Palsson picked up two bookings after sixty minutes.

    Chivas has taken both matches – 1-2 at Portland and 1-0 at home – so far this season, but have struggled for goals. Portland has had a forgettable season, but getting one over on the foe that has inflicted such pain is as good a place as any to start the overhaul.

    Seattle has already twice beaten Colorado at home – 1-0 in April and 2-1 earlier this month – but must attempt the sweep on the road in the thin, mountain air of the Rockies.

    Colorado has had a woeful month and a half since the calendar broke for international play: Five straight losses - seven of their last eight - often taking the lead, only to squander it later in the match. They will host a rested and shaken Sounders side, having shipped Alvaro Fernandez to Chicago for allocation and signed German midfielder Christian Tiffert as a third Designated Player.

    Tiffert is unavailable, but first-choice keeper Michael Gspurning looks set to return to the eleven.

    Last match saw the hatchet finally buried between the Seattle crowd and Colorado’s Brian Mullan, as Steve Zakuani returned to the pitch from a devastating injury suffered last season. The post-match embrace was one of the moments of the season.

As if oxygen was not hard enough to come by in the lofty climes of Colorado, Osvaldo Alonso and Eddie Johnson, as well as a plethora of players around the league, took part in midweek friendly action. What effect, if any, will these extra exertions have on league play this round?

The All-Star match against Chelsea, and a handful of international friendlies cluttered the midweek schedule in lieu of league action.

    Montreal hosted Lyon; LA, Tottenham; KC, Montpellier; Columbus, Stoke City; Colorado, Swansea; and Portland, Aston Villa.

    Granted most teams gave minutes to fringe squad players, academy projects and trialists, but extra minutes, regardless of intensity, can wear, especially at such a crucial stage in the season.

While friendlies can be tiresome, they can also prove a catalyst to a team caught in the monotony of league struggles. Portland went toe-to-toe with Villa, as did Colorado with Swansea; will that emotional spark carry over to clubs down on their luck? Or will those who rested fare better?

    Since firing head coach John Spencer at the start of the month, the Timbers have dropped three straight and conceded eleven goals, hardly the sort of commencement to his tenure interim manager Gavin Wilkinson will have envisaged.

    A five-nil loss to Dallas last weekend was simply put an embarrassment and it will be interesting to see what team – both of personnel and of attitude – takes to the field against Chivas on Saturday night.

    Injury to Ryan Smith, who so tortured Portland in their previous meetings, is a small blessing, as was a reportedly solid performance against Villa on a night that may just have reminded all involved why they love and are involved in this game.

    Colorado too put in a strong performance against English – well, Welsh really – opposition but, as discussed above, have found league play difficult. They will hope to carry the positive momentum from one match to the next.

    On the other hand, Dallas took the week off to rest their tired bones and concentrate on the next phase of the season. With no friendly commitments and no representatives at the All-Star game, they will hope the time away will allow them to build on that stunning result against Portland last weekend.

    New England, losers of three straight, likewise had the week to recalculate, as did Toronto - neither had representatives at the midsummer gala either.

    The midway point of the season has come and gone, but there remain enough matches for dramatic alterations to the tables. Who will seize the initiative and who will fall by the wayside?

    Should be a good weekend.

Bonus Notes:

    Dallas v LA will be the two-hundredth MLS match of the season

    It’s Steven Lenhart Wig Night at San Jose, first twenty-five hundred fans get their own blond locks to wear and take home.

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

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