MLS will soon join the rest of the world by halting play and shifting its attention to the World Cup for a fortnight. The break can’t arrive soon enough.
Clubs around the league are stretched beyond the point of comfort. It isn’t just one or two players drifting off to Brazil to feature on the grand stage. It isn’t even a handful of them. Scores of players are coping with injuries or tending to international commitments.
The wreckage left behind leaves teams scrambling to manage their squads and patch together lineups to fulfill fixtures. The situation offers reserves an opportunity to stake their claims for more playing time, but it also places pressure on teams to churn out results – and these matches still matter a great deal – with something less than an ideal squad.
Most teams are struggling to establish any sort of balance or rhythm amid the chaos. Houston can’t find 18 players to fill out its matchday squad. Sporting Kansas City could have held open tryouts to plug the gaping hole in central defense. New York lost Dax McCarty to a knee injury this week after waving goodbye to Tim Cahill and Roy Miller for World Cup duty. Chicago, Colorado, Columbus and Real Salt Lake (also marred by U.S. national team callups) fielded reserves liberally in midweek to navigate through their congested schedules ahead of the fortnight off.
The adjustments take a toll on the performances submitted and the standard of play across the league. There is a difference between relying on squad depth (a necessity over the course of a 34-game season) to plug gaps and stitching all of the pieces together to field a team week after week. Some intact teams will hope to take advantage of the problems encountered by other clubs this weekend, but many sides will just hope to meander their way through to the dead period scheduled between June 12 and June 25.
The upcoming interlude will allow these teams to reset a bit and work their way back toward full strength. In the meantime, this weekend just provides one last opportunity to muddle through and survive this complicated period before obtaining a necessary respite once it concludes.
Five Points – Week 14
1. Houston, Sporting Kansas City renew hostilities: These two frequent foes aren’t at full strength heading into this affair on Friday night, but they will apply themselves nevertheless in a bid to snatch a result before the break. Keep a close eye on Sporting in central defense with Kevin Ellis and Erik Palmer-Brown both in the mix to start with Aurélien Collin (hamstring) ruled out yet again.
2. Is Columbus positioning itself to move for a center forward?: Crew head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter cited salary budget considerations as part of the reason why he shipped Dominic Oduro to Toronto FC in exchange for Alvaro Rey on Friday morning. Oduro is a useful, if somewhat inconsistent, contributor at this level, while Rey flatters to deceive despite his technical ability. Even with the gulf in potential impact between the players, the move makes sense if Berhalter can use the purported additional funds (there is a difference of $50,000 or so in guaranteed compensation between Oduro and Rey, per MLS Players Union documents, but the actual relief acquired is unknown) to finally draw the Crew’s protracted search for a useful number nine to a successful conclusion.
3. Oscar Pareja meets his former Colorado charges for the first time: Pareja swapped Commerce City for Frisco during the close season. The move worked out well enough for both sides – Pareja is back with FCD, while the Rapids identified Pablo Mastroeni as the man to lead them forward – after all of the wrangling. This game provides an opportunity to make a direct, if somewhat flawed, comparison about the progress made by the two clubs since their offseason dealings.
4. Can Portland find its equilibrium at Real Salt Lake?: Merritt Paulson is yelling at referees. Caleb Porter is jousting with the press. And the Timbers aren’t winning games (three from 14 attempts after the controversial 4-3 defeat to Vancouver last weekend). Portland could desperately use a result or two over the next few days (at RSL on Saturday, home to FC Dallas on Wednesday) to relieve some of the pressure and slide this frustrating season back on track before the break.
5. Intelligent scheduling gives New England an edge over New York: These two teams could have played on a temporary grass surface installed at Gillette Stadium for the friendly between Mexico and Portugal on Friday. They will instead play on the usual artificial surface on Sunday. The benefit to the home side: the turf-averse duo of Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave will almost certainly join the Red Bulls’ lengthy list of absentees for the encounter.
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