RSL faces Montreal; Colorados seek first place; Vieira clicking with NYCFC
It's Friday, which means it's time to preview the major weekend storylines in Major League Soccer.
Expect goals as Montreal visits Salt Lake
A West vs. East battle on Saturday pits two of the league's more entertaining attacking teams against each another. After a difficult 2015, RSL has rounded into a real contender for honors under Jeff Cassar. It wasn't long ago that the Utah club seemed destined to fade into irrelevancy following the exodus of the architects of its glory years.
But even with Jason Kreis, Garth Lagerwey and Bill Manning gone for different pastures, RSL has retained enough of its institutional know-how in 2016 to put together a team that the Western Conference should eye warily.
The team is getting another strong year out of its core group of veterans, has injected a number of young, talented new players, and boasts one of the most dangerous forward corps in the league.
Any talk about RSL's next game also demands a mention of Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez, one of the aforementioned forwards. The Argentine is as good on the ball as any player in the league and has taken it upon himself to create a number of goals for his club this season. Close control like Martinez possesses is a rarity in Major League Soccer, in large part because overly physical play tends to punish players who have it.
Montreal was without Didier Drogba in last week's 3-2 home win over New England and it looks as it the Impact might not have him in Utah, either. Drogba is a one-man scoring machine at times but there's a good argument to be made that the team plays better without him in the lineup. After Michael Salazar's brace against the Revs, the Belizean will be demanding more time in the Montreal lineup.
As long as Drogba is unable to play, Mauro Biello has the freedom to try out his other options and against good competition in RSL defenders Aaron Maund and Justen Glad.
Howard, Rapids head to Vancouver
The Rapids may not hold the lead in the West anymore, but they remain the league's best team in terms of points per game. That means quite a bit with the MLS schedule putting teams on different numbers of games played at the effective halfway point. If Colorado maintains this rate, it will find itself back on top soon enough.
Last week, Colorado played to a goalless draw with the Portland Timbers in Tim Howard's debut. A shutout is a great way to start at a new club for any goalkeeper, nevertheless one back in MLS after more than a decade away and coming off a tough season abroad.
Now Howard will attempt to repeat the feat on the road in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps are among the league's least impressive home sides: the Whitecaps' talent hasn't shown up consistently enough in 2016, leaving Carl Robinson's side scrambling for points in the competitive Western Conference playoff race.
Despite the Whitecaps' troubles, Howard should expect to face more than the two shots on goal he saved in last week's draw with the Timbers. In its loss to the LA Galaxy last time out, Vancouver took a whopping 27 shots with four on target. The problems for Robinson's team revolve around the forward position, where Erick Hurtado and an aging Blas Perez represent the best options. Neither is clinical enough to pose regular danger.
First and foremost, Colorado will attempt to slow down Vancouver through midfield. That's the Rapids' bread-and-butter, an identity that flows from their head coach, former defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, and is embodied by do-everything man Jermaine Jones.
He put in a lot of work for the U.S. at the Copa America this summer, meaning fatigue could be a factor for his 34-year-old legs. The responsibility to pick up the slack, should Jones leave any, will fall to a lesser class of player.
Vieira finding right balance as NYCFC face SKC
The best road team in the league takes its act to Kansas City, where Sporting is notorious for letting games slip from its grasp at Children's Mercy Park. New York City FC is suddenly among the league's hottest teams, putting together a run that has them atop the Eastern Conference and not all that far away from the Supporters' Shield leaders.
Not only is NYCFC hot, the club is a must-watch at this juncture. Patrick Vieira has done a excellent job finding the right balance between experience and youth, and it has helped turn his team into a fun one to follow.
At home on the constrictive field jammed into Yankee Stadium, nothing looks like good soccer. On the road, where the team can stretch itself out and take better advantage of the skillsets of their players, NYCFC can claim the title of "most attractive" in MLS.
NYCFC doesn't lack for subplots as it climbs the standings in the East, either. There's the rise of Jack Harrison, an English teenager who came of age in the United States and is getting mentioned as a potential international for two countries.
There's the continued good play of Tommy McNamara, who set up Frank Lampard's winner on Wednesday night in New England and there's R.J. Allen, whose emergence at fullback has come after his pro career nearly ended.
That's what makes NYCFC fascinating: A team with a cadre of world-famous players on multi-million dollar salaries paid by one of the world's richest soccer owners also has a handful or the more traditional American soccer stories or grit and determination.
Vieira knows what he's doing tactically and has imparted some European wisdom on his team, but there's no doubt that the players are also benefiting from elements that don't fit into the club's flashier image.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.