Seattle in search of home comforts and first win against NY Red Bulls
Jason Davis takes a look at some of the top matchups and storylines ahead of Week 3 of the 2017 Major League Soccer season in this edition of W2W4.
Atlanta the favorite against established Chicago?
Expansion side Atlanta stays in the spotlight Saturday in just its third-ever match as an MLS franchise. Through two games, Atlanta has shown that the combination of South American coaching and young South American talent will be something to watch all year long.
Atlanta United returns home to Bobby Dodd Stadium and another sold-out crowd after last week's 6-1 romp in the snow vs. Minnesota United. Although this week's opponents, the Fire, were among the league's worst teams in 2016, Veljko Paunovic's group is better organized and more defensively sound than the Loons. In other words, we shouldn't expect another six-goal outburst.
But the dynamics of the game do mean that Atlanta will expect to win. A full house witnessed the disappointment of the home-opener loss to the New York Red Bulls, something Gerardo "Tata" Martino's squad will want to amend in the second attempt. Chicago is the established MLS team with a history going back to 1998, but it won't be the favorite in the minds of the 55,000-plus in the building.
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However, Chicago won't be a pushover. Last week's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake showed the promise of the rebuilt Fire. The game marked the first appearance in the center of midfield for the club's new linchpin combination, Dax McCarty and Juninho. Both players are healthy and ready to go in Atlanta, where a small field plays into their ability to clog up the midfield and make things difficult for Atlanta.
On the other end, United will have destroyer Carlos Carmona back in the team after a one-week suspension. The Chile midfielder's return should help Atlanta deal with slashing runs of David Accam and Arturo Alvarez from the wings.
Defensively, the Fire will have their hands full and anything they get out of the match will depend on their ability to deal with quartet of Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, Hector Villalba and the reigning player of the week, Josef Martinez.
Seattle seeks home comforts against red-hot Red Bulls
The Sounders will be at home for the first time in 2017 when they host the Red Bulls at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. It's another chance for the Sounders to notch a first win in 2017. In the first two weeks of the schedule, the defending MLS Cup champions have just one point after a loss at the Houston Dynamo and a comeback draw against the Montreal Impact that should have Seattle feeling good at kickoff.
The comeback means something for the confidence of the team, but it will take a bit more than a late burst of quality for Seattle to grab three points against New York. Brian Schmetzer is undoubtedly happy to have Clint Dempsey healthy and back with the team, but it hasn't exactly clicked for the combination of Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris so far. Morris, who carried so much of the load in Dempsey's absence during the team's run to the MLS Cup title in 2016, has yet to appear on the scoresheet.
Against New York, the key will be to break the Red Bulls' trademark press. Taking care of the ball will be the Sounders' first job on Sunday night.
The Red Bulls arrive in town coming off a second straight win. They also bring an 18-game unbeaten streak into the game that dates back to last year. It took a Rapids own goal for the Red Bulls to prevail over Tim Howard and Colorado last weekend, thanks largely to the heroics of the U.S. national team stopper. Howard's seven saves speak to the ability of the New York attack to create chances, but the finishing needs to improve.
The Sounders will have to slow that Red Bulls attack without starting center back Roman Torres, who was suspended by the disciplinary committee for violent conduct in last week's match in Montreal.
Portland hosts Houston in battle of the West's top two
If the Dynamo aren't the most surprising team in the early going of the 2017 season, they're certainly in the conversation. Two wins from their first two games -- over the defending champions and a talented Columbus Crew SC team -- have the boys in orange riding high. New signings Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto have added an element of danger from the wings to go with Erick Torres' resurgent form at striker. The 4-3-3 that the Dynamo run under Wilmer Cabrera has caught their opponents by surprise, with the attacking trio free to buzz around and use their dynamic abilities in space to create goals.
Case in point: Elis' opener for Houston last week when Crew SC keeper Zack Steffen lost track of the Honduran and attempted to play the ball on the ground. Good teams force those type of mistakes. Cabrera brings a full strength team into Portland, looking to keep the hot start going and prove the Dynamo can win on the road.
There's a lot of "pounce" in this Houston team, something the Timbers will need to be wary of, especially with first-choice defender Liam Ridgewell set to miss the match due to injury. Portland, who has also won both of its first two matches, has been beset by injuries in the early part of the year, particularly along the back line. Last week, Roy Miller subbed in for Ridgewell, while 18-year-old homegrown signing Marco Farfan got his senior-team debut in place of usual right-back Vytas. If the day-to-day Vytas can't go, expect the youngster to get a second-straight start and his first appearance in front of the home fans.
Caleb Porter may also have to juggle further up the formation if midfielder David Guzman can't play. There are options, with Ben Zemanski or Darlington Nagbe capable of playing in that role, and a choice of Darren Mattocks or Dairon Asprilla ready to play on the wing if needed. Whatever the changes, the Timbers bring a strong attack that will challenge the Dynamo back line from whistle to whistle.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.