Summer is fast approaching, and with it the next round of World Cup qualifiers, which means time is running out for U.S. national team prospects to impress their way into contention for a call-up.
Major League Soccer's Week 11 features several good showcase opportunities for players on the fringes of the U.S. player pool, including a battle in Florida that Bruce Arena himself will be taking in. Sporting Kansas City's visit to Orlando City Stadium will not only be a chance to impress Arena in person, but also a chance for both teams to erase the bad taste of recent disappointing results after outstanding starts to the season.
The Orlando City-Sporting KC encounter is a contender for best match of the weekend, but that distinction goes to New York City FC's visit to FC Dallas, which may not have as many U.S. national team prospects on display, but promises to be an entertaining contest played at as high a level as MLS has to offer.
Here is a closer look at the key talking points heading into MLS Week 11:
IT'S A BIG WEEKEND FOR ... USA HOPEFULS
Bruce Arena is in Florida for a series of events, and will be at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday night to get a close look at U.S. national team prospects on both sides, which should only add to the spectacle of a tasty inter-conference clash.
Which prospects will Arena have his eye on in Orlando? Here are the leading candidates:
Benny Feilhaber. Currently in the midst of an excellent season for Sporting KC, Feilhaber will face off against a tough Orlando City midfield that includes Antonio Nocerino and Will Johnson, and very well could play himself onto the U.S. squad for June qualifiers with a strong showing. Jermaine Jones' recent knee injury has Arena searching for central midfield options and this could be the match that swings Feilhaber into Arena's selection list.
Tim Melia and Joe Bendik. Arguably the most impressive American goalkeepers in the league so far this season, Melia and Bendik have both been key reasons why their respective teams are off to strong starts in 2017. Nick Rimando is injured and Brad Guzan is coming off a season at Middlesbrough where he barely played. That should leave at least one goalkeeper spot open for Arena to fill with an MLS option if he likes what he sees. Foreign-based options like Ethan Horvath and William Yarbrough are certainly still in contention, but Melia and Bendik have played well enough to merit a call.
Ike Opara. You can make a very strong argument for Opara being the best defender in MLS so far this season, and though the center back position is a deep one for the United States at the moment, Arena will want to have an in-person look at Opara. Having Cyle Larin as the player Opara must stop isn't a bad showcase test either.
Jonathan Spector. There weren't many defenders in MLS better than Spector through the first quarter of the season, and though he has been out of the national team picture for a few years, his recent play merits a closer look.
DON'T MISS ... FC DALLAS vs. NEW YORK CITY FC
When these high-flying teams met at Yankee Stadium a year ago, they produced one of the most entertaining matches of the season. Expect more of the same on Saturday, as NYCFC's attack is even stronger while FC Dallas is a better overall team than in 2016.
FC Dallas enters this game as the only remaining unbeaten team in MLS, and Oscar Pareja's squad is particularly tough at home. NYCFC was the best road team in the league last season, and has won two straight on the road.
The battle in midfield will be particularly fun to watch, with Carlos Gruezo (or Victor Ulloa) trying to contain Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring trying to out-duel Kellyn Acosta. Michael Barrios could play a key role against an NYCFC side still missing injured standout Ronald Matarrita at left back.
The FC Dallas attack will look to test an NYCFC defense that has looked vulnerable at times, with Maxi Urruti more than capable of finding chances against the likes of Alexander Callens and Maxim Chanot.
FRIDAY REWIND: DYNAMO DROP WHITECAPS
The Houston Dynamo kicked off MLS Week 11 with a 2-1 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps that moved them into first place in the Western Conference for the moment.
Wilmer Cabrera's men put together another complete performance, avoiding the second-half collapses that plagued them earlier in the season. Yes, Brek Shea's headed goal did make things interesting late on, but the Dynamo weren't the same vulnerable-looking team we saw struggle in the second half of past matches.
Erick 'Cubo' Torres returned with a goal, albeit off the bench and via a penalty kick drawn by Mauro Manotas. Having Torres back still provides a boost, even though Manotas has been solid in his place. The Honduran duo of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis continued to terrorize wide defenders, combining for their latest goal.
A player who deserves credit for his efforts on Friday night is Adolfo Machado, who has been a solid signing for the Dynamo. The Panamanian center back has been a key figure in Houston's improved defending, and he was instrumental in keeping the ever-dangerous Fredy Montero under wraps on Friday.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bastian Schweinsteiger vs. Osvaldo Alonso. The tenacious Cuban takes on the masterful German in what should be a battle for the ages.
Cyle Larin vs. Ike Opara. Larin's combination of size, strength and quickness make him tough to handle, but Opara boasts a similar skill set and matches up well.
Clint Dempsey vs. Dax McCarty. U.S. teammates collide as McCarty will look to keep Dempsey from running wild, which in turn should boost his national team stock.
David Villa vs. Matt Hedges. If Hedges wants a place in the June World Cup qualifiers with the U.S. then shutting down Villa would be a stock-raiser.
Miguel Almiron vs. David Guzman. Almiron has been one of the league's most exciting newcomers, but Guzman has quietly settled in as a dynamite signing in his own right.
Kevin Molino vs. Justin Morrow. Molino is a handful on the right wing, but Morrow is having himself a very good season at multiple positions.
Ignacio Piatti vs. Harrison Afful. The Impact attack is heavily reliant on Piatti's ability to create and take people on, but Afful is one of the league's best right backs and will offer a good challenge.
Greg Garza vs. Sebastian Blanco. With Diego Valeri expected to return, Blanco should slide back to the right wing, where he will offer a stiff test for Garza, who should be in the mix for a U.S. call-up soon.
Jack Harrison vs. Maynor Figueroa. Harrison has been a force this year, but Figueroa has been one of the best left backs in MLS so far this season.
WEEK 11 PREDICTIONS
TORONTO FC 2, Minnesota United 0. With Sebastian Giovinco back, TFC will be too much for the Loons defense to handle.
Rapids 0, EARTHQUAKES 2. Dom Kinnear's men might start calling themselves Road Warriors if they win another away game. It's possible against a struggling Rapids side.
IMPACT 2, Crew 1. The Crew should be favored, but they've struggled on the road this year and the Impact should receive a boost from the arrival of Blerim Dzemaili.
D.C. United 1, UNION 2. After finally recording their first win, the Union look to build on that by beating a familiar foe in D.C., which is coming off a stinker of a loss.
Orlando City 1, Sporting Kansas City 1. This one is tough to call. The Lions have never dropped a point at Orlando City Stadium, but Sporting KC has the weapons to earn a draw.
REVOLUTION 2, Real Salt Lake 0. RSL's woes continue as they play without their contingent of U.S. Under-20 World Cup players, which will only make the long trip to Gillette Stadium that much tougher.
FIRE 2, Sounders 1. The Fire are a different team at home, and they'll show it against a Sounders side that could very easily grab a win here.
TIMBERS 2, Atlanta United 1. A healthy Valeri gives the Timbers the edge, though having Darlington Nagbe back would only make their case for a win this week stronger.
RED BULLS 2, Galaxy 0. Will last week's rally to tie the FIre be the Galaxy's turning point to this season? It's tough to see it continue at Red Bull Arena, where Jesse March's squad is so tough.
FC DALLAS 2, NYCFC 1. As potent as NYCFC's attack can be, it's tough to bet against FC Dallas at home, especially with Maxi Urruti in outstanding form.