There is something just a little forced and manufactured about Major League Soccer's recent tradition of adjusting its schedule to give us rivalry weeks, conveniently packaged deliveries of what should be the league's best matchups. On some level, it has often felt contrived, but in the midst of all that production we have actually seen some of these rivalries start to truly develop into what the league really wants and needs.
Take the New York derby. New York City FC's transformation from expansion-year laughing stock to serious MLS Cup contender has added fuel to its rivalry with the Red Bulls — though the Red Bulls' dominance of the series has kept it from reaching full bloom. Any good rivalry needs both sides to draw blood at times, and the fact that the rivalry is just in its third year reminds us that it still needs many more years of seasoning. That said, their match on Saturday is an intriguing one for a variety of reasons.
The Texas derby has never fully blossomed, in part because we have rarely seen both Houston and FC Dallas boasting very good teams at the same time. The Dynamo have endured some lean years since their MLS Cup-winning days of a decade ago, but the arrival of Wilmer Cabrera has helped transform them into a dangerous attacking squad and overall a fun team to watch. They still have a way to go to catch FC Dallas, one of the league's very best teams, but now the rivalry is much more worth watching than it has been in years.
The one rivalry that doesn't need any artificial sweeteners is the Portland Timbers-Seattle Sounders duel. Decades of tradition give the Cascadia showdown unmatched texture and meaning, and the fact that they happen to be the past two MLS Cup champions doesn't hurt either. That said, both teams are enduring some issues this season, giving this weekend's encounter a bit of a different feel, a slightly desperate one.
This weekend's MLS action isn't just about rivalries. It will also be an important week for expansion sides Atlanta United and Minnesota United. A midweek loss to D.C. United served as the latest example of Atlanta's struggle for consistency, but a return home should help Tata Martino's men regroup and recapture the form we have seen flashed on occasion. As for the Loons, their midweek win against Portland was a confidence-booster, but they have struggled to gather momentum after those kinds of wins, and take on Vancouver at home with a chance to start finally climbing up the West standings.
Here is a closer look at the key things to watch in MLS Week 17:
IT'S A BIG WEEKEND FOR ... RIVALRIES
The Timbers and Sounders don't really need added incentive to want to beat each other, but this Sunday's meeting at Providence Park should have some added spice.
Both teams head into the match needing a win after some inconsistent results. The Timbers are 2-5-2 in their past nine, and their midweek loss at Minnesota United surely left Caleb Porter frustrated at his defense's continued inability to steady itself. The Timbers are still comfortably in third place in the West, but that's down to the dream start to the season they enjoyed. A loss to Seattle on Sunday would set off some alarm bells in Portland, while a win would help ease some of the mounting pressure.
The Sounders don't feel like a team in trouble, though their results suggest otherwise. Being MLS Cup champions has its privileges, and that status has helped keep the heat off Brian Schmetzer's men even when the results have been frustratingly disappointing. The Sounders have endured some injury issues, but there is still very much a sense that Seattle should and will be bolstering the roster this summer. But until that time, Schmetzer is tasked with trying to keep the team from sinking in the West.
Wednesday's gut-punch draw against Orlando City, which saw the Sounders squander a lead in stoppage time, kept Seattle from jumping into a playoff position in the West, but a win in Portland would likely do that as well as giving the Sounders some bragging rights to add to their recent U.S. Open Cup victory over the Timbers.
In Houston, the Dynamo will put their unbeaten home record on the line against an FC Dallas side that has been treading water in recent weeks. Oscar Pareja's men are 1-3-3 in their past seven matches, a slump that is the product of a stagnating attack and injury-hit defense. That defense will be severely tested by a Houston attack with the kind of speed to rip apart any back line, and one that has been especially deadly at home.
There is no panic in the FC Dallas camp though, not with Mauro Diaz drawing ever-closer to a return, and not with Walker Zimmerman expected back soon. Currently in a three-way tie for second place with games in hand, FC Dallas can afford to slip in Houston, though the Dynamo could pull three points clear of FCD with a victory on Friday night.
And the New York derby? Of course we didn't forget.....
DON'T MISS ... RED BULLS vs. NYCFC
A rivalry isn't a rivalry until both sides have enjoyed their share of success against the other, which makes the New York Red Bulls' 6-1 record against New York City FC a bit of a problem for the blue side of New York.
Patrick Vieira's men will be looking to tip the scales closer to even, while earning their first win at Red Bull Arena, when the sides meet on Saturday afternoon in what should be one of the weekend's best matches.
The Red Bulls are in the midst of — by their lofty standards — a sub-par start to the season, struggling to adapt after the departure of Dax McCarty. That said, they have won three of their past four in all competitions, including a victory over NYCFC in the U.S. Open Cup, and there are signs to suggest they are rounding into form.
NYCFC is in the midst of their best season to date, currently sitting in third place in the East, winners of three of four in MLS play. They still enter the New York derby as underdogs because of their struggles against the Red Bulls, and particularly their inability to stop Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has scored eight goals against NYCFC.
So what will NYCFC do to stop Wright-Phillips this time around?
"We don’t have any special treatment for Wright-Phillips. What we need to do is stop the players who supply him," Vieira said. "He’s a player who, if we give him space, if we make any mistakes, we get punished straight away because he smells the goal. We have to be at our best if we’re going to get the clean sheet."
Vieira made it clear his team would stick to its preferred possession-style approach, which emphasizes building out of the back. That approach has been problematic against a Red Bulls side that thrives on high-pressing opponents into mistakes, but Vieira is confident his team can end its drought at Red Bull Arena.
"We’ve played some good football lately, even when we lost against them in the (U.S. Open) Cup," Vieira said. "I was quite satisfied with the way that we tried to develop our game, and I think in that game we were a little bit unlucky, especially in the first half. I was quite happy with the way we played against Seattle, so we’re playing some good football at the moment."
Maxi Moralez's availability will be key for NYCFC, with the Argentine playmaker a question mark after suffering an injury against the Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup. Vieira deployed Jack Harrison in the playmaker role against Seattle, but Moralez is the more effective player in that role, and if he's absent NYCFC's attack will be limited.
As for the Red Bulls, they enter the match in good shape, with Kemar Lawrence expected to be ready to start after having been out of the starting lineup in recent weeks. Aurelien Collin is back in the fold just in time to help the Red Bulls deal with David Villa.
Offensively, the Red Bulls will look to try and build in their recent success after spending the season's early months struggling to find a consistent groove.
"We're good one week and then we're not so good another week," Wright-Phillips said. "I think we obviously made changes, and it's hard to get a rhythm. I think the last two games we've kind of had a rhythm, but I feel like I said that two weeks ago so I just want to see if we've cracked it this time. I know this is the kind of team where, once we do get on a roll, we're very hard to stop."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Diego Valeri vs. Osvaldo Alonso. These familiar foes do battle once again, and it will be interesting to see how the heat affects them given how much work they both put in.
Kaka vs. Dax McCarty. Cyle Larin's absence puts more responsibility on Kaka's shoulders to generate offense, meaning McCarty must ensure the Brazilian doesn't find his comfort zone.
Lee Nguyen vs. Michael Bradley. The Revs will have plenty to deal with defensively, but offensively they must get Nguyen the ball and hope he can create chances with Bradley trying to smother him.
Erick Torres vs. Matt Hedges. FC Dallas' fullbacks have a tall task trying to slow down Houston's speedy wingers, but this derby will hinge on Hedges' ability to keep Torres contained.
Nemanja Nikolic vs. Jonathan Spector. The league's leading goal-scorer against one of the best defenders in the league this season. Grab your popcorn.
Dom Dwyer vs. Jelle van Damme. These two love to get physical, so this one could end up with cards being shown, or at least one goal being scored.
Fanendo Adi vs. Chad Marshall. Adi has been in a bit of a funk lately, and Marshall will do his best to keep Adi's stretch of having scored in just one of his past eight matches going.
Ignacio Piatti vs. Harrison Afful. Piatti is the most dangerous left-winger in the league, while Afful is easily one of the best right backs. If Afful can contain Piatti the Crew should cruise.
Sacha Kljestan vs. Alexander Ring. NYCFC will want to shut down the supply lines to Wright-Phillips, which means Ring must do his best to keep Kljestan from delivering the key passes he's known for.
Kevin Molino vs. Matias Laba. Keeping up with the ever-elusive Molino is no easy task in central midfield, but Laba has the chops to get it done.
WEEK 17 PREDICTIONS
TORONTO FC 3, Revolution 1. TFC's attack will be too much for the Revs to handle, as Sebastian Giovinco runs wild and the New England attack struggles to generate chances.
DYNAMO 2, FC Dallas 1. The speedy wing combo of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto will stretch the FC Dallas shorthanded defense just enough for Erick Torres and Alex to do damage.
RED BULLS 2, NYCFC 1. Bradley Wright-Phillips terrorizes his favorite victims yet again, while Aurelien Collin does well to help keep David Villa under wraps.
UNION 1, D.C. United 0. This turns into a goalkeeper showcase, with Andre Blake and Bill Hamid trading acrobatic saves before a Chris Pontius winner downs his former club.
ATLANTA UNITED 3, Rapids 0. The Rapids defense looked vulnerable against the Galaxy, and it's tough to see it rebounding on short rest against an Atlanta attack that should feature a healthy Josef Martinez.
CREW 2, Impact 1. Losers of four of five, the Crew need this one and it comes courtesy of Justin Meram leading the way offensively and the defense finally playing well after recent struggles.
MINNESOTA UNITED 2, Whitecaps 1. The Loons keep the momentum going, with Christian Ramirez adding to his impressive goal total.
FIRE 2, Orlando City 0. Bastian Schweinsteiger is due for a big match, while Dax McCarty turns in a strong effort containing Orlando City's attack.
Galaxy 0, SPORTING KANSAS CITY 2. The Galaxy's home woes continue as Dom Dwyer and Gerso Fernandes find their way through to lead the road win.
EARTHQUAKES 2, Real Salt Lake 0. Chris Wondolowski does what he does, while the RSL attack struggles to break through.
TIMBERS 2, Sounders 1. Diego Valeri rises to the occasion in the Cascadia Derby, delivering a double while the Timbers defense plays its best match in a while.