MLS Talking Points: Sounders return home looking to end slide and more

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The reigning MLS Cup champions are in 10th place in the West, and looking to halt a three-match losing streak with the help of a return home

Major League Soccer has a reputation for unpredictability, but even by MLS standards, the 2017 season has had some trends that can be called surprising.

Three of the four teams that competed in last year's conference finals now find themselves at the bottom of their respective conference standings. The Montreal Impact are bringing up the rear in the East while 2016 West finalists Seattle and Colorado find themselves at the bottom of the West. There are still plenty of games to be played, but all three teams are enduring trends that are worrisome to say the least.

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Toronto FC and FC Dallas have not only avoided poor starts, but they each have looked every bit like the MLS Cup contenders they were expected to be. TFC is on a six-match winning streak that doesn't appear ready to end any time soon, while FC Dallas remains the league's lone unbeaten team and is still averaging the most points per game despite appearing at times to be on cruise control.

Two teams that began the year in brutal fashion, but are now enjoying turnarounds, are the Philadelphia Union and LA Galaxy. The Union have transformed from the only winless team in MLS to a juggernaut that has gone 3-0-1 in their past four matches, outscoring opponents 9-0 in the process. The Galaxy's recent surge is a more modest one, but being unbeaten in three has Curt Onalfo's men brimming with confidence as they continue a month-long stretch of road games. 

Can the Sounders stop the bleeding? Can TFC keep its winning run going? Will the Union slow down, or just continue steam-rolling opponents?

Here is a closer look at the key talking points heading into MLS Week 12:


IT'S A BIG WEEKEND FOR ... SOUNDERS


Brian Schmetzer MLS 05172017

Heavy hangs the head that holds the MLS Cup. The Seattle Sounders are in a big funk, having lost three in a row in a stretch that has seen just one win in eight matches for the reigning MLS champions. Injuries have played some part in Seattle's woes, but poor play has been a bigger culprit, as we've seen in their two most recent losses, which were by a combined score of 7-1.

A return home might be just what the Sounders need, and they'll face an old rival in Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. RSL just recently snapped its own losing rut with a midweek win against an NYCFC squad that rested David Villa and Jack Harrison, which halted a three-game slide.

Particularly troubling for the Sounders is how they have collapsed in the second half of their past two matches. The Sounders went into halftime of their matches with the Fire and Sporting KC tied, only to give up three unanswered goals in each instance. 

Roman Torres is still out for the Sounders, while Osvaldo Alonso is questionable after missing Seattle's loss to Sporting KC with quad tightness. The Sounders will need Alonso back in midfield to help contain RSL playmaker Albert Rusnak, who is coming off a goal and assist performance against NYCFC. Clint Dempsey should also return to the Sounders starting lineup after being rested on Wednesday.

It is still early in the season for the defending MLS Cup champions to start panicking, but a loss to RSL on Saturday would have the Sounders drifting further away from the pack in the Western Conference.


DON'T MISS ... RED BULLS vs. TORONTO FC


Michael Bradley Sacha Kljestan MLS 030602016

You might think this Friday night clash will be a rout, with TFC having won six straight and the Red Bulls having lost three in a row, but desperation should be a big motivator for New York, especially at home, and especially after the stinker they dropped in last week's 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy.

Sebastian Giovinco's absence due to injury definitely levels the playing field a bit for the Red Bulls, but they must still contain with the physically imposing Jozy Altidore, and do so without their own defensive battering ram in Aurelien Collin. The French center back would be well-suited to trying to slow down Altidore, but he's still working his way back from injury.

Of equal concern for the Red Bulls is getting an attack going that has managed just one goal in three matches (and the goal, against the Galaxy, was a garbage-time goal in stoppage time with the Red Bulls trailing 3-0). Bradley Wright-Phillips has been starved for service, and will struggle to find much against a TFC midfield well-equipped to make things difficult for Sacha Kljestan. Michael Bradley will look to neutralize his U.S. teammate while Victor Vasquez tries to add to his already-impressive assist total going the other way.

Where the Red Bulls will want to see more contribution is on the flanks, where Daniel Royer, Alex Muyl and Mike Grella will need to be active in an effort to generate more service. There hasn't been enough from the wings lately for the Red Bulls, and if that continues on Friday, they will be in for a long night.


MATCHUPS TO WATCH


David Villa Jonathan Spector MLS 04232017

Sacha Kljestan vs. Michael Bradley. Kljestan will need a stellar game to help the Red Bulls' faltering attack, but the tenacious Bradley will look to keep him contained.

David Villa vs. Jonathan Spector. These two have had a pair of good battles already this season, but it is Spector who has helped his Orlando City win both previous meetings. Can he make it a sweep?

Clint Dempsey vs. Kyle Beckerman. These former U.S. World Cup teammates should see plenty of each other, and after being rested at midweek, Dempsey should have himself a game.

Fanendo Adi vs. Laurent Ciman. Adi has just one goal in his past five matches, but he could find changes against an Impact defense that has looked vulnerable.

Anibal Godoy vs. Kellyn Acosta. Two of the league's most impressive box-to-box midfielders so far this season, Godoy and Acosta will see who can cover more ground, and which of them can add to their goal total.

Fredy Montero vs. Ike Opara. Montero has been a handful for the Whitecaps since returning, but he hasn't faced a defense as tough as Sporting KC, and a defender has physically gifted as Opara.

Christian Ramirez vs. Jelle van Damme. Ramirez has been one of the feel-good stories of the season, but finding his next goal won't come easy against a motivated Van Damme, who is coming off his best game of the year.

Lee Nguyen vs. Wil Trapp. These U.S. national team fringe players will have a chance to give Bruce Arena something to think about as they square off in what should be an entertaining Eastern Conference battle.

Justin Meram vs. Andrew Farrell. There isn't a hotter winger in the league than Meram, but Farrell is a tough and athletic defender who could slow down the Iraqi international.

Maxi Urruti vs. Florian Jungwirth. Urruti is enjoying an outstanding season for FC Dallas, but he will face a tough assignment in the German Jungwirth, who has been one of the league's best defenders so far this season.


WEEK 12 PREDICTIONS


Nicolas Lodeiro Kyle Beckerman MLS 10232016

Red Bulls 1, TORONTO FC 2. A healthy Aurelien Collin would have helped New York deal with Altidore, but without the French bruiser, the Red Bulls will struggle to slow down the U.S. national team striker.

Impact 1, TIMBERS 2. Montreal has struggled to find any sort of consistency this year, and while returning to Stade Saputo might help, facing a dangerous Timbers attack won't help.

D.C. United 0, FIRE 2. The Fire have yet to win a road game this year, but RFK Stadium could be the place to do it against a D.C. team that will be without suspended playmaker Luciano Acosta.

SOUNDERS 3, Real Salt Lake 1. A return to CenturyLink Field, coupled with the possible return of Osvaldo Alonso, should lead to a big home win, with Dempsey starring.

ATLANTA UNITED 3, Dynamo 2. Though Atlanta United only has one win in seven matches, the expansion side is facing a Dynamo team that has yet to register a single point on the road. Expect plenty of goals.

UNION 2, Rapids 0. The Union defense has been rock solid in recent weeks, and should make it five shutouts in a row against a Rapids attack that, despite last week's three-goal output, still doesn't elicit much fear.

Whitecaps 1, SPORTING KC 2. The emergence of Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing has given Peter Vermes even more attacking options to work with, while the defense remains its stingy self in a big road win.

FC DALLAS 2, Earthquakes 0. Oscar Pareja's men haven't lost yet this season, but they have dropped some points and locked vulnerable at times. Don't look for the upset here though, as Maxi Urruti finds the net.

REVOLUTION 2, Crew 1. The Revs have become a tough out at home, and if they can keep red-hot Justin Meram in check, another home win should come, with Kei Kamara burning his former team.

Minnesota United 1, GALAXY 2. The Loons are no pushover, but Curt Onalfo's Galaxy looked like a much different team last week and we could see the Galaxy going on a winning run.

ORLANDO CITY 2, NYCFC 1. The Lions dropped points at home for the first time last week, but don't expect it to happen again as Cyle Larin finds the net against his favorite victims.

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