MLS Talking Points: Sounders still searching for a win, Atlanta visits Zlatan, and more

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Tom Szczerbowski
The reigning Western Conference champions are the only MLS team without a win, something they will hope to change against Minnesota United

As we draw close to the end of the first quarter of the 2018 MLS season, it might be a bit startling to look at the standings and see the league's returning MLS Cup participants sitting at the bottom of the conference standings.

Toronto FC's slow start is due in part to the team's quest for a CONCACAF Champions League title, a quest that will end after next week's CCL final decider against Chivas de Guadalajara. Greg Vanney will trot out reserves in Houston to take on the Dynamo, and even though a loss is a good possibility, nobody in Toronto is panicking about digging too deep a hole in the East standings.

Seattle's winless start is down to a variety of reasons, from injuries, to some early CCL challenges. Much like TFC, the Sounders have played just four matches this season, so it's not quite time to panic, and a win against Minnesota United would certainly ease some of the concerns that might be creeping up in Seattle.

After playing four of its past five matches at the cozy confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta United is on the road to take on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy. The Five Stripes are averaging the most goals per game of any team in MLS, and will look to punish a Galaxy side that just posted its second shutout of the season. Defensively for Atlanta, Tata Martino will need to find a way to slow down the potent 1-2 punch that Ibrahimovic and Ola Kamara provide up top.

A match that bears watching will take place in Portland, where unbeaten New York City FC will look to win at Providence Park, where the Timbers have lost just one regular season match in the past year. Patrick Vieira will look to shake off the distractions of being pegged as a candidate to replace Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, while Giovanni Savarese looks to deliver the first signature win of his tenure as Timbers coach.

This weekend will also feature the first installment of the Rocky Mountain Derby as Colorado visit Real Salt Lake. Anthony Hudson's men have put together a four-match unbeaten streak, but nobody is calling the Rapids a serious contender just yet. RSL is tough at home and should offer a good test to see just how legitimate the Rapids are.

Here is a closer look at the key talking points for MLS Week 8:


Sounders search for first win


Nicolas Lodeiro MLS Seattle Sounders 03312018

If you had taken a poll before the season asking which MLS team would be the last to register a victory, you wouldn't have gotten very many votes for the Seattle Sounders. The reigning Western Conference champions came into the season with high hopes, only to watch injuries and suspensions take their toll, leading to a stumble that might lead you believe it's time to panic in Seattle.

If the past two seasons are any guide, a bad start won't necessarily doom the Sounders. Last year Seattle began the year with just one win in its first six matches, and two wins in its first 11 matches. In 2016, the year the Sounders finished as champions, they began the season with three straight losses.

This year's slump feels different though. Not just because of the loss of Jordan Morris to a torn ACL, but because of the fact that the Sounders' nucleus is an aging group and depth is a concern. Garth Lagerwey is working the player market, both within MLS and abroad, as the MLS transfer window heads towards its closing in May.

Victor Rodriguez has yet to play this season due to a knee sprain, and he could make his 2018 debut against Minnesota. Rodriguez would provide a significant boost to a Sounders attack that showed some quality in last week's 2-2 draw with Sporting Kansas City.

Seattle's attack should receive a major boost from the return of Clint Dempsey, who has been sidelined since receiving a first-half red card in the Sounders' second match of the season. Dempsey will be going up against a Loons defense that has surrendered seven goals in its current three-match losing streak.

Calling an April match a must-win match is certainly a bit of a stretch, but Seattle is in desperate need of a win because the upcoming schedule is brutal after the Loons. Seattle will travel to Los Angeles for the unveiling of LAFC's new stadium, play host to a tricky Columbus Crew side, and then visit Toronto for an MLS Cup rematch. That's before a trip down the I-5 to take on arch-rival Portland in the year's first installment of their Cascadia derby.

Beating Minnesota United isn't going to make that subsequent stretch of matches any less difficult, but losing to the Loons could set up the Sounders for a prolonged slide that won't be as easy to overcome as the ones they have endured the previous two seasons.


Match of the Week: LA Galaxy vs. Atlanta United


GFX LA Galaxy Atlanta United GOTW 04202018

If you're feeling a sense of deja vu about seeing Atlanta United in this section again, it's because this marks the third straight week the Five Stripes have been a participant in the league's biggest matchup.

This one will be the first of the three to be on the road for Atlanta United, and a packed house should fill the StubHub Center to see if Zlatan Ibrahimovic can continue his hot start with the Galaxy. This match-up features two exciting attacks, and two defenses seen as their team's respective weak links.

Sigi Schmid will have to decide how to line up his midfield to deal with Atlanta's dynamism. The Five Stripes have enjoyed success playing a five-man midfield, which could cause problems for what should be a four-man Galaxy midfield starting out. Schmid shifted Romain Alessandrini back out to the wing and went without a true playmaker when he gave Ibrahimovic his first MLS start in last week's 1-0 win against Chicago. The Galaxy lacked creativity with that midfield setup, which may not have mattered on an ugly day in the Chicago suburbs.

Back home in California, Schmid might want to consider a three-man defense in order to match up well with Atlanta. In order to do that, he'll have to find someone to take on the right wingback role (assuming Ashley Cole could handle the left wingback role). That would fall to either Romain Alessandrini or Sebastian Lletget, and if either had qualms about such a role, they might need only look over at their opponent to see an attacking player thriving in that very position.

Atlanta United is a safe bet to stick with the 3-5-2 it has used since the second match of the season. Julian Gressel smooth adaptation to the right wingback spot has been key to Atlanta's success in the system, and a Cole-Gressel clash would be one of the top duels to keep an eye on when these teams meet on Saturday.

Both teams have dynamic midfielders working their way back from injuries, and both Ezequiel Barco and Giovani dos Santos are good bets to come on and potentially make a difference. Barco showed some good flashes last week against New York City FC, and he could turn the tide in a close contest. Dos Santos hasn't played in a month though, so the Galaxy may want to be cautious about rushing him back.


Matchups to Watch


Alejandro Romero Gamarra 1 MLS Red Bulls 04142018

Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Gonzalez Pirez has the size and strength to offer a physical challenge to the Swedish star, but his skill will be tough to contain.

Darlington Nagbe vs. Jonathan Dos Santos. This clash will help determine who wins the possession battle in the week's best match.

Alejandro Romero Gamarra vs. Dax McCarty. Chicago's defense is vulnerable, and McCarty must keep Kaku occupied if the Fire are going to pull off the road upset.

Diego Valeri vs. Yangel Herrera. Valeri punished NYCFC in their lone meeting a year ago, but Herrera and Alex Ring have been dominating opponents this year.

Miguel Almiron vs. Perry Kitchen. Almiron's quickness could cause problems for Kitchen, especially if Jonathan dos Santos doesn't provide some support.

Diego Rossi vs. Victor Cabrera. Rossi has been one of the league's best newcomers, but Cabrera has settled in well at right back for Montreal.

Diego Fagundez vs. Wil Trapp. New England has enjoyed a good run with Fagundez as the team's playmaker, but the Crew combo of Trapp and Artur will make things difficult for him.

C.J. Sapong vs. Matt Hedges. Sapong has gone four matches without a goal, and finding one in Texas won't be easy with the in-form Hedges around to keep tabs on him.

Nicolas Lodeiro vs. Ibson. The underrated Ibson is the key to Minnesota United's chances of winning the central midfield battle, and chances of slowing down the ever-dangerous Lodeiro.

Christian Ramirez vs. Chad Marshall. Minnesota United has made things tough on opposing defenses, and the veteran Marshall will need to make sure Ramirez doesn’t get many clean looks at goal.


Week 8 Predictions


Dom Dwyer Orlando City MLS 04082018

SPORTING KC 2, Whitecaps 0. Peter Vermes' men push their unbeaten streak to seven with a comfortable home win against a Whitecaps side that suddenly finds itself with defensive issues.

Impact 1, LAFC 3. Could Bob Bradley's squad be looking ahead to the launch of its new stadium? Don't bet on it. Carlos Vela has another monster game.

DYNAMO 2, TFC 0.  Houston is riding a four-match winless skid, but the scheduling gods shine on the Dynamo this week, with TFC's C team coming to town.

RED BULLS 3, Fire 1. Chicago will surely remember what the Red Bulls did when these teams met in last year's playoffs, but that doesn't mean the Fire can stop it from happening again.

CREW 2, Revolution 0. Columbus is in a slump, but a return home and date with an unproven Revs side should do the trick.

ORLANDO CITY 2, Earthquakes 0. Look for Dom Dwyer to continue his hot streak, while the Lions defense pitches a second straight shutout.

FC DALLAS 3, Union 1. Maxi Urruti has yet to really get going this season, but look for this to be his breakout game in a Dallas romp.

REAL SALT LAKE 2, Rapids 1. RSL has been a much different team at home, and Albert Rusnak and Luis Silva will lead the charge in this Rocky Mountain Derby win for the home team.

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GALAXY 2, Atlanta United 1. Zlatan scores yet again, while Ola Kamara joins him on the score sheet on a night when the Galaxy defense holds up surprisingly well.

SOUNDERS 2, Minnesota United 0. Clint Dempsey is back, and he's angry after his suspension. Say a prayer for the Loons defense.

TIMBERS 2, NYCFC 2. Halting NYCFC’s unbeaten run isn’t impossible for the Timbers, but their defense will struggle to keep David Villa off the board in what should be an entertaining affair.

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