The first week of April feels a bit early to start talking about MLS Cup final previews, but Los Angeles FC and D.C. United have looked so good early in the 2019 season that it's hard not to look at their Saturday showdown as a potential title game primer.
LAFC is making the cross-country trip to Audi Field to face a D.C. United side that has ridden Wayne Rooney's heroics and a stingy defense to an unbeaten start. The only player who has been more effective in the first month of the MLS season has been Carlos Vela though, and he will present the toughest test D.C. has faced so far this season.
While D.C. United-LAFC will feature the big names, a lower-profile clash just up I-95 will feature some of the best young talent in the league. FC Dallas, led by U.S. Under-20 midfielder Paxton Pomykal and first-year coach Luchi Gonzalez, will visit Talen Energy Stadium to take on a Union side that is also banking heavily on academy products to make a return to the playoffs in 2019.
The two worst teams in MLS in the season's first month face off desperate for a win, with the San Jose Earthquakes playing host to the Portland Timbers. Portland is struggling through a long road trip to start the season, but they'll like their chances against an Earthquakes side that has looked lost.
With all that in mind, here are some key talking points for the fifth week of the 2019 MLS season.
Youth movements on display as FC Dallas faces Union
MLS has seen a considerable increase in the number of young players receiving playing time, and no two teams have better illustrated that shift than FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union. They square off on Saturday in what should be an entertaining showcase of top young talent.
Paxton Pomykal has been one of the best midfielders in MLS so far this season, and the U.S. Under-20 standout has blossomed in Luchi Gonzalez's midfield. He'll likely see a lot of Union midfielder and fellow teenager Brenden Aaronson, who has been one of the pleasant surprises of the early part of the season. Just 18, Aaronson has looked confident in a playmaker role, but he'll have his hands full against a tough Dallas midfield.
Young Union defender Auston Trusty will be key to Philadelphia dealing with FC Dallas' dynamic attack, and could face an even younger opponent if Gonzalez hands teenager Jesus Ferreira another start at forward. Ferreira played a big role in Dallas' win against Real Salt Lake last week, and is vying for a place on the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, but Trusty is one of the best young defenders in MLS.
The Union will need its veterans to step up too, particularly David Accam, who has been on a roll in recent weeks, but will face a tough match-up in FC Dallas and USMNT defender Reggie Cannon.
Match of the week: D.C. United vs. Los Angeles FC
Who is the best team in MLS right now? That question will be answered at Audi Field on Saturday when unbeaten LAFC travels to face unbeaten D.C. United.
On one side you have red-hot Carlos Vela and the highest-scoring attack in the league. On the other side you have a D.C. United defense that has allowed just one goal in four matches, while Wayne Rooney has led the D.C. attack with four goals and three assists.
D.C. United will face the challenging task of trying to contain Vela after having just lost starting left back Joseph Mora to a broken jaw. Veteran defender Chris McCann is the leading candidate to step into Mora's role, and his lack of quickness could give Vela the opening to have a big game.
On the other side of the field, LAFC will look to neutralize D.C. playmaker Luciano Acosta, while also trying to limit Rooney, who floats between the forward line and midfield, making him difficult to track. LAFC midfield duo Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye is an underrated pair capable of containing Acosta, but Walker Zimmerman will need to lead the central defense and keep Rooney from finding space.
Another enticing match-up to keep tabs on is LAFC right back Steven Beitashour against D.C. United left winger Lucas Rodrigiuez, who has been excellent for D.C. since joining this winter. Beitashour is one of the best right backs in MLS, and if he can contain Rodriguez, it wil limit the chances for Rooney and Acosta.
Minnesota United's task of beating the New York Red Bulls could be made much tougher if star forward Darwin Quintero can't play. The Colombian speedster is nursing a groin injury suffered in training on Wednesday, leading Loons coach Adrian Heath to say Quintero's availability will be a 'game-time decision'.
A year ago, Zlatan Ibrahimovic made a point to avoid matches on artificial turf in order to avoid risking re-injuring his surgically-repaired knee. A year later, Ibrahimovic isn't taking those same precautions, which means he'll be in the lineup for the Galaxy's clash with Vancouver on Friday night.
Faneneo Adi's recent citation for Operating a Vehicle While Impaired has ruled him out for FC Cincinnati's upcoming match against Sporting Kansas City, and he'll remain sidelined while he goes though Major League Soccer's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program. Adi had missed FC Cincinnati's previous two matches with an ankle injury and the expansion side is likely to turn to the forward tandem of Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh to fill the void left by the Nigerian striker's continued absence.
Week 6 Predictions
WHITECAPS 2, Galaxy 1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic plans on playing on the BC Place turf, but he'll find the going tough against an improving Whitecaps defense. Vancouver's attack has more success exposing LA's defensive shortcomings.
New York City FC 3, Impact 1. After last week's 7-1 beatdown against Sporting KC you would think Montreal would respond. Don't bet on it, not without Ignacio Piatti, and not at Yankee Stadium, where Alexandru Mitrita should have a big game.
D.C. UNITED 2, LAFC 1. Can the D.C. defense contain Vela and Diego Rossi on the wings? It won't be easy, but Bill Hamid does his part while Rooney delivers the goals in a big home win.
*TORONTO FC 3, Fire 0. It might seem unwise to write off the Fire after last week's impressive win against the Red Bulls, but TFC's attack will cause serious matchup problems for the suspect Chicago defense.
RED BULLS 2, Minnesota United 0. Bradley Wright-Phillips is due for a big game, while the Red Bulls defense will bounce back after looking shaky at times a week ago.
ORLANDO CITY 3, Rapids 1. The Lions showed some promising signs in last week's loss to D.C. United, and should break through against a Rapids defense that will struggle with Dom Dwyer.
UNION 2, FC Dallas 1. This match-up of young squads should be an exciting affair, with both goalkeepers likely to be busy. Give the nod to the home team, with David Accam continuing his recent hot form.
CREW 2, Revolution 0. The Revs should head to Columbus feeling good after recording their first win of 2019, but the Crew are at nearly full strength and should enjoy big days from Gyasi Zardes and Federico Higuain.
EARTHQUAKES 2, Timbers 1. Something has to give in this battle of struggling and winless sides. San Jose has had little to be positive about, but the struggling, road-weary Timbers could be just what Matias Almeyda's team needs.
SOUNDERS 3, Real Salt Lake 0. Seattle's attack should get back to generating goals after last week's goal-less draw in Vancouver, with RSL's defense struggling to deal with the Sounders wingers.
FC Cincinnati 1, SPORTING KC 2. We know Sporting KC has a a deep bench, but asking a second-unit to win in Cincinnati is a lot. It's not impossible though, so look for a good response from Peter Vermes' side after being humbled in Mexico.