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MLS Talking Points: Zlatan and Schweini square off, Atlanta hosts NYCFC

4:49 AM GMT+8 14/04/2018
Zlatan Ibrahimovic LA Galaxy Sporting KC
The former Manchester United teammates headline a clash of stars when the LA Galaxy travel to Chicago to face the Fire

A year ago they were teammates at Manchester United. On Saturday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be opponents in America as they headline one of the juicier matches of a stacked MLS schedule.

Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy have traveled to Chicago, where they will take on Schweinsteiger's Fire in a sold-out showdown between two teams still trying to find their form. The match will be Ibrahimovic's first on the road since joining the Galaxy and there is a good possibility he makes his first start in MLS.

While Fire-Galaxy headlines Saturday's slate, Atlanta United plays host to undefeated New York City FC on Sunday in a clash of Eastern Conference powers. Atlanta is riding a four-match winning streak while NYCFC has won five of six to start the season and could extend their lead atop the East to six points with a victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

CONCACAF Champions League participants Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls face very different challenges this weekend. The Red Bulls must try to shake off the disappointment of their CCL semifinal elimination against Chivas Guadalajara by beating the Montreal Impact on Saturday. TFC made it to the CCL final, which kicks off on Tuesday against Chivas, meaning Greg Vanney will need to send out a reserve-laden team to play at altitude against a Rapids side that is tough at home.

If you're looking for a sleeper of a match, consider FC Dallas' visit to New England. Oscar Pareja's squad is unbeaten, though they have earned just one win and three draws in four matches. FCD visits a Revolution side on a 3-0-1 run since starting the season with a loss.

Here is a closer look at the key talking points for MLS Week 7:

Ibrahimovic, Schweinsteiger headline Fire-Galaxy

Ibrahimovic could make his first start in Major League Soccer, and there's a good chance he'll see a familiar face if he does.

The former Manchester United striker could be matched up against former teammate Bastian Schweinsteiger when the Galaxy face the Fire on Saturday. Schweinsteiger has been deployed as a central defender in recent matches by the Fire, which could leave Ibrahimovic licking his chops at a chance to go at the World Cup-winning midfielder turned defender.

Ibrahimovic played 28 minutes in the Galaxy's loss to Sporting Kansas City last week, building on the unforgettable 19 minutes he played in his MLS debut, which saw him score a 40-yard wonder strike and last-minute winner. He was unable to duplicate that last week, but Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid could give him the nod to start against a Fire defense that would struggle to deal with his presence.

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic may have no choice but to move Schweinsteiger back into midfield in order to start two natural central defenders in a four-man back line to try and cope with a potential Galaxy striker tandem of Ibrahimovic and Ola Kamara. The three-man defense the Fire deployed in last week's 1-0 win against Columbus — which included Schweinsteiger in a central defender role — will be tough to justify deploying again, though the German is a good bet to spend time in the defensive third as he tries to help his defense cope with the Galaxy's dangerous forwards.

That help began early in the week, with Schweinsteiger trying to offer his teammates some insights into how to deal with the 6-foot-5 striker.

“I’ve tried to give them some advice, but at the end of the day you have always to see how (Ibrahimovic) is in the situations,” Schweinsteiger told reporters said. “Zlatan is a very smart player and he has not only one option, he has always three options in his brain. He is very fast in his brain and in his technique and everything, so it’s going to be tough and we have to play as a team against him."

Whether he starts or comes off the bench again, Ibrahimovic is a safe bet to make his presence felt on Saturday. The Fire will be counting on their own standout striker, MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic, doing the same against a Galaxy defense that has looked vulnerable in recent weeks.

Match of the Week: Atlanta United vs. NYCFC

The two hottest teams in MLS so far this season square off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with New York City FC putting its unbeaten record on the line against red-hot Atlanta United.

Patrick Vieira's squad is fresh off a 4-0 thumping of Real Salt Lake in a performance that showed off his team's impressive depth. The win also saw the return from injury of star striker David Villa and the return of standout central midfielder Alexander Ring. Both would be instrumental in a match-up against an Atlanta United side that has rattled off four straight victories since opening the season with an embarrassing 4-0 loss to Houston.

The match-up will offer an excellent test for both teams, with the clash in midfield particularly enticing. The NYCFC central trio of Maxi Moralez, Yangel Herrera and Ring take on the Atlanta central midfield unit featuring Miguel Almiron, Darlington Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz.

It remains to be seen whether both teams will have their star strikers in the starting lineup. Villa came off the bench on Wednesday for his first appearance in a month, while Atlanta striker Josef Martinez suffered a hand injury during the week. He is expected to be available for Sunday's match though, and will look to add to his league-leading five goals.

The play on the wings will also be worth watching, as Atlanta United right wing back Julian Gressel looks to keep his stellar form going. NYCFC can counter with Ismael Tajouri working on Gressel's side of the field. Tajouri has scored four goals so far and has been a revelation, having unseated Rodney Wallace in the starting lineup.

NYCFC also boasts Jesus Medina, who will look to test the left side of Atlanta's defense. The Paraguayan midfielder has a league-leading five assists, and will be a handful for Atlanta left wing back Mikey Ambrose to handle.

Atlanta United will welcome back central defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who missed last week's win against Los Angeles FC while serving a red card suspension. His return will be key to Atlanta's chances of containing Villa, assuming Villa is fit enough to start. If he isn't, Vieira is likely to turn to Jo Inge Berget to lead the attack. The Norwegian striker opened his MLS account with a goal on Wednesday.

Matchups to Watch

Bastian Schweinsteiger vs. Jonathan dos Santos. Schweinsteiger should move back into midfield against the Galaxy, and if he does, he and Dos Santos will battle for control in the middle.

David Villa vs. Michael Parkhurst. Is Villa ready to start after returning from an injury layoff? If he is, he will face a familiar foe in the in-form Parkhurst.

Sacha Kljestan vs. Alejandro Bedoya.  Both Kljestan and Bedoya are coming off excellent matches, and should see plenty of each other in a battle of solid central midfielders.

Miguel Almiron vs. Yangel Herrera. This clash of talented young South American midfielders will be one of the key duels in the week's best match.

Kei Kamara vs. Laurent Ciman. Kamara's physicality is tough for most central defenders to handle, but Ciman is one of the league's best defenders.

Ilie Sanchez vs. Nicolas Lodeiro. The Sounders are missing several key players, putting more pressure on Lodeiro to carry Seattle's attack. Sanchez is in the midst of an excellent season and will lead the efforts to contain Lodeiro.

Luciano Acosta vs. Wil Trapp. Though he isn't the only dangerous player in D.C. United's midfield, Acosta is arguably the most important, and Trapp, as well as Artur, will need to be on their game to ensure the Argentine playmaker doesn't have room to operate.

C.J. Sapong vs. Jonathan Spector. Sapong's physical presence will be a handful for Orlando's central defenders, though Spector has the strength and veteran savvy to make Sapong work hard for opportunities.

Julian Gressel vs. Ronald Matarrita. You can't really call Gressel Atlanta's secret weapon any longer after some of the performances he has had, but Matarrita has the qualities to force the German to defend, as well as having the speed to limit his chances when he gets forward.

Fanendo Adi vs. Francisco Calvo. The Timbers first home game of 2018 should give Adi a chance to finally register his first goal of the season, but Calvo is the Loons best defender and best hope of stopping the 27-year-old.

Week 7 Predictions

Union 1, ORLANDO CITY 2 . A full-strength Lions team is starting to hit its stride, and Philly's young defense will have trouble stopping Orlando City's attack.

Whitecaps 2, LAFC 2. The recent losses have slowed the LAFC hype train, but rest assured Bob Bradley's team is tough, and could take all three points in Vancouver. Kei Kamara helps Vancouver avoid the home defeat.

RED BULLS 3 , Impact 0. Will the CCL disappointment lead to a Red Bulls letdown, or will they respond with a big win? Bank on a strong response at home.

RAPIDS 1 , TFC 1. With a CCL final to play on Tuesday, TFC is going to trot out a mostly reserve squad against the Rapids, but should still have enough quality to take a road point.

Fire 1, GALAXY 2 . Zlatan Ibrahimovic should be ready to contribute some major minutes, and will be too much for the Fire's defense to handle.

D.C. United 0, CREW 2 . After losing to Chicago in a game they dominated, the Crew should get back to their winning ways against a D.C. side still searching for its first win.

REVOLUTION 2 , FC Dallas 0. Brad Friedel's squad is in a good run of form, and should continue to play well at home against an FC Dallas side that hasn't found a good rhythm yet.

TIMBERS 3 , Minnesota United 0. The Timbers are finally back home after their long road trip, and should hit their stride with a big win against a Minnesota side with a vulnerable defense.

EARTHQUAKES 2 , Dynamo 1. The Dynamo are notoriously weak on the road, and their defense will find a tough matchup against San Jose's attack.

SPORTING KC 2 , Sounders 0. The short-handed Sounders are facing a tough challenge, one made even tougher by Clint Dempsey's suspension being extended. 

Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 3 . This will be a track meet, and while Atlanta is tough at home, NYCFC has the edge with a more stable defense and a returning David Villa.