A new era kicks off in San Jose, teams turn to their benches as Gold Cup call-ups hit some of the league's best, while others look to shake off U.S. Open Cup hangovers.
MLS Week 18 doesn't carry the "rivalry week" label that last week held, but it is filled with several intriguing matchups. The one bona fide rivalry on the docket takes place in California, where the Earthquakes see their new coach — Chris Leitch — make his official MLS head coaching debut against the LA Galaxy in the latest installment of the California Clasico.
Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers square off in what has become a bit of a rivalry of its own after some memorable clashes. FC Dallas and Toronto FC only play once a year these days, but given their respective standings in 2017, their meeting on Saturday could be an MLS Cup final preview.
The Chicago Fire are riding the league's longest winning streak into Saturday's visit from the Vancouver Whitecaps, but they'll be one of several teams battling the aftereffects of playing 120 minutes plus penalty kicks in midweek U.S. Open Cup matches.
Houston's Wilmer Cabrera was one of the coaches who chose to rest his starters in Open Cup play, and it could pay off as the Dynamo seek their first road win by beating the Colorado Rapids, who played several starters in their Open Cup loss to Dallas.
Here is a look at the key talking points heading into MLS Week 18:
IT'S A BIG WEEKEND FOR ... THE SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The San Jose Earthquakes weren't exactly having a bad season when general manager Jesse Fioranelli decided to dump Dom Kinnear and hand Chris Leitch his first head coaching job, but now the pressure will be on the rookie coach heading into what just happens to be San Jose's biggest rivalry match against the LA Galaxy.
Leitch enjoyed a winning start on Wednesday, when the Earthquakes beat the Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup with a mix of veterans and youngsters. They beat a Sounders team missing most of its starters. The Galaxy will offer a tougher challenge, even if key starters Gio Dos Santos and Gyasi Zardes are on international duty. Romain Alessandrini has been one of the best newcomers in the league, and he helped tear apart the Earthquakes last month in the Galaxy's 4-2 triumph at Avaya Stadium.
Dos Santos was the star for LA that day, and without him the Earthquakes should have a better chance of earning a measure of revenge. Of course, it remains to be seen how the Earthquakes' full-strength squad will look like in Leitch's first MLS match. He has been given a mandate to help turn the Earthquakes into a more entertaining team to watch — with one of the big knocks against Kinnear being that his teams played an ugly brand of soccer. That wasn't always the case in Kinnear's coaching career though, and the reality is Fioranelli will bear some of the brunt if San Jose can't win more matches, and earn some more style points while doing it.
A win against the Galaxy will go a long way toward easing concerns among Earthquakes fans about a coach with no real experience. More importantly, it could help convince Leitch's team that he's a coach worth following, and not just a placeholder for a general manger who finally followed through with a dismissal that seemed inevitable from the day he arrived in San Jose.
DON'T MISS ... FC DALLAS vs. TORONTO FC
FC Dallas and Toronto FC came into the season considered the two best candidates to lift the 2017 MLS Cup title. Midway through the season only one of the two have actually looked like a true title favorite.
TFC has emerged as the class of the league, boasting impressive quality as well as unmatched depth, a combination that has allowed Greg Vanney's men to establish a level of consistency that no other team this year can boast. Dallas isn't a team anyone should be writing off by any means, but Oscar Pareja's squad hasn't exactly kept the high level expected of the reigning MLS Supporters' Shield winner.
This matchup loses some of its luster because FC Dallas is without its standout center back pairing of Matt Hedges (U.S. national team duty) and Walker Zimmerman (injured), as well as standout midfielder Kellyn Acosta (U.S. national team duty). Without that trio, Dallas will have a tough time dealing with a TFC side that just so happens to have all three of its designated players available thanks to Bruce Arena's decision to give Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley the Gold Cup group stage off.
So it should be a mismatch right? Don't be so sure. Mauro Diaz and Maxi Urruti are still around, and along with Michael Barrios and Roland Lamah, the Hoops have enough weapons to cause some problems for a TFC defense missing Justin Morrow (U.S. duty), Steven Beitashour (injured) and Nick Hagglund (injured). That vaunted TFC depth will be put to the test along the back line, and we could wind up with a goal-fest at Toyota Stadium.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Chris Wondolowski vs. Jelle van Damme. Wondolowski has a history of finding the net against the Galaxy, and the Earthquakes will need him to do it again if they're going to beat LA.
Mauro Diaz vs. Michael Bradley. We haven't quite seen Diaz at his best yet since his return from a torn Achilles, and things won't get any easier with Bradley chasing him around.
Fanendo Adi vs. Ike Opara. Sporting KC posted a shutout when these teams met in Portland, but that will be tougher to do given Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are on international duty. That puts more responsibility on Opara to try and contain Adi.
Nemanja Nikolic vs. Kendall Waston. Nikolic has been close to unstoppable this year, but after Wednesday's long U.S. Open Cup match, will he have enough energy to deal with the imposing Waston?
Kaka vs. Kyle Beckerman. The Brazilian playmaker will need to perform if the Lions are going to score the road win, but Beckerman still has the bite to make things difficult.
Federico Higuain vs. Carlos Carmona. Higuain scored when these teams met two weeks ago, and he has carried over that form, which puts the onus on Carmona to try and slow him down.
Benny Feilhaber vs. Diego Chara. Whether it's Chara or David Guzman, the Timbers know they must keep Feilhaber contained or risk having Sporting KC's speedsters Latif Blessing and Gerso Fernandes run wild.
Maxi Urruti vs. Drew Moor. The FC Dallas attack is close to full strength, meaning Urruti should have his chances against a short-handed TFC defense, unless Moor can keep tabs on him.
Diego Valeri vs. Ilie Sanchez. Controlling the midfield will be key in the Sporting KC-Timbers clash, and Sanchez will be key to keeping the ball away from Portland's playmakers, especially Valeri.
Ola Kamara vs. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. Atlanta United held Kamara without a shot on goal the last time these teams met, but being back at Mapfre Stadium should swing things in Kamara's favor.
WEEK 18 PREDICTIONS
Real Salt Lake 1, ORLANDO CITY 2. Cyle Larin is back from suspension, and just in time to face a vulnerable RSL defense. The Lions have been slumping, but having Larin back gives them a sorely-needed boost.
Fire 1, Whitecaps 1. The Fire have been on a roll lately, and extremely tough at home, but their midweek penalty shootout loss to FC Cincinnati will take its toll
FC Dallas 1, TORONTO FC 2. This one would normally be much tougher to call, with FC Dallas favored if at full-strength, but with Matt Hedges and Kellyn Acosta away on Gold Cup duty, TFC grabs the big road win.
IMPACT 2, D.C. United 1. Ignacio Piatti's absence through injury will make this one close, but Mauro Biello's team has enough firepower to hold serve at home.
SPORTING KC 2, Timbers 1. Peter Vermes' men will have their depth tested by Gold Cup absences, but they still have enough attacking weapons to trouble a shaky Timbers defense.
CREW 2, Atlanta United 1. The Crew fell to Atlanta just a few weeks ago, but that was in Georgia. At home, the Crew have much more success.
Rapids 0, DYNAMO 2. Wilmer Cabrera rested his starters in midweek hoping it would lead to the Dynamo's first road win of the season. With the Rapids hit by injuries, the Dynamo pull it off.
EARTHQUAKES 2, Galaxy 1. The Chris Leitch era got off to a good start in U.S. Open Cup play, and Chris Wondolowski's double helps him stay unbeaten with a big California Clasico win.
UNION 1, Revolution 0. The Union could be tired from their midweek U.S. Open Cup penalty shootout loss to the Red Bulls, but Andre Blake is rested and good enough to stop a Revs attack missing Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo and Diego Fagundez.