FC Dallas, Sporting KC battle in the West; Red Bulls try to take down Crew
Major League Soccer is back in full swing. Here are the matches you can't miss as Week 8 gets underway.
Dallas, SKC battle in top-of-table clash
No team was better at home in 2016 than Supporters' Shield winner FC Dallas. Oscar Pareja's side lost only one game at Toyota Stadium all season, setting a standard that should be daunting for any visiting opponent, including the team arriving in Texas this weekend: Sporting Kansas City.
But if any side has reason to believe it can get a win in Frisco, it might be Sporting. Last week, Peter Vermes' team won in another of the league's more difficult environments, Providence Park in Portland. Sporting's stifling defense is establishing its own sort of aura -- if it can shut down the Timbers' prolific attack, then it's capable of stopping anyone.
Saturday's match pits the league's last two undefeated teams against each another. Sporting has one more point than FC Dallas, but has also played one more match. Both sides trail the Timbers in the Western Conference standings.
If Sporting is to win at Toyota Stadium, the play of Tim Melia will be a big reason why. Sporting's goalkeeper has been spectacular so far this year and made a game-saving stop on Portland's Darlington Nagbe last week. SKC has done a good job limiting the shots Melia has faced, but you don't give up only two goals through six matches without a stellar effort in net.
Both sides are expected to be at full strength, with one exception: Dallas is still a long way from getting Mauro Diaz back, so look for Pareja to set out a team with two holding midfielders (Kellyn Acosta and Carlos Gruezo) that uses speed on the wings, with Roland Lamah and Michael Barrios creating danger going forward.
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Red Bulls try to reignite attack versus Crew
Week 8 should begin to give us some clarity as to the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. NYCFC face off against Orlando City SC at Yankee Stadium (more on that below), and the New York Red Bulls host the top team in the conference, Columbus Crew SC, at Red Bull Arena. Jesse Marsch's team sits three points back of Crew SC in the standings despite a slow start that has included a sputtering attack.
A formation shift by Marsch didn't exactly click for the Red Bulls, leaving some uncertainty about how the club will play moving forward. As long as Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips are in the lineup, there will be the threat of goals, but New York will need something more from their wide players if it's going to get back to its old free-scoring ways.
The driving forces behind Crew SC's recent success is maestro Federico Higuain and winger Justin Meram. Meram has four goals and two assists, including the winning goal in a victory last week over Toronto FC. Meram's play is already earning him MVP buzz in Ohio, though the midfielder has downplayed that talk due to the early stage of the season.
Higuain's play is not a complete surprise, but there was concern that he was slowing down after a less-than-stellar 2016. His four assists are already more than his entire output from last season.
The showdown in New Jersey could be good for some goals, especially with two of the best finishers in the league -- Wright-Phillips and Ola Kamara -- leading their respective lines. The game will also serve as a big test for up-and-coming Crew homegrown defender Alex Crognale.
Kreis leads Orlando against former team
Orlando City is perfect at home after starting the season in its new stadium. Now, the Lions go on the road to test themselves against David Villa and NYCFC. Orlando is coming off a last-gasp win over the LA Galaxy on Saturday thanks to the heroics of striker Cyle Larin. Former NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis has a chance to get a little revenge on the team that fired him after a single season in 2015.
New York City will be missing Costa Rica full-back Ronald Matarrita for the match, after he suffered an ankle injury in training this week that will keep him out for four to six weeks. Khiry Shelton is also on the injured list because of a hamstring pull, eliminating one possible attacking weapon for Patrick Vieira.
Keeping an eye on Larin will be job one for the NYCFC defense. For Orlando, there are myriad issues, starting with Villa but including Rodney Wallace, Jack Harrison and newcomer Maxi Moralez. The Argentine has fit in nicely from the very beginning, providing a creative passing element that has already paid significant dividends for the club.
NYCFC's build-from-the-back style makes it the top possession team in the league. That commitment has delivered plenty of pretty play, but it can sometimes lead to mistakes in the back that opponents can exploit. Andrea Pirlo, a legend capable of putting a ball on a dime for a teammate upfield at any moment, is susceptible to occasional turnovers. Larin will be lurking -- the Canada international might be the best all-around striker in the league at the moment -- but so will Carlos Rivas and Giles Barnes.
If Orlando is going to pull off the upset, or even grab a point in the Bronx, look for Jonathan Spector to play a major role. The defender has been a bright spot at the back, bringing a savvy and awareness the club lacked last year.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.