Free MLS Picks for Saturday, March 4th
The 2017 MLS season got underway last night when Minnesota United made its debut against the Portland Timbers at Providence Park. The season really gets going in earnest today, though, with seven games going down.
The earliest kick-off will be at 2pm ET when Columbus Crew host the Chicago Fire. Let’s start there, shall we?
A couple of longtime rivals coming off of disappointing 2016 campaigns go face-to-face at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus on Saturday afternoon. While the Crew have won four of Chicago’s last five visits to Columbus, the Fire still hold a 24-17-17 all-time record in the head-to-head series. Chicago have also gotten at least a point from 17 of the 28 all-time meetings in Columbus.
The Crew became the latest in a long line of teams to fail to make the playoffs the year after playing for the championship. The most noteworthy additions to the club during the offseason were midfielder Artur, fullback Jukka Raitala and and midfielder Mohammed Abu. While all three were brought in to compete for starting spots, they may start the season as squad players as they adapt to the league.
Columbus also lost starting goalkeeper Steve Clark, though he’s set to be replaced by former United States youth international Zack Steffen.
The Fire made sweeping changes during the offseason after finishing dead-last in the Eastern Conference for the second year running. In an attempt to beef up the attack, Chicago used its Designated Player spot on former Legia Warsaw striker Nemanja Nikolic. Nikolic found the back of the net a whopping 40 times in just 56 appearances over two seasons for his former Polish club, so Chicago is hoping that prolific goalscoring translates to MLS.
Chicago also scooped up ex-LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho after his brief stint in Liga MX with Tijuana last season. The 28-year-old was a key cog on the Galaxy teams that claimed MLS Cup titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014. He has a career record of 18 goals and 23 assists in 187 MLS appearances.
The Fire were impressive during the preseason and racked up a record of 6-0. It’s tough to take too much from exhibition games, but this club certainly should be much improved from where they were a season ago. There are still some serious questions along the Crew’s backline and in goal, so it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see Chicago pull the upset in this spot.
Here we have a fun matchup between a pair of Western Conference powerhouses. FCD will be looking to make a deep run into the playoffs after bowing out in the conference semifinals despite being the top seed in the West a season ago. LA, meanwhile, will be looking to pick up the pieces after several key departures during the offseason.
Dallas did not do much to overhaul its roster after the successful regular season run in 2016. Most of the moves they did make were made with depth in mind, though they did make a splash with the signing of Paraguay international forward Cristian Colman.
Colman joins FCD as a young designated player from Nacional in the Paraguayan league. He scored 18 times in 65 games with the club since 2015, and actually found the back of the net in his first appearance with his new club in the CONCACAF Champions League in late February.
Bruce Arena left the Galaxy after nearly a decade to reclaim his post as the head man of the USMNT, with Curt Onalfo taking his place. Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard and Mike Magee are also gone, leaving LA looking far younger than they have in quite some time.
The Galaxy have dominated FCD in the games played in Los Angeles all-time. LA have a 14-8-6 record against Dallas in home games, but they have scored a whopping 69 goals in those 28 games. FCD, meanwhile, has scored 33 goals in those head-to-head meetings.
LA will be looking quite different than they did last season, particularly in the midfield. Three newcomers – Jermaine Jones, Romain Alessandrini and Joao Pedro – are likely to make their Galaxy debuts in this one. It would be a surprise if this looked like a cohesive unit in the early going with so many new faces in the fold.
FCD have already played a pair of CONCACAF Champions League matches, which means they figure to be more well-tuned than LA Galaxy at this point in the season. They come into this one with more continuity than their hosts, and they should get the season started on the right foot.
The defending Eastern Conference champions take their show on the road as Toronto FC visit Real Salt Lake on Saturday evening. RSL hold the all-time head-to-head advantage over Toronto, but most of those victories came before TFC loaded up with talent within the last couple of seasons.
Toronto earned a 1-0 home victory the last time these sides met in August of last year. It was the first win in the last five for TFC over RSL.
Real Salt Lake lost one of its best players in franchise history when Javier Morales decided to leave for Dallas during the offseason. Morales scored 49 goals and handed out a club record 81 assists in his 240 MLS appearances. The 37-year-old leaves some big shoes to fill, but RSL will be hoping that new addition Albert Rusnak can do so.
Rusnak will assume Martinez’s No. 11 shirt, which makes it pretty clear that there are high expectations for him. The Slovakian scored nine goals in 61 games for Groningen after beginning his playing career at Manchester City. He never made an appearance with City, though, and instead went out on loan for three years before his contract was allowed to expire.
Real Salt Lake will be looking to improve upon last season when they were beaten 3-1 by LA Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs.
As you may expect for a team that came within a penalty shootout of winning the league’s top prize last season, Toronto FC didn’t change a whole lot during the offseason. Will Johnson leaving for Orlando City was a big deal, but there is enough depth in the squad to where he should be fairly easily replaced.
Sebastian Giovinco is the man that butters the bread for TFC. The 2015 league MVP scored 17 goals along with 15 assists last season and figures to be in the running to win the award again in 2017.
Striker Jozy Altidore will also be at full strength after being limited to just 23 appearances last season due to injury. He still scored 10 goals and handed out five assists, and clearly looks right at home playing in MLS.
Toronto have one of the stingiest backlines in the entire league, and they led MLS with a total of 10 shutouts a season ago. These teams should be fairly evenly-matched, as evidenced by this game being listed as a pick’em.
This should be an interesting battle between two teams that had very different 2016 campaigns. The Rapids essentially came out of nowhere to nearly claim the Supporters’ Shield, while the Revolution missed the postseason for the first time since 2012.
Colorado has enjoyed a good bit of success against the Revolution in previous years, as they hold a 13-4-4 edge over New England in games played in Denver.
Jermaine Jones was the biggest loss for Colorado, as the US international was dealt to LA Galaxy in exchange for a draft pick. Considering Jones was limited to just nine appearances during his lone season with the Rapids, it wasn’t really a tremendous blow to the roster.
Tim Howard isn’t expected to play for Colorado in this one after getting hurt back in November on international duty, so Zach MacMath will likely be between the sticks instead. MacMath performed excellently in the first half of last season before Howard arrived from Everton, so the Rapids are plenty comfortable with him back there.
Colorado’s surprising run to the top of the West was spring boarded by a dominant home field advantage. The Rapids won a franchise record 11 home games last season, and conceded just seven goals in games at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. They have not conceded multiple goals in a home game since October of 2015.
The Revolution were never able to overcome their sluggish start to 2016. New England did see a positive change in fortune upon switching to a 4-4-2 diamond late in the season, but their deficit was too large to ultimately overcome. They finished with five wins in their last seven games, so head coach Jay Heaps is hopeful that they can carry that momentum into the new season.
Goalscoring shouldn’t be an issue for this club with the likes of Juan Agudelo and Lee Nguyen up front. Those two combined to score 13 goals last season and appear to be one of the league’s more dynamic duos up front.
Considering Colorado’s staunch defensive record, especially at home, it’s tough to imagine the Revolution waltzing into Denver and picking up a win in this spot.
The defending MLS Cup champs head down to Houston for their first action of the 2017 season. Nobody expected Seattle to surge all the way once the playoffs began last year, but they managed to blow their way through the West as a No. 4 seed before toppling Toronto on penalties in the MLS Cup Final.
This season, though, they won’t be sneaking up on anybody. Nicolas Lodeiro essentially changed Seattle’s fortunes by himself after coming over in the middle of last season, as he scored six goals in all competitions and helped the Sounders turn their season around. They were bottom of the league when he arrived from Boca Juniors in July, but he was able to help vault them into the playoffs.
Seattle will also be getting Clint Dempsey back after the decorated American’s 2016 campaign was cut short thanks to a heart condition. Deuce still scored eight times in 17 appearances before going down, and he’ll be looking to add to his stellar goalscoring record in his fifth season with the club.
The Dynamo, on the other hand, finished just 7-13-14 last season, which was the worst mark in the Western Conference. In an attempt to get back to relevance, Houston made sweeping changes to the roster during the offseason.
Leonardo, AJ DeLaGarza, Juan David Cabezas, Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Adolfo Machado are all new additions, and all are expected to start in their first game together with the club. While Houston is hopeful that this mix will fare better than last season’s did, we should expect them to take some time to really gel.
The defending champs start positively in their quest to repeat.
Sporting KC will be looking to make a deep run after being eliminated in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of the last three years. They have been cut down by the teams that went on to win it all in each of the last two seasons, as well. Perhaps securing a first-round bye this season would be a good way for them to exorcise those first-round demons.
One way they can do so will be to improve their performance away from home. Sporting KC were just 3-9-5 on the road last season with a goal differential of -10. That’s not getting the job done.
Sporting KC underwent a youth movement of sorts during the offseason. 11 new players joined the club with an average age of just 23.7 years. The 14 players that left averaged 28.2 years. While most of the new youngsters won’t figure into the starting 11 to begin the season, SKC still seemed to improve their depth.
Most of the old guard remained the same, however. US internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are still here, as is the club’s leading assist man from 2016, Benny Feilhaber. Reigning team MVP Dom Dwyer is still here, as well.
DC United made a couple of alterations to the roster on the heels of last season’s 4-2 defeat at the hands of Montreal in the knockout round of the playoffs. One of their bigger splashes was the signing of longtime MLS veteran Sebastian Le Toux. The Frenchman split his time between Philadelphia and Colorado last season, though he was only able to muster three goals in his 32 appearances.
The 33-year-old’s best days may be in the rearview mirror, but he’ll be looking to prove that he still has some goals left in those boots.
United also did well to retain former loanee Luciano Acosta. The club made him a permanent member of the team after coming over for a record fee from Boca Juniors. The diminutive (he’s just 5’3”) Argentine is incredibly quick on the ball, which makes it tough for defenders to keep track of him. He figures to be one of United’s chief playmakers moving forward.
Considering Sporting KC’s historic troubles on the road last season, we’re going to have to see them actually improve before picking them to topple a quality side like DC United away from home.
The final game of the night pits championship hopefuls Montreal against San Jose. The Earthquakes have been absent from the postseason for each of the last four years, and they’re looking to finally break through again in the West. The Impact, meanwhile, came just a couple of goals short of making it all the way to the MLS Cup Final a season ago.
Montreal has never lost to San Jose, with a record of 3-0-2 against the Quakes.
Former Dynamo manager Dom Kinnear is still manning the sidelines for the Earthquakes, who changed some things over the offseason. Marcos Ureña was acquired in January in an attempt to bolster what was the weakest attack in MLS a season ago. San Jose mustered just 32 league goals, which was seven fewer than any other club.
Veteran Chris Wondolowski will return for his eighth season with the club and will be looking to extend his MLS record of consecutive double-digit goal seasons. The 34-year-old has found the net at least 10 times in each of the last seven campaigns.
As for Montreal, they will be returning most of their squad outside of Didier Drogba. The decorated Ivory Coast international left the club after scoring 10 times in 22 appearances last season.
The Impact do most of their damage on the counterattack, which is typically led by Argentine Ignacio Piatti. Piatti was dominant last season, scoring 12 goals with 12 assists in all competitions. He also set a club record with six game-winning assists in league games.
Montreal has the kind of firepower to march into a hostile road environment and quiet the crowd quickly.