MLS Picks and Predictions for March 5th
Sunday’s MLS slate brings us just three games, though we do get the highly anticipated debut of expansion club Atlanta United. Atlanta will be hosting New York Red Bulls in what could be a potential playoff preview. We also have Orlando City taking on NYCFC and Vancouver hosting Philadelphia in the nightcap.
Let’s hop right in, shall we?
For the second time in three years, Orlando City will host NYCFC to kick off the season. These two met when both were expansion clubs to kick off the 2015 campaign in a game that ended in a 1-1 draw.
Orlando City hosts a slight edge in the short all-time series between the clubs at 3-1-2. They have also gone undefeated in the three home games against NYCFC with a pair of wins plus the aforementioned draw. This nationally-televised affair will also be the first game played at Orlando’s new soccer-specific venue, Orlando City Stadium.
Orlando’s new head coach, Jason Kreis, will also be implementing a 4-4-2 system and ousting the 4-2-3-1 the club used in its first two seasons. Left back Brek Shea was recently shipped to Vancouver, while talented midfielder Kevin Molino transferred to Minnesota United for a record fee.
Still, Orlando City’s attack starts and ends with Brazilian legend Kaka. The 33-year-old isn’t quite the player he was during his peak days with Real Madrid, but he has mustered a total of 18 goals through his first two MLS seasons. He and Cyle Larin (14 goals last season) will spearhead the attack.
However, they won’t be at full strength in the season opener. Both Rafael Ramos and Cristian Higuita will miss this one, which certainly puts a damper on things.
NYCFC comes into this season with legitimate title aspirations. The big-money club features defending league MVP David Villa, who bagged 23 goals last season and led the club to the No. 2 seed in the East.
NYCFC parted ways with the controversial Mix Diskerud, who never really played to his full potential during his stint with the club. They added a new Designated Player in Maximiliano Moralez, who should slot in from day one on the wing.
Orlando City will be amped as they open up the new venue. While they don’t quite have the talent NYCFC boasts, the home crowd should be able to lift them enough to get something out of this game.
As mentioned above, this will be the first game ever for expansion Atlanta United. Unlike Minnesota, who figures to struggle in year one, Atlanta actually seems poised to threaten for a playoff berth. Just one expansion team has ever qualified for the postseason in year one (Seattle in 2009), but there is tons of Central and South American talent on this roster already.
They are also helmed by head coach Gerardo Martino, who recently coached both Barcelona and the Argentina men’s national team. The Argentine brings instant legitimacy to the new club.
Atlanta United also won three of their four preseason games and canned 11 goals. Designated Players Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron combined for seven of those goals and figure to be in the middle of everything this team wants to do offensively.
Defense tends to be where new clubs struggle, and this club will be no exception. They will get a boost at midseason when goalkeeper Brad Guzan comes over from English side Middlesbrough, but in the meantime they will have to rely on Alec Kann in goal. The 26-year-old Georgia native made seven appearances as a backup last season with Sporting KC.
The Red Bulls come into this season loaded and hoping to improve upon last season’s disappointing early playoff exit. Despite going into the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the East, New York was ousted 3-1 on aggregate by Montreal in the conference semis.
The Red Bulls will be buoyed by the combination of Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in attack. BWP led MLS with a whopping 24 goals last season, while Kljestan’s 20 assists topped the league, as well. No other team in the league boasts such a productive duo, and New York’s title hopes hinge on their collective shoulders again in 2017.
The biggest difference between last year and this year for the Red Bulls is the notable absence of midfielder Dax McCarty. McCarty was traded to Chicago in January in exchange for allocation money after a successful six-season run in New York.
Per MLS.com, McCarty missed just 2,715 of a possible 18,000 minutes during his six seasons with the club.
While Atlanta could surprise some people and push for a playoff spot this season, facing a club of New York’s caliber in the first game is a rough challenge. The Red Bulls have the firepower to take this one.
The final game of the weekend pits a pair of clubs that came away disappointed with their respective 2016 seasons. Vancouver finished just eighth in the West, while Philly finished sixth out East and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs.
Vancouver was particularly active during the offseason and made an attempt to overhaul their attack. The Whitecaps signed a pair of Designated Players in Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna. Montero scored on his debut for the club in a win over New York in the CONCACAF Champions League on Thursday. He scored less than 10 minutes into his debut after coming on as a sub following halftime.
He will be hoping to build off of what was a successful first stint in MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Montero scored 47 goals with 34 assists in 119 regular season appearances with Seattle from 2009 through 2014. Since then, he has spent time in both Portugal and China.
The Whitecaps will also be excited to see what 16-year-old Alphonso Davies can give them. The wunderkind also found the back of the net against New York in Champions League, which was his second tally for the club. The Canadian international should factor into Vancouver’s starting 11 on a regular basis this season.
The Whitecaps will be looking to improve on a lackluster home campaign in 2016. They mustered just six home wins in MLS last season, which was tied for the second-fewest of any team in the league.
The Union weren’t as active during the offseason, though they did lose midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta to St. Gallen of the Swiss league. Philly will be getting Alejandro Bedoya back healthy, though, which should help offset Barnetta’s departure.
They also added former USMNT standout Oguchi Onyewu, who hasn’t played professionally anywhere since the 2015 season. Due to an injury to Joshua Yaro, Onyewu could come in and start at center back right away. There’s no telling how much the 34-year-old has left in the tank at this point, but Philadelphia hopes he isn’t done yet.
The Union were terrible away from home last season, winning just three times away from Talen Energy Stadium. It was the fourth time in their seven MLS seasons that they failed to win at least four road games.
The Whitecaps come into this one with some momentum following their win in the CCL over New York, so they should get the job done at home as Philly’s road woes extend into 2017.