Jason Davis highlights three matches worth keeping an eye on as Major League Soccer heads into Week 21.
Dwyer set for Orlando City debut at Atlanta
All eyes will be on Dom Dwyer in Atlanta, where the newly acquired member of Orlando City is expected to make his MLS debut in purple. There will be plenty of pressure on the U.S. international to perform considering the hefty price tag Orlando paid for him, as well as some intrigue over Jason Kreis' plan for his new striker. Will Dwyer be deployed as part of a two-man front line with Cyle Larin? Or will Kreis use his new striker off the bench in his first game with the club?
These two teams played last Friday in Orlando, a game that ended 1-0 in favor of Atlanta. That result might have prompted Orlando to push to finish the move for Dwyer; since Larin's DUI arrest and reintegration into the team, there has been a pervasive uneasiness about the attack. OCSC's slide down the table after an excellent start to the season required a response.
Atlanta has had no recent trouble, riding a four-game winning streak into Saturday's clash. The arrival of Brad Guzan post-Gold Cup has provided an upgrade in net, and Tata Martino's men are finding various ways to win. If a shootout is in the cards, Atlanta can score; if it's necessary to grind out a result, it has proved capable of that as well.
Atlanta United won't have Josef Martinez against Orlando, the only major injury absence for either side. The Venezuelan striker is nursing a foot injury that also kept him out of the trip to Florida last week.
Sporting KC, Chicago Fire aim for first
Children's Mercy Park will be the scene of a clash between two of the league's top teams when Sporting Kansas City welcomes Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Chicago Fire.
Both teams occupy second place in their respective conferences; Sporting sits one point back of FC Dallas in the West, and Chicago trails Toronto FC by two points in the East. First place is within each team's sights.
Chicago's Dax McCarty returns to the fold for Veljko Paunovic, and Peter Vermes will again have the services of Matt Besler and Graham Zusi after Gold Cup duty. Paunovic has an advantage, however, since McCarty made only a brief substitute appearance in Wednesday's tournament final, and Both Besler and Zusi went 90 minutes.
For Sporting, the game will also be the first without Dwyer since he was traded to Orlando. Dwyer scored 55 goals for Sporting in three-plus seasons, and while the club is actively looking for scoring punch to replace him, the pressure will be immediate to prove trading him wasn't a mistake.
Sporting's strength is its defense, so the ability to prevent goals only marginally changes without Dwyer's energy up top. It will have to put in a good effort to slow down Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam and the rest of the Fire.
Coaches under scrutiny in RSL-Crew
Columbus Crew SC is in sixth in the East, and Real Salt Lake is currently in eighth in the West. Though RSL is on a decent run of form (two wins and a draw in its past three) and Columbus occupies a playoff spot, the lead story of the matchup at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday is how the two clubs' coaches might respond to any questionable refereeing.
Should any go down, of course.
Both RSL boss Mike Petke and Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter used postgame news conferences in the past week to lambaste the quality of MLS officiating. Petke's rant is already the stuff of legend. Upset with what he viewed as inconsistencies in both the on-field calls and the decision of the league's disciplinary committee, Petke risked the wrath of MLS with his performance. Though the dust has settled since the rant, the larger issue of refereeing remains top of mind.
Berhalter is in part to thank for that. After Crew SC lost in Philadelphia on Wednesday and saw two players sent off over the course of 90 minutes, Berhalter (with noticeably calmer delivery than Petke) made his own criticisms of the refereeing. Both coaches will be under the microscope.
RSL will have Kyle Beckerman back after a one-game suspension while Columbus will be without Federico Higuain. Look for Kekuta Manneh to again play a crucial role in the Crew SC attack, alongside the team's MVP to this point, Justin Meram. On the RSL side, the triumvirate of Joao Plata, Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino is capable of taking games over and is one of the most exciting young attacking groups in the league.