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MLS Week 21 Preview: LAFC-Atlanta showdown, playoff push intensifies

For the second consecutive week, the marquee match of the Major League Soccer weekend takes place Friday night in Los Angeles. 

In Week 21, Los Angeles FC welcomes Atlanta United to Banc of California Stadium in what some could hype up as an MLS Cup preview. 

Bob Bradley’s LAFC has dominated the majority of the 2019 campaign, but some concerns have emerged about the team’s ability to win in big games after last week’s El Trafico loss to the LA Galaxy and the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal elimination at the hands of Portland.

Friday’s meeting with the Five Stripes starts an intriguing stretch for LAFC that concludes with another El Trafico Aug. 25 on home soil. In between, there’s tricky road trips across the country to New England and to the altitude in Salt Lake, as well as home clashes with the New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes. 

Atlanta United has some questions to answer regarding road form. Frank de Boer’s side has a 3-7-0 away record, which is the worst of the top seven teams in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta’s last road win came against Vancouver May 15. Since then, it has conceded a late game-winner to Real Salt Lake, let in five goals to Chicago and dropped games to the Red Bulls, Seattle and Toronto FC. 

A majority of the focus during Friday’s match will be on LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, who could be headed for a knock-down, drag-out battle for the Golden Boot after Martinez’s recent scoring surge put pressure on Vela, who recently became the fastest player in league history to hit 20 goals. 

Even after conceding three times in Week 20, LAFC has the best defensive record in MLS with 20 goals conceded, while Atlanta has given up the third-fewest goals with 25. 

By all accounts, the showdown between two of the newest, and best, franchises in the league should be as thrilling as the rivalry matches we witnessed in Week 20, and it could set the tone for 24 hours of thrilling soccer ahead of a quick break for the 2019 MLS All-Star Game. 

Week 21 Schedule

Friday, July 26

Sporting Kansas City at New York City FC (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

Atlanta United at Los Angeles FC (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) 

Saturday, July 27

Orlando City at New England Revolution (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

Columbus Crew at New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

D.C. United at Chicago Fire (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

Real Salt Lake at FC Dallas (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

Seattle Sounders at Houston Dynamo (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

Vancouver Whitecaps at Minnesota United (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+, TVA Sport)

FC Cincinnati at Toronto FC (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+, TSN  4) 

Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

LA Galaxy at Portland Timbers (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1) 

Things to Watch

How does NYCFC manage start of busy run? 

Jul 20, 2019; Commerce City, CO; New York City FC midfielder Alexandru Mitrita (28) controls the ball in the second half against the Colorado Rapids. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

When you glance at the Eastern Conference standings, New York City FC’s games in hand stand out as an unusual number. 

NYCFC has played 19 games compared to 23 from first-place side Philadelphia, and in the next month, Domenec Torrent’s side will play eight games. 

Friday’s clash with Sporting Kansas City presents NYCFC with an opportunity to gain ground at Yankee Stadium before one of the few breaks the club has before Aug. 31. 

Before NYCFC traverses the continent in the next month with little rest due to midweek contests, it takes on a Sporting KC side that needs to start playing with a sense of desperation given its current position in the Western Conference. 

The return of James Sands to the NYCFC starting lineup should allow the team’s defense to firm up against a dangerous combination of Gerso Fernandes, Johnny Russell and Yohan Croizet. 

By the end of this run of games, NYCFC could make up its seven-point deficit on Philadelphia, or still be left with work to do since games in hand don’t necessarily guarantee a surge up the standings. 

Red line battle in East 

Jul 17, 2019; Foxborough, MA; New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell congratulates forward Carles Gil after a goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps FC during the second half at Gillette Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

New England and Orlando City square off at Gillette Stadium on Saturday in one of the most important games of the weekend. 

Boosted by their 10-game unbeaten run, the Revolution are now in seventh place in the East, with the Lions lurking four points and two positions behind them. 

Since Orlando has a 4-6-1 home record, it has to make up some lost ground on the road in order to be in contention with the Revs, Toronto FC and Montreal for the final two playoff berths in the East. 

The most impressive part of the Revs’ uptick in form has been their defensive improvements. In the last five league games, New England has let in four goals, and it picked up a pair of clean sheets in Week 20, albeit against FC Cincinnati and Vancouver. 

How will Piatti’s return affect the Impact? 

May 18, 2019; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti plays the ball as New England Revolution defender Brandon Bye defends at Stade Saputo. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

The race at the red line in the Eastern Conference has gotten more interesting by the week because of the Impact’s slip in form.

Luckily for Remi Garde’s team, it has a healthy Ignacio Piatti available for selection for Saturday’s clash with the Union. Piatti’s presence on the field, whether as a starter or substitute, is massive with Samuel Piette and Bacary Sagna out. 

Before Week 20’s shutout of Chicago, the Union’s defense had not earned a clean sheet since May, and they will be without left back Kai Wagner for Saturday’s trip to Quebec due to yellow-card accumulation. 

If the Impact can take advantage of the Union’s defensive lapses, they could send a jolt throughout the standings since the top seven are separated by nine points. 

Crucial game for FC Dallas, RSL in Frisco

Jul 20, 2019; Kansas City, KS; FC Dallas forward Dominique Badji celebrates with teammate Michael Barrios after scoring a goal during the first half against Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. (Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

Over in the Western Conference, the Portland Timbers are looming large beneath the playoff places with a plethora of home games in hand for the rest of the season. 

That means the pressure is on teams like FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake to pull points from each week in order to fend off the impending challenge from the 2018 MLS Cup runner-up. 

RSL travels to Frisco to face FC Dallas on Saturday in a clash of teams that have experienced inconsistencies throughout the season.

FC Dallas is back on the right track with two wins in the last three games and it could make a statement with its next three home contests, starting with the showdown with RSL. 

RSL has one of the best home records of the 14 teams currently in playoff positions and one of the worst road marks of the group. 

In order to secure a spot in the postseason, the Claret-and-Cobalt need to improve on the 2-7-2 road record that features wins over FC Cincinnati and Colorado in the final game before it fired Anthony Hudson. 

How will Portland deal with Chara’s absence? 

Jun 30, 2019; Portland, OR; FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal is defended by Portland Timbers defender Julio Cascante and midfielder Diego Chara at Providence Park. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

Speaking of the surging Timbers, they will be without Diego Chara due to yellow-card accumulation for Saturday’s home clash with the LA Galaxy.

Portland is a significantly different team without its midfield destroyer, and it is facing a team that bossed the central midfield battle in El Trafico last week. Joe Corona and Jonathan Dos Santos turned in strong shifts, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the spotlight in last week’s most-anticipated match. 

If the Galaxy midfielders can control the pace of play again on Saturday, they will put the Timbers at a disadvantage and create plenty of chances for Ibrahimovic. 

Portland still has Brian Fernandez and Diego Valeri at its disposal in attack, but if it fails to link the channels between defense and attack, it could be a frustrating night. In 2019, the Timbers are 0-2-1 and have been outscored 6-2 in games without Chara.

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