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MLS Week 24 Preview: Surging RSL hosts league-leading LAFC

Multiple screens are required for every hour of viewing Major League Soccer games Saturday. 

The crowded schedule has 11 games and there is no whip around RedZone-style channel for MLS, so certain matches are going to have to take priority.

The match you should be watching during the late collection of contests is not on national television. It is the clash between Real Salt Lake, unbeaten in its last six MLS games, and league-leading Los Angeles FC. 

Sure, you could argue this is just another stepping stone on the path to MLS Cup for LAFC, but Bob Bradley’s team was eliminated from the 2018 MLS playoffs by RSL, which also only lost 2-1 at Banc of California Stadium in March. That game required a stoppage-time winner from Walker Zimmerman to give LAFC three points. 

RSL defeated Seattle on Wednesday for a third win under interim boss Freddy Juarez and has a stable of attackers, including Albert Rusnak and Jefferson Savarino, that could cause trouble for LAFC’s defense.

Salt Lake is also 9-2-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium, with recent victories over playoff-positioned teams Philadelphia and New York City FC. Only Minnesota United, FC Dallas and Portland have taken points from RSL in Utah, and only one of those occurrences came after May 4. 

On top of all that, RSL enters the weekend with an opportunity to take control of second place in the Western Conference standings with some help. 

Saturday is a real litmus test for Juarez’s team, and RSL will try to make LAFC look mortal. It will take a 90-minute masterpiece, one void of a late game-winner, to get the job done.

Week 24 weekend schedule

Saturday, Aug. 17

New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

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

Toronto FC at Columbus Crew (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+, TSN 4) 

FC Dallas at Montreal Impact (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+, TVA Sport) 

Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

Orlando City at Minnesota United (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting Kansas City (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

Colorado Rapids at Houston Dynamo (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

Seattle Sounders at LA Galaxy (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2) 

Los Angeles FC at Real Salt Lake (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) 

D.C. United at Vancouver Whitecaps (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+, TSN 1/4) 

Sunday, Aug. 18 

Atlanta United at Portland Timbers (10 p.m. ET, FS1) 

Things to Watch

Can Red Bulls avoid Red Line battle? 

Aug 11, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LAFC forward Adama Diomande and New York Red Bulls midfielder Aaron Long battle for the ball at Banc of California Stadium. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

The New York Red Bulls enter Saturday in a precarious spot, three points ahead of the New England Revolution for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. 

The three-point gap between Week 24 opponents is significant because once you hit sixth in the East, the table looks like a gigantic mess. 

The Red Bulls have lost two of their last three league matches. The Revs and coach Bruce Arena come into Red Bull Arena with plenty of confidence from climbing the table in recent weeks and forcing a draw in Seattle last weekend. 

As they have been during the Revs’ resurgence, Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil will be key. But if Aaron Long and Tim Parker shut down the middle for the Red Bulls, New England will be forced to play through the flanks and other attackers might have to step up. 

After conceding one goal across the last three games of July, the Revs gave up five combined goals to LAFC and Seattle to start August. If the Red Bulls, primarily Brian White and Daniel Royer, can exploit the gaps in the opposing defense, they could wreak havoc in the final third. 

How many goals will NYCFC net vs. Cincinnati? 

Jun 6, 2019; New York, NY, USA; NYCFC midfielder Ismael Tajouri-Shradi (29) celebrates his goal against FC Cincinnati with defender Anton Tinnerholm (3) at Yankee Stadium. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

In its first meeting with FC Cincinnati back in June, New York City FC scored seven times– five for itself and two for the visitors at Yankee Stadium.

Many people believe Dome Torrent’s side will steamroll the worst team in the league again Saturday.

Containing Heber, Maxi Moralez and Co. for 90 minutes might be a tough task for a side that has conceded a league-high 57 goals and possesses the worst goal differential in MLS at -32. 

Will separation occur in East red line race? 

Aug 14, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando City SC forward Tesho Akindele passes the ball as Sporting Kansas City forward Johnny Russell and midfielder Graham Zusi (8) attempt to defend at Exploria Stadium. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

New England, Montreal, Orlando City, Toronto FC and Chicago do not match up against their red line rivals in the East, which means the playoff hunt could remain the status quo, but this is MLS, where the status quo is laughed at and the unpredictable takes control. 

Toronto FC hits the road for the first of two Trillium Cup matches in less than two months (Yes, that’s still a thing. Hooray, Obscure MLS rivalry trophies!) against the Columbus Crew, while Orlando City visits red-hot Minnesota United. 

Chicago and Montreal are at home, but they face tough tasks versus Philadelphia and FC Dallas and we already mentioned New England’s trip to New Jersey. 

Of those five teams, the Fire have the most at risk and they face the most challenging weekend test. Chicago has played one more game than any team in MLS (27) and it returns from a midweek trip to Portland to host the first-place team in the East. 

The Fire will not be eliminated from contention with a loss, but it would be a tough blow to take with two road games to close August (Chicago is 1-9-3 on the road) and a lack of games in hand.

Who claims 2nd in West? 

Aug 14, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota United midfielder Jan Gregus (8) reacts to apparent goal before learning defenders for Colorado Rapids drew his teammate offside at Allianz Field. (Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports)

The race for the No. 2 spot in the West is as crowded as the one near the red line in the East. 

Minnesota is in the driver’s seat for the silver regular-season medal, behind LAFC, after rebounding from a loss to FC Dallas with a 1-0 home win over Colorado. 

Orlando is surging and in its own playoff fight, which will not make the Lions a pushover for the Loons, but the difference between the two sides is defensive play. 

Ike Opara and Co. have earned three clean sheets in the last four games and won two of them 1-0, which is a positive sign they can grind out victories. 

LA Galaxy and Seattle renew their rivalry in the national spotlight Saturday night, and the loser of that contest could be fighting for fourth instead of second. The Sounders need a win more than the Galaxy after picking up one victory in their last five contests. 

As mentioned above, RSL is in the hunt for second place, but do not count out San Jose or Portland either. If the Quakes can take advantage of a down Sporting KC side at Children’s Mercy Park, then we can start seriously discussing their playoff-hosting credentials. 

Which big name will step up most in Portland? 

Aug 14, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri celebrates with forward Brian Fernandez after Fernandez scored a goal in the second half against the Chicago Fire at Providence Park. The Timbers beat the Fire 3-2. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

Waiting until 10 p.m. ET on Sunday night for Atlanta United-Portland is unfair. 

This is a juicy East-versus-West showdown because of the marquee names expected to be strewn across the pitch. 

Atlanta’s three-pronged attack of Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez gets to challenge the best midfield destroyer in MLS, Diego Chara, while Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Brian Fernandez square off against a Miles Robinson-led defense that continues to improve. 

How each attacking unit adjusts to the style of the opposing defense will be interesting to watch, and it will be a real test for coaches Frank De Boer and Giovanni Savarese. 

While Atlanta has played well of late, it still has a black eye on its resume in the form of a 3-8-0 road record, which is one of the worst among teams in playoff positions. 

As noted in previous weeks, the Timbers will benefit from home cooking in all but one game remaining on their schedule and are 5-1-2 at home. 

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