For the first time since Week 1, all 20 MLS teams will be in action. In theory, that's great. However, nearly every team is impacted by the league's insistence on playing through the FIFA international fixture window. With teams required to release players who are called up by their respective senior national teams, it creates an added managerial hurdle and takes away from some of the more high-profile games on the league's schedule (see: FC Dallas-Seattle, Real Salt Lake-Toronto FC).
It offers an opportunity for other players to step up, seize the limelight and potentially create bigger roles for themselves down the road, but it also does a disservice to fans hoping to see teams at their best.
Game by game, here's how the Week 4 MLS slate will be impacted by the FIFA window and youth national team call-ups (all times Eastern):
New England Revolution vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 3 p.m.
The U.S. youth national teams are the only ones affecting this clash, although if not for injuries and Jurgen Klinsmann's personal preference, it could have been a lot worse. Jermaine Jones (who just returned to training) is still out for the game even though he's not with the national team. Lee Nguyen was not called in by Klinsmann, though, so he'll suit up for the Revs.
Two of the Earthquakes' rising stars will be gone, though, as Tommy Thompson and rookie Fatai Alashe, who scored the first official goal in Avaya Stadium history, will be representing the U.S. U-20s and U-23s, respectively.
Montreal Impact vs. Orlando City SC, 4 p.m.
No team is hit as hard as Orlando City. The Lions could have as few as 13 active field players available, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Kaká will be one of them, but Brek Shea (USA), Kevin Molino (Trinidad & Tobago), Cyle Larin (Canada), Darwin Ceren (El Salvador), Conor Donovan (U.S. U-20), Rafael Ramos and Estrela (Portugal U-20s) will all be out. Shea, Molino and Ceren are would-be starters for Adrian Heath's club, which is looking to bounce back from its first loss in its short MLS existence.
Montreal, meanwhile, has been devastated by long-term injuries to Justin Mapp and rookie sensation Cameron Porter, and the league's last remaining hope in the CONCACAF Champions League will also be without starting center back Laurent Ciman, who is off with Belgium in Euro 2016 qualifying. Teammates Maxim Tissot (Canada), Ambroise Oyongo (Cameroon) and Romario Williams (Jamaica) are away as well.
Needless to say, the next time these teams match up, the lineups will be vastly different.
New York City FC vs. Sporting Kansas City, 7 p.m.
NYCFC returns to Yankee Stadium, but it will do so without Slovakian forward Adam Nemec, who has started each of the club's three games. His chief replacement, rookie Khiry Shelton, is away with the U.S. U-23s. That leaves Jason Kreis with a selection headache atop his formation, although he was spared by Klinsmann leaving central midfield cog Mix Diskerud off his USA roster. Patrick Mullins and Tony Taylor are Kreis's options to pair with David Villa.
Sporting KC, meanwhile, has taken a hit to its midfield, with Roger Espinoza representing Honduras. Its defensive depth is depleted some as well, with Marcel de Jong (Canada) and Erik Palmer-Brown (U.S. U-20s) on international patrol.
D.C. United vs. LA Galaxy, 7 p.m.
The two franchises with the most MLS Cups in league history go head-to-head at RFK Stadium for their only meeting of the season, but its hardly a full-strength fight. The reigning champs are without reigning MVP Robbie Keane and rising star Gyasi Zardes, who are with Ireland and the U.S. men's national team, respectively.
Alan Gordon and Jose Villarreal (who turned down a U.S. U-23 call-up to stay with the Galaxy) will be looked upon to fill their shoes, but that's a lot of production to fill–Keane and Zardes combined for 35 goals and 16 assists a season ago. The Galaxy are also without Jaime Penedo, who is off with Panama, and U.S. U-23 fullback Oscar Sorto and U.S. U-20 forward Bradford Jamieson IV.
D.C. United isn't hit by the international break, but forwards Eddie Johnson (long-term health problem) and Fabian Espindola (suspended) remain out.
Columbus Crew vs New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.
The Crew are down three potential starters, with U.S. U-23 midfielder Wil Trapp, fullback Waylon Francis (Costa Rica) and forward Justin Meram (Iraq) all unavailable.
The Red Bulls are missing three players as well, but their starting lineup should be mostly spared. Karl Ouimette (Canada), Dane Richards and Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) being out means Jesse Marsch has fewer options from which to choose. Lawrence did start in central defense in last week's 2-0 win over D.C.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers, 8 p.m.
Vancouver misses Darren Mattocks (Jamaica), Christian Dean (U.S. U-23s), Russell Tiebert and Sam Adekugbe (Canada) for the first Cascadia Cup clash of the season. That doesn't include the suspension to Uruguayan center back Diego Rodriguez for grabbing Aurelien Collin, uh, between the legs in last week's match in Orlando.
The Timbers are only missing Jamaican fullback Alvas Powell, but they must still overcome long-term injuries to midfield stalwarts Will Johnson and Diego Valeri in hopes of finally getting over the draw hump. The club has tied its first three games of the season.
Houston Dynamo vs. Colorado Rapids, 8:30 p.m.
Owen Coyle has some lineup shuffling to do, as the Dynamo are without Hondurans Oscar Boniek Garcia and Luis Garrido and Jamaicans Jermaine Taylor and Giles Barnes. For Barnes, born in the UK, it's his first call-up to the Jamaican national team.
Colorado's only absence is U.S. U-23 defender Shane O'Neill. The Rapids are 0-0-2 and have yet to score or concede yet this season. Houston's not an easy place to play, but they'll have a leg up with the Dynamo's missing pieces.
FC Dallas vs. Seattle Sounders, 8:30 p.m.
FC Dallas is the league's only 3-0-0 team, and Seattle is the reigning Supporters' Shield winner and one of the odds-on favorites to win MLS Cup. The two met in a playoff series last year decided only by away goals. This should be a spectacle for the country to behold.
Critiquing every MLS uniform, head to toe
New York City FC
New York City FC took some heat for its sky blue home shirt, which looks a whole lot like the one worn by parent/sister club Manchester City. But an homage was inevitable, and NYCFC has differentiated itself from MCFC, and the rest of MLS, with the white shorts and socks. It’s a sharp look. The away kit, highlighted by a flash of orange (from the city flag) at the neck and five stripes you can barely see that "represent the five boroughs of New York City," is lazy. With a blank template, NYCFC should’ve come up with something other than the mono-black already worn in D.C. and Columbus.
After several overhauls—LA wore black and teal, then teal and yellow, then yellow and green—the Galaxy’s white and blue brand has taken root. Three championships in four years certainly help. The sash on the home uniform, re-introduced in 2012, has quickly become iconic, and, along with the socks, helps make this all-white kit stand out. The new secondary set maintains the same feel as its recent predecessors. The yellow accents look sharp, but we can’t help but feel a white or yellow sash would tie the uniforms and brand together.
Of the four MLS teams with an all-red home uniform (that’s 20 percent of the league), the Fire were first. They’re the “Men in Red,” after all. But Chicago began veering away from its traditional look in 2012. First the famous white hoop became blue. Then last year, the blue expanded to the chest and shoulders. It doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t seem right, either. The new away kit is another all-white offering. But at least designers put a bit of thought into this one. The thin, light blue hoops on the shirt and socks, intended to reflect the design of the city flag, are a nice touch.
Montreal exemplifies MLS/Adidas’ fixation on tiny details rather than the impact (sorry) a uniform makes when viewed from more than three feet away, which is where most people watch a game. The new away kit features a tiny silver fleur-de-lis affixed to the back and more woven subtly into the fabric. But overall, it’s just another anonymous all-white uniform that mirrors the existing, plain blue primary set. The tragedy is that Montreal’s gorgeous blue-and-black striped alternate, which would be the only striped kit in MLS, is gathering dust. It should be the club’s primary.
D.C. United calls itself the “Black and Red,” but its uniform palette typically has ignored the latter. That’s been rectified with the club’s new secondary kit, which features a welcome splash of red on the traditional white jersey. The home uniform, which carries over from 2014, still looks unfinished without the white chest stripes that were dropped in 2008. If D.C. could find a way to re-introduce them, perhaps above the sponsor logo and behind the crest, it once again would boast one of the sport’s most distinctive designs.
Real Salt Lake
RSL stubbornly refuses to look great. It took a small step forward with its new secondary uniform, which now features two blue sleeves. It's too bad there isn’t even more of RSL’s beautiful claret, cobalt, and gold color scheme in the kit. The red home set carries over from 2014, making it six seasons since RSL abandoned the claret shirt, cobalt shorts/socks combo it wore when winning its only MLS title. The yellow chest stripe adds a little something extra, but RSL’s preference for an all-red kit similar to others around the league instead of a classy, one-of-a-kind look with championship pedigree is baffling.
Toronto FC’s new home set could be the reddest uniform in the history of a league that loves red uniforms, which we suppose is noteworthy (guess Adidas insisted on the contrasting three stripes). Club management has focused on building a team capable of ending an eight-year playoff drought, likely leaving little time for kit design. The holdover secondary set is charcoal gray, which features in the TFC logo and is a unique uniform color in MLS. The hooped socks finish off a striking look and make us wish there was a bit more gray in the primary.
New England Revolution
The Revs are Exhibit A for the effect a second color, even if it comes from something as mundane as a plain pair of shorts, has on a club’s brand. Long a believer in boring, N.E. last year overhauled its home blues with white shorts and hooped socks. It’s a classy yet instantly recognizable look. The image shake-up continued Tuesday with a new secondary kit inspired by the regional flag flown during the American Revolution. The red-and-white set is clunky and geometric, but it’s different, daring and local. Better to take a chance than look dull and anonymous.
The Union got it right in 2010. The inaugural navy kit with the gold center stripe, reflecting the Philadelphia flag, was iconic. The gold-and-blue away set, a reversal of the primary, was one-of-a-kind. The holdover home uniform still looks great, although the sponsor’s logo wrecks the balance. But the new secondary is a disaster, a needless departure from the brand and an 10th all-white MLS kit. Once innovators, the Union are now followers. The “WE ARE ONE” collar slogan, the tiny snake below the neckline and the embossed stars on the front are lost in a sea of white.
The Vancouver Whitecaps new primary uniform is meant to be experienced up close. It’s slogan heavy. “Our All. Our Honour.” appears inside the neck and on the hip. “SINCE 1974” is on the back. The thin, diagonal pinstripes that featured on the previous home kit have been replaced by light blue shading designed to represent Vancouver’s water and mountains. It’s all a bit too subtle. The shirt will look nice with jeans, but in the end, Vancouver’s all-white kit—and the holdover mono-navy secondary—simply blends in.
Portland quietly switched crests, from a logo featuring its name to a simpler version focusing on the axe and chevrons (the old logo lives on elsewhere). Few teams wear a badge with no writing, but the Timbers can because they’ve built such a powerful brand. Only they could wear the new home set, a bold green-and-white offering anchored by the chevrons. They're a bit wide, and the yellow below the collar clutters the shirt, but it's impressive overall. The road kit, released in 2014, is everything a good one should be: distinctive, perhaps edgy, yet connected to the club. In this case, Rose City red.
The Crew released new home and away sets featuring the club’s revamped logo, a roundel that looks nice enough but makes sense only with a cheat sheet. The explanations (the ‘O’ for Ohio, the founding year, the checkerboard pattern found in flags waived by fans) certainly tie the club to Columbus more than the goofy construction workers did. As the Crew forge ahead, they’ll stay true to their sartorial tradition. The all-yellow primary is simple but elegant, and certainly recognizable. The mono black secondary could use a bit of flourish–why so subtle with the checkers? But it works and shouldn't be needed that often, anyway.
Orlando City SC
The Lions’ love for purple is welcome in a league featuring so many similar looks. But it didn't result in creative inaugural kits. The home uniform features more up-close details, like “jacquard engineered banding…representing Orlando City’s transition to a new era” and even the club's old USL logo inside. The mono-white secondary has colored hoops on the waist and sleeves and includes more small symbols and slogans. But it’s still just another white set. The answer is obvious—swap the socks. The “Chelsea” look is underrated. White hosiery at home and purple on the road would make all the difference.
New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls have company in New York so have set out to reinforce their tenuous connection to the market within the constraints of the club’s corporate brand. The only white-red-white team in the league, RBNY now must compete with NYCFC’s pale blue. The Red Bulls’ new home set doubles down on that contrast with red sleeves and “NEW YORK” emblazoned on the shirt’s lower left in a manner “mimicking the iconic New York skyline.” The “EST.1996” on the back collar reminds fans who was there (or nearby) first. The holdover secondary definitely is unique and is great in reasonable doses.
Houston’s club motto is “Forever Orange,” and while that remains the cornerstone of the brand, the Dynamo typically add a wrinkle here and there to ensure we’re not beaten over the head with it. The new home uniform is a great example. The white shorts and checkered fade on the jersey add the right amount of contrast. On occasion, the Dynamo have worn monochrome both home and away. But there’s no need to do so, especially on the road. The balance in the primary kit and the immediately identifiable orange shorts with the secondary set showcase the Dynamo at their best.
Sporting Kansas City
From irrelevant to trendsetting, SKC has profited from one of the most successful sports rebrands in recent history. The club now must share light blue with NYCFC, but Sporting still stands out. The new home set is a departure form the bicolor “state line” uniform of 2013-14 and is anchored by a “fashion-forward window pane pattern” that’s almost as preppy as the recent argyle alternate kit. The secondary uniform is stunning. The hoops, which mirror the stripes on the club crest, highlight one of the most eye-catching sets in MLS history. It’ll be tough to see it go after this season.
FCD’s kits are an example of a good idea, poorly executed. The club made an inspired decision to go with hoops when rebranding in 2005, but the jerseys always let them down. Unnecessary seams, plackets and panels always ruined the shirt. Dallas gave up last year and went with a boring all-red primary. But it stuck with the hoops on the new blue-and-white secondary, where the side panels and sleeves still disrupt the flow. Both blue and white shorts are an option. Our 2016 ideal: a primary jersey with seamless, sleek red and blue hoops. Unique and colorful, but less jarring. Make it happen.
Another club that’s bounced from brand to brand (green-and-white, blue-and-black), the Rapids have settled in nicely with the unique but elegant burgundy-shirt, white-shorts combo. The sleeves, which mirror those worn by sister club Arsenal, add a subtle touch of flair. The new away uniform is a prime example of how a secondary kit can be tasteful and connect to a club’s brand. Last season’s mono blue state-flag set has evolved into a sharp gold-and-blue kit that maintains Colorado's colors and stands out from the crowd. We’re not fans of recolored badges—logos should be sacrosanct—but overall it’s a winner.
The club that brought us rave green, cascade shale, super cyan and electricity has succumbed to the all-white virus. Seattle is one of five MLS clubs to adopt the look this season, ensuring half the league now embraces the white-out copout. The Sounders new away kit is especially devoid of any personality—a surprising choice for a club that has much of it. The new home set features a less cluttered shirt than in seasons past. It’s a template, but it’s a step up. The uniform also features blue shorts and socks for the first time. Here’s hoping we see it as often as possible.
San Jose Earthquakes
"Earthquakes" is an appropriate moniker for a club that’s experienced so much upheaval. While the new Avaya Stadium offers stability, the brand remains in flux. SJ’s '14 overhaul produced a beautiful blue-and-black primary kit that’s already a modern classic. But the logo, awkwardly anchored by “Quakes”—a nickname of a nickname—lacks gravitas. We liked the re-introduction of the NASL-era red, which inspired last year’s away kit. That’s been replaced by a new white secondary set (yes, another one). It lacks the creativity, individuality and ambition that should be associated with a Bay Area club on the rise.
Unfortunately, some of the heaviest hitters in both MLS and CONCACAF are out. Seattle star Clint Dempsey would have missed the match for international duty anyway, but he tweaked a hamstring in U.S. training, and will be out for another couple of weeks. Fellow starter Marco Pappa is off representing Guatemala.
FC Dallas star striker Blas Perez, meanwhile, is off representing Panama.
Teammates Atiba Harris (St. Kitts & Nevis), Moises Hernandez (Guatemala), Kyle Bekker (Canada), Je-Vaughn Watson (Jamaica) and Jesse Gonzalez (Mexico U-20s) are out, too.
Making matters more unfortunate, the Western Conference foes only play against each other one more time, and it's during the next FIFA international break. Dempsey will likely be just three days removed from facing World Cup champion Germany.
From the looks of things, two of the top teams in the league might not face each other at full strength at all in 2015, unless they have a postseason rematch.
Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union, (5 p.m., ESPN2)
Chicago, the league's only team without a single point, is in need of a spark. The Fire will have to get it without two of its three new Designated Player signings, as Shaun Maloney (Scotland) and David Accam (Ghana) are unavailable, taking some of the star power away from this nationally televised game.
Philadelphia, another side looking for its first win, is not impacted at all by the FIFA window.
Real Salt Lake vs. Toronto FC (7 p.m., FoxSports1)
Four of the biggest names who would have been involved in this game miss out. Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley and Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando are off with the USMNT, and Alvaro Saborío is with 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica meaning this nationally televised, inter-conference clash loses a large chunk of its luster.
RSL is also without U.S. U-23ers Luis Gil and Boyd Okwuono and Guatemalan center back Elias Vasquez, while TFC misses Canadians Quillan Roberts and Chris Mannella and U.S. U-20 midfielder Marky Delgado (combined for no 2015 appearances thus far).
Kyle Beckerman (USA) and Sebastian Giovinco (Italy) were not called in by their respective national teams, and they'll headline the match–which features Robbie Findley's return to Salt Lake–of these less-than-full-strength foes. The only other time they'd be able to meet at full strength in 2015 would be MLS Cup.