We've reached Matchweek 18 in Major League Soccer, and the playoff races are heating up. The Philadelphia Union sit atop the Eastern Conference on 36 points, five ahead of D.C. United, but having played one more game. In the West, LAFC have 43 points, putting them nine points clear of their Los Angeles rivals, the Galaxy.
I initially planned to pick Carlos Vela as my Tier 1 forward this week as he's up to 19 goals on the season, six more than any other player. However, Vela played the full 90 minutes in LAFC's 1-0 loss to Portland in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday. Now LAFC face a very quick turnaround, having to play at Houston on Friday. Even if Vela starts, I'm worried about fatigue. Plus, the Dyanmo are undefeated at home (7-0-3).
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is second behind Vela with 13 goals, and he's only played 15 games -- just four fewer than Vela. He's coming off a brace against Toronto last weekend, the Galaxy have had a full week of rest, and they are at home this week against San Jose. Ibrahimovic will be my Tier 1 forward and my captain as well.
Portland, coming off that big win on Wednesday, are the second-biggest favorites of the weekend, at home against Colorado. That game is on Saturday, so the Timbers will have an extra day of rest compared to LAFC. What's more, Diego Valeri didn't start against LAFC, only coming on in the 74th minute, so he should have plenty left in the tank for Saturday. Valeri has four goals and six assists in 16 appearances this season, leads the league in chances created with 63, and is on penalties for the Timbers. He'll be my Tier 1 midfielder.
Chicago, despite being in 10th place in the East, are the biggest favorites of the weekend. Why? Because they're at home against last-place Cincinnati, who have conceded a league-worst 44 goals in 19 games (Colorado is second-worst, with 38 in 19). The Fire scored five goals in their most recent home game, and C.J. Sapong bagged two of them. He has eight goals this season -- only six players have more -- and he'll be my Tier 2 forward.
At Tier 2 midfielder, Daniel Royer is up to five goals and five assists in 16 appearances. He has scored a goal in three of his past four starts, and has taken at least four shots in three of those four starts. The Red Bulls should be fired up, playing at home against local rivals NYCFC, who are one point ahead of them in the standings. Royer will be in my lineup, too.
Felipe Gutierrez, Kansas City (Tier 3 midfielder): Sporting KC are actually slight favorites, despite playing at Vancouver on Saturday. Gutierrez has seven goals in 19 appearances, is averaging more than two shots per game, and is on penalties.
Reto Ziegler, Dallas (Tier 1 defender): Ziegler is eighth in the league in passes completed, averaging 55.3 per game. Plus, he's taken both of Dallas' penalty kicks so far this season.
Francisco Calvo, Chicago (Tier 2 defender): Calvo is a defender who often pops up on the other end of the pitch. He has two goals and an assist in nine appearances for Chicago. He had one goal in seven appearances for Minnesota prior to being traded to the Fire back in May.
Kenneth Kronholm, Chicago (Goalkeeper): Kronholm has yet to keep a clean sheet in seven starts this season, but he has conceded only one goal in three of the past four games. He is also coming off an eight-save performance against Kansas City. I like his chances of getting that first clean sheet against Cincinnati, who have scored only 18 goals in 19 games, and are 1-9-1 away from home.