Welcome to week 35 of MLS — the final weekend of games for the 2013 regular season. Now obviously we're a little early with this preview, as owing to the ongoing pressure to comply with the FIFA calendar, the final week of the 2013 MLS regular season is scheduled to be played at half-time in the 3rd/4th place game at the Qatar World Cup (though the playoffs will go ahead as planned).
Yes, it's the end of the regular season, and in one of the more touching examples of charitable inclusivity, everybody gets to play a part — even Chivas. The Goats played RSL on Wednesday night, in Salt Lake's final game of the regular season — and also host RSL's rivals for first place in the West, Portland on Saturday night. And Chivas's counterparts in the East, wooden-spoon wise, will have their own say on the playoff race when D.C. host a Houston team who had the worst possible set of results for their own playoff hopes last weekend and find themselves on the outside looking in at the start of the last weekend.
Also on the outside, but outside permanently, San Jose and Dallas, both eliminated after last weekend, both facing off-seasons of rebuilding. Mark Watson may have done enough to get the permanent job at San Jose after taking over as interim coach halfway through the season, but his side has struggled for goals (actually, technically, San Jose could still make the playoffs if they score at least 12 goals and Colorado lose without scoring). Meanwhile Schellas Hyndman will be stepping down at Dallas after another disappointing year, but that's about it for meaningful intrigue from that game.
The two other Saturday games see Sporting go to a Philadelphia team who need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive (while for Sporting a draw will not be good enough to overhaul New York in the Shield race), and Toronto getting to take one last kick at Montreal to see if they can at least knock them into the Eastern wild card playoff game, if not out of the playoffs altogether.
The Revs did the hard work in their mini-playoff series against Columbus by winning the back-and-forth game that eliminated the Crew from the playoff running last week. now they travel to Crew Stadium on Sunday looking to secure their own slot. Watching their progress carefully will be Chicago, who will have the advantage of knowing exactly what they have to do when they kick off, and the disadvantage of being up against a New York team who would guarantee their first ever trophy with a win.
Still two more games to go that night. like New England, Colorado saw off playoff rivals at home last week and now go to visit said team's sullen supporters in Vancouver, trying to climb up the league. And then the weekend finishes with the game that at one point looked like it might be a Supporters' Shield decider, and instead is shaping up to be a battle to avoid the wild card game, as LA go to a Seattle team who'll now forever be etched in the MLS "Big Book of Truisms" under the heading, "Games in hand are not points" after losing their last four and being winless in six. And as the last artificial turf pellet is combed out of DeAndre Yedlin's hair there, that will be that for the regular season, and we can all draw breath before the playoffs.
One group of people who regularly draw breath (and make a sandwich) before hitting 'send', the writers and fan reps who make up our regular cast of Guardian MLS previewers, who are here with all that's going on with their teams before a vital weekend. See what they have to say below, add your comments and join us on Monday to find out exactly what we can look forward to in the next month of playoffs (where we will have live minute-by-minute coverage of all games).
And as some of our writers will be taking their leave for the season at this point in proceedings, this seems as good a time as any to thank them all for their sterling work this season - not least regular Chivas correspondent Alicia Ratterree, whose team helpfully ducked out of the running while she was dealing with the sleepless nights of her new baby. Congratulations to Alicia and thanks again to all our contributors. See you in the playoffs.
All kick off times are listed as ET
Philadelphia Union vs Sporting KC
Sat 3pm, PPL Park (NBCSN)
Mike Kuhn, Editor, Down the Byline, Sporting Kansas City:
Sporting KC currently sits within reach of the Supporters' Shield, but will need some help on top of getting a win themselves on Saturday against Philadelphia to claim it. Sitting one point behind New York, KC needs Chicago to steal at least a point at Red Bull Arena. The frustrating thing is that New York will know exactly what they need to do heading into the game. That's because Sporting play on Saturday afternoon, while the Red Bulls play Sunday. Even other Supporters' Shield contenders, Portland and Salt Lake, will have completed play before the Red Bulls take the field. It's hard to do with an odd number of teams obviously, but how much more exciting would the games be if all the teams kicked off at the same time? The drama of the last CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers and the end of the Premier League season in 2012 shows the excitement that can occur.
Fantasies aside, KC still need to take care of business on Saturday, they need a win against a Philadelphia Union team that is currently outside the playoffs, but can get in with a win and some help. The disappearance by Claudio Bieler for most of the last month or so is concerning, but his dip in form means it hasn't killed KC. Still they need to start scoring goals. In the month of October so far KC has scored just two goals. On the other side the defense has really picked up, having not allowed a goal the entire month so far. Against the Union Sporting also has a bit of a revenge factor after controlling the game in their last meeting but losing 1-0.
Toronto FC vs Montreal Impact
Sat 4pm, BMO Field (TSN, Univision Dep., RDS)
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:
There’s no real big story around Toronto FC right now, just a sense of relief that it’s almost all over. A 7th consecutive season without playoffs, a second consecutive one that was spirit crushingly bad comes to a merciful end and it’s just a question of 17th or 18th place. Currently they’re in 18th, level on points but behind Chivas USA due to Chivas having more wins, but even the traditional off season reward for sucking, the allocation money, high ranking in all the various drafts that take place in MLS can’t be properly enjoyed as we’ll all have to watch Vancouver using TFC’s first SuperDraft pick, a legacy from that ill fated Eric Hassli trade back in 2012.
It’ll be the last game for a few popular Reds: Stefan Frei, Richard Eckersley, Danny Koevermans, and probably some of the unpopular ones too, though more than likely none of them will be playing.
What gives the last game meaning is the chance for pettiness, if we can’t have nice things then neither can you. Montreal come to town and if other results go the right way, TFC could essentially knock the Impact out of the playoffs, which would be satisfying in an empty calories kind of way, though not something fans will be able to celebrate even if TFC win as Montreal’s fate wouldn’t be decided until Sunday’s games are done.
So long 2013, it’s been bleak.
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
Between Marco Di Vaio re-signing and Alessandro Nesta retiring, the Montreal Impact found its character at the right time. A huge 2-1 win over the Philadelphia was mandatory and necessary as the Impact goes into the last weekend of MLS as the 3rd seed.
To add more drama and suspense, Les Bleus travel at the Reds of Toronto to secure a playoff spot, for the first time in its short MLS history. With nothing to lose, Toronto FC will gladbly play the role of the villain but it should not be very hard. The Impact has not won once at BMO field since joining MLS, putting the odds against them to get a positive result.
Even though a combination of a tie/loss for Montreal could ensure Montreal of a playoff spot, it's not the best of time to play Russian Roulette with your playoff future. A win at BMO field guarantees the Impact of the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference, not far at all from its initial objective set in pre-season.
San Jose Earthquakes vs FC Dallas
Sat 5.30pm, Buck Shaw Stadium (NBCSN)
Lisa Erickson, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
At least we’ll always have CONCACAF… a bittersweet week comes to an end, as does the San Jose Earthquakes’ dream of making it to the MLS Postseason. On Sunday, the Quakes went down to Carson, California to face their dreaded foe the LA Galaxy and came away with a 0 - 0 point which basically knocked them out of contention for a playoff spot. Their only consolation was a midweek match in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) against Guatemala's CD Heredia. The winner of the match would win a trip into the CCL Quarterfinals, the loser of the match goes home with only regrets. Heredia needed a draw to advance and thus put 9 men on defense for most of game which basically frustrated the Quakes’ “A” Squad throughout the night. Finally in the 62nd minute, Shea Salinas found Chris Wondolowski and the precious goal put the Boys in Blue back on top and opened up the match with Heredia now needing at least one goal. The match was chippy and saw San Jose’s Clarence Goodson finding a second yellow and sent off in the 94th minute for time wasting. But in the end, the Quakes ‘salvaged’ their year by making it to next round of the CCL.
Saturday afternoon will see the Earthquakes play (just for the love of the game) their final match of the year at Buck Shaw against FC Dallas. It will be original ‘96er Ramiro Corrales’ final game in MLS, unless Wondolowski goes on a scoring tear and nets 13 goals. Dreams can come true; so dream on Quakes fans because 2014 is just around the corner.
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
The big story this week is how we made Seattle cry on national television. I can't think of a better way to send Coach Schellas riding off into the sunset. Now the focus becomes our new coach. The Hunts say that they have a list of candidates. All we can do now is sit back and hope the fans' list of names matches theirs. The names Wynalda, Kreis or Pareja would be ideal.
This weekend is against San Jose. Nothing earth-shattering to report here. Just hoping we leave Kenny Cooper home so that psycho Bernardez doesn't try to decapitate him or anything.
Chivas USA vs Portland Timbers
Sat 10.30pm, StubHub Center
Matt Hoffman, The Goat Parade, Chivas:
The story of the week is that, come Saturday night, the 2013 season will mercifully be over. Very little has gone well for Chivas USA this year. Chivas continue to be mired in an embarrassing discrimination lawsuit, and the drop in quality on the field - the team will finish 2013 with fewer points than 2012 and has been shown the most cards - has brought a precipitous decline in attendance. A microcosm of the team's penchant for self-inflicted wounds was when then-coach Chelis commented, "When my children misbehave, I will tell them that I will send them to Utah," before a match against Real Salt Lake in March. This was in the midst of a period in which RSL had outscored Chivas USA 12-1. Chivas returned to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, and though losing 2-1, were able to make a genuine game of it, showing the resolve to pull one back.
The last time the Portland Timbers came to town, Chivas mustered a mere 5,123 fans. The lowest attendance at an MLS game since 2005. Portland certainly has the talent -and the motivation - to take all three points from Saturday's match. Chivas will use 4-5-1 to muddle the midfield to stall the Portland attack, often backing all ten players into their third of the field. Chivas is more than happy to cede possession: it's up to Portland to make something of that possession.
Roger Anthony, Timbers Army, Portland:
For the seventh straight week, the Timbers will play their Biggest Game Ever. Portland pays its second visit in six weeks to the hostile confines of Chivas USA. All that’s at stake is first place in the Western Conference.
The first order of business is determining who’ll start up top. With Maximiliano Urruti out with hamstring issues, Coach Caleb Porter surprised the cognoscenti by selecting 21-year-old Jose Valencia as his striker against RSL in Biggest Game, v6.0. This displaced eight-goal man Ryan Johnson, whose playing time may be further threatened by the return of 34-year-old Frederic Piquionne, perfectly cast for the role of late-game closer.
The LA stadium’s now known as the StubHub Center, but for the Timbers it’s been strictly Death Valley. In three seasons of games against Chivas and Those Other Guys, Portland has managed just two goals in LA while going a combined 0-2-5. Explanations run from the practical -- a talent gap with the Galaxy – to the tactical: Portland can’t make the adjustment from its cozy 110-by-74 pitch to the expansive 120-by-75 that greets them in SoCal. There’s also the environmental subplot: The gently weighted throughball that the Timbers might play on the artificial at home often curls up and dies in the abundant grasses and space of LA.
Finally, with Trophy Season beckoning, the Timbers Army has already selected its Supporters Player of the Year, midfield keystone Will Johnson. The league will hand out a lot of silverware for a lot of things, but it’s overlooking one obvious category. Anyone not rooting for a side playing against Portland would soon realize that Diego Chara, Johnson’s midfield compadre, is clearly the Most Fun to Watch.
D.C. United vs Houston Dynamo
Sun 1.30pm, RFK Stadium (NBC)
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles, DC United:
United's big story for this week remains questions over who returns for 2014. With a dismal campaign (that strangely produced a trophy), United needs to take a long look in the mirror. The mid-season shift towards young American players would seem to be a sound one, especially with the additions of Jared Jeffrey, Collin Martin, and Conor Doyle. But Doyle's loan expires after the season. Does United keep him? They should. When considering the last three to four years, the team has an extremely poor history of dealing with forwards (or attacking players in general) and have shown a lack of patience in the position. Some stability and opportunity would do wonders. Questions also circulate concerning DeRosario as still offers many qualities, but he obviously doesn't fit into the young player mold and he comes at a high cost. This Sunday afternoon's match against Houston brings the final opportunity for players to prove they belong for 2014, a good performance would allow the team to leave fans without a bitter taste as we head into the offseason.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
This week is a delicate topic in Houston. The Dynamo suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in on the MLS Playoffs. After a New York win against the Dynamo last week, Houston finds itself not entirely in control of their future heading into the final weekend of the season.
The issues for Houston continue to be the same thing – finishing. Will Bruin and the rest of the team dominated the Red Bulls statistically in terms of shots. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls knew how to convert their chances, while the Dynamo sent shot after shot into the stands. Fortunately for Houston, there is still a fighting chance to squeak into the playoffs. Facing and MLS club like D.C. United is both fortunate and dangerous. They’ve been one of the worst teams this year, but also want to finish their season on a high note.
The Dynamo traveled to Panama to face Arabe Unido on Thursday in the CCL. A win or draw would have put Houston through in the CCL on Thursday, but the trip ended in defeat. A win is definitely a requirement against DCU. Another challenging season for Houston that will end with suspense for fans. Bring on the last match to see if this club is capable of some orange magic again.
Columbus Crew vs New England Revolution
Sun 4pm, Columbus Crew Stadium
Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus:
The Crew’s late season flirtation with making the playoffs came to an end in New England, but those playoff chances ended during the summer when they managed 2 wins from 11 games. The fact that their playoff lives lasted this late into the season was surprising.
With their playoff destiny seemingly decided months ago, the death of playoff hopes was not the biggest news in Columbus this past week. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has reportedly interviewed to be the manager of the Columbus Crew. This is the news everyone has been waiting ages to hear. Guillermo as manager has been a hot topic since his playing days ended in Columbus. He has no experience, they said, well now he has had success in one of the top leagues in the Western hemisphere. Coming to MLS will be a step down and he won’t do that, they say, seems as though he wants to do just that. Guillermo loves the safety and the quality of life in the United States. In particular, he loves Columbus. The twist to this story is that he has also interviewed for NYCFC (plan B or plan A?). It’s time to right the ship, fans would like to see Guillermo return and for Bliss to stay on as technical director. The story of the offseason has started early.
There is still a game to be played. Revenge is a factor but I’d gladly take a loss if it helps keep Chicago out of the playoffs as well.
Julie Kumor, Midnight Riders, New England:
My itinerary for this weekend is this “Picked up at 8am on Saturday, drive to Columbus for Sunday’s game, Drive back, be at work at 9am on Monday.” That is what this team is doing me. I am driving all night just to see if these guys can make the playoffs, just to see if I can see them play at least one more time. Last Saturday’s game against the Crew was a nail-biter to the end, and I give the Crew a lot of credit for not going down easy, but the Revs came to play. It was 2007 Andy Dorman, not Red-Card Dorman on the field. AJ Soares doing what our forwards couldn’t do at that point, finish chances. Scott Caldwell was like a little gnat that just wouldn’t go away. Jose was Jose. It was a complete team effort.
So one game left and “Win and In” on the line. Facing the team they just eliminated last week. The Crew has to be intent on ending our season in front of their home crowd, too. I think they will try, but I think the boys in blue desire to make a playoff appearance will win out. It won’t be easy, matter of fact it will be harder than last week. I am going to go against all New England fan culture and say that even if they don’t win on Sunday, this season was a success. Of course we are going to win though 2-1
New York Red Bulls vs Chicago Fire
Sun 5pm, Red Bull Arena (UniMas)
Tim Hall, author of “The View from 101” column for First Touch, New York:
No game this weekend is more contingent on the rest of the schedule than New York/Chicago. By kickoff, Chicago could be battling for a playoff spot, struggling to avoid the play-in, fighting for home field, or sitting pretty in third. Similarly, New York could still have the number one spot in the East to play for, not to mention the Supporters Shield. There are scenarios for the Red Bulls to have the Shield in hand without playing Sunday, but then, there are scenarios where I win the lottery and become President of Earth as well.
While it would be nice for Sunday to be a meaningless game with everyone all buttoned up and celebratory, that's not the New York way, especially in the run-up to the most important regular season game in franchise history. Thankfully during this seven game unbeaten run, the Metros have shown an ability to get off to strong starts (Tim Cahill's eight-second wonder goal) and finish well (various other Tim Cahill exploits). The defense and goalkeeper Luis Robles have been stellar, matching the team record for shutouts in a season, even though their momentary lapses have been comical. It will take a full, focused 90 minute performance against a hungry Chicago side bent on ruining the party to secure a festive atmosphere from a sold-out, wound tighter than a snare drum, Red Bull Arena.
Though most Fire fans would have preferred a higher margin of victory over TFC last Saturday, the Men in Red have now won 3 games straight and head into the final game of the regular season knowing another win will see them into the playoffs, possibly finishing as high as 3rd in the East. The notion of finishing in the playoff positions -- let alone avoiding the one-off "knockout" playoff match -- is something that would have seemed fanciful at best to supporters earlier in the season, yet that is exactly what is on the line this weekend.
Jeff Larentowicz will sit out due to yellow card accumulation so it's a safe bet that Edigio Arevalo Rios and Alex will be the starting central midfield pair. The partnership between forwards Magic Mike Magee and Juan Luis Anangono has evolved greatly in the past few weeks and their match-up with the New York back line will be quite interesting.
The Fire pulled off their first victory of 2013 against the Red Bulls in early April, a chilly 3-1 win courtesy of a late Maicon Santos brace. That game seems like it happened in a different world, given the changes in results and on the field during the past 5-6 months that have propelled the team to where it presently stands. Questions about squad rotation, tactics, front office missteps and more have persisted throughout the entire season but at present only one question looms large: Are the Fire actually getting hot at the right time?
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Colorado Rapids
Sun 8pm, BC Place
Brenton Walters, @CapsOffside, Vancouver:
Disappointment all around, as the Whitecaps' slim play-off hopes were crushed in Colorado in an entertaining yet ultimately disappointing affair. Did I mention the disappointment? Luckily we were primed for this, so the pain has eased in rather than sharply cut.
Martin Rennie seems to be on the defensive, while many are reading a lot into some comments from the front office suggesting his time is up. He certainly made it harder for his detractors over the past few games, showing an assertiveness in games that we haven't seen all season.
A season finale against the team that just eliminated us feels like salt in the wound. Especially because they have a ton to play for still, while we're left hoping an 18-year-old left back impresses so we're more at ease as we stumble towards November.
Regardless of Sunday's results, and Rennie's fate, we're in for a long off-season and fresh new faces for 2014. There's always hope, right? Right?
Todd Haggerty, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:
A segment of Rapids supporters (myself included) have a self depreciating nature; no matter how good things are going there is an underlying sense that it will all go wrong. At times this past weekend it in fact seemed that it would. The 'Pids traded goals with the Whitecaps before coming out on top after a Gabby Torres screamer in what was an entertaining but nail biting match. The win eliminated the Caps from playoff contention, and after San Jose took only a point from L.A. the Pids are on the cusp of the playoffs. Only a loss against Vancouver (again) this weekend coupled with San Jose winning their match by more than 12 goals would see the 'Pids miss out. So, it looks like the playoffs are a lock and the match this weekend is more about trying to avoid the play-in game. However, it's tough to shake feeling that it will all go wrong, the truth likely somewhere in the middle. I expect a loss in Vancouver and San Jose to win by only eight goals. This means that the Rapids are likely to finish fifth and have to travel for the play in match--a prospect I would have gladly taken back in March.
Seattle Sounders vs LA Galaxy
Sun 9pm, CenturyLink Field (ESPN)
Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart, Seattle:
Seattle's been in a bit of a funk lately. Two blowouts, a couple closer losses and two draws took them all the way down from Supporters' Shield favorites to merely a team that could finish as high as 4th in the overall standings. That's both incredibly frustrating and a testament to just how good their previous run this season was.
Their chance Sunday night is to declare on Fan Appreciation Night that the woes of September and October are gone, if one match can even do that. Sounders FC still has the same problems (susceptible to the counter, moribund offense), but they also have the same advantages (stout run-of-play defense, individuals capable of greatness). Beating LA will not bring the lost points back. It will just feel good. It can give the team and fanbase confidence as the team enters its fifth straight post-season. A loss could spell disaster for some of the players and possibly the coaching staff.
With at least 64,000 in attendance the numbers are on Sigi's side as this club has yet to lose in front of 40,000 or more fans. They will need players like Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to demonstrate why they are the two most valuable transfer acquisitions in MLS history. That defense that was once the strength of the squad must get back to its fundamentals. Most of all they'll need to discard the distractions of practice field dust-ups and media fueled speculation about firings. Instead they can just be what they've been a great home side on a mission to reach heights they've never been to yet.
The playoffs are guaranteed! That’s what Galaxy fans should take from the 0-0 draw against San Jose. And while the offense struggled to find the back of the net, the defense held strong against a nothing-to-lose Earthquakes side that was virtually eliminated from the playoffs.
The bigger concern for the Galaxy is the myriad of injuries that have taken hold to two of the teams three designated players. Donovan limped through the second half of the game, showing neither the ability to cut, nor the ability to find all out speed. In addition, Omar Gonzalez was removed late in the game with more trouble to his adductor. Omar’s substitution was not part of the plan and may have kept the final substitution for the Galaxy on the bench.
All eyes now shift towards the huge game with Seattle on Sunday. And while the Galaxy are in the playoffs, their seeding is far from guaranteed. The LA Galaxy can finish anywhere from 2nd in the conference to fifth. And for the Galaxy, the biggest issue will be to avoid the fourth vs fifth play-in game. As no one should feel comfortable with the Galaxy playing a win-or-die game on the road. Making this task just a bit harder will be the suspension of, midfield master, Juninho. Yellow card accumulation final took the wind out of the perfect pairing of Brazilians. The Galaxy have a hole to fill and on the turf at Seattle, a pesky Seattle midfield will have something to say about the outcome.