And so it continues. Barely have the last smears of patriotic face paint been wiped off, the last impulse buy of "Conversational Portuguese" made from a locker room in Columbus, and the last calculator put back in the drawer after one last definitive check that the Hex has indeed produced two early qualifiers that aren't called Mexico, than we are back in MLS action.
And straight back with a very tasty encounter: Seattle and RSL resuming hostilities on Friday night with what could turn out to be a decisive turn in the kick for home in the Supporters Shield race. Seattle have been finding ways to win, even without their internationals, and are right on RSL's shoulders going into the game — two points behind, with two games in hand.
And no sooner have the Western leaders slugged it out than we're opening Saturday's busy round of games with Eastern leaders Montreal hosting a Columbus side whose post-Warzycha bounce lasted all of one game against a struggling Houston, before being brought down to earth last week by Sporting KC.
One side who'd love to manage anything remotely resembling a "bounce" is D.C. United. They're hosting LA on Saturday afternoon, hoping for more of a hangover from international week from the Galaxy's returning stars, than a backlash from a side whose team of juniors was beaten by Colorado last week (mainly as a result of those absences). Colorado themselves are back at home on Saturday evening, facing a Dallas side who may have faltered alarmingly of late, but got a big win against Vancouver last week. Vancouver must now go to San Jose with both teams five points out of the playoff spots and time running out.
Two other sides currently in and around the playoff spots in less than convincing fashion face each other on Saturday evening. Philadelphia host Houston, in a game that on current form looks a little like the resistible force meets the moveable object. Both sides will then presumably watch the conclusion of the Chicago v New England game with interest — both those teams too are still in and around the playoff cut off point. The ten man Revs lost heavily last week, while Chicago are coming off a draw in midweek to Toronto, which is hardly inspiring form.
After that further sabotaging of the Fire's playoff chances, Toronto are on the road in New York this weekend, as the Red Bulls look for the win that would keep them at least joint top of the East. Toronto's ambitions have long been reduced to being spoilers this season, and with the removal of Kevin Payne and the trading of his long-time target Urruti to Portland, it looks like their plans for next season may be kicking into action. Having dispatched his former side 4-0 last weekend, Urruti's new team visit Chivas on Saturday night, hoping to skip round the Goats' own attempts at acting as spoilers.
One group of people who need no encouragement to act as spoilers — our regular collection of writers and fan reps from around the league. See their take on the weekend's games below, have your say and then get back to booking hotels in Brazil/Cancun (delete where applicable) for next summer. And join us again on Monday morning where we work out what we learned this weekend.
All game times are listed as ET
Seattle Sounders vs Real Salt Lake
Fri 10pm, CenturyLink Field (NBCSN)
Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart, Seattle:
Real Salt Lake comes to Seattle with their presence in first place on the line. They will attempt to be the first ever team to beat Seattle Sounders FC in a competitive match in front of more than 50,000 people and they will do so on national television (NBC Sports).
The reduced rosters should still entertain the national audience, Seattle fans may even get to finally see their hydra attack on the pitch at the same time. Johnson is cleared to play. Martins and Neagle are rested. Mauro Rosales can serve the dead ball still and is now playing centrally during the run of play. A certain Clint Dempsey is in the city too. Few matches in MLS can define seasons. This one can for either team.
It's time for Green Friday.
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
Having just had a bye week, one might be forgiven for having forgotten that Real Salt Lake is rather in the ascendency, leading MLS in the race for the Supporters Shield and being on the verge of a US Open Cup final and all told showing some quite encouraging attacking verve. But here we are, ready for another all-important battle against a side vying for our spot at the top of the pack, Seattle Sounders.
RSL only has one potential significant absence to contend with: Alvaro Saborio, who retreated from international duty with Costa Rica after suffering an injury in his calf, though thankfully the one opposite his previously injured calf he was sent off with. RSL captain Kyle Beckerman, who featured for the US in this week's 2-0 win over Mexico, should be fully available, and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who was with the US National Team, did not feature and will undoubtedly keep things in check at the back.
The season's standings could well rely on this result, with either side increasing their Shield chances considerably with a win. Few more scintillating matches have taken place in MLS this season, what with everything hanging in the balance. Jason Kreis's side should be well-prepared for the ensuing battle.
Montreal Impact vs Columbus Crew
Sat 2pm, Stade Saputo
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
Bologna is calling its prodigal son, Marco Di Vaio, back. An article in Il Corriere di Bologna this week offered an in depth look at how close is Marco Di Vaio from retiring and going back to Bologna. This is not a surprise for anyone as the Italian striker has still not made a choice between extending his contract until 2014 and retiring. The most surprising piece of news in that article though, was that Di Vaio might be coming back to Bologna FC as a player/manager until fully retiring. Fact or fiction, the reality is the same for Les Bleus of Montreal after the 2013 MLS season: How do we replace Di Vaio and his 17+ goals?
That question will be answered by sporting director Nick De Santis, but Marco Schallibaum has yet another challenge to face. With injuries to Hernan Bernardello and Adrian Lopez, the Swiss coach has a smaller squad to manage. With 2 CONCACAF Champions League games in September, squad rotation is back on the menu.
Keeping the cliché "taking it one game at a time", the Columbus Crew is another challenger to the Impact's playoff aspirations. With a new ownership and an interim head coach, the Impact faces a vulnerable Crew team this weekend. With 3 wins and 1 draw in its last 4 games, keeping a winning momentum is important for Montreal. So close to the playoffs, winning and cementing a style of play is key as the Impact aims for the Eastern conference crown.
Ben Hoelzel, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
With everyone in Columbus focused on hosting U.S.A. versus Mexico mid-week, I think Crew fans needed a reminder that the Crew play this weekend. Not that it will matter much. The Crew is essentially playing for nothing and go on the road to legitimate Supporter Shield contenders Montreal on Saturday.
With a rotating cast in the back four due to injuries and general ineptitude, the Crew defense has been shaky at best. Montreal's Marco Di Vaio is on an absolute tear scoring his league leading 16th and 17th goals of the season last weekend against New England. Di Vaio gave the Crew fits all game during the teams' last meeting and notched a goal. I wouldn't be surprised to see him add a couple more to his tally this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Crew continues to struggle up front. Over the last couple games, Dominic Oduro appears to be the only attacker who both cares and has the ability to turn things around. He continues to make great runs, but service has been lacking and his touch in front of goal has been terrible at times. Hopefully, Federico Higuian can return this weekend and provide the service Oduro needs to get on the score sheet. Montreal's backline has looked vulnerable at times, and Oduro has the speed needed to punish mistakes. But, I just don't see enough tricks in Columbus' bag to get a point out of this one.
I hate to say it, but that great soccer buzz everyone in Columbus has from hosting another "dos a cero" is about to crash real hard. Welcome back to reality Columbus.
DC United vs LA Galaxy
Sat 4pm RFK Stadium (UniMas)
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
Last week United traveled to play the lesser team in LA without its Canadian contingent, and despite controlling play and possession, they couldn't find the answers on the offensive side of the field, and fell victim to a goofy bounce in their own end in a 0-1 loss to Chivas USA. The good takeaway is that United continued to apply pressure and attack after giving up the goal, and Chris Pontius returned to action as a second half substitute. The bad takeaway is that they couldn't come up with a goal for their efforts, and Daniel Woolard had to leave the game in the first half. This week, United takes on the LA Galaxy (along with Landon "Pink Eye" Donovan) at RFK on a night/afternoon where United will honor one of MLS' greatest players, Jamie Moreno, with a spot in the Hall of Tradition. To handle the Galaxy, United will need to find that 90 minute effort that has alluded them all season.
Josie Becker, Editor, LAG Confidential, Los Angeles:
The LA Galaxy have been all over the map these past few days, both on the global map and to a lesser extent the results map. This past weekend Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez were off qualifying the United States for the World Cup, Robbie Keane's Ireland was all but eliminated, and Jamie Penedo's Panama pulled ahead of Mexico with a draw against Honduras.
While that was going on, the Galaxy had to press on challenging Colorado at the StubHub Center. It went much as the first meeting with Colorado in Carson did, with a not much sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. There may be some cause for concern that right now LA doesn't seem to have a backup plan if Donovan and Keane aren't scoring. Last year in crisis situations Juninho or Mike Magee could step up, but Juninho hasn't been on target and Magee's with Chicago now.
Marcelo Sarvas has a few goals under his belt, but they haven't been coming as of late. It's worth noting that goals are more likely to come from the central midfield when there are forwards up top that can give them space to work in. Jose Villarreal and Jack McBean, who have been known to score a goal or two, just don't have that instinct yet.
That Galaxy will meet up with their wayward stars in DC, where they'll take on the worst performing team in MLS. It's a good chance to reboot ahead of the stretch run.
New York Red Bulls vs Toronto FC
Sat 7pm, Red Bull Arena (TSN2, RDS2)
Dan Dickinson, Sports editor, Gothamist, New York:
Post-modern soccer continues to be the order of the day with the Red Bulls. A win over DC United that wasn't domination, Tim Cahill's injury, a variety of absences in the defensive line, and lingering concerns about the Petke/Henry fight didn't instill a lot of confidence for the trip to Houston. Add in their road woes and terrible history in Houston, and the game should've been a lost cause. It certainly looked that way in the first half, as Houston tore Kosuke Kimura and David Carney up on the flanks. But after halftime, three goals gave NY an unexpected 4-1 win. The result was so bizarre that people seemed only able to discuss Jonny Steele's and Lloyd Sam's celebratory dance moves. (To be fair, they were pretty bad.)
The biggest positive out of the game was Bradley Wright-Phillips, who may have wrestled the starting spot from Fabian Espindola after just two starts. Bradley looked fully in sync with Thierry Henry, feeding him for one goal, connecting with him to set up Jonny Steele on another. He has brought enough creativity and vision to the attack that he may well remove the "Someone's Less Famous Brother" stigma before long.
The litmus test of this partnership will be Toronto on Saturday, as four of the Red Bulls last nine games against TFC saw them put in at least four goals. The test for BWP will not be if NY wins, but by how much he runs up the scoreboard.
Sonja Missio, 90 Minutes of Hopp:
In 250 words, I am to inform readers on what's going on with Toronto FC this week; I'll do it in four: I have no idea.
Truth be told, I don't think anyone does. Last week saw the firing of Kevin Payne, TFC's inaugural President and General Manager, this week saw the trade of Maximiliano Urruti, a player acquired a few weeks ago, after being pursued aggressively for months. In exchange, TFC acquired Portland Timber and Nigerian International, Bright Dike, who made his debut for the Reds as a substitute in Wednesday's 1 – 1 draw against the Chicago Fire. It makes unfortunate sense that Urruti would be traded once Payne left, he—who was previously spoken of as TFC's saviour—is a casualty of the "The Payne Plan;" staff and players under TFC's former coach Aron Winter suffered the same fate after the Dutchman's dismissal.
However, it is not just Toronto FC that is subjected to staff change; since the hiring of Tim Leiweke as President and CEO of Maple Leaf + Sports Entertainment (MLSE, the group who owns the Maple Leafs, Raptors, and Toronto FC), all MLSE teams have been subjected to a corporate shake up. TFC fans are just feeling the pain more because the changes are happening mid-season. So conclude these 250 words: what's going on this week is that TFC fans are praying that Leiweke better know what the hell he is doing. And that he'll share his master plan with the rest of Toronto soon.
Philadelphia Union vs Houston Dynamo
Sat 7.30pm, PPL Park
Adam Cann, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
For two teams ostensibly pursuing a playoff berth, the Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo are sure doing a good job of hiding it. Over the past four weeks, these two Eastern Conference rivals have combined for three points and have scored only three goals.
The Union are coming off a dispiriting loss at San Jose. Philadelphia manager John Hackworth is maintaining his customary reticence to discuss potential lineup changes this week, but he has implied he's more open to tinkering than he has been all year. While Keon Daniel and Danny Cruz are not necessarily more culpable for the Union's current offensive lull, they are the easiest to replace. Michael Farfan is a likely stand-in, though fans are increasingly agitating for elderly Brazilian Kleberson or diminutive Colombian youngster Roger Torres to add a creative spark in the middle. Hackworth has been reluctant to use either player and even more reluctant to explain why.
Amobi Okugo's return from suspension means left back Fabinho could be pushed into midfield to make space for Ray Gaddis. Since arriving from the A-League in Australia, Fabinho has given the Union a useful left-footed cross and a lot of energy. He was exposed in the back by San Jose last week and should relish the chance to move forward. The Union were shut out 1-0 in Houston earlier this season so moving Fabinho forward and generating offense will be a clear priority for a team that will fall below the playoff cutoff with a loss.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
The weather in Houston is not only hot, but grey clouds are hovering about BBVA Compass Stadium. Things aren't looking that bright as the Dynamo head into the final seven games of the MLS season. These defensive lapses, the offense sputtering over the last few games, and ultimately the lack of results have put the orange in a tough spot.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact issue or more importantly the cause, but whatever it is there is no other person I'd like to have trying to figure it out than Dominic Kinnear. Houston has dealt with injuries to key players all season long. They've fought through having a number of their starters gone for international duty. They biggest offseason signing hasn't been able to see more than six games due to injury concerns. Last week, things reach an all time high when they fielded the most bizarre lineup this year. If Will Bruin is in the midfield, things aren't right.
The Philadelphia Union sit right above Houston in the East, and this weekend's game couldn't be bigger. The Dynamo have been nothing short of terrible on the road this season, but this is a game where three points is all that is needed. Houston's been lucky with some of the other results in the East going their way, but there is no guarantee that trend continues this weekend. If Houston wants to be a contender, it's time they play like it. Less words, more action.
Chicago Fire vs New England Revolution
Sat 8.30pm, Toyota Park
All week we've heard about how extraordinarily lucky the Fire are to still be in the running for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Overall good play has still lead to dropped points in matches against Houston and Seattle, but favorable results from the other teams in the hunt in the east meant that the two games this week (at Toronto, and home to New England) still offered a golden opportunity to come out on top… well, not "on top", but a rise to 4th place was possible.
And yet what did the first result yield, away to TFC? One point. The Fire took the lead on quite a weak play, then conceded a weak equalizer in return just minutes later. The rest of the game was a slow slog where it seemed neither team wanted anything further. Past Fire teams couldn't seem to take the lead and always played catch-up, now they grab a lead but can't build upon the advantage.
Many fans are questioning the squad rotation set by Frank Klopas, wondering whether some fresh blood might not be useful as the season grinds down. Many remember a similar point in 2012, when a late-season collapse seemed at least partially due to strain and tired legs among the starting players. Three points against the Revs are an absolute must, even though it may be the Fire's chances have already slipped away. This is the time where players need to step up their efforts – but could some of those players most ready to step up be left sitting on the bench?
MB Carradine, Midnight Riders:
The Revolution have managed to tread water in the 5th and final Eastern conference playoff spot despite taking only one point from their last two matches. Downtrodden Revs fans may have been able to predict the misfortune of a questionable fifth minute red card versus Montreal last weekend, but no one could have predicted the treasure of losses from the horde of teams crowded around the final playoff spots. In a beautiful sequence of results, teams in 4th place and below managed to lose last weekend (and Chicago only took one point from their mid-week fixture versus irrelevant Toronto).
But with seven matches remaining, the Revs need to start taking points or someone else certainly will. Sitting one point below the Revs is a Chicago Fire team who are eager to climb into a playoff spot and avoid a season sweep by the Revolution. If the Revs are to complete the sweep, they may have to do it without their game-changer Juan Agudelo, who is questionable with a hamstring injury. Saturday night will also mark Bobby Shuttleworth's opportunity to steal his starting position back from a suspended Matt Reis. A win against Chicago would not only put Shuttleworth back into the starting lineup, but it would create some critical playoff spot separation going into the Revs' next match against a beatable DC United. The Revolution will require a spate of clutch wins into October if they wish to end their playoff drought, and the winning must start Saturday in Chicago.
Colorado Rapids vs FC Dallas
Sat 9pm, Dick's Sporting Goods Park
Richard Bamber, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:
Best thing this week was obviously the victory over the LA Galaxy against an LA side who were depleted by international call-ups (no Donovan, no Gonzalez, no Keane etc.). We got a 1-0 win thanks to a goal by ex-Galaxy player Edson Buddle that was absolutely huge for our playoff hopes, coming as it did against a Western rival. The game opened up a debate that was had in Europe a few years ago, when Bruce Arena claimed that the number of absences meant that the game shouldn't have been played. Opinion's divided on that one — some say the Galaxy should just have to assemble their squad accordingly and basically suck it up when a scenario like this arises. Personally I feel the right way forward may be an adaptation of the English model, where full Championship programs are scheduled on international weekends to take revenue advantage of no Premiership games taking place, but the few teams with more than two players called up for international duty are given the option of postponing their game.
The other local story this week, amid the USA clinching a World Cup place, was that Panama came very close to the win that would have kept the US waiting — with Colorado's DP Gabriel Torres getting a couple of goals for them. While Rapids fans are pleased that their star player scored two goals, they're also pleased that Honduras scored two goals on the night.
This week Torres will be lining up against his Panama strike partner Blas Perez when FC Dallas visit. Rapids fans see this as a must win if we're going to qualify for the playoffs. We're still thereabout as the games in hand are caught up on by other teams, but we need a result and a couple of other results to go our way in the run-in. We are quietly confident given Dallas's form. Our squad is virtually all there as well - there are no big first team absences. In fact watching our reserve games right now you're seeing line ups that could have been a team of starters in 2011. So no excuses.
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
Well the big story around the team just looking at this week would probably be the buzz around Jair Benitez and his amazing 50 yard strike against Vancouver. When he was put in the game it was tied at 1-1 and I didn't think we needed defense — still not entirely convinced the coach knows what he's doing on substitutions. Then he went and did that. Of course with Portland stuffing ballots it's not likely to get goal of the week, but it really should.
When we spoke last week, I was saying I couldn't see where a goal was going to come from with Perez and Cooper out and Hassli really unconvincing. As it turned out we saw three great goals — each one of them from players that had us saying "Really?" And to be fair to Hassli, he had a hand in the second and third goals, and he was trying to link up play, so in that regard, baby steps.
The other big news for the longer term is the stadium naming deal. The only downside on the new name of Toyota Stadium is that it's similar to Chicago's but the upside is it's a decade-plus deal and the owners have promised to direct some of the money to stadium improvements — I'm hoping it's to provide coverage for some of the unshaded areas of the stadium.
Colorado this weekend, and a team I want to hate because of 2010 and because, well, they're Colorado, but they have Oscar Pareja and it's impossible to hate Oscar. From the weather reports of all the flooding in the region we could be playing water polo, but the main problem will be altitude. Dallas always struggle there and a draw would be a good result.
Chivas USA vs Portland Timbers
Sat 10.30pm, StubHub Center
Omar Avalos, The Goat Parade, Chivas:
Chivas USA are finally solidifying a consistent starting lineup. This entire season has been one of salvaging a team in ruins and rebuilding for the future, and now there are signs of real improvement and reasons for fans to be optimistic. Key players are delivering and new ones are becoming regulars. Erick "Cubo" Torres is on a goal-scoring tear, already equaling the last Chivas USA goal scorer's stat of 7 goals in 9 games, set by Juan Pablo Ángel. Oswaldo Minda has returned from injury to strengthen the midfield and has made 4 consecutive starts. Youngsters Marco Delgado and Bryan de la Fuente have also made 4 starts in a row in fixed positions, so Chivas are achieving that consistency that they've sorely lacked all season.
A consistent core is precisely what Chivas need as they host the Portland Timbers, who are floating near the last Western Conference playoff position. They'll look to consolidate themselves in postseason qualification starting with a good result against Chivas but warning: Do not underestimate these Goats. This club has gone toe-to-toe with some solid sides, particularly New York and Montreal and is set to finish the season strongly, in spite of what their record and some deceiving scores might suggest. With coach José Luis Real's emphasis on finding a core and building for the future, you can expect better performances from Chivas from this point going into next season.
Maximiliano Urruti is the headlining name this week as the Portland Timbers look to build momentum after a difficult end to August. The 22-year-old Argentine striker moved to Portland this week in a trade that sent Bright Dike to Toronto FC. The players found out about the trade immediately after Portland's 4-0 defeat of the visiting Reds on Saturday night, meaning Urruti did not even need to leave the city.
With a full week of training, it is expected that Urruti will be included in Caleb Porter's team that travels to Chivas USA this weekend. Yet with Ryan Johnson returning from World Cup qualifying with Jamaica, and following Jose Valencia's two assists in his first MLS start, it would be a stretch to see the Timbers' newest player getting much more than a late substitute appearance at the StubHub Center.
The Timbers have never won in Los Angeles against Chivas. In fact, they have neither taken a point nor even scored a goal in two previous encounters. That seems likely to change this weekend, even as Chivas have improved in recent weeks. After weeks of ailing players and international call-ups, Portland is finally coming close to getting all of its top players on the field together again. Diego Valeri will probably come off the bench as he recovers from an adductor strain but Ryan Johnson, Donovan Ricketts and Alvas Powell should all be back in the line-up.
San Jose Earthquakes vs Vancouver Whitecaps
Sat 10.30pm, Buck Shaw Stadium
Robert Jonas, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
The Earthquakes Jekyll and Hyde season continued as a 3 game winless road trip was followed up by a comprehensive 1-0 victory at home against the Philadelphia Union. The difference in home versus road quality is further illustrated when you take into account that the Quakes played a man down for the last half-hour of the match and still knocked off Philly. Put the Earthquakes in Buck Shaw Stadium and they are world-beaters; put them anywhere else and they capitulate.
That home dominance will need to be on display again this weekend as the Quakes welcome the Vancouver Whitecaps to town. Both teams are on the outside looking in on the Western Conference playoff spots, so they will surely hold nothing back in looking for a win. If such a result comes San Jose's way, it will mark the 200th victory in the club's history. The first 199 wins — the first coming in the inaugural match of MLS back on April 6, 1996 — helped fill the trophy cabinet with two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shield, and a milestone win on Saturday is needed to keep this season's postseason dreams alive.
Home cooking gets one more serving midweek with the visit of the Montreal Impact in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Quakes absolutely must win against the Impact to keep continental hardware hopes afloat. Given the tenuous nature of their chase for the MLS playoffs, the Earthquakes may realistically have only the CCL as consolation in what has been a difficult season.
Benjamin Massey, Editor, Maple Leaf Forever, Vancouver:
The great story for Whitecaps fans this week is the collapse of hope, the end of joy, our oppression by the cruel grey clouds of playoff non-qualification. Team slumping, captain now all-but-officially out for the season, points receding in the distance like the shores of Avalon. The lamps are going out all over Vancouver; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Now, of course this game against San Jose is as close as you can get to a must-win without actually being one, but so were the previous two. The difference is that, by now, the Whitecaps have more than lost their advantage: they must rely on a tremendous run of results and an equally tremendous run of good luck. So that's the story, I guess. That it's probably already too late, that mathematically the odds are now heavily against Vancouver making the playoffs, and that in all probability Vancouver is playing out the string, with juuuuuust too much hope left to admit it.