Be with you in a minute, just cueing up the martial music and chest-beating montage...okay...
It's the BIGGEST ONE since the LAST BIGGEST ONE!
Welcome to MLS week 31 and tempting as it is to make a joke about the big one being Toronto vs D.C. (and let's face it, were it not for the fact that D.C's season is still alive until at least after Tuesday's Open Cup final you suspect both teams might quite happily agree to "let's not play this one and say we did"), Sunday night sees first in the West play first in the East, as Seattle take on New York. Either of those teams could clinch a playoff spot with a positive result in that game and the right combination of results elsewhere.
Said combinations start to fall into place on Friday night, when Sporting KC host Philadelphia, with the latter hoping that Casey and McInerney start scoring again on the run-in. And speaking of wobbling teams, RSL go to Vancouver on Saturday after a rare-for-them run of back-to-back defeats. They do have a Cup Final to look forward to on Tuesday night, but rather more worryingly for them, they may also have the loss of a coach to look forward to. Jason Kreis has reportedly been offered a big deal to become the first coach of NYCFC.
Back in the world of things actually happening this weekend, New England must be wishing they'd played Houston a couple of weeks ago, when the Dynamo still looked unable to score. A small matter of five goals rattled in against Chivas has restored Houston's confidence at exactly the wrong time for the Revs, whose once-solid defense has begun creaking on the run-in.
Saturday's final game sees Chicago and Montreal both coming off chastening 3-0 league losses attempt to console each other the only way they know how — by trying to double down on their opponent's misery. Then a rested Portland welcome the Galaxy, with both sides possibly dimly aware that now might be a good time to turn on the afterburners as the playoff race continues to tighten.
Dallas are just about out of must-win games by now you would think. Last week's loss in New York may give them too much to do to make the playoffs from being early pacesetters. But their visitors Columbus have gone on a nice mini-run that could yet see them sneak under the wire. And San Jose, unlikely winners at RSL last week, may not be totally out of contention either. They don't have much margin for error, but depending on which Chivas shows up at the StubHub Center on Sunday night, last season's Supporters Shield champions could yet keep in touch for this year's playoff race.
That game is on just after Seattle and New York battle it out for Supporters Shield supremacy. And it's going to be the BIGGEST GAME in the league till the NEXT BIGGEST ONE (which is probably next week — it's been that sort of season).
Always ready for the big occasion, our team of fan reps and writers for each of the weekend's competing teams. They review the main storyline for their team and preview the weekend's action below. Have your say below and join us again on Monday when we find out just what we learned this weekend (my money's on a BIG lesson on the diminishing returns of hype...).
All kick off times are listed as ET
Sporting Kansas City vs Philadelphia Union
Fri 8pm, Sporting Park (NBCSN)
Mike Kuhn, Editor, Down the Byline, Sporting Kansas City:
This week the talking point for Sporting KC has been whether the team has defender Aurelien Collin on the field for tomorrow's game against Philadelphia. Last week against Toronto Collin picked up an early yellow card for a professional foul. That's nothing new for the Frenchman, who leads the league in yellow cards this year. Shortly after the yellow though Collin very well could have been sent off. Near the edge of the KC box Collin worked to shield the ball away from Toronto midfielder Alvaro Rey. While Collin shielded the ball away and was shepherding the ball out of bounds he brought his right arm up and hit Rey in the face. On replays you see Collin take a look back to see where Rey is before raising his arm. Calls immediately came out for another yellow card, or even a straight red for the actions. Referee Allen Chapman just gave TFC a free kick though and barely even said a word to Collin after the play.
With the disciplinary committee having already announced some sanctions this week and with Sporting's game on Friday it looks like Collin will be able to take the field against Philadelphia. KC will probably need him against the Union with a physical forward like Conor Casey playing for Philly. Over the past few years, Collin has had some very physical match ups with some of the leagues more physical forwards, including Casey and Steven Lenhart. Tomorrow will likely prove to be no different at Sporting Park. With a win and some help over the weekend, Sporting KC can be within a point of clinching a playoff spot.
Adam Cann, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:
The Philadelphia Union have earned two points in their past five games. Of course, it is hard to expect much more when you only score one goal total in those five outings. Such a barren run made some players appreciate the bye last weekend, while others have been champing at the bit for a chance at righting the ship.
And the Union's is a ship sorely in need of course correction. The past five games have seen Philadelphia more reliant on crosses to generate offense, and the opposition has found them out. While John Hackworth has brought a stability to the lineup never seen under former manager Peter Nowak, he has some tough personnel choices facing him as the season winds down. Hackworth has kept a consistent 13-player rotation this season, but now the Union are in seventh place heading into this weekend and are staring up at Chicago and New England sides that have been enjoying the kind of form the Union haven't experienced since July.
Breaking out of a bad run against a Sporting Kansas City side that can grab a share of first place with a win is a considerable challenge. Though Kansas City was the opponent when Union manager John Hackworth and young striker Jack McInerney announced themselves to MLS in a 4-0 win last season. It will take another dominant display from the struggling Jack Mac - this time away from home - for Philadelphia to get back in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Toronto FC vs DC United
Sat 1pm, BMO Field (TSN, RDS2)
Sonja Missio, 90 Minutes of Hopp:
The bad news: Toronto FC has four wins with a month-and-a-bit left in the 2013 season. The good news: That's one more win than D.C United has. TFC face D.C this Saturday in what should be dubbed The Derby della Duds, as both teams are barely scraping to get by. Toronto's last game was met with a red card, an ejection of the coach, and an at-home loss; D.C have not fared any better and are currently in last place in MLS.
In other words, how could this game not be exciting?! Instead of fighting for a playoff spot, these two teams will be fighting for their pride, the love (and forgiveness) of fans, and to avoid headlines like "D.C Devastated!" or "Toronto Turmoil!" Truth be told, neither of these teams really have anything left to lose—let's face it, pride, love, and aggravating alliteration were lost a long time ago—so why not go all out?
There is very low, if any, expectation for this game, so hopefully that relieves some of the pressure for TFC; maybe that's what this team needs: 90 minutes of fun, rather than 90 minutes of failure. Music urban legend states that Elvis Presley's first commercial single That's All Right, Mama only came to be because Elvis and the musicians recorded it for fun, not under pressure to make it perfect. The improvised, relaxed, and lighten hearted jam session turned out to be just what the singer needed to find his groove. And maybe TFC will find their groove too.
Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles:
With just days before DC United's biggest game of the season, the US Open Cup final, United isn't expected to waste a lot of players' energy on Toronto FC up in the Great White North this weekend. United must travel to Salt Lake City for Tuesday's Cup Final, barely enough time to recover from a Saturday match, and this team definitely would like to avoid any injuries. As a result, fans could get a solid glimpse of the future on Saturday, as United is poised to start it's youngest starting 11 ever. Though they may decide to dust off Carlos Ruiz (remember him?). As for the Open Cup final, questions still linger if Joe Willis will get the start (he took them this far), or if Ben Olsen will go with regular Bill Hamid. Also in the mix is Jared Jeffrey as he has returned from injury.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake
Sat 7pm, BC Place(TSN2, RDS2)
Benjamin Massey, Editor, Maple Leaf Forever, Vancouver:
With the Whitecaps coming off a 3-0 win in Montreal, there is hope again in Vancouver. Now, this may tire those of you who inexplicably keep track of my every fortnightly muttering in this space and say "wait a minute, wasn't Ben's last one of these half a step short of shouting 'all is lost!' and starting a comet cult?" Yes, my narrative about the resurgence of hope today is utterly inconsistent with everything I've been rambling about for months. But on the other hand we beat Montreal! 3-0! At Stade Saputo! Martin Rennie got into an argument with an official about a call in the first half and the official agreed with him! If you want a sign the tide is turning I don't know what else you could ask for!
But you know, if the Whitecaps defeat one of the best teams in Major League Soccer (Real Salt Lake) this weekend, and a laundry list of other results go in our favour, Vancouver could be only a point from the playoffs! I'm not saying put the champagne on ice or anything, but that's... sort of almost nearly encouraging. It'll take a massive result to make it relevant, of course. But what the hell, let's grab hold of our optimism and plane the parade route. It's nice to have something to be happy about.
Matt Montgomery, Under the Crossbar, Real Salt Lake:
What is there that can be said about Real Salt Lake's fortunes in recent weeks that hasn't already been said? In two weeks time, we've gone from being genuine contenders for the only regular season prize in MLS to being a little frightened that if we don't pick our heads up — and quickly — we could find ourselves clawing our way back into a playoff spot in the final weeks of the season. It certainly says something about our play of late that we're even thinking about such grim circumstances, but that's the circumstance and dire state of mind we've begun to occupy. With Jason Kreis's future continuing to be a looming cloud of despair, one would be excused for thinking the future of the club was hanging in the balance.
But hanging in the balance it is not: Saturday brings a match against Vancouver Whitecaps, and a win should more or less secure a playoff spot for a sixth consecutive year, surely not a bad mark in our still-nascent sporting life. Tuesday brings even more excitement with the US Open Cup Final — a shot at a trophy for the first time since our (self-)celebrated 2009 MLS Cup win. Surely that match will put some doubts and concerns into lineup considerations for Saturday, though, with the balancing game afoot once again. It could be a fantastic, historical week for the club, or it could be one that sees our hopes flit out the window.
New England Revolution vs Houston Dynamo
Sat 7.30pm, Gillette Stadium
Barrett Madden, New England:
After two weeks of referee decisions killing us - whether undeserved red cards or multiple bad offsides calls - it was nice that the whistle finally swung our way against DC. The Revs first penalty might have been a gift of a call, but Nguyen contrived to give that call back with his weak effort. The second was a crystal clear call, however, and Nguyen's audacious chip was a thing of beauty that finally put the game where it belonged - in the Revs win column.
True to recent pattern, the Revs created a plethora of chances, failed to finish most of them, and had a couple of defensive lapses. Unlike better teams, DC didn't punish the Revs, except for a fluke of an own goal. But in a game we dominated, we still needed the referee making the right call to get the win.
This week, Houston comes to town, a team that somehow always seems to get the upper hand with the Revs. They ripped apart Chivas last week, putting 5 past a team that shows many of the same faults the Revs have shown lately - a shaky defense on set pieces, occasional gaping holes in the middle of the defense, and a certain amount of ball watching when things get a little crazy in the box.
The Revs need this win, but it will be a much tougher test than DC was.
Stephen Eastepp, Dynamo Theory, Houston:
Playoff run. That's the phrase being talked about in Houston. Fans are typically used to a late season rally and a run into the playoffs – and Houston's latest results imply 2013 will be no different. Sure, a 5-1 win over Chivas USA shouldn't be blown out of proportion; but the team Houston beat last weekend is definitely an improved side than earlier in the year. The opponent wasn't the important part here. In all honesty, the score wasn't either. It was the quality play of all three sectors of the team that stood out – solid defense, an in sync midfield, and dangerous strikers that knew where to put the ball. Giles Barnes and Will Bruin appeared to grab a bit of swagger back and could be recapturing that confidence they started the year with. Boniek Garcia has been good, but at times this season seemed to lack that explosiveness he brought into the club immediately last year. Against Chivas, he was at his best.
On Wednesday, the Dynamo also did what they needed to do in CCL action to give them a solid chance of advancing past the group stage with a win over W Connection.
The idea that the famed late season run has started will be tested this week against New England who sit just three points back from Houston. The Eastern Conference is wide open and the Dynamo could be moving up the standings with a big win.
Chicago Fire vs Montreal Impact
Sat 8.30pm, Toyota Park
The big news out of Toyota Park this week is the absence of center back Bakary Soumare for the Montreal match after his red card in Columbus last weekend. Many fans are calling this a blessing in disguise due to Bakay's hot and cold play this season. At times, he has looked the accomplished defender who fans remember from before he left the club to play in Europe. But far too often we have seen the bad side of Baky, giving away needless penalties, dummying the ball instead of clearing it resulting in a goal and getting sent off for a slide tackle as the last defender in Columbus. When you add the caveat that these three incidents happened in the last four matches, it clearly strengthens the fans case.
Fire midfielder Jeff Larentowicz filled in for Baky for the remaining 60 minutes against the Crew and I expect him to continue in that role against Montreal and the ominous threat of Marco Di Vaio this weekend. The open spot in the center midfield could be filled by any number of players including club captain Logan Pause, Alex or even Daniel Paladini. Montreal have not fared well on their travels this season and with only one home game left after Saturday, three points are a must for the Men in Red.
Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:
If the Montreal Impact want to make the MLS playoffs, the 2nd year MLS club is definitely taking the hard long road. Back to back losses vs the Crew and the Whitecaps were the worst things that could happen to the club.
With so few games left in the season, this is not the time to rehaul the squad and found your identity. The good news is that the Impact is not deep enough in quality to actual afford healthy squad rotations. The bad news is that the Impact cannot afford to rotate the squad.
Without Felipe Martins for the road trip to Chicago, the Impact lose one of its X-factors and difference makers on the offensive side of things. The Brazilian midfielder has woken up and provided a big boost to Montreal, putting less pressure on Justin Mapp and Marco Di Vaio.
Look for a 3-man midfield with Bernier, Arnaud and Warner to play against a revived Chicago team. The Impact needs to get back to the mentality it had back in March and April: Keep it simple, keep it organised and hope that Di Vaio will score.
Portland Timbers vs LA Galaxy
Sun 3.30pm, JELD-WEN Field (NBC)
Caleb Porter finally has options again. Last weekend, against Colorado Rapids, Porter chose Futty Danso over Andrew Jean-Bapitste at center back, Jack Jewsbury over Sal Zizzo at right back and Maximiliano Urruti over Ryan Johnson and Jose Valencia at forward. It's been weeks, even months, since the Timbers have had enough healthy players in enough positions to give the manager real options given form, fitness and opponent.
Now, with LA Galaxy coming in for the third and final meeting this season, Porter can opt for a more seasoned look, featuring the likes of Jewsbury, Futty and Johnson, a more athletic, up tempo version, with Jean-Baptiste, Valencia and Zizzo, or something in between that best addresses the strengths and weaknesses of the Galaxy. When Portland last had such options, the club put together a fifteen-game unbeaten run that took the Timbers to the top of the Western Conference.
Adding depth to the recent sparkling play of Diego Valeri, the Timbers look on paper like they could be one of the better teams in the league. Yet the results have been mixed over the past month. Three of the last five games of the year are at home, starting with the Galaxy on Sunday afternoon. Three more points and momentum going into October would extend the current unbeaten streak to four games and present a serious challenge to Real Salt Lake for second place in the West.
Josie Becker, Editor, LAG Confidential, Los Angeles:
The LA Galaxy didn't get the result they wanted last week drawing 1-1 against the Seattle Sounders. There were some officiating issues, a major foul missed on Seattle's goal and a minor foul that took away LA's go ahead goal. Once all the dust cleared and each team walked away with a point, there was a general feeling of "what's next?".
A victory would have tightened the Western Conference race even more than it already is, while a draw simply held the status quo. Landon Donovan wasn't available against Seattle, which pushed the Galaxy attack back into the midfield. Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho had to push up and do much of the offensive work, with Gyasi Zardes doing work on the wing as well. Robbie Keane looked out of place tracking back trying to create for Villarreal and then McBean up top, and neither pairing produced much offensive opportunity.
The defense was able to hold its own without A.J. DeLaGarza, with Sean Franklin slotting back into his usual right back slot and Leonardo continuing to grow next to Omar Gonzalez. The tall pairing is typically good at preventing balls over the top, but they do loose the quickness of DeLaGarza and can be beat on the ground.
LA has to get a result in Portland to stay in the race, and will have to do so on tired legs (CCL travel to Costa Rica) and a questionable Donovan. That's life in Major League Soccer, always an adventure.
FC Dallas vs Columbus Crew
Sun 8.30pm, Toyota Stadium
Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:
Big story this week is how we're being proactive about making sure we do NOT make playoffs. Thats two games in a row now where we've lost on own goals. It's pathetic, but at least it's FINALLY making us forget about the 2010 Own Goal Heard Round the World, right?
We have no clue what is going to happen against Columbus, and frankly, I doubt Schellas does, either. This team is in dire need of a coaching change. Lets just hope that the Hunts aren't too blind to see the writing on the wall.
Ben Hoelzel, Crew Union, Columbus Crew:
Interim coach Brain Bliss has the Crew battling for a playoff spot. There is still a very tough road ahead, but most people would not have thought it even remotely possible a month ago. Sometimes a change in leadership is all a team needs to snap into shape. Players like Federico Higuian and Dominic Oduro are hitting their peak performances. Even surprise names like Tony Tchani have excelled since the managerial change. Now, after winning at Montreal and destroying bitter rivals Chicago at home last weekend, the Crew find themselves just 2 points behind New England for final playoff spot.
There are four games left. The last two are an away and home series against New England that could very well determine the last team to get into the playoffs. But there are also two other teams sitting 1 point ahead of the Crew. The Crew needs to win out and get a little help, which pretty much renders this weekends' contest against Dallas a "must win" if the Crew faithful are going to continue to cling on to their playoff hopes. Dallas can be a hot and cold team. After a convincing win at home against Vancouver, Dallas suffered back-to-back road losses at Colorado and New York to fall out of the West playoff picture.
I think a rejuvenated Crew team put together another impressive win to string their supporters along for at least one more week. It was a long, miserable summer, but the early fall promises to be full of excitement (and hopefully not heartbreak).
Seattle Sounders vs New York Red Bulls
Sun 9pm, CenturyLink Field (ESPN)
Dave Clark, Sounder at Heart, Seattle:
This week the story is simple — it's another "most important game of the year". They basically happen every week at this point. A couple of weeks ago it was RSL, then the trip to LA, and now it's the top team in the East and one of the best sides in MLS, New York Red Bulls — who've looked strong on the road recently.
There's a little intrigue over line up — Dempsey hasn't been training after his injury, and there's expected to be a decision made on Friday as to whether he'll play. As for him not training that's not really an issue — Clint Dempsey knows a thing or two about how to play this game. Obafemi Martins doesn't train often either, but again that shouldn't be a problem, and Eddie Johnson had to go for a shoulder scan after being brought down hard against LA (only to have the referee accuse him of time-wasting).
At the back too, Scott is out for the red card from last week, but center back is one of the positions the Sounders are pretty deep at. Patrick Ianni started pretty often last year and is current fourth choice. He's fit now and even as fourth choice he'd still form one half of a center back partnership ou'd expect to be good enough for this game.
And basically, it's Seattle at home in front of a huge crowd. Home advantage is proving to be a big advantage for every Seattle football team right now, and there's no reason to think Seattle won't win if they play to their ability. The Supporters Shield is in sight and every game between now and the end of the season is "the most important game of the year".
Dan Dickinson, Sports editor, Gothamist, New York:
A slog of a match last weekend saw New York edge FC Dallas on a highlight-reel worthy own goal. The victory, combined with other results, left Red Bulls fans in the most uncomfortable position they have ever found themselves in: on top of the Supporters' Shield table.
This fan base, long suffering and constantly reminded of their empty trophy case, does not deal well with good news. Superstitions and curses are so frequently invoked that when I proposed earlier this season that NY was in a good position to win the Shield, I was shushed by people complaining I had just jinxed the team. Yet, here we are - a point ahead of Seattle (yes, yes, two games in hand) as they head to CenturyLink field.
The storyline is what Alexi Lalas dubbed "the Turfuffle". Seattle has bad turf; both Henry and Olave are routinely held off of turf due to injury. The importance of a single match (they could go four points clear of Seattle) smacks up against the importance of the rest of the season. Petke remarked to media that based on history, he would assume Henry and Olave don't travel with the team. Like with Henry's benching last month, how smart this ends up being depends on the result. With Henry or Olave, a loss will direct abuse at Petke from the fanbase for letting a great chance at silverware go; a draw or a win will make him look like the smartest guy in the room.
Chivas USA vs San Jose Earthquakes
Sun 11pm, StubHub Center (UniMas)
Omar Avalos, The Goat Parade, Chivas:
Chivas USA were rattled last week in Houston after fielding an improvised defensive line. Much of Chivas' recent improvement was due to the fielding of a consistent starting defense, which included Marco Delgado, Carlos Bocanegra, Bobby Burling and Carlos Borja, but that line was completely maimed last week with the absences of Delgado, Burling and Borja due to injuries. Delgado will miss the rest of the season due to a torn lateral meniscus. Burling left the Houston match at halftime with back spasms. By the start of the 2nd half, that left Bocanegra as the sole regular defender of those previously mentioned. Instead, he was lined up with Jorge Villafaña who hadn't started a game since June 28th, Steve Purdy-Ramos who hasn't been regular, and Mario de Luna, who lost his starting role to Bobby Burling. Neither the starting defense, nor the adjusted defense, had played together all season.
Going into the next match with San Jose, Chivas' defense will again be tested and may continue to struggle if Burling and Borja don't recover from their injuries. Chivas need at least 75% of that regular starting defense healthy if they're to have a chance this Saturday and in their remaining games. It's paramount for Chivas to finish the season as strongly as possible in order to start a positive trend for the club, which hasn't won more than 8 games since 2009. Winning at least 3 out of 4 will be a breakthrough.
Robert Jonas, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:
Such is the uncertainty in the Western Conference postseason race that each and every result has such increased magnitude. Look no further than the Earthquakes somewhat shocking 2-1 win at Real Salt Lake. With but a lone road victory all season — in all competitions — the Quakes had no business going into Rio Tinto Stadium and taking 3 points off of RSL. But they did, and now San Jose, with confidence at its highest level all year, is thinking playoffs. Playoffs?! If some postseason predictors are to be believed, the Earthquakes have a greater than 99% chance of making the MLS Cup playoffs if they win the 4 remaining games on their schedule. Impossible? Not really, as lowly Chivas USA on Sunday presents itself as the first domino that must fall in that quartet.
And the good news doesn't stop there, as the fifth game left on the calendar — a CONCACAF Champions League match against C.D. Heredia on October 23 — also reached the must-win pantheon this week when the Montreal Impact dispatched of the Guatemalans to conclude their own CCL campaign. San Jose, after losing the first two matches of the winner-take-all group stage, was handed a lifeline by the Impact. An Earthquakes win by any score over Heredia will leave all three teams level on 6 points in the group, and the Quakes will advance to next spring's knockout by virtue of holding the goal-differential tiebreaker.
Heck, while the happy-juice is flowing freely around Buck Shaw Stadium, let's celebrate one more improbable headline: The San Jose Earthquakes are still in with a chance of winning their second straight Supporters' Shield. To be fair, the scenario by with this could happen involves an entire flip of the script by the league's bottom feeders, but with optimism running rampant in San Jose, who's to say to won't happen. Of course, if either New York or Seattle wins its match on Sunday, the Quakes' Shield defense ends. But maybe a draw at CenturyLink Field is in the cards for these wildcard holding Earthquakes. After all, in a week when Oracle Team USA came back from an 8-1 deficit to top New Zealand in the America's Cup sailing regatta along the San Francisco waterfront, Goonies "never say die" magic is alive and well in the Bay Area.