MLS Week 34: reviews and previews

• Big Shield clash between Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake
• Colorado Rapids could see off Whitecaps and Earthquakes
• Leaders New York Red Bulls have destiny in own hands

Right, having taken advantage of the “Everyone called Graham eats free” offer at every Mexican restaurant in New York City this week, it’s back to domestic duties and the race for (or "Black hole formation of") the MLS playoffs, with just two rounds of games to go.

Wednesday night’s midweek LA victory over Montreal meant not just that Montreal really need a win against Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, but that every team in the league has two games left to play and we can stop speculating about what might or might not happen (in Seattle’s case definitely what “might not happen”) during teams’ games in hand.

One side who’ve already turned their remaining games into 2014 pre-season is D.C., who travel to Sporting on Friday night. Sporting are one of only two teams who have already qualified for the playoffs. On Saturday afternoon the Sounders try to pick up the momentum again after three straight losses when they go to Dallas, who are definitely out of the playoffs, while in the evening Colorado and Vancouver and New England and Columbus each do their level best to knock their opponents out of the playoff running, knowing that next week they’ll be back against the same team trying to do it all again. Of those sides, Columbus is the team with no margin for error.

Chicago go to Toronto on Saturday night, knowing that next up is a tricky road game in New York with the Red Bulls possibly chasing a first ever trophy as the Supporters Shield goes to the wire. Two sides who’ll have something to say about that meet on Saturday night. Portland are behind New York at the top of the standings only on number of wins. They could get one more by seeing off RSL at home. 

And the weekend is rounded out by a couple of tasty looking games. Houston will want to avoid the lottery of a wild card game by winning on Sunday afternoon against the Red Bulls to consolidate their top three place. The Red Bulls meanwhile know that a win in Houston and another one next week at home to Chicago will crown then Supporters Shield winners. Finally LA host San Jose in the California Clasico, knowing that a victory would potentially fatally harm the Earthquakes’ chances (I’ll be at that one — say hello if you see me).

Always ready to do potentially fatal harm to the concept of impartiality, our regular cast of writers and fan reps covering each of this weekend’s competing teams. See what they have to say about this round of games, have your say in the comments below and then join us on Monday morning to find out what, if anything, we learned.

All game times are listed as ET.

Sporting Kansas City vs DC United

Fri 8pm, Sporting Park (NBCSN)

Malena Barajas, co-founder Women United, Sporting KC:

Tonight, Sporting KC faces 2013 US Open Cup Champions and bottom-of-the-League DC United in its last home match of the regular season. Sporting is one point away from topping the Eastern Conference, and it must win this and its last match of the season to contend for the Supporters Shield. Though New York, Portland and Real Salt Lake are all ahead of SKC in the Supporters Shield race, Portland and Real Salt Lake have to face each other in one of the remaining fixtures and New York is, well, New York.

SKC and DC have already met twice this season in April and May. The first, SKC won at home with a single goal in minute 89. The second was a 1-1 draw at RFK with both goals happening in the second half. It seems like it has been a long time since. DC is short on men due to injuries, but DC’s strongest Dwayne De Rosario and Perry Kitchen will be on the pitch. SKC’s attack will have to break those two down to ensure the win. DC has not won on the road this season – or much at all (only three!), and SKC hasn’t had the best home record. SKC will be the better team, but being better does not always translate to points. In it’s last home match, SKC gave up a goal and with it three points to Philadelphia despite having nearly 62 percent possession. Coincidentally, SKC’s last match of the regular season will be away at Philadelphia October 26.

Kim Kolb, Screaming Eagles, D.C.:

United has two more games left in the dismal 2013 campaign, or as optimists see it 2 more games remaining in the first phase of 2014 preseason. These games are a measuring stick for players who want jobs in 2014 all of United's games are against teams that are playing for something and as such these games will clearly showcase a player much better than actual preseason games. With Dwayne DeRosario on Canadian National Team duty in England against Australia, and with the team back to copious injury status Ben Olsen started a mix of regulars and young players against the Philadelphia Union who are fighting for their playoff position. In fact, with young players, Conor Doyle, Jared Jeffrey,Dennis Iapichino it could very well be a glimpse of an opening day 2014 roster. Nick DeLeon found a little bit of his 2012 form, he's been battling various small ailments and bad luck all through 2013, and scored on a 30 yard shot into the side netting. The goal was actually the product of one of Nick's runs through midfield where he beat several defenders on the dribble before he distributed the ball, this time the Union defense backed off and he recognized this fact and altered his attack. United threatened several more times, hitting posts, and goalkeeper MacMath several times, but inexplicably, couldn't find the net again and with the Union applying tremendous amounts of late game pressure United cracked at the end and let in the tying goal.

For one of the few times this season players were obviously committed to the match. The defense wasn't merely defending, there was clearly something different in the attitude of the players on the pitch, especially at the end. United travels to KC for a Friday night match. If United can keep that commitment level up for the last two games, especially considering the season, they can be eager to start the 2014 season.

Montreal Impact vs Philadelphia Union

Sun 2pm, Stade Saputo

Sofiane Benzaza, Mount Royal Soccer, Montreal:

Never really having a distinct style of play, the Impact finds itself in consecutive do-or-die situations. The 1-0 loss against the LA Galaxy had a positive twist to it though. With three-quarters of the backline made up of Academy players , the team showed a combative spirit, that kept them alive for most of the game. Unfortunately, combativeness and good intentions mean nothing without points.

It might seem harsh but the Impact needs wins and the children of the future can wait till 2014 to flourish. In the mean time, Montreal has lost any advantage it might have had with games in hand. Losing to the LA Galaxy was not a surprise, even without Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez. If Montreal can harness that fighting spirit for its crucial game against the Union, then there might be hope for Schallibaum and co.
When making the MLS playoffs becomes more hope than certainty, questions arise as they did throughout the season. But this is no time for post-mortems. It is time to win games, aim for the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference and prove to yourself that your path was not a mistake.

Dan Walsh, Philly Soccer Page, Philadelphia:

Philadelphia still has a shot at the playoffs. They sit in a three-way tie with Montreal and Chicago at 46 points, but tiebreakers put Montreal and Chicago in the 4th and 5th playoff positions and Philadelphia below the red line in 6th. New England sits in 7th on 45 points.

On Saturday, the Union will go into Montreal for a must-win match for each team. The injury-riddled Montreal squad has lost its last three home games. Philadelphia is one of the league’s better road teams, although they wasted an opportunity last week by only drawing with D.C. United, the league’s worst club. With two games left in the season, it’s do-or-die time.

Fortunately, Jack McInerney finally broke his scoreless streak that dated back to June. If he can continue finding the net, Philadelphia could regain the form that put them within striking distance of the Supporters’ Shield several weeks ago. Their back line has been stellar, and goalkeeper Zac MacMath has improved significantly. It’s just been a matter of finding the net, and as McInerney and Conor Casey slipped over the last few weeks, the Union attack had been punchless.

Philadelphia’s midfield remains its Achilles heel. Michael Farfan will miss the Montreal game due to suspension, and Sebastien Le Toux may not play due to injury. That likely keeps the Brazilian veteran Kleberson in the lineup after he played a part in both goals the Union’s last two games. But it also means the team’s most active midfielders probably will not play.

FC Dallas vs Seattle Sounders

Sat 2.30pm Toyota Stadium (NBC)

Gina Zippilli, The Inferno, Dallas:

The big story this week is that we are officially knocked out of the playoffs. We all knew it was going to happen, but for it to finally be official just adds a bit of an extra sting. We're all starting to look to next season and compile our wish lists of things we want to see from our new coach. Our new coach is also #1 on most of our lists.

Saturday's game looks to be karma's way of pointing and laughing at us. We play Seattle in the middle of the afternoon on NBC. The game isn't even on NBC Sports; it's on the real, legit NBC to maximize our humiliation when we get clobbered 4-1. I only say that we'll score 1 goal because Kenny Cooper seems to have finally busted his slump.

Sam Chesneau, Gorilla FC, Seattle:

The only thing falling in Seattle is the Sounders' hopes of a Supporters shield. What a difference 8 days make. Three losses, two of them blowouts, two of them to Cascadia rivals and suddenly our head coach has found himself once again on the hot seat amongst the passionate fanbase. "MLS Cup or out" seems to be the theme, since that looks like the only shot this club has at returning to the Champions League now that this team tricked off 13 points in the last 5 games. While there is no doubt the absence of Eddie Johnson & Brad Evans hasn't helped, something has been off about the Sounders since their trip to play the Galaxy last month.

Perplexed. Nobody seems to have any answers, just a bunch of excuses. Every team deals with injuries and card accumulation. This roster is too talented to be producing the results they've been offering these past few matches and this weekend's trip to Dallas has to be 3 points, or risk an extra midweek match for the right to play whoever now wins the west. None of our DP's have been a factor of late, and that has to change quick.

Colorado Rapids vs Vancouver Whitecaps

Sat 6pm, Dick's Sporting Goods Park

Todd Haggerty, Centennial 38 Supporters, Colorado Rapids:

The Rapids head in to their last two games of the season with everything to play for — as do their opponents. The 'Pids open their two game playoff-esque series against the Whitecaps at home on Saturday. Winning this match would go along way to claiming a playoff spot. But what 'Pids team will show up? Against Seattle they looked like world beaters (so did Vancouver) but against San Jose they were unorganized and lacked any invention in the final third. True to form, with so much on the line I can only expect to be disappointed. So, I anticipate a tight match that ends in a 1-1 draw; thus taking destiny out of the Rapids hands. 

Brenton Walters, @CapsOffside, Vancouver:

Rennie in! We won the Cup!!!

The Whitecaps won silverware for the first time in their MLS era by drawing with the Timbers in BC then beating the Sounders 4-1 in Seattle. A Portland win over the Sounders meant we stayed on top of the Cascadia Cup standings, and Whitecaps supporters got their hands on the silver for the first time since 2008. It also means we've won it more than both Portland and Seattle - We're the finest football team, Cascadia's ever seen.

Those results also breathed new life into the Caps' play-off hopes, though we still have to beat Colorado home and away to secure a spot.

Against Seattle, Rennie tinkered, found room for Kobayashi in the middle, and set Manneh free to exploit the space that defenders threw at him while they were worrying about Camilo. Manneh's three goals (youngest player to score a hattrick in MLS) in Seattle were a joy to behold. Attacking soccer, on the road? It's something fans have been wanting to see for a long time, but it all feels a bit too little too late for the club.

It could save Rennie's skin, though. I've wavered a bit in my Rennie OUT! advocacy, and I imagine the Whitecaps FO are a bit relieved they might not have to make a difficult decision in the off-season. Until then, though, we'll see you all in the play-offs!

New England Revolution vs Columbus Crew

Sat 7.30pm, Gillette Stadium

MB Carradine, Midnight Riders, New England:

If there was ever a question of who the Revolution team MVP has been this season, the question was certainly answered last Saturday afternoon in Montreal. Jose Goncalves did it all — he scored the winning goal, he smothered Montreal's best chances, he comforted Saer Sene during his profoundly gruesome leg injury, and he ran the final seconds off the clock by charging the full length of the field into the opposite corner — easily fighting off would-be possessors of the ball as he's done all season. Revolution fans collectively swooned over Goncalves' performance and enjoyed six whole hours of the team being in a playoff position.

But when Philadelphia nicked a draw and Chicago dumped FC Dallas later that evening, the Revs were pushed out yet again, and the reality of the next match against Columbus set in. Although the Crew may seem out of playoff contention, there are players and coaches alike fighting for their jobs under a new ownership group, and this motivation alone has been invigorating: Columbus took full points against three playoff-bound teams recently, and they'll be gunning for more on Saturday.

This match will equally test New England's legitimacy and depth, as the Revs will be missing Lee Nguyen, Saer Sene, and possibly Dimitry Imbongo. Whoever steps in will be thrust into a regular season match of the highest pressure. But playoff teams win these games, and if the Revolution deserve a post-season, then this is a game they won't allow themselves to lose.

Ian Fraser, Crew Union, Columbus:

Hope lives on and in Columbus we are clinging to it. 2 weeks ago I discussed how Columbus had finally made up some ground and made their way into the playoff picture. They proceeded to go out and lose at home to SKC. Losing to a top tier team 1-0 is not bad but the effort seemed to lack the urgency that was needed. Columbus had been on a run but in reality they needed to be perfect the rest of the season to do the job themselves. Now we need a perfect sequence of other results.

Most of the results went our way in the bye week and thus we still have a chance. Get a win on the road and get the help we need elsewhere (LA got us off on the right foot on Wednesday night) and there will be a meaningful soccer game in Columbus the last week of the season. That seemed farfetched in August.

Columbus can only control what they do and this week they go to fellow playoff aspirer New England. Lose or tie by Columbus and they are out, New England are not eliminated with a loss so I assume the Crew will be much more tight in this one. Federico Higuain played almost the entire match against SKC with a hip injury, but the severity of it and the turf in NE make him a doubt. Columbus will face an uphill battle in this one. Hopefully they keep our hope alive.

Chicago Fire vs Toronto FC

Sat 8.30pm, Toyota Park (TSN2, RDS2)

Scott Fenwick, Editor, On the Fire, Chicago:

Miraculously, Chicago’s 2013 story isn’t over. As they approach the end of a season that’s seen hopes dashed, faith challenged, and despair entrenched, the Fire are now poised to rise from the ashes of the Eastern Conference pit and weave a tale of epic redemption. With a talented squad, the mantra in Bridgeview these days must surely be “Don’t Stop Believin'”. Indeed, visions of playoff possibilities now have Fire Nation jamming out to Journey.

After returning to his native Chicago to dig the Fire out of a 2-2-7 hole (a start that left the club ten points back of a playoff spot), “Magic” Mike Magee has led the Men in Red to MLS’s best record since June 1st (11-5-5, 38 pts.). Certainly, the club made other important additions this season to stop the bleeding (Bakary Soumare, Juan Luis Anangono, Arevalo Rios), but it’s been Magee’s winning attitude and clever play that’s catalyzed and cemented its dramatic turnaround. Soon, it will be hard to argue against #MikeMageeMVP if Chicago’s Golden Boot kicks the Fire into the postseason.

Saturday’s regular season home finale versus Toronto FC poses yet another must-win match. Anything less and the Fire will likely fall out of playoff position to find themselves with the unenviable task of marching into Red Bull Arena next Sunday needing a win to get back in. Best avoid such a scenario against a New York side that will likely be fighting for the Supporters Shield and first place in the Eastern Conference come kickoff.

Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red, Toronto:

Mercifully the season is almost over, and with the latest management regime getting comfortable, there's been precious little drama as well which is nice. That brain trust went off to Europe over the international break to talk to potential DP signings, one name that was reported was Genoa's Alberto Gilardino, but whoever they end up with, they won't be announced until january and probably won't be arriving in Toronto until after the World Cup, so not something to get too excited about right now.

For now, well there's one thing that has made the end to the season all of a sudden a lot more interesting, which is the collapse of the Montreal Impact. That last game of the season now looms as a potentially schadenfreude filled occasion, but has led to many TFC fans thinking the best possible result this week against one of Montreal's playoff rivals, Chicago Fire would be a defeat.

One note of interest in the game will be an apperarance for goalkeeper Stefan Frei, his first league start since September of 2011 due to a suspension to Joe Bendik. Injuries in 2012 and a good season from Bendik have seen him reduced to an expensive bench warmer and he's almost certain to be released in the off season, a sad end for the man who seemed set to be TFC's undisputed number one for years to come. 

Portland Timbers vs Real Salt Lake

Sat 10.30pm, JELD-WEN Field

Roger Anthony, Timbers Army, Portland:

One way or the other, the law of averages is going to catch up to someone Saturday night. On the one hand, you’ve got Portland riding a home unbeaten streak that stretches back to early March. On the other, you’ve got Real Salt Lake’s two years of dominance against the Timbers. In six games since the start of the 2012 season, RSL has gone 5-1-0, outscoring the Timbers by 17-9. While Portland hasn’t been competitive in the Rockies, the two matches at Jeld-Wen Field are the ones that sting: In both times, the Timbers let victories slip away by surrendering goals in the 89th minute and beyond.

Enough history; let’s look at the lineups. A surplus of yellow cards has dug a gaping hole in the RSL midfield, from whence Javier Morales (eight goals, 10 assists) normally choreographs the attack. Portland counters with the ongoing absence of midfield maestro Diego Valeri (eight goals, 12 assists). Forward Maximiliano Urruti is also questionable after being stretchered off last weekend with some kind of thigh strain. Both teams have capable reserves; both know one another all too well from their three matches in August.

But those Timbers aren’t these Timbers. Midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan now deliver performance instead of potential. The unlikely defensive fulcrum of Donovan Ricketts, Futty Danso and Pa Kah is almost always in synch. Ricketts, in particular, is having a season that extends far beyond a simple Comeback of the Year trophy. With 12 shutouts, 10 “Saves of the Week,” and just as many goals and assists as the league’s highest-paid player, an MVP award doesn’t seem out of line at all.

Denzel Eslinger, RSL Perspective, Salt Lake:

So on more than on occasion this year RSL has faced a match deemed the most important of the year, and now their showdown with the Timbers in Portland is being labeled by some as the MLS match of the year, and why not. Currently the two top teams in the Western Conference, the #2 & #3 over all teams in MLS facing off with more than just playoff positioning to play for. Both clubs are very much still in the race for the Supporters' Shield which comes with a CCL spot and the right to host MLS Cup if you make it that far. Beyond the hype there is a very interesting matchup of two clubs that are more similar than different, both have driven young head coaches, both love to play an aggressive attacking style of soccer, both normally have great creative playmakers from Argentina (Javier Morales is suspended for the match and Diego Valeri is questionable due to injury), and both have a strategy of building depth by finding rehab projects and young players that may have been overlooked by others.

The Timbers have really rebounded since a 4-2 loss to RSL at Rio Tinto at the end of August, they haven't lost a match since and are 4-0-2 since that match, while RSL has struggled a bit with just a 1-2-1 record since then, clearly the lighter schedule hasn't helped the Claret and Cobalt. There is some irony in this match for me: what might be the biggest match of the MLS season, in the place with the best atmosphere in MLS, with two teams who play some of the most attractive soccer in MLS, and where is the national TV? Well nowhere on Saturday night, so I expect that hardcore MLS fans will be gathered around their computer screens watching this one via MLS Live.

The match should be intense, the Timbers have ground out some great results lately and RSL is looking to find their scoring touch again as the top scoring team in MLS has struggled to find the back of the net lately. My head says this one ends up a 1-1 draw, which is great but really wont satisfy anyone, so I am going with my heart and picking a 2-1 RSL win.

Houston Dynamo vs New York Red Bulls

Sun 4pm, BBVA Compass Stadium (UniMas)

Zach Woosley, Dynamo Theory, Houston:

The Houston Dynamo have plenty of work left to do as they welcome the New York Red Bulls, the top team in the Eastern Conference, to BBVA Compass Stadium for the penultimate game of the season. While the Dynamo current sit in third place, they're only separated from 7th by three points. That's a slender gap to say the least and three points would be huge for Dominic Kinnear's team.

Houston needs a win for two simple reasons. First the points which are obvious as they look to both clinch a playoff spot and try to avoid the play-in game. The second reason is more psychological, but could be much more important if they indeed make the playoffs. There's every reason to believe that in order to reach a third straight MLS Cup final, the Dynamo will have to go through the Red Bulls. Houston has lost both games against them this season by a combined score of 6-1, including a 4-1 loss at home in early September. The Dynamo need a win for their confidence going into the playoffs, they need to believe that can beat the Red Bulls because they may very well have face them again.

In addition, Houston has their final CONCACAF Champions League group stage match sandwiched in between this weekend's match and the season finale against DC United. A busy schedule, a lot of pressure, it's time to see just how good this team is.

Tim Hall, author of “The View from 101” column for First Touch, New York:

There's a line in the classic novel Inherit the Wind "Perhaps it is you who have moved away by standing still" and that has to sum up the feelings in New York Red Bulls Land right about now. After barely scraping together a draw at home against New England, it felt for all the world that any chance at the Supporters Shield was gone. However, with a little help from our friends around the league, a bye week has come and gone and now the Metros are in control of their own destiny.
Unfortunately, New York has had some trouble coming off of down time as of late, so it will be incumbent on Mike Petke's men to get off on the right foot right away in Houston. The expected return of Bradley Wright-Phillips, who truly exploded onto the scene when these two teams met last month, adds an extra attacking dimension. In that last game (a 4-1 New York win) the Red Bulls used the long ball from the back to speedsters like Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam to great effect. Expect more of the same against a Houston team keen to lock down third place and avoid the play-in game.

LA Galaxy vs San Jose Earthquakes

Sun 9pm, StubHub Center(ESPN)

Josh Guesman, founder, The Section 108 blog, co-host of Corner of the Galaxy podcast, LA:

Defender Kofi Opare scored the game's only goal midweek against Montreal and it came as no surprise. The rookie defender has been a temporary replacement at the center back position since Leonardo’s recent injury and has done great in his four MLS starts. However, with an injured Omar Gonzalez, Kofi was asked to shoulder a bigger load and partner with Leonardo to shore up the Galaxy’s middle.

Remarkably, Opare had to steal the ball off the foot of LA Galaxy Captain Robbie Keane who had played 90 minutes in Dublin, Ireland the night before and then made the long journey back to LA. Keane arrived at the stadium around 4PM and convinced Bruce to play him. In a game lacking a finishing touch, Courtois, Keane (both entered the game in the 60th minute) and Gyasi Zardes began a balanced, relentless attack that culminated in the goal-mouth scramble and Opare scoring his first MLS goal.

The win moves the Galaxy into a tie for third place in the West and only two points from the Supporters’ Shield and first in the conference. It means the last two games, at home against San Jose and away to Seattle, are of vital importance. A win or a draw against San Jose will clinch a playoff spot but with only six points separating first from sixth any stumble could be costly.

Arena expects Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez to be ready to play on Sunday vs San Jose, and the Galaxy will once again be joined by their number one goal keeper, Jaime Penedo.The California Clásico may live up to it’s name and the implications could be stunning.

Lisa Erickson, Center Line Soccer, San Jose:

Win or go home! Every game for the Earthquakes is a playoff game right now and they know that if they drop a single point then their season is over on October 26th! On Wednesday night, Montreal decided to not help out the Boys in Blue (I guess they are still bitter about being eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League by the group leading Earthquakes.) and instead let the LA Galaxy “B” squad beat them 1 - 0. The Quakes are hoping that the scoreline will be the same on this Sunday night but that the one goal will be for the visitors instead. Everyone is officially back from the FIFA break (Chris Wondolowski and Clarence Goodson from the USMNT qualifiers, Victor Bernardez and Marvin Chavez from Honduras qualifying for the World Cup, Steven Beitashour is now cap-tied to Iran, and Cordell Cato played in a friendly for Trinidad & Tobago) and ready to play the game of their life in Carson, California.

LA will have Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and Jaime Penedo back from their qualifiers all nice and rested since none of them dressed for the mid-week match. San Jose is just one point out of fifth (Colorado is holding on to that spot) and six points out of first (held by Portland). The playoffs are in their reach and it will just mean playing hard and playing smart. LA lost to San Jose in their first meeting this year 3 - 2 and then they crushed the Quakes 3 - 0 at the StubHub. It will be a lot of work but there is one thing for certain, San Jose knows how to fight when their backs are to the wall; and right now, those walls are closing in on them.

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