A selection of intriguing Major League Soccer storylines to watch this weekend:
Portland faces its nemesis
The Portland Timbers' recent form may have alleviated some of the early worries in Soccer City, but even after posting a 3-1-3 record in their past seven games, the eight-match winless run to open 2014 still has last year's Western Conference runner-up sitting second from the bottom of the division as MLS prepares for a two-week hiatus during the group stage of the World Cup.
There's still one game before the break, though, and while many fans have already zoned out on the domestic league as the planet's premier competition approaches, Timbers fans ought to pay close attention to Saturday's tilt at Real Salt Lake.
RSL, after all, eliminated Portland in the MLS Cup playoff semifinal last fall and was also the last team to beat Portland -- on April 19 -- before Caleb Porter's squad went on a six-game unbeaten stretch that ended with last week's loss against Vancouver.
The Timbers came into the season with what appeared to be legitimate title ambitions but to truly compete for a championship, Portland needs both the points and the physiological boost that beating its bogey team would provide. With RSL coming off its first loss this year, and with the hosts missing Brazil-bound stars Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando of the U.S. (plus injured Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio, whose broken foot will keep him out of the World Cup), they may never get a better chance.
-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)
Revs face short-handed Red Bulls
Despite New England's setback against Montreal last weekend, the Revolution and the New York Red Bulls are clearly headed in opposite directions. Currently seventh in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls will limp into Gillette Stadium Sunday on a four-game winless run that includes three losses. The Revolution, prior to the loss to the Impact, had spun off five wins in a row to climb to the top of the division.
New York should be entering the game rested and ready to get back to winning ways after sitting idle last weekend. Unfortunately for Mike Petke, though, Gillette Stadium features an artificial surface, meaning neither Thierry Henry nor Jamison Olave are likely to play.
Henry's aversion to the fake stuff is well-known, and Olave joining him on the sideline is a matter of protecting the Colombian's fragile knees. Throw in an injury to Dax McCarty, the absences due to World Cup duty of Roy Miller and Tim Cahill, and what the defending Supporters Shield champs are taking north amounts to a shadow of their best team.
The expectation is that the Revolution will take full advantage of a weakened opponent and further consolidate their first-place status. Petke will need to find a little magic -- and get great games from a slew of backups -- to prevent that from happening.
-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Los Angeles' last SuperClasico?
OK, LA Galaxy vs. Chivas USA isn't anywhere close to the rivalries found in the Pacific Northwest or the Atlantic Cup (D.C., New York, New England and Philadelphia). But for the two teams involved and MLS fans in the Los Angeles area, the battle for the StubHub Center bragging rights has had its fair share of memorable games.
Due to the obvious dysfunction that has been Chivas USA since its inception in 2004, the Galaxy have had a sizable lead on the SuperClasico with a 19-4-6 record. While the Galaxy regularly attract high-profile players (including a certain popular Englishman) and big crowds to their home games, the same arena almost becomes a ghost town when Chivas USA hosts games. And it is that state of affairs that always elevates the level of play between both sides.
Chivas USA sees the game as an opportunity to prove itself against wealthier and more heralded neighbors whereas LA wants at all costs to avoid embarrassment. There were serious repercussions for the Goats the last time they beat the Galaxy on May 19, 2012. Since that game, LA has been on an revenge rampage that saw it outscore their rival 17-2 and go 4-0-0.
With Chivas USA looking for a new owner and a complete rebrand, soccer's landscape in the city could change. With much of the club's future still uncertain, current coach Wilmer Cabrera could use this game as motivation for his struggling side (currently last in the West with 10 points).
The Galaxy haven't been as strong as they were the past four years, and Cabrera could sell the match as a final chance to send their rivals a message... Or the Galaxy could go on a rout with Landon Donovan continuing his inspired form since being left off the U.S. World Cup roster. Either way, should be good viewing.
-- Alex Labidou (@LabidouESPN)
Quakes' remarkable turnaround...
If March and April saw the San Jose Earthquakes dig yet another hole to start their season, May and June figured to bury them. Chris Wondolowski, Victor Bernardez, and -- at least it was thought -- Clarence Goodson were bound for the World Cup and a team that hadn't created many chances to begin with didn't figure to make much headway in terms of getting back in the Western Conference race.
But a happy convergence of events has San Jose dreaming again. Goodson was dropped from the U.S. squad for Brazil, a brutal blow for him but a bonus to a threadbare San Jose roster.
More importantly, the midfield has come together thanks to some unexpected contributions. Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi has resurrected his season, with his pass completion percentage going up a whopping 13.5 percent in the past four games, compared to his first four. Khari Stephenson has flat-out resurrected his career, providing the kind of two-way presence that was previously lacking.
Meanwhile, out on the flank, the physicality of Atiba Harris has proved a useful foil for the shifty Shea Salinas. Combine that with the thunder and lightning combination of Steve Lenhart and Yannick Djalo, and the Quakes have a more varied attack than they've had in quite some time; one that has seen the team go 3-1-1 in its past five games.
Will it be enough to bag another road victory, this time against Toronto FC? It's certainly possible, though TFC has experienced a revival of its own of late, grabbing seven out of a possible nine points. However, the recent uptick in form at least has given San Jose some hope for the future.
-- Jeff Carlisle (@jeffreycarlisle)