Some intriguing Major League Soccer storylines to watch this weekend:
Seattle and Salt Lake in heavyweight bout
MLS may be a league where parity reigns supreme, but this weekend's tilt between the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake represents the league's high-rent district.
On May 31, Seattle smoked RSL 4-0. It marked the start of a three-game winning streak for the Sounders that created some distance at the top of the league-wide table. For RSL, it was the team's first loss of the season, and marked the beginning of a difficult summer period that saw last year's MLS Cup finalist lose four of six matches.
Saturday's rematch should prove to be a very different kind of encounter, even beyond the fact that it will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium. The first match saw both sides shorn of U.S. internationals as they prepared for the World Cup, and it could be argued that Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman mean a great deal more to their side than DeAndre Yedlin and Clint Dempsey do to theirs.
The recent fortunes are different, too. RSL is in the midst of a five-game unbeaten streak and is fresh off a 3-0 hammering of D.C. United. Seattle has been scuffling a bit, losing three of five league contests, although Wednesday's 6-0 skunking of the Chicago Fire in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup will provide an injection of confidence.
It's a game with intriguing matchups all over the field. Seattle has found it difficult lately to cope with speedy players, and Joao Plata is enjoying a breakout season, though the savvy of Chad Marshall should aid the Sounders' cause. At the other end, Dempsey will be without sidekick Obafemi Martins, who is suspended, but will still provide a stern test for Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler.
Then there's the battle in midfield, where Beckerman and Javier Morales will go up against the Nasty Brothers, Oswaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda. This is a game not to be missed.
-- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
Timbers hit the road
On Saturday, the Portland Timbers travel to New England to take on the Revolution in yet another game that may prove crucial to their bid to overcome a rough first half of the season and make the MLS playoffs. Winning in Foxboro is made all the tougher a task for Caleb Porter's team by the fact that the game is equally as important for a Revolution side that is fighting to pull out of a recent tailspin. The Revs need the game, maybe even more than the Timbers do.
If that was all there was for Portland in the next week, the approach would be simple for Porter: Put out the best possible team, adjust for New England's strengths, and go for the win. Unfortunately, the Timbers face a daunting travel schedule that has them traveling to Guyana for a CONCACAF Champions League match against Alpha United on Tuesday night.
Notably, the club will take a charter flight directly from Boston to Guyana, rather than add extra miles by returning to Portland between the matches. They then head home, with a game against the Sounders looming on Aug. 24. All told, Portland will travel 10,000 miles in a four-day span.
Can Porter get away with playing his strongest team in both games, especially considering the likely intensity of the Seattle game next weekend? How much does the man who has carried the team in recent weeks, Diego Valeri, have in his legs? The Timbers, and specifically owner Merritt Paulson, talked openly about wanting to win the Champions League.
The question then is whether the Timbers are willing to sacrifice a chance at three important points in the league to start their continental campaign on the right foot.
-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)
Toronto FC seeks revenge
When Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC met north of the border three weeks ago, things didn't go well for the Reds.
Despite playing the final 15 minutes of that match up a man, TFC lost in excruciating fashion: SKC's winner came after captain Matt Besler had been sent off for a second bookable offense. Toronto hit rock bottom in their next match, a 3-0 drubbing at D.C. United. But they've responded with consecutive road wins -- including last week's 3-2 victory in Columbus -- that surely provides some confidence heading into Saturday's rematch with the champs in Kansas.
The timing is interesting. KC is coming off its own worst loss of 2014.
"They wanted the game more," Kansas City boss Peter Vermes said after his side's lopsided defeat in Vancouver last Sunday. "It ain't happening again next week, I'll tell you that."
Wining at Sporting Park is difficult even when the hosts aren't hell-bent on redemption; Vermes' men have lost just once there this season. But the suddenly raised stakes could reveal a lot about where big-spending Toronto is heading down the stretch, especially if star striker Jermain Defoe (hamstring) is available after missing the past two rounds.
If the upset happens, the Reds would be just four points behind the East leaders with two games in hand. And with seven of their final 12 matches at home, not only would talented TFC have to be considered a bona fide playoff team, but maybe even -- gasp! -- a dark horse for MLS Cup.
-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)