Some intriguing Major League Soccer storylines to watch this weekend:
The rivalry between Cascadia Cup foes Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers is as passionate as any in MLS. But this edition, coming as it does with the season two-thirds complete, has more than just mere bragging rights at stake. There are significant Supporters' Shield and playoff implications, as well.
Seattle may have the highest points-per-game average in MLS, and with a game in hand on its Supporters' Shield rivals, the Sounders still control their own fate. But Seattle has been scuffling of late, having taken just seven points from its last seven games. Wednesday's disappointing 1-1 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes is just the latest instance of the team looking well-short of its best, especially in attack, where the Sounders have yet to regain the fluidity they displayed prior to the World Cup. Chad Barrett has scored in three straight games, so he could be the wild card Seattle needs to break out of its slump.
Portland has underachieved for much of this season and currently finds itself in sixth place in the Western Conference, a mere two points behind the Vancouver Whitecaps. Yet the Timbers have looked sharper over the last month, taking 10 out of a possible 15 points, and also appear to have rectified some of the defensive woes that have plagued them for much of the season. New Designated Player signing Liam Ridgewell has brought some much-needed experience and composure to the back, although he'll encounter a difficult test in the form of Seattle forwards Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
There's a marquee matchup at the other end of the field, as well. Portland attacker Diego Valeri has veritable rocket fuel of late, scoring five goals in his past seven matches, including a few of the highlight-reel variety. You can count on the Seattle midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda to do everything -- fair and unfair -- to limit Valeri's influence.
-- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
It's not the weekend's marquee contest, but Saturday's six-pointer between the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo -- teams that are far from playoff locks in the tight Eastern Conference -- could end up being crucial for both clubs.
Like the hosts, the Dynamo head into the match in Ohio coming off an impressive win. Dom Kinnear's side gained ground on fellow bubble-dweller Philadelphia with a 2-0 victory last Friday. It has now won two of its last three. But Houston has been awful on the road this season, with the Dynamo just 1-9-1 away from BBVA Compass Stadium. Following a 2-0 defeat in Seattle on Aug. 10, they have now lost six road games in a row.
Meantime, Columbus, 3-1-1 in its last five, is playing with confidence after trouncing the LA Galaxy 4-1 last week.
That puts the onus on the visitors. The Dynamo will be counting on in-form striker Will Bruin, who has two game winners in his last four games, to provide some badly needed firepower. But the key for Kinnear's team will be keeping the ball out of its net; Houston has conceded a league-worst 42 goals this season.
Still, three points could vault the Dynamo into the East's final playoff position. It would also leave them just two points behind the fourth-place Crew, with a game in hand, and give the Sept. 13 rematch in Texas top billing.
-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)
Beasts in the East
Which team would you rather be at this point in the MLS season: Sporting Kansas City, first place in the Eastern Conference, winner of three of its last five league matches, and possessor of one of the better home atmospheres in MLS, or D.C. United, second place in the Eastern Conference, two points back of Sporting with a game in hand, and the possessor of an underdog spirit that could lift them to unimagined heights?
The two sides meet in Kansas City on Sunday with the top spot in the East hanging in the balance. Both teams are participating in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League, and they enter the big league matchup having just played in the continental tournament midweek. For Sporting, the Champions League required a trip to Nicaragua, where they earned a draw with Real Esteli; for United, it meant a home match against Waterhouse of Jamaica, which the MLS team won 1-0.
Sporting's disadvantage -- the travel to Central America and back -- might be mitigated by their home-field advantage. Meanwhile, D.C. United comes into the game fresher, but with some questions swirling around the role of DP striker Eddie Johnson. Johnson appears to be in Ben Olsen's doghouse, but as he's suspended this weekend, United's head coach won't need to address Johnson's role quite yet.
United got by playing reserves against Waterhouse, likely with this massive tilt against Sporting in mind. Can the surprise team in the East overtake the defending champs on their own patch of grass?
-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)