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W2W4: MLS Eastern Conference playoff race heats up

As the race for the playoffs heats up, here are three MLS storylines to watch this weekend:

Scuffling Sporting face capital city test

L-L-L-L-W-L

Though that looks like the form of a team sucking wind at the end of the regular season with no hope of a playoff berth, it's anything but. Instead, it's the record over the last six matches of the defending MLS Cup champions, Sporting Kansas City, as they head to RFK Stadium on Friday night. Despite the poor run, though, Sporting clings to a tie for second place in the Eastern Conference.

That lone win, standing out like a beacon of hope amid a roiling sea of failure? A Sept. 12 4-0 road victory over a Chivas USA team currently doing little more than showing up and going through the motions. The run includes three straight losses at home, something Sporting hasn't done since 2006.

And now Peter Vermes and his charges head into a game against the top team in the conference while staring down the very real possibility of being pulled into the quicksand that is the race for the postseason in the East.

D.C. has won each of the games between the two sides this season -- 1-0 in May and 3-0 in August.

Sporting is not only tied with New England for second after losing to the Revs last weekend, but is now just two points ahead of fourth-place Columbus. That fourth spot leads to a play-in game, something the scuffling champs will undoubtedly hope to avoid.

On the other side of the equation sits a United team that might still harbor slim dreams of winning the Supporters' Shield as MLS' best regular-season team. A win Friday night would temporarily put D.C. within three points of the Galaxy and the Sounders. Notably, that task will be more difficult thanks to the the absence of defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen, who will sit out due to a yellow card suspension.

- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)

In-form sides meet in Foxborough

Not much was expected from the Crew ahead of this season after they missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. And when the Gregg Berhalter era began with just two wins in the new coach's first 19 games? Even less.

Since mid-July, though, Columbus has quietly been among the hottest teams in MLS. Not only did Berhalter, the former U.S. World Cup defender, stop the bleeding, he's led the Crew on an improbable 7-2-2 run that has them sitting in postseason position with just four games left to go. But the work isn't quite done for the club that calls itself "America's Hardest Working Team."

Even after Philadelphia's playoffs chances took a hit Thursday -- when the Union settled for a 1-1 draw against Chicago -- the East remains as tight as a vise. Fifth-place New York sits two points back of Columbus with out-of-contention Houston visiting Red Bull Arena this weekend. And Toronto FC, barely on the outside in sixth, is only three points behind the fourth-place Crew but is even on wins (the first tiebreaker) and, most important, has played one fewer match.

That makes Columbus' trip to New England on Saturday huge. Winning in Foxborough won't be easy; since acquiring star midfielder Jermaine Jones in late August, the Revolution have won five out of six.

In fact, the Revs have looked so good that their place in the postseason now seems all but assured. Then again, this Crew team has shown plenty of resilience in defying the odds this season. If there is any let-up at all from the hosts, don't bet against it being taken advantage of.

- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)

Galaxy to test Toronto revival

Following last week's pulsating victory over the Portland Timbers, the talk around Toronto FC was all about momentum. The Reds delivered perhaps the most inspired comeback in their tortured history, erasing a two-goal deficit and ultimately prevailing 3-2.

It was a win that not only allowed TFC to pull within a point of the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but it ratcheted up the belief-meter. Midfielder Michael Bradley, who scored the game winner, talked about it being the kind of victory that could change Toronto's season.

The win extended TFC's unbeaten streak to three games, yet that seems but a child's model compared to its opponent Saturday. L.A. is unbeaten in nine matches -- seven of them wins -- which has allowed it to pull even with Seattle in the race for the Supporters' Shield.

Landon Donovan has six goals and 11 assists in his last eight games.

The Galaxy has been laying waste to opponents as well, including last weekend's 4-0 blowout of the New York Red Bulls. Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes have been in electric form, while the defense has quietly put up the best numbers in the league, allowing just 31 goals. The central midfield tandem of Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho has also been very effective on both sides of the ball.

All that will require Toronto to eradicate the mistakes in the back that were somewhat glossed over following the win over Portland. A team like L.A. will punish even the slightest slip-up and won't gift opportunities to get back in the game.

The good news for TFC -- besides Bradley's midfield partnership with Jonathan Osorio -- is that Jermain Defoe has healed sufficiently from a groin injury to possibly see minutes on Saturday. Given L.A.'s performances of late, Toronto will need every bit of help it can get.

- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)

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