"MLS Primetime Thursday" has been witness to plenty of fireworks in recent weeks. At least four goals have been scored in each of the past four editions, and with the attacking talent available in this week's encounter between the New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), there is a good chance for even more pyrotechnics.
But gaining three points in the standings, rather than entertaining the crowd, will be foremost on the minds of the two teams involved. Things are so tight in the Eastern Conference that New York's 1-0 victory over D.C. United this past weekend saw it jump from a tie for third into a tie for first in the standings. Chivas find themselves in third place in the West, but with only the top two teams in each conference guaranteed a playoff spot, the Goats can't take anything for granted, and Thursday's match represents an opportunity to close the gap on the teams above them.
Five story lines to follow
1. Potent front lines
New York's Juan Pablo Angel has tallied nine times in 11 games, a strike rate exceeded only by Kansas City's Eddie Johnson. With John Wolyniec in good form, and Jozy Altidore back from his exploits with the U.S. U-20 national team, the Red Bulls have their full array of attacking weapons.
For Chivas, the forward tandem of Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov has combined for 12 of the team's 20 goals, with Galindo's speed proving to be the perfect complement to Razov's intelligent runs off the ball.
2. Chivas' road woes
No team has displayed more of a Jekyll and Hyde mentality this season than Chivas. Chivas is the only team in MLS with an unbeaten record at home, but its road mark of 1-5-2 rivals that of the league's worst teams. It's a development coach Preki attributes to the team's youth.
"Sometimes, younger players have a tendency to play better at home than on the road," he said. "We're trying to get them to understand that mentality and the level of play has to be the same at home and away."
3. Has New York survived its summer swoon?
The Red Bulls jumped out to a 5-1-2 record this season, but a 3-5-1 stretch has seen the chasing pack in the East catch up, with the top five teams all within three points of one another. Last week's win over United saw New York show glimpses of its early-season form, but assistant coach John Harkes feels that the recovery began in the previous week's loss to New England.
"The New England game, we saw the first signs of us defending well as a team throughout," Harkes said. "Before that, we were very concerned with how quick we could transition to defense and get numbers behind the ball."
4. Chivas' stingy D
Preki's reputation as a player was of an attacking midfielder who didn't contribute much on the defensive end, but as a coach, his side quietly has established itself as one of the toughest in MLS, conceding just over a goal per game. The achievement is even more impressive when you consider that the team has missed left back Jonathan Bornstein and goalkeeper Brad Guzan for significant stretches because of their international commitments.
"[Defense] is something we try to address every day," Preki said. "In our training sessions, we try to be organized and disciplined, work for each other and not give too many things away, and that carries over to the game."
5. Midfield aggression
With their back line shored up, and a two-week break from MLS games approaching, the Red Bulls will be keen to get some improved attacking play out of their midfield. The summer months looked to have sapped the energy from players such as Clint Mathis and Dane Richards, who had excelled earlier in the year. But given Chivas' road struggles, look for New York to try to seize the early initiative.
"You don't want to give Chivas too much time and space to give them an outlet out of the back," Harkes said. "We want to squeeze them, so pressing as a team is important. If we can do that, it will create opportunities for us in the attacking third."
Five players to watch
1. Claudio Reyna, M, New York
Reyna's performances have mirrored that of his team this season. Early on, the former U.S. international performed well, but in recent months, Reyna has struggled, leaving some to wonder whether the designated player money spent on him was worth it. Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena even told the North Jersey Herald News, "It's time for [Reyna] to have to step up." But Reyna seems to have responded, delivering solid performances in New York's past two games, a trend the Red Bulls hope will continue Thursday.
2. Ante Razov, F, Chivas USA
Galindo has gotten plenty of ink this season, and his strike rate has given him an outside shot at the MVP award. But Razov has done his bit, as well, and with five goals and three assists, the Chivas forward has proved his finishing is as lethal as ever.
"Sometimes you won't see Razov for 70-75 minutes and then he gets one opportunity and he puts it away," Harkes said. "It's going to require total focus and concentration to keep an eye on him."
3. Jozy Altidore, M/F, New York
Opposition defenses have been keying on Angel, so the return of Altidore couldn't have come at a better time. With Angel suspended last week, Altidore returned to the lineup and assisted on Wolyniec's game-winner. Now, with Angel available again, the hope is that Altidore can draw some attention away from the Colombian.
"Any time you get a player like Altidore who is dangerous, unpredictable, and can run with the ball, it's going to open up the game and commit defenders," Harkes said.
4. Brad Guzan, G, Chivas
Sometimes, a stellar goalkeeping performance is what's needed to snap a team's road funk, and the way Guzan has played this year, he's more than capable of delivering. The third-year veteran has long had the physical tools to compete at the highest level, but Preki feels that Guzan has raised his game this year.
"I think [Guzan's] time with the national team did him some good," the coach said. "Mentally, he's in a good frame of mind, and I think he's one of the best goalkeepers in the country. If he keeps going the way he's going, pretty soon, he'll be No. 1."
5. Seth Stammler, D, New York
Stammler has been New York's resident utility man this season, playing in midfield and at right back as well as in the center of defense. Now with defender Jeff Parke sidelined by an injured right hamstring, it will be up to Stammler to help thwart the likes of Galindo and Razov.
"[Stammler] seems to have that versatility, which is very valuable," Harkes said. "Figuring out a player's best position sometimes takes a little bit of time, but he's done a pretty solid job for us as a center back."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.