A wager that D.C. United and Chivas USA would contest this year's MLS Cup final would have received plenty of takers back in March. While D.C. was everyone's favorite to win the championship, the Goats were a solid but by no means overwhelming side. Chivas was also a team in transition, with new head coach Preki taking over from Bob Bradley and with questions surrounding new striker Maykel Galindo.
Yet with September now upon us, both teams have firmly established their championship credentials, making this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) a tantalizing matchup. D.C. is currently tied with New England atop the Eastern Conference standings, and while Chivas is tied for second in the West, that's due mostly to a lighter league schedule. The Goats have accumulated more points per game than any of their Western Conference rivals and are well-positioned to claim the conference crown.
Five story lines to follow
1. The race for the Supporters' Shield
The trophy, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record, remains a wide-open affair, with several teams still in contention. D.C. is tied for the lead with 42 points, and while Chivas is six points back, the Goats have played two fewer games and would make up some ground on United with a win Thursday.
Of course, given the apparent hex that has befallen the shield winners in recent years, both teams might want to avoid claiming the regular-season crown. Case in point is United, which won the Supporters' Shield last year only to be dumped out of the playoffs by New England. The last team to claim both the shield and the MLS Cup was the 2002 Los Angeles Galaxy.
2. United's surge
|MLS Primetime Schedule|
|Chivas USA vs. D.C. United, |
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Remember when United went 0-for-April? Of course not, so it's worth noting that since starting 0-3-0, the Black-and-Red has enjoyed a 13-3-3 record. That they've done it without the usual monster season from midfielder Christian Gomez makes their run even more remarkable.
"Everything has been a lot better," said D.C. head coach Tom Soehn. "We've obviously had time to grow together, and the coaching staff has put a lot of work in to make sure everybody understands what the whole thing is about. It helps that we've got some talented guys, too."
3. Chivas' stealthy climb to the top
It seems that the Goats' lot in life is to be forever in the shadow of crosstown rival Los Angeles. Never mind that the Galaxy are set to endure the worst season in their history, while Chivas is enjoying its best. The Goats can't seem to get any love in their hometown, not that Preki and his side are losing much sleep over it.
"[The attention] is something that we can't control," Preki said. "It's not in our hands. The only thing we can control is our performance on the field and how we apply ourselves in the game."
4. Changing of the guard in D.C.?
While United's run to the top of the Eastern Conference isn't a surprise, the personnel they've used has raised some eyebrows. Reigning MLS Defender of the Year Bobby Boswell has found himself on the bench in some recent games, as has nominal holding midfielder Brian Carroll. Into the breach have stepped the likes of Clyde Simms and Devon McTavish, who have given United a spark.
"It forces guys to hold themselves accountable, and I think that's a good thing," said Soehn of his team's depth. "Just because a guy sits out doesn't mean he's out of the picture. We've injected [Boswell and Carroll] back in, and that's helped them grow as players and helped them appreciate their roles."
5. Fortress HDC
With a record of 7-0-1, the Goats are the only team in the league with an unbeaten home mark, although purists will point out that they did drop a "road" match to L.A. at the Home Depot Center earlier this year. Still, Chivas has been plenty formidable on its home turf, having conceded just two goals in eight home matches. Yet Preki is still not satisfied.
"I think our overall mentality can get even better," Preki said. "I still feel we have a notch [higher] to go in terms of mentality, the way we start the game, the way we finish the game."
United should pose the biggest threat so far to the Goats' home dominance. The Black-and-Red have won four consecutive road contests and six in a row overall.
Five players to watch
1. Fred, M, D.C. United
While forward Luciano Emilio has carried United's offense for much of the season, the Black-and-Red's "other" Brazilian, Fred, has been heating up in recent weeks, scoring three goals in his past four games. Yet for Soehn, it's a case of goals telling only part of Fred's story.
"I think there were so many things that Fred has done on both sides of the ball that really went unnoticed," Soehn said. "It's only now that he's scoring that people are recognizing all of the other things he does."
2. Maykel Galindo, F, Chivas USA
Given his two injury-plagued seasons with USL-1 side Seattle, there were plenty of questions heading into this year about Galindo's durability. But the Cuban-born forward has already logged more minutes this season than in his two years with the Sounders combined, and his 10 goals have made Preki look like a genius. With United's back line not exactly the fleetest of foot, look for Chivas to make extensive use of Galindo's pace.
3. Ben Olsen, M, D.C. United
While Olsen has long possessed plenty of good qualities, scoring goals was not among them. Until this year, that is -- his seven goals rank second on United behind Emilio. Add the usual grit and determination that have long been hallmarks of Olsen's game, and the level of play that the Virginia product has given United in midfield -- especially since Soehn went to a 4-4-2 -- has been outstanding.
4. Jesse Marsch, M, Chivas USA
Much like his team, Marsch's contributions have been largely overshadowed by the Beckham effect. This was especially true following the Chivas midfielder's infamous set-to with Beckham two weeks ago, when he hauled down the English midfielder from behind. But Marsch has been the backbone of the Chivas side, providing plenty of steel and even scoring the game's only goal in the Goats' 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Aug. 26.
"Marsch is a guy who comes to work every day, sets a good tone and a good mentality," Preki said. "The young guys on the team, they respond to him pretty good, so you can't ask for more."
5. Greg Vanney, D, D.C. United
Acquired in a midseason trade with Colorado, an ankle injury saw Vanney struggle to settle in at first, but recently he has provided a steadying presence along United's back line. Vanney relies on veteran smarts to get the job done, and he'll need every bit of guile to contend with the likes of Galindo and Ante Razov.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.