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Eastern battle, Texas showdown highlight crunch weekend
by Ridge Mahoney, September 23rd, 2011 12:03AM

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TAGS:  fc dallas, houston dynamo, mls, new york red bulls, philadelphia union, portland timbers, sporting kansas city

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A weekend of important MLS matches is highlighted by Portland’s visit to Red Bull Arena, with the Timbers holding a one-point lead in the race for the final playoff spot, an Eastern Conference cage match between Sporting Kansas City and Philadelphia, and an in-state showdown between FC Dallas and Houston.

It can be said that there no unimportant games in MLS this weekend, merely some games less important than others.

Vancouver, for example, is at the bottom of the overall standings and is already in 2012 mode, yet on Saturday plays its last game in its temporary digs at Empire Stadium before moving into B.C. Place for the foreseeable future. For the occasion, the schedule brings in Northwest neighbor Seattle for yet another renewal of rivalry games that date back to the 1970s and the most prestigious version of a North American Soccer League.

(Next weekend, the unveiling of B.C. Place displays another throwback clasico when Portland and the Timbers Army invade Canada.)

At the top of the food chain are a vital Eastern Conference clash Friday, and a renewal of Texas hostilities, plus the head-to-head matchup of two other teams locked in a playoff struggle as the marquee events on Saturday.

SKC STATEMENT? A new name and a new stadium have propelled Sporting Kansas City and Livestrong Sporting Park into MLS prominence; now comes a chance for the team to solidify its standing as a bonafide contender for the title.

SKC (10-9-10, 40 pts.) hosts Philadelphia (9-7-12, 39 pts.) Friday in a strong yet precarious position, which in MLS isn’t nearly the oxymoronic situation one would initially surmise. One point behind conference leader Columbus, SKC is also just one point ahead of the teams tied for third place, Philly and Houston. A SKC loss and Houston win would drop it out of the top three conference spots that guarantee a playoff berth.

Just as important is a disquieting tendency for SKC to falter against the league’s top teams. It is 2-6-3 against those that can be considered among the league’s elite: Columbus, Los Angeles, Seattle, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and defending champion Colorado. Though it played well at RSL last weekend, SKC lost, 1-0, in its first away game in two months.

Philly made a statement of sorts last weekend by beating Columbus, 1-0, with 20-year-old keeper Zac MacMath standing in for Faryd Mondragon, whose fractured finger will keep him out of this game, too. Zach Pfeffer (16) got his first professional start, 20-year-olds Amobi Okugo and Danny Mwanga came on as subs. The kids helped Philly snap an eight-game winless streak, though cagey veteran Sebastien Le Toux’s ninth goal of the season proved to be the difference.

In assembling his squad for this season, head coach Peter Vermes stocked up on experience: former Mexican international Omar Bravo, Frenchman Aurelin Collin and Brazilians Julio Cesar and Jeferson have complemented the abilities of Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and keeper Jimmy Nielsen. As the more skillful team across the board, SKC must weather the pressure Philly is sure to exert.

TEXAS TIME. For this latest renewal for El Capitan at Pizza Hut Park, neither FC Dallas (13-9-7, 46 pts.) nor the Houston Dynamo (9-9-12, 39 pts.) is playing particularly well. FCD is staggering under a load of league, Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League matches, and the Dynamo is perilously close to finishing an entire season with zero away victories.

Houston did beat San Jose, 2-1, last week with goals by Will Bruin and Brad Davis, and its last away game yielded a 2-2 tie in Columbus that left its road mark at 0-6-9. So tight are the Eastern standings (see above) that a victory could earn it a share of the conference lead. The recent addition of central midfielder Luiz Camargo has brought more poise to that area of the field and he also set up Bruin for the winning goal that completed a comeback from trailing, 1-0.

Playing its 40th game of the year, FCD labored during a 2-0 loss to UNAM at PHP in Concacaf play Wednesday. It also lost at home to New York last weekend, 1-0. Despite controlling much of the play, Maicon Santos and Co. fluffed a few chances. It has slipped to fourth in the Western Conference standings and while its record is already good enough for a wild-card slot a rivalry game is the perfect stage to get back some mojo.

DISTANT NEIGHBORS. They operate on opposite coasts, yet in the standings Portland (10-12-7, 37 pts.) and New York (7-7-15, 36 pts.) couldn’t be closer without touching.

Both teams are coming off disappointing performances at home Wednesday. The Timbers were outplayed and blew a 1-0 lead while tying San Jose, 1-1, and New York simply stunk up Red Bull Arena as Real Salt Lake romped, 3-1.

Portland’s miserable road mark (1-8-4) may not be much of a disadvantage, so great is the disgruntlement among NYRB fans, who booed Rafael Marquez and other players throughout the debacle. A shoddy midfield and leaky back line could be just the ticket for Portland’s potent attacking mix of heft (Kenny Cooper) and speed (Darlington Nagbe, Khalif Alhassan, Jorge Perlaza, etc.), assuming Jack Jewsbury can hold down the middle and get balls to the wide positions, from whence many of its goals are created. Nerves got to the Timbers on Wednesday, they could more relaxed this weekend, the stakes notwithstanding.

Yet New York did scrape past FCD last weekend with a Luke Rodgers goal, and still deploys the sharpness and guile of Thierry Henry as well as some speed of its own in Dane Richards and Juan Agudelo. Teams traveling across three time zones on short rest rarely perform well, and if NYRB can’t exploit that factor, it doesn’t deserve a postseason slot.



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