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Crew and Sporting KC face off in Eastern battle
by Ridge Mahoney, September 27th, 2011 8:52PM

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[MLS MIDWEEK PREVIEWS] A busy Wednesday that includes three Concacaf Champions League games also features two important MLS league matches as the season enters its final month: An Eastern showdown between Sporting Kansas City and Columbus, and Chicago’s visit to Real Salt Lake.

A funny thing happened while the three supposed heavyweights in the Eastern Conference were lurching and lumbering through the schedule: a former Western Conference team (Houston) zipped past them and took over at the top.

Sporting Kansas City (10-9-11, 41 pts.) vs. Columbus (11-11-8, 41 pts.)
, 8:30 p.m., ET (TV: Direct Kick)

SKC and the Crew are a point behind leader Houston, which has only three games left to play – a game fewer than its immediate pursuers – but with seven points in its last three games has outpaced its challengers.

As it has several times this season, against Philly last weekend SKC took a 1-0 lead, but coughed up an equalizer and had to accept a 1-1 tie. Its 4-3-3 formation and attack-minded mode has been blamed for a tendency to blow leads, yet Philly capitalized on some pathetic defending, plain and simple. Left back Seth Sinovic failed to deal with a ball sitting on the goal line and when Michael Farfan wriggled past him, keeper Jimmy Nielsen stood like a statue as Farfan waited calmly to pick out an unmarked Sebastien Le Toux, who tapped the ball into the net.

Though scoring first hasn’t been a guarantee of victory for SKC, the Crew is 8-0-0 when it takes a 1-0 lead. Columbus lost, 1-0, to the Galaxy at home last weekend in stoppage time and Coach Robert Warzycha hasn’t found the answers to his team’s alarming slide: it has just one tie to show for the past five games.

It peppered the Galaxy net in the final minutes yet conceded the goal when Landon Donovan glided past an offside Mike Magee to collect a bouncing ball. As the defense hesitated, Donovan fired a shot that keeper Will Hesmer deflected right to Chad Barrett, who banged it in.

The Crew has won at some tough locales this year, including a 2-0 victory at Real Salt Lake. But that was nearly two months ago, on July 30: since then, Columbus is 2-5-1, and has lost at Colorado, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Real Salt Lake (15-8-6, 51 pts.) vs. Chicago (6-8-15, 33 pts.), 9 p.m. ET (TV: Direct Kick)

The Fire’s 3-2 victory Sunday against New England, its fourth win in the last five games, came at a considerable cost.

Argentine midfielder Sebastian Grazzini suffered a strained left hamstring in the first half and was replaced by Baggio Husidic. Before being injured he converted a penalty kick and set up a goal for Dominic Oduro. Grazzini won’t play Wednesday at Real Salt Lake and is questionable, at best, for another vital away game Saturday in Houston.

Grazzini, 30, has three goals and four assists in nine games since signing for Chicago from Argentine club Club Atletico All Boys in mid-July. His absence may hinder the Fire’s attacking impetus from midfield, though the flank play of Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko must be dealt with. How well Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause control the middle is a key element for the Fire.

A loss will probably snuff the Fire’s dim playoff hopes, and Coach Frank Klopas is planning on resting a few of his regulars against Houston so they will be fresh for the U.S. Open Cup final in Seattle on Tuesday. The final will be its fourth game in a span of 10 days.

RSL’s five-game winning streak slammed to a halt against D.C. United Saturday at RFK, where the Dwayne De Rosario September Spectacular inflicted a 4-1 defeat. Four regulars sat out the match and RSL couldn’t contain De Ro, who scored the fastest hat trick – nine minutes – in league history, nor Andy Najar, Josh Wolff, etc.

The race for second place in the Western Conference -- and homefield advantage in the two-leg playoff round – is still on. RSL trails Seattle by three points, and with a road trip to Southern California pending to face the Galaxy Saturday, RSL needs a victory in its penultimate game at Rio Tinto Stadium, where it is 10-2-3 this season.



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