The glamor game for MLS this week is a Cascadia Cup clasico, Portland vs. Seattle at Jeld-Wen Field, yet for all the history and histrionics connected to this match, and the national telecast to be aired on ESPN2, it’s much more about the points. As it should be.
It’s taken MLS a long time, its entire existence really, to approach the point where regular-season games carry significant weight. This won’t necessarily generate great soccer; if anything, players scrap and claw more than they flick and pirouette when squeezed by pressure. But what it should produce is riveting theater in a seething setting that captivates the audience. Fierce play and roaring fans are the sizzle that sells the steak.
Some of this is simple math; not so long ago, the league shrunk down to 10 teams vying for eight playoff spots. This season, nine teams miss the playoffs. Much of it has to do with stadiums of smaller dimensions yet greater proximity for a fan base growing more rabid each season. And increasing the number of intraconference games while narrowing the playoff spots to five per conference has intensified their importance.
The Sounders are floundering, the Timbers are teetering, and with Los Angeles back on the beam, Vancouver puffing out its chest and the cardiac Quakes rumbling along, the Western Conference playoff race is bunching up as the midpoint of the season approaches.
So while the Sounders-Timbers rivalry, rife with animosity, spans several leagues and a few decades, there shouldn’t be any shortage of fierceness when the Quakes travel to Salt Lake City after stunning its Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado Wednesday with two late goals, or as the Galaxy hosts the Whitecaps, or when struggling FC Dallas tries to break a 10-game winless streak at home against Chivas USA.
RSL lost at San Jose, 3-1, in April. After going down to nine men yet forging into stoppage time tied, 1-1, the Quakes struck twice. RSL welcomes the Quakes after blowing a 2-0 lead at home in a soul-crushing 3-2 loss to the Galaxy, which toppled the Timbers last weekend, 1-0, to win back-to-back games for the first time in nearly two months.
There’ll be plenty of drama in the Eastern Conference games, too. Toronto FC, which dismissed head coach Aron Winter two weeks ago, hosts New England, which is rebuilding under former Rev Jay Heaps. Both teams tied on the road in midweek; TFC blew a two-goal lead in Houston, New England rallied to get a point in Vancouver. TFC head coach Paul Mariner used to coach Heaps. Those are subplots, though, because both teams need points, as neither is in the top five.
The other team to jettison its coach, Philadelphia, hosts Sporting Kansas City, still in the process of regaining its mojo after it tore through the first seven games of the season by winning all of them. Midwest neighbors Chicago and Columbus get it on at Toyota Park, and those good buddies United and New York tangle at RFK.
Many teams are in the phase of the schedule in which they play their second games of the season against each other, knowing that in some cases a third game looms as well. Whether or not familiarity breeds contempt -- and many Sounders and Timbers would say you can be damn sure it does -- a glance at the standings reveals how vital points are likely to be this season.
In both conferences, a cluster of teams has separated themselves from the rest. In the East, D.C. United (30 points), Sporting KC (29), and New York (27) have opened up a gap back to fourth-place Chicago (21). RSL (32 points) leads a quartet including San Jose (30), Vancouver (26) and Seattle (25) that is also separated by six points from the next team, Colorado (19).
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Timbers coach John Spencertalked passionately about rivalry games, and also refused to talk about Cal FC’s memorable U.S. Open Cup defeat of his team in late May. A few cyber-blurbs chastised his testiness; I completely agreed with him. The Timbers are slipping out of the picture, and Seattle is a formidable obstacle regardless of geography or jealousy.
Before the FIFA break, Portland, though laboring, was in seventh place ahead of the staggering Galaxy; now LA has taken that seventh-place spot, and the Timbers are tied for last with FC Dallas. While all three teams are close to Colorado, and there’s one half of season to be played, they are already pondering the possibility the best they can hope for is a wild-card spot by finishing fifth -- and just to achieve that they need to win.
The weekend action ends on Sunday with Portland-Seattle, two newbies to MLS whose entwined legacies date back nearly 40 years, followed by D.C. United-New York, who’ve been kicking the snot out of each other since Day 1 of MLS.
Caliber of play and stakes will lag far behind the Euro 2012 quarterfinal between England and Italy earlier that day, but for a league regularly criticized for too many meaningless games, these matter.