[MLS PREVIEW: Week 31]The glamour game of the weekend has lost some of its sheen due to player absences, yet still there’s much to be gleaned from the Seattle-New York showdown Sunday night on ESPN (9 p.m. ET).
Luck and design have converged to present a matchup of MLS conference leaders on the league’s main broadcast partner in its largest venue. New York leads Seattle by a single point in the overall standings, 51-50, and there’s a real possibility the same teams could meet at CenturyLink Field or at Red Bull Arena Dec. 7 in MLS Cup.
The prospect of a titanic clash and possible championship game preview has fans and journalists and broadcasters salivating. League officials are hoping for a memorable game and solid TV rating. The head coaches know the importance, but they have long-term concerns as well.
How the Red Bulls cope without Thierry Henryand Jamison Olave against a potent opponent on the road will tell a lot about the players and head coach Mike Petke. Henry’s ouchy Achilles tendon and Olave’s creaky knees don’t’ react well to artificial turf, so they didn’t make the long cross-country trip. Coping against a good team in a hostile environment gives Petke and his players a chance to measure just how far they’ve progressed since he was named head coach in February.
“We did have a couple of road wins early on but the consistency of our play on the road concerns me,” says Petke of perhaps the toughest away game in MLS. “If we make the playoffs, we’re guaranteed at least one game on the road, and if we’re fortunate enough to reach the championship game, there’s a chance we could host it, depending on where we fall [in the overall standings], but that could be a road game as well.”
New York is 5-7-3 on the road, the second-best away mark in the league. Seattle boasts the best home record (10-1-3) and its average attendance (43,180) is more than double that of all other MLS teams except the Galaxy.
Among the worries on the Sounders’ side are the fitness of Clint Dempsey’s tender hamstring, the status of Eddie Johnson’s sore shoulder, and the mental and physical condition of Obafemi Martins, who ignored head coach Sigi Schmid on his way to the bench after being substituted last weekend in the 82nd minute of a 1-1 tie with the Galaxy.
Schmid and Martins have said they’ve cleared the air regarding the substitution. Martins is playing through pain in his left ankle as well, and so the Sounders could be dependent on Mauro Rosales to unlock the Red Bulls’ defense. Five of his team-high eight assists have been logged since June 8, and Schmid has been carefully monitoring the minutes to keep Rosales, 32, as fresh as possible.
The Sounders are in the midst of a run of games against likely playoff teams. They beat Real Salt Lake, 2-0, at home Sept. 13 and tied the Galaxy, 1-1, last weekend at StubHub Center. They play the Rapids next week.
Sunday night on national TV they wind up their Eastern Conference schedule against its leader. They’ve won both of the previous two meetings at home: 3-0 in 2009 and 4-2 in 2011.
“I think our team will be ready. It’s something that we are looking forward to,” Schmid toldsoundersfc.com. “We’re in a position now where we can see that there is a shot for us to finish as the number one team and this game on Sunday is very important in that regard. I think it will be a great game and a great game for the fans.”
TIMBERS GO NATIONAL, AGAIN.All three Cascadia Cup teams are at home this weekend, and to the south of Seattle, bitter rival Portland hosts the Galaxy (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET) in a rare telecast on NBC.
The third-place Timbers (11-5-13, 46 pts.) are in the midst of a five-game run against Western Conference teams it is dueling for playoff spots. A splendid chip by Diego Valeri earned a 1-0 defeat of Colorado last weekend and next in line after the Galaxy are Vancouver, Seattle, and Real Salt Lake. The regular season ends at Chivas USA.
A 3-0 defeat of Cartagines Wednesday in Costa Rica earned the Galaxy (13-10-6, 45 pts.) a spot in the Concacaf Champions’ League quarterfinals. Head coach Bruce Arena was able to rest most of his starting lineup, so the effects of travel shouldn’t be severe. Portland beat the Galaxy at Jeld-Wen Field, 2-1, on July 13; the teams tied 0-0 at StubHub Center June 19.
CRUNCH TIME FOR THE ‘CAPS.The busy slate of games in the Northwest kicks off Saturday when sixth-place Vancouver (11-10-8, 41 points) hosts second-place Real Salt Lake (14-10-6, 48 pts.) at 7 p.m. ET (MLS DirectKick). The Whitecaps trail fifth-place Colorado (12-9-9, 45 pts.) by four points, but have a game in hand.
A stunning 3-0 victory in Montreal last week -- the Whitecaps’ second straight shutout -- rekindled their playoff hopes. Camilo came off the bench to clinch the win with two late goals and might get a start in place ofKenny Miller, who missed training this week to deal with some tightness in his right adductor muscle.
RSL’s 2-1 loss at home last weekend to San Jose was its second straight, and it also plays D.C. United Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup final. Its all-time league record in Vancouver is 0-2-1, and it got that tie with a 1-1 scoreline April 13. Joao Plata assisted on both goals when RSL beat the Whitecaps, 2-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium May 4. RSL has been stuck in a rut of late; it is 3-3-1 in league play since beating Portland, 2-1, Aug. 7 in its Open Cup semifinal.
BUBBLE BATTLES.Two intraconference games Saturday will greatly affect the Eastern race. Fifth-place New England (11-11-7, 40 points) can tie Houston (12-10-7, 43 pts.) in the standings by beating the Dynamo at home, and sixth-place Chicago (11-12-6, 39 pts.) desperately needs a home win against third-place Montreal (13-9-6, 45 pts.)
Juan Agudelomissed last weekend’s 2-1 comeback win over D.C. United but could recover in time from a hamstring injury to play for the Revs against Houston. Two goals for Giles Barnes in a 5-1 rout of Chivas USA last week gives him the Dynamo team lead in goals with eight.
Fire defender Bakary Soumare is suspended, which complicates Chicago’s task of stopping Montreal forward and MLS top scorer (18 goals) Marco Di Vaio. The Impact have lost three league games in a row and will miss midfielder Felipe, who is suspended for yellow-card accumulation.
SCHEDULE, Week 31:
Friday, September 27
8 p.m ET
Sporting KC 0 Philadelphia 1.
PHI: Conor Casey 36
MLSRESULTS, Week 31:
Saturday, September 28
1 p.m ET
Toronto FC vs. D.C. United
7 p.m ET
Vancouver vs. Real Salt Lake
7:30 p.m. ET
New England vs. Houston
8:30 p.m. ET
Chicago vs. Montreal
Sunday, September 29
3:30 p.m. ET
Portland vs. LA Galaxy, NBC
8:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Columbus
9 p.m ET
Seattle vs. New York ESPN
11 p.m ET
Chivas USA vs. San Jose UniMas
PTS (GP) TEAM W-L-T +/-
51 (30) New York 15-9-6 47/36
48 (30) Sporting KC 14-10-6 43/29
45 (28) Montreal13-9-6 46/42
43 (29) Houston 12-10-7 37/36
42 (30) Philadelphia 11-10-9 38/39
40 (29) New England 11-11-7 41/33
39 (29) Chicago 11-12-6 36/43
38 (30) Columbus 11-14-5 36/39
23 (30) Toronto FC 4-15-11 25/44
15 (29) D.C. United 3-20-6 19/48
PTS (GP)TEAM W-L-T +/-
50 (28) Seattle15-8-5 38/28
48 (30) Real Salt Lake 14-10-6 53/39
46 (29) Portland 11-5-13 45/31
45 (29) LA Galaxy 13-10-6 46/36
45 (30) Colorado12-9-9 37/31
41 (29) Vancouver 11-10-8 42/38
41 (30) San Jose 11-11-8 31/41
40 (29) FC Dallas10-9-10 40/42
26 (30) Chivas USA 6-16-8 29/45
MLS LEADING SCORERS:
G PLAYER (TEAM)
18 Marco Di Vaio (Montreal)
16 Camilo (Vancouver)
16 Mike Magee (Los Angeles/Chicago)
12 Robbie Keane (Los Angeles)
11 Diego Fagundez (New England)
11 Dominic Oduro (Columbus)
10+1 Conor Casey (Philadelphia)
10 Federico Higuain (Columbus)
10 Claudio Bieler (Sporting KC)
10 Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
10 Blas Perez (FC Dallas)
10 Jack McInerney (Philadelphia)