Marquee matchups and scraps for survival

[MLS] There are two tasty showdowns on tap in MLS this weekend -- Columbus at Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles at New York – but I’ll be taking only a passing interest. I prefer desperation and causes nearly lost. The glamour matchups should provide good theater, and hopefully some stylish play, yet it's more likely the teams will jockey for playoff position more than anything else.

This quartet might not finish in the top two slots in each conference, but could well wrap up postseason appearances in the next month; the Galaxy has already exceeded the 39 points attained by 2009 eighth seed New England, and while a slightly higher cutoff is likely this season, Columbus (37 points) and Real Salt Lake (36) are very close, and New York is poised for a strong finish.

Red Bull Arena is already sold out, and if Rio Tinto isn’t, owner Dave Checketts will have every right to find out why.

There’s far more drama in several other games this weekend as nine or 10, depending on your level of optimism, do battle for four remaining slots. The playoffs are more than two months away, but for these teams, similar pressures and tensions will be in force.

Here are a few of the storylines I’ll be following …

OLSEN, ACT II. When it plays at RFK Stadium Saturday, FC Dallas will be without defender Ugo Ihemelu, who is recovering from a concussion, and midfielder Dax McCarty (strained quad) this weekend. Neither has grabbed many headlines this season yet they have been just as important to FCD’s success as the exploits of catalyst David Ferriera, keeper Kevin Hartman, strikers Jeff Cunningham and Milton Rodriguez, et al. Zach Loyd is penciled in as Ihemelu’s replacement, three players are vying for McCarty’s spot.

Fortunately, FCD takes its turn on the Beatdown of D.C. United, which has disappeared below the horizon. It played a more spirited but no less frustrating 1-0 loss to New England in the debut of Ben Olsen.

Critics of FCD cite its propensity to tie games – as in nine of 18 – while supporters smugly point out no team has lost fewer games, as in two. At 7-2-9, Dallas might be en route to a record similar to that of Houston in 2006; the Dynamo finished second at 11-8-13, and won the title. On the road is where FCD gets most of its ties; it is 2-1-6 away from Pizza Hut Park. Yet despite United’s horrible record (3-13-3), FCD might be in for a real battle just to get a point.

OUTSIDERS, FOR A CHANGE. It’s been nearly a decade since New England or Houston (formerly San Jose 1.0) missed the playoffs; they meet at Gillette Stadium Saturday with both on the outside. The Dynamo (5-9-5, 20 points) is 12 th overall; New England (5-9-3, 18 points) is tied for 13th with Chivas USA.

Houston midfielder Geoff Cameron is working his way back into shape after missing more than three months with a knee injury. The attack has suffered in his absence, yet Houston’s appalling defense (29 goals allowed, only D.C. and Philly have conceded more) is what’s dragging on their playoff drive. Coach Dominic Kinnear has reshuffled his back line and tried different midfield combinations without finding any reliable lineup.

New England reached a settlement earlier this week to sever ties with midfielder Joseph Niouky, who came from his native Senegal in February as a midfield linchpin to replace Jeff Larentowicz but couldn’t. Like Houston, the Revs have leaked a lot of goals (27) and also have a rather inept attack (17 goals, fewer than any team except K.C. and the doomed United).

The Dynamo, having played two more games, is the more desperate of the two teams. Yet the chances of either team stringing together a run of good results are growing more remote each week. Neither team has been able to replace vital players lost during the offseason, which is one method by which they’ve built their remarkable success.

HOT TEAM AT HDC. Life without Freddie Ljungberg is turning out well for the Sounders, who play Western Conference bottom-feeder Chivas USA having risen to seventh place overall at 8-8-4 (28 points) in the standings.

Both teams have allowed 25 goals and Seattle has scored only one more (23 to 22), but it’s been able to win games recently, unlike Chivas USA (5-10-3). The additions of striker Blaise Nkufo and forward Alvaro Fernandez have restored some swagger to last year’s expansion darling which stumbled out of the gate this season. The back line has looked better but not secure with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado out for the season injured, and veteran Tyrone Marshall still short of top form.

Still, Seattle has won its last four league games by combined scores of 6-1. It opens Concacaf Champions’ League group play next Thursday in Honduras, so it needs to attend to league business this weekend.

The radical makeover of Chivas USA by Coach Martin Vasquez continues. Maykel Galindo has joined Eduardo Lillingston, Chukwudi Chijindu and Gerson Mayen on the loaned list, having been sent to FC Tampa Bay. Starting keeper Dan Kennedy suffered a torn tendon in his left bicep and is out for the season; Zach Thornton has been hobbled by a bad ankle yet is expected to be fit enough to face Seattle.

Without at least three wins in its next six games, Chivas USA can accelerate its rebuilding process and shoot for next year.

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