Western Conference lead at stake in Saturday clash

[MLS WEEK 23: Three Games to Watch] A showdown of the top two teams in the Western Conference -- Seattle and Real Salt Lake -- and the conclusion of a four-game road swing for Toronto FC highlight the MLS weekend action.

Several teams are incorporating international players signed in the past few weeks and how others such as Andre Akpan and Saer Sene, who were traded for each other to New York and New England, respectively, adapt to their new surroundings add further intrigue as the push for playoff spots intensifies.

MLS WEEK 23: Schedule:
Friday, August 15
9 pm ET
Houston vs. Philadelphia, NBCSN
Saturday, August 16
2:30 pm ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Seattle, NBCSN
6:30 pm ET
Montreal vs. Chicago
7:30 pm ET
Columbus vs. LA Galaxy
New England vs. Portland
8:30 pm ET
Sporting KC vs. Toronto FC
10:30 pm ET
Chivas USA vs. Vancouver
San Jose vs. FC Dallas
Sunday, August 17
8 pm ET
D.C. United vs. Colorado, UDN

RUMBLE AT RIO TINTO. The kickoff time is a bit strange yet everything else about the Real Salt Lake-Seattle matchup Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) looks befitting a matchup of the Western Conference leader and its nearest pursuer.

More than two months of the regular season remain, yet second-place RSL trails Seattle by two points in the standings and has played two more games. The third and final meeting of the season will be Sept. 12 at CenturyLink Field, where the Sounders have won the last two league meetings by a combined score of 6-0, including a 4-0 victory May 31. The teams have the same goal difference of plus-nine, with Seattle having scored (37) and conceded (28) one more goal than RSL.

Seattle rebounded from a brief bump -- three losses in four league games -- by beating Houston, 2-0, last Sunday and hammering Chicago, 6-0, in an Open Cup semifinal Wednesday. Stefan Frei saved a Dynamo penalty kick with the score 0-0 and Seattle scored twice within six minutes to snap a 253-minute goalless streak. The return of defender Chad Marshall, who had missed two games with back spasms, for the Houston game has helped stabilize the back line yet RSL’s fluid, possession-oriented attack can be tough to contain, especially at Rio Tinto.

A 3-0 defeat of D.C. United Saturday extended RSL’s unbeaten streak to five games, though it’s doubtful the Sounders will allow Chris Schuler, who earned Player of the Week honors by scoring twice against D.C., to dominate the goalmouth.

RSL playmaker Javier Morales will draw the attention of Seattle contencion Osvaldo Alonso, yet the Sounders also need to track Joao Plata; he headed the first goal against D.C. to run his season total to a team-high nine from a cross by Luke Mulholland, who in his first MLS season is proving to be a tough player who can also contribute offensively. A spectacular equalizer by Luis Gil highlighted a 1-1 tie with Tijuana in a friendly on Tuesday.

TFC TOUGHS IT OUT. A rough run of four straight road games ends for Toronto FC Saturday as it tries to win for the first time at Sporting Park (8:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live/Direct Kick).

Victories the past two weekends have built some momentum for TFC, which broke a four-game run without a victory by winning in Montreal (2-0) and Columbus (3-2). The defending champion is a much stiffer test, yet the Reds did extract a 2-2 tie out of Sporting Park May 23 despite losing Steven Caldwell to a red card in the second half. Bradley Orr’s header in stoppage time earned TFC its first-ever point at Sporting Park.

Dom Dwyer scored both of SKC’s goals in that game to take over the league lead with 10 goals but has netted just four times since then. He still leads SKC with 14 and none of his teammates have more than three. TFC’s top scorer, Jermain Defoe, is expected back in the lineup after missing the last two games with a groin strain. He’s scored 11 goals in just 15 games and didn’t play in the last meeting between the teams, a 2-1 SKC win July 26.

Several TFC players have been battling the flu. Defender Doniel Henry did not train on Thursday and on Saturday TFC will not have Caldwell (quad strain) and Mark Bloom (strained MCL).

ONE YEAR LATER. Two teams struggling to replicate their strong performances in 2013 square off Saturday at Gillette Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, MLS Live/Direct Kick), with New England and Portland capable of cracking the playoff tier by winning.

Portland won the Western Conference title last year but its languishing in seventh place despite having won three of the last four games. The Revs, which finished third in 2013, are also seventh and trapped in a tailspin of just one victory in the last 10 games.

New England will be happy to come home; a 2-1 loss at New York last weekend was its fifth straight defeat on the road. However, its home record of 5-4-1 is mediocre at best. The Timbers beat Chivas USA, 2-0, Saturday and among its four road wins this season is a victory at RSL.

MLS Standings:
39 Sporting KC 11-6-6 32/22
37 D.C. United 11-7-4 32/24
32 Toronto FC 9-7-5 32/30
28 New York 6-7-10 35/34
27 Philadelphia 6-8-9 36/37
27 Columbus 6-8-9 28/31
26 New England 8-12-2 29/35
25 Chicago 4-5-13 29/34
22 Houston
6-12-4 23/42
14 Montreal 3-14-5 22/41

41 Seattle 13-6-2 37/28
39 Real Salt Lake
10-4-9 36/27
36 FC Dallas 10-7-6 38/32
34 LA Galaxy 9-4-7 34/19
32 Vancouver 7-4-11 33/29
30 Colorado 8-9-6 32/31
30 Portland 7-7-9 38/38
24 San Jose 6-8-6 25/22
23 Chivas USA 6-11-5 21/36
MLS: Leading Scorers
18 Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York
14 Dom Dwyer, Sporting KC
14 Erick Torres, Chivas USA
12 Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy
11 Jermain Defoe, Toronto FC
10 Sebastien Le Toux, Philadelphia
10 Joao Plata, Real Salt Lake
9 Federico Higuain, Columbus
9 Clint Dempsey
, Seattle
9 Gyasi Zardes, LA Galaxy

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