Bubble teams face big tests in Eastern Conference

[MLS: Three Games to Watch] Columbus, Toronto FC and Philadelphia are dueling for Eastern Conference playoff spots and because they don’t meet this weekend, all can take significant steps towards the postseason by winning.

Yet there may be only two spots in the five-team tier up for grabs, even though no team has yet clinched. Conference leader D.C. United hosts Philly, and the Friday night match is a meeting of No. 2 Sporting Kansas City and No. 3 New England.

MLS SCHEDULE, Week 29:
Friday, September 26
8 p.m. ET
Sporting KC vs. New England, NBCSN
Saturday, September 27
1 p.m. ET
Toronto FC vs. Portland
3 p.m. ET
D.C. United vs. Philadelphia, NBCSN
4 p.m. ET
Seattle vs. Chivas USA
7 p.m. ET
Vancouver vs. Real Salt Lake
7:30 p.m. ET
Columbus vs. Montreal
9 p.m. ET
Colorado vs. San Jose
Sunday, September 28
3 p.m. ET
Houston vs. Chicago, UniMas
8:30 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy vs. New York, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes

CHALLENGE FOR THE CHAMPION. Just how much momentum SKC has regained since snapping a four-game losing streak in league play will be revealed Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) when it hosts the Revs, whose own winning streak of five ended last week in Columbus.

A victory would pull the Revs even with SKC in second place, and they have already beaten the defending champion twice this season at Gillette Stadium. New England also registered a 2-1 victory in last year’s playoffs, though it lost the second leg, 3-1, at Sporting Park. SKC followed up on its get-well game Sept. 12 -- a 4-0 thumping of Chivas USA -- by beating Saprissa (3-1) last week and Real Esteli (3-0) Tuesday in the Concacaf Champions League.

Lee Nguyen scored twice in a 3-1 victory Sept. 3 in which the Revs rallied to win. Despite the absences of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber because of suspension, SKC took an early 1-0 lead. Jermaine Jones, making his first MLS start, scuffed a header and Soony Saad headed it home, but former Rev Teal Bunbury battled through a challenge to tie the game and set the stage for Nguyen to win it.

Bunbury isn’t the only player with ties to both teams. The Revs drafted SKC left back Seth Sinovic in the 2010 SuperDraft and after the Revs waived him the following year SKC signed him as a free agent. New England used the allocation process to claim Feilhaber in 2011. After two seasons, it declined his option and eventually traded him to SKC. This matchup is one of many in MLS slowly but steadily turning into a spirited rivalry.

Dwyer leads SKC with 19 goals but was shut out in the first match between the teams, a 2-0 Revs’ win April 26. A red card to defender Aurelien Collin in the 74th minute left SKC with 10 men and they held out at 0-0 until stoppage time, during which Bunbury and Nguyen scored.

Jones has been hobbled by foot problems and his fitness for the match is uncertain, though he’s likely to play in some capacity. He has proven to be the ideal complement for New England’s fluid, skillful attack keyed by Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe that can flow through any channel. SKC’s midfield has been steeled by the return of Pablo Nagamura, who has played two games since sitting out more than two months with a nagging ankle injury. Also back for SKC is goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, sidelined since early July with a broken hand suffered in training. He made three saves in the defeat of Real Esteli.

PHILLY GOES FOR REVERSAL AT RFK. Chris Rolfe scored the 50th goal of his MLS career the last time D.C. played Philly May 10, and that 1-0 victory helped usher former Union head coach John Hackworth out the door. A broken arm will sideline Rolfe for the rematch Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and deprive him of the chance to take on a team led by his former Chicago teammate, interim head coach Jim Curtin.

Philly is 5-1-4 in the last 10 games but in sixth place, two points out of the playoff tier. Defender Ethan White -- traded to Philly by D.C. last January in exchange for veteran Jeff Parke and the top allocation spot the Union used to claim Maurice Edu -- suffered a hamstring injury in a 0-0 tie with Houston last weekend and as of Thursday Curtin wasn’t sure of his availability.

United is winless in the last three league games though it played a barnburner last weekend in tying Chicago, 3-3. After being blanked against Vancouver (0-0) and New York (a 1-0 loss) in its previous two games, United scored at least three goals for the seventh time this season though it squandered a late, one-goal lead. Luis Silva scored twice to take over the team lead in goals with 10, and United’s most productive player with nine goals and nine assists, Fabian Espindola, is eligible to face Philly after sitting out a one-game suspension.

HAS TFC TURNED THE CORNER? Aside from the Red Bulls-Galaxy clasico, the only other interconference game also matches foes from the opposite coasts when Toronto FC hosts Portland (1 p.m. ET, MLS Live/Direct Kick) in a lunchtime special.

A 3-0 defeat of Chivas USA Sunday brought interim head coach Greg Vanney his first victory at the helm of TFC, which sits three points shy of fifth place. Jackson, Luke Moore and Gilberto scored as TFC took advantage of feeble opposition to halt a three-game winless streak. English striker Jermain Defoe, out more than a month with a sore groin, returned to training this week with a target of full training commencing on Monday.

Portland also comes into the game off a 3-0 victory in its last league match. Diego Valeri’s savage blast and two goals by Fanendo Adi, his seventh and eighth of the season, enabled the Timbers to leapfrog Cascadia rival Vancouver into fifth place. With two goals and six assists in his last four games, Valeri is in exceedingly sharp form. But if TFC focuses too much on Valeri it may leave room to be exploited by Maximiliano Urruti, Gaston Fernandez, Will Johnson or Adi, all of whom have scored at least six goals.

Each of the last three meetings between the teams have produced four goals, though last year, the Timbers administered a 4-0 spanking that contrasted sharply with a pair of 2-2 ties played out previously. On paper, TFC may hold the edge in talent, but Portland has more elements clicking. TFC needs a big game from Michael Bradley and every bit of frenzy the BMO Field faithful can supply.

Best of the rest …

Goal kings square off in StubHub Center on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), when New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips takes his quest to break the MLS single-season scoring record against all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan and the Galaxy, which is dueling Seattle for the Western Conference title and Supporters’ Shield. Wright-Phillips’ 24 goals are just three fewer than the record of 27 set by Roy Lassiter in 1996 and tied by Chris Wondolowski two years ago.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT. The Galaxy will take the field knowing the result of Seattle’s presumably slam-dunk encounter the previous day with Chivas USA at CenturyLink Field … Real Salt Lake can clinch a playoff spot by getting at least a tie against Vancouver at B.C. Place, but head coach Jeff Cassar may elect to rest a few starters rather than expose them to an artificial surface … Ignacio Piatti scored both goals Aug.30 when Montreal beat Columbus, 2-0; the fifth-place Crew hosts the rematch.

MLS RESULTS, Week 29:
Wednesday, September 24
FC Dallas 3 Seattle 1.
DAL: David Texeira (Andres Escobar) 8
SEA: Lamar Neagle (Clint Dempsey) 58
DAL: David Texeira (Andres Escobar) 78
DAL: Blas Perez (Michel) 88
Att.: 14,601.

MLS Standings:
EASTERN CONFERENCE

PTS (GP) TEAM W-L-T GF/GA

48 (29) D.C. United 14-9-6 45/34
45 (29) Sporting KC
13-10-6 43/34
42 (29) New England 13-13-3 41/40
41 (29) New York 10-8-11 48/42
40 (29) Columbus 10-9-10 41/36
---------------------------------------
38 (29) Philadelphia 9-9-11 45/43
37 (28) Toronto FC 10-11-7 39/43
33 (28) Houston 9-13-6 33/50
31 (28) Chicago 5-7-16 37/43
24 (29) Montreal 6-17-6 34/52

WESTERN CONFERENCE
PTS (GP) TEAM W-L-T GF/GA
54 (29) *Seattle 17-9-3 53/44
54 (29) *LA Galaxy 15-5-9 59/31
49 (29) Real Salt Lake 13-6-10 49/36
48 (30) FC Dallas 14-10-6 52/40
39
(29) Portland 9-8-12 52/48
-----------------------------------------
37 (29) Vancouver 8-8-13 36/39
31 (29) Colorado 8-14-7 40/53
28 (28) San Jose 6-12-10 33/41
24 (29) Chivas USA 6-17-6 23/54
*Clinched playoff berth.
------------------------------------------------
MLS: Leading Scorers
G PLAYER, TEAM
24 Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York
19 Dom Dwyer, Sporting KC
15 Gyasi Zardes, LA Galaxy
14 Erick Torres, Chivas USA
14 Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy
13 Obafemi Martins, Seattle
13 Lee Nguyen, New England
13 Joao Plata
, Real Salt Lake
13 Chris Wondolowski, San Jose
12 Sebastien Le Toux, Philadelphia
12 Clint Dempsey, Seattle

MLS SCHEDULE, Week 30:
Thursday, October 2
8 p.m. ET
Philadelphia vs. Chicago, ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes
Friday, October 3  
8 p.m. ET
D.C. United vs. Sporting KC, NBCSN
Saturday, October 4
6 p.m. ET
New York vs. Houston, NBCSN
7 p.m. ET
Vancouver vs. FC Dallas, UDN
7:30 p.m. ET
New England vs. Columbus
10:30 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy vs. Toronto FC
11 p.m. ET
San Jose vs. Portland, NBCSN
Sunday, October 5
3 p.m. ET
Colorado vs. Seattle, UniMas
5 p.m. ET
Chicago vs. Montreal
7 p.m. ET
Chivas USA vs. Real Salt Lake

MLS SCHEDULE, Week 31:
Wednesday, October 8
7:30 p.m. ET
Toronto FC vs. Houston
10:30 p.m. ET
Portland vs. San Jose
Friday, October 10
8:30 p.m. ET
Sporting KC vs. Chicago
10 p.m. ET
Seattle vs. Vancouver, NBCSN
Saturday, October 11
4 p.m. ET
Montreal vs. New England
7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia vs. Columbus
New York vs. Toronto FC
9:30 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. San Jose
10:30 p.m. ET
Chivas USA vs. Colorado
Sunday, October 12
3 p.m. ET
Houston vs. D.C. United, UniMas
7 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy, ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes

MLS SCHEDULE, Week 32:
Thursday, October 16
8 p.m. ET
Houston vs. New England, ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes
Friday, October 17
10 p.m. ET
Portland vs. Real Salt Lake, NBCSN
Saturday, October 18
2 p.m. ET
Toronto FC vs. Montreal, UDN
3 p.m. ET
Colorado vs. FC Dallas, NBCSN
7 p.m. ET
D.C. United vs. Chicago
Philadelphia vs. Sporting KC
10:30 p.m. ET
San Jose vs. Vancouver
Sunday, October 19
3 p.m. ET
New York vs. Columbus, UniMas
8:30 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy vs. Seattle, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes

MLS SCHEDULE, Week 32:
Wednesday, October 22
9:30 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Chivas USA
Friday, October 24
8 p.m. ET
Chicago vs. Houston
Saturday, October 25
2:30 p.m. ET
Seattle vs. LA Galaxy, NBC
4 p.m. ET
Montreal vs. D.C. United
7:30 p.m. ET
New England vs. Toronto FC
8:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Portland
10 p.m. ET
Vancouver vs. Colorado, UDN
Sunday, October 26
3 p.m. ET
Chivas USA vs. San Jose, UniMas
5 p.m. ET
Columbus vs. Philadelphia
8:30 p.m. ET
Sporting KC vs. New York, ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes

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