By AVI CREDITOR
The Major League Soccer season is just about halfway over, and for the teams that have struggled through the first 14 weeks of the season, the time to kick things into another gear has come.
For the Kansas City Wizards, their 2-0 start is a thing of the past, and a home win over Chivas USA is a must in order to turn things around.
For the Houston Dynamo and Seattle Sounders, inconsistent play has been the theme of the season and they are unexpectedly looking up at a bevy of teams in the standings.
For the Chicago Fire, a home win against Real Salt Lake is necessary for Carlos de los Cobos' side to halt its fall down the Eastern Conference ladder.
Those are just some of the teams badly needing wins during this week's MLS action. Here's a look at the entire Week 15 slate and how we see things playing out:
CHICAGO FIRE (4-4-5) vs. REAL SALT LAKE (8-3-3)
Thursday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN Deportes
The Fire have the home-field edge, but they could be without the injured duo of Patrick Nyarko and Brian McBride, which would leave them severely short-handed against the hottest team in the league.
Real Salt Lake is riding a nine-game unbeaten streak and has managed four consecutive clean sheets. The MLS Cup champions haven't lost since falling at Columbus, 1-0, back on April 24, though they've had only two league road matches in that span.
In this 2009 conference final rematch, Salt Lake has too much in its arsenal for the undermanned Fire to overcome. If Wilman Conde can neutralize Alvaro Saborio, the Fire's chances would clearly improve, but Javier Morales has more than just that one option to seek out on the front line. Nick Rimando comes up big in Bridgeview again and Salt Lake's improved record on the road continues. RSL 2, Fire 0.
TORONTO FC (5-4-4) vs. COLORADO RAPIDS (6-3-4)
Saturday, 12 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
This has all the makings of a defensive slugfest, just like the recent games at BMO Field that have preceded this matchup.
The Reds will be without Julian de Guzman, who drew a red card in their tie against Houston, and that could allow Colorado's midfield trio of Jeff Larentowicz, Mehdi Ballouchy and Pablo Mastroeni to control the run of play for periods of time.
Stefan Frei and his back line are good enough to shut down Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, though, and former TFCer Marvell Wynne takes down Chad Barrett in the box in the second half to set up a Dwayne De Rosario penalty kick with the only score of the game. TFC 1, Rapids 0.
PHILADELPHIA UNION (3-7-2) vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (5-4-4)
Saturday, 6 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel
Rookie sensations are on display at PPL Park, with the red-hot Danny Mwanga and equally impressive Ike Opara locking horns in a featured matchup.
Much of this game depends on the health status of Bobby Convey, who hurt his ribs in San Jose's last match. Should he be forced to miss the game, things would open up on the flanks for Roger Torres and Sebastien Le Toux, and the Union could make it 2-for-2 at their new home.
Opara halts Mwanga's scoring streak (five goals in his last six games), but Le Toux gets on the board and sets up another as the Union climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar. Union 2, Earthquakes 1.
NEW YORK RED BULLS (8-5-1) vs. D.C. UNITED (3-9-2)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
The latest installment of the Atlantic Cup features a Red Bull team trying to keep pace with Columbus atop the Eastern Conference and a D.C. United team that is playing better than its record would indicate.
When the two sides met on May 1, Juan Pablo Angel and Salou Ibrahim scored in the second half to give the Red Bulls their first win at RFK Stadium in five years. D.C. has gotten stingier since then, but finishing in the final third on a consistent basis is still an issue for Curt Onalfo's team.
Angel breaks a scoreless deadlock with another second-half strike, and United wastes a sound defensive effort while it waits for the newly acquired Pablo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic to join the fold next week. Red Bulls 1, United 0.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (3-9-2) vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (11-1-3)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
Just when things can't get any worse for the Revolution, the Galaxy come to town. Fresh off its 5-0 spanking at the hands of Real Salt Lake, Steve Nicol's side must find a way to neutralize the Galaxy's attack just like it did in a 1-0 loss at the Home Depot Center on opening night.
A lot has changed since then for both teams, though. Juninho and Michael Stephens have emerged as midfield talents, Edson Buddle hasn't stopped scoring and the Galaxy defense – though it will be without Omar Gonzalez (serving card suspension) in this game – is almost impenetrable. New England has been ravaged by injuries, and the once-proud franchise has fallen to the Eastern Conference cellar.
All signs point to a rout, as Stephens, Buddle and Tristan Bowen score to kick New England while it's down. Galaxy 3, Revolution 0.
KANSAS CITY WIZARDS (3-7-3) vs. CHIVAS USA (3-9-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
The "loser is in serious trouble" match of the week.
Both teams have quite the hill to climb over the final half of the season. For some perspective, if they combined their points, then the hypothetical K.C. USA megateam would have the fifth most points in the league. Not good. But this matchup offers each team a chance to start to the road to positivity.
Kansas City plays better at home and should come away with the points. The Wizards have beaten up the league's bottom feeders (two of the teams three wins are at home against D.C. and Philadelphia), and this match is suited for them.
Kei Kamara notches a brace, and keeper Jimmy Nielsen makes it stand up as Kansas City gets somewhat back on track. Wizards 2, Chivas 0.
HOUSTON DYNAMO (5-7-3) vs. COLUMBUS CREW (8-2-3)
Saturday 8:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
Two of the league's model franchises do battle at Robertson Stadium, though only one is where it would like to be at this point in the season.
Robert Warzycha's Crew are playing well, balancing U.S. Open Cup success with league success in vaulting to the top of the Eastern Conference. Dom Kinnear's Dynamo are having an up-and-down year, still feeling the burn of losing Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark in the offseason and having injuries disrupt team flow. If Brad Davis (questionable with a hip flexor injury) doesn't play, the Crew will have a massive advantage in the midfield.
A Steven Lenhart goal offsets Dominic Oduro's opening tally, and Guillermo Barros Scheloto's corner kick finds Chad Marshall's head for the second-half winner as Columbus takes the road points. Crew 2, Dynamo 1.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC (4-8-3) vs. FC DALLAS (5-2-6)
Sunday, 10:30 p.m., MLS Direct Kick
When they last met, Seattle thoroughly outplayed Dallas, only to yield a questionable stoppage-time penalty that Jeff Cunningham converted to salvage a point and a 2-2 draw for the Hoops.
Since that match, Schellas Hyndman's troops are 5-1-3, with that loss being a 1-0 defeat to the Galaxy. FC Dallas isn't scoring in bunches – they've scored more than one goal on just two occasions since the game against Seattle – but the combination of David Ferreira's emergence from a sub-par start, Brek Shea's maturation and Kevin Hartman's comfort level in goal have made the Hoops a surprise contender.
Seattle is treading water until Blaise N'Kufo arrives in less than a week to potentially play the role of savior. Playing at home in a game they need to win, the Sounders will show an improved product, with Fredy Montero getting on the board. Cunningham re-finds his scoring touch from the flanks, though, and the Western Conference foes play to a deadlock again. Sounders 1, FC Dallas 1.
How do you see Week 15 unfolding? Do you see any surprises happening?
Share your thoughts below.