Photo by Andrew Katsampes/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
The MLS playoff race sure is heating up.
With just a handful of matches remaining, nine teams are still competing for six available postseason berths. A slate of influential weekend fixtures kicks off Friday with a critical clash in the wild-card race between the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers. Although Houston is currently tied with the New York Red Bulls for the final playoff berth, the Timbers can draw even on points with the Dynamo with a win at Jeld-Wen Field.
Saturday's docket includes a key match for Eastern Conference playoff positioning as Sporting Kansas City hosts the Red Bulls. Later, the Chicago Fire visits D.C. United in a match between playoff-chasing clubs that are both coming off a brutal midweek loss.
Here is a rundown of the Week 31 slate:
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Friday, 10:30 p.m., ESPN2)
The return leg of this year's Rocky Mountain Cup has the potential to shake up seeding in the Western Conference, with Salt Lake just two points ahead of Dallas for the third and final automatic berth to the conference semifinals.
Salt Lake will be without U.S. national team midfielder Kyle Beckerman, whose MVP odds were dealt a serious blow by the additional two-game suspension imposed for the head butt he delivered to Chicago's Daniel Paladini on Sept. 28.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Friday, 10:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
Three months after Houston sent Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala to Portland for Adam Moffat, a trade which has paid dividends for both sides, the two teams will face off in a game with major playoff implications.
Houston centerbacks Geoff Cameron and Bobby Boswell will have their hands full trying to hold Portland striker Kenny Cooper in check, as the towering forward has three goals in his past four games.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Saturday, 4 p.m., Telefutura)
In the congested Eastern Conference, Kansas City is two points behind Philadelphia for first place but just two points ahead of New York and Houston, the two teams tied for the final wild-card berth.
With a win, Kansas City can clinch a playoff slot, but New York has been tough to beat since Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers were reunited up top. Henry has been particularly lethal of late, scoring in back-to-back games.
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. TORONTO FC (Saturday, 4 p.m., TSN)
Philadelphia is in solid position to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and a home fixture against lowly Toronto presents a prime opportunity for the Union to potentially distance itself from the pack.
Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon (finger fracture) and striker Danny Mwanga (hip flexor strain) could both return from injury absence to the surging Union, which is 3-0-2 in its past five.
D.C. UNITED vs. CHICAGO FIRE (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
While Chicago's playoff aspirations are on life support, United can still work its way into the postseason mix if coach Ben Olsen's club takes care of business during a three-game home stand to close the season.
United will welcome MVP candidate Dwayne De Rosario back after the Canadian missed Wednesday's loss to Vancouver because of international duty. Chicago's lineup, on the other hand, will be significantly depleted by suspensions, as defenders Dan Gargan and Cory Gibbs and midfielder Pavel Pardo all must sit out this contest.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
After ending a six-game winless spell with a comeback triumph against D.C. United in its last match, Columbus will look to build off that triumph and enhance its playoff positioning on the road against a New England side that has lost four in a row.
Any road match presents a challenge to the Crew, however, as coach Robert Warzycha's squad has compiled a meager 3-9-3 mark away from home this year.
FC DALLAS vs. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
Coming off wins over Real Salt Lake and D.C. United, Vancouver will look to stay hot against a Dallas team hoping to jump past Salt Lake for third place in the Western Conference.
The Whitecaps will also try to avoid becoming the fourth club in MLS history to go winless on the road. Seeing as Dallas has lost three straight at home, this would seem to be as good an opportunity as any to get three points away from home.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., FSC)
With Seattle pretty much locked in the Western Conference's No. 2 seed and San Jose out of the playoff picture, this game will be all about honoring Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller, as more than 60,000 tickets have already been sold for the retiring U.S. Soccer legend's final regular-season home game.
Looking to spoil Keller's farewell match will be San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski, who has surged into a tie with Dwayne De Rosario and Thierry Henry atop the MLS scoring chart.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. CHIVAS USA (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Seeing as Los Angeles has already clinched the Supporters' Shield and Chivas is eliminated from playoff contention, there isn't much at stake during this Superclasico fixture aside from Home Depot Center bragging rights.
It will be intriguing, though, to see how Chivas striker Juan Pablo Angel fares against the team that traded him in August. The veteran has six goals in his past four matches for Chivas.