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Saturday, 18 August 2012

Foresight – MLS Round 22 Weekend Preview

    Four questions to be answered in this the twenty-second round proper of MLS weekend action.

With local rivalry and valuable points on the line when Seattle hosts Vancouver and DC welcomes Philadelphia, who takes the initiative and the prize?

     The Cascadia Cup returns in the first match of the weekend as the Sounders welcome the Whitecaps into a raucous CenturyLink Field. Fifty-four thousand Hulk Green-clad fans will welcome their opponents from across the border in a local derby with more than pride on the line.

    Both teams are tied on thirty-seven points with the playoff race heats up, Seattle holds a slender advantage on goals scored, the recently announced first tie-breaker – thirty-two to twenty-eight – as well as having two games in hand.

    Both have struggled during trying summer stretches that have seen them fall off the blistering pace set by San Jose and Salt Lake.

    Vancouver heads into the match on short-rest, having played Wednesday losing 0-2 to Dallas, without key aspects of their defensive core - namely Martin Bonjour (suspension – yellow card accumulation) and Jay DeMerit, whose recovery from a concussion suffered against Salt Lake leaves his inclusion in the match in doubt - and face a difficult run of away matches in the coming weeks.

    Bolstered by the return to fitness of Atiba Harris and John Thorrington, the return from international duty of the likes of Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks, and the increasing comfort of new designated players Kenny Miller and Barry Robson, a win in Seattle, against possibly their biggest rival, would go some way to bolstering the confidence as they brace for a playoff dash.

    Seattle faced a difficult week last; a controversial loss in the US Open Cup was followed by a stinging defeat to San Jose. Having tied the match 1-1 in the first minute of stoppage time, Steven Lenhart popped up, as he is wont to do, in the dying embers of the match to clinch the victory for the first-place Earthquakes.

    The Sounders will find strength in looking to the future – young Honduran attacker Mario Martinez joined the club this week, Steve Zakuani played a full ninety minutes in reserve action - and the continuing good form of Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero, as Christian Tiffert continue to work his way into the side.

    A day later on the opposite side of the continent, DC United will welcome local foes, the Philadelphia Union.

    United clings to the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot by a thread and hope to rediscover the form that had them gracing the top of the table midseason. The Union are thirteen points in arrears and must starting picking up wins to have any shot at a postseason berth.

    Adding to the spice, was an unusual inter-conference trade between the two that saw Danny Cruz travel to Philly in exchange for Lionard Pajoy and an international roster spot. It is odd for a traded player to have the potential of impacting their former club so quickly, but should either be included, expect them to be hungry to make a mark.

As MLS nears the final two months of the season and playoff picture begins to take shape, points are at a premium. Though the top groups have started to separate themselves from the pretenders, there is still plenty of time to make up ground, who will seize the opportunity this weekend?

    Montreal, Dallas, Colorado, Chivas, and Columbus all currently reside below the dotted line and the remaining matches have begun to dwindle.

    The Impact face perhaps the most difficult test, Supporter’s Shield leaders San Jose on Saturday at Stade Saputo, in the first ever meeting between clubs.

    Riding high off of three straight wins, their longest run of the season, while keeping back-to-back clean-sheets, Montreal could not be in better form heading into such a stiff test. One concern will be their propensity to concede late, a particular strength of San Jose’s, but Coach Jesse Marsch has his team finding stride at just the right time.

    Likely to be without Alessandro Nesta and with Nelson Rivas still suspended, Troy Perkins will look to a strong defensive team performance to continue his clean introduction to his new side.

    Alan Gordon is suspended for the Quakes, but they have plenty of weapons on which to call.

    Like Montreal, matches are running out for Dallas – tied with the Impact and the Galaxy for most played at twenty-six.

    And as does Montreal, they face the stiffest of tests on Saturday night – Real Salt Lake.

    With the return of Colombian midfielder, David Ferreira, Dallas has found the form that saw them reach the 2010 MLS Cup Final, picking up two straight wins, while losing only one of their last five matches.

    This will be their third and final match of the season and Salt Lake have won the last six meetings in Utah dating back to 2007, but have found goals difficult to come by in recent weeks.

    Losers of their last two, facing a fixture logjam of league and Champions League matches, Salt Lake have only just eked out results against Dallas in their previous two meetings.

    A ninety-third minute winner at home from Nat Borchers, and a 1-1 draw in Dallas after a flurry of refereeing decisions and injuries marred the match.

    Chivas and Colorado, meanwhile, have played the fewest matches in the league – twenty-one- and will look to convert those games in hand to points as they face tricky away trips to Colorado and Houston respectively.

The two remaining home unbeaten records – Houston and New York, both with eight wins and three draws at home - come under pressure once again this weekend, facing two very different obstacles; will both carry on dominating at home?

    Houston saw their five-match winning streak – and eight unbeaten – fall in New York last Friday, but face a new challenge on the weekend.

    Columbus has quietly gone about a revolution in personnel: Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta has joined the club and brought with him goals – three in his last three matches – while new DP signing Federico Higuain looks to make his debut on Sunday.

    Though rocked by the loss of Kirk Urso, the club returned to action midweek, drawing 1-1 at home to LA, and must make up a seven point gap between themselves and DC, currently in the final Eastern playoff place.

    One of the strongest defensive teams in the league, having conceded only slightly more than a goal per match all season – only Kansas City is sub one - the Crew will look to their new arrivals for the goals to provide the impetus to charge up the table.

    A stiff challenge for the Dynamo waits.

    Two hours earlier on Sunday, New York’s perfect home record faces a very different challenge.

    Portland, winless on the road, have struggled for much of the season, but will be buoyed by a midweek 2-2 draw in Toronto that ended their five-match road losing streak and an MLS record goal-less streak on the road of seven hundred and seventeen minutes. 

    Facing former striker Kenny Cooper and the Red Bulls for the first and only time this season, it would be shocking were they to damage their high-powered opponents, but stranger things have happened.

With so many players returning from midweek international duty, will those extra exertions come at a cost?

    No less than forty-eight MLS players heeded the call to represent their respective nations during the recent window: ten Americans, ten Canadians, nine Jamaicans, seven Hondurans, and a healthy smattering of other nations.

    Most matches took place within the local confines of CONCACAF, but several players made lengthy trips across the pond to Europe.

    Joel Lindpere and Hamdi Salihi returned to the nation of their respective births – Estonia and Albania; while Darren O’Dea travelled from Toronto to Dublin and on to Serbia to represent the Republic of Ireland.

    With extra miles – both in the plane and on the legs – how will the short turnaround affect the weekend?

Seattle v Vancouver; Toronto v Kansas City; Montreal v San Jose; Chicago v New England; Salt Lake v Dallas; Colorado v Chivas; DC v Philadelphia; New York v Portland; Houston v Columbus.

Bonus - Video

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