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Friday, 24 August 2012

Foresight – MLS Round 23 Weekend Preview

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

For the second straight weekend fans around the league are looking forward to another Cascadia Cup fixture; will Portland beat their Canadian rivals or will Vancouver put themselves back into cup contention on Saturday night?

    The fifth Cascadia Cup match of the season sees the Whitecaps on the road again, this time to the Timbers.

    A disappointing loss last weekend, 2-0 to Seattle, saw Vancouver shutout for the second straight match and extend their road winless streak to six matches – including five straight losses. Once a lock for the playoffs, Vancouver has stumbled over the past month as fixture congestion, injury, and squad overhaul has seen them struggle to maintain the consistency that served them so well in the first half of the season.

    For Portland, the playoffs seem a bridge too far, but recent results – 1-1 against Dallas, a 2-2 draw in Toronto and a 3-2 loss in New York – have seen them end the woeful five-match losing streak that spanned the changeover from John Spencer to Gavin Wilkinson.

    Though playoff glory may have to wait for another year, the Cascadia Cup is an attainable goal; they are currently tied with Seattle on four points, but have played the fewest matches of the group.

    The full three points would go some way to establishing a lead with a visit from the Sounders and away matches to Seattle and Vancouver yet to come.

Vancouver’s stumble has seen them drop from the guaranteed places into the play-in zone, but for many teams their troubles have left them looking enviously at those above. Several sides, with only the faintest hopes of a post-season berth, take to the pitch this round, who will take the necessary steps towards relevance with their season on the brink?

      For Toronto and Portland, though not yet mathematically eliminated, the post-season is a task too far. The likes of New England, Philadelphia, Columbus, and Montreal in the East and Colorado, Chivas and Dallas in the West are facing the prospect of missing the out on the race for the Cup if results do not come quickly.

    Points and number of remaining matches vary, but one unifying aspect is that all are in action this weekend.

    Columbus and New England meet each other in very different runs of form. The Revolution have lost their last four to stretch their current winless run to seven matches, while the Crew are unbeaten in their last three, buoyed by recent reinforcements in the form of Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain.

    Philadelphia, Colorado, Chivas, and Dallas all face uphill battles this weekend, taking to the pitch against some of the strongest clubs in the league – Salt Lake, San Jose, Seattle, and Los Angeles, respectively.

    The most dramatic example on the docket this round is the Saturday afternoon clash between Montreal and DC at Stade Saputo.

    DC’s midweek win over Chicago – 4-2 at home – saw them open up a four-point gap on their Canadian opposition, adding to the cushion of three matches in hand that sees them currently holding on to the precious fifth and final playoff spot.

    A shocking 3-1 win over league leaders San Jose last weekend has set up this clash perfectly and Montreal must win to have any hope of a rare expansion post-season appearance; truly a six-pointer if ever there was one.

When taking to the pitch in important matches this weekend, several teams will find themselves shorthanded due to a rash of suspensions. With key players forced to watch from the sidelines, who will persevere and overcome?

     Montreal will be without two of their cadre of centre-backs; both Nelson Rivas – the third and final match of his suspension for a head-butt on Philly’s Antoine Hoppenot – and Hassoun Camara – the first of two for his fling with San Jose’s Steven Lenhart – are suspended for Saturday’s crucial tie.

    Fortunately for the Impact, it appears as though Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari are ready to return from injury and step in for the absent duo.

    San Jose too will be short of centre-backs when they host Colorado later that evening.

    Jason Hernandez saw a red card for bringing down Marco Di Vaio when he was in alone in that same feisty match with Montreal last weekend, while Victor Bernardez was handed a one-match suspension following a disciplinary committee review of his dangerous tackle on Lamar Neagle.

    Steven Lenhart also saw red during the match for his part in the clash with Montreal’s Camara and will miss this weekend’s match.

    Colorado’s defenders will rest easier knowing they will not have the curly-haired menace to contend with, as will midfielders in the Cascadia Cup match.

    Tenacious tacklers - Portland’s Diego Chara and Vancouver’s Gershon Koffie - will miss out for yellow card accumulation and disciplinary action for a high boot into the chest of Seattle’s Andy Rose, respectively.

Though much of the weekend revolves around teams scrapping for points on the fringes of the playoffs, the final match of the round pits the top two in the East – Kansas City and New York - against one another at Livestrong Sporting Park. Separated by only two points and each with nine matches remaining, which side will take steps towards the Eastern crown?

    In the first of three matches to be played out over the final two months of the season first-place KC welcomes second-place New York on Sunday night; both sides arrive in good form.

    KC has won their last three league contests, riding the crest of a wave that saw them lift their first silverware in years, taking the US Open Cup over Seattle. New York fell at Houston, in the first of a home-and-home Friday night series, but found redemption in the return fixture and went on to outmuscle Portland with a comeback win last weekend.

    Three of their final nine matches will be against one another, in what should prove to be a very interesting final stretch to the post-season.

    Should Sporting win they will create some breathing room at the top extending that two point lead to five with forty-nine points and find themselves challenge San Jose for the Supporter’s Shield. If the Red Bulls can take the match, they will take the lead by a single point and find themselves resting on forty-seven.

    Houston and Chicago are hot on their heels; having also played twenty-five matches each and sitting on forty-one points.

    Chicago have the weekend off, but should the match end a draw, Houston, who face a weary Toronto on Saturday, will have a chance to make up some ground on the conference leaders, transforming a two-horse race, into a three or four team sprint.

    A top of the table clash with wide-ranging ramifications; is there a better way to close off another exciting weekend of MLS action?

Update: Forgot to mention New York will be without the services of Thierry Henry, who welcomed a baby boy to the world and Rafa Marquez, who is in Mexico seeking treatment on that nagging calf injury that has hampered his season and that KC's first-choice back-four of Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic, and Chance Myers have been reunited of late.

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

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