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Saturday 1 September 2012

Foresight – MLS Round Twenty-Four Weekend Preview

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

When two of the league’s form sides clash with valuable Eastern Conference points on the line, who will continue their push to the playoffs?

    Montreal find themselves in a lofty position; two points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a massive lead in goals-scored – the first tie-breaker – but with only six matches remaining, fewer than their nearest rivals, DC, Chicago, and Columbus.

    It has been a fantastic expansion season for the newest Canadian side. To even have a shot at the post-season is quite the accomplishment, but how they have gotten there is even more impressive. Five straight wins - the longest streak by a first-year club since the shootout era ended – have seen them cling to relevancy and maintain pressure on the more established clubs in their midst.

    Over the course of those five matches, Montreal has kept three clean-sheets, outscored their opponents twelve-to-three, and found a measure of consistency alien to most expansion participants.

    Marco Di Vaio has settled nicely – three goals in his last four matches, so too has new keeper Troy Perkins – clean-sheets in two of his three matches since arriving from Portland, while hometown metronome Patrice Bernier has seen his stock rise from benchwarmer to integral cog over the span of the season.

    On Saturday they face yet another must win six-pointer when they travel to Columbus.

    The Crew have been on a tear of their own of late - three straight wins, unbeaten in their last five matches. The arrivals of Jairo Arrieta, and more recently, Federico Higuain, have transformed one of the more defensive outfits into a high-flying, dynamic attacking unit.

    Higuain in particular has been a force to be reckoned. Three goals and four assists in his four appearances with the club - the team has scored ten goals over that same stretch – with his inclusion sparking the goal-scoring of Arrieta and freeing up Eddie Gaven to contribute more freely to the attack.  

    The two sides are tied on thirty-nine points, but Columbus has three matches in hand, and a win for either side – especially Columbus – would go some way to seeing off their rival.

    Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, rested midweek, is fit to return for the Crew, but Josh Williams and Julius James will miss out with suspensions; the Impact will welcome Nelson Rivas from suspension and could feature their nineteenth different back-four of the season.

    This should be a cracker.

Columbus and Montreal is the most dramatic example of the jostling for position that will dominate the weekend and the remainder of the schedule, but several other sides have a chance to make up ground or secure their spot. With points on the line, what will the playoff picture look like come Monday?

    Salt Lake and DC, Dallas and Seattle, Chicago and Houston, three matches composed entirely of teams that remain relevant in the final stretch of the season.

    With so few cross-conference matches remaining, Salt Lake and DC will see the chance to take a risk and secure points without the possibility of handing them directly to a rival as an entertaining prospect.

    Both have struggled in recent matches, Salt Lake are winless in their last four matches prompting Jason Kreis to alter his steadfast use of the diamond 4-4-2, switching to a 4-1-4-1 last match in an effort to get both Javier Morales and Luis Gil on the pitch at the same time. Delicately poised between the top of the West and the final playoff spot, Salt Lake is at risk of both falling off the pace of leaders and being caught up by those on their heels.

    DC, playing their fifth match in fourteen days - after an idle July where they had only two league matches scheduled – too risk falling away from the top of the table. After flirting with the conference lead for much of the early season, manic scheduling and a severe drop in production from several players – not to mention a slew of injuries – has seen them slip into the pack.

    An all Eastern Conference clash pits Chicago against Houston. Separated by a mere point, the home side Chicago could leapfrog their guests with a win, while Houston will look to extend their lead and make up ground on the sides above.

    In the West, Dallas is one of the few remaining sides with a chance at unseating an incumbent. Currently on the outside looking in, and with matches dwindling, they face a stiff test against the high-flying Seattle Sounders, themselves hoping to close down San Jose for top spot in the West and the Supporter’s Shield.

Speaking of the Supporter’s Shield, current leaders San Jose have a three-point advantage over closest competitors Sporting KC. Both sides have eight matches remaining, and both host weak opposition on the weekend. In the game of chicken, will either slip up as the sprint begins?

    KC host Toronto on Saturday night, while San Jose welcome Chivas on Sunday.

    Another season has passed Toronto by, firmly rooted to the bottom of the conference and league for most – if not all – of the season, but a chance to play spoiler should never be passed up.

    The two last met a mere fourteen days ago; KC strode out winner on a deflected free kick in the final ten minutes of play. Fresh off the disappointment of conceding two injury time goals to Santos Laguna at home and in the midst of a six-match winless run, nothing would please TFC and their fans more, than making a dent in the aspirations of others.

    KC, unbeaten in four, will be without Aurelien Collin and Teal Bunbury and have New York hot on their tails for the lead in the East. A disappointing home draw against the Red Bulls, in a match in which they largely dominated and did not allow a shot on goal, was a failed opportunity to create a gap with their competitors before two further meetings in New Jersey take place over the coming weeks.

    To squander another chance to widen the one-point gap with New York and make up ground on San Jose would be detrimental to their aspirations of the Shield.

    The Earthquakes must confront a bogey-team in order to maintain their lead.

    Since returning to MLS in 2008, San Jose has won only once versus the Ameri-Goats, putting their long unbeaten home run – eleven matches – at risk.

    Chivas, has found their scoring boots in recent matches – tallying five goals in their last two matches. Unfortunately that prowess has coincided with a relaxing at the back that has seen them concede nine goals over that same period.

    With the faintest of playoff hopes resting with their matches in hand, the Goats will be in tough to propel themselves up the table with a match in San Jose.

    A crucial win, or a desperate loss, will go a long way towards establishing which club will end the campaign with the Shield in tow.

While others fight for post-season glory, a select few have only next season to look to. This time of year always bring about a few dead-rubbers, between sides eliminated from contention. When those unfortunate, lost souls wander across each other’s paths just what will occur?

    Though no one is yet officially, or mathematically, eliminated, but the writing is on the wall for several of the leagues strugglers.

    New England and Philadelphia in the East and Portland and Colorado in the West look to be a pair of pointless matches.

    The realization of a wasted season dawns slowly on some; perhaps that is what makes these matches so unpredictable. Do the clubs hold hope of a miraculous run to the post-season? Do they throw in the towel and field a line-up of kids? Do they play with an unforeseen freedom?

    So many questions, but next year is always just around the corner and most will approach the remaining fixtures as a chance to get business sorted and build momentum into the following season.

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

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