By THOMAS FLOYD
Although Real Salt Lake has done more than enough amid its MLS and CONCACAF Champions League conquests to establish itself as the team to beat in the Western Conference, sorting through the tier below is a trickier proposition.
This weekend's slate of MLS action should help clarify things a bit. On a two-game losing streak, the Colorado Rapids will look to get back to their winning ways tonight when they host the Seattle Sounders at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Saturday, the Portland Timbers return to the road when they take on the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in a stern test for the expansion side. FC Dallas and the Vancouver Whitecaps will also be looking to take a leap in the conference standings when they meet at Empire Field.
Here is a rundown of the entire week six schedule:
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (Friday, 9:30 p.m., FSC)
Defending MLS Cup champion Colorado was playing some of the best soccer in the league during it's three-game tear to start the season, but losses at FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake have brought the Rapids back down to earth. They will be hoping the mile-high comforts of Dick's Sporting Goods Park will help them get back on track when they host the Sounders, who are 1-0-3 since losing their first two.
Colorado could be boosted by the returns from injury of striker Conor Casey and captain Pablo Mastroeni, listed as questionable and probable, respectively. Seattle, meanwhile, could return Fredy Montero and Alvaro Fernandez to the starting lineup after the two Designated Players came off the bench to combine on Seattle's last-gasp equalizer at Philadelphia last week.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. CHIVAS USA (Saturday, 4 p.m., Telefutura)
After watching the New York Red Bulls go on the road and dismantle D.C. United with a 4-0 victory, the Earthquakes probably aren't feeling so bad about dropping a 3-0 result at New York last week. And seeing Chivas USA, the only MLS team without a win so far this season, come to town seems like the perfect opportunity to notch a victory and get back into the top half of the Western Conference standings.
It will be interesting to see San Jose coach Frank Yallop's lineup selections after he trotted out a 4-5-1 formation with Chris Wondolowski as the lone striker to less-than-ideal results the past two weeks. Wondolowski notched a hat trick in a 17-minute span when these two teams last played in October, so Chivas will certainly be focusing on the San Jose forward.
TORONTO FC vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 4 p.m., Direct Kick)
With a revamped defense featuring three newcomers — Julius James, Sebastian Miranda and Rich Balchan – around back-line anchor Chad Marshall, Columbus has surprisingly become one of the league's stingiest defensive sides, having recorded four consecutive shutouts.
Toronto, on the other hand, will likely use a makeshift defense with Ty Harden serving a red-card suspension and Adrian Cann questionable after suffering a pectoral contusion during the Reds' 3-0 home loss to D.C. United last week. Midfielder Alen Stevanovic and forward Alan Gordon are also questionable for Toronto.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. FC DALLAS (Saturday, 7 p.m., Direct Kick)
Both teams are coming off disappointing results from last week – a scoreless home draw with Chivas for Vancouver and a 3-2 loss at Portland for Dallas. The Whitecaps will have their hands full trying to handle MVP David Ferreira and Dallas' loaded attack, especially with centerbacks Jay DeMerit and Greg Janicki both listed as doubtful.
Forward Atiba Harris is also unlikely to play for Vancouver, which means the Whitecaps will lean heavily on Eric Hassli to pressure Dallas defenders George John and Ugo Ihemelu.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
It could be a night for many debuts in Foxborough, Ma., as New England looks poised to show off newly acquired U.S. national team midfielder Benny Feilhaber and Kansas City could slot the recently signed Aurelien Collin into central defense to replace the suspended Julio Cesar. And Revolution midfielder Ousmane Dabo may also log his first MLS minutes after missing New England's first six games with a quadriceps strain.
For the Revolution back line of Kevin Alston, Franco Coria, A.J. Soares and Darrius Barnes (or Didier Domi, if he is healthy), the task of containing Kansas City's athletic attacking trio of Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong could be a daunting one, although catching Sporting while Omar Bravo recovers from hernia surgery is a break for New England.
CHICAGO FIRE vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Direct Kick)
Sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 1-3-1 mark, the Fire is in dire need of a win, especially after dropping a 2-1 result at home to shorthanded Los Angeles last week. The visiting Dynamo, however, presents a tough matchup for Chicago, although injuries that will hold defender Jermaine Taylor, midfielders Lovel Palmer and Danny Cruz, and forward Brian Ching out of the contest should make matters a bit simpler.
Goalkeeper Jon Conway will get his second consecutive start for Chicago in favor of Sean Johnson, who struggled to command his penalty area during a 4-2 loss at Portland. The defense in front of Conway will probably be missing centerback Cory Gibbs, who is doubtful with a hamstring strain.
LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. PORTLAND TIMBERS (Saturday, 11 p.m., FSC)
Despite playing without David Beckham and Landon Donovan, and waiting until the 77th minute to insert Juan Pablo Angel, the Galaxy still picked up a 2-1 win at Chicago last week. With Beckham and Angel likely returning to the starting 11, and Donovan listed as questionable, the Galaxy should be closer to full strength against Portland.
One player Los Angeles will be without is centerback Leonardo, who is out for the season with a knee injury. Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza are the likely candidates to slide next to Omar Gonzalez in central defense, but whatever pairing coach Bruce Arena chooses, it will have a tough task ahead dealing with Portland's strike duo of Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza.
How do you see the week's matches playing out? Which team is in need of a victory the most?
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