By THOMAS FLOYD
There is always pride aplenty on the line when Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids get together for a Rocky Mountain Cup clash. But this weekend’s meeting isn’t just about bragging rights — it is about first place in the Western Conference.
With a home victory over their rivals, the Rapids can draw even with RSL for the top position in the congested conference. With just five points separating the No. 1 seed from being on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, intraconference matchups in the West are as critical as ever.
Elsewhere around MLS, Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls battle for first place in the Eastern Conference; the Seattle Sounders host FC Dallas in another key Western match; and the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps meet in a Cascadia Cup tilt.
Here is a rundown of the Week 23 slate:
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., NBCSN)
Days after having Thierry Henry at his disposal in the All-Star Game, Kansas City coach Peter Vermes now must formulate a game plan for stopping the talismanic Frenchman.
While New York will be missing Tim Cahill (knee), Kansas City could be without goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who is coming off a recurrence of meningitis, and playmaker Graham Zusi, whose quad tightened up during the All-Star Game.
D.C. UNITED vs. MONTREAL IMPACT (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., MLS Live)
Of the top six scorers in MLS, five have bagged at least one goal against D.C. United this season. The one who hasn’t? Marco Di Vaio, who will get his first chance this weekend.
Look for D.C. coach Ben Olsen to manage minutes in this one as he looks ahead to D.C.’s midweek U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Chicago Fire. In a lost league campaign for United, that’s the more important encounter.
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. CHICAGO FIRE (Saturday, 8 p.m., MLS Live)
If Chicago wants to continue its push for a playoff spot, it could really use a result on the road against an upstart Philadelphia team that has been refusing to fade this season.
The Fire get goalkeeper Sean Johnson back in the mix after his Gold Cup absence, and midfielders Alex (ankle) and Dilly Duka (groin) are on track to be available as well.
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. REAL SALT LAKE (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., MLS Live)
After Alvaro Saborio marked his return from Gold Cup duty with a hat trick last week, Salt Lake will get two more call-ups back in action with goalkeeper Nick Rimando and midfielder Kyle Beckerman returning.
Suspensions will leave both teams shorthanded, with RSL losing fullbacks Chris Wingert and Tony Beltran, and Colorado without midfielder Hendry Thomas.
HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 9 p.m., MLS Live)
In a tie for the final playoff position, Houston can’t afford to drop any points at home against a Columbus team that has lost five of its past six matches.
Houston finally is returning to full strength after marking the return of midfielder Brad Davis (hamstring) last time out and welcoming forward Will Bruin back from the Gold Cup this week.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. CHIVAS USA (Saturday, 10 p.m., UniMas)
Finished with their Gold Cup obligations, Chris Wondolowski and newcomer Clarence Goodson should provide a major boost to the Earthquakes as they eye a playoff spot in the season’s second half.
Against Chivas USA, though, San Jose will be missing midfielder Marvin Chavez and forward Alan Gordon, who both will be serving suspensions. That’s welcome news for Carlos Bocanegra and the Chivas back line.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS vs. FC DALLAS (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., MLS Live)
With Dallas tied for the final Western Conference playoff bid and Seattle four points back (with two games in hand), this match could ultimately prove crucial to the postseason picture.
Mired in an eight-game winless stretch, Dallas could badly use three points at Seattle, where the Sounders triumphed over FCD in a 4-2 thriller in May. For the Sounders, getting Eddie Johnson back from the Gold Cup should provide a considerable lift.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (Saturday, 11 p.m., MLS Live)
After finally getting its first Cascadia Cup win last month against Seattle, Vancouver will look to build off that triumph as it visits a Portland team it still hasn’t defeated in MLS play.
Vancouver’s midfield depth will be tested, as Jun Marques Davidson and Gershon Koffie are both suspended, possibly paving the way for Matt Watson and Daigo Kobayashi to step back into the lineup.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION vs. TORONTO FC (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., MLS Live/Univision Dep.)
Coming off just its third win of the season, Toronto will look for victory No. 4 when its travels to face a Revolution squad coming off back-to-back triumphs itself.
Toronto will have a chance to debut its newest acquisition, with Swiss fullback Jonas Elmer eligible to step into a back line that has been thin since the departure of captain Darren O’Dea.