It’s only the seventh week of the 2012 MLS season, but it isn’t foolish to say Sporting Kansas City looks poised to run away with the Eastern Conference regular season title and straight through to a potential MLS Cup Final.
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That may seem like a stretch, but when a team has an 11-point lead atop a conference this early, you can’t help but wonder if it isn’t time to think about other aspects of the MLS landscape besides who might win the East, and which team is the most likely to wind up with the Supporters Shield.
Like what for example? Well, you have the wide-open race in the West, where RSL is in first place as expected. San Jose is off to an outstanding and surprising start. The top two in West square off this weekend, with RSL having a very good chance of opening a five-point or more lead.
Something else up for grabs this weekend is the label of second best team in the East. The Houston Dynamo are still the reigning champions, and boast a modest 2-1-1 record heading into this weekend. It’s hard to argue with the fact that the New York Red Bulls, when at their best, has looked like the strongest team in the East not named Sporting KC. Even with their vulnerable defense and erratic behavior of Rafael Marquez, the Red Bulls have the makings of a team that could cause problems come playoff time, and just might be the team best equipped to test Sporting Kansas City later in the season.
The Red Bulls will have a chance to show how serious a contender they really are when they take on a D.C. side that shook off a slow start to the season to piece together a five-match unbeaten streak (2-0-3). With Maicon Santos on fire, rookie Nick DeLeon looking like the best newcomer in the league and reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario still waiting for his first goal of the season, D.C. United could break out against a shaky back line that would be attracting more attention if not for the goal-scoring exploits of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper.
If the Red Bulls find a way to win at RFK, even with the rash of injuries plaguing the club, it would help New York solidify its hold on second place in the East, where Hans Backe’s men can wait for Sporting KC to show any signs of vulnerability before the teams face off three times in seven weeks this summer.
That’s still a long way off. The Red Bulls still have to prove they are a strong team, and not just a club being carried by Henry’s greatness. A win against a rival like D.C. United would certainly strengthen their case, while a loss would leave the Red Bulls stranded in a pile of mediocrity located pretty far from the lofty heights Sporting Kansas City are calling home these days.
Here is my breakdown of this weekend’s matches, along with my match predictions:
LAST WEEK’S RECORD (6-5), SEASON RECORD (31-23)
Sporting Kansas City rolled to 7-0 with impressive wins vs. Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, while Chivas USA kept their road record perfect with a 1-0 victory at Toronto FC, which dropped to 0-5. The most surprising result of week six? There really isn’t one, though San Jose leaving Red Bull Arena with a point after the blowouts New York had posted there in recent weeks deserves some praise.
THIS WEEK’S MATCHES
TORONTO FC vs. CHICAGO FIRE
With Torsten Frings set to return from injury for the first time since the season opener, Toronto FC has some reason for optimism as they look to snap a five-match losing streak to start the season. Chicago won’t make things easy though, especially not with the addition of Chris Rolfe to the attack.
This match will tell us plenty about Aron Winter’s standing. If TFC rallies and breaks their skid, it’s a clear sign the team still believes. If Toronto lays an egg and falls to 0-6, the shouts for a coaching change in Toronto will only ring louder. TORONTO FC 2, Fire 0
COLUMBUS CREW vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO
The Dynamo’s long road trip to start the season brings them to Columbus, where the Crew’s sputtering offense has managed just four goals in five matches. Can Columbus really generate enough of an attack to really test a strong Houston defense that has allowed just three goals in four matches? With Brad Davis still sidelined, the Dynamo aren’t likely to put up big numbers, but they should have enough of an attack to earn another precious road victory while the Crew continue to struggle for offense. Crew 0, DYNAMO 1.
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
Two teams that seem to be heading in opposite directions. The Rapids have dropped three of four, though the losses were to formidable opponents. The Galaxy broke their own skid with a sorely-needed win on Sunday. The Rapids should pose a tougher defensive challenge for the Galaxy, but the fact that Landon Donovan and David Beckham looked so good last week suggests we might finally be ready to see the LA team we expected to see before the season.
For the Rapids, the key is getting an offense going again that has been shut out two straight times. Oscar Pareja must find a way to supply Omar Cummings with more chances, and with Martin Rivero and Jaime Castrillon on the field, there’s no reason Colorado shouldn’t be able to create more opportunities. The Rapids will find the net, but the Galaxy will make it two wins in a row. Rapids 1, GALAXY 2
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. FC DALLAS
What happened to Vancouver’s offense? After setting a record for longest shutout streak to start a season, the Whitecaps have allowed six goals in a game and a half. The problem lies, at least in part, with the work of the forwards and midfielders, who need to help keep the pressure off the back-line.
That could be tough to do against a Dallas side that just might be seeing Brek Shea regain his MVP form. He looked good last week, and his understanding with stiker Blas Perez could lead to some chances for the Dallas attack. It won’t be enough though, as the Vancouver offense gets going in this one. WHITECAPS 2, FC Dallas 1
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
This one seems like an ugly mis-match based on the records, but the Timbers have more than a puncher’s chance to pull the upset here. Sporting KC surely has to feel the strain of playing a mid-week game, and they’ll have to contend with the hostile atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field.
Will that be enough? Sporting KC’s stifling team defense has crumbled every opponent they have faced, but the Timbers have the offensive weapons and the midfield skill to deal with Sporting’s defensive pressure. The biggest question is whether the Timbers defense can deal with the KC forward trio. We’re going to go with no, though if they can, this could be an upset special. Timbers 1, SPORTING KC 2.
CHIVAS USA vs. PHILADELPHIA UNION
Something has to give in this match-up of a home team that hasn’t earned a point in three home matches against a road team that is 0-2 on the road in 2012. Chivas USA has the momentum heading into this one, with three wins in their past four, but the Union have to draw some confidence from their first win of the season.
Give the edge to the Goats, especially if they bring back striker Juan Pablo Angel from a prolonged absence to due a concussion. With Angel, Chivas USA should produce enough offense to give their stingy defense the goal they need to post another shutout victory.
CHIVAS USA 1, Union 0.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. REAL SALT LAKE
The Earthquakes have put together an outstanding start to the season, and would probably be getting much more attention if not for Sporting KC’s perfect start. The only problem is the team just lost Victor Bernardez and Shea Salinas, two keys to the team’s fast start, to injuries. Without them, beating a team as strong as RSL will not be easy.
San Jose certainly still has a chance, and with Chris Wondolowski in outstanding form the Earthquakes can contend with anybody, but losing Bernardez will make things difficult, even though the team has a quality replacement in Jason Hernandez.
RSL is coming off a tough loss to KC, but the defense played well and should prove too tough for San Jose to break down. If Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy return from injury, Real Salt Lake should take a big step toward solidifying their place as the team to beat in the West. Earthquakes 1, REAL SALT LAKE 2.
D.C. UNITED vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS
Thierry Henry (right) in action against the San Jose Earthquakes. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
This rivalry usually does a good job of producing memorable games, and this weekend should be no different. The Red Bulls’ high-powered offense and atrocious, injury-riddled defense take on an inconsistent D.C. side with the firepower to force a shootout, assuming the team is in the mood.
Thierry Henry has been nearly unstoppable in recent weeks, and he will key the Red Bulls attack, which he guided to a 4-1 thrashing of D.C. at RFK Stadium a year ago. New York should find the net, but the real question will be just how bad will New York’s defense be missing two starters as well as defensive midfielders Teemu Tainio and Rafa Marquez.
For D.C. United, the key will be getting an offense rolling that has been far too inconsistent this season. There is no reason to believe D.C. can’t put up multiple goals against this New York defense. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to stop Henry and Kenny Cooper. D.C. United 2, Red Bulls 2.
FC DALLAS vs. REAL SALT LAKE
Though it doesn’t really get much publicity as a rivalry, there is no love lost between these perennial Western Conference powers. Watching RSL’s imposing defense try to slow down red-hot Panamanian striker Blas Perez will be fun to watch, but the key to the game will be Dallas’ defense-halting RSL forward Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio. George John has looked sharp lately and he should help Dallas earn at least a point from RSL. FC Dallas 1, Real Salt Lake 1.