Crucial Wednesday battles for Colorado, United

Two teams that enjoyed unbeaten Aprils face off against a pair of clubs glad to see May arrive in tonight’s mid-week MLS action.

The defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids got off to a strong 3-0 start but have stumbled through a four-match winless streak in recent weeks and must now try to snap that streak on the road against a red-hot Houston Dynamo that is unbeaten in six straight (3-0-3).

D.C. United’s season began with a promising 3-1 victory, but Ben Olsen’s young team has endured serious growing pains since, losing for of their next six and the past two matches by a combined score of 8-1. If Charlie Davies and Co. are going to turn things around they will have to do so against a Seattle Sounders team that has shaken off major injuries to put together their own six-match unbeaten streak (3-0-3).

Colorado’s recent slump has come as a bit of a surprise considering how strongly the Rapids started. They overcame the absence of injured star striker Conor Casey to rattle off three wins to start the year, but the offense eventually slowed down without its big target forward and has managed to score just one goal in four matches.

Breaking that slump won’t come easy against a Dynamo team riding a wave of confidence and fresh off a 4-1 thrashing of D.C. United. Dom Kinnear’s team has been strong defensively from the start of the season, but the offense has begun to find a rhythm and is bringing back veteran striker Brian Ching from injury.

Houston rookie striker Will Bruin has enjoyed a dream start filling the void left by Ching’s injury. The No. 11 pick in the 2011 MLS Draft, Bruin has emerged as a rookie of the year front-runner after his hat-trick against D.C., and a Bruin-Ching pairing will provide a serious physical test for a Rapids defense that has shown signs of vulnerability.

D.C. also faces a tough test despite being at home for tonight’s clash with Seattle. Along with having a defense mired in an awful slump, D.C. must also find a way to slow down a Sounders team that has won all three visits to RFK Stadium, including the 2009 U.S. Open Cup Final.

The first job for Ben Olsen will be straightening up a defense that showed promise early in the season but has been a disorganized mess in recent weeks. The centerback tandem of Dejan Jakovic and Perry Kitchen has struggled badly, and D.C.’s next best option at the position is rookie Ethan White, who has impressed in some performances but remains an inexperienced option.

D.C. will be facing a restructured Seattle team that looked sharp in its first full game without injured star Steve Zakuani. The wing tandem of Alvaro Fernandez and Brad Evans tore Toronto FC to shreds and will look to exploit D.C. United’s shaky flank defending the way both New York and Houston have in recent weeks.

If D.C. is going to have any chance of beating the Sounders it will need more from an offense that has lost its spark in recent weeks. Charlie Davies and Chris Pontius will need to be at their best, and Olsen will have to consider unleashing second-year winger Andy Najar from the bench, where he has spent a surprising amount of time this season. Olsen has preferred the veteran Fred for his defensive work on the flank, but Najar’s attacking qualities have clearly been missing.

While it is still only early May, tonight’s match is a vital one for a D.C. side that is trying to erase the memories of a nightmare 2010 season. With a revamped roster filled with young talent and led by novice head coach Ben Olsen, D.C. needs to snap its current funk before the team finds itself spiraling toward another disappointing season.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.