6 Key Battles for MLS Matches from August 15-17
If you are a fan of crucial, playoff-altering clashes, then Week 23 in Major League Soccer is just for you.
Two games on Saturday will feature two teams in the top three of their respective conferences, while plenty of interconference games will take place in Eastern Conference parks.
With the pressure building on each team in the league to deliver a result to stay in the playoff race, a few key players will be relied on to shut down some dangerous attacking threats.
Some of those players will be tasked with stopping attackers, who just can't stop scoring at the moment.
Continue reading on for the six key battles that will shape play in MLS this weekend.
Houston Forwards vs. Philadelphia Center Backs
The first match of Week 23 features two sides that could very well be squaring off for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference when October rolls around.
Despite earning just five points since May 17, the Dynamo have a chance to earn three valuable points at home against the Union.
For that to happen, Will Bruin and Giles Barnes will have to take advantage of the fatigue of the Union defense after games on Saturday and Tuesday for the current fifth place side in the East.
Carlos Valdes, who did not start in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal Tuesday, will occupy one center back position with either Maurice Edu or Ethan White alongside him.
The speed of Barnes could easily open up some holes in the Union back four, which would allow Bruin a chance to sneak in and score.
Although the Philadelphia back four have seen their fair share of blunders in 2014, Valdes brings a steady hand to the position that they did not have for the first half of the season.
Chad Marshall vs. Joao Plata
The biggest match involving two Western Conference teams in Week 23 comes to us from Rio Tinto Stadium, where Real Salt Lake will host Seattle.
Seattle's play in defense drastically improved Sunday against Houston thanks to the return of Chad Marshall, while RSL took care of D.C. United at home a day before thanks to a goal from Joao Plata.
Plata is one of the most difficult players in the league to mark because of his height and speed, but Marshall has been one of the best defenders in the league all season.
The short Ecuadorian has scored in four of his last six games, and another goal Saturday could boost the Claret and Cobalt over the Sounders into first place.
Marshall's presence in the back four will be crucial for a Seattle side that needs a big win on the road to solidify its Supporters' Shield credentials.
Michael Bradley vs. Benny Feilhaber
Fans of the United States men's national team will have a big interest in the midfield battle during the clash between Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City.
Michael Bradley has handed the Reds a stable force in the midfield since his return from Brazil with his passing benefiting everyone in the lineup.
With Collen Warner playing well alongside him, Bradley has been able to create more chances moving forward, just like Benny Feilhaber does for the defending champions.
Feilhaber, who is criminally underrated by many, is one of the top American midfielders in league right now, but he hasn't heard from Jurgen Klinsmann at all.
If he is able to keep Bradley's threat to a minimum, while creating chances in front of his home crowd at Sporting Park, Feilhaber could make another big statement to the United States manager.
Wil Trapp vs. LA's Attack
The stage is set for Wil Trapp to have the breakout game of his career against the LA Galaxy at Crew Stadium Saturday.
The Galaxy enter the match with a bevy of players firing on all cylinders in attack, including Gyasi Zardes, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.
Trapp is seen as one of the eventual successors to Bradley in the defensive half of the midfield for the United States, and he has the opportunity to prove to Klinsmann that he is up to the task.
Few players, if any, have been able to contain the dangerous Galaxy attack over the last month, but Trapp does have the skill set to disrupt play in the middle of the pitch enough to kill any momentum put together by Bruce Arena's side.
Not as if he had anything else to worry about, but Trapp enters the game one yellow card away from a suspension, which is something the Crew cannot afford at this point in the year.
Fabian Castillo vs. Shaun Francis
Since returning from his four-game suspension, Fabian Castillo has been a total menace on the left side of the pitch for FC Dallas.
The next team tasked with stopping the electric winger will be the San Jose Earthquakes, who have turned things around over the last three weeks to become an outside contender for a playoff spot.
If Mark Watson's men want to capture the full three points at home Saturday, they will need a big day from Shaun Francis.
Francis will be handed the difficult job of containing Castillo, who has ripped apart Chivas USA and Colorado in consecutive weeks.
If Castillo is shut down, it will close down passing lanes to Tesho Akindele and Blas Perez in the box, and it will put more pressure on Mauro Diaz, who hasn't had to be the main man in midfield since returning from injury because of Castillo.
Diego Valeri vs. Kevin Alston
Another midfielder who has been on fire over the last few weeks is Diego Valeri, who has scored in each of Portland's last four games.
Valeri will get a chance to extend that streak at Gillette Stadium against a Revolution side that are in need of a win.
New England has lost nine of its last 10 games and it now sits in seventh place in the East.
For the Revolution to hold off Valeri, they will have to count on Kevin Alston, who has filled in for the injured Chris Tierney at left back in the last two games.
Alston is capable of shutting down Valeri when he's at his best, but he has only played six games in 2014, and in none of those games has he had the challenge of taking on an on-fire attacking player.
If he can't shut down Valeri by himself, expect Alston to rely on Jose Goncalves or A.J. Soares to drift over from center back to help contain the threat.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All statistics obtained from MLSSoccer.com.