5 Key Battles for MLS Matches from September 12-14
When it comes down to the playoff push in Major League Soccer, in-form goalscorers can only get you so far.
For a team to reach its peak in the final two months of the season, players in defense and midfield must be firing on all cylinders as well, which is why we decided to highlight some of them this week in our battles to watch.
Instead of primarily focusing on the battles up front, we opted to look at two big midfield matchups, two wing clashes and one attacking showdown.
Continue reading on for the five key battles to watch in MLS this weekend.
Kyle Beckerman vs. Osvaldo Alonso
Forget all the flashy forwards and sturdy defenders; Friday's clash between Real Salt Lake and Seattle will come down to two midfield bulldogs.
Osvaldo Alonso has not received as much credit for his work in the middle of the park for the Sounders because of the star forwards in front of him.
Alonso brings a tenacity to the pitch that few opponents can match for 90 minutes, but Kyle Beckerman is one of them.
Beckerman has continued his solid form from Brazil into the playoff push of the MLS season, and he brings an extra dimension to the Real Salt Lake attack when he isn't making key tackles in the defensive half of midfield.
The only difference between these two players is Beckerman's presence in the box, which has occurred on a regular basis for the Claret and Cobalt.
Alonso has not had to provide key passes in the box because almost every other player in the midfield and forward positions is surging forward for the Supporters' Shield leaders.
Lloyd Sam vs. Ray Gaddis
After New York's late victory over D.C. Wednesday night, the pressure is on both the Red Bulls and Union to earn three points from their clash at PPL Park Saturday.
The key matchup in that game will come on the right side of the pitch, where Lloyd Sam will look to surge forward against Philadelphia left-back Ray Gaddis.
For most of the match against D.C., Sam was nowhere to be found, and neither was a consistent threat down the wing from the Red Bulls. Once the English winger put more width into his game, New York got closer and closer to a goal.
Sam ended up scoring the game-winning goal against D.C., but he may not run into the same fate going up against Ray Gaddis, who has been criminally underrated all season for the Union.
Gaddis has been so solid in defense this season that he earned himself a contract extension, according to Kerith Gabriel of PhiladelphiaUnion.com.
Look for that extension to motivate Gaddis even more to prove that he is worth the money the Union are spending on him. And what better way to do so than against the team's biggest rival in a crucial game with playoff implications?
Matias Laba vs. Michel
Since we're all about the gritty midfield matchups this week, the one in the match between FC Dallas and Vancouver presents a juicy affair in the middle of the park as well.
Matias Laba, who is also one of the most underrated players in the league, has been a steady hand in the Whitecaps midfield for most of the season, even during the recent rough patch of form.
Laba's defensive work rate has kept Vancouver in plenty of games, and he will receive a strong test from FC Dallas' grit and muscle in midfield, Michel.
The Brazilian, who when called upon can deliver a laser of a strike on set pieces, played in the heart of an unsuccessful 3-5-2 against RSL last week.
With a change back to a more conventional formation expected from Oscar Pareja this Saturday, Michel will be tasked with breaking up the passes from Laba to Pedro Morales and others.
On the other side of the pitch, Laba will have to keep his game as clean as possible against the likes of Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele to avoid the concession of a set piece, which Michel could fire into the back of the net.
Brad Davis vs. Eric Gehrig
Saturday's clash between Columbus and Houston could go a long way in deciding the playoff fate of the two sides.
For the Crew to essentially eliminate the Dynamo from making a miraculous run into the top five of the Eastern Conference, Eric Gehrig must shut down the threat of Brad Davis on the left wing.
As we all know from countless plays over the last few years, Davis has a deadly left foot, and if he is having a good game, the Dynamo are probably ahead on the scoreboard.
If Gehrig, who has done well in place of the injured Josh Williams at right-back, can keep the number of chances created by Davis to a minimum, the Crew could open up an eight-point gap on Houston in the East.
Depending on the result earlier in the day at PPL Park, Houston could be looking at a minimum gap to close of six points with a loss, which won't be easy to recover from given the form of the other contenders in the East.
Lee Nguyen vs. Montreal's Defense
No single player is helping his team's playoff hopes more than Lee Nguyen at the moment.
While the likes of LA, Seattle and Real Salt Lake have multiple stars pulling the strings, Nguyen is the man creating a ton of chances for himself and his Revolution teammates.
Nguyen has been involved in six of New England's nine goals during its current four-game winning streak, and that trend should continue against a Montreal defense susceptible to conceding a few goals.
The Impact have kept two clean sheets in the past month against Chicago and Columbus, but those came at home. On the road this season, Montreal has earned three points and let in 29 goals.
As if Nguyen needed any extra motivation right now, New England sits three points behind Sporting Kansas City for second place in the East, and with the way Sporting is playing right now, that position in the standings could belong to Jay Heaps' side sooner rather than later.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.