10 Key Battles for MLS Weekend of October 10-12
With three weeks left in the Major League Soccer regular season, there are still plenty of things to be determined in regards to the playoff race.
Luckily for us, there are quite a few crucial games in Week 31 that could determine which teams are in the driver's seat to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
Three of those key clashes come from the Eastern Conference, where the race for the final two playoff spots gets murkier as the weeks move on, which is terrific for those who love chaos.
As we look at the 10 key battles to watch this weekend, we will put the magnifying glass on the matches in Philadelphia, New York and Houston, as well as a few clashes in the Western Conference.
Pedro Morales vs. Chad Marshall
The first match this weekend with plenty of playoff implications comes to us Friday from CenturyLink Field.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are locked in a battle for fifth place in the Western Conference with Portland, but they may suffer a setback against first-place Seattle.
If the Whitecaps want to get anything out of the first-place team in the West, Pedro Morales will have to unlock the stingy Seattle defense.
The anchor of the Sounders defense is center back Chad Marshall, who has put in one of his best seasons in MLS in 2014.
Morales is the fulcrum of the Vancouver attack, and if Marshall can clog the passing the lanes in the middle of the pitch, the Whitecaps will not have an easy time putting shots on goal.
Lamar Neagle vs. Jordan Harvey
On the other side of the pitch, the Whitecaps back four will have their hands full dealing with the dynamic Seattle attack.
With Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins already firing on all cylinders, Lamar Neagle has joined the party with his terrific form to make the Seattle attack even more deadly.
Neagle has played a part in seven goals over the last six games, a streak which includes three goals in his last five games.
The 27-year-old midfielder adds an extra element to the Sounders when they move forward, and it will be Jordan Harvey's job to stop him Friday night.
Harvey is an experienced defender who has been a part of a back four that has conceded only one goal over the last two games.
Something will obviously have to give in this battle, but expect it to draw more attention as the match progresses.
Justin Mapp vs. Chris Tierney
This is a matchup that only the diehard MLS spectators may enjoy.
Justin Mapp has been one of the better wingers throughout his time in the league, and despite being mired in Montreal, he still possesses the skills to be a talented threat on the right wing.
Chris Tierney is a defender who doesn't get as much credit as he deserves, but he can also be a key member of his team's lineup at any point in the match.
The two experienced players will duel it out at Stade Saputo Saturday afternoon in a match that New England should easily win.
Not only will this battle be worth watching for how Tierney handles Mapp moving forward, but for how Mapp deals with the threat of Tierney in attack as well.
As we have seen at times this season, Tierney's left foot can do some damage setting up his teammates, especially on free-kicks.
Philadelphia's Wingers vs. Columbus' Full-Backs
There will be plenty on the line Saturday night at PPL Park when Philadelphia hosts Columbus in a battle of Eastern Conference playoff contenders.
Entering the weekend, Columbus sits in fifth place with 43 points, while the Union are four points behind in eighth place.
One win could change everything in the race for the final playoff spot in the East, which also includes Houston and Toronto.
The major battle to watch in this game comes on both wings, as the speedy Philadelphia wingers will look to exploit the absence of Waylon Francis at left-back.
Francis, who is suspended for the match, has been one of the best defenders in the league all season.
Philadelphia usually employs Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux on the wings, but Le Toux is not 100 percent yet, per MLSSoccer.com's Dave Zeitlin.
This means interim manager Jim Curtin could call on Danny Cruz, who could easily punish Francis' replacement with his relentless pace for most of the match.
Maurice Edu vs. Aaron Schoenfeld
For Philadelphia to pull off the victory at home, Maurice Edu must shut down the dangerous Columbus attack, which will be missing a suspended Federico Higuain.
With Higuain out due to yellow-card accumulation, forward Aaron Schoenfeld will be relied on more to create his own chances instead of receiving key passes from the Argentinian playmaker.
With this task now on his hands, Schoenfeld might have to drop back into the midfield to gain possession to play the ball out to the wing to get an attack going.
Regardless whether he is placed at center back or defensive midfield, Edu will make the young forward's night rough.
Edu has been one of the Union's best players this season, and you can expect to him to be ready to lead the line once again.
If Schoenfeld can deal with the defensive onslaught from Edu for the first 20 minutes, this could turn into an intriguing battle for the rest of the match.
Jermain Defoe vs. Jamison Olave
Saturday's match at Red Bull Arena presents us with a classic battle of small versus tall.
Toronto FC forward Jermain Defoe checks in at 5'7", while New York defender Jamison Olave is listed at 6'3".
Olave plays much bigger than his listed height, which could cause Defoe plenty of problems in attack, but the Englishman does have speed on his side.
Defoe will have to use some crafty runs to get open in the box and connect from passes in the midfield.
The pressure on Defoe is growing after his woeful performance Wednesday against Houston, which means he could either put a few past the Red Bulls or have another shocker of a game.
Either way, Defoe will be forced to deal with the physical play of Olave, who is quite the imposing figure in the middle of the back four for New York.
Shea Salinas vs. Tony Beltran
A potentially intriguing match will be played Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, as a depleted Real Salt Lake side hosts San Jose.
RSL will be without Nick Rimando, Joao Plata, Alvaro Saborio and Luis Gil for the home match, which they should win regardless given San Jose's drop in form.
The one San Jose player who could wreak havoc on the Claret and Cobalt is left-sided midfielder Shea Salinas.
Tony Beltran, who should be available for selection per Chris Kamrani of the Salt Lake Tribune, will be tasked with marking Salinas on the left wing.
One of Salinas' main targets, Chris Wondolowski, will not be in the lineup due to international responsibilities, but that will not stop the 28-year-old from shooting in plenty of prospective crosses.
Whether or not the Earthquakes can finish on the crosses of Salinas is another thing, but that can be prevented by a strong showing from Beltran.
Ricardo Clark vs. Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen
The best bruising midfield matchup of the weekend will happen during the match between Houston and D.C. United at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Ricardo Clark does all the dirty work in the midfield for Houston, and he will have extra pressure on him with Luis Garrido off playing for Honduras.
Shockingly, D.C. United will not be hurt much by the international break, which means the midfield pairing of Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud will be ready to go Sunday.
Kitchen and Arnaud have formed one of the best midfield partnerships in the league, and it will take a Herculean effort by Clark to make the duo look bad.
But stranger things have happened in MLS, and we all know that October is when the Dynamo begin to heat up in preparation for the playoffs.
Giles Barnes vs. Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell
Another battle Houston will have to win Sunday afternoon is the one Giles Barnes will face up front against the formidable center back pairing of Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell.
Barnes kept Houston in the playoff race with a goal against Toronto Wednesday night, and he is expected to produce the same in yet another crucial Eastern Conference tilt.
Birnbaum and Boswell have come together to form an unlikely duo of rookie and veteran to help D.C. United concede the second-fewest amount of goals in the league, with 34.
Heading into the playoffs, the Black and Red will look to keep up its stellar defensive record, which will make Barnes' task just a bit harder.
Landon Donovan vs. FC Dallas' Defense
Two days after his farewell to the United States men's national team, Landon Donovan is expected to take the pitch at Toyota Stadium against FC Dallas.
Donovan will be coming off a week full of emotion at the international level, which could inspire him to score more or leave him drained from all the travel.
Do not expect the latter to happen, which is why the FC Dallas defense will have to play their best game of the season to shut down the American legend.
Although Donovan does get plenty of help from the other players surrounding him in the attack, he is the catalyst of the Galaxy team moving forward.
If FC Dallas can force Donovan into having an off night, it could open the door for an unlikely upset at home for the fourth-place team in the West.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.