Rivalry Week always brings out the best and worst in some of Major League Soccer's top franchises, and as the play-off race heats up, every one of the matches in Week 26 means something different to each club.
For the Seattle Sounders, a win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday would not only help their cause in the battle for the Cascadia Cup, it would give the fans in the Emerald City something positive to talk about.
The Sounders have experienced plenty of ups and downs throughout the 2015 campaign with injuries being one of the top reasons why they sit just over the red line in the Western Conference standings in sixth place.
No one expected the Sounders to struggle as much as they have with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins out for an extended period of time. Things looked to be returning to normal on August 16, when a Martins-led attack destroyed Orlando City 4-0 at CenturyLink Field. But given Orlando's recent form, the final result was more of a statement about how awful the Lions back line has been recently instead of a celebration of the Seattle attack returning to what it should be.
Sigi Schmid's side was handed a wake-up call last weekend at Rio Tinto Stadium as Real Salt Lake thoroughly dominated the Sounders on the way to a 2-0 victory, which made the play-off race in the Western Conference even tighter than it already was.
|Western Conference Standings|
|Sporting Kansas City||40|
|San Jose Earthquakes||35|
|Real Salt Lake||32|
Seattle's week got worse on Wednesday, when it fell 1-0 to Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League. For the trip to Honduras, the Sounders only fielded six players on the bench and the starting lineup was littered with squad players.
Even though the season has not gone the way they wanted it to, the Sounders still have time to remedy the situation starting with a win on Sunday in front of over 63,000 fans at one of the best venues in the league.
Beating Portland would be a sign of improvement in a few different ways for the Sounders. The obvious momentum builder would be a win over a hated rival, but with Portland five points above Seattle in fourth place, a victory would also help the Sounders catch up with the top sides in the West.
As any play-off contender needs at this point in the season, the Sounders will also be relying on results elsewhere to boost their stock. A win over Portland combined with a LA Galaxy win over San Jose and a draw between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake would put Seattle three points ahead of its most immediate rival for sixth and it would bring it within two points of fourth. If the Sounders do get past Portland, they have a chance to seal up the top six in the West in two weeks' time at San Jose.
As many would expect, the Sounders aren't the only club entering Week 26 in need of three points. With all 20 teams technically still in the play-off race, every single point matters from here on out.
Games to Watch
LA Galaxy at San Jose Earthquakes, Friday 11 p.m. ET (UniMas)
The California Clasico rarely disappoints and Friday's clash between the Galaxy and Earthquakes should live up to the entertaining reputation the showdown has. With both sides in terrific form at the moment, we should witness plenty of fireworks at Avaya Stadium.
The red-hot Galaxy enter the match with wins in six of their last seven league matches and 22 goals during that span, including a 5-1 walloping of New York City FC on Sunday. Robbie Keane is in ridiculous form up top and his cerebral pairing with Giovani Dos Santos is fun for neutrals to watch, but scary for fans of any club going up against Bruce Arena's team for the rest of the year.
Steven Gerrard has assimilated into the squad just fine and unlike the other England international who joined MLS this summer, he is actually turning into a solid weekly contributor. Next to the unsung hero of the Galaxy squad Juninho, Gerrard is easing into the league at a good rate during the quest for the Supporters' Shield. Coming into Week 26, LA leads Vancouver by one point in the race for the shield.
San Jose marked the beginning of the annual Dominic Kinnear late-summer surge with wins on the road over Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in Week 25. Kinnear, who is famous for his late-season runs to the play-offs with Houston, has finally found a nice balance up top with Quincy Amarikwa doing a massive amount of work next to Chris Wondolowski.
How the Galaxy defense deals with Amarikwa could decide the final result, but San Jose will need other role players to step up and neutralize the attacking threat of the Galaxy as well. With revenge on their mind after a 5-2 defeat in Gerrard's league debut on July 18, the Earthquakes will have plenty of motivation to win. But turning that motivation into three points will be a difficult task.
D.C. United at New York Red Bulls, Sunday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Much has been made about the New York Red Bulls' rivalry with NYCFC this season, but they still see D.C. United as their primary rival for the time being. The two clubs with a storied past enter Red Bull Arena on Sunday with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference up for grabs.
Ben Olsen's D.C. side has flown mostly under the radar this season while picking up 44 points. The group of veterans and young stars will finally get a chance to prove themselves in a big match on the national stage on Sunday, just like the Red Bulls have time and time again this year.
The Black and Red have a favorable schedule leading up to the postseason with matches against Colorado, Chicago and NYCFC accompanying two contests versus Columbus and a game with Montreal. If D.C. can go into Red Bull Arena and take three points from the Red Bulls, it would be hard for them to relinquish the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the remainder of the regular season.
After suffering a midweek letdown at their historical place of horrors, the Red Bulls will try to use the form they had before the loss to Chicago on Wednesday to pull within two points of D.C. in the race for the top spot in the East. A draw wouldn't be too hurtful with three games in hand on United, but a loss would leave the Red Bulls in a battle with Columbus for the No. 2 spot instead of making a charge for the top.
The battle in the middle of the park should decide this match. The Red Bulls trio of Dax McCarty, Felipe and Sacha Kljestan will use Jesse Marsch's press to put Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud under duress. If the young and old duo in the D.C. central midfield can deal with the pressure and distribute the ball fine over 90 minutes, the Black and Red will pose a serious challenge to the Red Bulls back four.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.