Perhaps no team drew more criticism for their offseason moves than the Columbus Crew. In case you missed it, they got rid of almost every experienced player on their roster, while opting to build around the likes of perpetual disappointment Robbie Rogers. Just about everyone not drawing a paycheck from the Crew insisted this looked to be a rebuilding year.
But Robert Warzycha and his staff were adamant: They expected to compete for the playoffs, just as they always do. Many of us chuckled. Some of us outright mocked. Looks like Warzycha is the one having last laugh.
Heading into Friday's game against the Colorado Rapids, the Crew sit two points head of the Philadelphia Union for the Eastern Conference lead. A win would give them a five-point cushion and, just as importantly, broaden their Points Per Match lead.
The Crew have not necessarily made it look easy. Their +4 goal-difference is seventh best in the league and actually only third best in the East. They've been shut out eight times this season, which is tied for the most in the league. They have scored just 24 goals, better than just four teams.
Somehow, though, they've won six of their past 10, including their last two. Their last win was especially impressive, handing Real Salt Lake their second home loss since the 2009 season. Their defense deserves much of the credit, as they've allowed the third fewest goals in the league (20) and registered the second most shutouts (9).
They will be facing a Rapids team that has recently undergone a bit of a resurgence, oddly coinciding with the season-long loss of Conor Casey. The Rapids have claimed seven points in the three games since Casey's injury, with Sanna Nyassi suddenly emerging as a serious scoring threat. It does look like they may be without Omar Cummings, though, who was listed as "out" on Tuesday's injury report.
The Crew have injury concerns of their own, though, as the Crew had 10 players listed on their injury report. Among those are rookie standout Rich Balchan (doubtful), leading scorer Andres Mendoza (probable) and goalkeeper Will Hesmer (probable).
TV: Fox Soccer; Time: 7 p.m.; Pick: Crew, 1-0.
As bad as TFC looks, it does seem like all of Aron Winter's tweaking has made some positive effect. In the last two games, they've scored four goals and Danny Koeverman looks to be the kind of player who should be able to score in MLS. If United is serious about making the playoffs, though, this is a game they really need to win. Their results in recent weeks have been maddeningly inconsistent. Beating a team with a goal-difference of -22 doesn't seem too much to ask. Pick: United 2-1.
Philadelphia Union vs. Houston Dynamo, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Just a week ago, the Dynamo looked to be a team essentially left for dead. Although they were very much in the playoff race, recent results suggested a team that was poised for another fade. But a 3-1 win over the Seattle Sounders has done more than move them into a playoff position. It has also shown that they can beat good teams. The Union could use a big win of their own, having won just two of their past 10 and coming a tie at home against a pretty bad Chicago Fire team during midweek. Pick: Tied, 1-1.
Sporting Kansas City vs. Seattle Sounders, Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Undefeated in their past 14, Sporting is suddenly looking like quite a force. Their most impressive win to date came during midweek when they handed RSL a 2-0 loss despite playing a man down for a good chunk of the second half. This is a team that seems perfectly comfortable getting into shootouts or grinding out nail-biters. With six more games left on their 10-game homestand, this is really a team to watch in the Eastern Conference. They'll now face a Sounders team coming off a 120-minute game on Wednesday that will likely feature several second-choice players in their starting 11. Pick: Sporting 2-1.
Real Salt Lake vs. New York Red Bulls, Saturday, 9 p.m.
A team that started the season with dreams of making history is suddenly in danger of watching this one slip away, almost entirely. No CONCACAF Champions League, eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup and now in danger of watching any hopes of the Supporters' Shield slip away after two straight losses have left them 12 points behind the Galaxy. Jason Kreis has said morale is already in the dumps and that a third straight loss would be "monstrously bad." The good news is that this game is at Rio Tinto. The bad news is that it's no longer looking like the fortress it once did. Pick: RSL 1-0.
Cruising along with 14 straight games without a loss and facing a Timbers team that had been nothing short of awful recently, the Galaxy looked poised to run away with their second straight Supporters' Shield. Funny how MLS can slap you in the face. That 3-0 loss suddenly leaves the Galaxy just three points up on the Toros, who actually have a game in hand. If FC Dallas can pull out a victory, they'll actually be leading the Galaxy on PPM. Games in August don't get much bigger than this. Let's hope the injury report doesn't rob this game of as many top players as it threatens to. Pick: Dallas 2-1.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Chicago Fire, 7:30 p.m., Sunday (Pick: Whitecaps 1-0)