The New York Red Bulls were supposed to be running away with the Eastern Conference by now, but things haven't quite worked out that way.
The New England Revolution added what were supposed to be the missing pieces to a squad capable of returning to the MLS playoffs. At this point, that doesn't look to be coming to fruition either.
When the Red Bulls play host to the Revs tonight at Red Bull Arena (live, 8:30 p.m., FOX Soccer Channel), the battle of I-95 rivals will feature two of the best players in Major League Soccer in Thierry Henry and Shalrie Joseph, but the match will also be a battle of underachieving Eastern Conference rivals who have fallen well short of expectations.
The Red Bulls haven't exactly endured a bad season (they still sit just two points out of first place in the East), but a six-match winless streak dating back to April has to be a cause for concern for a club that has to get through most of June without several top players (away on international duty).
Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, Dane Richards and Dwayne De Rosario are all at the Gold Cup, leaving Hans Backe's squad to try and stay within striking distance of first-place Philadelphia with a patchwork lineup. Those absences have placed even more pressure on scoring leaders Henry and Luke Rodgers to guide the attack, while also forcing Backe to rely on a pair of back-up centerbacks to keep the team afloat.
Anything less than a win will be disappointing for a New York side coming off a heart-breaking last-second draw against Columbus. After dropping two points on a stoppage-time equalizer last week, the Red Bulls could fall even further behind Philadelphia and potentially into third place, with the Crew closing the gap on second place.
New England's struggles are tied to an offense that, for the second straight season, is struggling to generate goals. The Revs have scored a meager 10 goals in 13 matches, the second-lowest total in MLS. Recently things have been even worse, with the club managing just two goals in the past six matches. With playmaker Benny Feilhaber sidelined with an ankle injury, New England will be even more hard-pressed to find goals.
The Red Bulls could be the cure for New England's offensive struggles, with New York having allowed nine goals in the past five matches. The Red Bulls sorely miss the centerback tandem of Ream and Marquez, though Stephen Keel has been a pleasant surprise in the back. He'll have his hands full with Revs striker Rajko Lekic.
The best battle of the day will be in central midfield, where perennial all-star Shalrie Joseph will face off against Finnish midfield standout Teemu Tainio. If Tainio can do a good job of keeping Joseph under wraps, the Red Bulls should be able to keep New England's attack bottled up.
The Red Bulls should have an advantage offensively with the tandem of Henry and Rodgers going up against a Revs defense that is actually pretty solid but far too often winds up facing excessive pressure because of its offense's inability to score, create chances, or keep possession. With Mehdi Ballouchy playing well and Joel Lindpere having the skill to find the gaps in New England's defense, the Red Bulls will be favored at home tonight against a Revs squad that has yet to win on the road this season.
Here is a quick look at the other MLS matches this weekend:
Philadelphia Union vs. Real Salt Lake
Coming off an impressive road trip that saw the Union record four points from two matches, Philly returns to PPL Park to face a suddenly struggling RSL side. A late-game collapse against Columbus has to have Jason Kreis ready to shake things up, and while RSL is missing some key players to the Gold Cup, those absences don't account for the lackluster mid-week showing in Columbus.
D.C. United vs. San Jose Earthquakes Two red-hot teams square off at RFK Stadium as D.C. and San Jose both come into this inter-conference showdown riding five-match unbeaten streaks. The Earthquakes have hit their stride courtesy of an offense that has scored at least twice in each of its past four games, even without US national team striker Chris Wondolowski. D.C. has been doing it with defense, having allowed just three goals in its past four matches.
Houston Dynamo vs. Chivas USA
The struggling Dynamo will be desperate for a win when Chivas USA comes to Robertson Stadium. Houston hasn't won a match since April and must find a way to stop a Rojiblancos squad gaining confidence under Robin Fraser. Chivas USA has just one loss in five and can make a real move in the Western Conference standings with a win.
The Timbers return to Jeld-Wen Field after another road loss and after having lost their first home game of the year. If the Timbers are to recapture their home magic they'll do so against a Rapids side that has managed an incredible six straight draws. The defending MLS champions are unbeaten in eight but will need to play better than they have in recent weeks to push that streak to nine.
Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Toronto FC
The Galaxy will be missing Landon Donovan and Donovan Ricketts (Gold Cup), as well as Juninho (wedding), but that shouldn't matter against a woeful Toronto FC side that is even worse on the road. Bruce Arena's side will need Miguel Lopez or Juan Pablo Angel to get going, but the LA midfield should still be good enough to create chances in front of the Galaxy defense, looking to post a fifth straight shutout.
Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
(live, 10:30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Channel)
Before the season began this match-up was billed as one of the potential great rivalries in the league. A terrible start by the expansion Whitecaps has cooled that buzz. Now this just has the feel of a strong team taking on a weak one. The Sounders should roll at home.
Columbus Crew vs. Chicago Fire
Riding high off a mid-week comeback win against RSL, Columbus is at home yet again to take on a Fire team desperate to find some offense. Frank Klopas has learned that it just might be the team, and not fired coach Carlos De Los Cobos, that is to blame for Chicago's season-long offensive woes. Finding goals against a stingy Crew defense won't be easy either.
FC Dallas vs. Sporting Kansas City
Dallas enters unbeaten in nine and looking very much like a title contender, while Sporting KC has strung together a stretch of four ties that still doesn't have anybody feeling confident of a dramatic turnaround. With Omar Bravo out injured, Kansas City will have an even tougher time halting red-hot Dallas at Pizza Hut Park.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.