Almost from the moment Steve Zakuani was carted off the Dick's Sporting Goods Field with a broken leg, and Brian Mullan was left with the harsh reality that his moment of emotion had ended the season of one of the best players in Major League Soccer, there were those looking to the calendar and to July 16th.

The Colorado Rapids will be in Seattle on that date, this Saturday, taking on the red-hot Sounders, and the player Sounders fans have been praying would be on the field won't be in the stadium. Mullan has been left behind, with Rapids head coach Gary Smith pulling a U-turn after initially insisting the decision had more to do with resting Mullan's back than keeping him from facing the wrath of angry Sounders fans.

To his credit, Mullan wanted to make the trip, wanted to face the fans and feel the heat. He could have also finally spoken publicly for the first time since serving his record 10-match suspension for the foul on Zakuani. Now, Sounders fans will direct their anger at Mullan's teammates. We'll likely see elaborate displays of hate aimed at a player nowhere to be found.

If there is a positive to be taken from Mullan's absence, it is that we just might be able to focus on the fact that this Rapids-Sounders clash is a battle between the reigning MLS Cup champions and arguably the hottest team in MLS.

The Sounders are coming off a three-game stretch that saw them score a draw in Los Angeles before beating Portland on the road and then knocking off the Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Sigi Schmid's team has the distinct look of a championship contender, something made more impressive by the fact the Sounders have enjoyed this success without Zakuani.

Seattle has persevered thanks to the increased productivity of players like Mauro Rosales and Alvaro Fernandez, players who have been key to the Sounders compiling a 7-2-5 record since Zakuani's injury. That stretch, along with their current eight-match unbeaten streak (5-0-3), suddenly has the Sounders within striking distance of the Galaxy atop the Western Conference standings.

While Seattle is soaring, Colorado is slowly finding a rhythm. With Conor Casey back healthy and back to his goal-scoring ways, the Rapids are resembling a playoff team again.

The defense has begun to resemble the stingy unit that guided the Rapids to a title in 2011, with two goals allowed in the past three matches. The back-line has had some issues with injuries, but with a healthy Casey and Omar Cummings leading the attack, the Rapids defense should be under less pressure to be perfect.

We'll see just how good that Rapids defense is against a Seattle side surely riding high after a 3-2 win in Portland and a 3-1 win against the Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Fredy Montero is starting to look like the dangerous Fredy Montero while the midfield trio of Mauro Rosales, Roger Levesque and Alvaro Fernandez is helping Seattle create chances against every opponent.

Stopping that trio will be that much harder for the Rapids without Mullan, who has battled a recent back injury, but getting Pablo Mastroeni back from a knee injury should help solidify things in the middle.

Once again, it will be up to Casey and Cummings to push a Sounders defense that has really hit a good stride in recent weeks, but is now dealing with the loss of centerback Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to an MCL injury.

If the Sounders can contain Casey and Cummings, and Montero can come close to duplicating his heroics against Portland, the Sounders should be able to extend their unbeaten run to nine matches and give their missing star Zakuani a measure of revenge, even if the player responsible for his absence isn't around to see it.

How many more chances will Kenny Cooper, right, have to impress in Portland? (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Game previews

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Real Salt Lake

Whitecaps are free-falling and must face an RSL side rounding into form. This one could get ugly for the home team.

Seattle Sounders vs. Colorado Rapids

The Sounders playmakers against Colorado's destroyers should make for a good battle, but Seattle is playing too well not to win at home.

Columbus Crew vs. San Jose Earthquakes

The Steven Lenhart derby sees the mop-topped one return to Crew Stadium. More importantly for the Earthquakes is a sorely-needed three points to get back into playoff position. That won't be easy against an over-achieving Crew side that has been extra tough at home.

Chicago Fire vs. Portland Timbers

Can the Fire shake off last week's loss to Los Angeles? Yep, we think so. Look for Chicago's stingy defense to stifle the Timbers attack, which could mean just one more chance for certain players (cough, Kenny Cooper, cough) to impress John Spencer before being traded.

Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting Kansas City

The Dynamo and Sporting KC are separated by one point in the East standings, and with Houston holding on to the ninth overall playoff spot and KC now sitting at No. 10, both teams know it's time to start racking up the points. While Houston should be favored at home, but Sporting KC has actually been very tough on the road in recent weeks.

FC Dallas vs. DC United

Can DC build on its road shutout win against New York by shutting down the dangerous FC Dallas attack? Stopping Brek Shea won't be easy, but DC will also be looking to push the Dallas defense now that Dwayne De Rosario is pulling the strings and Charlie Davies is almost 100 percent back. The Davies-George John match-up will be a must-watch.

Chivas USA vs. New York Red Bulls

Nick LaBrocca is playing some of the best soccer in the league, while Heath Pearce has quietly put together an All-Star caliber season, but Chivas USA faces a loaded Red Bulls side that just filled its biggest need, signing German standout goalkeeper Frank Rost. While most folks in LA are worried about Carmaggedeon, the real worry for the Goats is keeping Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers and Juan Agudelo from unleashing Goalmaggedeon.

New England Revolution vs. Philadelphia Union

The Union takes the trip up I-95 North for this Sunday clash as Philadelphia looks to keep its hold on first place in the East against the struggling Revs. New England's starters might have gained some confidence from shutting out Manchester United for a half, but the same issues remain for the Revs. They must find ways to create chances. Doing so against a tough Philly defense won't be easy.