MADRID (AP) – When the Major League Soccer scheduled was released at the start of the year, few would have had Philadelphia's visit to Columbus this Saturday circled as a battle for first place in the Eastern Conference.
That's exactly what it will be, as the Crew, the most surprising team in MLS this season, tries to open a six-point lead on a Union side that can regain a share of first-place with a win at Crew Stadium.
The Crew have made the successful transition from upstarts to legitimate title contender with a recent 3-1 stretch that included a rare road win at RSL and convincing 3-1 mauling of New England last week. In those wins, the Columbus attack has shown more punch than it had earlier in the season, suggesting Robert Warzycha's side is rounding into form just in time for a brutal stretch of matches that includes two meetings vs. Philadelphia and matches against Seattle and Los Angeles.
If the Crew are on a solid run of form, the Union come into Saturday's showdown struggling to hit their stride. A gutsy comeback to tie FC Dallas last week should provide some confidence, but the fact remains Peter Nowak's squad hasn't won in four matches.
Part of the reason for the struggles has been an offense that just hasn't clicked in recent weeks. Last week the Union scored two against a tough Dallas defense, but both goals came courtesy of penalties.
Finding goals against a stingy Crew defense won't come easy, but the Union will be banking on newly-acquired Freddy Adu building on last week's Philly debut. He is still working on match fitness, but Adu did show some flashes last week and could find room to operate against a Columbus midfield that isn't as tough in the middle as Dallas.
The best battle of the Crew-Philly match-up could be on the flank, where Union right back Sheanon Williams will face off against in-form Crew left winger Robbie Rogers. Williams more than held his own against Brek Shea last week, but Rogers has been one of the keys to Columbus' recent hot streak and will present his own unique challenges for Williams.
Defensively, the Crew will call on the centerback tandem of Chad Marshall and Julius James to shut down Philadelphia's struggling strikers. Peter Nowak will be hard-pressed not to trot out the Sebastien LeToux-Danny Mwanga strike force, which he has been reluctant to put together in recent weeks.
Nowak may have no choice if he's going to get Philly's offense going. Mwanga has had a disappointing sophomore campaign, but he's also shown glimpses of the future star he was expected to be after such a strong rookie season. The Union will only go as far as Mwanga takes them, so Nowak can't wait too much longer to give Mwanga his chance to find his form.
The Union will face the pressure of knowing a loss would mean a six-point gap between them and Columbus, not to mention the fact that a loss to the Crew could open the door for Sporting Kansas City to jump past them in the East standings.
Saturday's match will tell us just how serious a contender for the East title Philadelphia really is, while also showing us whether the Crew really are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Columbus vs. Philadelphia
The Union often struggle on the road, while the Crew have lost just once all year at Crew Stadium. Look for Columbus to win a close affair, though the Union could steal a point if Freddy Adu has a big game.
New England vs. New York
Two struggling squads square off, and while the Red Bulls should be the clear favorites, they haven't looked capable of beating anybody these days. If Thierry Henry chooses not to play on turf, or even if he does, look for the Revs to force New York to settle for a tie.
Houston vs. Real Salt Lake
The Dynamo didn't look that good in their mid-week draw at New England, but a return home to face a suddenly vulnerable RSL side suddenly doesn't look so intimidating. This will quietly be one of the best matches of the weekend, with RSL responding with a vital road win.
FC Dallas vs. Seattle
Philly-Columbus is the battle for first place, but the best game in MLS this weekend pits Dallas against Seattle. Dallas will be without George John, which could become a permanent situation if John leaves for Bolton. Seattle should be able to take advantage of John's absence, but the real question is whether the Sounders can slow down Brek Shea and Marvin Chavez, the best attacking tandem in MLS right now.
Colorado vs. Chivas USA
The Rapids are on a roll and won't be slowed down by Chivas USA, even with the addition of Juan Pablo Angel. There could be some issues of fatigue considering the Rapids' mid-week Champions League match, but asking the Goats to win in Colorado is too tall an order.
Portland vs. Vancouver
The Timbers and Whitecaps look destined to play out the string, but for all their struggles, Portland should be ready to defending Jeld-Wen Field against their Cascadia rival.
Los Angeles vs. San Jose
Robbie Keane's debut will come against a vulnerable Earthquakes defense, so don't be surprised if the Irish striker marks his arrival to MLS with some goals. Whether Keane stars or not, the Galaxy should steamroll a San Jose squad that has completely lost its way in recent months.
Chicago vs. Toronto FC
After setting a league record for ties on Wednesday, the Fire are reduced to trying to avoid setting a new league record for fewest wins in a season (they have TWO this season). A win won't come easy against a TFC side that has suddenly hit a good stride as their multiple additions settle in.
Sporting KC vs. D.C. United
With Philly and Crew set to do battle, both Sporting KC and D.C. have a chance to leapfrog into second place in the East with a win in this juicy encounter. Kansas City's offense is rolling, while the D.C. defense will likely have to play without starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who suffered a hamstring injury on Thursday night.