First XI: A guide to the Last XI
Big chance right out of the gate for the last place Revolution to get level with the second-place Crew. If the last two seasons are any indication, now is the time when the Revs like to heat up. What's funny about this season is how New England has played so much better than I've seen in the past -- more good attacking play, more shots, etc. -- but simply isn't getting results. It will be interesting to see if Steve Nicol goes back to the formula that's led to fantastic finishes for the Revs the last two seasons. That is, shore things up in the back and play for the counter. A win over the Crew here would be a huge psychological springboard for the Revs.
10. San Jose at Kansas City, Aug. 14 -- Here is a statement game for the defending champion Earthquakes. San Jose is feeling a bit snake-bit so far this year and a win against the Wizards, the best home team in the league, would surely stamp the Quakes as ready to roll. Everyone has their own taste, of course, but for my money, this shapes up as one of the best-looking matchups in the league. Kansas City plays some of the fastest transition soccer in the league while the Quakes can get out on the break, as well. Also, this will be a final game before U.S. national team players report for their pre-Jamaica training camp, so look for Landon Donovan and Josh Wolff to leave it all on the field.
9. D.C. at Columbus, Aug. 21 -- Let's just come out and say it, every single inter-conference game the rest of the way is going to have huge playoff seed implications. Here's a six-point-swing game at Crew Stadium that's sure to leave one team pumped and the other deflated. Unless some team in the East goes into a downward spiral in the next couple of weeks, it's a good bet that the loser (if there is a loser) will fall into the Eastern Conference basement at the end of this contest. You've also got to believe the Crew will have added a player or two by the time this game kicks off.
8. Chicago at Dallas, Aug. 28 -- Not the rivalry it once was, simply because MLS shifted Chicago into the Eastern Conference. Still, there's still some juice in the Dallas-Chicago matchup, and the Fire have not played well in the Cotton Bowl since Dema Kovalenko and Brandon Pollard got tangled up at Soldier Field in the '99 playoffs.
7. D.C. at Chicago, Sept. 4 -- Peter Nowak's first trip to Soldier Field as a rival did not go well. So here's his shot at redemption. You also have to wonder who'll be wearing the uniforms vacated by Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley when this game kicks off.
6. New England at MetroStars, Sept. 11 -- The Metros exorcised one demon last week, defeating Chicago for the first time in a while. Here is their final chance of the regular season to shake the Revolution monkey off their back. Metros walked off the field at Gillette in late June with an awful taste in their mouths, having lost the game 2-1 and promising Brazilian midfielder Gilberto for three months. Not that anyone on either side of this matchup needs to be fired up any more.
5. Chicago at D.C. United, Sept. 18 -- Wouldn't you love to have a crystal ball? Will the Fire have righted its ship by this point in the season? Will D.C. look like the team that put up six against the MetroStars, or the one that's struggled ever since? If Ante Razov cannot return for the Fire, who'll be running up top with Damani Ralph? Again, a big swing game looms here. The top and bottom of the standings will almost certainly be within reach for both teams. This is their last meeting of the season.
4. Los Angeles at San Jose, Sept. 25 -- This will be it for the Galaxy and Quakes in the regular season. We all know the history here. Will it be a playoff preview? Or will San Jose be fighting for its postseason life? With all due respect to Metro-D.C., Chicago-Dallas, Chicago-Metro, Columbus-K.C., et al ... this is the best rivalry in MLS. Period.
3. Kansas City at Los Angeles, Oct. 2 -- Book it, this is the game that will decide who wins the Western Conference. Can't say I saw all 90-plus minutes of last Saturday's game, but I did see from Sasha Victorine's 67th-minute goal on. Great stuff. Honestly, I felt for Tony Meola those last five minutes. I'm not sure I've ever seen a team get as many great chances in a short time as the Galaxy got during that spell, and the ball Andy Herzog hit off the crossbar was positively Hristo-like. The goal was nearly toppled.
2. Columbus at MetroStars, Oct. 9 -- Danny Szetela should be perfectly comfortable in a Crew uniform by then ... a starter, I predict. And this will be young Danny's chance to catapult his team into the playoffs in front of friends and family in New Jersey. For the MetroStars, here is what will be on the line in this, their penultimate game: a chance to wrap up the Eastern Conference and home field advantage for the playoffs. If they fail to cash in, they'll have to pull it off at D.C. in their final game.
1. Chicago at New England, Oct. 16 -- Dare I say, loser goes home? Obviously, there's potential for that. But there's also potential that this is a first-second battle. And, what the heck, it could also be a meaningless 3-4 game. That is the beauty of MLS at the All-Star break. Over the final 11 weeks, anything is possible for all 10 teams.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.