WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the MetroStars visit RFK Stadium on Saturday night, D.C. United will be eager to continue their four-game winning streak while their archrivals try to bolster their fading postseason hopes.
But both teams could be forgiven for keeping one eye on the proceedings in Kansas City, where the New England Revolution hope to keep their grip on the Eastern Conference's top spot with a win against the Wizards, who must pick up more points to fend off the Metros for the fourth and final playoff spot.
The Black-and-Red's recent results have helped them close the gap on a Revolution side that has enjoyed first place for months, and the pressure will only mount if the wins keep coming. Hosting the MetroStars and the last-place Crew in their last two matches gives D.C. a fighting chance to do just that.
"It will be a tough task, but if we can take care of our end, you never know what can happen," said United midfielder Brian Carroll. "So certainly we're shooting for that, but all we can do is control the rest of the games that we have and not worry too much about what goes on outside of that."
New England can stay out of reach by getting full points in their last two matches, but have looked uncharacteristically shaky in recent losses to San Jose and the MetroStars. Both sides recognize the importance of home-field advantage in the postseason, with D.C.'s epic penalty-kick shootout victory in the 2004 Eastern Conference Final at RFK fresh in everyone's mind.
"If we win out, and we end up in second place, that's fine," said D.C. winger Josh Gros. "But we're definitely in it for first. Home-field advantage worked out for us well last year, so we're trying for that again."
The United-Revs matchup has evolved into one of the league's most compelling rivalries in recent years, and while New England has won the regular season series this season, it's clear that both sides expect to meet again with an MLS Cup spot on the line.
"They're a great team," said Gros. "Last year we got their number when it counted, and they may have had our number (this) regular season, but it only matters in the postseason. We know that. So they may have beaten us more times than we beat them this year, but all that matters is when it comes to playoff time."
Both teams entered the 2004 playoffs riding strong runs of form, and that sort of momentum could play a deciding role again this year. Either way, players and fans alike are already looking forward to another memorable clash.
"They're a pretty powerful team, they've got a lot of weapons, they've been very successful this year," said United veteran Ben Olsen. "We're going to have to go through New England to get the championship - that's it. We did it last year, and we'll be up for the challenge this year. We're excited to play New England."
Until then, United will bide their time and hope the conference leaders stumble in Kansas City or against the Chicago Fire at home next week.
"If it happens, that's amazing. If it doesn't, we'll just have to work that much harder to get as far as we want to go," said Carroll. "It'll be a little more difficult road, but certainly something that (we) can accomplish."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.