Welcome to Starting XI, our Friday rundown of what to watch for – and what we're watching. MLS crosses the halfway point, the World Cup crosses the finish line, and we've got your back.
Don't stop there, either. FutbolMLS has your Spanish fix as well.
Our recommended musical pairing, per senior editor Matt Doyle, is "No Excuses" by Alice In Chains, because...
1. THE GUARANTEE With 15 games left, the Portland Timbers are as close to last place in the West as they are to a playoff berth, but that didn't stop Merritt Paulson from reiterating: "We will make playoffs." To make the postseason, the Timbers have coined a new MLS category: "swing games" is the buzzword in Portland (matches against direct playoff competition). Friday night vs. Colorado is one of them (11 pm ET, NBCSN, free stream on NBCSports.com). – SIMON BORG
Said before Sun we will make playoffs & stand by it. 50 pts target but 46+ likely enough. Key is all 3 pts vs swing west teams like this Fri— Merritt Paulson (@MerrittPaulson) July 15, 2014
2. ALL ON THE LINE: Props to Aurelien Collin for enduring a rough night on Wednesday in Columbus. First he took this dead-on shot to the jewels while defending the Sporting Kansas City penalty box, and then he was sent off for something of a phantom elbow while going up for a header in the 54th minute. Collin shook off the groin shot with aplomb – although his agony is audible on this clip – and then the card was overturned on Friday, which means he's ready and able to play on Saturday against the LA (6 pm ET, ESPN2). — NICK FIRCHAU
3. ANYTHING YOU CAN DO, I CAN DO, TOO: Did anyone else feel like the Galaxy's Robbie Keane watched Thierry Henry's vintage goal-and-three-assists performance last week and said, "Oh, yeah? Well, watch this!" And then he did this on Wednesday. And this. Seems to me, as he goes, the Galaxy go. Come Saturday, what will he conjure up? – GREG LALAS
4. DAILY AFFIRMATION: So you follow a team that is disappointing. What's the point of going out to the games? The act of making your way to the stadium, getting all dressed up in team gear, then ultimately seeing another loss is hard, no doubt. I've been there. But don’t give up. You may see a surprise win, a classic game, or maybe a star for the future. Just don’t give up now, when your team needs you. – ALICIA RODRIGUEZ
5. OZYMANDIAS: Columbus started the year with three straight wins, the last of which came against the current West-leading Sounders. Look upon Gregg Berhalter's work, ye mighty, and despair. In their 16 games since that result, the Crew have won just one game and are three points behind the Red Bulls for fifth place. With a 3-9-5 record, though, Montreal on Saturday (7:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE) might be the perfect tonic. – NATE SULAT
6. FORGET DESIGNATED PLAYERS: You can have your DPs. That's so 2007. With DeAndre Yedlin leading the way post Brazil, 2014 is the year of the Homegrown. Yedlin may be off this weekend and Crew distribution specialist Wil Trapp is suspended, but that doesn't mean you'll have to go without academy products. How about the Rapids' Dillon Serna? Marco Delgado is tearing it up for Chivas USA. Same for Harry Shipp in Chicago. Bill Hamid is staking a claim to some USMNT time in D.C., too. Tune in and remember those names folks. There'll be plenty more coming down the pipes. – ANDREW WIEBE
Series of commercials where Thierry Henry walks into NYC bars at 8AM and yells at people in random EPL shirts about MLS. I'd pay to watch.— K. (@FriendlyFAUX) July 14, 2014
8. THE SURVIVORS: When half the teams in a conference make the playoffs, a five- or six-game losing streak won't kill you the way it would in other leagues. That was good news for FC Dallas earlier in the year, and it's good news for their opponents on Saturday night, the New England Revolution, who have lost their last six (9 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
Dallas have now picked up eight points from the last 12 available after picking up two from their eight prior games, thanks in part to an improving bill of health. The Revolution haven't been dealing with quite the same issues, but can take solace in the fact they are, for the time being, still sitting in a playoff race. It certainly looks bleak on the field, but in MLS, very little is decided in July.
9. P IS FOR PARITY: Twelve months ago, D.C. United vs. Chivas USA was a dead-to-rights battle of which team was truly the worst in the league, and whose porous defense was more embarrassing. On Sunday at RFK (8 pm ET; Univision Deportes), we’re looking at the top team in the Eastern Conference by points per game and the hottest team in the league. You read that right: D.C. vs. Chivas is all of a sudden one of the best matchups in Major League Soccer. And might it even be a derby for the best landing spot for Jermaine Jones? – JONAH FREEDMAN
10. KICKBOXING, SPORT OF THE FUTURE: Plenty of folks were raving about that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off knockoff video with Mike Magee and a gloriously happy Michael Bradley this week, and rightly so. But don’t let it end there. I personally e-mailed the folks at MLS Plus to begin work on a remake of the 1980s geo-political thriller WarGames (I’ll take that scheming Matthew Broderick any day) and the John Cusack canon alone is a goldmine. “I gave her my heart,” says Philly’s Zack Pfeffer, “and she gave me a penalty.” He may have his chance for just that on Saturday against Chicago (8:30 pm ET; MLS LIVE) with Cristian Maidana a doubt. – NICK FIRCHAU
11. THE OUTTAKES ARE EVEN BETTER: Oh Sloane, dear... – MATT DOYLE