and the cool reception he's sure to receive -- as the weekend's highlight match.
But that's exactly what we have in Columbus, where the league's top pair of point earners will clash, with significant reward at stake. A Columbus victory would move Sigi Schmid's team five points clear of the closest Eastern pursuer, which would give the Crew a huge edge in the reach for postseason home-field advantage and in the Supporters' Shield chase. A Supporters' Shield would be the second one captured in Crew-ville; Columbus also claimed the prize for the league's top regular season team in 2004.
New England remains in close Supporters' Shield contention, as well as Houston and Chicago. But here's what makes Saturday's 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Crew Stadium more intriguing still: two MVP frontrunners can be seen clashing directly, straining to rule the same area of the pitch.
Crew playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto is on top of his game at the moment, with two assists in each of his last three matches. That kind of production is absolutely Valderrama-esque. While Schelotto, currently with 16 assists, may not quite challenge Carlos Valderrama's MLS single-season record of 26, the veteran Argentinean certainly has a chance to become the second MLS player in 13 seasons to reach 20.
But to improve his total Saturday, he'll have to deal with Shalrie Joseph, the Revolution's rangy and dogged holding midfielder -- who also happens to be the league's standard bearer at that spot for two or three years now. Joseph has been a huge presence as New England has soldiered through injuries to key players this year, helping Steve Nicol's Revs stay near the top of the tough Eastern Conference throughout the attrition-marked campaign.
For Columbus, Schelotto plays as a second forward, freelancing behind striker Alejandro Moreno. He usually positions himself just beyond the reach of opposition back lines, which means Joseph (or fellow Revs holding midfielder Jeff Larentowicz) will be responsible for locating the Crew's offensive linchpin once the Crew gains possession.
2. One who might go ...: One of the longest serving, loyal foot soldiers in the MLS battles could be doing his last tour in the league.
Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, with 11 years and 225 matches invested in MLS, is still intent on pursuing overseas offers, undeterred by unsuccessful efforts in the recently closed international transfer window.
Mastroeni, who turned 32 last week, will remain in Colorado, hoping to help the Rapids pursue a playoff spot -- and it's looking more and more like only three teams from the West will qualify. But he will be out of contract by the end of the season, and the Rapids' captain wants desperately to taste soccer in a culture that values the game and dotes on it the way he does.
Working with contacts in Spain and Italy, Mastroeni is confident that clubs in one of those countries will be attracted to a two-time World Cup veteran who can now arrive without a transfer fee attached.
Mastroeni is realistic about his options. Italy's Serie A is his first choice, although he knows any opportunities would be with teams closer to the bottom of the table. A team in Italy's Serie B, where the salaries can still be fairly generous, is a possibility, he said. His European contacts are also on the lookout in Spain and England, where Mastroeni knows that the Coca-Cola Championship (the country's second tier) would be the most likely option.
"Beggars can't be choosers," he said. "I just want to go abroad and taste that passion, to be held at a much higher level of accountability, to be in that culture ... In America, we're still trying to promote the game and bring fans in. I just want to go somewhere where soccer is more established and experience what that's all about.
"I've always had dreams of growing abroad," Mastroeni said. "If I have any opportunities left in my career, it's going to be this next window."
3. And one who might stay ...: Meanwhile, one of the other sure transfer targets out of MLS -- if not this winter, then probably soon after- - appears set on remaining with the league through the 2009 season.
Houston midfielder Stuart Holden, just back from a bright performance in the Olympics, has one year remaining on his current MLS deal. And he said he's happy to remain in south Texas, where he went to high school, before testing himself overseas.
Holden, also holder of an EU passport, because he was born in Scotland, actually played a season in Scotland upon graduation from Clemson. That will facilitate his move overseas, although Holden doesn't sound a fellow in much of a hurry.
He has yet to establish a regular place in Houston's midfield, one crowded with talent. He has played as an attacking midfielder behind Dwayne De Rosario or out wide in spot duty for Brad Davis or Brian Mullan. That versatility should increase his attractiveness, as well.
4. The next soccer prodigy?: A rather small visitor to FC Dallas' practice made quite an impression earlier this week. Then again, Emerson Hyndman has been impressing for some time -- and at some impressive places, no less.
Emerson, 12, is the grandson of FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman. He recently was named to the U.S. under-14 national team, even though he's a year younger that most other selections.
Last spring, Newcastle director of football Dennis Wise watched Hyndman play in the under-14 bracket of the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup, the highly regarded 30-year-old international tournament. Wise was immediately interested in signing Emerson to an academy contract.
But not so fast. The talented youngster has trials upcoming at Liverpool and Portugal's Sporting Lisbon. He also has another trial period upcoming with Newcastle. Since Schellas Hyndman holds a European passport, the FC Dallas manager believes his grandson will be able to obtain one, which could assist in an overseas move.
The younger Hyndman is often seen around FCD practices, often emulating tricks shown to him by players after workouts. Earlier this week he joined in on some of the actual team drills -- and kept the pace just fine, according to witnesses.
5. Striking out in San Jose?: San Jose is one good result from establishing a league high for 2008 in terms of consecutive undefeated matches. The Earthquakes streak currently sits at seven, with a visit from D.C. United up this weekend.
As well as San Jose is doing -- and as great a story as it would be to see Frank Yallop's expansion outfit make the playoffs -- here's what could potentially hold back the Earthquakes: the strikers still struggle to make a difference.
The side is playing with supreme confidence right now. But that's mostly down to goalkeeper Joe Cannon, good team shape overall and the attacking dash supplied by Darren Huckerby on the left and Ronnie O'Brien on the right. Meanwhile, the team still seems to be missing that one devastating, dangerous and wily frontrunner.
Arturo Alvarez and Scott Sealy appear to be nice, complementary parts. But the raw numbers indicate that they may not be difference makers. Alvarez has 15 goals in 116 career matches. Sealy's strike ratio is a bit better, with 29 goals in 94 matches. Combine their goals and someone in the partnership scores once every 2.39 matches.
Compare that to a team like Houston, where last weekend's starting strikers (Nate Jaqua and Brian Ching) have combined to strike for one goal every 1.48 matches this year. Mike Magee and Juan Pablo Angel have started in the Red Bulls front line lately (Magee as a withdrawn striker). With 12 combined goals this season, one member of that partnership has struck once every 1.41 matches in 2008.
Even if the Earthquakes can't quite crest the playoff hump this year, San Jose's fast rise to playoff contender status is surely one of the truly fascinating stories of 2008. Expansion sides could make fast headway back in the early league days, as Chicago clearly demonstrated with a title run as a newcomer in 1998. But the early struggles of Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake and Toronto are more indicative what expansion sides face today.
Steve Davis is a freelance writer who has covered Major League Soccer since its inception. Steve can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com. 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.