The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has been a two-team affair in recent years, with the past four conference titles belonging to either D.C. United or the New England Revolution. That recent dominance has extended to regular-season play as well, with one of the two sides finishing first in the standings in each of the past three seasons.
Such recent history made both teams among the favorites to reach this year's MLS Cup final, but two months into the regular season, the two sides are bookending the Eastern Conference standings rather than sitting atop them. New England has held up its end, joining Chicago and Columbus in a three-way tie for first place. But United, even after last week's 3-2 win over Toronto, are mired in last place.
Escaping the cellar will be United's aim on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday," when they pay a visit to New England's Gillette Stadium. The Revs meanwhile, will be striving to keep their collective foot on the neck of the Black-and-Red, as well as create a bit of breathing room at the top of the standings.
Five story lines to follow
1. United show some life
D.C. manager Tom Soehn has spent much of the season bemoaning his team's lack of passion and intensity. But last week's home-and-home series with Toronto revealed more of those qualities, as United fought back in the second match to secure an important victory that broke their four-game losing streak.
"This win really tested our character, being behind twice" said Soehn. "There was a lot we went through to make sure we won that game, and our guys never gave up, that's for sure."
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
D.C. at New England
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
2. Streaking Revs
New England owes its current spot in the standings to a three-game winning streak that includes last week's gritty 1-0 win at Columbus. Even more impressive is that head coach Steve Nicol has kept his side together despite some injuries to key personnel. Forward Taylor Twellman has played a scant 45 minutes this season, while midfielder Steve Ralston has also missed significant time.
"Everybody's kind of stuck together, and we all realize that it's a long season, and stuff happens." said Nicol. "But you try not to make too many excuses for certain things, and you get on with it. That's what we've done."
3. The Black-and-Red's leaky defense
As much as Soehn was pleased with the victory, it wasn't all sweetness and light. The two goals United conceded gave them a league-worst 20 goals allowed this season. While D.C.'s improved possession game has eased the pressure on its defense, it hasn't done enough to plug the gaps.
"I think on the plays that we're [conceding goals] it's a combination four or five not mistakes, but situations where everyone could do better," said Soehn. "We have to recognize that every play could be dangerous, and we have to see every play out."
4. New England's paradox
The Revs are tied with Chicago for the most road points in the league, fashioning a 4-1-1 away record. But so far, New England has failed to make the most of its home games, going just 2-2-0. Nicol points to his youthful front line as one reason for his side's struggles at Gillette.
"You have to take the initiative in games and take it to teams at home, and a lot of teams have kept things tight which has limited the space that we've had," said Nicol. "Obviously having young players, it makes it tough for them, and we've been just lacking that wee bit of experience in the final third. That has cost us at home as much as anything."
5. The Black-and-Red's wretched road form
New England's inconsistency at home will come as welcome news to a United side that has lost every one of its five road games in the league this season, making it one of only two teams in MLS without an away win. But Soehn is taking heart from the team's past two matches, including a tight 1-0 defeat at Toronto.
"We've had two games in a row now where we've been harder to play against," said Soehn. "That can't change. We have to find some consistency in that, and when you do that, that's when you start getting results on the road."
Five players to watch
1. Kheli Dube, F, New England
With two goals in his first two starts, including the game winner in Columbus, Dube has helped ease the pain of Twellman's continued absence. Now with strike partner Kenny Mansally set to miss three weeks due to international duty with Gambia, the Coastal Carolina product will be relied upon even more to spark the Revs' attack.
"[Dube] is doing it all at the moment," said Nicol. "He's holding balls up and scoring goals. You can't ask for anything more.
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2. Luciano Emilio, F, D.C United
While United's problems have been spread out all over the field, Emilio's dramatic drop in form has been among the bigger concerns. Last year's MVP had scored just one goal in 2008 prior to last Saturday's match, but not only did the Brazilian break through for the game winner, he was a scoring threat throughout.
"The last three times he's suited up, he's gotten better and better," said Soehn of Emilio. "This last game he was very opportunistic. He put himself in spots that strikers need to, and he's starting to find those channels and lanes, and follow up plays. That's real encouraging."
3. Steve Ralston, M, New England
Ralston's returned from a separated shoulder he sustained on opening day has given the Revs a boost, with his passing and guile from an attacking midfield position doing plenty to beef up New England's attack. Ralston's experience was on full display against Columbus as his cleverness on the ball allowed him to win the penalty that set up Dube's heroics.
4. Fred, M, D.C. United
It's not a coincidence that when the Brazilian missed three games with hamstring and quadriceps injuries, United's attack hit a low ebb. Without Fred's pace and skill, the Black-and-Red's ability to move the ball quickly was compromised. But with him back in the lineup against Toronto, United's attacking tempo was kicked up a notch.
"Fred's a guy who is hard to defend, because you never know what you're going to get," said Soehn. "He's got that element of unpredictability, and that's one of the things that makes us a good team."
5. Shalrie Joseph, M, New England
Even as the Revs struggled with injury and suspension, Joseph remained a constant, with his tackling and passing helping the team get results. Now that Ralston has returned, opposing teams will be forced to focus less on the Grenadian, allowing the element of surprise to creep back into his game. Look for his late runs in the box to cause problems for United's defense.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.