D.C. United missed the playoffs last season for the first time in six years, but by sitting atop the Eastern Conference, they're off to a good start in their quest to return to the postseason.
Chivas USA has had an even more impressive beginning.
The two conference leaders will square off for the first time this season Saturday night at The Home Depot Center with Chivas looking to win its fourth straight while United try to extend their unbeaten streak to six games.
United (3-1-5) narrowly missed the playoffs last season, but they've picked up at least a point in all but one game in 2009 to earn a one-point lead atop the East.
It looked like Toronto would overtake United at the top last Saturday at RFK Stadium, as D.C. trailed 2-1 in the 86th minute. But a wild closing stretch featured three goals -- including the tying tally on a penalty kick from Jaime Moreno to make it a 3-3 final -- to give United their ninth point in five games.
Despite the result, coach Tom Soehn wasn't pleased with his team's defense.
"It's really disappointing. We obviously made some key mistakes, and not many, but the ones that we made really cost us," Soehn said. "It's unacceptable -- we can't afford to do that. We can't afford to get in a shootout at home. We were pretty much in control of the game and with one bad chance or bad giveaway, and it gives them life and energy."
Chivas (7-1-1), meanwhile, has hardly let any opportunities get away. It's earned 22 of a possible 27 points and has picked up all nine in its last three contests.
Midfielder Paulo Nagamura made the difference in Chivas' latest match, scoring his team-leading third goal of the season in the 54th minute of last Saturday's 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake.
"It's been a great addition to see Paulo getting forward and being aggressive," fellow midfielder Jesse Marsch said. "I think that lately he feels like he can go forward more often because he knows without even thinking that I'm going to be there for him."
While Nagamura has led the way offensively, it's been the defense -- which has allowed a league-low three goals -- that has lifted Chivas eight points clear of second-place Seattle in the Western Conference.
The victory over Salt Lake was goalkeeper Zach Thornton's sixth shutout of the season, one short of his total in his last year as a full-time starter -- he had seven in 24 games with Chicago in 2006. Thornton hasn't yielded a goal in 324 consecutive minutes, 10 shy of the Chivas record set in 2006 by Brad Guzan.
"We're hard to play against," Nagamura said. "We work for each other for 90 minutes. We make it tough for the other team to create anything. Our mentality has been great from the first game of the season."
Chivas won both meetings with United last season by a combined 6-1, but is 2-5-1 all-time in the series.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press