By THOMAS FLOYD
At the moment, the San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake have created some breathing room between them and the Western Conference pack.
But with a win over RSL on Friday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps will put themselves right in the thick of the race as well. The clash will feature two key contributors from the MLS All-Stars' win over Chelsea FC on Wednesday, with Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman going up against Vancouver's Jay DeMerit.
Elsewhere around the league, Alessandro Nesta is poised to make his MLS debut for the Montreal Impact against the New York Red Bulls, a club he was rumored to be going to, while the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution will try to stay afloat in the playoff race when they meet in an East Coast duel.
Here is a rundown of the Week 21 slate:
REAL SALT LAKE vs. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (Friday, 9 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
Although Beckerman was just a second-half substitute for the MLS All-Stars, DeMerit went the full 90 minutes against Chelsea because of Aurelien Collin's injury. How sharp the Whitecaps centerback is two days, several travel delays and a long flight later will be key.
For Vancouver, the focus remains on incorporating key new pieces Kenny Miller, Barry Robson and Dane Richards as the team's revamped attack continues to come together.
TORONTO FC vs. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
Both riding three-game winning streaks, these two teams are making a surge. For Toronto, that means finally being on the verge of escaping the Eastern Conference cellar.
The Dynamo, meanwhile, have climbed to third in the conference thanks largely to a balanced attack led recently by the unheralded likes of Calen Carr and Macoumba Kandji. Coping with the loss of Geoff Cameron to Stoke City, though, will be difficult.
MONTREAL IMPACT vs. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
While Nesta seems poised to make his Impact debut, it looks like Tim Cahill's first match with the Red Bulls will have to wait for another day as the Australian settles in with his club.
After winning two matches last week, the Red Bulls now sit alone atop the Eastern Conference. With the additions of Cahill and Sebastien Le Toux, New York appears to be going all in for a title run.
FC DALLAS vs. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports)
The surging Galaxy will look to keep the momentum going against a Dallas side sitting in second-to-last place but coming off a 5-0 win over Portland.
There is much uncertainty over what role (if any) the Galaxy's David Beckham and Dallas' Brek Shea will play. But one player who is out for sure is Los Angeles captain Landon Donovan, who will be serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY vs. COLUMBUS CREW (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
The Crew will look to avenge a 2-0 loss to Kansas City two weeks ago when they travel this weekend to Livestrong Sporting Park to take on Peter Vermes' second-place team.
Kansas City will be without Collin, who is sidelined 1-to-2 weeks after suffering a facial fracture in Wednesday's All-Star Game when he collided with Chelsea's Michael Essien.
COLORADO RAPIDS vs. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (Saturday, 9 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
Having lost five league matches in a row and seven of their last eight, the Rapids will look to get on track against a Seattle team that handed them the second defeat of that stretch, a 2-1 result at CenturyLink Field earlier this month.
After scoring the stoppage-time winner against Chelsea in the All-Star Game, Seattle forward Eddie Johnson will try to keep his fine run of form going in league play. In goal, the Sounders look to be getting Michael Gspurning back from a hip strain.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES vs. CHICAGO FIRE (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
With the All-Star break behind them, the Earthquakes now turn their focus to keeping up their prolific pace from the first half of the season when a Fire side holding onto fifth place in the Eastern Conference comes to town.
Each team will be down a key contributor, with San Jose right back Steven Beitashour and Chicago midfielder Marco Pappa suspended for this match.
PORTLAND TIMBERS vs. CHIVAS USA (Saturday, 11 p.m., MLS Live/Direct Kick)
Less than two weeks after Chivas defeated Portland 1-0 at the Home Depot Center, the Timbers will try to return the favor and ditch their current label as the worst team in MLS by notching the first win of the Gavin Wilkinson era.
After missing some time with a knee injury, Chivas forward Juan Agudelo is ready to return to the lineup at Jeld-Wen Field. Ryan Smith, though, who has torched the Timbers for three assists this season, looks set to miss out for the Goats.
PHILADELPHIA UNION vs. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (Sunday, 7 p.m., NBC Sports)
With the season working its way toward the stretch run, it's time for teams such as the Union (11 points out of fifth place) and New England (eight points out) to make their push if they intend on being in the playoff race come September and October.
Recently acquired centerback Bakary Soumare could make his Union debut Sunday as he nears game fitness following a knee operation.