Atlanta United and D.C. United meet Saturday night in what is shaping up as a potential first-round playoff preview.
With both Atlanta (6-4-7, 25 points) and D.C. (6-6-5, 23 points) at the midway point of the season, the teams are fifth and seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, with the top nine to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
That represents a substantial improvement for both from 2022, when each missed out on the postseason. In particular, D.C. finished last in the East after a miserable start of the campaign that resulted in the firing of former boss Hernan Losada and eventually the appointment of current manager Wayne Rooney.
Rooney's Black-and-Red enter Saturday's clash only four points shy of their entire haul from the previous season, though he thinks they perhaps should be even higher.
"I think we've done OK," Rooney said this week. "I think we obviously are where we are, which from the points we've picked up, is in the playoff spots, which is good from that point of view. But I really believe that we could certainly have six to nine more points."
Perhaps Atlanta United also have a similar belief during a campaign in which they've been hamstrung by a poor defensive record.
The Five Stripes' 28 goals conceded is the second-most in the East, behind only Charlotte (30).
But they became the first team on the MLS schedule this season to hold LAFC scoreless at home after eight saves from Brad Guzan in Wednesday night's scoreless draw. The veteran former U.S. national team goalkeeper had come under fire recently for his play in a 3-3 home draw to the New England Revolution on May 31.
"I understand at times there is criticism to goalkeepers because one mistake and they are killed, but today was a great response by Brad," Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda said after the match. "We know this is the level that he can give us and I'm just happy that he had that performance today."
Saturday could also feature two golden boot contenders, with Atlanta's Giorgos Giakoumakis at nine goals and D.C.'s Christian Benteke sitting on eight, two shy of the MLS lead.
Benteke scored his last time out in a 2-1 win at 10-man Inter Miami last weekend. Giakoumakis last scored in the New England draw.
--Field Level Media