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ESPN FC  By ESPN

Can Clint Dempsey's return boost the Seattle Sounders?

Before Clint Dempsey's suspension and involvement in the Gold Cup, he was on fire with seven goals and six assists in 12 matches.

Sounders hope Dempsey's return galvanizes them

Remember when the Seattle Sounders were the clear top team in all of Major League Soccer in 2015?

At one point, they were running through opponents with their lethal combination of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins up top, aided by the midfield talents such as Lamar Neagle, Marco Pappa, Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda. There was a point when the question wasn't if they would win, it was by how much?

Those times seem very long ago. Seven weeks ago, at least. Since that time, the Sounders have lost six of seven matches and tumbled down to fifth in the Western Conference standings.

But Seattle hopes it can bring the good times and winning ways back, starting on Saturday with a home date against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The key thing that knocked the wind out of the Sounders' sails over the course of the last two months has been the absence of Dempsey (due to suspension and Gold Cup), Martins (groin injury), and to a lesser extent, captain Brad Evans (Gold Cup).

Dempsey should be back in the lineup this weekend, and though he'll be fresh off a grueling period of Gold Cup and All-Star commitments, the American attacker will make an immediate difference. So much of how Seattle plays flows from the danger created up top; since none of the supporting cast stepped up during his time away, it will be up to Dempsey to turn around the Sounders' ship.

With Martins' status still unclear, all eyes will be on Dempsey on Saturday night. Is the fix for the Sounders as simple as his return? Or did one of the league's best teams suddenly -- and possibly irrevocably -- become one of its worst?

-- Jason Davis (@davisjsn)

Galaxy ready for second-half run 

It's the first weekend after the All-Star Game, which means the LA Galaxy's next opponent ought to be concerned. After all, Bruce Arena's team has made an annual habit out of slogging away until the season's stretch run, then turning it on as the playoffs approach. Need proof? Look no further than their three MLS Cup wins over the past four seasons.

"Around this time Bruce really takes a look at the points, takes a look at where we are on the board and lays it out for us: what we need to do, how many points we need to finish with," LA defender Omar Gonzalez told ESPN FC Wednesday after the league's Midsummer Classic near Denver. "In the past it's worked. Hopefully it'll work again."

We'll find out beginning Saturday, when Gonzalez's Galaxy teammates join him in Colorado for the match against the Rapids, who enter the contest riding a season-best three-game win streak. Still, the hosts are wary.

"I think they've already started to turn it on -- they didn't even wait for the All-Star break this year," Rapids defender Drew Moor said of the visitors, referencing LA's four wins in their last six games. "It's a huge test."

Gonzalez, who spent the entire month of July with the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup, will line up with Steven Gerrard for the first time. The Galaxy still won't be at full strength, however: Giovani dos Santos has yet to arrive, and there will be a change at goalkeeper after veteran Jaime Penedo was waived on Wednesday.

MLS WEEKEND FIXTURES

SATURDAY, AUGUST 1
- New York City FC vs. Montreal Impact
- D.C. United vs. Real Salt Lake
- Philadelphia Union vs. New York Red Bulls
- New England Revolution vs. Toronto FC 
- Orlando City SC vs. Columbus Crew SC
- Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo
- Colorado Rapids vs. LA Galaxy
- Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
SUNDAY, AUGUST 2
- San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers
- Chicago Fire vs. FC Dallas

Donovan Ricketts, who won the 2011 MLS Cup with LA, rejoins the club after being traded by Orlando City SC. Gonzalez insisted he isn't worried. Based on recent history, why would he be?

-- Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN)

Race for the East's final playoff place

When the season started, it was expected that New York City FC would be a second-half team, improving once the team jelled and Frank Lampard (and now Andrea Pirlo) joined up. And after Montreal Impact's dream run to the CONCACAF Champions League final left it with several games in hand and a sudden injection of form, the Quebecois were primed for a summer run.

NYCFC and the Impact meet on Saturday, and the pair sit level on 24 points and a minus-2 goal differential, tied (along with Orlando City SC) for the sixth and final place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. With unexpected fresh faces joining each club, both look even stronger for a playoff push than they did just a month ago.

After an impressive 30-minute cameo in Sunday's 5-3 win over Orlando, Pirlo is likely to be featured more prominently vs. Montreal. Aiding him should (finally) be Lampard, who manager Jason Kreis said "should be ready" to make his NYCFC debut on Saturday.

North of the border, the Impact finally landed Didier Drogba on Monday. The Ivorian striker isn't likely to make his debut vs. New York, but his addition will only galvanize a Montreal side that ranks 15th in the league in scoring.

Saturday won't be the headline-grabbing showdown between former Chelsea legends Lampard and Drogba, but it will mark a pivotal early fixture in both teams' playoff pushes. ESPN's Soccer Power Index gives the Impact a 58 percent chance of reaching the postseason and NYCFC just 24 percent. Three points for the home side on Saturday could change that.

-- Austin Lindberg (@LindbergESPN)

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