D.C. United earned a big win over the New York Red Bulls earlier this season, sparking their current run. The rematch has high stakes for both clubs.
D.C. looks to win five straight for the first time in nearly five years Sunday when it visits New York, which hopes to have two key players back as it tries to stay unbeaten at home.
First-place United have a three-point lead over New York in the Eastern Conference, helped by a 4-1 victory over the Red Bulls on April 22, when Chris Pontius recorded his first career hat trick.
That victory started a 7-2-0 stretch for United (9-4-3), who are coming off a 1-0 win over Philadelphia on June 16 behind Pontius' sixth goal of the season in the 78th minute.
"It was a big match for us defensively," midfielder Nick DeLeon said. "As a whole it was a good team performance. They were bringing it and were all over us, but we stood together to get the good team result."
D.C. had not had too many defensive battles like the one against the Union, as it outscored its previous three opponents 8-3.
Looking to win five straight for the first time since a six-game run Aug. 5-Sept. 1, 2007, United are 2-0-1 in their last three visits to Red Bull Arena while holding New York scoreless in the last two games there.
However, the Red Bulls are 4-0-2 at home this year, outscoring opponents 14-6.
"This is a game we are looking forward to," United captain and former Red Bulls star Dwayne De Rosario told his team's official website. "If we can get three points in New York it would be a huge motivation, and a morale booster for us."
The Red Bulls (8-4-3) are back at home after playing their last two on the road. They settled for a 1-all draw against Vancouver on Wednesday, with Heath Pearce scoring the tying goal in the 85th minute.
"I'm very happy with that," assistant coach Jan Halvorsen said. "Sometimes you can be happy with one point."
Coach Hans Backe did not make the trip for unspecified personal reasons, while Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez each missed a second straight game due to injuries. Both are questionable for Sunday.
"I still need minutes to get back to full fitness," Marquez said. "I've been out for three weeks, so it's not going to be easy to get back, but it will come with playing time."
Defender Markus Holgersson is also doubtful with a sprained left ankle while midfielder Dane Richards will sit out due to yellow-card accumulation.
Even with a possible short-handed lineup, April's loss to United provides additional motivation as the Red Bulls try to climb the standings.
"We've been waiting for this game for a while now," defender Connor Lade said. "It's going to be a big crowd, so all the aspects are going to be there for a great game and great rivalry."