MLS main course has arrived
The two expansion teams from Los Angeles and Utah joining Major League Soccer next year have been the topics du jour throughout the past few weeks. So has the Danny Szetela saga, along with the recent transfers of DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey to teams in Holland and England, respectively.
But it's time to push those items aside and take a deep look into the start of the second-half of the MLS season. The first four months of the season were a mere warm-up, serving as an hors d'oeuvre to the main course that will play out between now and November.
Last year's stretch run came right down to the final weekend, with D.C. United and Columbus fighting for that final playoff spot in the East. And with the continued parity we've seen in 2004, much of the same is expected for the weekend of October 26 when the regular season comes to a close.
Here are the storylines to watch between now and then:
Is it more surprising that the Earthquakes are in last place in the West or that they are behind Dallas? It's mind-boggling, really. Injuries have played a big part in San Jose's season, but the team has dealt with that in the past a lot better than it did in the first half by slumping out to a 5-6-6 record.
What will not help San Jose's plight is losing star Landon Donovan to the U.S. National Team for several World Cup qualifiers this fall. As has been the case since he joined the side in 2001, the 'Quakes are a different team without the 22-year-old star.
If history means anything, Donovan has always upped his level right after the All-Star break. In 14 career games in August, he has scored nine goals and registered five assists for 23 points, to make it his highest scoring month.
In the first half, San Jose trotted out 15 different starting lineups over 17 games due to injuries, suspensions and various National Team duties. If a similar statistic can be shown for the second half of the season, it'll unlikely the Earthquakes will move too far up the table and repeat as MLS champions.
If awards were given out at midseason, Bob Gansler would be the easy choice for Coach of the Year. Without having Preki, last year's MVP, in the lineup for one minute due to his broken ankle, he's somehow got his side to play even better than they did with him in 2003.
The Wizards have attacking options all over the field, a good bench, versatility, a veteran goalkeeper, and a whole gaggle of players who are either overachieving or are severely underrated depending on who you talk to. (I believe in the latter philosophy.)
Three players on the Wizards -- Davy Arnaud, Chris Klein and Josh Wolff -- sit among the top 10 scorers in the league, yet it's been the defense that has propelled this club to a 9-5-5 recor, good for second-place in both the Western Conference and the league as a whole.
They've allowed only 18 goals in 19 games, including a league-high seven shutouts. Much of this success can be credited to Tony Meola, whose 0.95 goals-against-average is second in the league behind Colorado's Joe Cannon.
In addition, the center back pairing of Jimmy Conrad and Shavar Thomas -- two players the Wizards have acquired in trades on Draft Day deals the past two Januarys -- has been a wild success, as well as the play they've been getting from Diego Gutierrez and Kerry Zavagnin.
With Preki expected to get back in the lineup for the stretch run, Kansas City might be the team to beat, and a wise choice to win the MLS Cup.
The 17-year-old midfielder joins the Crew not as a savior, but as another piece of the puzzle. Without him, Columbus was doing just fine as of late, going 2-0-3 in its last five games to move into second place in the Eastern Conference.
Having Szetela in the mix gives Greg Andrulis and his staff added options all over the field.
Should the Crew stay in the 3-5-2 system they've employed for much of the season, the Under-20 National Team performer could play as a flank midfielder or next to Simon Elliott as a holding midfielder, which is the position he initially earned international interest from after his play in the U-17 FIFA World Championships last August.
Once Szetela gets going, the formation could change back to a 4-4-2, allowing Frankie Hejduk to resume his usual spot as a right back.
Whichever way the Crew utilize their newest weapon, Szetela is primed to be one of the top rookies by the end of the season.
People around the league have been whispering for the past two years how both Beasley and Convey play better with the National Team than with their own clubs in MLS. Now that Chicago and D.C. United are without them, it'll be easier to see just how much impact they've each had on the lineup.
Though losing a quality left-sided player like Convey won't help D.C., Chicago will be the side that ultimately feels the sting more.
Never mind the effect that Beasley had on ticket sales as a true face of the league, the 22-year-old midfielder's speed alone made defenses pay attention to him and game plan their system around him.
That has allowed Ante Razov and Damani Ralph more space, as well as a player like Andy Williams, who seemed to combine best with Beasley of any player on the Fire.
In short, not having Beasley out there makes playing the Fire a lot less stressful if you're a defender.
If the season ended at the All-Star break, the Most Valuable Player award would have to go to Amado Guevera. Of course, he has the numbers on his side, totaling nine goals and 7 assists to lead all players with 25 points through seven games. But it's much more than that.
Guevara's playmaking skills and overall ability to run an offense has allowed several strikers to flourish, and has made it possible for Eddie Gaven to emerge as a force in this league. He's even added leadership to the side after being encouraged by Bob Bradley during spring training.
Other candidates include:
Carlos Ruiz -- still scoring in bunches for Los Angeles
Chris Klein - four goals and 8 assists only tells half the story for this hard-working Kansas City midfielder.
Joe Cannon -- Where would Colorado be without its rock in goal? Landon Donovan -- DO NOT count him out.
Last year, the second half of the season saw the blossoming of Pat Noonan in New England, the impacting play up front by Jamil Walker in San Jose, as well as a few moments of brilliance from Gaven.
The best bets to build on the time they received in the first half of the season and up their level between now and November include Felix Brillant in New England, Ryan Cochrane in San Jose, Matt Taylor in Kansas City, and Jordan Cila in Colorado.
Last year's Eastern Conference Final participants -- Chicago and New England -- each stumble into the second half of the season with atrocious records of four wins and eight losses. Chicago (7 ties) has one more tie than New England, but with one more game played, which gives the Fire fourth-place honors in the conference rather than sitting in the cellar.
Even though Chicago's best games have been much better than the best games the Revs have played, Steve Nicol's squad is more poised to grab a hold of a playoff spot than Dave Sarachan's side.
For starters, the Revs won't be losing many players to World Cup qualifying this fall, while Chicago will be without Chris Armas, Damani Ralph and Andy Williams for various stretches.
New England has already made it through a storm so terrible that it forced Nicol to use Steve Ralston as a defender, in addition to several positional changes to simply field a lineup with all the injuries that struck the team during the spring.
In essence, the Revs are getting Taylor Twellman back, since he was injured for the early part of the year and suffered through a rare goal-less streak once he returned. Meanwhile, Chicago goes into the fall without Beasley for the first time in five years.
Edge: New England.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com