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Oct 6, 2006

MLS playoff picture beginning to shape up

It was only a year ago, so the memory is still fresh in the minds of many. The Los Angeles Galaxy, which posted a losing record in its final eight regular season games last season (3-4-1), qualified as the fourth seed in the Western Conference with a .500 record (13-13-6) and rode a hot streak all the way to an improbable MLS Cup title. The feat has offered some hope to every team still alive in this year's playoff race, which happens to be 11 of the league's 12 teams (sorry, Columbus).

How many of those 11 teams have a realistic chance of lifting the trophy in Frisco, Texas come November? Not as many as you might think. The presence of some really strong teams playing solid soccer down the stretch brings the number of true title contenders to between four and five.

You could argue that the league's power teams last regular season, New England and San Jose, failed to lift the trophy, with three of the four lower seeds in the first round of the 2005 playoffs advancing to the conference final.

A closer look at the results of the past five years worth of MLS playoffs reveals that 2005 was, in fact, an anomaly. Of the past 20 first-round playoff series in MLS, 15 were won by the higher seed. As far as regular-season conference champions go, six of the past eight advanced all the way to the MLS Cup final. The two that didn't, the 2005 San Jose squad and 2004 Columbus Crew, both suffered first-round upset losses.

In short, the regular season isn't as meaningless as some would try to say it is. Despite the fact that an absurdly large number of teams qualify for the postseason the cream still manages to rise to the top. Will the same thing happen this year? D.C. United and FC Dallas have done well to hold comfortable leads in their respective conferences but it could be argued that neither is playing the best soccer in their conferences at the moment.

Here is a look at how the 11 teams still alive in the playoff chase stack up with two games remaining in the season:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

D.C. United

The East leaders were demolishing the league for two-thirds of the season before a rash of injuries and cards led to a stretch of poor form that have seen the four-time champions go 2-4-5 in their last 11 matches. D.C. has gotten healthy recently, with forward Alecko Eskandarian the only key player dealing with an injury. Despite losing to Houston last week, D.C. moved the ball well and appear to have incorporated newcomer Matias Donnet well.

Why they are dangerous: D.C. still boasts the most talented team in the league and the combination of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez is unmatched in MLS. Why they are vulnerable: Momentum counts for something and D.C. doesn't have any with two matches remaining. D.C. needs a win, and preferably two wins, against New England and Chicago in the season's final two matches to re-establish control in the East and to cool the growing belief that they are vulnerable. Peter Nowak's squad can take heart in knowing that it can gain some momentum against whichever team it faces in the first round, be it the Red Bulls or the Wizards.

Chicago Fire

The hottest team in MLS right now, the Fire is clicking at the right time, posting a 7-2-1 mark in its past 10 matches. The forward trio of Andy Herron, Chris Rolfe and Nate Jaqua is working well in Dave Sarachan's rotation while the defense really has evolved into a dependable unit. The key to Chicago's success, however, is a midfield that is deep, dynamic and capable of adapting to any opponent's strengths. Chris Armas and Diego Gutierrez give the Fire a fierce central midfield tandem that can stifle even the most dynamic playmakers in the league.

Why they are dangerous: The Fire can defend well, possess well and boast arguably the deepest team in MLS. Andy Herron gives Chicago a striker who commands a double team and the Fire's midfield is playing as well as any in the league.

Why they are vulnerable: Goalkeeper Matt Pickens has just earned MLS player of the month honors for September but he has never played in a playoff game. Sarachan isn't likely to go back to regular starter Zach Thornton, which means a postseason novice will be asked to stop a New England attack in the first round that is sure to create its share of scoring chances.

New England Revolution

While the Fire has stolen the spotlight for its hot streak, the Revolution has quietly put together its own five-match unbeaten streak. New England is notorious for playing below expectations during the regular season before turning it on late in the year. The Revs are playing well despite the absence of Shalrie Joseph and Pat Noonan, but they also have benefited from a schedule that has included the three teams behind them in the East standings in six of the past seven matches. The Chicago Fire will present a much stiffer test.

Why they are dangerous: Clint Dempsey is heating up and newly-acquired Mexican forward Jose Manuel Abundis appears ready to be an impact player, which is helping the team cope with Noonan's absence.

Why they are vulnerable: Joseph is the team's most important player and his absence certainly would be felt against the Chicago Fire's tough midfield. If both he and Daniel Hernandez are still out come playoff time, they won't get past the first round.

Kansas City Wizards

For the second straight season the Wizards are heading toward the end of the regular season in danger of blowing what should have been a guaranteed playoff spot. How a team with this much talent is struggling to qualify for the postseason is mind-boggling. The Wizards have shown flashes of brilliance but continue to struggle with consistency. Josh Wolff has gotten over his failed transfer move and is carrying an attack that is still trying to figure out who kidnapped Eddie Johnson's scoring touch.

Why they are dangerous: Wolff and Scott Sealy form a fiercesome forward line while the defense can be stingy when Jimmy Conrad and Nick Garcia are on top of their game.

Why they are vulnerable: The midfield just isn't good enough at maintaining possession, which limits chances and puts more pressure on the defense and goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi, who is a liability in goal.

New York Red Bulls

Bruce Arena's team has made some improvement in recent weeks but there are too many flaws in the squad to think it has any real chance of making noise in the postseason, assuming the Red Bulls even qualify. Amado Guevara has had some good games recently and appears ready to lead the team in the absence of Youri Djorkaeff while 16-year-old striker Josmer Altidore has become the team's most dangerous forward.

Why they are dangerous: With Guevara, Austrian Markus Schopp and Dema Kovalenko, the Red Bulls have the ability to control possession and create quality chances. The defense has played well in recent weeks and work well with goalkeeper Jon Conway, who is likely to start ahead of Tony Meola the rest of the season. The Red Bulls also have a surprising amount of postseason experience. Arena, Dema Kovalenko and Todd Dunivant have won MLS Cups and Djorkaeff and Schopp have won titles in Europe.

Why they are vulnerable: The team's most reliable forward is just 16 and just made his MLS debut last month. Djorkaeff doesn't look like he has anything left and the Red Bulls just don't match up well with D.C. United, which is who they would play if they beat out the Wizards for the fourth playoff spot in the East.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

FC Dallas

Much like D.C. United, the Hoops have struggled mightily after the All-Star break, posting a 3-6-1 mark in their past 10 matches. Why the struggles? Blame an attack that is not generating as many chances as it did in the season's first half. The defense also has struggled to shut down opponents, due in part to opponents gaining more possession. FC Dallas coach Colin Clarke has addressed this problem late in the season by benching Ramon Nunez, a defensive liability, but now FC Dallas is forced to rely more an attack-numbing central midfield tandem of Simo Valakari and Richard Mulrooney to create chances with converted forward Kenny Cooper playing on the left flank in place of Nunez.

Why they are dangerous: Carlos Ruiz and Kenny Cooper are still extremely dangerous forwards and Ronnie O'Brien is still capable of taking over a game on the right flank.

Why they are vulnerable: For a first-place team there are some serious question marks. Who will be the team's goalkeeper? Is the defense really championship-caliber? Does Richard Mulrooney have enough left to help win another MLS Cup? If the Hoops drop its final two matches, both against the Galaxy, they could wind up facing the Galaxy in the first round. If that happens they are definitely a candidate for the somewhat surprising first-round exit. As far as MLS Cup aspirations, there are too many questions here.

Houston Dynamo

A midseason sleeper pick to win it all, the Dynamo still boast one of the league's best midfielders in Dwayne De Rosario and one of its best forwards in Brian Ching. Houston has struggled to find consistency after the All-Star break, posting a 3-4-3 mark in its past 10 matches. Blame a struggling offense that has mustered more than one goal in just one game in September. What they do boast is an underrated defense that has allowed just two goals in its past five matches.

Why they are dangerous: If you have a top goal scorer, a top playmaker and a stingy defense you have the makings of a championship squad. Houston boasts all three. Boasting the strongest defense in the league, the Dynamo can reach MLS Cup if the offense gets untracked.

Why they are vulnerable: The offense has benefited from a stingy defense but a first-round matchup against a Chivas USA attack that has scored three or more goals seven times this season could be trouble if they don't start creating more chances.

Chivas USA

Bob Bradley's men play an attractive brand of soccer but defensive concerns keep the Goats from being considered a true championship contender. Chivas USA had allowed just one goal in four matches before last week's 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the Galaxy, the fifth time this season it allowed three or more goals in a game. With veterans Ante Razov, Francisco Palencia, Jesse Marsch, Claudio Suarez and Carlos Llamosa, Chivas USA has the look of a team capable of making a deep playoff run.

Why they are dangerous: When it is clicking, the Chivas USA attack is the best in the west. Razov is playoff proven and Palencia, when healthy, still boasts loads of experience. The Goats haven't officially clinched a playoff spot yet but they are unlikely to lose two straight.

Why they are vulnerable: Goalkeeper Brad Guzan has taken over in goal, and has shown some flashes, but he is still a newcomer to the playoffs and is still too raw to count on. The defense is also suspect. While it is organized, its lack of speed can be exploited, as the Galaxy showed last weekend.

Colorado Rapids

The Rapids might be sitting in a playoff spot at the moment but no team in contention elicits less excitement than this squad. They boast Joe Cannon, who is Kevin Hartman's only truly deserving competition for MLS goalkeeper of the year honors, but their attack hasn't scored at least two goals in a game for a ridiculous 13 matches. They can lock up a playoff spot with a win against either the Red Bulls or Dynamo, not an automatic.

Why they are dangerous: Joe Cannon is capable of taking over a game and in a two-game playoff format in the first round he could do enough to single-handedly shut down FC Dallas.

Why they are vulnerable: Their attack is just too anemic to advance past the first round, let alone make noise deep into the playoffs. Missing the postseason wouldn't really be a surprise.

Real Salt Lake

Call this squad the Jeckyll and Hydes. RSL can look just plain awful and then can flip a switch and score on anybody. That sort of inconsistancy has made John Ellinger's squad look like a potential MLS Cup participant on some occasions, and like last year's misguided team on others. Which team will show up in the season's final two games? It is anyone's guess, but at this time of the year consistent teams tend to prevail.

Why they are dangerous: When it is clicking, the RSL attack can score on anybody. MLS scoring leader Jeff Cunningham and MLS career scoring leader Jason Kreis are veterans who could handle the pressure of the postseason.

Why they are vulnerable: The Lakers still need some help to get in and must find a way to get at least four points from games against Houston and Chivas USA, which might be too tall a task, but if they go into the season finale with a chance to qualify don't bet against them.

Los Angeles Galaxy

The task seems simple enough. In order for the Galaxy to qualify for the postseason and get a chance to defend their title, they must win two games and hope that Colorado can't win either of its final two games and Real Salt Lake doesn't win its final two games. Sounds simple, right? The Galaxy still has most of the same components that caught fire late last season, including Landon Donovan, the league's best big-game player. He will do his part to command the attack but will the defense find the form that helped it shut down opponents last postseason?

Why they are dangerous: The Galaxy have the league's best player in Donovan and arguably the league's best goalkeeper in Kevin Hartman. That same tandem was a big reason this squad won it all in 2005. Is a repeat run to a title a possibility? Anything is possible when Donovan and Hartman are involved.

Why they are vulnerable: The defense has yet to show the consistent dominance of last season and the midfield is still struggling to generate chances. Then there is the Alexi Lalas factor. The Isiah Thomas of MLS, Lalas has been president of two teams, neither of which was able to get past the first round of the playoffs.

Game Previews

Nothing much to say here except it is never wise to bet against Landon Donovan when his MLS team is in danger of elimination. I won't make that mistake again. The Galaxy need a win and some help to reach the postseason. They will do their part, but won't get the help they need to stay live in the West playoff race.

New England Revolution at D.C. United

Without Shalrie Joseph to do the dirty work in central midfield look for Christian Gomez to have a big game and D.C. to start its move toward a fifth MLS title. D.C. United 2, Revolution 1.

Chivas USA at Kansas City Wizards

Just when you think Chivas USA is a serious title contender the Goats go and get blown out by the Galaxy. Now they face a Wizards team that is desperate to keep up with the Red Bulls for the final playoff spot in the East. Go with the team that needs the result more. Wizards 1, Chivas USA 0.

Columbus Crew at Chicago Fire

If you read last week's previews, you will recall that I spoke highly of the Crew's recent form only to pick against Sigi Schmid's boys. What do they do? Blow out FC Dallas. Call me stubborn but I can't see the Crew pulling off another upset, not with a Fire team desperate to keep its momentum going heading into the playoffs. Fire 2, Crew 0.

Los Angeles Galaxy at FC Dallas

What is it about FC Dallas and the second half of seasons? For the second straight year the Hoops followed up a stellar first-half of the season with a putrid second half. Now they face a Galaxy team that has no other option but to win in order to keep its playoff hopes alive. Donovan keeps LA in the hunt with a star performance. Galaxy 3, FC Dallas 2

Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake is at home and in desperate need of a win. The Dynamo are trying to hold onto the No. 2 seed in the playoffs but the urgency isn't quite there. Go with the home team in desperation mode. Real Salt Lake 1, Dynamo 0.

New York Red Bulls at Colorado Rapids

The Rapids are tough at home, but the Red Bulls have been steadily improving and should escape with a rare road victory, setting up an all-or-nothing showdown with the Wizards in the season finale. Red Bulls 2, Rapids 0.

Last week: 3-3

Overall: 57-73

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.