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Playoffs begin with no clear favorite

A clear favorite is tough to identify as Major League Soccer's "second season" kicks off this weekend. Four home-and-away, aggregate goals series launch a playoff push toward the Nov. 12 MLS Cup final at Pizza Hut Park outside Dallas. D.C. United and FC Dallas were kings of April, May, June and July. However, both had their issues as the 32-round MLS season lurched forward, and now the winner of the Chicago-New England first-round clash might emerge as the lead horse in an unpredictable race.

Five Reasons To Watch

1. The wide-open field.

Can you spot the favorite? Are you sure? C'mon, you're just guessing right along with everybody else, right? Most years produce a clear front-runner or two during MLS' elimination phase. Not so in 2006 as eight teams race toward the final. Peter Nowak & Co. are 2-6-5 since late July. Double yuck.

Meanwhile, Chicago and New England are playing with an edge, but it's tough to pick a favorite in that swell first-round series, and one of 'em will be finished by Oct. 28.

The West looks even less predictable. A Dallas side that claimed a conference crown based mostly on its robust pre-All Star form doesn't look particularly intimidating now (and hasn't won a playoff series since 1999). Then again, Carlos Ruiz did shake off a dreadful summer and looks like a goal scorer again in October. Houston and Chivas USA have reason to be confident. As for Colorado, any team with big-game specialist Joe Cannon has a chance. He was unbelievable as the Rapids upset Dallas last year.

2. The rhythm factor.

One of the goofy things about the MLS playoffs is how teams actually can be punished for early success.

Think about this: While conference winners Dallas and D.C. could afford to ease off the accelerator by late summer, teams such as Red Bull NY, Colorado and Chivas have essentially been grinding out elimination matches for a month. They already have reached playoff speed with a steeling run of meaningful contests. Dallas, Houston, D.C. and Chicago are gunning it on the on-ramp, hoping they can attain highway speed, which is trickier than it sounds.

That's what makes the MLS playoffs such a lottery: fourth-place teams have all the momentum. Your 2005 MLS champs, the Galaxy, came from fourth place. In fact, the scrappers that fought their way into the 2005 playoffs won three of four series against opponents that had cruised -- fat and happy? -- through the regular season's sunset.

3. The goalkeeping conundrums.

Half the playoff field has an important goalkeeping choice; and all seem to be leaning toward youthful ability over experience. In Red Bull country, Jon Conway apparently will hold his spot in favor of well-weathered Tony Meola. West of there, Matt Pickens has displaced big Zach Thornton (who is healthy again) and seems to be Dave Sarachan's choice going into the aggregate goals series against New England.

D.C. United's Troy Perkins surely will shake off the effects of strep throat and keep his spot while the elder Nick Rimando, with his 145 matches of experience, watches from the bench.

In Dallas, boss Colin Clarke has a real head-scratcher. Dario Sala was well-entrenched and trusted by his defense through 28 games. But a calf strain put Shaka Hislop, a brief hero of World Cup 2006 for Trinidad and Tobago, on the clock. Hislop hasn't been particularly special, and with Sala returning to practice this week, Clarke must decide whether the Argentine keeper can gain the requisite sharpness with no rehearsal match. Otherwise, he goes with a healthier Hislop, who conceded an alarming five against L.A. to close the season.

4. The first-round plum.

With apologies to the dandy New England-Chicago matchup, the D.C. United-Red Bull conference semifinal is the first-round plum in terms of intrigue. Anybody else have this sneaking suspicion that soon-to-retire Youri Djorkaeff has something special left to offer? Can wonder kid Josmer Altidore (an "89er," as in, just 16 years old!) write another chapter in his emerging story? Does chief Bull Bruce Arena have any magic fairy dust left over from that 2002 Asian dream work?

And what of counterpart Nowak, the tightly wound United boss who was being mentioned three months back as Arena's successor in the national team post? His once crisp club has devolved into a very average lot of wavering focus and intensity. If Nowak's team repeats its first-round flop of a year ago (How 'bout that implausible 4-0 fiasco at RFK that bounced United last year?), you have to wonder whether the coach's relentless, hard-nosed approach simply doesn't work over a long haul. If so, what of Nowak's future? My, how things change, eh?

5. The magic sponge factor.

Is a good trainer worth his weight in bearer bonds? We'll see in the "second season." New England's Shalrie Joseph, the league's top defensive midfielder when healthy, is apparently ready to stalk again. He's critical to the Revs' chances; Joseph screens a defense that's only decent, and the team loses some grittiness without him (although New England did do fine during Joseph's recent absence). And the Revs' Daniel Hernandez, another who provides some toughness, is getting healthy and fit after ankle trouble that started in May.

In Los Angeles, Chivas midfield ball winner Jesse Marsch suffered a mild concussion when he slammed his head on the (thankfully, if somewhat inexplicably) sandy Home Depot Center pitch. It would be a huge loss, and it only adds to Chivas' stockpile of injury headaches.

In Chicago, veteran bruiser C.J. Brown might have a gimpy ankle, although Jim Curtin would be a pretty able replacement.

Five Matchups To Follow

1. Houston's Eddie Robinson vs. Chivas' Ante Razov.

The Dynamo centerback was splendid this year -- when he managed to stay on the field. Robinson hurt his team with discipline issues, hacking his way to a league-leading 11 cautions and one costly ejection. He'll have to keep his head against Razov, the former U.S. international just back from injury. Razov certainly got the job done in the regular season with 14 goals, but he has a history of shrinkage in the big-game spotlight.

2. Chivas' grumpy old center backs vs. Houston's Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching.

This is no misprint: Chivas' centerback pairing of Carlos Llamosa and Claudio Suarez is a combined 74 years old! Even freakier is how most teams can't seem to get behind these two despite their lack of speed.

It will be the job of league MVP candidate De Rosario (11 goals, five assists) to drive the orange attack past the seemingly ageless 37-year-olds. He'll be looking to combine with Ching, who is finishing a memorable, roller coaster and injury-slowed season.

3. Colorado's Terry Cooke vs. Dallas' Chris Gbandi.

Two unsung heroes of the 2006 campaign clash here. Cooke's snappy service from the right provided a league-leading 12 assists this year. And that sum probably would have been greater if Colorado had a reliable striker. (Did defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman really share the Rapids' goal-scoring leadership with seven? Good grief.) For Dallas, Gbandi finally had a season worthy of a No. 1 MLS draft pick. He was the best of an unsettled back line, defending reliably and getting forward with regularity for the Pizza Hut Park bunch.

4. Chicago back line vs. the New England attack.

The Fire's Tony Sanneh, finally healthy, is providing additional leadership and composure to a back line that has been pretty tight all year. The defense will have to be particularly sharp against Clint Dempsey, Taylor Twellman and Andy Dorman, who needed a while to figure out how to play without buddy Pat Noonan.

5. The MLS pitches vs., well, everybody.

As much as the situation has improved, the country's most important month of soccer will suffer more than it should from inadequate fields. When will the Kraft family get serious about soccer and start thinking about a proper stadium? The field in Foxborough, Mass., is insufferable, beaten up by the Patriots, the Revs and the Rolling Stones. Everybody loves Toyota Park outside Chicago, but players concede privately that the field still isn't tip-top, affected at times by odd grooves.

D.C. United and its opponents continue to deal with the infield factor at RFK, although the baseball-borne issues are better now than earlier in 2006. In Dallas, the field is OK but not quite as plush as last year. And in Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center field just went through its latest resodding in a maddeningly frequent occurrence.

New York? Field turf. Football lines. Don Garber: Make the bad man stop.

Five Key Players

1. New England's Clint Dempsey.

This guy looks like a man trying to prove a point. He scored or assisted on a goal in each of the Revs' final four contests, punctuating a campaign that could have unraveled beneath the weight of a failed overseas move. If anybody sees a more confident player going into the playoffs, please point him out.

2. D.C. United's Christian Gomez.

Seems that as Gomez goes, so goes United. The Argentine playmaker soared early in 2006, and so did his team. Then he hit the skids and … well, you get the picture. But Gomez had a decent match in D.C.'s finale, even if Nowak's men couldn't outscore feisty Chicago. He'll have to provide some offense to make up for a wobbly D, which Nowak says is giving up goals "like an under-12 team." Can't disagree, coach Nowak.

3. Dallas' Carlos Ruiz.

"El Pescadito" labored through a miserable summer, failing to find the net in 11 consecutive MLS matches. But he rallied in the fall, striking in four of his team's final five games to finish with 13 goals. Teammate Kenny Cooper (11 goals) punished teams that paid too much attention to Ruiz. Now, as teams concede the need to watch out for Cooper, Ruiz is a factor once again.

4. Chicago's Chris Armas.

The veteran was a tour de force in the regular-season closer at D.C. United. The former U.S. international steers a highly effective midfield, with fellow linkmen Ivan Guerrero and Justin Mapp also strong at the moment. There's a real edge to the Fire's game lately, and Armas is always in the mix as the team attacks and defends as a cohesive unit. Still looking for an MLS Cup favorite? Here's a hint: Most previous champs had a strong presence at the critical defensive midfield spot.

5. D.C. United's Alecko Eskandarian.

Could "Esky" have done something about United's 2005 playoff splat? Maybe. He certainly has a proven knack for important goals, even if it was during just one huge playoff surge. Eskandarian struck four times in four matches in 2004, driving D.C. United to a championship. He was injured and didn't play in last year's woeful flop, so technically, you could say he's still hot in the playoffs.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com