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Jul 30, 2007

SuperLiga and Beckham add zest to July

The stroll through Major League Soccer's midsummer window is usually quite a placid one, more a lazy walkabout than a fretful, perilous hike.

Strange as it may sound, the late-July, early-August period really isn't a time of intense stress in Major League Soccer. Yes, the games go on. But what is really at stake?

The MLS playoff structure is forgiving to a fault. Any team that is reasonably positioned by mid-July can switch to cruise control and lazily while away the days -- golf, anyone? -- until the season's stretch run in September.

Yes, that's something else that makes Major League Soccer something of an odd duck in global soccer circles, but that's the way it is.

Well, correction: That's the way it was. Two important developments this year have scuttled the status quo and added a little zip to the MLS summer soup.

First, SuperLiga has been everything its architects could want. The matches have been spirited and tightly contested, spun with quality and layered with just the right amount of acrimony. So the Houston Dynamo, D.C. United, FC Dallas and the Los Angeles Galaxy may have just finished the most meaningful week of matches ever for MLS teams in the month of July.

Beyond SuperLiga, we have Project Beckham increasing the pressure all over the place. The world's most recognizable athlete (and his confounding left ankle) makes the initial stop on his Beckham Over America Tour this week. And each stop will bring its own unique pressure to bear, for the spotlight will shine squarely on MLS markets that routinely escape mainstream media scrutiny.

Clubs often get a pass from local media opinion makers because, well, because the prominent voices don't usually bother with MLS.

Beckham's presence changes that. The Galaxy play in suburban Dallas on Tuesday, wrapping up SuperLiga first-round play. FC Dallas, somehow, still has not ironed out all the kinks in the Pizza Hut Park operations, despite two years to get things right. The pitch is currently subpar, the victim of the facility's aggressive concert calendar and a stubborn resistance to re-sodding the field until it was too late. So a pitch that was once the envy of the league will be something of an inferior downer when a packed house sees it Tuesday.

And there will be no hiding the horrible traffic getting in and out of the park, nor all the little operational foibles. (Often running out of pizza? At Pizza Hut Park? Seriously?)

Even the pace of ticket sales is now fair game for discussion on larger stages. Yes, the house will be packed, unless word filters out that Beckham is staying home. We should know more about that Monday evening as Galaxy manager Frank Yallop announces his traveling squad. But tickets remained available last weekend, three nights before the match. How is that possible, when even Kansas City has already sold 20,000 tickets for Beckham's appearance in September, and when other venues have sold 30,000 and 35,000 seats already?

Three possible conclusions: FC Dallas management isn't getting the job done in sales and marketing; the critics who said Frisco is simply too far outside the area's inner ring were correct; or Dallas is simply a crummy soccer market. That's about it -- there really can be no other conclusions.

See? There's the pressure. And it will happen similarly at every stop. Teams will face new security and operational challenges and significant stress will test staffs; blow this chance and all those first-time customers aren't likely to return.

On the competition side, pressure will spill from the Galaxy team bus at every stop from now until October, starting Tuesday. SuperLiga and that swell little $1 million bounty may already be the club's top shot at hardware this year. A loss Tuesday would eliminate the Galaxy.

The necessity to produce at least a tie Tuesday significantly increases the pressure on Beckham to play his first minutes for the Galaxy outside of that show horse-type runaround last week against Chelsea.

The pressure is intense on the Galaxy to advance, since the MLS playoffs are already drifting beyond reach. A bunch of head-spinning math, based on past regular-season records of MLS postseason participants, says that teams probably will need 42 points to book playoff passage in 2007. The Galaxy (with a meager 3-5-4 record so far) have just 13 points.

So Los Angeles needs something like an 8-5-5 or 8-4-6 record in its remaining matches. Considering that 14 of the Galaxy's remaining 18 contests are on the road, that's an awfully tough target.

On the other hand, they did win a tough match in SuperLiga, downing Pachuca last week. Landon Donovan was credited with the dramatic 81st-minute game winner on the tournament's first day, and the rest of the matches have been equally compelling. In fact, all eight contests so far have been draws or were decided by one-goal margins.

Even high-flying Houston, playing about as well as any team in MLS in years, is getting a taste of the pressure.

In terms of physical intensity, Dominic Kinnear's team plays right on the edge. The Dynamo chase, tackle hard, foul when they have to and generally play with just the right amount of nastiness. But there's a thin line there, and stepping over it just a little can put things suddenly wrong.

Houston did a fantastic job in a highly combustible SuperLiga opener, in the face of atrociously lenient refereeing, of keeping its cool. Joseph Ngwenya, in particular, was beaten up pretty well by Club America defenders. But he never responded in anger, and Kinnear's men remained on mission, seizing command of the group with a 1-0 victory over Club America.

The Dynamo didn't get such high marks in discipline Sunday night against Morelia, however. Fernando Arce got away with a sly little slap across Wade Barrett's face. Dwayne De Rosario's retaliatory shove on Arce from behind could easily have been a red card offense.

Houston lost its way just a bit. That bolt-lock defense was breached. Morelia leveled the score and departed Robertson Stadium with a draw. Suddenly, things are a wee bit dicey for the Dynamo. As good as Kinnear's men look at the moment, they may face elimination with a loss Tuesday.

But that's what it's all about: matches rife with meaning.

In July, of all things.

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