With the MLS All-Star Game in the rearview mirror and August upon us, it is the time of year when teams start preparing for the race to the MLS postseason. Early-season struggles and success are forgotten as the addition of a 13th team and the changes in the league's playoff format have made it that much tougher to qualify for the postseason.
As we head down the stretch there are basically 12 teams vying for eight playoff spots, with only Real Salt Lake having played itself out of the race. The Houston Dynamo look unstoppable at the moment but you have to go back to only last year to find a team that fell apart after looking unbeatable. D.C. United was running away with the league before the 2006 All-Star break but injuries and lost form turned D.C. into a shell of its dominant self and it fell short of the MLS Cup.
While some teams are lucky enough to have cap space and new acquisitions in their sights, most teams will be looking to players already on their rosters to step up and provide a boost that was missing earlier in the year.
Here are the 12 players who will be key to their teams' stretch drives:
Houston -- Dwayne De Rosario
As good as the Dynamo have been, they have been rolling despite DeRosario not producing at his usual rate. He has just one assist in 15 matches but he has shown signs recently of regaining his form, as evidenced by last week's long-range blast of a goal. With DeRosario on his game, the Dynamo are nearly unbeatable.
New England -- Pat Noonan
The oft-injured striker signed a new contract in the offseason but spent more time on the sidelines than on the field in the first half of the season. The Revs need Noonan to find his old form to take some of the pressure off Taylor Twellman and keep Steve Nicol from relying on rookie Adam Cristman come playoff time. Noonan has already begun to show signs of awakening, as evidenced by his recent goals, including last night's game winner.
FC Dallas -- Clarence Goodson
With the Hoops focusing so much attention on boosting an already potent attack with new acquisitions, they need their current defenders to step up. With Alex Yi sidelined, FC Dallas needs Goodson to become an anchor in the back. If he can't meet that challenge then Dallas will be too weak in the back to be a serious threat to win MLS Cup. Carlos Ruiz deserves honorable mention in this category for his disappointing first half.
Kansas City -- Carlos Marinelli
There is no doubting the Argentine playmaker's skill, as he has shown some real brilliance early on in his MLS career, but the Wizards need him to do more than he has in recent weeks if they are going to catch the New England Revolution. To be fair, the Wizards have such a potent midfield that they can get by with less than Marinelli's best, especially with how well Sasha Victorine has played, but Marinelli needs to be in top form if Curt Onalfo's team is going to have any real title aspirations.
D.C. United -- Jaime Moreno
The next goal Moreno scores will be an MLS career record but that bit of history hides the fact Moreno has yet to score a goal in the run of play this year. All three of his scores have been penalty kicks. He has played just nine games after playing in Copa America but his form was disappointing before that. D.C. has some quality attacking options but an in-form Moreno turns D.C. into a title contender.
New York -- Claudio Reyna
Anyone who expected Reyna to put up monster stats doesn't understand what Reyna does, but critics have a point when they harp on his zero goals and three assists. Reyna played well earlier in the season but struggled once the rest of the midfield fell out of form. If the rest of the Red Bulls' midfielders regain their early-season form, then Reyna still has the skill to pull the strings and turn the Red Bulls into a title contender. One thing he can't do is carry the team, something that is disappointing for a million-dollar player.
Columbus -- Andy Herron
The Crew's renaissance has been a product of dynamic midfield play and a revamped defense. What is still lacking is a reliable forward option. Herron has been a proven scorer in MLS before and needs to regain his form because he is the most talented forward on the roster. Alejandro Moreno and Jason Garey are decent contributors but Herron has the skills to make the most of a midfield that will create chances for him.
Chivas USA -- Sacha Kljestan
From the moment Chivas USA got rid of Amado Guevara the responsibility for creating in the midfield has fallen to Kljestan. He has delivered for the most part but the Goats need even more from the U.S. national team prospect. If Chivas USA doesn't come through with a marquee signing this summer, preferably one who can man the playmaker duties, it will be up to Kljestan to run an offense that has plenty of weapons.
Los Angeles -- Abel Xavier
So maybe the Portuguese defender hasn't been around long enough to be called disappointing. He has actually been a revelation. What is true is that the Galaxy don't stand a chance of making up the considerable ground in the standings if Xavier can't anchor the back line. The goals should come with David Beckham and Landon Donovan spearheading the attack, but if Xavier is anything less than all-star caliber, the back line won't be good enough.
Toronto FC -- Carl Robinson
With all the injuries to Toronto FC's roster, Mo Johnston will be leaning even more heavily on the versatile Robinson, who has a goal and an assist through 16 matches. Injuries to Jeff Cunningham and Danny Dichio mean that 20-year-old striker Andrea Lombardo also merits consideration for this category. The Canadian U-20 player has yet to score an MLS goal but he should be in the starting lineup for a while and needs to produce if Toronto is to keep its fading playoff hopes alive.
Chicago -- Chris Rolfe
One of the most disappointing story lines for the Fire this season has been Rolfe's battle with injuries. In April Rolfe looked like one of the league's best forwards. Unfortunately for the Fire, we haven't seen much of him since. While the additions of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Paulo Wanchope should help ignite a floundering Chicago attack, the Fire need a healthy Rolfe back in order to really challenge for a playoff spot.
Colorado -- Mehdi Ballouchy
Yes, he has just arrived with his new team, but the Rapids traded Kyle Beckerman because they believed Ballouchy could provide the spark to the attack that has been missing. The only problem is that the Rapids' attack has been woeful and Ballouchy hasn't exactly been an unstoppable force. The truth is the Rapids probably won't make the playoffs even if Ballouchy plays out of his mind -- but at the very least Rapids fans won't feel as though they were fleeced in the trade, which is how most of them feel right now.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.