It seems like somebody has pulled the handbrake on the Houston Dynamo's aggressive drive through the Major League Soccer season.
But nobody seems too worried about it. After all, wouldn't it be understandable if Dominic Kinnear's club temporarily has lost its appetite for MLS play? All the better to be hungry for a bountiful SuperLiga spread.
Mexico's super club of the moment, Pachuca, joins three MLS sides for the SuperLiga semifinals, which begin Tuesday in Houston and continue a night later at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles.
Only the reigning Mexican champs prevented the inaugural semifinal round of SuperLiga from being an all-MLS show. Houston faces Pachuca, a club from just beyond Mexico City, at Robertson Stadium in a repeat of the teams' CONCACAF Champions Cup series from earlier this year.
One night later the struggling Los Angeles Galaxy meets D.C. United in Carson, Calif., for the second spot in next week's SuperLiga's final. The first-time tournament, having been narrowed from an original field of four MLS sides and four Mexican sides, looks increasingly like the only chance for hardware in 2007 for the Galaxy, the self-proclaimed "Jewel of Major League Soccer."
David Beckham's availability once again will be the dominant subplot as D.C. United and the Galaxy prepare to spar. Back on natural grass (and off the fake stuff that, although he has since apologized for disparaging comments, he's obviously no fan of the plastic), Beckham would appear to have a better chance at playing. That slow-healing left ankle kept soccer's iconic midfielder stuck to the bench for two of the Galaxy's three games on last week's beaten down road trip.
Another (increasingly tense) subplot marches forth here as a Galaxy campaign with so much promise has become a reclamation project. Indeed, a Los Angeles loss could accelerate the club's tumultuous slide. Last week's three matches reaped no goals and no wins, with only one point gained from a potential nine.
The Galaxy's increasingly stark prospects might make for better copy, but the more evocative contest in terms of the broader competition appears to be in Houston. Pachuca is not only the reigning Mexican champion, it's also the current CONCACAF Champions Cup holder. With a $1 million prize at stake for the SuperLiga winner, not to mention league pride, Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear has acknowledged the massive significance of Tuesday's match.
Houston vs. Pachuca
Robertson Stadium, Houston, Texas
10 p.m. ET
It won't be easy. Pachuca's roster is stocked with difference makers, especially in midfield. Firebrand attacker Damian Alvarez guides the club here, with Andres Chitiva, Gabriel Caballero and Christian Gimenez supplying energy and fluid interchange.
So the Dynamo's core of midfielders must be sharp. Kinnear must be sharp, too, in making his selections. Richard Mulrooney has been reborn with his former teammates, finding the awareness and more of the quickness that he never quite regained last year in Dallas following reconstructive knee surgery.
But that gives Kinnear one too many in the middle. Ricardo Clark and Dwayne De Rosario almost certainly will hold the central spots, while Brian Mullan will be at his usual post on the right. Emerging midfielder Stuart Holden has been the preferred option on the left during Brad Davis' absence. Mulrooney has spent time at right back, but inserting him there could disturb the continuity of the league's tightest collective back line.
The match is also special because these same sides dueled memorably in February during the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Kinnear's club won at Robertson, 2-0, but suffered a 5-2 loss in Mexico as Pachuca narrowly advanced in the tournament.
At least Kinnear has a healthy side. His former mentor while at San Jose, current Galaxy manager Frank Yallop, can't even come close to saying the same. Not only does Beckham's ankle remain an ongoing concern, but bulldog defender Abel Xavier is now spending time on the trainer's table. The former Portuguese international developed tendonitis in his left leg following the Galaxy's loss last Thursday to D.C. United and sat out Sunday's loss in New England.
Plus, Cobi Jones remains out with a hip injury and Kelly Gray missed Sunday's match outside Boston with a minor injury. The Galaxy couldn't fill out the entire allotment of seven substitutes.
So, they'll not only be fighting with their weaker hand, Yallop's men will be meeting a confident team in D.C. United. Just last Thursday, United beat the Galaxy in MLS play back on the East Coast. So any advantage Los Angeles has from playing at home is somewhat mitigated by the rest factor. United got the weekend off after Luciano Emilio's goal took down the Galaxy in last week's match.
Los Angeles, by contrast, flew to New England, lost to the Revolution there, then stepped back on a plane to fly cross country into Southern California. If Beckham's ankle suffered additional swelling from the short plane trip between D.C. and New England, as the club said, then a trip across three time zones certainly can't help.
Finally, even though the Galaxy found its way into Wednesday's semifinal, the club can't feel great about nearly having surrendered an early 4-0 lead in the final, telling group play match. Los Angeles advanced only after holding off a furious FC Dallas comeback, conceding a concerning five goals in the 6-5 victory.
"To get through to any semifinal competition, you have to commend the club and players for getting us through," Yallop said. "No matter what happened, we got through. We look forward to our semifinal."
Still, the heavy burden of losing appears to exacting a toll. Yallop seems increasingly weathered and worn as he tries to salvage something from a season going quickly askew. Players, including Beckham, seem to be experiencing little joy, seething from an obviously frustrated -- and crowded -- bench. A win in the SuperLiga semifinals would help, for the MLS playoffs seem further and further from reach.
The Galaxy has now played half its MLS matches, with just 14 points to show. To reach the MLS playoffs now, Beckham and Co. would need a record somewhere around 8-3-4. Even good teams in Major League Soccer don't generally win more than half their matches; New England leads the East right now with 10 wins in 20 matches.
Things appear bleak for the Galaxy's playoff chase. It might be SuperLiga or bust.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.