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Aug 31, 2007

MLS story lines outside of the Beckham show

The Beckham Rule has been working out well for everyone but David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy. So, while the Galaxy have been sinking to new lows on the field and meeting with Juergen Klinsmann off the field, most other MLS teams have been doing quite well recently. Beckham has spiked the Galaxy's road attendance, leading teams such as the New York Red Bulls to factor potentially massive crowds into their new stadium construction.

Here are some compelling MLS story lines away from the Beckham sideshow:

1. Rapids on fire

The Colorado Rapids were definitely going downhill while going two months without an MLS win and also falling 5-0 to the Seattle Sounders in the U.S. Open Cup. Then the Rapids started going with the current, rallying to win three successive times, over '06 MLS Cup finalists Houston (1-0) and New England (3-0) as well as the Galaxy (3-0).

The Rapids are in a battle for the eighth and final playoff spot with Chicago and Columbus. Coach Fernando Clavijo has expressed certainty that Colorado will qualify for the playoffs, and that is where the Rapids truly excel; they have advanced to within one game of the MLS Cup in two successive seasons, and their home-field advantage will be even greater this year. (MLS playoff rounds consist of two legs -- one game at home and one away, with the winner determined by aggregate goals scored.)

The Rapids have been built to capitalize on the huge expanse of the Dick's Sporting Goods Park combined with the mile-high elevation. Now, Conor Casey needs to remain healthy and continue to provide a point of reference up front. Pablo Mastroeni is the driving force in midfield. Tony Sanneh is showing that, at age 36, he can still hold down the right back slot and also provide depth at central defender. The Rapids' fate could be determined in the next five games, four of which are on the road.

2. The Revs are still a force

Despite losing both Jose Cancela and Clint Dempsey before the season, the New England Revolution have equaled their 2005 pace and lead the league's overall standings. But the Revolution's 3-0 losses to D.C. United and Colorado this month were not characteristic of a championship team. The Revolution either displayed resourcefulness or used up some luck in going 5-2-0 (including a U.S. Open Cup win) in August.

Coach Steve Nicol has excelled in setting up the Revolution for late-season rallies -- they have concluded regular seasons with records of 5-0-2 (last year), 5-2-2 ('05), 3-2-0 ('04), 6-0-1 ('03) and 5-0-1 ('02). The Revolution are in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals (vs. the Carolina RailHawks on Sept. 4) and their visit to D.C. United on Sept. 9 could go far in determining home-field advantage in the playoffs.

3. Blanco the savior

The Blanco Rule has sparked the Chicago Fire to rise from the ashes. The Fire went 3-1-1 in Cuauhtemoc Blanco's first five games, outscoring opponents 9-3, and were a missed Blanco penalty kick away from a five-match unbeaten streak. Paulo Cesar Wanchope has added firepower. And Juan Carlos Osorio has been able to tie things together since succeeding Dave Sarachan as coach. Now the Fire will be tested with five of the next seven matches away from home.

4. The other L.A. team

Chivas USA has established itself as L.A.'s best team. Chivas dominated the Galaxy in a 3-0 victory during a three-game winning streak and a 5-1-1 overall record from July 7 through Aug. 26. Las Goats support a fluent passing game and a potent strike force of Maykel Galindo and Ante Razov, with physical defending from Claudio Suarez and Shavar Thomas, plus the Rockettes style of Jesse Marsch. Since seven of Chivas' final 10 games are home, it could be considered the favorite to win the Western Conference.

5. Joga Bonito in Dallas

FC Dallas became the latest team to spring for a Beckham Rule player, signing former Brazilian World Cup winger Denilson, who became the 14th foreign-born player on the roster.

Three previous members of World Cup champions -- Lothar Matthaus (Germany), Branco (Brazil) and Youri Djorkaeff (France) -- have been unable to elevate MLS teams to great heights. But all the Texans are asking is that Denilson provide an edge for a playoff run. Denilson's addition leads to a difficult FC Dallas decision, since the team is at the limit of four senior internationals (Pablo Ricchetti, Carlos Ruiz, Marcelo Saragosa or Adrian Serioux). One will need to go to accommodate Denilson.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.