October is when the postseason picture comes into focus.
For some teams, the desperate fight for a playoff spot takes center stage, making their tasks straightforward. For others who have already qualified, the approach can be a bit trickier. With little at stake, the tendency to ease off the pedal can grow like a cancer, robbing a team of precious momentum and sharpness as the postseason gets closer. Yet the desire to give certain players rest is also a consideration.
This week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (9 p.m. ET) involves two teams whose playoff spots are assured, but Dallas and Chivas USA still have something to play for. After scuffling for the better part of two months, the Hoops will be looking to build on the momentum from Saturday's 3-1 win over Columbus, while Chivas will be aiming to secure the first Supporters' Shield in their history. Honing that playoff edge will be on their minds as well.
Five story lines to watch
1. Chivas' ascent to the top
A club record 10-game unbeaten streak has seen the Goats claim the top spot in the Western Conference, and a victory on Thursday will bring them level with D.C. United in the race for the Supporters' Shield, emblematic of the best regular-season record. Yet for coach Preki, Chivas has gotten this far by doing the little things right, and that's something he wants his team to continue.
"We're trying to make everyone understand that just because we made the playoffs, the season is not over," Preki said. "We have to make sure we stay sharp, that the work is being done on a daily basis, and that everyone stays focused."
2. Fluke or trend for FCD?
A 3-0 defeat to Houston on Sept. 30 saw the Hoops hit rock bottom, and Dallas followed that up with a disappointing 3-2 loss to New England in the U.S. Open Cup final. But Saturday's comeback win over the Crew showed that Dallas still has some fight left, and coach Steve Morrow feels it was a case of things evening out.
"We've played better in previous games and lost," Morrow said. "We've had a couple of defensive lapses for sure with individuals. Defensively, I think we can improve our game as a whole team, but I don't think we've played that badly."
3. Chivas finding its road mojo
At the heart of Chivas' streak has been its improved road form. The Goats began the season just 1-5-2 away from home, but they've gone 4-1-1 since then, and that increased mettle away from the Home Depot Center has given the team plenty of confidence.
"The team has been working hard for each other, and that's something I've been trying to emphasize since the first day," Preki said. "The tone has to be set every day, and the bar has been high every day. They've done a good job of doing that, and that's why I think we've gotten good results on the road."
4. Denilson gets some tough love
With Dallas' season beginning to spin out of control, Morrow surprisingly benched designated player signing Denilson for the U.S. Open Cup final versus New England. Against Columbus, Morrow got exactly the response he was looking for from the Brazilian, who could be seen tracking back and battling for loose balls.
"We've tried to get [Denilson] to understand what we're looking for on both sides of the ball," Morrow said. "We've asked him to put more into the defensive side of the game, working back into good positions, and I thought he did that in Columbus."
5. Chivas show off its depth
With the playoffs approaching, Preki used last week's match against Real Salt Lake as an opportunity to utilize his team's depth, playing reserves Laurent Merlin and John Cunliffe in place of the suspended Maykel Galindo and the injured Ante Razov. The move came up trumps, as Cunliffe tallied two goals in a 3-2 win, and with both Galindo and Razov both listed as day-to-day with muscle strains, Preki may have to use his bench once again.
Five players to watch
1. Arturo Alvarez, M/F, FC Dallas
In the past few weeks, Alvarez has out-Denilson'd his more illustrious teammate, attacking with flair, and using his lethal left foot to score some highlight-reel goals, including the equalizer Saturday. Now in his fifth MLS season, the former U.S. youth international appears ready for a bigger role.
"Everyone has always talked about [Alvarez] and said he has great ability," Morrow said. "But it hasn't been until this year that he's really started to show it on a consistent level. I think he understands now that he's one of the important players on this team and that has helped him as well, to play with a bit more maturity and confidence."
2. Jesse Marsch, M, Chivas USA
Simply put, Marsch is Chivas' heart and soul, providing plenty of steel in the midfield, as well as steady leadership. And while his physicality is among his most prized assets, his ability on the ball is underrated; he does an effective job of keeping the ball moving.
"[Marsch] tries hard in every little drill that we do," Preki said. "He sets the tone, he's a pretty vocal guy, and he's done a good job for us."
3. Abe Thompson, F, FC Dallas
Thompson was the hero in the Columbus match, popping up for two late goals, and with normal starter Carlos Ruiz suspended, Dallas will need more of the same from the reigning MLS Player of the Week. But Thompson's value goes beyond just goals, and Morrow was quick to laud the other aspects of the forward's game.
"What I like about [Thompson] is he holds the ball well," Morrow said. "You know that if you get it into him, he's going to hold it. That makes a big difference for the rest of the team, especially the midfield guys."
4. Shavar Thomas, D, Chivas USA
Chivas has been getting it done with defense all year, and one of the unsung heroes has been Thomas. The Jamaican was traded away by crosstown rival Los Angeles in May, and their loss has been Chivas' gain. Thomas has formed a stellar partnership with Claudio Suarez in the center of the defense, playing with a consistency that eluded him earlier in his career.
"I was very fortunate to get [Thomas]," Preki said. "But being in Kansas City with him, I knew what I was going to get, and it was a no-brainer to bring him here."
5. Adrian Serioux, M, FC Dallas
When regular holding midfielder Pablo Ricchetti went down with a left groin injury, Morrow turned to Serioux, who while lacking Ricchetti's precision on the ball, provides a physical dimension that Dallas had previously lacked. A defender by trade, Serioux will look to shield a back line that has been decimated by injuries.
"Playing Serioux in the middle was something that we had been looking at for a while now," Morrow said. "I think it made it a little more solid in midfield."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.