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10 things about the first round

At playoff time, the little things really are the big things. So in that spirit, here are 10 things you may have missed during a dandy first round, during which both No. 1 seeds went down:

1. Now seems like a swell time to start talking up a Cup host curse. Clubs with an opportunity to host the final have found the first round a real pain in the patooty. MLS adopted the current postseason format in 2003. Since then, the prospective MLS Cup hosts have gone crashing out right away four of five postseasons. D.C. United is the latest stumble-bum. Los Angeles fell in the opening round in 2003. Dallas wasted opportunities with first-round fiascos in 2005 and 2006. Only the Galaxy in 2004 escaped (but they lost in the conference final.)

2. After a rather quiet playoff debut, Cuauhtémoc Blanco was livelier in the second leg against D.C. United, a little more like the cyclone we saw against Los Angeles in that regular-season finale. Here's the thing: Blanco, 34, had just three days rest between the L.A. triumph and the playoff opener. But with a full week to rest between legs, his passes had more pop.

And have you noticed how Chicago's other terrific midseason addition, Wilman Conde, is effective wherever he lines up? Juan Carlos Osorio has used Conde as a sweeper and a marker in the three-man back line, as a holding midfielder and as a left-sided fullback.

3. Chicago rode three goals from young Americans into the conference final, including two crackerjacks from Chris Rolfe, who is rising at the right time. Keep a couple of things in mind: First, Osorio, for all his astute tactical tinkering, dithered on yanking poor ol' Paulo Wanchope, who is so obviously done.

Finally, mercifully, Osorio removed Wanchope and assigned Rolfe more advanced positions. Rolfe had been a wide midfielder lately, but manned a striker spot, then a wide attacker role in the 4-2-3-1 at RFK.

Second, Rolfe's big surge isn't surprising. Forgotten over the long MLS season is how Rolfe was a slicing and dicing terror in April, carrying the Fire attack with assistance from the currently injured Justin Mapp. Rolfe had three goals and three assists in Chicago's first five matches before a long injury layoff.

4. MLS teams exercised DP options on five players this year. Only one, Blanco, is standing in the league semifinals. Only three of the four vacationing DPs figure to return for 14-team MLS in '08. FC Dallas manager Steve Morrow gave Denilson one more chance to do something. Anything. He didn't, and Morrow pulled him after 50 minutes.

Uh, thanks for the visit to MLS, "D." Maybe we'll see you in one of those beach soccer tourneys next time we're flipping the channels, eh?

5. D.C. United players and management are going on about how they "fell asleep" early Thursday; about still being the league's best side, as president Kevin Payne said; about how the real team stood up in the second half Thursday, as Ben Olsen asserts. Well, just because someone says it, that doesn't make it so.

The fact is, United wasn't very good over the season's final month. Tom Soehn's team last won a match Sept. 29. Last victory over a playoff team: Sept. 9.

And did the defense really "fall asleep," as goalkeeper Troy Perkins says? Or did United simply revert to some of the rickety defending we've seen before? Perkins himself has been as wobbly as a three-legged dog at times this year.

Soehn never truly settled on a central pairing, even gambling with a big change between legs in the fateful series. And United was particularly vulnerable all year at RFK, allowing 22 goals at home, most among playoffs teams. Even poor ol' defensively-challenged Kansas City conceded just 18 at home.

6. Still on the D.C. debacle: what to do with Jaime Moreno, who wasn't anything special in the series? United must quickly decide whether to exercise an option on a 33-year-old who will make $250,000 in 2008. Players talk about how important Moreno is to the rhythm and such. Well, that's great if you're dancing. Beyond the world of platitudes and clichés, you need production.

Strip away the penalty kicks and Moreno had three goals and six assists in 2007, pretty average over 21 matches.

7. On the subject of tough decisions, how about Claudio Reyna? He clearly remains a classy player -- when healthy. And there's the rub. Reyna left after just 26 minutes Saturday. He made 21 starts in 32 regular season or playoff contests, sufficiently fit to go the full 90 just 16 times, which is crummy return on the DP dollar. And the productivity simply wasn't there.

Yes, Reyna clearly improves organization and possession. But at some point, it's about putting balls between the pipes. He had no goals and three assists in '07. Two words: not enough.

Another quickie on productivity: No one will argue Juan Pablo Angel's value. But it's worth mentioning that by season's end, something was a wee bit askew. He had just one non-PK goal over the Red Bull's final six matches, and he earned neither of the PKs that he struck.

8. Chivas USA lacked depth all year; Preki's men were simply never exposed, due to good fortune with injuries. Without Ante Razov to link with midfielders, and with Maykel Galindo clearly bothered by ankle and abdominal worries, the attack was quite stale. Ramon Nunez started Saturday against Kansas City. Is there a more predictable player in MLS? Get ball. Lower head. Dribble. Shoot. Repeat.

9. MLS officiating remains wildly inconsistent. So many shirts were getting pulled at RFK on Thursday you'd think Justin Timberlake was playing -- and there's barely a foul called. At the HDC, Jimmy Conrad cracked Nunez from behind with impunity. But in Houston, Eddie Robinson and Chris Gbandi took yellow cards without any real malicious or particularly violent contact. Referees are right to go laissez faire a bit more in the playoffs. But they must manage matches better, with warnings and explanations. Then, the cards tend to be more deserved.

The list of players set to miss the final should they be cautioned in the conference deciders reads like an All-Star team. It includes Robinson, Dwayne De Rosario, Richard Mulrooney, Shalrie Joseph, Khano Smith, Taylor Twellman, Eddie Johnson and Gonzalo Segares. Remember, Ricardo Clark missed last year's final after cautions in consecutive matches.

10. Joseph isn't a league MVP finalist, and that's a shame. It's nobody's fault in particular; holding mids just don't get much MVP love nationally. You have to see the hustle and how he holds together the team game after game (which is why, locally, holding mids do sometimes absorb proper recognition.)

Twellman scores important goals. Michael Parkhurst is an absolute freak -- but in a good way. Five fouls and no yellow cards all season? For a center back? Are you kidding me? Matt Reis makes important saves for Steve Nicol's Revs. But in almost every New England match you could argue that Joseph is the best player on the field. Same with Saturday's win over Red Bull.

Oh, and that killer pass to Steve Ralston that cracked open a tight series? Nothing new. Joseph is the league's best at hitting early balls out of midfield. And look at the raw numbers compared to Reyna: Joseph had four goals and five assists in 27 games.

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