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Jul 14, 2008

Ten things to note from MLS Week 16

Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are a few things I found lying around:

1. Sad sod stories. Just before World Cup '94, FIFA spin doctors attempted to assuage concerns over playing indoors at Detroit's Silverdome (where the field was ultimately adjudged tip-top).

A FIFA press officer observed that "Americans could grow grass on my hand if I paid them enough money." Probably true.

They just can't grow it at the Home Depot Center, apparently. And in Houston. And elsewhere.

Perhaps it's just growing pains of a league still in its pimply teenage years, but the state of the professional pitch isn't progressing as needed. The field is seriously struggling in Houston. It's closed down for now in Dallas (to be replanted). The grass perpetually gasps for life at Home Depot.

Of course, those are all better options than Giants, Gillette and Rice-Eccles stadiums, where teams labor sadly on artificial turf. (We'll give Toronto's BMO Field a pass for now, since it's the lesser violator among the fake-turf scoundrels.)

Many of the grass woes can be blamed on turf-killing events beyond soccer. The joke has gone around MLS circles: We should just call these places "concert-specific stadiums" (where they also play soccer).

2. Match madness. MLS teams played 14 matches last week in four different competitions (SuperLiga, U.S. Open Cup, Canadian Championship and MLS regular season). So don't say MLS clubs aren't doing their part to brighten the post-Euro championship darkness.

3. "De Ro" tossed. Who could blame Dwayne De Rosario if he thought his ejection from Saturday's SuperLiga rout was harsh? It wasn't, really. And "De Ro" certainly should know better. On the other hand, let's think about what he's used to and consider how the lax MLS officiating deserves some blame, too.

In his two most recent MLS matches, De Rosario got away with shoving an opponent -- in one case grabbing a fallen foe and yanking him off the ground. In both cases, it clearly violated FIFA law and MLS policy against putting your hands on another player.

So why were MLS referees derelict in both cases by not punishing such behavior? Who knows? Regardless, De Rosario got used to it, then got tossed when confronted by a SuperLiga referee who actually values enforcing the rules.

4. Ante's back! Chivas USA doggedly pushed forward through a big injury crunch. What generally held back the Goats was a lack of punch up front. Well, Ante Razov's strike against L.A. was a thing of beauty -- even better than his crackerjack free-kick strike to rescue the night a week earlier. With another one in Chivas' SuperLiga opener Sunday, the league's second all-time leading scorer, now 34 years old, is officially on a roll.

5. Pencil in the 2009 combine now. L.A. boss Ruud Gullit wants to add a couple of blue-chippers so his team can "play more football." Translation: Even his charges who are technically proficient (not all of them are) move the ball with a staggering lack of inventiveness. There's not nearly enough snap, crackle or pop outside the David Beckham-Landon Donovan tandem.

But isn't this exactly why Gullit needed to pay more attention to last winter's player combine -- which he more or less blew off?

Gullit clearly has a good soccer brain. And he looks like a guy who can get through to young players. He's being paid righteous money. Which is all why he should have been in Florida last winter, digging in, kicking proverbial tires, evaluating young players, turning over rocks in a stubborn hunt for that one gem. Heck, if he had done so, maybe his team would not be looking up at Real Salt Lake in the standings.

6. Did you-know-what just freeze over? Yes. You read that right. Real Salt Lake sits atop the Western Conference table. (Noteworthy, even if coach Jason Kreis' team has a game in hand on the field.)

7. Is it just me? Or does Kansas City's Davey Arnaud looks like Clint Dempsey-lite? Arnaud looks a little like Dempsey. Plays a little like him. They are both from Texas. Plus, no one quite knows where either is best-suited: out wide, closer to goal, second striker? Both can even play attacking mid in a pinch.

Arnaud isn't as productive, however. Hence the "lite." Dempsey recorded 25 goals and 14 assists in 71 MLS games. Arnaud has 26 goals and 26 assists in 171 games, respectable for an undecorated midfielder, but not the kind of flash that will ever earn him a Premiership offer.

Still, Arnaud is healthy again and back to being an underrated MLS talent. His game winner against Red Bull was clinical, and he'll continue to help coach Curt Onalfo's bunch as his stamina improves.

8. A donnybrook waiting to happen. Toronto FC tough guy Carl Robinson was clearly trying to bait Chicago's Cuauhtemoc Blanco on Saturday night in Bridgeview, Ill. Robinson finally got a yellow card in the 54th minute when he gave the increasingly Mad Mex a bit of the business.

Blanco seethed. But at least he didn't punch anyone, as he did a few nights earlier in Open Cup play against D.C. United.

Blanco is just reaping what he has sown. After the donnybrook he incited last week, teams can be more convinced than ever that Blanco is frustrated and can be suckered into doing something stupid.

9. Hello, Huck! Darren Huckerby, that is. A new forward sure won't hurt the San Jose Earthquakes. But don't expect goals to start flowing at Buck Shaw Stadium like mojitos at the Vegas Hard Rock pool.

Coach Frank Yallop has only one player with any kind of offensive ideas. Ronnie O'Brien has just a bit of imagination. Otherwise, midfielder Kelly Gray is really just a solid, versatile MLS backup (even though he's starting now). Ramiro Corrales is a converted defender only now settling into his D-mid role. Ivan Guerrero is better on defense than offense.

The two starting forwards at the moment are young guys who run fast, and that's about all. That's why O'Brien had to go play centrally after the break Saturday, and that still wasn't enough to score a home win.

10. Draft tracking. Midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy, picked No. 2 in the 2006 draft, has started two consecutive matches for Colorado. His afternoon against San Jose was nothing special; he too often gave away possession needlessly. This surely is Ballouchy's last chance to make an imprint. Next up, a one-way ticket on the USL Express.

To be fair, Jason Garey or Yura Movsisyan, Nos. 3 and 4 in that draft, haven't done squat, either.

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

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