Take one look at this week's "MLS Primetime Thursday" matchup between the Columbus Crew and the Kansas City Wizards, and it is tempting to think that this is one of those run-of-the-mill midseason contests. But a quick scan of the Eastern Conference standings shows that even in the middle of summer, there is no such thing as a meaningless game.
While the New England Revolution have opened a six-point gap at the top of the Eastern Conference table, only seven points separate second-place Columbus from last-place Kansas City. Though it looks like the East will send five teams to the playoffs, neither side is in a position to take anything for granted. Thursday's game is also the last for both teams before the All-Star break, and each will be eager to finish the first half of the season on a positive note.
Five story lines to follow
1. Sigi Schmid's rebuilding project finally pays off
When Schmid arrived in Columbus for the 2006 season, an instant turnaround was expected. What transpired instead were two frustrating campaigns that extended Columbus' streak of missing the postseason to three seasons. In 2008, Schmid's plans finally have taken hold, as the Crew manager has blended the young talent of Robbie Rogers with that of veterans like Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Kansas City at Columbus
8 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
"We thought at the end of last year we were an improved team, and we were disappointed not to make the playoffs," said Schmid. "We thought we had the pieces, but nothing is assured until you prove it on the field, and this year we've done a better job of that."
2. The Wizards get up off the deck
When the teams last met on June 14, Columbus delivered a 3-0 beatdown on Kansas City's home turf, and the Wizards were in danger of slipping from the playoff hunt altogether. But a four-game unbeaten streak has propeled Kansas City back into the race.
"When you go through tough stretches like we did, you find yourself," said Wizards' head coach Curt Onalfo. "It's made us a little bit hardened and we're progressing nicely. We just have to make sure we have a better second half of the season."
3. "The Twin" vs. "The Louse"
In a season in which Argentine players have made a splash, Thursday's game will pit Columbus' Schelotto, who has a twin brother named Gustavo, against Kansas City attacker Claudio Lopez. Schelotto has followed well on his impressive debut last season and leads MLS with eight assists. Lopez has found the transition a bit tougher, but has still contributed three goals and three assists, and his service from set pieces has been deadly of late.
4. The Wizards' revamp their attack
Kansas City's 2008 struggles are mostly due to its offense, which is slightly less inept than expansion San Jose's. To shake up the team's front line, the Wizards reacquired Josh Wolff after the forward's contract with 1860 Munich had expired, and shipped Scott Sealy to San Jose. Onalfo is hoping that Wolff is the missing piece to the Wizards' attack.
"We've tinkered with certain things on the offense, and I think we have to still tinker with it," Onalfo said. "We have to try some different options in terms of who we're playing up top and some different combinations of players to see if we can make that a little better."
5. Home improvement
While there are numerous reasons for the Crew's turnaround this season, their improved home form has been a significant one. Last season, Columbus was a mediocre 5-5-5 at Crew Stadium. With a win Thursday, the team will exceed its home victory total for all of last season.
"Being better at home was something we set as a very conscientious goal at the beginning of the year," said Schmid. "We wanted to make our home field more of a fortress, and I think our performance, as well as the fan support has been much better this year."
Five players to watch
1. Robbie Rogers, M, Columbus
While the Crew's young attacker has cooled off recently, he remains one of the focal points of the team's attack, with his slashing runs from the left wing tormenting opposing defenses. Opponents have responded by applying heavy challenges on Rogers, but Schmid indicated that his young charge is adapting to the roughhouse tactics.
"There have been some intimidation factors at work, but Rogers has dealt with that very well," said Schmid. "He's ridden tackles and realized people are coming at him. People have tried to take away his appetite for the game by being physical with him, but it hasn't worked, and that's a good sign."
2. Jimmy Conrad, D, Kansas City
The good news is that Conrad tied a career high in last week's 2-1 win over New York by scoring his fourth goal of the season. The bad news is that mark leads the team. Onalfo is determined to make his side more dangerous from open play, but in the meantime he's grateful for his defender's contributions on set pieces, while defensively, Conrad has been a key contributor on one of the league's stingier back lines.
3. Brian Carroll, M, Columbus
After a down year last season with D.C. Untied, it appeared that Carroll's days in MLS might be numbered. For the last few years, the Crew has struggled to shore up its central midfield, and the preseason acquisition of Carroll from expansion side San Jose has proved to be just what they needed: a veteran, stabilizing presence who plays solid defense and is clean with his passing.
4. Davy Arnaud, M, Kansas City
The veteran midfielder has struggled with injuries for much of this season, and in his absence, the Wizards have badly missed his tenacity and pace. But last week Arnaud scored what proved to be the game-winning goal against New York, and he now looks poised to make an even bigger contribution during the season's second half.
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"[Arnaud] was arguably our best attacking player last year," said Onalfo. "We've played him into shape, quite frankly, and I think the New York game was his best game of the year."
5. Chad Marshall, D, Columbus
Marshall's 2007 campaign was cut short by a series of concussions, but the Stanford product has rebounded in 2008 and delivered some solid performances. At 6-foot-4, Marshall provides an imposing physical presence in the back, but Schmid is quick to point out that the he contributes in other ways as well.
"Marshall is a much better passer than people give him credit for," said Schmid. "He's much more willing to have a piece of the ball when we're coming out of the back, which has helped our team offensively an awful lot."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.