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Sep 22, 2008

Five things to note from MLS Week 26

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

1. The squishy sounds of squirming. Listen carefully. That unfamiliar sound you hear is the squirming of a few butts in Eastern conference seats.

Most of the summer we all watched the weak-sister West capitulate meekly to the East. And being the wisenheimers that we are, we assumed that it would roll forth, unabated, and five playoff places would fall to Eastern sides.

But, as they say, that's why they play the games.

Suddenly, five spots for Eastern clubs isn't such a lead-pipe cinch anymore. Wins over Eastern teams by Dallas -- 4-1 over Chicago, and who saw that coming? -- and Los Angeles in Round 26 has discombobulated the fluid playoff scene.

Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Colorado are all within three points of D.C. United, which currently holds the fifth spot in the East -- a.k.a. the final playoff berth if the post-season began today.

Behind that group, San Jose and Los Angeles sit just four points behind United. The Galaxy vaulted back into the postseason race with a 5-2 victory over D.C. United, whose defense suddenly has more issues than a Wall Street hedge fund manager.

All that means that United, Kansas City and perhaps even New York may no longer assume they have to reach only fourth or fifth in the East to ensure playoff passage.

Five rounds to go -- and only Columbus, New England and Houston can go into the stretch run with any level of comfort.

2. No record for the Fire. The Chicago Fire offense went on low boil a few weeks ago, but the trusty ol' defense was keeping Denis Hamlett's team near the top of the heap. The Fire had allowed just 18 goals over 22 matches and even stood an outside chance of matching the league mark for fewest goals in a season (23, set last year by Houston).

Six goals allowed in two matches since has obliterated such talk.

Of course, Hamlett and his Bridgeview bunch aren't concerned about records. Things have gone all sideways, and Hamlett has a big job ahead in getting things straightened out. The Fire is 2-4 since early August, scoring just three goals in that time.

Those six games happen to be the six since Brian McBride's arrival. Hmmm. And Cuauhtemoc Blanco was pretty ineffective once again over his 59 minutes of Sunday's 4-1 loss. Double hmmm.

3. The bustling BMO turnstile. A full 65 players have worn the Toronto FC kit over the last two years; 33 last year and 32 so far in 2008.

Injuries and the need to sign stopgap replacements have something to do with the transience at BMO. But some of the concerning transience is due to poor planning.

For instance, nine guys have played this year, some in significant roles, who are no longer around. The case of Maurice Edu is certainly understandable -- that's going to happen.

But how about guys like Laurent Robert? As they say in politics, first they wanted him before they didn't want him. Carlos Ruiz? How's that working out for you guys? Because the playoffs, this year? Not so much.

It was the same last year, as players came and went from BMO like it was a Hollywood audition.

Now director of soccer Mo Johnston and manager John Carver are on the DP hunt for 2009. For the fabulous BMO loyalists, let's hope the TFC deciders are the right guys to make these critical choices. Because, so far, their track record of picking personnel is nothing to brag about.

4. Two words on Rice-Eccles: Good riddance.

We can probably all agree that 60 regular season games for Real Salt Lake inside the University of Utah Stadium, while necessary, was about 60 too many. After a couple of matches on the road the men from Utah will move into their very cool new home in suburban Sandy. (If you haven't seen photos, get thee on the web and do so. It's gonna be a prize.)

Now, as for RSL losing the Rice-Eccles finale over the weekend (in comical fashion, as defender Nat Borchers and goalkeeper Nick Rimando did the Keystone Cop thing): that's a problem. See, RSL has just two regular season matches in its new, mountain-draped venue. One of them will be tougher than it sounds; midseason facility debuts are opportunities ripe for failure.

Teams get all hopped up on the hoopla and happenstance, and it's tough to focus on soccer. Chicago managed only a draw in the 2006 Toyota Park lid-lifter. Ditto for Dallas in Pizza Hut Park's 2005 debut. Toronto fell in BMO's launch.

5. Weak in the middle. Another weekend, another round of lame game management from the men in the middle.

In Columbus, Alex Prus refused to give Red Bulls midfielder Juan Pietravallo a yellow for a clear dive inside the Crew penalty area.

We saw very weak refereeing in Colorado, where Michael Kennedy allowed Revolution players to encroach with impunity on free kicks. Worse, he blew the final whistle as Colorado's Colin Clark got hold of a long pass and looked to be in alone on goal. Rapids manager Gary Smith was incredulous, and rightly so.

In Chicago, Dallas' Bruno Guarda kicked Gonzalo Segares, who retaliated by shoving the young FC Dallas midfielder to the ground. The TV announcers debated whether it would be red or just a yellow.

Nah. Kevin Stott decided to let boys be boys and just have a word with them.

And in Los Angeles, Terry Vaughn reminded us that he has his own interpretation of the laws of the game. He just doesn't like to call fouls, managing in one 20-second sequence to inexplicably ignore two clear infractions, one on David Beckham and one on Santino Quaranta. His poor decision later to eject Marc Burch for a petulant, but not necessarily violent, kick at Beckham will draw criticism and cries of "Becks protectionism." But anyone making such a claim isn't watching MLS matches regularly.

That was just another example -- one of oh-so-many -- of how U.S. Soccer and MLS has let the quality of play develop much faster than the quality of refereeing.

Too bad, too, because it drags down the whole enterprise.

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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