Ten things to note from MLS Week 27
Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are 10 things I found lying around:
1. Of mayhem and meltdowns. Major League Soccer has spun off its axis in the last two weeks. What destabilizing evil walks suddenly among us? What has brought us to this wildly uneven state?
Colorado and Dallas are hot. Read it slowly. Let it sink in.
D.C. United is on the skids, big-time, just three or so weeks after looking like serious Supporters Shield chasers. Now, they're punch-drunk, travel-beaten and twisted up in an injury knot, a club desperate to figure out which way is up.
Real Salt Lake won on the road? Shocking! What's next, barons of Wall Street giving back stacks of cash?
San Jose had been the team of the moment, expansion darlings, scrapping their way indomitably toward playoff glory. Now? Well, they just fell to a team that usually stinks on the road, and Frank Yallop's men sit last in the West once again.
Juan Carlos Osorio surely is sitting in a corner somewhere, babbling incoherently about how all his mad scientist tinkering could go so horribly wrong. His Red Bulls, fortified ostensibly with three highfalutin midsummer defensive additions, just allowed five goals at home to Colorado. Newcomer Gabriel Cichero was particularly wretched.
Last time Colorado scored five in a game, the league had just one dedicated stadium. Now there are seven. Conor Casey -- Conor Casey! -- somehow notched three goals. Sweet Lords a leapin', the man had just five goals all year before that.
Could it be pressure is unhinging some teams? MLS matches do have more of an edge right now: An all-time high six teams will miss the playoffs, which means contests are now pressurized as never before.
Two words: absolutely delicious.
2. From the file marked "blatantly obvious." Let's get this on record: Columbus is the team to beat for the 13th MLS Cup. And the Supporters Shield race (for the team with the most regular season points)? Dunzo. It's as over WaMu.
Sigi Schmid's men of yellow have 50 points. A couple more wins and they'll have the best regular season total since 2005. (Fifty-five points was tops in 2006 and 2007.)
Saturday's 1-0 win in New England was no fluke. Chad Marshall got the goal and supported it with peerless defending, as the Crew mastered New England. Columbus now has gained seven of a possible nine points in Guillermo Barros Schelotto's absence.
3. An unplanned stop the MVP Express. Ironically, the Crew's highly professional performance sans Schelotto might slightly dent his MVP bid. Columbus is proving it has the ability to be right in the thick of things without its veteran playmaker. The Galaxy, on the other hand, would not be within sniffing distance of the playoffs without Landon Donovan.
4. A quick Crew warning. Teams forced to scrap their way into the playoffs have a real advantage over those coming off cruise control. Clubs that wander through a few weeks of irrelevant matches, as the Crew will now, can't always transition fast enough into desperate, win-at-all-costs elimination soccer. So Columbus will be favored, but with an asterisk.
5. Make the bad man stop. What could be more symbolic than watching Luciano Emilio crumble to the turf Sunday, holding his right hamstring, a metaphor for United's crumbling season. The men of RFK have one tie and five losses in all competitions since capturing the U.S. Open Cup. Tom Soehn's team has allowed at least two goals in all six of those contests, despite goalkeeper Louis Crayton's sometimes heroic stands. His defense is comically junior varsity.
Things could unspool further during a hectic October: Eight matches include four in league play, including New England and Chivas USA at home, and road dates at Columbus and Houston.
Now Emilio is on the shelf, Jaime Moreno is suspended thanks to a stupid red card late Sunday, and who knows what's going on with Marcelo Gallardo and that tricky groin ailment.
Prediction: United is done. No MLS playoffs. No next round in Champions League. Just lots of recriminations and probably some job openings in the days ahead at RFK.
6. Quick DP accounting. If the playoffs started today, three of five teams that currently have a Designated Player on the roster would stay home. I'm just sayin'.
7. The smartest kid in the room. Does anybody else believe Osorio overthinks things? Does anybody else believe Osorio overthinks everything?
The Red Bulls have alternated between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 for four weeks. (It was back to 3-5-2 for Saturday's goalfest in Gotham.) So much for getting into a groove.
And poor Seth Stammler: In the last four weeks he's been an outside midfielder, a holding midfielder and, Saturday, an attacking midfielder. Meanwhile, Osorio seems determined to make Jorge Rojas, who is clearly more comfortable as an attacking midfielder, play on the left. Team defending suffers appreciably when he's out there.
Here's a reminder for the Red Bulls manager, whose team has 35 points, sits in fourth place and owns a minus-3 goal difference: Bruce Arena had 43 points by season's end, finished in third and had a plus-2 goal difference -- and he got canned.
8. More overthinking? It's tough to question Steve Nicol's soccer brain. Still, why does the Revolution manager keep trying to pound his squad into an ill fitting 4-4-2 mold? The Revs, typically a 3-5-2 outfit, just never look comfortable with four in the back (as they played Saturday). For one, Michael Parkhurst's one-on-one defending, not his strong suit, gets exposed.
Unrelated FYI: The league's only team that defends zonally on corner kicks got beat that way for the first time this year Saturday.
9. Second chances. While MLS looks so crappy in Champions League play (the Dynamo excepted), how about the job former FC Dallas manager Colin Clarke has done at Puerto Rico? The USL side just finished top of the regular season table and is positioned to advance out of Champions League group play.
Clarke was two games over .500 in three-plus MLS seasons -- a far better mark than some bigger-name managers who got a second shot. Clarke deserves another one in MLS.
10. Which team is John Carver watching? Toronto's manager keeps saying TFC's problem is with passion. As in, not enough of it.
But the tired cry of "try harder" is usually just a proxy, something to say instead of drilling deeper into the multi-layered and difficult nitty-gritty. Because identifying and correcting the problem often requires hard decisions about popular players.
Believe it: TFC's problems are structural. It's about a bunch of underwhelming talent, and it goes a lot deeper than anything fixable by "trying harder."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.