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Oct 20, 2008

Six things to note from MLS Week 30

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

1. Merciful ends. An absurdly tight playoff race couldn't last forever, and we finally unclogged the drain in Week 30 and flushed out some of the postseason pretenders.

For Toronto, San Jose, Los Angeles and Dallas, you'll get 'em next year. Well, you might get 'em next year -- that depends on whether you can repair some fairly significant roster fissures.

San Jose, which has beaten a hasty path to MLS respectability, doesn't need to feel too badly about things. If manager Frank Yallop can add another passing and possession specialist to the midfield, one more quality defender and a difference-maker at striker, the Earthquakes will make noise this time next year.

As for you others: L.A. manager Bruce Arena and FC Dallas boss Schellas Hyndman were made foremen on midseason reclamation projects this year. So they get a pass on 2008 for different reasons.

But Arena and Hyndman are on the clock starting now. Both rosters have more holes than a doughnut shop. Before they can think about coaching, they need to pull the right player personnel levers. Same goes for Toronto, although Reds soccer director Mo Johnston is on the spot as much as manager John Carver.

2. Playoff reset. Five teams remain alive; three playoff berths are open.

Real Salt Lake will advance to the tournament if it ties this week at Colorado in a match that is essentially an early playoff contest. Jason Kreis' men from Utah, who are coming off a huge weekend win over Dallas, still could get in with a Week 31 loss. But that's a long shot. Their best bet to clinch their debut playoff berth is to scoop up a point in Commerce City.

A Colorado win at Dick's Sporting Goods Park would put the Rapids in the playoffs. Imagine that. The Rapids haven't finished better than .500 since 2005. But the boys from Colorado may earn a third playoff berth in four seasons.

Does that make anybody else question the meaning of it all?

Kansas City, D.C. United and New York probably will compete for two berths. All three teams are on the road and, interestingly, all play teams that already punched their playoff tickets.

The big discussion on resting starters and rolling out the reserves in matches that matter begins in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

3. A game that doesn't matter -- much. Los Angeles will host Dallas in a gray closer at the Home Depot Center. It's a bit of a snoozer because both clubs have been eliminated. (If the Coen Brothers were to make a dark comedy about soccer, it surely would feature the L.A. Galaxy.)

On the other hand, we should get a "live" resolution of the Golden Boot, as Landon Donovan and his 19 goals take on Kenny Cooper and his 18. It's advantage Donovan, who starts with a one-goal edge, plays at home and has David Beckham around to provide service. Plus, Dallas midfielders Pablo Ricchetti, perhaps his team's best player, and Marcelo Saragosa will serve suspensions thanks to Week 30 expulsions.

4. Sublime or surreal? Thanks to the ubiquitous brilliance of YouTube, getting a fix of wild or strange goals is never difficult. But most are set in the dimly lit high school grounds or on the parks and playgrounds of Somewhere, U.S.A. Occasionally, you might see a college kid spank one from 70 or 80 yards.

Even in MLS, we see the occasional doozie, such as David Beckham's 70-yard bull's eye this year or Michael Parkhurst's bomb from inside his own half last year.

Now we've seen it all. Red Bulls replacement keeper Danny Cepero scored from 80 yards in his debut MLS appearance -- and he was in the lineup only because regular starter Jon Conway tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. You can't make this stuff up.

Cepero, who had a pretty good game otherwise in the Red Bulls' 3-1 win, became the first MLS goalie to score when his fairly benign launch into the opposition penalty area made the perfect bounce and fell in behind Crew keeper Andy Gruenebaum.

Gruenebaum, making his initial start of 2008, thus became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the other goalkeeper the day Cepero scored?

5. Historically speaking. Los Angeles' defense won't plumb the depths of the historically poor this year. But the boys from Carson aren't far from it.

The Galaxy have allowed 60 goals with one match remaining. That makes L.A. the first team since 2005 to surrender 60. (Back then, every team played 32 games as opposed to the current 30.) Still, it's an average of only 2.1 goals per game. That would make Los Angeles the eighth-worst defense ever in MLS. Even though the Galaxy defense won't challenge the realm of the worst ever, I think we can all agree that it's hardly "jewel of MLS" stuff.

By the way, United has given up 50 goals, too. Tom Soehn's team still could make the playoffs, although the odds are against it. If they do, considering the shrinking percentage of teams that make the postseason, this could be the final time a club concedes 50 goals and still reaches the postseason.

6. Strange matchup. What a head-scratcher on hand. New England will meet Chicago -- as the 2 and 3 seeds -- in a clash of two teams racing to the bottom.

Chicago is leaking goals, 13 in its past six matches. That's an alarming turnabout for a team that just six weeks ago appeared to be threatening a league mark for all-time stinginess. Instead, Denis Hamlett's men are 2-4-2 lately and searching for solutions.

Steve Nicol's Revs are winless in five matches. They are 2-5-2 in games that midfielder Steve Ralston doesn't start, which is not good news considering that he's probably done for 2008. And the Revolution are just 2-8-5 in all competitions since July.

Both sides have personnel decisions to make. Cuauhtemoc Blanco was back in an attacking midfield spot this past weekend instead of being tucked behind striker Brian McBride. Blanco is more comfortable operating out of midfield when he's able to see things in front of him. But he doesn't apply early pressure on the ball when the opposition wins it, and that inattention gives teams a chance to organize defensively. We saw the results Saturday as Toronto FC put three goals past Jon Busch.

As for New England, Steve Nicol tried a 4-4-2 once again, but the Revs' just didn't seem comfortable in it. Michael Parkhurst and Gabriel Badilla don't have much chemistry as a center back pairing. Perhaps the answer is Mauricio Castro in Ralston's attacking midfield spot, with Khano Smith out wide on the left, a move that seems to get the Revs' best players on the field.

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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