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Nov 10, 2008

Ten things to note, playoff edition

Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are 10 things I found lying around:

1. Who saw that coming? Could you see a 3-0 result coming out of Houston on Sunday in the capper of an MLS weekend foursome? Sure.

But who in the world thought Red Bull New York would be on the happy end of it? If you say you predicted it, then you, sir or madam, have a bright political career ahead, because that's a big old honkin' fib.

The fabulously mustachioed Shep Messing, part of the Red Bulls broadcast team, did call the series upset. But even he didn't see young Danny Cepero throwing up a clean sheet in south Texas, where the two-time defending champion Dynamo had been perfect in four previous playoff contests.

Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio still has to prove he can command the odd vagaries of MLS roster management. But give the mad scientist some props for knowing how to sleuth out opposition soft spots.

He stuck with a young midfield (plus the heady Dave van den Bergh) and let his hand-picked, pricier midseason imports sit. While New York's high defensive line compressed an already tight field, Osorio's assortment of springy midfield legs buzzed about, picking up second balls and making life difficult for Dwayne De Rosario and the Dynamo wide players.

MLS Primetime
Thursday
Chicago at Columbus
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)

2. It's Dane Richards' world -- the rest of us are just living in it. Like last week, the offense was always going to go through Richards, whose biggest day as a Red Bull was all about his substantial speed advantage over Dynamo left back Wade Barrett.

It was Richards who simply tore the stuffing out of Houston's little furry animal. Richards exploited a defensive lapse early, bursting through the gap to finish with authority. Then he burned Barrett again to bang in the cross that turned into a PK. And the late clincher was all speed and spunk as Richards set up John Wolyniec.

3. Another Red Bull BMOC. What an amazing story young goalkeeper Danny Cepero is writing. A month ago the man could have streaked across Giants Stadium, naked as the day he was born, and not a soul in the stands would have recognized him.

A cheap roster afterthought before Jon Conway's recent suspension, Cepero is suddenly a big reason the Red Bulls are still chasing the recently renamed Philip F Anschutz Trophy. He was bold and quick off his line, always in command of his penalty area, a week ago in New Jersey.

In Sunday's return leg he was a shot-stopper extraordinaire. Cepero made himself big when Brian Ching was in alone. And he turned up similarly big moments on Nate Jaqua's header and on two separate efforts from Stuart Holden.

4. Three cheers for proper grounds! All ye traditionalists, or anybody with a soft spot for swell soccer grounds, raise a pint of your favorite ale or cola in tribute to an overdue MLS high-water mark:

For the first time in 14 MLS seasons, conference titles will be decided in actual soccer stadiums, facilities built for MLS sides. Columbus hosts Chicago at faithful ol' Crew Stadium, the cougar of MLS venues. And Real Salt Lake's recently christened $110 million dandy will set the scene as RSL and the Red Bulls decide the other half of the bracket outside Salt Lake City.

5. Game-changers and heartbreakers. To find the men of the moment, other than Cepero and Richards, start with Chris Rolfe, who is blazing anew in Chicago. He had five goals and three assists over the Fire's final five regular-season contests. And he helped take down New England on Thursday in Bridgeview with a goal and an assist.

Javier Morales, the same one shamefully left off the MLS MVP finalist list, had another big match as RSL eliminated Chivas. The Argentine playmaker has scored or assisted on all three Real postseason goals.

6. RSL's big moment. To layer in perspective on what coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerway did this year to steady a formerly listing ship, consider this: Real has now won a playoff series, something that apparently isn't the low-hanging fruit it sounds like.

Chivas USA still hasn't done so. The L.A. Galaxy have not won a postseason series since 2005, Real's expansion season. Kansas City hasn't claimed a series since 2004. Dallas last prevailed in 1999, four coaches back.

Red Bull New York had advanced in the second season just once before Sunday.

7. Refining the schedule. In case you missed it, buried in a Bruce Arena press conference last week regarding David Beckham's loan agreement was a bit of potentially exciting MLS scheduling news. The Galaxy coach hinted strongly that MLS would break for at least some of the FIFA World Cup qualifying fixture dates in 2009.

It's. About. Time.

8. Comings and goings at Crew Stadium. Is Robbie Rogers' first spin on the MLS wheel nearing its end? Crew coach Sigi Schmid doesn't think so. He says the young winger is right in the sweet spot in terms of development, with games still challenging enough to prompt improvement at a reasonable clip. Schmid thinks Rogers will return in 2009.

"You can never say for sure, but he and I have talked," Schmid said late last week. "He's grown a lot, and I think having another season where he can grow the same way will be very important to him."

As for Schmid, who is out of a contract at season's end: The Crew coach isn't saying much, but he was clearly underwhelmed by the timing and by the offer extended in September. "It's fairly late, so at this point, I didn't want to think about it until after the playoffs were over," he said.

So, will you be back in Columbus next year?

"I really can't tell you one way or the other," he said. "It's something we won't be talking about until after the playoffs."

9. More wobbly refereeing. It would have been nice to see referee Michael Kennedy at least attempt to manage Saturday's match outside L.A., where RSL got by Chivas USA in an unbeautiful hybrid of mixed martial arts and soccer. Kennedy never came close to commanding authority in a night sullied with reckless fouls and rampant frustration.

Just one example, of many, of weak-kneed refereeing: Chivas' Atiba Harris was called for eight fouls -- though he surely was guilty of more. So how, in such an aggressive barrage of hacking and hurting, did he escape booking? If eight fouls doesn't scream "persistent infringement," what does?

10. Not a bargain. Claudio Lopez was all but invisible in Kansas City's loss Saturday in Crew-ville. He showed some game late in 2008, but you have to ask if six goals and seven assists over a season is commensurate value for the designated-player dollar.

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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