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Red cards on the rise as MLS refs clamp down

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

1. Ejections on the rise: Are we seeing a necessary course correction as the men in the middle rein in the rough stuff and tilt the balance back toward attackers?

Or, is this starburst of red cards -- four last week, then seven this past weekend -- just a symptom of increased intensity? Everybody can do the math: Continued expansion means more teams will be on the wrong side of the velvet ropes when the playoff party starts.

Or maybe it's just a statistical anomaly?

The men in the middle handed out 59 reds last year, or one for every 3.6 matches. This year, 11 ejections equal an average of one every 2.6 contests.

MLS director of officials Joe Machnik says there's been no directive for officials to get tougher, other than ongoing quality-control measures. His theory leans toward the inflated intensity factor.

Either way, it's a good thing -- so long as officials keep it up. MLS players aren't getting away with things they often got away with previously. The rise in penalties will force them to recalibrate the risk-reward equation. The risk of a nasty tackle, a time-wasting ploy, a cynical shirt pull, a dive or some other stunt may not make as much sense.

2. You read it here first: Some team that everyone assumed would make the playoffs will be left behind. Book it. It may be Houston or Columbus, neither of which can fully release the hand break. Dark horse MLS Cup favorite San Jose has plenty of work ahead. And the Red Bulls, last year's runner-up, continue to be hard on the eyes.

3. Weekly rookie review: Rangy Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez seems to be developing quickly. He may have benefited Saturday from Gregg Berhalter's presence. (Berhalter had a nice debut for L.A. aside from one whopper of a mistake. The "whoa!" moment was the giveaway in a bad spot, not the decision to drag down Alecko Eskandarian from behind, a choice that may have preserved a point for L.A.)

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For fellow Galaxy rookie A.J. Delagarza, a run-out at right back followed a previous assignment at left back, and he never looks overwhelmed. FC Dallas' George John looked reasonably composed for a center back in his second career start.

There are others, but the best of the lot may be D.C. United's Chris Pontius, who now has a very savvy assist to go with his sweet goal from Week 1.

4. The year of backstopping folly: The continued affliction has spread to San Jose's Joe Cannon, usually the steadiest of MLS backstoppers. Chris Rolfe's strike from distance was nice, but Cannon really should have knocked it away. Ditto for D.C. United's Louis Crayton, whose puny effort on RSL's first-half equalizer proved costly. Dallas' Ray Burse was caught in no-man's land on Dwayne De Rosario's header goal.

It all makes you wonder how long it'll be before someone offers Real Salt Lake enough to finally part with highly regarded Olympian backup Chris Seitz.

5. Attendance note: League attendance may be taking a punch in the nose from the flailing economy. (In fairness, some nasty weather is contributing to the slight sag, too.)

Average attendance (15,314) through four rounds is about the same as at this point last year (15,251). But Seattle's staggering contribution is obscuring the reality a bit. Strip away the Sounders' handsome 29,939 per game count, and the MLS average in 2009 falls to just 14,269.

6. Missing Conde: Wilman Conde's days in Chicago have been befouled by nonsensical trade demands and some general crankiness. But the guy is good at his job. Watching the Fire give up three goals Saturday says a lot about how much they miss their blue-ribbon center back. (A sinus infection kept Conde back in Illinois during a 3-3 tie with San Jose.)

Even central partner Bakary Soumare looked unsettled without Conde around to help direct traffic and provide reliable backup. Ultimately, Rolfe's late strike rescued the day, preserving a road draw and once again begging the question of how the young American can't seem to crack coach Denis Hamlett's starting 11.

7. Swapping spots: The Bobby Convey experiment at center midfielder may be over. The U.S. international looked like a difference-maker once again as a left fullback Saturday; his bold burst into the attacking third for an early San Jose goal was big league stuff.

This came after three dreary matches as an attacking midfielder. (He returned to a midfield role for the second half against Chicago.) Now Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop has a tough choice: keep an ineffective Convey in the middle or deploy the league's most expensive left back.

8. What's missing at Buck Shaw? San Jose was a popular choice to tame the West this year. So what's going on, other than the Convey factor? The answer might surprise you.

Everyone assumed Ronnie O'Brien would be missed, and he is. (GMs are now picking up the phone, casting low-ball offers toward O'Brien. Eventually one will be enough money to get the disgruntled winger, who's still living in the Bay Area, off the sofa.) But the club is really missing Francisco Lima and Jason Hernandez.

Yeah. Lima. And Hernandez.

Lima's steady passing out of midfield meant a lot, and he was a quiet factor in last year's brave second-half push. His veteran savvy helped make Ramiro Corrales a better central midfield partner. Simon Elliott's introduction to the lineup (Saturday) might have the same effect. We'll see.

Meanwhile, that tight defense from last year is leaking goals at an alarming rate, as Hernandez's injury absence is felt. Don't forget, he was good enough at center back last year to draw Bob Bradley's attention. James Riley, now in Seattle, is missed, too. Back-line replacements Ryan Cochrane, Eric Denton and Kelly Gray are a significant downgrade.

9. Conference swaps: What should have been a telling weekend in terms of conference strength -- six of seven contests matched conference crossover opposition -- turned out to be a pretty unexciting stalemate. The East took one. The West took one. The other four finished level. Yawn.

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10. The midfield mess in L.A.: I'm hearing a lot of richly textured analysis on the Galaxy tactics, lineup choices, flagging desire, etc. Although there's some merit, those critiques miss a larger point: The Galaxy talent is simply bottom-of-the-barrel.

The midfield Saturday against Chivas USA: Sean Franklin, Josh Tudela, Stefani Miglioranzi and Chris Klein. Anyone feeling inspired?

Franklin is a defender, a young one at that. Tudela is OK but nothing special. Miglioranzi has been a journeyman backup. Klein is serviceable, although slow, on the right. Stationed on the left Saturday, he looked lost and utterly ineffective.

We could talk all day about the Galaxy's young defense, about the goalkeeper situation, about whether Landon Donovan needs to stay higher in the formation, etc. But why? When the midfield looks like that, what chance does L.A. really have?

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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