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May 11, 2009

Chivas playing mistake-free soccer

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

1. Some perspective on Chivas' fast start: How do you distance yourself from the MLS pack while rarely managing to truly wow anyone? Allow Preki and his piecemeal band of castoffs and no-names to show you.

There is a school of thought in sports that says teams don't actually win games so much as the other guys lose them. Get it? You don't necessarily need to be some dynamic band of swashbuckling paladins. Rather, just be a rock-solid block of dependability and, sooner or later, the other fellows will do something silly.

The men from Chivas just don't beat themselves. We saw it once again Saturday in another disciplined tactical (if a little vanilla) night. They push the physicality to the limits (and it remains a liberal limit in MLS). They defend in packs, tackle hard and counter attack ... and then ruthlessly punish opposition mistakes.

Two weekends ago, San Jose's communication blunder near goal was all it took. This week, typically steady RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman was guilty of a sloppy clearance. Paulo Nagamura got on the other end of it for Chivas USA and nailed his third goal this year.

Generally speaking, conference winners in MLS finish somewhere in the low 50s in points. At its current blistering pace, Preki's side would finish with 73 -- easily an MLS record. The Galaxy landed on 68 points back in 1998 (back when they still had shootouts and 32-game seasons, no less).

2. You read it here first: Freddie Ljungberg won't make it through the year. Seattle's feisty blur of an attacker just gets hacked and kicked too much.

Other forwards and midfielders get the business end of the MLS boot, too, of course, as some of the old stand-by referees just can't get on board with actually calling fouls. (Meanwhile, less experienced referees like Edvin Jurisevic and Jeff Gontarek do show promise.) But Ljungberg isn't the biggest guy on the block, and he's playing regularly on artificial turf, which adds to the physical stress.

A couple of weeks back, Chivas tried to kick the handsome fellow back to Sweden. For Matchday 8, Ljungberg got knocked around pretty good by L.A.

Then he suffered the indignity of getting booked for protesting referee Tim Weyland's inattentive match management -- never mind all the punishment he had already taken. Weyland made a huge mess of a 57th-minute incident, handing out two yellows and a deserved red, but somehow failing to caution the guy who initiated the donnybrook, Gregg Berhalter, who had clearly delayed a restart.

3. Throw in a R.E.M. world tour and it's 1995 all over again!: The lime-green-striped Nikes are back! Remember that staple of mid-1990s soccer? They are popping up all over MLS once again. Nice.

4. A bad year for center backs: A year of contagious center back crisis just gets worse and worse. San Jose vet Nick Garcia has shown signs of a rapid decline, and he just had his worst match, for sure.

Garcia's foul on Mac Kandji led to the free kick that became Red Bull's first goal. Later Garcia lazily gave away a throw-in against Red Bull, not even attempting to work the ball out of trouble or win the throw-in on a deflection. That throw-in led to New York's second goal.

Not that any of his teammates were doing much better, as San Jose essentially took a day off from playing defense. Credit Jorge Rojas, the very smooth Albert Celades and others for taking advantage in a Red Bull romp.

5. Reviewing that landmark rookie class: D.C. United's Rodney Wallace was giving Kansas City's Lance Watson fits in the midweek match even before Wallace struck for his team's only goal. On Saturday, Wallace was busy once again on a two-assist night against TFC. Teammate Chris Pontius had yet another strong week, too, starting against the Wizards and then striking late as a sub on Saturday.

Seattle pup Steve Zakuani made life tough on Galaxy right back Tony Sanneh (who is looking mighty slow these days). FC Dallas center back George John got past his recent injury and improved Dallas' back line against Houston.

Revolution rookies Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston were strong on New England's revamped back line. And rookie left back Matt Besler continues to be solid for Kansas City. And Omar Gonzalez continues to pull his weight in L.A.'s central defense.

6. Five mad minutes: Will any player in MLS have a more eventful five minutes than Will Johnson's comically busy stoppage time three-ring circus of activity against Los Angeles? A handball results in a Galaxy penalty kick equalizer. Then he makes amends by slotting a PK on the other side after Fabian Espindola got tossed around like a rag doll. Then Johnson kept Mike Magee onside as the Galaxy hit for the late, late equalizer.

7. Speaking of Espindola: You have to wonder how long RSL manager Jason Kreis will stick with striker Yura Movsisyan now that Espindola is back on the roster. Movsisyan has one goal and one assist in eight starts -- simply not enough for a team with ambitions of climbing beyond mediocre status.

8. A real find in Crew-ville: Emmanuel Ekpo is really finding his voice for the Crew. The second-year man can seriously cut up defenses with those slashing runs, and he's more dangerous at the moment than Robbie Rogers on the other side. If Ekpo can tidy up his service from wide spots, which is ordinary at best right now, he could be one of the league's elite flank players.

Against Kansas City on Saturday, other than striking for his second goal and generally being a big ol' pest all night, he drew fouls that led to two yellow cards for the Wizards. And he was busy right up to the end, still working hard to steer out of trouble in his own defensive third, even as twitchy teammates struggled to keep possession and hoofed balls forward needlessly.

9. But elsewhere on the Crew ...: There's still a lot to like about Columbus in terms of talent, but you really have to wonder if the champs have been knocked woozy in the psyche department. The Crew looked very much like a team about to surrender a late lead yet again Saturday, nervously defending and just whacking the ball forward to vent the pressure temporarily. Watching it makes you wonder if the Crew has the stomach to rally past the early struggles and truly make a stand in their title defense season.

William Hesmer's return to goal could certainly help. Although he has struggled a bit, he's a significant upgrade from Andy Gruenebaum.

Gruenebaum didn't look good a week back on Toronto's equalizer. Saturday he dealt poorly with Claudio Lopez's cross that led to Kansas City's second strike, which almost cost the Crew its only win this year.

10. TFC misfortune: If it weren't for bad luck, Marvell Wynne would have no luck at all right now. A second inadvertent hand ball inside the penalty area in a month by TFC's right back resulted in yet another late goal conceded by Toronto. Subtract those two goals and TFC is leading the East right now.

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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