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May 18, 2009

Veteran Wolff spicing up Kansas City's offense

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

1. Wolff's epochal moment: Would anybody have really kicked up too much of a fuss if journalists had written off Josh Wolff just a few weeks ago?

He's 32 now, and it looked for all the world as if his best days were done. After a respectable 10-goal season in Kansas City in 2005, injuries and a late-career grab for euros and Euro glory had limited the former U.S. international's production since.

But talk about a meaningful moment -- perhaps a moment that will extend the Georgia native's career by years rather than months. Near the end of a pretty dour night for the Wizards in Chicago, increasingly desperate Kansas City manager Curt Onalfo moved Wolff back up to striker, out of a flank midfield spot where the player had been every bit as effective as wet bread. Wolff had no goals at that point and appeared to be going nowhere fast.

That was one month ago. The former 1860 Munich man woke up Monday morning with a share of the MLS scoring lead. After striking twice for Kansas City in a 2-0 road win over RSL on Matchday 9, he's tied with Brian McBride at six goals each.

2. Wishing away bad things: Does anyone else wonder if Bruce Arena, in his quiet, contemplative moments away from the madding recorders and notepads, may just wish he could be done already with the whole David Beckham thing?

He's got the defense more or less where he needs it -- Tony Sanneh's mad moment Sunday not withstanding. The goals have slowed to a trickle thanks to greater stability in goal, Gregg Berhalter's timely addition and to a general amplification in attention to the defensive cause. The Galaxy players (those currently not on a Milan time-share) are working hard for each other. No, Los Angeles isn't fast-tracking to the MLS glory; The Galaxy is currently level with San Jose and Dallas in wins, with one wee little triumph.

Then again, they haven't lost since April 2. They've given up just six goals in seven matches since, which isn't bad at all. The past five ties were all via comeback, which shows that spirit, unit cohesion and resilience are healthy.

Now back to Beckham. Consider that there's very little chance he'll remain around past November. So there's a real risk of toxic drip in the locker room as he brings the circus back to town. Insiders say that nobody has anything against him personally, necessarily. There's just a little problem with the here and now. That is, he's not here, now -- when everybody else is laying it out there to scrape up enough points to keep Chivas, Seattle and now perhaps Houston in view.

Besides all that, think about what the Galaxy could do with Beckham's ample slice of salary cap pie. Surely the club could pick up that sorely needed holding midfielder with such a whopping stack of cash.

So what are the chances of something like that happening? Virtually zero. There's still money to be squeezed from the Beckham enterprise in sunny SoCal. Still, a man can dream, eh? And you wonder if Arena is doing just that.

3. That sinking feeling: Looks like it's time to add Pablo Vitti's name to the roll call of heralded foreign attackers who, for whatever reason, sank in MLS quicksand. Toronto FC's seemingly talented young striker missed two absolute sitters in Saturday's setback at home. The striker on loan from Independiente of Argentina is still looking for his first goal.

And we can probably add FC Dallas' David Ferreira, who is managing something truly special at Pizza Hut Park, to the list. He's played every minute so far. How someone stays on the field when he plays very little defense and has just one assist (with no goals) while playing at attacking midfield or withdrawn striker, only FCD manager Schellas Hyndman can explain.

So, barring some kind of implausible reversal, they'll join the 2008 class of failed heralded signings, which included Kenny "Dr. Goals" Deuchar at RSL, Chicago's Tomasz Frankowski, Houston's Franco Caraccio and D.C. United's Franco Niell.

4. A No. 1 looking like, well, a No. 1: We didn't hear too much early about overall No. 1 draft pick Steve Zakuani, whose initial dash-abouts in Seattle were partially obscured by all the other hullabaloo around the expansion side, and by grand rookie doings at D.C. United, Toronto, New England, New York, L.A. and elsewhere.

But Zakuani, now with two goals and three assists, is electrifying the left side for Sigi Schmid's Sounders these days. He was such a livewire Saturday, FC Dallas had to move Drew Moor over from the left to the right to help deal with him.

5. Another absurdly implausible comeback: You'd think that Chivas USA would be the last team to go all Nervous Nellie, to join the growing list of miscreants who have frittered away two-goal leads at home already this year, through only Matchday 9.

And yet here we are, adding the battlin' Goats to a weary roster that already includes Chicago and Columbus. And then we have a woozy lineup of home teams that have lost a one-goal lead at home after the 80th minute, a sin not quite as contemptible, but certainly nothing to feel great about. That list now includes, in addition to the above clubs, San Jose, Red Bull, Colorado, Toronto, Houston and Real Salt Lake.

6. Give the man his due: Ruud Gullit got a lot of things wrong while indifferently trotting alongside Los Angeles Galaxy proceedings for a few months in 2008. But he sure had MLS pegged on one account.

Gullit seemed exasperated after one particular match last year, admitting, more or less, that he was struggling to identify patterns and recurring themes in MLS. "Who could know?" he said with a comical shrug of the shoulders. Scouting was difficult because teams and individuals were all over the place in terms of form and predictability. For a man so used to keeping a steady beat in Europe, he found himself struggling to catch the cadence of decidedly less orderly MLS.

To his point: what to make of RSL, which shellacked New England by a 6-0 score, but hasn't won a match and has been shut out three times since? Javier Morales and Yura Movsisyan combined for 13 goals and 16 assists last year. They have just two goals and three assists combined through almost a third of 2009.

And who can figure out the mercurial Canadians? They beat Chivas USA a month ago (the only team to do so) and they fought like young lions at D.C. United a week ago to manufacture a memorable 3-3 draw. Of course, they also lost to FC Dallas and tied the Texans on yet another occasion, and they laid a stinker over the weekend as Chicago came to town.

And just generally, who knows what in the world is going on in San Jose, Dallas and Red Bull New York?

Artificial turf, officiating as wobbly as a three-legged dog, screwball scheduling, killer travel, implausible comebacks and expansion sides that somehow got past the ushers into premium conference seating -- it's all part of the MLS landscape, and it does keep things interesting, if nothing else. It's a league still in its gangly teenage years, where every weekend the activity ranges from sorry to sublime to outright bizarre.

Sometimes it makes you wonder if MLS coaches would be best served by truly embracing the teachings of the U.S. Marines, who hang tough on an unofficial doctrine of "improvise, adapt and overcome."

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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