Where things stand in MLS after the 26th week of play:
1. Playoff reset: This baby is stacked and packed tighter than a corned beef sandwich at the Carnegie Deli.
We'll start by hurrying past the "also rans." San Jose and New York are thinking "2010." Dallas and Kansas City are still wishing upon the dimmest of stars for 2009; they probably need to win five of their last six for any chance. So don't save the date just yet.
Otherwise, the other 11 sides are within nine slender points of one another.
In fact it's really closer than that. Two sides nearer the bottom of the stack, Chivas USA and New England, are each on 33 points but have games in hand over the field.
Columbus, Chicago and Houston are sitting prettiest. Robert Warzycha's East-leading Crew have lost just twice since early April and have yet to lose at home in 2010. Judicious use of Guillermo Barros Schelotto's minutes (against his wishes in some cases) has the league's reigning MVP fresh as the newly mowed bluegrass at Crew Stadium.
Chicago is in reasonable shape thanks to Brian McBride's bionic shoulder. Or something like that. His surprisingly quick return from injury, along with Chris Rolfe's good form, boosted the Fire in a weekend road draw. Meanwhile Houston has shown worrying signs of slippage lately, just 2-5-4 in all competitions since mid-July but still riding that cushion built in spring and early summer
2. Trouble afoot: A few sides have some issues to sort through before making a serious dash for Qwest Field in late November.
D.C. United has four of its final five at home. On the other hand, D.C. won't win many of them without getting more from its money men, who are coming up lame at the worst possible time.
So much of the salary cap at RFK is tied up in DP Luciano Emilio, Fred and Christian Gomez. But all three were horribly ineffective in a weekend loss to Seattle.
FC Dallas' shocking ambush (six goals!) at the Home Depot Center laid bare the Galaxy's Achilles heel: The team is dreadfully slow. Dallas has quietly built the fastest team this side of Seattle, so not everyone will provide Bruce Arena's side such a nightmare matchup. (Gregg Berhalter, a pro since 1994, may never have had a worse night.)
Just east of there the Rapids (pretty good at home, pretty lousy on the road) travel for four of their remaining six. So, enough said there.
3. Costly personnel goofs: Errors in judgment regarding personnel are being punished severely around the league right now as teams pursue lost points (i.e. lost opportunities) in this tight playoff chase.
Here's a great example: D.C. management banked on Josh Wicks being adequate in goal, dumping Louis Crayton and his midlevel salary during the summer. That allowed United to go get Danny Szetela, who is apparently locked in an RFK Stadium broom closet. Besides all of that bizarre behavior of late, Wicks has been plain ol' bad between the pipes for United. Wicks' rickety ways and Szetela's inability to push the aging laggards is costing points at RFK.
FC Dallas took some criticism for passing on Szetela, even though the young midfielder was a tweener who had never been an MLS starter and turned few heads in his time overseas. Now, owing to whatever ongoing issues with attitude or fitness are preventing Szetela from ever getting on the field with United, it appears Dallas made the right call.
But that has hardly been the case all year. Dallas made terrible offseason choices along the back line, inexplicably depending on Steve Purdy and Daniel Torres to provide answers at center back. Plus, Dallas had a "left back by committee" thing going. Well, long story short, no one who started in the back on opening day is a starter now. Dallas is 5-4-2 since mid-June as better pieces fall into place, but it's too late now.
Injuries have certainly played their part as Chivas USA has dropped points this year. But it's hard to feel sorry for a side laden with old, injury-prone types such as Ante Razov and Claudio Suarez on the roster. Neither has started a match this year.
There's plenty more. Nick Garcia, a midseason pickup, is killing TFC at center back. That rotation of converted central midfielders failed miserably in San Jose. In New York ... well, where do you start? Suffice to say, good roster choices is where it all begins and ends -- because you can only "coach 'em up" so much.
4. Running low on discipline: Tension is high and the refereeing remains as maddeningly inconsistent as ever. Still, there's no excuse for the ongoing lax discipline in MLS. Getting a card for a late challenge is one thing. But petulance and foolishness are leaving marks on too many games right now.
Nana Attakora and Chad Barrett collected silly yellow cards for Toronto this round. Inconceivably lenient Silviu Petrescu should have issued half a dozen cards at RFK, where he was lucky that no Sounder or United man was hurt in a wickedly physical match.
Against the Wiz on Saturday, Red Bull's Carlos Johnson became the first MLS player since 2000 to collect three red cards in a season -- not exactly what you want to hang your hat on. Johnson was ejected for his part in postgame histrionics; it was one of three matches that ended with some kind of player or manager altercation at the final whistle.
Finally, both matches Sunday ended with 10 men on the field for each side.
|MLS Game of the Week
San Jose vs. Colorado
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
5. The yin and yang of MLS: In a massive five-day span for the U.S. World Cup qualification drive, every goal, assist and huge save in goal was the product of someone who plays now in MLS or once did. That's a white glove to the face of the soccer snobs who believe MLS isn't worth the grass it's played on.
But here's the bad: Three prominent U.S. figures sullied an otherwise great week with ugly incidents in the waning minutes of their weekend MLS matches.
Ricardo Clark was ejected for his part in a melee with Columbus players late Sunday. In the same contest Brian Ching was lucky to see just yellow for an uncharacteristic moment, chopping down Alejandro Moreno from behind with no intent for the ball.
And speaking of uncharacteristic, Landon Donovan let his frustrations show at the final whistle, kicking an FC Dallas player and nearly punctuating a dreadful night by starting a big ol' donnybrook.
Nobody likes to see needless cards issued in the final seconds of a game long decided.
On the other hand, such cynical action deserves punitive reaction. Referee Hilario Grajeda should be made to explain why he failed to issue so much as a caution to the U.S. international.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.
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