Catching up on MLS and the playoff races after 29 of 32 rounds:
1. A little less murk in the muddle: Round 29 did a lot to clarify Major League Soccer's stacked and packed playoff race. Questions remain still, but far fewer now as a clearer picture develops of a postseason that begins the last week of October.
The basic housekeeping looks like this: Columbus, Houston and Los Angeles have officially rung the playoff bell. Columbus is almost sure to claim the top spot in the East, while Houston, L.A., Chivas USA and even Seattle could still have something to say about the Western crown.
Besides those sides, Chicago is well positioned. New England and Colorado? Eh. Let's say they are well positioned-ish.
Then, mark down the following as already, effectively, playing playoff soccer, since it's pretty much win or else: Real Salt Lake, Toronto, D.C. United. Kansas City and FC Dallas (thanks mostly to Jeff Cunningham's amazing second-half run) remain alive, although only mathematically.
2. One club that might make it ... : Of the current list of "outsiders," Toronto does, at least, have it all in front of them. Chris Cummins' team has three matches remaining, including two at home and none against teams with winning records. San Jose and Real Salt Lake come to Canada, while Red Bull awaits in New Jersey.
Cummins had a week off to stir Julian de Guzman more thoroughly into the mix; the classy Canadian international has been used as a deep-lying playmaker and in a more advanced midfield role. That's it. Time's up. Yes, it's asking a lot of de Guzman to ride in to the rescue, but it is what it is.
3. ... And one that probably can't: D.C. United, sitting pretty a month ago, has completely self-destructed. Three consecutive losses at home have exposed the team for what it is, too dependent on aging stars, too thin in defense and guilty of seeing too much "talent" on a roster that failed to make the playoffs last year. Tom Soehn's team needs wins in its final two just for a chance, and even that won't be easy. Soehn's final two MLS matches at United may well be at hand, as league champion Columbus visits RFK before United travels to Kansas City, where interim manager Peter Vermes has the team moving in the right direction.
4. Managerial distress: Only one manager has been kicked to the curb in 2009 (although Toronto's John Carver did, curiously, place his own noggin in the guillotine). But it surely won't remain that way, as more managers seem likely to go.
It's a stretch to see Soehn keeping his job at RFK if the playoffs aren't reached -- and it's a stretch at his point to see that happening.
Similarly, Real Salt Lake needs to win out just to stay in the fight. Colorado and Red Bull come into Utah, so wins there are certainly possible. But those matches are sandwiched around a trip to Toronto, where the Reds have finally made BMO the fortress so many thought it should be; Toronto has four wins and a tie in its past five there. Plus, RSL is awful on the road, with just eight of a possible 42 points and a minus-14 goal difference.
If the Lakers miss the playoffs, GM Garth Lagerwey has a tough decision. RSL has made big progress under Jason Kreis; Lagerwey must determine if the first-time manager has taken the club as far as he can.
5. Ailing in New England: Providing a bit of hope to these playoff pursuers is the dire condition now found in New England, which currently occupies the eighth and final spot. Taylor Twellman hasn't been seen since the Bush administration (almost, anyway). Steve Ralston is out for the year. Chris Albright has apparently been moved to witness protection and now Jay Heaps is hurting.
Meanwhile, Shalrie Joseph has put on the superhero's cape, still bossing the midfield while leading the team in scoring. And those two rookie backs, Darrius Barnes and Kevin Alston, will be seen in MLS for years to come. Still, prospects for points look grim, with a pair of matches against Columbus and a visit from Chicago (a team that is, inexplicably, better away from home).
6. Signs of slippage in Houston: The Dynamo qualified for the playoffs with a weekend draw at home against Kansas City. But there's precious little snap and crackle around Dominic Kinnear's team at the moment, with just one win in the past six MLS matches.
Goal scoring has slipped. Discipline issues are at pandemic stage. And the team's best defender, Geoff Cameron, just had perhaps his worst match, with overly aggressive challenges, sloppy clearances, a near own goal and poor positioning on the Wizards' second-half equalizer.
Los Angeles is trending upward, while Seattle and Chivas USA just gained confidence and initiative with massive road wins. So, Houston is in danger of being lapped as the class of the West.
7. Defender of the Year candidates stumble: Cameron's wobbly afternoon won't hurt him in the MLS Defender of the Year race because, coincidentally, no other candidate had days to remember.
Columbus' Chad Marshall was out injured again. A hamstring strain has interrupted Jay Heaps' renaissance season at New England. Galaxy rookie Omar Gonzalez struggled against Chicago's Patrick Nyarko. Chicago's Wilman Conde struggled to communicate with his own players.
Seattle center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was having a career evening in Columbus, a big part of his side's inspiring effort in Ohio. But then his ill-advised, late challenge on Eddie Gaven in the penalty area put the result in jeopardy. (Guillermo Barros Schelotto's first miss in nine MLS spot shot attempts bailed out Hurtado.)
8. Beckham rising: It was fair to cue the circus music and kick around the David Beckham experiment as more sizzle than steak for the past two years. But not in 2009; the English international has found his MLS feet -- mostly owing to Bruce Arena's ability to stifle the silliness and create some team stability around him.
Bottom line: Beckham has found a comfort zone, and every night out seems better than the last. He's playing centrally with lots of defensive cover and a designed propensity to drift right, where his crosses can be killers. Meanwhile, he's hustling about and tackling, something certainly not lost on his teammates. With more precise finishing, Beckham could have had two or three assists off that pinpoint passing in Friday's playoff-clinching win over Chicago.
9. One caveat to the note above: The current setup would have Los Angeles meeting Seattle in the first round. That's a bugger of a matchup problem for L.A., which has one glaring weakness. For all the tidy organization Arena has brought to the HDC, the team is painfully slow.
And Seattle is perhaps the league's fastest team. It's between Dallas and Seattle -- and we all remember what happened when Dallas visited Los Angeles last month, a six-goal fiasco for L.A.
10. Talking DPs: Has Houston Dynamo striker Luis Angel Landin showed anybody else anything to indicate that he's worth DP money? Just checking.
|MLS Game of the Week
New York Red Bulls vs. RSL
10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
It's still early, just five matches into the young Mexican's MLS career. But he has just one goal, that one an easy far-post tap-in. He looks a little slow, and he hasn't shown any ability to create shots on his own. (And why Jorge Gonzalez didn't caution Landin for a clear trip off the ball on a Wizards defender, which happened right in front of the referee, only the man in the middle himself could say.)
Landin will certainly get his chances. Some patterns have become crystal clear in Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear. One is that players will get a chance. He doesn't knee-jerk. Franco Caraccio had plenty of time last year. Kevin Goldthwaite got his chances in 2006 before he was moved to the bench, then shuffled along to the next taker. Same for Julius James this year -- and he has looked awful at D.C. United since being traded.
And that's the second thing we know about Houston under Kinnear: He's not afraid to cut someone loose. He who can't get the job done is gone. It doesn't always happen that way, as egos and fears of tainted reps as a personnel evaluator get involved. Instead of just admitting already that they made a mistake in bringing someone aboard, technical directors, GMs or managers will let these ill-suited players drag down the whole enterprise.
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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