The Eastern Conference is loaded, but the best team(s) may be out west. Houston, New England and D.C. United look like the most likely champions with one half of the season to be played, yet a few others are impossible to dismiss.
The MLS season is all about the playoffs, but with a revamped method of determining the eight postseason qualifiers and the arrival of Designated Players Cuauhtemoc Blanco and David Beckham, teams added and dropped players at a furious pace during the first half of the 2007 season.
Coaches were dismissed in Chicago and Real Salt Lake, the head coach in Toronto earned the nickname "Trader Mo" for his quick-trigger churning of players, and both Blanco and Beckham arrived to join floundering teams.
The top two teams in each conference will be joined in the playoffs by the next four teams ranked on points, regardless of conference. The season ends Oct. 21.
From the best to the worst with a couple of question marks, here's a look at the MLS in mid-season.
DYNAMO POWER. So poorly did Houston begin the season, and so well did it play in June and July, that the primary fear for Coach Dominic Kinnear was a catastrophic run of injuries during the SuperLiga.
A good team can sputter at the wrong time, as the Kinnear-led Quakes did in 2005 when stunned by the Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals, but Houston has a solid defense, dynamic midfield, and potent strikers. Its pressuring style and fierce flank play, leavened by the brilliantly unpredictable Dwayne DeRosario, is tough to beat.
Its amazing shutout streak (895 minutes as of the All-Star break) -- during which Canada keeper Pat Onstad bounced back and forth between MLS and the Gold Cup, and Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark spent more than a month with the U.S. team, and midfield catalyst Brad Davis went down with a knee injury - stamped Houston as the best defensive team in the league. And defenses win you-know-what.
Kinnear has used his knowledge of the league to strengthen his team. Explosive striker Joseph Ngwenya scored six goals in 13 games after arriving in a trade with Columbus, and tall tower Nate Jaqua, snakebit in Los Angeles, scored in his first start, a 4-0 rout of Chicago.
Richard Mulrooney arrived from Toronto FC in a trade to deepen the team's midfield and can also play in the back, where captain and left back Wade Barrett and rugged central defender Eddie Robinson lead a very stingy bunch.
Keys to success: Don't get hurt!
REVVING UP. In a fiercely competitive Eastern Conference - only four points separated the top five teams heading into the All-Star break - New England has shown quality as well as great depth. It won four of its first eight road games and only marginally lost momentum when Taylor Twellman and Michael Parkhurst left the team to play for the U.S. national team. The departure of stalwarts Joey Franchino (personal issues and season-ending injury) and Clint Dempsey (sold to Fulham in the offseason) hasn't bumped the Revs off stride. James Riley has found a home in the back line, and Khano Smith is the best of several capable replacements for Franchino.
Steve Ralston leads the team in assists and set the all-time league mark (115) just prior to the All-Star break. The Revs scored three or more goals six times in their first 15 games, yet ranked among the league's best defensive teams with 17 goals.
Midfielder Andy Dorman, along with rookie Adam Cristman, has taken some of the goalscoring load previously shouldered by Dempsey. Dorman scored 10 goals in three MLS seasons prior to 2007; at the All-Star break, he had seven. Midfield partner Shalrie Joseph is the most imposing player in the league. Period.
Keys to success: Dorman's consistency, Parkhurst's steadiness, and who steps up if Cristman hits the rookie wall.
UNITED AGAIN.Like Houston, D.C. overcame a rough start to the season, perhaps suffering a letdown following a spirited showing against Guadalajara in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in March.
Jaime Moreno, revived by a recall to the Bolivian national team for the Copa America, is still weaving the patterns and performing the flicks that befuddle opponents. Brazilian striker Luciano Emilio has been one of the best foreign acquisitions of the season and should challenge for the goalscoring title. Christian Gomez is still plagued by inconsistency but when Moreno, Emilio and Gomez are clicking, they simply can't be stopped for very long.
Yet the midfield, to which Fred has been added, often appears disjointed despite staunch performances by Ben Olsen and the diligent tracking and tackling of Brian Carroll, and the back line has yet to impress. Coach Tom Soehn has switched to a four-man back line, inserting midfielder Josh Gros at left back, and traded skilled but glitch-prone defender Facundo Erpen for MLS veteran Greg Vanney to pair with Bobby Boswell.
Keeper Troy Perkins, capable and brave, is occasionally prone to poor decisions. Errors on all three goals cost United a win as FC Dallas rallied for a 3-3 tie at RFK, yet a few brilliant saves earned D.C. a 1-0 win at Kansas City on July 4 despite United being outshot, 21-11.
Keys to success: The health of Moreno and how well Vanney patches up the cracks occasionally caused by the inexperience of Boswell and Perkins.
KANSAS CITY CONUNDRUM.With Eddie Johnson on U.S. duty, the Wizards struggled through six games without a win. Upon his return, he scored the only goal of a 1-0 victory over lowly Real Salt Lake to give him 10 for the season. Yet a 20-5 edge in shots reflected a disturbing tendency the Wizards have shown to control games but not take command of them on the scoreboard.
Losing 1-0 to D.C. United at home despite hitting the frame eight times is indicative of the team's struggles at home. Beating RSL gave it a moderate 4-3-1 mark at Arrowhead Stadium, and in those eight games, it had scored only 10 goals. On the road, Kansas City counters effectively; at home, it creates chances yet squanders too many of them.
There are plenty of bright spots for the Wizards, starting in midfield. Argentine Carlos Marinelli and rookie Michael Harrington are difficult to shut down, and veterans Sasha Victorine and Kerry Zavagnin add savvy and defensive bite.
Yet defensive breakdowns, as in conceding goals against the run of play, resulted in opponents scoring 22 goals in 16 games heading into the All-Star break. The average of 1.38 goals allowed per game ranked eighth in the league. Last year's numbers were 1.41, so improvement has been slight.
Keys to success: Establishing home-field advantage and sharper finishing.
DALLAS DELIGHT. Juan Carlos Toja is the young player fans dream about; skilled, tough, flamboyant, determined, effective in any part of the field.
The 21-year-old Colombian is the most visible change from last year's team that crashed out of the playoffs to Colorado for the second straight season, yet the 2007 midfield is almost unrecognizable compared to last year's version. Pablo Richetti, Ramon Nunez and Arturo Alvarez spice FCD with more skill and variety than can be found elsewhere in MLS.
But anchoring all that pizzazz is still a work in progress. Defender Adrian Serioux, acquired during the offseason as a rugged linchpin to the back line, had just begun rounding into playing shape at the All-Star break. Yet the D in Big D had posted shutouts in four of its last six games after failing to post a zero in its first dozen matches, so perhaps the pieces were already falling into place. Right back Drew Moor came back from the Copa America with two demanding games, his first two caps, under his belt.
A broken leg has sidelined forward Kenny Cooper, and a second surgery to Roberto Mina's troublesome knee means Carlos Ruiz, Abe Thompson and precocious Dominic Oduro must man the front positions. But with Toja also capable of netting goals - he scored twice in a comeback 3-3 tie with United at RFK prior to the All-Star break - FCD has a lot of the elements necessary for a longer playoff run.
Keys to success: Defensive resiliency and ruthlessness at home, where it plays eight of its final 12 games.
WHO CHEERS FOR CHIVAS?The league's Mexican-flavored entry plays exciting soccer and has a winning record, but the fans refuse to come.
Only three teams drew fewer fans than the average of 13,013 per game attracted by a team fueled by the pace of Cuban striker Maykel Galindo, the energetic play of Jonathan Bornstein and Sasha Kljestan, and the daring heroics of popular keeper Brad Guzan. In the first half of the season, Chivas USA throttled the opposition at home with a 6-0-1 record and an incredible mark of 15 goals scored and only two conceded.
Despite the home fans' apathy, Chivas USA isn't likely to fizzle down the stretch. A tough midfield duo of Jesse Marsch and Paulo Nagamura and a back line led by former Mexican international Claudio Suarez were permitting teams less than 11 shots per game, the second-best mark in MLS. There's depth, too; keeper Preston Burpo and left back Orlando Perez stepped in with teammates away on U.S. duty and Chivas USA continued racking up points.
Keys to success: A better road mark (1-5-2 at the break) would instill confidence.
RED BULL REVOLVING DOOR. The use of 32 players and a scoring drought following a strong start places Red Bull New York squarely in the crossroads.
Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel scores nine goals in his first seven games, then goes scoreless in four straight and is red-carded. Clint Mathis is ejected twice in his first 10 games but does have five goals at the All-Star break. With Jozy Altidore playing for the USA at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, RBNY scores just one goal in four games.
Rookie Dane Richards has cooled off after blistering foes in the first two months of the season, so the return to health of Austrian midfielder Markus Schopp, sidelined for most of the season with a sports hernia, may be timely. The midfield has also missed the fire of Dema Kovalenko, sidelined since mid-June with a groin strain. He filled in at right back for a few games, and regular starter Hunter Freeman struggled through some rough moments after missing nearly two months with a sprained ankle.
Of the defenders, only Carlos Mendes has played consistently. Unless that can be rectified, the Red Bulls can't be considered among the favorites. But they showed in the first few months the talent to crack the top flight.
Keys to success: Results against the Eastern Conference (3-4-2 at the break) and crisper midfield play.
CREW COUP.A six-game Columbus unbeaten streak jammed up the Eastern Conference standings even further, as a midfield led by Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto and American Ned Grabavoy kicked into gear after sputtering through May and early June.
Schelotto takes a free role as the playmaking/attacking midfielder, supported by Grabavoy and holding midfielders Stefani Miglioranzi and/or Danny O'Rourke. Schelotto's precision on set plays and the unselfish work of Alejandro Moreno, who registered three goals and five assists after arriving from Houston in a trade, has revived an attack that scored only four goals in the first seven games.
Moreno has also brought some consistency to the front line, a paragon of streakiness in which Kei Kamara, Andy Herron, Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers flash and fade.
Defender Chad Marshall's return to reliability has stabilized the back line. A streak of three straight shutouts ended with a 2-1 loss at Home Depot to Chivas USA mid-July, yet the Crew has the tools to keep things very snug in the East. And pesky Frankie Hejduk hasn't lost his drive.
Keys to success: Players pulling their weight to support Schelotto and consistent scoring from whomever.
RAPID REVERSAL.Colorado was winless in June and most of July, so its mood at the All-Star break was anything but festive.
Zero wins and six losses in eight games - and shutouts in five of them - plunged the Rapids' playoff hopes deeply in doubt. Coach Fernando Clavijo released Panamanian striker Roberto Brown in anticipation of Mexican forward Daniel Osorno's arrival, and traded Kyle Beckerman for slick Real Salt Lake midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy to spark the attack.
A miserable season for striker Nicolas Hernandez hasn't helped the Rapids' cause. They suffered three straight shutouts at home, despite the crossing of Terry Cooke (five assists) and the dogged effort of Herculez Gomez (four goals).
The absence of U.S. international Pablo Mastroeni, who again has played midfield and defense this season, affected Colorado perhaps more than Clavijo anticipated. But teams that average less than a goal per game (14 goals, 17 matches) have no hope.
Keys to success: Unless Osorno and Ballouchy can make up for - or revive - Hernandez's lackluster play, the Rapids won't score enough goals to challenge for the playoffs.
NORTHERN MAKEOVER.Bedlam at BMO Field is all well and good but not until it went on the road in late June did TFC transform itself from enthralling novelty to formidable foe.
Upon being forced out of its home - where it averages about 20,000 per outing! - for six straight games to accommodate the U-20 World Cup, TFC won once, tied three times and lost only once in its first five road games to propel it into the playoff chase. Included were road ties at Kansas City and Houston.
The list of players acquired and jettisoned by Coach Mo Johnston - he fielded 34 players in the first 15 games - runs on and on, but those he's kept are paying dividends. Massive striker Danny Dichio is good for a goal every two games and is a bruiser to boot, rookie Maurice Edu is a midfield force who can also score goals, and Ronnie O'Brien is the pest he's always been on the right flank.
Jeff Cunningham came northeast from Real Salt Lake and scored three goals in his first seven games. If he stays on the beam and Carl Robinson continues to blossom as another catalyst to complement O'Brien, there could be playoff soccer north of the border come October. Brrr!
Keys to success: O'Brien provides service for Dichio from the wings.
RSL AT ROCK BOTTOM. Whatever else you can say about Coach Jason Kreis, named to replace John Ellinger in a shock move by operator-investor Dave Checketts, he hasn't been afraid to shake things up.
Traded away were midfielders Mehdi Ballouchy and Chris Klein and striker Jeff Cunningham in separate deals, with rookie Robbie Findlay and U.S. under-20 international Nathan Sturgis (from Los Angeles), midfielder Kyle Beckerman (Colorado), and striker Alecko Eskandarian (Toronto FC) arriving in exchange.
The team reportedly negotiated with Nigerian striker Jay-Jay Okocha but as of the All-Star break no deal had been announced. RSL needs offensive punch; it scored just 13 goals in its first 15 games to rank last in the league, and the loss of Freddy Adu during the U-20 World Cup didn't mean much; in 11 games prior to his departure, his stats were one goal and two assists. Andy Williams failed to register a goal or assist in his first 10 games.
Adu's superb showing at the world championships could move him abroad before the European transfer window closes at the end of June, and if Kreis can't turn the team around, its strong following at home (an average of 16,735 fans per game, fourth in the league) may begin to wane. Scoring just four goals in its first seven home games doesn't excite the faithful, y'know?
Keys to success: Adu shows he can duplicate the success he had at the U-20 World Cup in MLS.
FLICKERING FIRE. Blanco and Juan Carlos Osorio. What can they do?
Osorio takes over as head coach for Dave Sarachan, who was fired in June and replaced by former assistant Denis Hamlett, who will stay on to assist Osorio. The Fire needs plenty of help on the field as well. Houston hammered Chicago, 4-0, at Toyota Park in Osorio's debut. The attack has floundered since Chris Rolfe, who was tied for the team lead in scoring with four goals (in only six games), suffered a severe ankle sprain.
Blanco arrived after playing for Mexico in the Gold Cup and Copa America, and at age 34, can't carry all of the baggage of the Fire's terrible first half (4-8-4) of the season. There's certainly experience in the squad with Diego Gutierrez, who has moved from midfield into the back line, and Chris Armas. Justin Mapp can slice open many MLS defenses. Chad Barrett is a tough, rugged targetman but needs more consistent service to improve his total of four goals in 16 games. But the pieces have to fit.
An impending sale of the team by Anschutz Entertainment Group to Andell Holdings, a private investment firm based in California, further muddies its future.
Keys to success: Goals and leadership.
BECKS ON CALL IN LA. He can't be counted on as anything more than a very good soccer player, yet for David Beckham's team and the entertainment nirvana in which it plays, that may not be enough.
A heavy diet of road games, not to mention at least three tough matches in the SuperLiga, piles the pressure on Landon Donovan and Co. to get the Galaxy's season reversed. Perhaps in desperation, Coach Frank Yallop has jettisoned youngsters for veterans, hoping that midfielder Chris Klein, Honduran striker Carlos Pavon, and Portuguese defender Abel Xavier can supplement the talents of Donovan and Beckham.
When Cobi Jones, age 37, is the team's most dangerous attacker in some games, the room for improvement is vast. Kyle Martino has revived his career with some sharp efforts, but needs to show up more on the scoresheet; in 11 games he had just one goal and one assist.
A tender ankle delayed Beckham's return to full fitness, but patience won't be forthcoming from the Galaxy offices. Yallop has drastically revamped the roster since taking over in June of last year, and despite the paparazzi swarming around his players he and they have to get it right, right away.
Keys to success: Beckham's professionalism and dedication, plus a healthy ankle, spurs his teammates to stronger performances.
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)