Don't blame the playoff system, or fate, or injuries for the tricky tasks facing the higher seeds in the conference semifinals. Blame the policies of MLS that restrict teams to an 18-man roster and a $2.1 million salary cap despite a burdensome schedule of regular-season, Open Cup, playoffs and international club competitions. With more competitive games come greater chances for injury to attacking players and a commensurate loss of offensive punch.
D.C. United, Chivas USA and Houston - which compiled the three best regular-season records - are down 1-0 heading into their home legs, and D.C. and Chivas USA are both impaired by having two of their best attackers hobbled by injury.
All-time leading goalscorer Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio, who led the league with 20 goals in his inaugural MLS season, sat out United's first leg against Chicago before resuming training Monday. Guy-Roland Kpene played alone up top and really struggled.
Both Moreno and Emilio could be ready for the second leg but are up against a Thursday kickoff instead of the usual weekend fixture.
Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo combined for 23 goals this season but sat out the first leg against Kansas City. Laurent Merlin seldom threatened as a starter against Kansas City, and rookie John Cunliffe hit the crossbar shortly after coming on as a sub but otherwise scarcely made an impression.
Razov suffered a twisted knee Oct. 11 and has undergone an experimental procedure of injecting plasma-free blood into the joint to speed recovery, but he's probably at least another week away from competitive play.
Galindo has been bothered by an abdominal strain for the past month and the team has been using him sparingly.
Since teams, logically, use a lot of their allocation money and salary budget on attacking players, finding backups and replacements of sufficient quality -- not equal quality, per se, but good enough to produce in MLS -- to fit under the salary cap can be difficult given the market prices such players command.
The impact of players such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Juan Toja, Galindo, Emilio and Fred have been dramatic, and their absences have often been dramatic as well.
It must be noted none of the three teams has used a Designated Player slot, although Chivas USA traded its slot to New York in exchange for midfielder Amado Guevara.
Since a team takes a $400,000 salary-cap hit for signing a DP, most likely each team would be shorn one of its current attacking stars had it acquired a DP, and probably no better off whether or not the DP was one of the two players injured.
Houston coach Dominic Kinnear set out to add depth this season, and in addition to workhorse midfielder Richard Mulrooney, brought in attackers Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya to supplement Brian Ching, Dwayne DeRosario, Brian Mullan, and Brad Davis.
Ching and Ngwenya tied for the team lead in goals with seven apiece, and Jaqua scored six.
Injuries limited Stuart Holden to 22 appearances (10 starts) yet he chipped in with five goals.
That's not a lot of goals but for a team that conceded only 23 in 30 matches, it's enough to win. And as New England, another non-DP team, showed by drafting Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson, shrewd use of the draft can also supplement the attack.
Had the Dynamo and New England signed a DP they might have had a big-name attacker but probably wouldn't be as deep.
With a bigger roster and larger salary cap, teams would have the ways and means to accommodate a big-time player and build depth.
So shorthanded were Chivas USA and D.C. they altered their formation and played with just one striker.
"You always try to make trades for the guys you know the best because you've seen them up close many, many times," says Kinnear, who served for three years in San Jose as assistant to Frank Yallop, who preached the same philosophy. "I'm a believer in not always taking a gamble on maybe a foreigner but bringing in a guy who knows the league, knows the travel, knows the referees, and knows your team a little bit, too."
Adding a second DP slot per team for next season will be discussed by the Board of Governors during MLS Cup, as will a larger roster and richer salary caps.
The MLS Players Union doesn't oppose a broader DP policy but wants the other salary issues addressed also.
"As a general rule we are always in favor of seeing MLS players receive contracts that are commensurate with their true market value," said MLSPU executive director Bob Foose in an e-mail. "Thus we generally support the addition of a second designated player slot for each team.
"However, in order for such an addition to have a positive impact on the league, MLS will have to raise each team's salary budget to account for a second 'maximum' salary budget charge. Adding a second slot without doing so would merely result in the addition of a small group of high end players coupled with downward salary pressure (and thus loss of talent) at the middle and lower ends of rosters."
Before the league gets serious about a second DP, it needs to take care of the first 18, or better yet, the Top 20.