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Assessing the midnight-hour moves
by Ridge Mahoney, September 29th, 2008 11AM



At the MLS All-Star Game in Toronto two months ago, the fate of Jeff Cunningham sparked much banter on the sidelines and in the press box.

"He's gone," ran the general consensus, with nary a riposte, since Cunningham's quirky, singular approach to training, matches, and just about every aspect of his professional behavior ran counter to the strictures of Toronto coach John Carver.

All would be tolerated, of course, if he was scoring gobs of goals, but he wasn't, and without hitting the target his breakneck dribbles and brazen shots were flamboyant, frustrating, theatrics, nothing more. A few pundits also postulated, "He's done," meaning bridges burned on both sides of the border would drive away potential suitors and leave him languishing on the TFC bench until season's end, to be cast adrift thereafter.

Some of us thought differently, theorizing that in an MLS playoff race sure to be drawn tighter and tauter as the weeks and games slipped past, a proven goalscorer, even one as high-maintenance as Cunningham, would find a home, the long-term ramifications notwithstanding.

Cunningham did land in new surroundings, and so did Carlos Ruiz, Clint Mathis, Sasha Victorine and several other proven veterans snatched by teams desperate to fill a need or just get that much better for the final few games.

Major League Baseball teams in playoff contention search for a proven bat or a reliable arm in late August. NBA teams work the phones to solidify a banged-up backcourt as the playoffs near. With every MLS team still in the playoff chase, and the fate of several tenuous at best, the mid-September shuffle jumbled up the postseason picture once again, for better or worse.

FCD Dallas is where Cunningham wound up, and since the acquisition, in seven games he's scored five goals, one fewer than he managed in 32 games with Toronto the past two years. Dallas is fifth in the Western Conference with a 8-9-9 record and may still fall short, but in the last seven games it has scored 13 goals.

Not every last-minute acquisition has turned out so well, but just the fact teams made such moves in the final days before the Sept. 15 roster freeze date/trade deadline reflects an increased motivation - or desperation - not to miss the playoff cut. One game, or even one moment, from one player might be the difference between sneaking into the postseason and sitting it out.

Kansas City had listened to offers for Victorine early in the season, then pulled him off the market. But when Chivas USA midfielder Jesse Marsch suffered a broken jaw, Coach Preki seized the chance to bring Victorine back to Southern California, where he played college ball (UCLA) and began his pro career with the Galaxy.

At Home Depot Center last Saturday, Chivas USA jumped into second place and dealt the Wizards' playoff hopes a serious setback by beating them, 2-1. Creator of the first goal? Victorine. Scorer of the winner? The same.

The Wizards' midnight-hour addition, forward Abe Thompson, hasn't scored in four games. Mathis contributed virtually nothing to Real Salt Lake's pulsating 3-2 win in San Jose Saturday, and has done little since being signed. Yet just the fact a stickler for regimen like Coach Jason Kreis welcomed the well-traveled former U.S. international bespeaks of ambition.

South African forward Thabiso "Boyzzz" Khumalo has livened up the D.C. United attack since arriving on loan from Pittsburgh, and his presence on the roster is indicative of the lengths to which teams, and the league, are willing to go in the modern era. It wasn't that long ago that MLS usually balked at any sort of loan deal - short-term, long-term, or any other term - but that philosophy has changed.

Juan Toja arrived last year on loan, MLS secured his rights during the offseason, and in late July sold him to Romanian club Steaua Bucharest for more than $1 million. However, D.C. has yet to turn around its season, and will need Khumalo even more next week, since Jaime Moreno will sit out the next league match because of a red card he received in a 3-0 loss to Dallas Sunday. Toronto FC was willing to swap a couple of supplemental draft picks to take a gamble on defender Hunter Freeman, who has already signed a pre-contract with Norwegian club IK Start.

There are riders attached to the deal in case he leaves Europe and returns to Toronto, but the Red Bulls needed to clear him off the roster to make room for attacker-Macoumba Kandji of the USL Atlanta Silverbacks.

TFC also took on Ruiz, unloaded by the Galaxy so it could sign Eddie Lewis, and so far all Ruiz has done is come up limping with a bad knee that somehow failed to be detected during a physical. Kandji will finish the season on loan with the Red Bulls, which can exercise an option to buy his rights if they wish to keep him.

Kandji set up an equalizing goal for another late-season addition, Matthew Mbuta, that tied NYRB with Colorado at 4-4 on Saturday, but in stoppage time Conor Casey outmaneuvered Jeff Parke to complete a hat trick and win the game, 5-4.

And speaking of the Rapids, that win gave them 10 points in the past four games and pushed them into a third-place tie with RSL. Their big move came at the top a month ago, with the firing of head coach Fernando Clavijo. Colorado unbeaten in the month of September: Who could have predicted that? If parity means teams are driven to push the panic button, or any button, it works for me.


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