[MLS]Aside from a stout defense, a healthy squad, and some luck, what every MLS coach wants more than anything else in the playoffs is a hot scorer.
Said hot scorer can not only put away or set up chances, which are often at a premium in playoff games, but by drawing extra attention, shall we say, from tacklers and markers can free up space for teammates.
At Home Depot Center this Saturday, Landon Donovan (19 goals) and Kenny Cooper (18) will provide a Golden Boot sidebar to an otherwise irrelevant Galaxy-FC Dallas match that will also feature Edson Buddle (14 goals). Two goalscorers ranked right behind that trio are preparing for critical matches and team rewards, not individual honors.
BRIAN'S TIME. Bad news abounds for teams hoping that they, or somebody else, can knock off two-time defending champion Houston. In the past month, midfielders Brian Mullanand Brad Davishave sharpened up their flank play, Stuart Holden has emerged as a dangerous option either as a starter or off the bench, and Ricardo Clark is purring along as one of the league's best two-way players. Dwayne DeRosario is, well, DeRo.
Worst of all, or best of all if you're a Dynamo fan, is that Brian Ching is nearing peak form if he hasn't hit it already.
Ching went scoreless in his first six games; in his last 18 games, he's scored 13 goals, a career high, including five goals in his last five games. His goal midway through the first half last Saturday at HDC killed off the Galaxy, and its playoff hopes, in a 3-0 thumping of the team that gave up on him after the 2001 season.
"The past couple games we have been able to score early and often and then hold on," said Ching "We have a lot of games coming up here. Give credit to the guys. Give credit to the offense. We want to continue playing well and carry it on into the playoffs."
Since rejoining MLS with the first MLS version of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2003, Ching has scored 63 goals in 142 league and playoff games, and helped his teams win three MLS Cups.
NO BULL. New York still has to get into the playoffs, but if it fails, little blame can be aimed at Juan Pablo Angel, who as the games have gotten tougher has sharpened his finishing.
Like Ching, Angel has scored 13 goals and also like Ching, has been connecting consistently in the latter portion of the season. He banged in a pair last weekend as New York beat Columbus, 3-1, to preserve its playoff hopes heading into the final game of the season Thursday night in Chicago (9 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN Deportes).
"I think sometimes we sacrifice him because we play him by himself," said Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio of Angel. "I think with the right service he is the top striker in this league."
That he is. In his last 13 games, Angel has hit 11 goals, and since coming to MLS last season has scored at one of the highest rates in league history. With 32 goals in 46 regular season games (69.6 percent), Angel is not far off the remarkable 80 percent attained when Stern John scored 44 goals in 55 games (1998-1999).
Neither Ching nor Angel will win the Golden Boot, nor the MVP Award. Both might also miss out on Best XI honors, since Donovan and Cooper could well be the two forwards so rewarded.
Yet to their coaches and teammates and fans, they are most valuable, especially at the most intense time of the season.