With most of the summer of soccer over, even if the real summer isn't, it's back to basics for MLS.
This year's Circle d' Stars - Barcelona, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter Milan - has left town clutching millions of dollars as the European leagues ramp up, and with Attacka Azteca in the rear-view mirror, there's a sense we're entering a kind of domestic dead zone.
Such is not the case. Over the next few weekends of MLS play destinies won't be decided, but indicators will emerge. The Concacaf Champions' League group phase gets rolling next week, but most fans will be more attuned to the European version, except for those followers directly involved with CCL participants D.C. United, Houston and Columbus, along with Puerto Rico Islanders of the USL. And there's a double-dip of qualifiers just three weekends away.
What most teams are now is all they can be, and will be, entering the stretch run. The domestic transfer window for contracted players is closed and the trade deadline is looming. Since few teams have any significant room under the salary cap, the likelihood of major moves is low, unless one big name - and salary - is exchanged for another.
The summer window in the United States is like the winter window in Europe: there aren't many huge transfers, but teams do evaluate needs and perhaps re-visit problems they thought have been addressed during the summer.
MLS teams have tweaked and re-tooled the past two months, and some of the changes are surprising.
Who could have foreseen, for example, that English coach Gary Smith and classic English-style winger Terry Cooke would part ways in Colorado? The Rapids may not be the most resilient team defensively, but their strike force up front of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings has torn a few teams apart, and Jamie Smith - a 28-year-old Scottish midfielder who played one season for Ado Den Haag in the Netherlands and the last four seasons with Aberdeen - made his first start in a 4-0 thrashing of Chivas USA.
The starting 11 Toronto sent out Saturday to beat D.C. United, 2-0, featured three players -- Emmanuel Gomez, Amadou Sanyang and O'Brian White -- starting an MLS match for the first time. Some changes were necessitated by injuries (Marvell Wynne, Nick Garcia) and suspension (Chad Barrett), and at least one more tweak will be necessary next week, because captain Jim Brennan will be suspended for the match against Chivas USA.
White, the fourth overall selection in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, scored TFC's clinching goal in the second half to mark another milestone of his comeback from an ACL injury suffered playing college ball last October. Gomez and Sanyang are 18-year-old Gambian players who were acquired in March.
TFC has also waived defender Marco Velez and will add Haitian left back Lesly Fellinga, who had been playing in the Netherlands, to the roster when his paperwork is finished.
With a heavy load of league and Concacaf Champions' League games looming in the next month, Houston has brought back former Dynamo defender Ryan Cochrane, and traded Julius James to D.C. United in separate deals.
Cochrane, 26, played nearly the entire 90 minutes Saturday as Houston tied, Real Salt Lake, 0-0, just two days after the Dynamo traded a senior international slot to the Quakes, who had claimed Cochrane from Houston in an expansion draft in November 2007.
Seattle and Real Salt Lake have dipped into their sources south of the border to add left-sided players.
RSL, which last month acquired Rachid El Khalifi (July 28) and landed forward Pablo Campos from San Jose Earthquakes in a trade, has added midfielder/forward Nelson Gonzalez, in a loan deal with Argentine second division club Quilmes. The new Sounder is Leo Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Costa Rican defender who played 171 minutes in the past two games at left back.
A pending move may have long-term implications for the Sounders and MLS. The league is reportedly negotiating to buy out a loan arrangement with Colombian club Deportivo Cali for striker Fredy Montero, who scored his 10th goal of the season Saturday as Seattle beat Los Angeles, 2-0, at Home Depot Center.