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Battle of the bubble teams
by Ridge Mahoney, September 8th, 2010 12:08AM

TAGS:  chicago fire, mls, toronto fc


[MLS] Both of them are languishing below the playoff tier, so Chicago and Toronto need victories Wednesday night. Since they play each other at Toyota Park (8:30 p.m., Direct Kick), something has to give. They changed coaches during the offseason and while neither Carlos de los Cobos or Preki is under imminent threat of unemployment, the pressure is there, and their players are feeling it, too.

For MLS at this point in the season, there's a five-point gap between the eighth and final playoff spot, and the nearest pursuing team. There are five teams within four points in the "bubble" closest to the playoff tier, and all of those teams are running out of games to close the gap.

The Fire, with 10 matches to play, has struggled to win at home this season, which is one deficiency from last year that de los Cobos hasn’t been able to rectify since taking over from Denis Hamlett. Its 3-2-5 home record is tied (with Philadelphia) for second-worst in MLS and at 6-7-7 (25 points), it is seven points shy of a playoff spot.

So far, the hullabalooed signing of Designated Player Nery Castillo hasn’t produced much and he hasn’t made up much ground in his race to gain sufficient fitness in time to impact the playoff chase. Though offseason acquisition Collins John struck a nice free-kick goal last week in a 1-1 tie with Los Angeles, he’s been a disappointment as well.

Chicago must make do without defender Gonzalo Segares, who returned to MLS after playing six months in Cyprus with Apollon Limassol. He elbowed Galaxy defender Leonardo last week and was sent off; the league’s disciplinary committee has suspended him an additional game and thus he’ll miss Saturday’s game at Philadelphia as well as the match with Toronto.

One recent Chicago arrival not guilty of tepid performances is midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, who was suspended for the Galaxy match. In his five Fire games since being traded from Seattle he’s contributed two assists and drawn 13 fouls. Chicago’s playoff quest may depend on whether Ljungberg can consistently disrupt opponents that have been able to key on stopping Marco Pappa and Patrick Nyarko.

For TFC, too, a few big names have been only marginally successful. It is five points out of the playoffs at 7-9-6 (27 points) and hasn’t been boosted by the summer DP signing of Spaniard Mista. He scored a memorable goal in a Concacaf Champions’ League victory over Cruz Azul, but hasn’t consistently contributed to the attack and has been benched on occasion by Preki.

Whether any defensive midfielder, even one as experienced and talented as Julian de Guzman, is worth Designated Player money came under question when he signed on last year. While not expected to put up breathtaking numbers – he has no goals and two assists – he’s not upgraded significantly TFC’s midfield, either offensively or defensively.

As Rafael Marquez has shown since his arrival in New York in July, not all defensive mids of DP status are created equal. Their salaries certainly aren’t. Whether Marquez can possibly justify his $5.544 million base salary – more than three times what de Guzman earns at $1.67 million – is yet to be determined. De Guzman doesn’t have to be Marquez, but neither can he be just another competent central mid.

De Guzman is one of three Canadian internationals released to TFC by Coach Stephen Hart after a 2-0 loss to Peru at BMO Field Saturday. Also back are attacker Dwayne De Rosario and central defender Nana Attakora, which means at least the spine of the team will be intact.

Castillo and John should also be able to exploit’s Ljungberg’s prowess at drawing defenders and slipping balls into seams. These are the games in which the game-breakers have to step up, whether or not they carry the DP label.

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