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Crunch Time
August 9th, 2006 5:51PM

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MLS is often ridiculed for a liberal allotment of playoff places which strips away the pressure, importance and intensity of many regular season games. In this World Cup year, such has been the case much of the time.

Yet the All-Star break, rather than splitting the season more or less in half as is the case in other American leagues, instead falls with only one-third of the season left to play.

Cue pressure, importance and intensity. The MLS Cup and U.S. Cup double champion is fighting for its life out West, and last year's Eastern representative in MLS Cup is way behind D.C. United. Those dynamics alone will ratchet up play in the final two months of the season.

GRIM GALAXY. Nothing more starkly illustrates the situation in Los Angeles than its 5-10-5 record and 20 points that leaves it tied with Real Salt Lake in fifth place, seven points out of fourth currently occupied by rival CD Chivas USA. Real Salt Lake thus has won just 10 of 52 MLS regular-season games since it began play last year yet is dead even with the defending champion.

Both Galaxy games this week - at Houston Wednesday and in Colorado Saturday - are critical. It trails third-place Colorado by eight points in the standings and after this road trip plays the first of three remaining meetings against conference leader Dallas, which it also faces home-and-away the final two weekends of the season. That's a tough road to playoff land.

Since taking the helm two months ago, Coach Frank Yallop has tried out players and trimmed his squad so drastically the running joke is: "Frank, you do know we have to play with 11, don't you?" But he's clearly amassing resources for a final push and not relying on game-breaker Landon Donovan.

Canadian international left back Ante Jazic was cleared to play earlier this week and the club sent a partial allocation and 2008 draft pick to D.C. United for talented but troubled attacker Santino Quaranta.

The Galaxy plays CD Chivas USA Sept. 30 in what could be a playoff to get into the playoffs, since the Rapids - despite playing eight of their final 13 games on the road -- will probably finish strongly, having added midfielder Alain Nkong. The Cameroonian sparked the attack last year and contributed five goals and four assists in 28 games.

A sweep of home games with Los Angeles and Dallas this week would leave Houston just one point behind the other Texas MLS team with 10 games to play. The Lone Star showdown Saturday night is the best ESPN2 matchup to date this season, and of course it will be shown on tape-delay.

REVVING IN NEUTRAL. Do what they may, the Revs can't get in gear.

They played another 1-1 tie Sunday against CD Chivas USA and while a point on the road isn't to be sneezed at, their second-place status behind D.C. United doesn't look so sparkling when attached to a 6-6-9 record.

Catching D.C. for first place is faintly feasible with eight of 11 remaining games to be played at home, but the gap is 18 points and more importantly, MLS ledgers of past seasons are littered with teams that pushed hard down the stretch to catch a rival or gain homefield advantage, only to fizzle from exhaustion in the playoffs.

Chances are the Revs could sweep all eight of their remaining home games and still not catch D.C., so it's more important not to surrender second place by turning ties into defeats by scrambling through the late stages of tight games. Coach Steve Nicol has to forge his forces for the three (hopefully) playoff games it will play.

The return to health of Pat Noonan, who has played all 90 minutes of the past three games, is a godsend, as will be the return to form of central defender Michael Parkhurst. Noonan is one of the league's nimblest players in the attacking third. With him on the field, New England gets goals.

The Revs can open up a six-point cushion Wednesday with a home win against Kansas City and perhaps build some momentum at the gate as well as on the field. With an average announced attendance of 10,614, the defending Eastern Conference champ is last among the 12 teams and more than 4,000 below the league average. What's that all about?


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