Only one-third of the MLS season remains after the All-Star break, yet many teams are still riddled with concerns heading into the final phase.
Time is running out for the teams chasing playoff spots, and those that do figure to play in the postseason are filing away rough spots in preparation for games that can redeem or ruin what occurred in the regular season.
Parity may be the objective of league officials but this season there are more teams further away from .500 than in many past seasons, including last year, when expansion teams Real Salt Lake and CD Chivas USA won a combined nine games to prop up the Western Conference.
This year, both 2005 MLS Cup finalists are far behind the conference leaders, the playoff hopes for Columbus and Real Salt Lake look bleakest, and several teams lined up player moves to fit into the Aug. 15-Sept. 15 transfer window.
CLASS OF THE LEAGUE. Perched atop their conferences, both leaders are wary of the malaise that can affect teams that claim the top spot. As San Jose reminded everyone last year, one bad playoff game can wreck a great regular season.
D.C. United holds and moves the ball better than any team in the league, and leads the league in shots on goal as well as goals. Its depth has yet to be truly tested as very few regulars have been sidelined by injuries. When on its game, though, D.C. has no peer in MLS.
Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno trace pretty patterns in the attacking third, Alecko Ekandarian has regained his ruthless finishing stroke of two years ago, Josh Gros and Freddy Adu control the flanks, and Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll bottle up the midfield. The defense, especially defender Bobby Boswell and keeper Troy Perkins, has been stingy.
D.C. can cement first place by Labor Day, yet Coach Peter Nowak is wary of benching too many regulars. Crispness and cohesion are born of playing, not sitting. ''We can relax after Nov. 12,'' said Nowak, while pretending to puff a victory cigar. ''Then it will be time for celebration.''
Another Argentine might join Gomez and defender Facundo Erpen and finish the season in D.C. Since June, the club has been in discussions with Matias Donnet, 26, a midfielder out of the Boca Juniors system.
Last year, the prospect of hosting MLS Cup last year drove Dallas until the final third of the season. It fizzled down the stretch with a 5-4-4 record and succumbed to Colorado in the playoffs.
MLS Cup returns to Pizza Hut Park in November and with Richard Mulrooney healthy and fired up, another letdown is unlikely. Kenny Cooper's guile and touch virtually guarantees scoring opportunities, Ramon Nunez has added a creative spark to midfield, and a deeper, more experienced backline isn't throwing away results like it did last year. Cooper and Carlos Ruiz give FC Dallas two reliable goalscorers, which is at least one more than many teams have.
Still, Dario Sala's occasional flubs prompted Coach Colin Clarke to sign Trinidad & Tobago keeper Shaka Hislop. Which of them takes the No. 1 jersey into the playoffs may be the key to the team's fate come mid-November.
By losing at home to Los Angeles Aug. 9, Houston squandered a great chance to put pressure on its Texas rival, but did close the gap by beating FC Dallas three days later.
A meniscus tear in his right knee will sideline Brian Ching, top scorer on the team with 10 goals, until mid-September. More of the scoring load will fall on Dwayne DeRosario, whose season has been good but not MVP caliber as it was last year, Alejandro Moreno, and Ronald Cerritos, who has spent much of the season with the reserves.
Scoring might not be so vital for the Dynamo if its defense was more reliable. The 1-0 defeat of Dallas was only Houston's third shutout of the season. Last year, the team's final season in San Jose, keeper Pat Onstad recorded 12 blankings. The extreme Houston heat and humidity often prevents the Dynamo from playing the pressuring tactics it used so well in San Jose.
THAT WAS LAST YEAR. At first glance, Los Angeles and New England bear little resemblance to the teams that met in MLS Cup last November.
Actually, the Galaxy is only a few games worse than the .500 team that upset San Jose on its way to the title, but in the parity-driven world of MLS, dropping below .500 after a .500 season is poor indeed. More than two months after taking over from Steve Sampson, former Quakes coach Frank Yallop had jettisoned a slew of players and added a few to little effect.
Landon Donovan has carried his puzzlingly listless World Cup play into MLS and Herculez Gomez, scorer of 11 league goals last season in 22 games, hit just four in his first 21 games this year. Only the goalkeeping of Kevin Hartman and a resilient defense has kept the Galaxy on the fringes of the playoff chase. Santino Quaranta volleyed a spectacular goal to down Houston, 1-0, in his LA debut after being traded by D.C., and he may have to assume the scoring burden if Donovan and Gomez don't wake up.
The Revs were 6-6-10 heading into their final 10 games, but with seven of those at home, momentum can be forged for a strong playoff run. Michael Parkhurst struggled through a few horrific games in the first half of the season, and only some world-class play by keeper Matt Reis garnered ties in games they should have lost.
If Pat Noonan can stay healthy, the attack should reignite, but Steve Ralston hasn't been effective. Thus Clint Dempsey - apparently miffed that a transfer deal fell through and suspended twice during the regular season - and Taylor Twellman need to stick away the chances that come their way. The revelation this season has been two-way midfielder Andy Dorman, the team leader in assists who has scored a few goals as well.
What the Revs must avoid is burning out in a vain effort to catch D.C., or persisting with the patchwork soccer they've played much of the season. And under Coach Bruce Arena, the New York Red Bulls can make the chase for second place interesting.
LIMBO LAND. Arena's first move after assuming command in early August was to acquire feared midfield cruncher Dema Kovalenko, who returned to MLS after playing one season in Ukraine.
Prior to his arrival, the Red Bulls had run off several good results under interim coach Richie Williams to climb above .500. They accomplished this without Youri Djorkaeff, who missed two months of the season to visit his ailing mother in France and attend the World Cup in Germany.
If Arena wants Djorkaeff and Amado Guevara to mesh consistently, he'll need the steel and fire of Kovalenko and Danny O'Rourke backing them up. The sale of Jean-Phillipe Peguero to Danish club Brondby removed the team's leading scorer, leaving Edson Buddle and Mike Magee to fill the forward slots. The sale also gave the team an allocation but Arena may not use it this season.
Concerns abound in Chicago. The move to Bridgeview has yielded decent crowds but only moderate results, and last year's playoff elimination of D.C. probably won't save Coach Dave Sarachan's job unless he can repeat the feat of his rookie season as head coach (2003) and return to MLS Cup.
A dismal July of one win, two ties, and three losses left the Fire's playoff prospects in question. Left-sided Justin Mapp, deployed on the right side in many games, hasn't been the force his talent would suggest. The Fire dropped below .500 in its new stadium by losing, 2-1, to CD Chivas USA, and Sarachan is still searching for the right combination of attackers. Nate Jaqua, Chris Rolfe, and Andy Herron are capable, yet the team's scoring has been sporadic.
With the opening of the MLS transfer window Aug. 15, the Fire has been working to add French midfielder Pascal Bedrossian.
Colorado management has extended the contract of Coach Fernando Clavijo through the 2008 season. Team management invests so little in promotion and marketing the crowds at Invesco Field are depressingly small, yet Colorado can knock off teams through grit and the opportunistic finishing of Argentine Nicolas Hernandez.
Englishman Terry Cooke's consistency has improved in his second MLS season. His 10 assists in 21 games, while not a staggering total, led the league in mid-August. Few players hit the deep, far-post cross as well. Colorado's flank play suffered when the club acceded to midfielder's Dedi Ben-Dayan's request to be reunited with his mother in Israel and transferred him.
Clavijo has added forward Melvin Tarley from Real Salt Lake. Tarley scored four goals for Minnesota against the Rapids in a U.S. Open Cup match last year, and netted once in nine games for Salt Lake.
Clouding Colorado's prospects down the stretch is a leaky defense. Joe Cannon might finish with the highest goals-allowed average (it was at 1.61 with two months to go) of his career. The Rapids lead the league in goals conceded.
Dramatic improvement from its inaugural season has CD Chivas USA squarely in the playoff picture and Bob Bradley among the Coach of the Year candidates.
Bradley has always praised forward Ante Razov, and the former Fire/MetroStars/Galaxy striker again has hit double digits and could reach the 100 mark in career goals this season. Electrifying midfielder Juan Pablo Garcia has yet to add nuances beyond attacking skills to his game, but opponents must be wary of his speed and penchant to beat tacklers on the dribble. Rookie Jonathan Bornstein played the first half of the season at outside back, then was moved up front and responded with a few goals.
CD Chivas is also drawing fans on the road; a crowd of 17,066 watched a 2-1 victory over the Fire. In the playoffs, a road game might not feel like one.
No team has more questions than Kansas City, home to stadium discussions, a possible sale, rumors of a move to Philly, and an interim head coach.
Yet the five Eastern Conference teams choking on D.C.'s dust are so even that despite losing 11 of 22 games, the Wizards were in third. Shut out six times since late June, Kansas City has yet to find any consistent scorer among Josh Wolff, Scott Sealy and Eddie Johnson.
Sasha Victorine and Kerry Zavagnin give the Wizards some experience in midfield and the defense hasn't been bad, so if Coach Brian Bliss can ignite his attack, KC has some hope of playoff success. Everything else is up in the air but more likely than not the team will be back in Kansas City with new owners and a stadium deal next spring.
WEAK LINKS. It's a good thing Sigi Schmid didn't make any grandiose promises when he took over in Columbus. With 16 goals in 22 matches and a 14-game winless streak heading into the final phase of the season, the Crew is the top choice to finish at the bottom of the league on total points.
He's used five goalkeepers and 27 field players. Top scorer Kei Kamara, a rookie, had three goals. Foreign signings Sebastian Rozental and Joel Kitamirike (one game!) have been complete busts, and the attempts to revive young Americans Eddie Gaven and Ned Grabavoy with fresh starts hasn't worked.
Real Salt Lake will probably miss the playoffs again, but Coach John Ellinger's swap of Clint Mathis, despite costing him a big chunk of Mathis's salary, has turned out to be a coup with Jeff Cunningham leading the league in goals.
Medhi Ballouchy has blossomed into one of the league's most skillful young midfielders, and the offseason acquisitions of veterans Carey Talley and Chris Klein has added bite and experience. Real isn't a very good team but no longer is it terrible.
With a stadium deal finally in place for suburban Sandy, all the ludicrous talk of moving to Rochester or St. Louis will be stilled. Now comes the question: For how long will operator-investor Dave Checketts keep Ellinger, who has a three-year contract that runs through next season and has hopes of luring former U-17 project DaMarcus Beasley back to MLS?
(This article originally appeared in the September, 2006 issue of Soccer America magazine.)