Teams facing harsh truth of the table

[MLS] Not many leagues allow their teams to rejigger and retool for three-quarters of the season, but MLS has been playing for more than five months and still teams have another week or so before the roster freeze date/trading deadline of Sept. 15. Yet while changes in personnel and fortunes may yet arise, it’s time to conjure up the wise words of goalmouth guru Juan Pablo Angel, who spoke thus last season with the inept Red Bulls staring up at their 14 league rivals, "The table does not lie." It tells the truth again this season with New York solidly entrenched in the playoff sector.

The Galaxy’s alarming slide back to the pack tempers the fact Columbus has tied it atop the overall standings with 44 points, and Real Salt Lake is just a point behind at 43. The conference imbalance persists to the extent that the third-place teams in the Eastern Conference, Toronto FC and Kansas City (27 pts.), are five points out of final two playoff spots, jointly held by fifth-place Western teams San Jose and Seattle (32).

Last weekend’s action did much to confirm the table’s truth.

GALAXY GAGS AGAIN. Handed a man advantage in the 21st minute via a red card to Fire defender Gonzalo Segares, Los Angeles failed to exploit it and needed a dramatic stoppage-time header by Omar Gonzalez to grab a 1-1 tie at Toyota Park.

Landon Donovan hesitantly scuffed a penalty kick that keeper Sean Johnson saved, and he also failed to hit the target with a free header from close range. A late challenge by Gonzalez, whose occasional gaffes have plagued his otherwise solid play for the past month, granted Chicago a free kick that Collins John bent into the net with two minutes to play. If the Galaxy was complacent a month or so ago with a big lead atop the overall standings, its play has gone nervous and tentative as that lead has shrunk.

The Fire’s inability to win at home (3-2-5) is a major reason it is in 11th place with 25 points. Expansion Philadelphia has the same record at PPL Park, and only D.C.’s performance at RFK is worse. Chicago does have 10 games left, the most of any team. Next up for the Fire is a Wednesday home game against Toronto FC that it really can’t afford to tie but probably will.

TEXAS TURNAROUND. FC Dallas won at home, Houston lost. FCD is on track for a league record for fewest losses in a season, the Dynamo has already lost more games (11) than in any season since it moved from San Jose prior to the 2006 campaign.

Dallas put another ding in TFC’s playoff dreams with Jeff Cunningham’s 129th career goal and its third straight shutout. Cunningham has scored eight goals, less than one-half of last season’s 17, and as a team FCD has scored 29, a far cry from the 50 it tallied last year. Yet it has more points (40) than all of last year, when it finished 11-13-6 (39 pts.). Doing the math illustrates why this is so.

At the other end, where keeper Kevin Hartman and his defenders have excelled, FCD has allowed 17 goals in 22 games (0.773 per game). It conceded 47 in 30 games last year. Houston set the league record for few goals conceded (23, 0.766 per game) in 2007; its predecessor in San Jose set the record for fewest losses in a season (four) in 2005.

Speaking of San Jose -- the newer version – it won at Houston for the first time, 2-1, to establish clearly a shift of power between these franchises with a common history. Two recently signed players, midfielder Khari Stephenson and Designated Player Geovanni, scored for San Jose. Former Dynamo Chris Wondolowski didn’t score but he outplayed the ex-Quake he was traded for, Cam Weaver, who fluffed a pair of good chances. Houston played the final eight minutes 11-v-10 and still couldn’t get an equalizer. It is nine points out of the playoff tier with seven matches to play.

REAL ON THE RECORD. By beating New York, 1-0, at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday RSL ran its unbeaten home mark to 22 consecutive games to tie the league record set by Columbus (2008-9). RSL also edged to within one point of the Galaxy in the race for not only the Supporters’ Shield but the conference title that grants homefield advantage in the first two playoff rounds.

In the fourth minute, midfielder Kyle Beckerman flicked a ball over the top that Fabian Espindola controlled and then rolled into the net, and late in the game he cleared a deflected shot from underneath the crossbar. The captain and many of his mates are raising their game as the defending champion gathers momentum.

National TV catches up with RSL in its next two games. Thursday it plays a crucial match against Seattle at Qwest Field on ESPN2/Deportes, and in its next game at Rio Tinto Sept. 18 against Chicago on TeleFutura can break the Crew’s record streak.

ALL CHANGE. Despite thumping the Sounders, 3-1, the Revolution (7-12-3, 24 points) is eight points out of the playoff race. If 2009 playoff teams New England, Chicago, Houston and Chivas USA all miss the postseason, it will mark the first time in league history four such changes have occurred.

When the league had only 10 teams, there could be a maximum of two switches. Four changes are possible with 12 teams (1998-2001) and following contraction, that situation recurred when Chivas USA and RSL came aboard in 2005 to bump the membership back up to 12.

Yet in only two seasons (1998, 2000) have as many as three playoff participants from the previous year been replaced. In ’98, both expansion teams – Chicago and Miami – made it, along with the MetroStars, who’d qualified in 1996 but dropped out the following year. They came back again in 2000 after missing in 1999, and so did New England and eventual champion Kansas City.

As the standings stand today, New York, Colorado, San Jose and FC Dallas would qualify after missing out last year. That would represent the same percentage of change, 25 percent (four of 16), as occurred when three of 12 teams switched places in 1998 and 2000.

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