Steve Davis
Monday July 26th, 2010

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 17:

1. The true value of depth: More and more in Major League soccer, teams that rise and conquer will be teams of ample depth.

Not so long ago, a league of merely 12 teams could be gamed a bit. A well-positioned team could practically take two months off and still make the playoffs. Once there, as players told us at every opportunity, anything can happen.

But more teams in MLS mean fewer clubs can lean on the doctrine of "Get there and we'll see ..." So clubs that crash the postseason party will tend to be clubs with deeper rosters.

To wit: Columbus won comfortably Saturday against Houston without four starters. Missing Brian Carroll, Gino Padula, Frankie Hejduk and Steven Lenhart from the starting lineup, the East-leading Crew was usually in control, even on a night when Guillermo Barros Schelotto was slightly staid. Crew striker Emilio Renteria, who scored in a second consecutive match, may be a better option than the human wrecking ball Lenhart, anyway.

With Emmanuel Ekpo around to menace the wings, Eddie Gaven is an option to play centrally as he did Saturday. And Danny O'Rourke is one of the league's top utility knives. He can play comfortably anywhere along the back or as a holding midfielder. (O'Rourke started as a right back and then finished in the defensive midfield role against Houston.)

It's the same with the Western leaders. Second-place Real Salt Lake has Kyle Beckerman back. He's clearly the side's leader and yet the team went 4-1-2 without him, with the technically proficient Ned Grabavoy in replacement duty. Between Tony Beltran, Robbie Russell and Chris Wingert, coach Jason Kreis has three good options at the fullback positions. Up top, Robbie Findley started for the U.S. World Cup team, but isn't starting at the moment at Rio Tinto. That's depth.

League-leading Los Angeles has a nightly choice between A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin along the right, and those are two dandy choices. Veterans Eddie Lewis, Chris Klein and Jovan Kirovski are always in reserve. They'll need the depth as play begins this week as play begins in CONCACAF Champions League. Toronto and Seattle from MLS will also get into the regional club competition this week.

2. Thierry Henry's pair of splashy appearances: Henry's first league match is still a week away, when he tests himself against the humidity and small field down in Houston. But his short stack of work so far for the Red Bulls has certainly tipped to good stuff ahead -- and we still haven't seen Henry and Juan Pablo Angel on the field together.

The classy French attacker scored in his debut Thursday against Tottenham. He didn't find net again in a half Sunday in the rain at Red Bull Arena against Manchester City. But he did back up his frequent introductory refrain that he was here to be a serious player.

More than the goal, Henry's first touch, his ideas and his speed of thought were impressive in his pair of appearances. What he can accomplish with another, similarly sharp soccer mind (Angel's) remains to be seen. But his savvy ways can surely help get more from players around him. Dane Richards, for instance, can be frustrating in his inconsistency and in his inability to get the most from all that speed. Henry's ability to be decisive and accurate is sure to release Richards down the right a few more times a match.

3. The friendly season: It's gotten to where MLS has four seasons rather than three. In addition to preseason, regular season and postseason, there's now the "friendly season."

The rising standard of play here, the availability of proper venues and the fact that teams enjoy being in the United States creates the right environment for visits from Manchester United, Celtic, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, etc.

If you haven't seen any of these games, they're usually worth watching (assuming you can get past the lack of competitive value.) Freed from the defensive vice grip that inhibits many league matches, these are typically free flowing affairs. They may get disjointed somewhere in the second half as benches empty, but they still provide some skillful and exciting moments. (And sometimes even a big surprise, as when 10-man Kansas City held off Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United on Sunday.)

That's how it looked Sunday from Harrison, as Manchester City and the Red Bulls bombed back and forth. That's how it should look at some points in Houston on Wednesday when the MLS All-Stars meet Manchester United. (The All-Star contest in this format does tend to be slightly more cautious than run of the mill friendlies.)

And as long as we're on the subject of these friendlies, here's a word to the referees: Seriously, guys, stop ejecting players! Yes, if some miscreant is guilty of violent conduct, then by all means send 'em off; no one wants to see players hurt in friendlies. On the other hand, if you can avoid it, everyone would prefer to see 11 on 11, including visiting teams that need to be pushed and tested.

For two consecutive weeks referees have ejected players needlessly while awarding penalty kicks. Last week, Paul Ward ejected Seattle goalkeeper Terry Boss. On Sunday referee Terry Vaughn couldn't keep the red card in his pocket when Jimmy Conrad tripped Man United's Dimitar Berbatov. In both cases, there was sufficient wiggle room in the "last man" rule. No one in the stadium would have uttered a bad word had the men in the middle awarded a penalty kick, shown a caution and let everyone get on with it. It really is just common sense.

4. Coaching upheaval ahead ... possibly: By historical standards, this has been a fairly placid year in terms of MLS coaching stability. That's ironic, considering the increased pressure on teams to make the playoffs due to the expanding roster of MLS clubs. But, in late July, the league has yet to see its first managerial decapitation.

In each season since 2004, a coach had already lost his job by the last week of July. John Carver was gone from Toronto by this time last year. Steve Morrow was cut loose from FC Dallas by this point in 2008. Same for Dave Sarachan and John Ellinger in 2007, Steve Sampson and Mo Johnston in 2006 and Greg Andrulis in 2005.

And those strugglers and stragglers who did manage to escape the July guillotine didn't usually last much longer. The first few days of August proved fateful for Curt Onalfo last year and Ruud Gullit two years ago.

So, who are the prime candidates this year? Honestly, most leaders of the cellar dwellers have good reason to be there. Chivas USA, bottom of the Western table, is under new management this year, so Martin Vasquez would seem immune for now. In Seattle, Sigi Schmid's stock may have slipped slightly, but he certainly earned some credits by building a winner so quickly last year, so he's safe. Houston's Dominic Kinnear and his two MLS titles in the last five years isn't going anywhere.

In the East, it really wouldn't be fair to blame first-year man Onalfo for the pox around RFK Stadium. (Now, the men above him on the other hand ... ). Onalfo may or may not be the right guy for D.C. United, but he deserves a chance. And 17 games hardly says "fair chance."

Philadelphia and New England are matched for second-from-bottom in the East. The Union is an expansion team, and one that's done relatively well with a difficult schedule so far. So, Peter Nowak can surely buy rather than rent. As for Steve Nicol with the Revs: anyone who would fire that guy, a man who has impressively squeezed "Ws" from middling rosters for years, doesn't deserve to own or run an MLS side.

That leaves Kansas City's Peter Vermes. If you have him in the MLS coaches' pool, you're looking pretty good for now.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA) Defenders: Heath Pearce (FC Dallas), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Ugo Ihemelu (FC Dallas), Ante Jazic (Chivas USA), Marvell Wynne (Colorado). Midfielders: Ned Grabavoy (Real Salt Lake), Adam Moffat (Columbus), Steve Zakuani (Seattle). Forwards: Maicon Santos (Toronto), Fredy Montero (Seattle).

A few years ago, Argentines were the MLS value of the moment. It was the happiest hunting ground for useful talent to be had on the cheap. Now the bargains are from Colombia, where the players aren't just skilled craftsmen, but in many cases are real difference makers in MLS. Here are the Top 10 Colombians now in the league:

1. Juan Pablo Angel, New York Red Bulls: He may be getting the short end of the publicity stick these days due to a certain French teammate, but he's the second leading scorer at the moment and a league MVP candidate.

2. David Ferreira, FC Dallas: One of the league's top attacking midfielders and a big reason why Dallas is on a seven-game unbeaten streak, Ferreira is only now getting his due.

3. Wilman Conde, Chicago Fire: Where would the Fire defense, too young in some spots and too old in others, be if not for Conde? Tough, smart and arguably be the league's top center back?

4. Jamison Olave, Real Salt Lake: Big and athletic, Olave has added the element of discipline to his game that was previously missing. Now that he's avoiding cards and killer mistakes, Olave can claim his place as one of the league's premier center backs.

5. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Seattle: The Sounders' rock in defense is currently out with a torn ACL, and it's a big blow for the sophomore club. Hurtado was an MLS all-star and a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year in 2009.

6. Fredy Montero, Seattle: The feisty little striker recently got his groove back, having responded well to a mid-May benching. He had scored or helped arrange a goal in seven consecutive matches.

7. Roger Torres, Philadelphia: The expansion side's crafty, skillful winger is the ideal model for MLS scouts. He's a terrific young player who may still need some seasoning, but he can impact matches while being had on the cheap.

8. Jair Benitez, FC Dallas: He is the league's top left back in terms of getting forward and adding pressure to opposition defenses. His defending is occasionally suspect, but there's good cover, so it works in the FCD system.

9. Milton Rodriguez, FC Dallas: The league's newest Colombian has debuted well, banging one off the crossbar in last week's premier appearance and then collecting his first MLS strike in Saturday's draw in Toronto.

10. Miguel Montano, Seattle: The 19-year-old forward became the youngest player to wear Sounders green when he got on the field in May for the first of five appearances. He appears to a have a bright future.

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