Steve Davis
Monday August 2nd, 2010

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 18:

1. Thierry Henry sparkles in his debut: Anyone with lingering doubts over Thierry Henry's ability to make a substantial MLS splash should go to the tape. The tape, that is, of his MLS debut Saturday. Henry set up both goals in the Red Bulls' 2-2 draw in Houston. The home side, having been reduced to 10-men by referee Paul Ward's awful, inexplicable decision, notched an unlikely 90th-minute equalizer to cap a night with lots of talking points -- including Henry's eventful and sometimes dazzling performance. Henry, in all honesty, should have had his team comfortably ahead by the time Brian Mullan's late, desperation header proved the Red Bulls still need some help. They need leadership and additional assistance in defense, which they should get on Tuesday as Rafael Marquez's anticipated announcement is made official.

Henry's classy cross toward Juan Pablo Angel, a centering pass that required subtlety and accuracy, helped put New York ahead early. Later, a much simpler pass from the French attacker positioned Angel for his second strike. The misses by Henry in between were as notable as his successful arrangements for Angel. In the 30th minute Mac Kandji set up Henry, but the Frenchman's effort from in close was saved nicely by Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall. Angel got to the rebound and set up Henry once again, this time within the six. Amazingly, Henry sliced the effort wide, unable to get his feet set just so. A few minutes later Henry almost got to yet another Angel service. This time he just couldn't stretch his speed enough to reach it; you have to think once he gets a little more fitness, just a little more spring in his legs, that he'll convert such glistening opportunities. The 42nd minute brought perhaps his most embarrassing miss, set up when a sparkling header from Angel put Henry cleanly through. The former Arsenal and Barcelona man had ample time to pick his corner against Hall but pushed his shot wide right.

The precision will arrive along with the increased fitness and comfort with his teammates. And he'll surely be more active; having played only two 45-minute shifts so far, and those in friendlies, Henry clearly paced himself Saturday in a typically oppressive Houston summer evening. But his intelligence, his ability to beat defenders one-on-one, his ability to select the right runs and his instant connection with Angel -- Saturday was their first time on the field together -- will give MLS defenses fits over the last 12 rounds of the regular season. Count on it.

2. The other MLS newbies: Henry was easily the highest profile of the big name newbies around MLS, but other Designated Players were in their first or second appearances in Round 18. (And Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer is right ... "DP" is a silly name. We really must come up with something better.)

Mista had a quiet evening in his second appearance for Preki at Toronto, doing little to prove his one-name worthiness. Dwayne De Rosario (resting to start the match) came on for Mista after 58 minutes.

Chicago's pair of newly signed DPs weren't even needed against the Los Angeles Galaxy, which has suddenly fallen apart. Bruce Arena's side has built such a cushion in the West that there's plenty of time to set things rights; still, it really is bizarre. The Galaxy is 1-3-1 in all competitions lately, having conceded seven goals in its last two home matches.

"I'm sick of giving up goals and I'm sick of not winning at home," Landon Donovan said. "Maybe our attitude isn't right and maybe we're focusing on things off the field and not our jobs, but we're going to have to learn and learn quickly."

Indeed. Back to those DPs:

Freddie Ljungberg, traded to Chicago last week, came in the 58th minute for the Fire as a second striker. But it was mostly maintenance duty by then, with little happening for him as the Galaxy pressed hard to catch up. His new teammate, Mexican international Nery Castillo, has yet to receive his international transfer certificate and didn't travel.

Swiss international Blaise Nkufo, in his second league match for Seattle, demonstrated some nice passing and composure and came close to netting his first goal. He is still being overshadowed by Fredy Montero, whose form at the moment is utterly devastating. Montero has scored or assisted on Seattle's last eight goals.

The Sounders' second DP, Alvaro Fernandez, had some classy touches in his first 21 minutes as a sub along the left for Steve Zakuani.

Venezuelan international Giancarlo Maldonado did his part to keep Chivas USA on the upswing. He had been fairly tame until improvising a nice assist for the Goats' third goal in a 3-1 win over Columbus; Martin Vasquez's team is now unbeaten in its last four.

Finally, D.C. United midfield DP Branko Boskovic got his first start. He did set up a few chances, but it didn't matter much since United is awful, and since he was playing at Rio Tinto, where Real Salt Lake doesn't lose. Jason Kreis' team hasn't fallen at home in 20 matches, easing to a 3-0 win over D.C.

3. Holding mids: Strikers get the fat contracts. Goalkeepers gobble up a disproportionate share of acclaim simply because their good deeds are so easy to spot. Creative midfielders get a lot of love, too.

But a good holding midfielder is the glue that binds it all -- even if the guys screening the defense don't collect as many accolades.

Seattle has been better lately, and this oddball Ljungberg matter is great kindling for an "addition by subtraction" debate. But let's toss this into the mix, too: the Sounders little surge is also coinciding with the recent return of Osvaldo Alonso, the club's busy-bee holding midfielder. Seattle hasn't lost in four league matches since the feisty Cuban returned, including Saturday's important road win at San Jose. At 7-8-4, coach Sigi Schmid's team can start thinking "playoffs" again.

A three-game unbeaten streak has positioned Kansas City to be a playoff contender in the East. Stephane Auvray's recent return to the lineup after having surgery on his right foot in May is part of the reason. Auvray, Kansas City's second-best off-season pickup after goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, lost in his first two matches after returning to the lineup. But as his fitness improved, so did his performance, and he was strong in Saturday's 1-0 win over Toronto.

New England has been better lately, and it's no secret that Steve Nicol's Revs are measurably better since Shalrie Joseph's return from league suspension. In Dallas, Daniel Hernandez's comfortable linking play and smart screening is an underrated element for a team that grinds out plenty of ties but also has a league-low two losses.

Along the same lines, but looking at this thing from the other side of the win-loss ledger: Houston is suffering for several reasons in 2010, with playoff ambitions adrift, already at the point where Dominic Kinnear's team needs to assemble a pretty salty run over the last 12 weeks to reignite postseason plans. Ricardo Clark's loss to European ambitions has weakened the Orange at the holding mid spot. Lovel Palmer isn't bad -- but he's no Clark.

4. Teams have a choice, lineups, friendlies: These high profile friendlies of late July, early August create conundrums for MLS coaches: whether to play the front-line guys or give them a little break as the season reaches the peak of meat-grinder status. And these are hardly easy choices.

Wins against high-profile clubs (or even playing well against them) do provide some long-term value in adding to league and club credibility. But it comes at a price.

Kansas City reaped a handsome reward for playing its best 11 last week against Manchester United. The Wizards 2-1 win made them the toast of the town. With a new stadium opening in less than a year, the team just moved the needle of respect for the club and MLS soccer, and that could boost ticket sales and sponsorship interest going into an important year.

In terms of MLS competition, a win against the storied likes of Manchester United -- even if the EPL side was far less than full strength in personnel and level of interest -- can send confidence soaring. Sure enough, Kansas City followed last week's big night with a league win over Toronto.

This week, European Champions League winners Inter Milan play at FC Dallas. A few nights later, Real Madrid visits the L.A. Galaxy. Both are marquee matches in those markets and coaches will surely want their sides to show well, a la Kansas City. On the other hand, teams get tired at this time of year. We saw that last week as Los Angeles wilted in the CONCACAF Champions League against a Puerto Rico Islanders team that played with more commitment. And the Galaxy looked downright inept in the first 30 minutes Sunday night in conceding three at home to Chicago. Player fatigue must be playing a role here.

For the Galaxy, Arena's choices are complicated by Tuesday's match in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Galaxy's only hope in that one, trailing 4-1 by aggregate after last week's Home Depot Center disaster, is to play the best 11 available. Even then, it might be a lost cause.

Tough choices, indeed.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson (Chicago) Defenders: Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), Cory Gibbs (New England), Jair Benitez (FC Dallas). Midfielders: Blair Gavin (Chivas USA), Baggio Husidic (Chicago), Stephane Auvray (Kansas City), David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Will Johnson (RSL). Forwards: Juan Pablo Angel (Red Bulls), Thierry Henry (Red Bulls), Justin Braun (Chivas USA).

Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry aren't just the best tandem strike force this year, they probably form the best ever in MLS. Then again, there are a few other potent tandems. Here, then, are the Top 10 attack duos in MLS at the moment:

1. Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls: With Henry alongside, Angel may well overtake Edson Buddle for league scoring leadership.

2. Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, L.A. Galaxy: Things have gone all pear-shaped in L.A., and the Donovan transfer saga may not be over. Still, Donovan is the league assist leader for now and Buddle leads in goals.

3. Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, Seattle Sounders: Montero is an absolute menace at the moment, and Zakuani has been a handful along the left all year. Nkufo's recent addition and Sanna Nyassi's recent improvement will only make the Montero-Zakuani duo that much more dangerous.

4. Conor Casey, Omar Cummings, Colorado Rapids: Cummings hasn't been as productive as he could have been (5 goals, 1 assist) but he's always dangerous. Casey has shaken a slow start and now has a respectable seven goals for the season.

5. Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake: This one is tough, because it could also possibly be Saborio and Fabian Espindola. As the season started, it could have been Morales and Robbie Findley. But Saborio is proving a top target man and marksman in MLS, and Morales keeps stacking up the good performances from his attacking midfield spot.

6. Dwayne De Rosario, Chad Barrett, Toronto: Everyone around the league knows of Barrett's reputation for missing more than he makes, but five goals in 12 starts isn't exactly terrible. Add that to De Rosario's eight strikes and you've got a fairly formidable duo.

7. Brian Ching, Brad Davis, Houston: Ching's production has slowed this year (three goals so far). But with Davis' ability to provide expert set-piece service, free kicks and corner kicks will continue to be nervous moments for anyone up against Houston.

8. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Emilio Renteria, Columbus Crew: Renteria has only recently assumed starting duty at Crew Stadium. He's more of a physical specimen than former Columbus striker Alejandro Moreno, so that's tough on defenses. Schelotto's body of work speaks for itself and he leads the team this year in goals (5) and assists (6).

9. Kai Kamara, Teal Bunbury, Kansas City: Bunbury is being brought along slowly by the Wizards in his rookie season, but he has been a devil for defenses in July with two game-winning goals. Kamara is a workhorse, utterly unrelenting. He leads the team with six goals.

10. David Ferreira, Milton Rodriguez, FC Dallas: That Dallas is sitting in third place in the West without a player past the four-goal mark is a testament to Ferreira (4 goals, 5 assists). Rodriguez, with a goal in three starts since joining the team, seems to have some promise as the striker FCD has been so desperately missing this year.

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