Steve Davis
Tuesday August 10th, 2010

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 19:

1. DP dandies and a "postcard" night: The scene Sunday night in Chicago represented a "postcard" night in MLS, so to speak. In so many ways, it really was everything the league wants to be, with so many attractive elements coming together.

Start with this: Does anyone remember when Brian McBride was a draw, a real crowd-pleaser whom marketing mavens could promote to help attract crowds? McBride was an afterthought Sunday in a match that saw five high-value DPs appear on the field for the first time in MLS. Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and the debuting Rafa Marquez ran the show brilliantly for the visiting Red Bulls. Freddie Ljungberg and the debuting Nery Castillo provided the home team's DP power -- although not nearly as much of it. What else made it such a perfect MLS evening? The DP dandies blended with good young talent, the likes of Mac Kandji, Tim Ream and Tony Tchani for New York, and Marco Pappa, Baggio Husidic and surprising goalkeeper Sean Johnson for Chicago.

The stage: a nationally televised date at a jam-packed Toyota Park. This is what everybody dreamed about, what they wanted MLS to be for all those early years. Big stars, young bucks, passionate crowds and national TV, all on the boil inside a proper soccer ground. The only thing better would have been some goals, as the teams fought to a 0-0 draw. Still, it certainly wasn't a bad contest.

Marquez and Co. made sure the quality was high, as the visitors outplayed and outpassed Chicago. New York will be even better once the rest of the roster understands this: The faster it gets the ball to Angel, Henry and Marquez, the more that trio can do with it before defenses are organized.

As for the actual DP delivery: Marquez was a bit stationary as a holding midfielder, something likely to improve with additional fitness. But the Mexican captain's passing was exquisite. His ability to supply early balls out of midfield -- something so often lacking in MLS -- will be especially helpful. And the central pairing with rookie Tchani is useful, as the younger man can provide the bulk of the running. Henry was classy in spots but left with a minor groin strain just before half. Angel drove himself to distraction with a litany of misses (his own and Kandji's), but his ability to find the gaps was impressive nonetheless.

On the other side, Ljungberg needs to do more. Period. His night looked like most of his outings with Seattle, more sizzle than steak. As for Castillo, he hasn't played in so long that it wouldn't be fair to judge based on this one. That said, he had a quiet night after his 56th-minute introduction.

2. World Cup attendance boost: No one around MLS needs to rush out to hire extra accountants to process the additional money, but games played since the World Cup conclusion have indeed seen a modest attendance spike. The 118 MLS dates played before or during World Cup 2010 averaged 16,582 in attendance. The 27 matches played since then have averaged 17,049. That figure includes another big crowd in Seattle on Sunday night (36,111) and the nice showing at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., on Sunday (21,868).

3. Playoffs may unfold without some familiar faces: Trivia question: Over 14 previous MLS seasons, which one came and went without a playoff appearance from D.C. United and New England? It was the odd-duck 2001 season, one shortened because of the 9/11 tragedy.

But the answer to that question could change this season.

United is done. The side would probably need to win 10 of 11 remaining matches even for a chance. So it's all about U.S. Open Cup and planning for next year around RFK, where Ben Olsen is now in charge on an interim basis.

On the other hand, United outplayed New England on Saturday at Gillette, which doesn't say a lot for the Revs. Steve Nicol continues to get a lot out of that roster, but the routine run of injuries, Taylor Twellman's ongoing struggles and the inability to sign replacements who can be difference makers simply might be too much to overcome this time. New England is certainly within striking distance, and the 5-0-2 mark in all competitions recently provides some hope. But it'll have to find something more in midfield and up front. Perhaps new Serbian forward Ilija Stolica can provide the extra push, but it looks like it's going to be a tight squeeze to reach the postseason.

By the way, Nicol has taken the Revolution to the playoffs in each of his eight seasons. That streak is on the line.

So, too, is Dominic Kinnear's streak. The Houston Dynamo coach has never failed to reach the playoffs, having taken San Jose there twice before the team relocated in 2006. In Houston, Kinnear is 4-for-4 so far ... but that perfect mark is in big jeopardy now.

4. Respect sometimes missing between players: We know that MLS is rough and tumble, helter-skelter and all that. The league doesn't (or perhaps can't) encourage its referees to change that -- a dead horse we've beaten frequently.

But there's another side to it all: In a league in which most players aren't getting rich, to say the least, you might think there would be a little more mutual respect, just a little more of an instinct to protect one another. You know, go hard but do no unnecessary harm.

And yet every week we see potentially injurious actions that are 100 percent unnecessary. These aren't collisions around the ball, although MLS has more than its share of those, too. Rather, too often these are cheap shots off the ball or bone-jarring hits just after someone has released the ball.

Robbie Russell is a solid defender for Real Salt Lake with little reputation for being a dirty player. But his cheap shot on Kansas City's Ryan Smith well after the whistle on Saturday was simply ridiculous.

San Jose's Ramiro Corrales and Philadelphia's Michael Orozco hit players over the weekend when they didn't need to. And perhaps the worst one over the last couple of weeks: New York's Dane Richards, who has already broken a goalkeeper's leg this year, shoved Houston's Danny Cruz from behind as both players chased a ball toward Houston's goal. Cruz could easily have clattered into his goalkeeper with terrible results.

Then again, maybe these things even out. Cruz is same guy who hacked down New York's Roy Miller in the same match. It was a challenge so reckless and dangerous that U.S. Soccer's weekly, official referee review stated that Paul Ward should surely have cautioned the Houston player. Ward, however, didn't even whistle a foul on the action.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Toronto) Defenders: Julien Baudet (Colorado), Chad Marshall (Columbus), Jeff Parke (Seattle). Midfielders: Rafael Marquez (New York), Pat Phalen (New England), David Ferreira (Dallas), Ryan Smith (Kansas City). Forwards: Steven Lenhart (Columbus), Fredy Montero (Seattle), Jeff Cunningham (Dallas).

The Designated Players gobble up a disproportionate share of press, but the clock punchers make up the backbone of MLS. Some toil more anonymously than others. Here, then, are the most underrated men of MLS:

1. Justin Braun, Chivas USA: At this time last year he looked like a Brian Ching starter kit. Now Braun has arguably lapped Ching. The young Chivas USA man has seven goals (without much help around him), while Ching has but three.

2. Nick LaBrocca, Toronto: How Colorado let this guy go, only the deciders around DSG Park can say. He's a tireless worker, he's technically proficient and he's versatile enough to play anywhere in midfield.

3. Omar Cummings, Colorado: In terms of acclaim, he has the double whammy going against him. He plays for the Rapids, who get almost zero national mention, and he plays internationally for Jamaica, a side generally lost in the CONCACAF shuffle. Still, he's an attacking menace in MLS.

4. Stefan Frei, Toronto: In just his second professional year, Frei already has lapped some of the old guards of the MLS nets. His positioning is particularly adept for such a young player.

5. Steve Zakuani, Seattle: Sure, the No. 1 pick from 2009 gets a little pub. The question is, does he get enough? Between sizzling Montero, recently departed Ljungberg, U.S. icon Kasey Keller and (currently injured) center back Jhon-Kennedy Hurtado, there's only so much to go around for Seattle. Zakuani has seven goals and three assists.

6. Jason Hernandez, San Jose: The defender fell off the radar a bit last year, reduced by injuries to 16 games after an outstanding 2008 season. He has started every match for the Earthquakes this year.

7. George John, FC Dallas: The players around FC Dallas love them some attack. So John and fellow center back Ugo Ihemelu get a bit stranded, and yet Dallas allows less than a goal a game. John, in his second year, is one of the primary reasons.

8. Jeff Larentowicz, Colorado: He was the "other" half of the Red and Dread combo formerly in New England. Now he's in Colorado, where Larentowicz is out from Shalrie Joseph's shadow. Now he is in Pablo Mastroeni's shadow, but that one isn't as massive.

9. Nana Attakora, Toronto FC: The 21-year-old Canadian is a fixture along the back line now. He has played in all but one match for Preki's side this year.

10. Ben Zamanski, Chivas USA: Other rookies get more mentions, but Chivas USA's central presence has been solid all year, and he is an increasing threat from long range.

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