Steve Davis
Monday August 23rd, 2010

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 21:

1. A wealth of quality MLS center backs: It's interesting to watch a weekend of MLS matches and then revisit the U.S. issues at center back just two months ago in South Africa.

There is an abundance of quality, young center backs in the league. (Not all of them are American, of course, but many of them are.) It's just the cyclical nature of these things, of course; the collective strength at any position will ebb and flow.

Brandon McDonald had a great match for San Jose over the weekend. Actually, everyone along San Jose's back line had a good day, posting the clean sheet against Landon Donovan and the Galaxy. McDonald has been good all year whether in defense or in the midfield.

Andy Iro, who just never looked comfortable in spot duty for Columbus over his first two seasons, has found his stride. It doesn't hurt that he's playing alongside Chad Marshall, who continues to deliver one outstanding night after another for the Eastern Conference leaders.

Carlos Mendes was the real standout in central defense in the Red Bulls' big win at Toronto. But the real buzz in that part of the field is more typically reserved for outstanding rookie Tim Ream.

George John has been steady for FC Dallas. He was an especially big presence on Saturday as concussion concerns kept his usual partner, Ugo Ihemelu, sidelined. No matter, as highly regarded rookie Zach Loyd filled in admirably. Loyd was a right back earlier this year, which is probably a little better suited for his relatively slight size. But he did play one season of center back in college for North Carolina, and he was generally well positioned Saturday.

Geoff Cameron is again playing center back for Houston. That he returned so quickly following April knee surgery is amazing in itself. But he is more than holding his own, so the story is especially stirring. (Even if the entire Dynamo defense did fall apart late Saturday, nearly squandering a lead against Chicago.)

The list goes on. Julius James is fouling a little less and defending a little more these days at D.C. United. Once looking like a bust, he may finally be settling in to MLS. Toronto's Nana Attakora, just 21, is developing nicely. Former U.S. Olympian Patrick Ianni, 25, is starting now for Seattle.

And, of course, there is Los Angeles' talented Omar Gonzalez, last year's Rookie of the Year. Here's a great barroom debate for you: Which promising U.S. center back will be the next to go overseas? I'd bet on Marshall, although Gonzalez may have something to say about it.

2. Taking aim at aimless crossing in MLS: Quality in MLS has improved dramatically over the last 10 years, and even significantly over the last five or so seasons. Still, some sticking points remain, areas that still need plenty of attention.

One that keeps MLS from being a little easier on the eyes is the collective quality of crossing. Normally, an MLS weekend is wrought with crossing that's somewhere between ineffective and just plain awful. Service from the wings frequently lacks authority -- if the efforts make it into the penalty area at all. "Look out there in row 6 behind the goal! Someone's about to hit a cross!"

Even well-struck crosses are frequently pointless, fired haphazardly into the penalty area without purpose, aim or specific intent. So, when a match unfolds with quality service from the wings, it's worth noting.

San Jose's win over Los Angeles had a few nice balls zinged in from the Earthquakes' Bobby Convey or recently-acquired Tim Ward, who is now stationed on the right. The Galaxy's Sean Franklin got forward to deliver a couple of good balls from Los Angeles' right side.

Meanwhile, the Red Bulls' Dane Richards is having a tremendous August, surely enjoying his role alongside Rafa Marquez and Thierry Henry, players with the requisite experience and vision to supply him with passes in useful spots. Richards, so consistently inconsistent in his time with the Red Bulls, cranked some zippy balls toward Juan Pablo Angel and Henry early in Saturday's game at Toronto. Later, one on-target cross led to a Red Bulls penalty kick, and a late ball from Richards toward the back post turned into a goal for Carl Robinson. (Incidentially, Robinson refused to celebrate against his old club. That's a classy move.)

3. Assessing contender status at FC Dallas: The club has done almost everything it can to be considered a top-tier contender, one that can take its place alongside Los Angeles, RSL and Columbus. Almost.

Schellas Hyndman's team has a league-low two losses and is unbeaten in 11 games. The defense is better than at any time in recent years, and on pace to establish a club mark for fewest goals allowed.

David Ferreira, who is involved at some point on almost every Dallas goal these days, is real difference maker. Kevin Hartman is a confident man in goal, making the big save or two per match that was missing as Dario Sala faded over the last two years. Hyndman's team has a system that works for this set of players and the club has proved it can overcome injuries to key players, winning this weekend without Ugo Ihemelu and Dax McCarty.

One element remains missing, however, and it's a toughie: The team may be one potent striker away from moving atop the contender class.

Colombian journeyman striker Milton Rodriguez just isn't getting it done. But neither was Jeff Cunningham, and his best role seems to be off the bench now. Rather, Brek Shea has been supplying the important goals lately, striking for his fifth over the weekend in a match that looked fairly typical for FC Dallas: dominate possession with lots of slick passing -- but claim a narrow win or a draw because of a lack of authoritative striker play. (Shea, by the way, may well be playing his way into a national-team call-up at age 20. He's a beast along Dallas' left side.)

Is there a worthy striker out there to be had? The options are limited. Although the international transfer window has closed for MLS teams, out-of-contract internationals can still be signed. While it's possible, it's generally tough because of salary-cap constraints at this point. The MLS trade window remains open until mid-September, but the best bait is a young player like Eric Avila or the injured Kyle Davies. And what club wants to part with promising, young (not to mention cheap) talent?

4. The value of the backup 'keeper: Teams are still learning the best ways to tame the salary-cap monster. Conventional wisdom once said that goalkeepers shouldn't eat up too much of the total, and that paying a second one any major sum was foolish. But that may be changing. Some teams have done themselves a huge favor by acquiring a solid backup. In some cases, said "solid backup" is saving his team's bacon.

Jon Busch was excellent Saturday as San Jose kept itself playoff relevant with a 1-0 win over the Galaxy. San Jose manager Frank Yallop scooped up Busch after he was jettisoned so unexpectedly by Chicago just before the season. Yallop needed someone to push Joe Cannon, and possibly to pick up the starts if Cannon couldn't regain his formerly solid footing.

Sure enough, Yallop made the change last month. And Busch was good -- until he gave up a terrible goal against Colorado and lost his spot. But Cannon's broken ankle in a freak practice accident has demonstrated anew how critical Yallop's choice to spend some cash on a quality backup has proved to be. Now, despite Cannon's season-ending injury, the Earthquakes have a veteran goalkeeper for the playoff stretch run.

In Dallas, Hartman may have looked a wee bit pricey at $80,000 guaranteed -- especially when the Red Stripes were paying Dario Sala $178,000 guaranteed. But whereas Sala couldn't produce the goods, Hartman has been nothing short of outstanding. At 36, he's enjoying a career year.

Veteran backups Andy Gruenebaum and Jon Conway collected midweek CONCACAF Champions League wins for Columbus and Toronto, respectively. Scratch "backup goalkeeper" off the worry list at those clubs as well.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Jon Busch (San Jose). Defenders: Richard Mulrooney (Houston), Andy Iro (Columbus), Brandon McDonald (San Jose), Bobby Convey (San Jose). Midfielders: Tony Tchani (New York), Rafa Marquez (New York), Brek Shea (Dallas). Forwards: Brian Ching (Houston), Birahim Diop (Kansas City), Danny Allsopp (D.C. United).

The players' union released salary figures last week for all 16 teams. Here, according to that information (and using base salary figures) are the best and worst values in MLS this year.

Best values

(For this list, we won't include rookies at the $40,000 league minimum who are suddenly starting -- more of a fortuitous rookie find than a value steal, really.)

1. Jair Benitez, FC Dallas ($42,000): Two thousand over the league minimum is an absolute steal for MLS' best attacking left back.

2. Brandon McDonald, San Jose ($40,000): Bad timing on injuries probably inhibited his ability to get a new deal, but the value is high no matter how you slice it. He's a quality center back who can also hold his own as a defensive midfielder.

3. Joel Lindpere, NY Red Bulls ($80,000): His importance has fallen slightly now that Marquez has arrived and 21-year-old Tony Tchani is proving to be such a capable center mid. Still, Lindpere's skill and drive from the midfield is a big reason why New York built a healthy record as Marquez and Henry were en route. Plus, he'll continue to influence games as a left-sided midfielder.

4. Justin Braun, Chivas USA ($65,000): When a team leader in goals (seven) and assists (three) is making $65,000, that's true value. The young American doesn't get an abundance of help, either. If he did, his numbers would look even better.

5. George John, FC Dallas ($40,000): The big, second-year center back is a major reason why FC Dallas is one of four sides yielding less than a goal per game.

Worst values

(For this list, we'll include only the "cap number" for any designated players who count $335,000 toward a club's salary limit.)

1. Ibrahim Salou, New York ($264,000): So let's get this right: A 30-year-old trialist whose career highlight was notching five goals in two years at Belgium's Club Brugge, and who has been sliding since, is handed a $264,000 deal? Hmmm.

2. Josh Wolff, Kansas City ($220,000): He had a good career. But one goal and one assist in 17 games this year for the 33-year-old forward? 'Nuff said.

3. Rodolfo Espinoza, Chivas USA ($216,000): They need a lot around that team, and Espinoza's part of the cap could go a long way to supplying some of it. Anything north of $200,000 is getting into the "impact player" zone, and the Mexican veteran has done little "impacting" for Martin Vasquez's team this year.

4. Davy Arnaud, Kansas City ($220,000): Since his sizzling start to the 2009 season, Arnaud just hasn't been productive. Plus, no one has ever really settled on his best spot, although he has played fairly consistently as one of two midfielders at the top of a central "V" for Kansas City this year.

5. Branko Boskovic, D.C. United: ($380,000/$335,000 against the cap): It's still a little early, but things aren't looking great for the club's latest DP. He has no goals or assists in six matches. Creative midfielders sometimes need time to assimilate in MLS. Still, Boskovic hasn't shown much to this point.

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