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Galaxy slump as race for top record heats up; Montero an MVP favorite

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 22:

1. What's wrong with L.A.?: Remember when the Galaxy were pretty good? Yeah, good times. So what in the name of Ruud Gullit has gone wrong? What has the Galaxy suddenly playing like they were being coached by, well, Ruud Gullit?

First, the facts: Since a July 4 win at Seattle, Bruce Arena's team is 3-6-1 in all competitions. The stink is more pronounced in league play, where the team has gathered just seven of a possible 21 points over its last seven contests. Landon Donovan and Co., once looking like a Supporters Shield shoo-in, still have the inside track. But Real Salt Lake and Columbus have crept right up behind. Meanwhile, Dallas and New York could even make a late dash for the regular-season top spot.

If there was any doubt that things have unraveled, Kansas City removed it with a 2-0 road victory Saturday. It was no fluke, either; K.C. was simply better. The Galaxy yielded an early lead yet again and then offered the feeblest of responses. Even at home, all the Galaxy could muster was a couple of half chances inside the game's first 30 minutes, and only a little better from there.

Start with the defense, where the side clearly misses its top traffic cop, Gregg Berhalter, and his ability to organize. His replacement, 22-year-old Brazilian center back Leonardo, seemed up to the job earlier this season as Berhalter missed some games to start the year. But Leonardo is falling well short in the "getting it done" department at the moment.

Reduced production of late from Donovan and striker Edson Buddle isn't helping. Meanwhile, 21-year-old midfielder Michael Stephens appeared to have hit the rookie wall a few weeks ago.

There's too much age in the reserves. Keeping Chris Klein, Eddie Lewis or Jovan Kirovski was probably wise. But keeping all three vets appears to have backfired, as none can adequately spell the starters right now. Klein, for instance, was ineffective over 62 minutes Saturday.

Overall, the team still lacks speed. That hasn't changed since last year. It's just that a lot of other things were going right then -- and earlier this year, too. The Galaxy were pressing in the right spots and catching teams repeatedly on the counter. Now teams just sit back a look to counter the Galaxy. And it's clearly working.

Some of that can be corrected. But perhaps more alarming is the effort; the intensity and desire to compete seems to be missing.

"I think that we got outcompeted tonight," Arena said late Saturday. "All this was about tonight was fighting and scrapping and we lost that fight. I think that was the difference in the game; they played harder."

2. Getting younger at a certain position: Two quick points on the league MVP race.

First, Seattle's Fredy Montero has climbed right to the top. The little Colombian was Player of the Month for July and his August is looking just as hot. Montero scored twice in Seattle's dramatic, late win Saturday over Chicago in Freddie Ljungberg's return to the Pacific Northwest.

(Quick crowd reaction report: cheers for Ljungberg upon his introduction and departure, boos whenever he touched the ball in between. Seems fair and balanced. Well done, folks!)

Montero has 10 goals and nine assists, among the league's top four in both categories. The Union's Sebastien Le Toux is near the top of both lists as well. But since Philly seems unlikely to fulfill its playoff ambitions, few MVP votes will be headed his way. Sigi Schmid's Sounders, on the other hand, will get into the postseason for sure if they can remain anywhere near current form.

Here's something else to know should Montero hear his name called in late November at the MVP announcement: Yes, he'll be one of the youngest -- but not the youngest. He turned 23 about a month ago. If he won, he would do so at about 23 years and four months. Carlos Ruiz claimed the honor in 2002 at 23 years and about two months.

Still, Montero's winning at such an impressionable age would be quite an achievement. First, MLS is a better league than it was in 2002. We're talking about HD quality today versus 13-channel, black-and-white TV of yore. Plus, most MVPs earn the award closer to the sweet spot of their careers, around 28 or 29 or just north of there. There have been some exceptions, but even those skew older than Montero is now. Taylor Twellman was 25 when he won, Jason Kreis was 26 and Donovan was 27. Everyone else was at least 28.

3. Standing eight count? Or just go ahead and count them "out?": As Round 22 opened, it was really tough to see any way that Philadelphia, D.C. United or Chivas USA could make the playoffs. So for simplicity we officially, unofficially reduced the 16-team playoff race to 13 teams. You're welcome.

It seems OK now to go ahead and add Houston and New England to that list of also-rans after painful weekend losses. They were painful in different ways -- but also painful in a similar way.

First, the similarities: If these are the final-straw hope-killers for the two teams, then it's unfortunate that red cards played such central roles in both. In New England, Cory Gibbs left his team a man down for more than a half when he got in late and recklessly on Union midfielder Eduardo Coudet. It was an unwise and costly choice from Gibbs, a veteran who should know better.

On the other hand -- warning: the tiresome and repetitive issue of MLS referee consistency is about to be revisited; imagine that -- Gibbs' indiscretion was no worse that what Philly's Stefani Miglioranzi had done to the Revs' Sainey Nyassi moments earlier. New England manager Steve Nicol didn't mind saying so, either.

Either way, the Revs would need to turn up about 20 points over their final nine matches for a shot at the postseason. Considering that Nicol's men have collected just 21 points from 21 matches, well, their postseason streak is probably kaput. The Revs haven't missed the playoffs since 2001.

Houston's Lovel Palmer was excused just 11 minutes into Saturday's loss at Colorado for kicking and slapping at Pablo Mastroeni. Referee Abbey Okulaja probably got it right, since Palmer did a double, dispensing naughtiness with hand and foot alike. On the other hand, Mastroeni could easily have been ejected, too, for kicking out at Palmer as both players lay tangled on the ground.

Here's how the losses weren't the same: New England was in control when Gibbs' expulsion altered the night; Houston was outmatched from the outset, already down a goal when Palmer broke bad. Houston has been outmatched frequently this year. Draw a line through its streak, too: The men of orange have been part of the playoffs each season since moving to Houston in 2006.

4. The top tier: Five sides have distinguished themselves as serious championship contenders: Real Salt Lake, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. Now consider this: Three of them don't have the CONCACAF Champions League to worry about. Hmmm.

Champions League surely has its merits. But it also gives Columbus and Real Salt Lake six extra matches, none of which are pushovers. That includes some grueling road trips.

That's not only six extra matches of wear and tear on starters, but it's also six additional opportunities for injury. RSL has some depth to cope with it, but Columbus is already a bit bitten on the injury front. The additional contests could say something about the MLS Cup winner before it's over.

(Toronto has the extra lifting ahead, too, as part of the Champions League mix. Preki's side doesn't have the look of a league contender at the moment. Still, the additional tax of Champions League could weigh into TFC's playoff chase.)

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Toronto). Defenders: Zach Loyd (Dallas), Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), Patrick Ianni (Seattle). Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), Davy Arnaud (Kansas City), Rafa Marquez (New York), Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia). Forwards: Justin Braun (Chivas USA), Fredy Montero (Seattle), Conor Casey (Colorado).

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