Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 25:
1. Don't get hoodwinked by a flattering result Saturday from the Home Depot Center: The Los Angeles Galaxy may have rallied for a 2-1 win over hapless D.C. United, but Bruce Arena's side is not back to that blue-ribbon form of earlier this year.
Not yet. Keep reading.
A come-from-behind win over the league's worst side hardly puts the Galaxy on the fast track to reclaim that April-May-June swagger. (Especially when the visitor's sloppiness along the back line practically teed up Landon Donovan's equalizer.) Bottom line here: The Galaxy's overall record may say so, but Arena's side is not a serious threat to win the MLS crown at the moment.
Games in August and September have exposed the Galaxy's soft spots. Donovan may be fighting through some fatigue. Gregg Berhalter's mysterious stomach ailment has disrupted back-line synchronization. Rookie sensation Michael Stephens has disappeared. Meanwhile, teams have dissected how best to deal with L.A.
None of that is new news. But this is: There's hope yet for Galaxy fans. It comes in the form of David Beckham, who made his second appearance of 2010 on Saturday.
There may be a tendency to suspect that Beckham is now more of a pretty hood ornament than a set of performance tires. After all, how many 35-year-old flank midfielders can still make it happen? Especially when they are coming off a serious injury? But Beckham is Beckham for a reason. He was always a special player because of a rare set of abilities. (Well, that and his cover-boy looks.)
The game was level when Beckham slipped into his old spot along the right 53 minutes into Saturday's contest, but L.A. would soon trail by a goal. Beckham's entrance allowed Donovan, relatively quiet by his high standards to that point, to play higher up the field, centrally as a withdrawn striker. And it completely changed the game. Beckham isn't moving well at the moment, but he can still deliver those signature laser passes, even over a mighty distance.
With Edson Buddle and, especially, Donovan probing to run in behind defenses, it changes the way opponents have to play. They have a lot more to account for. So it's not just Beckham who matters here. It's Beckham's ability to hook up with Donovan, who scored twice Saturday and rescued the Galaxy from losing more ground to Real Salt Lake in the Supporters Shield chase.
How Beckham will deal with the Red Bull's midfield next week as his minutes presumably increase -- perhaps a half for Becks in the marquee match of Round 26? -- is another matter. In fact, look for teams to start picking on Beckham's side, making him work on defense. That's Joel Lindpere's area for New York, and he works it hard. Plus, Thierry Henry likes to drift left when he's working the spaces behind Juan Pablo Angel; that puts him closer to areas where Beckham will need to help out.
But Arena will surely have a plan for that, too. He has to, because keeping Beckham relevant is the Galaxy's best chance to get back into the championship conversations.
Here's what Donovan told Fox Soccer Channel about the Galaxy's performance Saturday, never mind the result: "We played poor tonight, no question about it. All over the field. Sometimes you have nights like that, where you've got to find a way to win. I'm proud of us for keeping on, for keeping going, but we gotta be better than that."
2. Something to think about regarding MVP and Rookie of the Year: Dwayne De Rosario single-handedly kept Toronto in the playoff chase with two brilliant free kicks late Saturday. "De Ro" for mayor of Toronto? It can't be far at this point.
Two times zones to the west, 17-year-old Andy Najar struck for D.C. United in a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles.
It doesn't look like either player will make the playoffs. So ponder this: Where are De Rosario and Najar in the race for important MLS awards?
There are great league MVP candidates, including Seattle's Fredy Montero, Dallas' David Ferreira and Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales. But De Rosario has rocketed himself right back into the conversation. He has 11 goals for a team that has scored just 24. He is essentially the reason TFC's playoff hopes remain on the dangle -- rather than having already been eulogized.
Here's the hook: Never has a league MVP come from a non-playoff team. A few more nights like Saturday and we won't need to have this conversation. If De Rosario drives his team into the playoffs, just go ahead and start planning the MVP celebratory party in or around BMO Field. If not ... we may have to revisit this notion of the league's best player coming from a non-playoff club.
Najar has been the league's best rookie. Period. Red Bulls center back Tim Ream continues to be rock-steady and still looks like a draft-day steal. Philadelphia striker Danny Mwanga could still have something to say about it if he can get healthy and return. But if we're talking about making things happen, about exciting players brimming with potential while doing everything he can for his team at the moment, Najar is it. He beats defenders. He works his cleats off. He makes good choices and makes the players around him better.
Did we mention that he's just 17?
What might he look like if United wasn't such cheap hamburger this year, if the players around the talented young attacker were better? But the bunch from RFK isn't, and that's the point. United isn't just bad; it may be historically bad. And yet Najar keeps looking so good. Perhaps awarding Rookie of the Year to a member of a non-playoff team may be a little more palatable to voters than doing so for MVP.
3. Possible rest for the playoff-bound? No team has mathematically clinched a berth in the 15th MLS playoffs -- but only the most unlikely of events could keep Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, Columbus, New York and FC Dallas from participating.
So here's the question: Will this fivesome begin resting starters? And if so, will other sides start complaining about it?
Columbus goes into New England this week, for instance. The Crew have CONCACAF Champions League to worry about. Robert Warzycha's team is in good shape in the group stage, but nothing is settled. Plus, chances for the Supporters Shield are slipping.
So maybe, just maybe, the Crew coach gives some starters a break this weekend, especially on Gillette Stadium's artificial turf. But how might that sit with Chicago, Kansas City or Toronto, the teams ahead of New England still chasing the "Group of 8," the teams holding the playoff spots?
FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said he certainly will start thinking more about building depth and getting younger players on the field. He's also likely to be cautious with two important, injured starters, goalkeeper Kevin Hartman and captain Daniel Hernandez. Hyndman is likely to hold them out longer than he would if a playoff spot were in jeopardy.
But Dallas plays Kansas City this week. Kansas City has the best chance of catching San Jose, Seattle or Colorado. A whole bunch of teams aren't going to be happy if Hyndman fields more rookies and reserves in that one than he absolutely must.
4. The luxury of experimenting: The gap between the playoff haves and have-nots will also allow the top teams to experiment and tweak as they move down the stretch. The Red Bulls have started already, as Hans Backe immediately worked Mehdi Ballouchy into the lineup -- surprisingly so, at Juan Pablo Angel's expense -- two days after last week's trade.
Backe quickly dismissed the careening theories of why Angel found himself on the bench. No injury, no falling out, the coach said. He just wanted to see what his Red Bulls might look like in another tactical setup. He clearly believes the Red Bulls are OK at the moment, but not good enough to win it all just yet. So it makes sense to tinker.
On Thursday against Dallas, he looked at Henry in a more advanced area, closer to goal, with Ballouchy playing in behind. Backe also hinted that he may look at Ballouchy playing in behind both Angel and Henry. The straight 4-4-2 he has used all year, he explained, can be a little static for his liking.
Ballouchy's entrance into Red Bull Arena will be interesting. He was having a good season at Colorado but always looked a little like a duck out of water, playing wide on the right as he was. Gary Smith, the Rapids' Englishman coach, is a straightforward 4-4-2 guy. Which means he wants the men out wide to play, well, out wide.
Ballouchy was always leaning inside. And he wasn't the guy who was going to work the touchline and whip in crosses as a quintessential English-type winger would.
Mullan, however, is exactly that type player. Which is why last week's late trades, just before the MLS roster freeze deadlines, make sense for all three teams involved. (The Rapids were involved in separate swaps with Houston and New York.)
In the 32-year-old Mullan, Colorado gets a guy who may not be productive as a full-time starter much longer, but one who can certainly help now. He's playing well lately, and he looked feisty and motivated as the Rapids tore through New England at home Saturday. Suddenly, the league's best strike tandem of the moment -- sorry, it's not Henry and Angel -- will have a workhorse like Mullan to serve it. With Omar Cummings and Conor Casey regularly ringing the goal bell right now, teams won't relish seeing the Rapids in the playoffs.
It makes sense for Houston, which got the injured Colin Clark. Assuming he comes back strong from season-ending knee surgery, Clark looks like a younger Mullan. Relentless and always playing with a little chip on his shoulder, he looks exactly like a player Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear would love. So Houston benefits from the swap, too.
It also improves Colorado because the Rapids acquired Mac Kandji from New York. Cummings is having another fantastic season, and it would hardly be shocking to see the Jamaican international moving overseas this winter. Kandji provides some cover -- assuming he doesn't test the overseas market, too.
5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Toronto).
Defenders: Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Brandon McDonald (San Jose), Drew Moor (Colorado).
Midfielders: Brian Mullan (Colorado), Eric Alexander (Dallas), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto).
Forwards: Kei Kamara (Kansas City), Blaise Nkufo (Seattle), Omar Cummings (Colorado).
D.C. United and Toronto are under the direction of interim bosses, soon to make decisions about their coaching positions for 2011. El Salvador may want Chicago's Carlos de los Cobos back in charge of its national team. And who knows which other team may up and "clean house," the way Toronto did so surprisingly last week? With all of that in mind here is a short ranking of the top candidates out there.
1. Richie Williams (New York Red Bulls assistant): The irony about Williams is that each time he's passed over for an MLS post, he gets to spend time sponging up more knowledge from yet another manager. He's been an assistant under well-respected Bruce Arena and this year he's mentoring under the wily Hans Backe. Williams, a two-time interim assistant for New York, will get his shot sooner or later.
2. Robin Fraser (Real Salt Lake assistant): Few MLS assistants are as well respected as the man at Jason Kreis' right hand. Plus, if Real Salt Lake claims a second consecutive title (or even gets close), plucking an assistant from Rio Tinto is a safe play politically for management elsewhere.
3. Colin Clarke (Puerto Rico Islanders head coach): Clarke's teams were usually good at FC Dallas, but they floundered in the playoffs. Then again, there hasn't been any playoff success since he left, either. Since, Clarke has been an absolute sensation in Puerto Rico. Previously he might have needed to be pried out of that sweet gig. But infighting and instability in U.S. Soccer's second tier may have him thinking otherwise today.
4. Paul Mariner (Plymouth Argyle head coach): The longtime Revs assistant, once thought to be the next guy to get his own post, made big news less than a year ago when he left to take over at the struggling English second-tier side. However, the club was relegated anyway (Mariner's first task was to stave off relegation), so he now resides in a lesser role behind manager Peter Reid. An MLS appointment might not look too bad right now.
5. Caleb Porter (head coach at the University of Akron): Porter was hot property after nearly fashioning a perfect season in 2009 for an unheralded college mid-major. He interviewed for the D.C. United position last December but chose to remain with the Zips, who lost in last year's NCAA championship match. Porter had a brief MLS playing career. Also ripe for being plucked from the college ranks is Maryland's Sasho Cirovski, who has helped stock so many MLS rosters with talent he helped develop.