From Friday's relentlessly hyped Galaxy-Red Bulls match in Los Angeles to a Champions League picture that's becoming clearer, here are five things to know about the MLS world heading into the bulk of matches in Round 26.
Football takes over across America. American football, that is. And it becomes almost impossible for MLS to elbow its way into the media scrum. So Major League Soccer becomes the proverbial last player picked for the sandlot game in light of the behemoths that are pro and college football. In some markets there's even high school football to gobble up inches in newspapers, segments on sports talk radio and precious seconds on the myriad TV highlight shows. Don't forget there's still plenty of baseball news to chew on as playoffs approach, and NBA teams are about to load into camp.
The chiefs around MLS surely see all this, but they still wince and want to know: "Why isn't anyone talking about us?" (Something they had better darn well remember the next time talk rises of alignment with the FIFA calendar, a move that would absolutely bury the start of every MLS season beneath an all-too-predictable avalanche of sports news elsewhere.)
And that, friends, is why Friday's Galaxy-Red Bulls contest is being given the MLS Cup treatment by the league office. The hype on this one coming out of New York has been absolutely unstoppable.
Lead line in the official game preview on Major League Soccer's Web site: "In what is perhaps the biggest regular-season game in years ... "
Really? Hmmm. Someone probably needs to tap the breaks a bit on the hyperbole.
Fact is, it should be fun to watch with four designated players scampering about for the sold-out contest. But just because The Man tells you it's important, that doesn't make it so. From a practical standpoint, there's really not much at stake.
Yes, the Supporters Shield remains in play for Los Angeles. So is playoff positioning. And the Red Bulls may peak over their shoulder a bit as Kansas City gains speed in Eastern Conference pursuit, but the threat just isn't severe at the moment.
If you pull the four available designated players off the field (
So what is likely to happen Friday at the Home Depot Center? Before you make your pick, consider that
And don't expect Red Bulls coach
Sure enough, unless something silly happens over the final two rounds of group play (which ends Oct. 21), two MLS sides will go through and two others ... well, they'll have to get 'em next year.
Columbus and Real Salt Lake are all but assured berths. Toronto is still alive and does have two home matches remaining, but there's lot's of work ahead to chase down Cruz Azul and Mexican soccer's Man of the Moment,
For MLS, this is actually a little better than a year ago when just one of three sides escaped group play. A year before that, one of two advanced.
Remember, one MLS side was eliminated from this year's tournament before the 16-team group phase; Los Angeles suffered that ugly loss at home and couldn't make up the deficit in the return leg at the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Expect all this to become additional evidence for the proponents of MLS roster expansion. An increase to 30-man rosters seems to be in the works, although that still needs owner approval. Hard to argue the point, too.
MLS teams are obviously stretched. The talent quotient falls off rather severely past the first 12-14 roster spots. The drop isn't as precipitous on the Mexican sides. Teams from south of the border are forced to reach into their benches, too, to accommodate busy fall campaigns. It just doesn't hammer the Mexican clubs like it does the teams from MLS.
That's nothing unusual. If the Mexican teams hold on, this will mark a third consecutive year that all four sides safely traversed group play. So, since the tournament adopted its current name and format three years ago, they will be 12-for-12.
Monterrey can't be stopped in any competition these days, unbeaten over eight league matches and four CCL contests, including this week's comeback win over Seattle. But the name on everyone's lips plays south of Monterrey in Mexico City. Cruz Azul's Orozco leads all CCL scorers with 10 goals. Orozco, 22, earned his first cap for Mexico only earlier this month against Ecuador. He has six goals in the Cementeros' Mexican Primera Division campaign to go with his prolific striking (including three hat tricks) in the team's Champions League matches.
The driving rain and lots of splashy puddles set a properly bizarre backdrop for a result that was just this side of inconceivable. Real Salt Lake took a 3-1 lead against Cruz Azul into the 75th minute but managed to lose 5-4.
Move ahead to Wednesday, when Seattle somehow frittered away a 2-0 lead that it held in the 74th minute. In a dizzying four minutes against Mexico's Monterrey, Seattle's outrageously poor defending allowed Monterrey to slip in three goals in a 3-2 result at Estadio Tecnologico.
The situation was a little different, at least, with Seattle. Coach
A few hundred miles north of there about the same time, Kansas City was manufacturing its own improbable comeback, rallying from a 3-1 deficit and finishing the memorable night at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on
Plus, the Sounders have their Oct. 5 U.S. Open Cup title defense to think about. They'll still have two more CCL contests, but you can count on seeing more of those less familiar names as they run out the Champions League string. The ability to rest those starters and focus on the next few MLS contests and the Open Cup final is sure to help.