Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 26:
1. Playoff chasers not rising to the challenge: There was a distinct gagging sound around MLS in Round 26. Three teams currently outside playoff position, all allegedly desperate to improve their chances, were at home. All had brilliant opportunities to gain precious ground.
And all proceeded meekly toward their postseason Waterloo. We're talking to you, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and Kansas City Wizards. Tsk tsk.
Worse still, Toronto and Kansas City squandered fantastic comebacks from their previous outings. The Wizards had rallied midweek for a historic 4-3 victory against Houston, positioning them to really add pressure to the teams above them. But Peter Vermes' side couldn't exploit the momentum and fell to FC Dallas at home 3-1 on Saturday.
Toronto was similarly wasteful. A week earlier, two blazing free kicks by Dwayne De Rosario had resuscitated his side's fading playoff hopes during a memorable win at Houston. A potential season-turner, that was. So what happens from there? TFC followed up with a limp effort Saturday at BMO, where Geovanni ran the show and San Jose was always in control in a solid 3-2 win.
Here's what interim Toronto coach Nick Dasovic told the local broadcast after Saturday's setback, which left TFC's playoff hopes going nowhere: "I take my hat off to the boys. They fought right to the end. That's all you can ask."
Holy capitulation! No, it isn't! You can ask them to rise to the challenge. To do something special that will finally bring playoff soccer to BMO. There are two DPs on the roster who just haven't done enough, plain and simple (Julian de Guzman and Mista). Ask them to earn their salary by elevating their game for a change. If his Reds had won, they would sit just two points behind San Jose for a playoff spot today.
The bottom line here is that teams at this point must do something to prove playoff worthiness. There's none of this "bad teams sneaking in" mess that we've seen too much in past MLS years. Finally, there's more prejudice in the MLS playoff system. And clubs that can't make a stand just aren't going to get it.
The Fire still has a sliver of a chance, but only because of a game or two in hand over the teams in front of them. But how exciting might it have been if they hadn't dropped all three points Saturday to Seattle -- one of the teams holding a playoff pass at the moment?
Speaking of quotes that carry the faint stench of capitulation, and speaking of DPs who don't deliver, check out what Freddie Ljungberg said afterward: "I think we took a good step forward," he said. "I think today everyone did exactly their job. What you saw on the field was a totally committed team. We just have to keep that going, which is hard now to get into the playoffs, but really happy about the way the team responded after some meetings this week."
OK. If you say so, Freddie.
2. How about a little panic?: Something still doesn't look right around the Fire, as coach Carlos de los Cobos keeps tinkering. And there can be only one reason coaches keeps a'tinkering in Week 26: because things just aren't working.
On the one hand, credit the Fire manager for going all-out in search of the points. He put the Fire in an attack-minded 4-2-1-3, with Ljungberg aligned behind three forwards. On the other hand, what does it say about management's ability to assemble a roster that works when you play three forwards and none is named Collins John or Brian McBride? Both on the bench to start a game that absolutely had to be won. To have about $580,000 in guaranteed compensation on the bench in a must-have match says someone was guilty of a gross miscalculation.
3. New York better than L.A. right now: That 2-0 score out of Home Depot Center on Friday was hardly a fluke. New York coach Hans Backe devised a plan, the players executed with purpose and, even without the injured Thierry Henry, his Red Bulls were in control all the way.
This one rates high on the "psychological boost" scale. As Backe himself was quick to tell us last week, the Red Bulls had been nothing to brag about against the best of MLS this year. So the memories of Friday's victory will go far in stockpiling confidence for the playoffs.
Backe dropped Rafa Marquez even deeper than usual when the Red Bulls had possession, pushing his fullbacks high and requiring the Galaxy's slow-footed midfield to cover additional ground. Meanwhile, the Galaxy had a plan for dealing with speedy Dane Richards, but New York's inform winger still caused trouble.
And what to say about L.A.? Start here: It seems that David Beckham's introduction will require a complete restart in the midfield, because Beckham and young Brazilian playmaker Juninho aren't a good fit. The team needs to play one way with Juninho pulling the offensive strings, but another way when Beckham creates from his deep spots.
They are both good players. But they work about as well together as tires and nails. The players around them need to know: Are they working to support the way Beckham does it or the way Juninho does it?
"Our problem was just our effort," Landon Donovan told reporters. "It's hard to wonder why, for a game like this, we weren't ready to come out and play."
Well, maybe the problem wasn't effort, per se. Maybe it was a collection of guys who aren't sure about what to do anymore. And by the way, Beckham is a great playmaker from those deep-lying spots. But when he creates from so deep it muddles the midfield structure. Once L.A. loses the ball, it's a mad scramble to get into position to repel the coming thrust.
4. Missing center backs spell trouble: There is another way to look at L.A.'s high-profile loss, however. The Galaxy can (and have) won games with a simple formula: Be safe as government bonds in the back, wait for the other guy to make the killer mistake and sneak away with a 1-0 or 2-0 win. But that requires two center backs who are absolutely on top of things. They are on the Galaxy roster, but just weren't on the field Friday.
Omar Gonzalez was serving his one-game suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Gregg Berhalter is back to training now and could be ready to start this week. And just like that, the Galaxy could get a lot better -- and fast. Because splotchy center-back play was definitely an issue Friday.
Speaking of being better, this should be said about Beckham: The man is demonstrating that he's committed to the cause, that he's willing to fight for the side and make up for time lost. Even the Beckham boo-birds should give the man his due. He returned earlier than expected from a tough injury and now he's not exactly pacing himself out there. He's looked committed emotionally. In his third appearance overall and his first start in six months, Beckham huffed and puffed and wore himself out over 90 minutes Friday, putting in more work than anyone could realistically have expected.
On top of it all, his passing remains precise. So if the team can sort out the best way forward, a former England captain still full of fire and desire will have something to say about the upcoming playoffs.
5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Bouna Coundoul (New York).
Defenders: Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia), Marvell Wynne (Colorado), Carlos Mendes (New York), Leo Gonzalez (Seattle).
Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Shalrie Joseph (New England), David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose).
Forward: Geovanni (San Jose).
Several mid- and late-season midfield upgrades have fortified that part of the field at a few MLS addresses. Here, then, is a look at who has the horses -- and who still looks a little ordinary through the middle third.
1. Real Salt Lake: Nothing new here, but still the best balance of industry and ingenuity. Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson and Javier Morales make up a big reason why Jason Kreis' team has a great chance to defend the title.
2. New York Red Bulls: With Rafa Marquez on board, the pieces are in place: Tony Tchani covers ground, Joel Lindpere patrols smartly to the left and Dane Richards' speed is a handful on the right. New York's midfield was head-and-shoulders better than Los Angeles' in Friday's win.
3. FC Dallas: Daniel Hernandez's hamstring injury is a concern, because what he does -- sitting deep, screening the defense, adding lots of midfield resolve -- perfectly complements David Farreira, the best playmaker in MLS.
4. Colorado: Brian Mullan's addition along the right gives more width and a greater work rate than the Rapids had previously with Mehdi Ballouchy at that spot. Jeff Larentowicz's partnership with Pablo Mastroeni in 2010 provides extra bite. More important, it is allowing the former U.S. international to have his best season in years.
5. Seattle: Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi give the Sounders a lot of speed, and Osvaldo Alonso is among the top MLS holding midfielders. Uruguayan international Alvaro Fernandez provides tremendous cover, able to play on either side. Recently he has even proved to be an option centrally.
6. Los Angeles: It's tough to know where to slot in the Galaxy, because you never know where Donovan will line up as a second striker or left in the midfield. Beckham's reintroduction certainly strengthens the mix. But it's still a bit slow when Donovan sets up at forward.
5. Columbus: Robbie Rogers' injury shook up the order, although Emmanuel Ekpo is a decent replacement as an attacker. There's a tendency to underappreciate Eddie Gaven's two-way work and his versatility. But the depth falls off pretty fast after the top three or four choices. Neither Adam Moffat nor Kevin Burns has stood out as Brian Carroll's central partner.
8. San Jose: Injuries have forced Frank Yallop to keep shifting the pieces, but Khari Stephenson's midseason acquisition certainly strengthened the lot. And it moves up a place or two when Bobby Convey joins rather than plays in the back. Geovanni, a DP who shows how the marquee player tool should work, could also play in there if needed.
9. Chicago: John Thorrington's injury struggles this year have severely weakened the midfield. Plus, Logan Pause is OK as a destroyer but average at best as a conduit between defense and the attack.
10. Kansas City: Stephane Auvray smartly screens the defense, but it's Craig Rocastle's gradual improvement this year that has strengthened the middle element of Kansas City's 4-3-3.
11. New England: Pat Phalen is a big downgrade from Jeff Larentowicz as Shalrie Joseph's partner centrally. Sainey Nyassi does OK on the right, but coach Steve Nicol has yet to find a solution on the left.
12. Toronto: Julian de Guzman's ability to stay calm in possession is an asset, but he still needs to do more to drive the team forward. Elsewhere, the TFC midfield is a collection of "OK but not great."
13. Philadelphia: There's a lot of young talent, augmented by veterans like Fred and Stefani Miglioranzi. Still, there's lots of work ahead for coach Peter Nowak before this is a finished product.
14. Houston: Attrition hit the Dynamo hard, and management simply wasn't able to replace the contributions of Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. As a result, players like Brad Davis and Geoff Cameron can't be the same without the same kind of help around them.
15. Chivas USA: Young players like Michael Lahoud, Ben Zemanski and Blair Gavin have plenty of promise, and the veteran leadership of Paulo Nagamura can only help. But they need better players around them, because the young guys should be supporting pieces, not main cogs.
16. D.C. United: There is so much work to do all over the roster. But they do have 17-year-old sensation Andy Najar to build around in midfield, and that's a great place to start.