Steve Davis
Monday October 4th, 2010

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 27:

1. Playoff position swap shop is closed: Forget any talk about "playoff positioning" over the final three rounds of play in MLS as it relates to first-round matchups. It's just needless blather, because it would be impossible for any teams at the top of the heap to identify one side they would prefer to face. There are no wounded buffaloes in the herd.

There is still a race for the Supporters Shield, with L.A. in charge while Real Salt Lake and Dallas remain in hopeful pursuit. And there could still be critical movement in terms of who could host the conference final.

But when it comes to determining first-round playoff opposition, there's really no point.

As it stands, Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, New York, Columbus, Dallas, Seattle, Colorado and San Jose will make the playoffs. And the way it stands today is very likely the way it will stand in the end.

Kansas City has an outside shot (way outside) of displacing San Jose or Colorado. But that's about it. Chicago and Toronto remain alive statistically, but realistically their chances are dead.

So which of those teams toward the bottom of the postseason field would you want to face? San Jose's offense has sprung to life with DP Geovanni running the show. Colorado's strike tandem of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey had been destroying teams at home (until Saturday's hiccup, that is). Blaise Nkufo has found his scoring feet at Seattle while teammate Fredy Montero continues to lurk despite a slowdown in the last month. Anybody want a piece of that?

FC Dallas is about to become, statistically, the hardest team to beat in MLS over one season; the Red Stripes, with just two losses all year, are closing in on San Jose's 2005 league record for fewest losses (four).

No matter how the brackets fall, there will be no first-round pushovers for the foursome at the top.

2. There's a new goal-scoring sheriff in town ... or there soon will be: You can't swing a corner flag around Pizza Hut Park these days without hitting a record that's been broken or soon will be. Dallas clinched its first playoff berth since 2007 with a 3-0 win over Chicago on Saturday, a night in which Schellas Hyndman's team also matched Columbus' league-record 18-game unbeaten streak.

Another record was matched, and this one a biggie: Jeff Cunningham pulled level with D.C. United's Jaime Moreno for most goals in MLS history. Goal No. 132 for Cunningham came on a penalty kick he earned for himself (from yet another nice feed from David Ferreira, whose 13 assists are two short of Jason Kreis' club record).

Cunningham seems certain to take sole possession from Moreno, who struck for career goal No. 109 back in August 2007, kept it going and has retained the crown ever since. The only question is whether Cunningham can get another goal and take sole leadership this year -- and he's got a pretty good shot at it.

FCD has three games remaining, and Cunningham is scoring regularly even though he's taken a role as second-half replacement for starter Milton Rodriguez. He's so dangerous, even in limited minutes, because Ferreira, the league's top playmaker this year, knows just how to supply him.

Either way, Moreno, 36, will likely have to forfeit the crown this year or next since he's retiring at season's end. It's a bitter pill all the way around for Moreno and D.C. United fans, as the classy, longtime Bolivian international feels forced out. And it just stacks up the misery for United fans, who have had so little joy this year as it is.

Cunningham, meanwhile, probably has another year left, at least. He's 34 and seems reasonably satisfied with his role off the bench in Dallas. He's always played with a chip on his shoulder -- for instance, he has refused to speak to reporters for most of the 2010 season.

Cunningham, his career dotted with contentious relationships and less-than-amicable departures, isn't the poster boy that Moreno is. But never mind that; he's about to become the all-time scoring king -- at least until Landon Donovan catches up.

3. Midseason changes don't work: Here is a word that keeps coming up around Toronto FC, in soccer-talk conversations and in the media: disarray. And here's a word you never, ever want associated with your club, under any circumstances: disarray. It goes to underscore this point: Midseason coaching changes rarely work.

You can perhaps argue that tossing out the old boss for the new boss mid-campaign provides a head start on the larger target, wholesale turnaround. But that argument loses steam when the interim man isn't retained, which happens regularly. So what's the point? Any owner or GM who changes coaches in the middle of the year as some last-ditch gambit to rescue a playoff berth isn't paying attention to history.

New York relieved Juan Carlos Osorio last year -- although in fairness no one around the organization really believed that the playoffs were possible with a team barreling toward record-setting lows. (Interim man Richie Williams did rescue the side from the indignity of hitting some of those low marks.) Toronto and Kansas City also changed coaches midstream in 2009 but couldn't find a way into the "second season."

Los Angeles, FC Dallas and Colorado all made changes in 2008 but couldn't make any playoff headway that year. (All three sides have prospered in the years since under the managers subsequently named.) A midseason change at the top in 2007 wasn't enough to break the playoff seal at Real Salt Lake, although Jason Kreis has clearly distinguished himself since.

In the case of Bruce Arena at Los Angeles, Hyndman in Dallas and Kreis in Real Salt Lake, those men were not interim caretakers. They were high-level appointments made with an eye on the future. They weren't just there to see out a season gone sideways, but were architects of the future. So the point is this: If the man of the future isn't put immediately into place, then why bother? Why not give the current man a chance to see out the season?

Which brings us back to Toronto and interim man Nick Dasovic. Dumping Preki back on Sept. 14 didn't help. Toronto, still moving players about in an effort to identify the best way forward, is 1-3-2 in all competitions since Dasovic took charge. The only victory came courtesy of two stunning free kicks by Dwayne De Rosario, so that "W" was largely just down to individual brilliance. The Canadians looked out of sorts in Saturday's 3-2 loss in Seattle, a result that looked close thanks to a late Toronto goal.

Toronto goalkeeper Stefan Frei -- indeed the season would be worse if not for a fine season from the young Swiss up-and-comer -- said "organization and communication" let them down at Qwest Field. That doesn't say a lot about what's happening in practice, does it? Meanwhile, Dasovic's comments just seemed a bit puzzling: "Then the old Achilles heel this year, or at least since we've taken over, set pieces -- boom, boom and you get down. That's the way it goes."

Well, yeah. Teams that can't defend set pieces are going to lose. Even a short-term interim manager knows that.

4. Seattle in form ahead of Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup final: The Sounders have a lot going for them leading into Tuesday's match. Confidence is high after a good display Saturday against hapless Toronto. They get Tuesday's title defense at home, where the Sounders are destined to break a tournament record for attendance at the final.

There's always a lot to talk about around Qwest Field, from Kasey Keller to exciting attackers past and present. And there's always the teeming scene at the stadium to ooh and awe over. So a couple of the important puzzle pieces get relegated to "also ... " status. Like the way Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni rescued a back line that was about to crater the Sounders' 2010 season. Injury cut down Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's season, and the 35-year-old Tyrone Marshall just wasn't getting it done. So Parke and Ianni have been a revelation.

Then there's Steve Zakuani, the top pick from the 2009 MLS draft, whose sophomore season has unfolded nicely. His ninth goal of 2010 proved necessary in Saturday's win. Throw in five assists, along with Sanna Nyassi's continued emergence on the right, and it's easy to see why the team isn't missing Freddie Ljungberg. (Swiss international Blaise Nkufo also has a lot to do about it.)

Zakuani's ability to go at defenders one-on-one from the left was a major reason the Sounders bounded into Tuesday's final; he was bright in the team's 3-1 semifinal win over Chivas USA. And Zakuani's contributions are a big reason the Sounders keep winning despite Montero's fall in production over the last month or so. Schmid certainly isn't concerned about Montero.

"I'm not going to worry about that right now," the coach said after Saturday's win. "I thought Fredy had some good looks. Today he had a couple shots blocked, there were a couple times he should have shot and a couple times he should have played where he tried to shoot. Right now the team's flowing. His timing will come. He's a goal scorer, he'll get his goals in the future and if he saves them all for the Open Cup and the playoffs, I'm OK with that too."

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Bouna Coundoul (New York).

Defenders: Heath Pearce (FC Dallas), Michael Orozco Fiscal (Philadelphia), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), A.J. DeLaGarza (Los Angeles).

Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Eddie Gaven (Columbus).

Forward: Freddie Ljungberg (Chicago), Omar Cummings (Colorado), Dominic Oduro (Houston).

Every year the Rookie of the Year race looks a lot different in June than it does in October. That's because some young bucks are brought along slower than others, so we don't see them until the summer. Here, then, is a new-and-improved 2010 Rookie Power Ranking:

1. Andy Najar, D.C. United: The shining light in a season of darkness at RFK, this kid is special. He's just 17 but is the best young attacker in MLS. He shares the team lead in goals (five) and assists (two) in 24 appearances.

2. Tim Ream, New York: The steal of last January's MLS draft, Ream has been unimpeachable in the center of Hans Backe's defense. He has played every minute this year for the Red Bulls.

3. Danny Mwanga, Philadelphia: The top pick in this year's draft has seven goals and four assists, more than adequate production for a youngster in 14 starts (and 21 overall appearances).

4. Sean Johnson, Chicago: The Fire's fourth-round pick from the University of Central Florida won a starting job in goal in the summer and has looked wise beyond his years. He makes the big save and does all the little things right, even if the sample of work remains limited (12 matches).

5. Tony Tchani, New York: The central midfielder has benefited tremendously from Backe's tutelage, better now about passing forward rather than laterally or backward. He's forming a great partnership with Rafa Marquez.

6. Zack Schilawski, New England: Like any rookie he's been a little hot and cold. But the Wake Forest man has five goals in 15 starts (22 appearances overall), including a hat trick in April against Toronto.

7. Michael Stephens, Los Angeles: The sprightly midfielder has eight assists, most earlier in the season. Sightings of the former UCLA man have been sparse recently (although he did start Sunday against Chivas USA).

8. Zach Loyd, FC Dallas: He's been a rock at right back and in emergency duty lately as a center back in 17 starts and 22 overall appearances. He overcomes average size with leaping ability and tremendous timing in the header.

9. Eric Alexander, FC Dallas: Injuries thrust him into a starting spot and now he is a trusted figure centrally in midfield, in a holding role or along the outside. He has 10 starts along with five appearances off the bench.

10. Ike Opara, San Jose: He was outstanding at center back before a knee injury ended his season in the summer.

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