Steve Davis
Monday October 18th, 2010

Know your MLS -- five things we learned from Round 29:

1. Brian McBride's emotional adieu: Scratch out a list of longtime MLS performers who never earned a league championship and you turn up some pretty impressive names.

Jason Kreis would sit near the top; the first MLS man to reach 100 goals never even appeared in an MLS Cup final as a player. Carlos Valderrama and Leonel Alvarez, wonderful players who showed the way in MLS' early years, never earned a league ring, either. There are a few others.

But in terms of importance to U.S. Soccer and the entire domestic soccer scene, you'd surely have to top that bittersweet chart with Brian McBride. The man who amplified his abundant skill through nuclear-tipped levels of toughness and bravery played his final home match in Chicago over the weekend.

An emotional night, with family and friends in the stands and everybody focused on the man and his decorated 17-year pro career, came and went with a couple of near misses but no goals. McBride, from nearby Arlington Heights, Ill., left to a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd at Toyota Park.

He has 79 MLS goals and one final match to improve on that total when the Fire concludes a season of disappointment with a match at Chivas USA. But the real curtain call on a career of heavy decoration and universal respect was Saturday's final home match.

What's next for the man who meant so much to U.S. soccer supporters for so long and for so many reasons? He's not sure. It will definitely involve soccer and probably revolve around instruction, although it doesn't sound like professional coaching is in the cards. He also wants to spend more time with his wife and kids on the weekend, and that's a tall order for a pro manager or assistant. It sounds like he's leaning toward some kind of instructional role, perhaps in an academy or maybe in bigger-picture development. He wants to put all that experience, in MLS, in Germany, at Everton, at Fulham and in countless U.S. camps under three different coaches, to good use.

"The good thing about being in different places, you sort of see things done correctly and how some things are not done correctly," he said last week. "I'd love to have some input in certain areas, but I haven't had any specific offers, so we'll see where the cards fall."

2. Chicago's wacky world: The Fire's send-off for McBride was done well. Coach Carlos de los Cobos removed McBride two minutes from the end to provide the opportunity for well-deserved fan recognition. So, nicely done, guys. (Then again, would it have killed you to insert C.J. Brown into the game as a "thank you" for his 13 years of devoted Chicago Fire service, since it looks like this will be the highly respected defender's final MLS season?)

In the big picture, however, there's not much else being done right in Chicago. In fact, the Fire have become the Saturday Night Live of MLS: The whole thing is decidedly hit or miss and you just don't know what to expect next.

This is the team, of course, that fired its coach, Denis Hamlett, after making the playoffs last year. Hamlett's team finished second in the East with 45 points and a respectable plus-5 goal difference. The Fire even won a playoff series and then failed to move into the MLS Cup final only after a penalty kick tiebreaker. Firing Hamlett seemed unfair at best, highly arrogant at worst.

Now it just looks ridiculous. Going into its final match of 2010, de los Cobos' bunch has 33 points, a minus-4 goal difference and for all practical purposes has been out of the playoff picture for weeks. In fact, three wins over the last four games has spruced up Chicago's record, making the campaign look better than it really was.

The whole thing has been destabilized by questionable player acquisitions, a mishmash of formation changes, a peculiar player rotation and a coach who may or may not return to his old job in El Salvador. This wasn't supposed to be such a rebuilding year, was it?

"I would classify it as a season of learning for me, of adaptation and of familiarity with the league," de los Cobos told last week. "Logically, [the season] has served me well. The results have not been what we would have liked, but they are logical if you take into consideration that this team is different from last year's."

Yeah, it is. But did it need to be? This is a side with two designated players, after all, although both Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg arrived with significant baggage. Maybe it's OK to take a flier on one DP. But two of them?

Mercurial Dutch striker Collins John made Toyota Park his latest port of raging underachievement. Wilman Conde's form has dropped off the cliff lately. And what of de los Cobos himself? The coach refuses to completely tamp down rumors that he may return to El Salvador's national team post.

And if he does? Perhaps the Fire could rehire Hamlett? They could certainly do worse. And besides, would such a wacky turn of events really surprise you for the organization whose officials are challenging Toronto's for title of Chief Engineers on the Wacky Choice Express?

3. Last games should start simultaneously: This week marks Round 30, the final round of regular-season play. Unfortunately, matches will spill out over four days, starting Thursday and finishing Sunday. So there will be two traditions at work. The first is that MLS will mark the final weekend without the greatness of simultaneous kickoffs. The second annual rite is that people like me will beat up on MLS for this stubborn choice.

It's really a matter of competitive fairness. There are still Supporters Shield implications; Real Salt Lake's win Saturday and the Galaxy's slightly surprising loss means the league's award for most regular-season points will come down to the final week.

There are also playoff-positioning implications. The eight playoff teams could move within the order, which means all could potentially influence their first-round opponent.

Simultaneous kickoffs are not only the fairest method, but they also arrange the exciting double dip of match watching while also scoreboard watching.

Take the Supporters Shield. By the time Los Angeles plays Dallas on Sunday, the Galaxy players could already know that they have the Supporter Shield secure. That will happen if Real Salt Lake loses at Colorado, which certainly could happen given the Rapids' good form. And what if that does happen? Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, with the Supporters Shield and home-field advantage in a conference final safely tucked away, could choose to rest his starters against Dallas. That decision could influence the Western Conference finishing order since Seattle could still pass Dallas.

There are other examples, but you get the idea.

In earlier years, TV contract concerns and stadium availability issues meant simultaneous, final-day kickoffs were less plausible. Now MLS has greater leverage with the networks, and stadium issues are only problematic in a couple of places.

Time for a change here, MLS.

4. The goalkeeper goal: What is it about Jon Conway's removal that turns goalkeepers into the most unlikely goal scorers?

With all playoff positions secure, one of the real talking points of Round 29 came out of Toronto, where Columbus Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer became MLS' second goalkeeper to score. He was the first to actually score intentionally; the other was a free kick that bounced in.

Columbus trailed late Saturday in Toronto, so Hesmer came forward and finished a corner kick from close range, assisted by the home team's inability to clear the danger or close quickly on the goalkeeper-turned-shooter.

Here's the Conway connection: Conway would have been in goal for Toronto and could possibly have been in place to make the save. But he was ejected in the second half along with Crew forward Steven Lenhart. (MLS really ought to deal more harshly, in general, with Lenhart, whose perennially reckless play is always an injury or melee waiting to happen. But that's another matter.)

So in came backup goalkeeper Milos Kocic, who couldn't react fast enough as Hesmer drew back and hit his goal from about 8 yards.

Conway was previously the starter at New York. In 2008, he was handed a 10-game suspension for using a banned substance. In came rookie Danny Cepero for the Red Bulls. In his MLS debut, Cepero watched a long, probing free kick bounce off the hard Giants Stadium artificial surface and into goal. That was the first time an MLS goalkeeper has scored. That, coincidentally, was against Columbus, and also on the penultimate MLS weekend.

Hesmer said he looked toward the Crew bench for approval to bolt forward. Amid a chorus of "No's," he thought he saw one finger pointing forward. So, "Permission granted!" he thought, and up he went.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Jon Busch (San Jose).

Defenders: Andrew Hainault (Houston), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Dejan Jackovic (D.C. United), Jed Zayner (D.C. United).

Midfielders: Danny Cruz (Houston), Shalrie Joseph (New England), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Nicholas Lindsay (Toronto).

Forward: Omar Cummings (Colorado), Conor Casey (Colorado).

This is surely the most wide-open race in years. Here's how the list stacks up going into Round 30:

1. David Ferreira (FC Dallas): Almost every FC Dallas attack goes through the Colombian playmaker, who has eight goals and 13 assists. His creative skills and ability to nimbly navigate congestion have been huge in FCD's breakthrough campaign.

2. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles): Donovan, last year's MVP, says his vote will go for Ferreira. Still, he's built an exemplary case himself with seven goals and a league-leading 15 assists (despite missing six games because of the World Cup).

3. Edson Buddle (Los Angeles): There's been surprising little talk of MVP consideration for Donovan's teammate, which is odd since he has the MLS Golden Boot all but tucked away.

4. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose): Yes, that Chris Wondolowski. The one who's been scorching hot since August. Second in league goals with 14, tops in game-winners with eight. That one.

5. Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake): Morales shepherds RSL's signature possession game. His nine goals and nine assists have driven the champs' Supporters Shield chase in 2010.

6. Fredy Montero (Seattle): The young Colombian was making a strong MVP case through most of the summer, spearheading the Sounders' summer turnabout. But his MVP odds have dropped over the last few weeks as his production fell significantly.

7. Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia): No one does more with less than this spring-loaded bundle. His 13 goals, 11 assists and league-leading 46 shots on goal have been nothing short of inspirational for the expansion club.

8. Omar Cummings (Colorado): He leads a strong Colorado offense with 13 goals. And although Cummings has just three assists, there isn't a club in the playoffs that would relish facing the powerful, speedy, industrious Jamaican international.

9. Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto): Like Le Toux, an MVP case is hard to make when your team misses the playoffs. Still, BMO Field would have been a pretty quiet place this year but for "De Ro's" 13 goals, so many of his own creation.

10. Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake): He's the rock of an RSL back line that will probably set an MLS mark for fewest goals allowed. Olave is the front-runner for league Defender of the Year.

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