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Defending champs Rapids hit their stride early; FC Dallas struggling

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things you should know about Week 3:

1. The champ is playing like a champ: Colorado's championship last November was practically written about with an asterisk. Oh, Gary Smith's team wasn't bad. But great? Somehow the Rapids just weren't overwhelming, especially not when held up against starry Los Angeles and stylish Real Salt Lake.

But here we are in 2011, getting into the meat of the schedule, and Smith's men are chewing up the field so far. They sliced through expansion Portland before shutting out Chivas USA on the road. If there were still skeptics who thought the West race was all about L.A. and RSL, Colorado's 4-1 win Sunday over D.C. United should convince them otherwise.

The champs are playing with a flourish, organized and confident. And here's what most of us haven't addressed: The Rapids did improve themselves, if quietly so.

Caleb Folan's acquisition late in the preseason began reaping rewards Sunday when the fringe Irish international hit for two goals. Imagine that: Omar Cummings, the pick in some corners for league MVP, was on the bench to start and his replacement nailed a couple of beauties. Meanwhile, Sanna Nyassi, an offseason pickup from Seattle, isn't starter quality but does provide a nifty change of pace for Brian Mullan along the right.

The other major improvement in 2011 isn't something new. Rather, Jamie Smith has shook free of the injury bug and is battering the opposition on his side. The Scottish Premier League veteran has two goals and an assist, and few Rapids fans are missing Colin Clark, the well-regarded slasher who claimed that left side as his at this time last year.

2. Meanwhile, about the runner-up ...: FC Dallas management generally had the Midas touch last year in terms of personnel choices. Coach Schellas Hyndman turned over the roster and put his faith in young guns like Brek Shea, Zach Loyd, George John and Eric Alexander, all of whom landed in Bob Bradley's national team camp last January. Meanwhile, Dallas gathered Kevin Hartman from the scrap heap, and all he did was set an MLS record for goals-against average. Hyndman didn't nail it every time, but most decisions worked out well.

So perhaps he deserves some benefit of the doubt, some time to see how things play out. But as of now, there's plenty to worry about.

The club (0-2-1, one goal scored) desperately misses Dax McCarty's midfield distribution. He's a crafty type, handy at making space for himself, which allowed him to find David Ferreira. The league's MVP isn't having an easy time of it now, and the midfield's inability to link play and find Ferreira in advanced spots is a chief reason.

Elsewhere, players are being asked to hammer themselves into ill-fitting slots. For instance, Ugo Ihemelu earned a national team call-up with dependable performance at center back last year, but he was on the right in Friday's 2-0 loss to Columbus. The club chose to protect Eric Alexander over McCarty, but he wasn't even on the field Friday. In his place was Jackson, whose dunderheaded choice to lunge into a tackle a minute after being cautioned left his team with 10 men for almost an hour. And Loyd, who looked quite capable in his recent national team debut, was left off the starter list, too.

As for Shea: Everyone can see what Hyndman sees in him as a potential center back. Still, if the young man's heart isn't in it, what's the point?

It's a long season. Far better to do the tinkering now. But Dallas falls too far behind the West leaders at its own peril. Remember, two years ago Dallas got it right in the end -- but ran out of time and missed the playoffs.

3. The big trade: Toronto FC boss Aron Winter didn't hesitate to immediately deploy the gains from Friday's stunning trade, which sent hometown hero Dwayne De Rosario to New York. Tony Tchani was among three central midfielders at BMO Field on Saturday, and Danleigh Borman was assigned to left fullback.

Meanwhile, De Rosario pepped up New York's offense, entering for the ineffective Mehdi Ballouchy and positioning himself underneath the Red Bulls' two heralded strikers.

Time will tell how it all shakes out, but it looks like a shrewd move for both clubs.

In Toronto, De Rosario was sometimes bigger than the team. That's not ideal in any locker room, and especially challenging for a team that's rebuilding. Well, he certainly won't be bigger than the team in New York.

Tactically, De Rosario didn't fit neatly into any of the classic 4-3-3 roles. He isn't a traditional winger (although he fits the mold of the "inverted" winger that some clubs now fancy). He isn't a striker, exactly, and the 4-3-3 needs a center forward adept at holdup play. Finally, he's more of a dribbler than a passer, which makes him imperfect for a central midfield role.

Now he'll have plenty of operating space in New York, where so much of the defensive attention is directed toward Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo and even Dane Richards.

4. 'Caps coach making believers: Vancouver Whitecaps coach Teitur Thordarson is crushing the critics so far. The expansion side has a win, a loss and a draw in three matches, and each outing has been something to remember.

Who among the packed house at Empire Field will forget the team's first MLS match, a 4-2 win over Canadian rival Toronto? Last week's 1-0 loss at Philadelphia on a late goal may have been downer, but Thordarson's men more than held their own.

And Saturday's amazing comeback -- rallying from a three-goal deficit, including two goals in stoppage time, to earn a 3-3 draw with Sporting Kansas City -- was truly a moment that can fill a team with belief. It's something to lean on in the leaner times, which certainly are ahead over a long season.

"A lot of teams would give up," Whitecaps defender Jonathan Leathers said. "It shows the resiliency and character within our team. Obviously, that comes from the coaching staff teaching you how to think, how to battle back, and how to fight. It's tremendous to be a part of a game like that. Seeing is believing, so now that I've seen it, I know we can do it going forward."

So many of the Whitecaps' early personnel choices were panned. For instance, harsh judgment met management's choice to build deliberately, which meant the club had just 17 players signed about a week before the season. There were others, like Atiba Harris' status as top striker (before Eric Hassli's late preseason arrival). But Harris has two goals, which is two more than quite a few highly paid MLS strikers.

It's still quite early, of course. And this plucky side has yet to play a team from the 2010 playoffs. In fact, the 'Caps face three more of those 2010 non-qualifiers before their first meeting with a playoff side. So there's time to build more belief, and that counts for a lot.

5. Team of the Week:

Goalkeeper: Tally Hall (Houston)

Defenders: Michael Lahoud (Chivas USA), Eric Brunner (Portland), Leonardo (Los Angeles), Ramiro Corrales (San Jose).

Midfielders: Eddie Gaven (Columbus), Shalrie Joseph (New England), James Marcelin (Portland).

Forwards: Teal Bunbury (Kansas City), Caleb Folan (Colorado), Camilo (Vancouver).

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