Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things you should know about Week 12:
1. Missing stars, missing offense: There's just no getting around it: Too many MLS matches right now are as exciting as primer paint. Depleted teams, content to squeeze out the results, are looking to pick up scraps of points wherever they can. The resulting product is uninspiring, to put it kindly.
Round 12 in MLS went like this: 12 matches and just 10 goals.
Too many difference-makers, the men who can manufacture a little something from nothing, who can break down defenses with fast feet or fast ideas, are away wearing national team shirts. Think Dwayne De Rosario, Landon Donovan, Julian de Guzman and Marco Pappa. Their teams (New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago, respectively) all played at home in Round 12 and yet combined for one measly goal. One!
Too many games are generating too few quality chances, and the missing skill and wile from the glamour boys is just one reason.
Another: A few MLS attackers on the U.S. national team fringes need to rise. These are guys lurking outside the velvet ropes of inclusion, looking for their next invitation from U.S. coach Bob Bradley. Think Charlie Davies, Kenny Cooper, Justin Braun, Eddie Gaven and Teal Bunbury. None of them did much to speak of in weekend matches for D.C. United, Portland, Chivas USA, Columbus and Kansas City -- unless you count the time Davies rounded L.A.'s goalkeeper only to miss an empty net. Oy vey!
2. New men in charge in Vancouver, Chicago: Life began anew for two franchises, teams that pulled the trigger on coaching changes last week. So while the men in charge at Vancouver and Chicago changed, predictably, the results didn't. Not much anyway.
Life under interim coach Tom Soehn began with two road matches for the Whitecaps, where management apparently forgot the first rule of expansion teams: that they are expansion teams and, by definition, not very good. Truly, this move looks awfully shortsighted, a particularly grievous offense when they can gaze East to Canadian neighbor Toronto FC to see where that'll get you.
But things are what they are, and Icelandic tactician Teitur Thordarson wore out his welcome after just 12 matches amid claims of rigid tactics and much teeth gnashing over alleged ill use of playmaker Davide Chiumiento.
So Soehn did made about five changes. The big ones were dusting off Joe Cannon, who replaced Jay Nolly in goal. And he redeployed Chiumiento, who is known in some parts of the world as the "Swiss Ronaldinho" -- proving that some parts of the world aren't very good at choosing nicknames. Chiumiento had been used as wide in Thordarson's 4-4-2 but acted as a withdrawn striker under Soehn.
Are playmakers better when they get a little more freedom? Sure. But in all honesty, Vancouver's roster isn't a strong one. They have seven ties in 14 matches (along with one win) because Thordarson was realistic, understanding that a highly organized side gave his team its best chance to sneak away with points here and there.
Soehn's changes paid off marginally in a 1-1 tie at Chivas USA, not a bad result given the Goats' recent upswing. But the 'Caps were more or less run off the field in a 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, where Jason Kreis' side outshot the visitors 24-7. So, back the drawing board there.
"The other [games] we showed enough character to create chances and get a result," said center back Jay DeMerit, one of his team's better performers Saturday. "Today we just didn't even really show up to create those chances or even build an attack. It's hard to put your finger on right now. We'll have to look at the tape to see where, tactically and effort-wise, we got it wrong."
Frank Klopas is in charge for now at Toyota Park. But the team's former technical director made curiously few changes. In fact, the only change over Carlos de los Cobos' final match in charge was Corben Bone replacing Marco Pappa, who was away for international duty.
So, not so curiously, the result looked very "de los Cobos," another draw at home. A scoreless one, at that. The Fire has four draws and a loss in six home matches.
3. Kevin Hartman, shutout king: There's certainly a "Lifetime Achievement Award" element to statistical mileposts that are built, at least partially, on longevity. Stick around long enough, and you're bound to claim some records.
Still, what FC Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman just did was fairly impressive: he became the first MLS goalkeeper to reach 100 shutouts when his side blanked New England.
Two things to consider here as you tip your cowboy hat toward Hartman, who was definitely last year's bargain bin find around MLS: First, Hartman isn't limping to the finish line here. Yes, he's 37 and he's been around since 1997. But he is way on top of his game right now. With just four goals allowed, he can take a big chunk of credit for FC Dallas' current nine-game unbeaten streak.
Also consider that Hartman has a chance to hold the all-time shutout mark for a long, long time. RSL's Nick Rimando has 80 career shutouts. At age 32, he has a chance to make up the distance. Any threats on the list past Rimando? Nope.
The guys anywhere near Hartman are too old and won't be keeping goal long enough. Some young buck might get there, but you're talking about 10-15 years down the road, assuming they aren't rerouted to Europe along the way.
4. Big trouble for two former big boys: There was a time when Houston coach Dominic Kinnear and New England coach Steve Nicol had Major League Soccer more or less figured out. The talent through MLS was fairly homogeneous through the last decade. Those two stayed ahead of the peloton by assembling a good locker room and then demanding more from their players. Essentially, Houston and New England tried harder, which is why they combined for five MLS Cup appearances between 2005-2007 and remained in the hunt for a couple of years after that.
But both sides have fallen on harder times over the last two years. There are lots of reasons why, but it really comes down to this: the talent is better elsewhere in MLS. Houston and New England, hamstrung somewhat by management and finances, just need better players.
Houston is winless in seven matches after Saturday's 2-0 loss at San Jose. Kinnear moved some things around due to international absences; Geoff Cameron was back at center back, where he always seems to look good. And Brad Davis moved inside, where he never seems to look as good but usually manages. Elsewhere, Houston just needs better players. Kinnear's midfield needs more quality, and those fullbacks and forwards aren't getting it done.
Houston's inability to identify a high-profile forward who can make weight and make a contribution is particularly concerning. One can be written off as a personnel boo-boo. Thanks for playing, Luis Angel Landin. But it happened again? Sergio Koke never fit in, never adjusted, and now he's gone. After seven mostly uneventful appearances, Houston terminated his contract last week, at the player's request.
New England could barely pass their way out of their own half against Dallas. That 1-0 result flatters the Revs. With so many needless turnovers and poor choices with the ball, it's no wonder New England was outshot 19-3. Dallas connected on 454 passes to just 296 for the visitors, and held possession for greater than 60 percent of the time.
The defending isn't bad, but there are too many matches now where New England is a disaster with the ball. The desire still seems to be there, but the talent gap keeps growing.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA)
Defenders: Steven Beitashour (San Jose), Chris Schuler (Real Salt Lake), Ethan White (D.C. United), Josh Gardner (Columbus).
Midfielders: Mehdi Ballouchy (New York), Daniel Hernandez (Dallas), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Nick LaBrocca (Chivas USA).
Forward: Steven Lenhart (San Jose), Jean Alexandre (Real Salt Lake).