Monday August 27th, 2012

Columbus' international scouting success, Dane Richards' pending European move and a look at the rest of the happenings from Week 25 of the MLS season:

1. Columbus doubles down in the transfer market and wins

A month ago, most MLS fans were plenty familiar with the name Higuain. After all, Real Madrid has made the United States its one-stop shop for preseason training during the past few years, and the club's Argentine forward, Gonzalo Higuain, is one of the world's premiere finishers.

In a short time, though, that last name has taken on a different meaning in MLS circles, with Gonzalo's older, lesser-known brother, Federico, taking the league by storm and making the Columbus Crew a force to be reckoned with as the season winds down. Instead of being the John Rooney equivalent of Manchester United's Wayne, Federico has been every bit as dangerous in MLS as Gonzalo is in La Liga. Along with mid-season Costa Rican addition Jairo Arrieta, Federico has instantly transformed Columbus' attack from one of the most predictable and stagnant in the league to one of the more explosive.

In the immediate aftermath of Higuain and Arrieta's matching braces against New England, the question lingers: Do the Crew have the best strike tandem in MLS? It's not a question that anybody expected to answer at any point this season, and while the sample size is way too small to compare Higuain and Arrieta to the likes of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson, and other top tandems in the league, the new duo has made Columbus a serious threat and borderline offensive juggernaut for the home stretch of the season.

Higuain's hold-up play, movement, vision and set-piece proficiency have been magnificent, and he has amassed three goals and two assists in three games while still building up his match fitness. Arrieta has benefited greatly from Higuain's presence in the lineup and provides an ideal complement up top. His ability to absorb contact, use his pace to make the right runs and finish with precision have led to five goals and two assists in eight games. Together, they have combined for more than a quarter of the Crew's attack, with the rest of the club combining for 21 goals in 24 games.

Columbus' luck while searching for attacking talent in the international market since the days of Guillermo Barros Schelotto has not been great. Sure, Andres Mendoza scored 13 goals last season as a DP, but he was more known for the internal strife that he caused and his petulance on the field than he was for his class, and his production meant little for the club in the standings. Higuain and Arrieta have made the team's recent swings and misses distant memories, though, and even if they cannot carry Columbus to the playoffs this season, they have given the franchise an attacking lifeline that it has yearned to uncover since Schelotto led the club to consecutive Supporters' Shields and an MLS Cup title.

2. Richards gamble pays off for Red Bulls

Kudos to the New York Red Bulls' front office for acting with some foresight and being proactive as opposed to reactive.

The club's trade of Dane Richards and allocation money in exchange for Sebastian Le Toux about six weeks ago looked unusual on the surface, but the club's reasoning that the speedy Richards, in the last year of his MLS contract, was going to test the European waters made the move's success and logic contingent on that happening. Now that Richards has secured a contract with English League Championship side Burnley for the coming year, something the Whitecaps announced on Sunday, the Red Bulls can pat themselves on the back, knowing they did the right thing.

Instead of losing Richards for nothing and only maintaining the first right of refusal upon his potential return to MLS (if they presented a legitimate contract offer, which is the position the Whitecaps find themselves in now), the Red Bulls paid a little extra in the form of allocation money to ensure that their attack had a contingency plan going forward. Le Toux is also in the final year of his deal, but his European prospects are not as threatening or as promising as Richards', and he is a prime candidate to remain in MLS. Whether he stays in New York is a development to keep an eye on after this season, but at the very least the Red Bulls have an asset to show for losing Richards, one that carries value in this league and can either be signed to a new deal or exported within MLS for other pieces. The Red Bulls' brass has taken its share of lumps over the years, but they got this one right.

3. Najar's new position

Andy Najar has made his name in MLS and on the international level with Honduras as a winger, one with deadly pace, sly ball skills and a knack for coming up with plays that just are not teachable to most players. When D.C. United coach Ben Olsen stashed him at right back in a midweek win over Chicago and preceded that move by calling Najar the "future right back" for the team, it raised some eyebrows over whether that was a waste of his talents. After Najar's showing against the Fire, though, Olsen's vision started to make a bit more sense.

Najar's ability to cover the entire right side and not get exposed by being caught up the field while terrorizing Chicago's defense and neutralizing winger Patrick Nyarko all at the same time was a sight to be seen, one that led D.C. center back Brandon McDonald to repeatedly refer to Najar as Brazilian legend Cafu in the locker room following the game. Najar, still just 19, is not at that level just yet, and he is the first to acknowledge that his marking and defensive awareness need to improve, but what he is capable of doing while going forward demonstrated what Olsen called the skills of the modern right back, and something that will only increase his profile for teams overseas that have already been keeping a watchful eye on his progress.

Najar, a right back during his D.C. academy days, returned to the right wing against Montreal after Chris Pontius was preserved as a sub off the bench and rookie winger Nick DeLeon came down with an illness that forced a reshuffling of the lineup. However, when Olsen was asked after the Chicago win if deploying Najar in defense would be an option regardless of which defenders were available, he responded with a non-verbal, excessively affirmative head nod. No matter how radical it might seem on the surface, the notion that Najar will become a full-time right back with D.C. is a very real possibility.

4. San Jose stadium offers another reminder to D.C., N.E.

What has seemingly been a season of only good news for the San Jose Earthquakes got even better over the weekend with the announcement that the club will break ground on its new soccer-specific stadium on Oct. 21. The latest soccer flag to be planted firmly in United States soil is also a harsh reminder and reality check for two of the league's oldest franchises in two of the its biggest markets.

For D.C. United and the New England Revolution, two long-standing flagship franchises without their own soccer-specific venues, San Jose's announcement is simply another in a line akin to a single 30+ year-old's much younger friends continuing to get married and move forward with their lives while his own endless search continues. The biological clock is ticking on these two franchises to get their own stadium deals done in an effort to play on an even field when it comes to attendance numbers, sponsorship opportunities, TV exposure and acquiring the right to host the league's glamorous events. Building a new stadium in those two markets has been a long struggle and there are no easy solutions, but MLS will only accept for so long the eyesore that is the empty seats at the two cavernous arenas while smaller markets like Houston, Kansas City, and soon San Jose, thrive off their new stadiums.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Troy Perkins (Montreal Impact)

Defenders: Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes), Darren O'Dea (Toronto FC), Steven Smith (Portland Timbers)

Midfielders: Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Simon Dawkins (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Mauro Rosales (Seattle Sounders)

Forwards: Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)

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