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MLS clubs must juggle playoff race, CONCACAF Champions League

Four MLS contenders enter a busy week with some decisions to make, and the overall quality rises as the playoff chase heats up following MLS' Week 28:

1. Managing the CCL balancing act

Four managers will find themselves facing lineup predicaments this week when it comes to balancing the value of playoff positioning against the value of winning a high-pressure CONCACAF Champions League group-stage match.

The Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake all have to pull double duty this week, and with the margins for error in both the new-look CCL group stage and MLS playoff race being so thin, Dom Kinnear, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid and Jason Kreis, four of the top coaches in the league, will have more than earned their salaries if they can navigate through the week's stretch unscathed.

All four can ill-afford a slip-up in the Champions League considering how much is on the line with the reduced number of group matches this season and only group winners advancing to the knockout stage. Where some managers might have been a bit more lenient with turning to reserves in past CCL tournaments under similar circumstances, the gamble is that much greater with the new format. Los Angeles, Seattle and Salt Lake are all on the road, where points are harder to come by and where untested reserves are more prone to slipping up. The problem, then, extends into the weekend league matches, where weary legs could cost teams precious points. All three are jockeying for positioning -- and the potential MLS Cup hosting rights and first-round bye that come along with higher seeding -- in the playoff race out West, while Houston, which has the most favorable CCL draw of the week, suddenly has a battle on its hands to get out of the dreaded four-versus-five wild-card match in the East.

MLS and its participating teams have expressed how big a priority the CCL is and how important it would be for an MLS team to win the regional title and clinch a place in the FIFA Club World Cup. With that competition going head-to-head against a furious playoff chase, we will see just how big of a priority teams decide to make it during the most important part of the league schedule.

2. Quality spreads throughout

With the playoff chase in full swing and the final six weeks of the season upon us, it's a pleasure to see some of the league's biggest names rise to the occasion and deliver some of the season's top moments in major situations.

Week 28 was marked by a series of brilliant moments, none more audacious than Thierry Henry's intentional, high-arching Olimpico -- a goal directly off a corner kick -- that helped the New York Red Bulls finish off the Columbus Crew in the dying minutes of a critical match. While his tally might be a lock for Goal of the Week and one of the contenders for Goal of the Season, it was not the most important goal of the weekend. That belongs to FC Dallas' Julian de Guzman, whose self-volley and blast in the dying seconds of a must-win game brought Dallas closer to what seemed to be an improbable playoff berth just weeks ago.

Elsewhere, Seattle Sounders star forward and Portland Timbers nemesis Fredy Montero's ability to body off a large, physical center back in fellow Colombian Hanyer Mosquera and immediately turn and rifle a shot past ice-cold backup Timbers goalkeeper Joe Bendik was poetry in motion, much like San Jose's passing sequence in the build-up to its second goal against Chivas USA. The play was downright Spanish in nature, with advancing fullback Justin Morrow crossing through the box, where a dummied ball was unselfishly laid off by Chris Wondolowski for Alan Gordon for a pass into the back of the net. The pressure might be rising as the weeks go by, but so, too, is the level of play across MLS contenders.

3. Contract extension a win-win for D.C., Pontius

Chris Pontius' new long-term contract with D.C. United looks positive for both parties. The club locked up its star attacker on Friday for three additional years and two club option years beyond that, according to The Washington Post, ensuring his place in the nation's capital, where he continues to play a vital role for a team on the rise. Considering the 25-year-old Pontius is entering his prime and reportedly only had one more season left on his current deal, the fact that he would sign a such a long-term MLS extension may come as a curious development, but it makes sense considering both the team's and player's goals.

For D.C., the club gets to keep one of the top attacking talents in MLS as it attempts to get back to perennial relevancy. If Pontius remains on his current trajectory, he'll be positioned to wind up in Europe at some point before the end of the contract, and if those European offers start pouring in, then D.C. can earn a return on its investment through a transfer fee as opposed to losing him for nothing much like the way the likes of Chris Rolfe, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark and Robbie Rogers departed MLS for Europe at the end of their contracts.

For Pontius, he is in a place where he is happy and will be earning a raise after a career season that has him on the brink of a national team call-up during a vital stretch of World Cup qualifying. After witnessing MLS products Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron -- prior to his departure for Stoke City -- make the most of their national-team chances starting in January's training camp (for which Pontius is a virtual lock this coming winter), Pontius has the example set for him that MLS productivity can lead to a ticket to the international stage, so staying put is hardly something that will hold him back.

4. Hahnemann return highlights roster freeze deadline

As of last Friday, MLS teams will have to move forward for the rest of 2012 with whomever they have on their respective rosters. The league's roster freeze deadline passed with a few notable free agent signings, but none that should really alter the fortunes for any team this season.

Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann had fallen so far off the soccer radar that most assumed that he quietly stepped into retirement, but the 40-year-old netminder got his wish to finish his career in his native Seattle. He signed with the league on Friday, and the Sounders made an 11th-hour deal with Toronto FC to acquire the top spot in the allocation order that paved the way for his selection, making him the fifth goalkeeper the Sounders currently employ. Hahnemann has not played a competitive match in more than a year and was last seen being the second backup for Tim Howard at Everton. But he'll provide a voice of experience and add a local flair to a goalkeeping corps that is set with the steady Michael Gspurning at the top of the pecking order.

The Chicago Fire's signing of former Mexican national team forward Guillermo Franco helps the club replenish its forward depth after its loan of Orr Barouch to Israeli club Bnei Yehuda became final. Franco, though, is 35 and coming off very little activity for Pachuca, and it is unclear what the well-traveled striker still has in his tank and can offer to the already-set Fire aside from giving El Tri teammate Pavel Pardo a familiar face in the locker room.

The most intriguing deadline signing was the Red Bulls going after Digao, a Brazilian center back better known as Kaka's younger brother. With the club heavily linked to the former FIFA World Player of the Year during the course of the last year and his agent expressing Kaka's interest to one day come to MLS, New York's signing sends a not-so-subtle message and lays the groundwork for a future swoop for the Real Madrid midfielder. Anything tangible that Digao can provide on the field would figure to be a bonus.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Defenders: David Horst (Portland Timbers), Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)

Midfielders: Marcelo Sarvas (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Julian de Guzman (FC Dallas), Alvaro Fernandez (Chicago Fire)

Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Eric Hassli (Toronto FC)

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