It's that time of year in MLS where every game, every result and every play mean just a little bit more. Not just in games, but in training, too. The tackles in practice get nastier, the positive plays stay fresher in the manager's mind and every misstep is an opportunity for a teammate to take your position on the depth chart. Those in the playoff hunt are competing for starting spots, and those out of it are playing for their jobs.
For clubs with MLS Cup aspirations, much of the focus will fall on stars to carry the load through the playoff push. But if history repeats itself, it's the teams with the most depth that have the best chance to win the title.The trait recent MLS champions shared was exceptional depth.
With a full schedule that includes 34 regular-season matches, the U.S. Open Cup, friendlies and CONCACAF Champions League matches for four of the contending teams (Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, Seattle and Houston), coaches have had to make great use of expanded 30-man rosters this year. As fatigue and injuries start to take a toll, the most diligent GMs and technical directors will take center stage to see who has assembled the team best built to last in the long haul. The supporting case is key to the makeup of these teams.
In last year's MLS Cup, the Galaxy bench consisted of Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk, Jovan Kirovski, Donovan Ricketts and Chris Birchall. The amount of World Cup and international experience among those players exceeds some MLS rosters. In 2007 the Houston Dynamo boasted the likes of young guns Stuart Holden, Chris Wondolowski, Corey Ashe and Patrick Ianni on the bench. Even the inaugural 1996 D.C. United MLS Cup winners had a balanced mixture of youth and veteran leadership, as players like Tony Sanneh, Jesse Marsch, Shawn Medved and Steve Rammel were available substitutes.
Reserves provide a clear picture of what a team's day-to-day environment is like. Competition breeds excellence, and the teams who have quality players pushing those ahead of them for playing time in training will often find themselves still playing in mid-November. The manner in which these players push each other to stay sharp is something that can't be replicated by reserves with lesser quality. If the starters are not being challenged day in and day out, it's easy for some to get dragged into the lull of a long season. Some players will figure out very quickly just exactly where they are on the depth chart and how hard (or easy) they need to train in order to stay in the lineup.
The most understated trait my 2004 D.C. United title team possessed was depth. In the second half of the season, we reached a point where our training sessions and scrimmages were much more difficult than Saturdays games. Coaches instilled the idea that practice required extremely hard work, and match day was a reward to showcase how that hard work paid off. Players were called on to prove themselves every day. If you were not having your best day, the guy behind you was more than capable of taking your spot. That pressure made training sessions extremely competitive, even volatile. But we reaped the rewards once the dust settled, roles were defined and a formula that worked best for the team took shape.
Managing the players who are on the outside looking in is extremely important, because you never know when you will need them to step in and contribute. In our 2004 Eastern Conference championship match against New England, which some have regarded as the greatest MLS match of all time, there were key contributions made by those who weren't full-time starters. As a result of suspensions to captain Ryan Nelsen and midfielder Dema Kovalenko, Ezra Hendrickson and Josh Gros played huge roles. Veteran defender Brandon Prideaux also came off the bench and did an excellent job to help close the game out. And young talents Santino Quaranta and Freddy Adu subbed in and scored in the shootout.
The depth and cohesiveness, along with the desire for each player to take advantage of his opportunity, is what made our championship team so special. A healthy balance between veteran leaders and up-and-comers provided a great cast to attain a common goal.
Roster depth is already coming into play this season. In the Eastern Conference, D.C. has won three straight games despite losing leading scorer and reigning MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario with a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago. Recent acquisitions Lionard Pajoy, Maicon Santos and Branko Boskovic shouldered some of the offensive load in support of Chris Pontius, as D.C. (fourth place, 50 points) looks to clinch a playoff spot.
Sporting KC (first place, 55 points) lost forward Teal Bunbury to a season-ending knee injury, but C.J. Sapong has been a more-than-capable replacement. Sapong has two goals in three starts since Bunbury's injury, though KC now loses a valuable offensive spark off the bench.
New York (third place, 50 points) acquired goalkeepers Bill Gaudette and Luis Robles after standout rookie Ryan Meara's hip injury ended his season. Though Gaudette has proven an adequate fill-in, the Red Bulls have not posted a shutout in six matches, including allowing a heartbreaking 95th-minute equalizer in a 1-1 tie with New England on Saturday. Aside from losing valuable points on the road, midfielder Rafa Marquez suffered another injury setback, a hamstring strain that could cost him two weeks.
Chicago's midseason acquisitions are finding their form at just the right time. Alvaro Fernandez, Sherjill MacDonald and Alex have combined with resurgent Chris Rolfe to propel the Fire (second place, 53 points) into contention for the top seed.
Houston, on the other hand, must feel like it's being punished for success. The Dynamo (fifth place, 46 points, one point ahead of Columbus for the last spot) are the only Eastern Conference team that must play CONCACAF Champions League games during this important stretch.
CONCACAF Champions League games will also have an effect on three Western Conference playoff teams: Los Angeles (second place, 49 points), Real Salt Lake (third place, 49 points) and Seattle (fourth place, 48 points), the top two having clinched berths already.
The Galaxy rolled out what seemed like an Under-23 team against the Puerto Rico Islanders last month in a 4-0 CCL victory. Young guns like Jose Villareal gained valuable experience along, while David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane picked up important rest. With Edson Buddle returning from injury and the addition of Christian Wilhelmsson, L.A. is positioned well for a playoff run.
Real Salt Lake got a much-needed win in Panama on Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League and looks to be rebounding from a slump in league play. RSL was 1-1-4 in its last six MLS matches prior to clinching its playoff spot with a win over Portland on Saturday. They will rely heavily on the health of its big guns moving forward because its bench is not as deep as in recent years.
Seattle, meanwhile, will err on the side of caution, remembering the impact of losing maestro Mauro Rosales to injury in its final regular season game last year. One major difference this year is the Sounders made key signings to ensure that one injury would not crumble their championship hopes. Eddie Johnson has added a dynamic dimension up top, Christian Tiffert has been a steady midfield presence and the back line is full of veterans. Rookies Andy Rose and Alex Caskey have also provided valuable minutes, allowing coach Sigi Schmid to feel comfortable juggling the lineup.
Finally, league-leading San Jose continues to get results while also adding depth. When leading scorer Chris Wondolowski battled a recent drought, the Bash Brothers duo of Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart picked up the slack. Coach Frank Yallop took pressure off his star striker and brought him off the bench in their midweek match against Portland last week, and Wondolowski responded with two goals. After scoring yet another game-winner in a huge win at Seattle over the weekend, it's safe to say Wondo is back on track. The rich became even richer last week with the signing of forward Marcus Tracy through a weighted lottery, giving Yallop yet another weapon. The addition of Mehdi Ballouchy in midfield and a solid stable of defenders has the Earthquakes in prime position to win the Supporters' Shield. They're the deepest team in the league, and the ones to beat.