Wednesday May 30th, 2007

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Follow the leader
The Juan Pablo Ángel era is only three matches old, but it's already clear the former Aston Villa striker can play at a different level. Ángel is sheer class the league hasn't often seen. He was MLS' biggest story in May, scoring three goals and recording two assists while leading New York to the top of the East. But Ángel's impact could be much greater than just short-term results for the Red Bulls: The way he is ripping up the league so far (just look at his two highlight-reel goals against the Fire) should open the eyes of many other designated-player candidates thinking about one day making the leap across the pond. "Every player has a different mentality, different circumstances," says the 31-year-old Colombian, who speaks fluent English. "But if you think you can perform well here, and want a challenge, I think it's a perfect league. I have enjoyed every single minute so far."Ángel admits he's not certain he would have come to the States without David Beckham's arrival, and the toughest adjustment has been trying to get used to playing on FieldTurf in a cavernous American football stadium. But Bruce Arena couldn't have found a more ideal player as MLS boosts its reputation -- both around the world and in America. Ángel says he's not here to play in a "retirement league." "There is definitely a misconception about this league," he says. "It's physical. Quick. Demanding. That's why some big players have come here in the past and haven't performed well. Players will come here and realize that it's a tough league. The league is still in the process of getting better. It's made steady progress, but I truly believe it's on the verge of taking the next step." And it's going to start with players like Ángel.
Beckham backlog backfire?
Beckham's impending recall to the English national team is good news, bad news for MLS. For one, it's tremendous good fortune for the Galaxy and MLS to be getting an international star back on the top of his game. But it's going to create a lot of havoc for a Los Angeles team -- already off to a slow 1-3-2 start -- that will have to play 18 league matches in the season's final 11 weeks. As's Grant Wahl notes, Beckham could miss at least four of those games, as well as the MLS Cup final, if the Galaxy were to make it that far. But one potential hidden nightmare: What if Beckham struggles in his international return? That's one scenario Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas pointed out to the English media, saying, "If he misses a cross or doesn't score a goal, people will say it is because he is in America. If he is playing well, they will say it is because he is a brilliant player. We probably can't win either way."
Fire on the hot seat
Things are falling apart in a hurry in Chicago. The franchise-best 3-0-1 start is a mere memory following the Fire's miserable May -- four straight losses then a scoreless draw in a dour match with winless Real Salt Lake. Dave Sarachan's seat couldn't be much hotter. It all led to a testy exchange after Sunday's match when one reporter asked if Sarachan was planning to step down. "Why would I resign?" the Fire coach said. "I didn't ask for a raise when we had the best start in franchise history earlier this year. I'm not going to resign." The Fire's problems are three-fold: First, the injuries to Chris Rolfe and Diego Gutierrez, and no one has been able to pick up the scoring slack. Second, the team hasn't owned a lead since April 29, falling behind before the 25th minute in each match during its four-game losing streak (New York scored twice in the first 2:22). And the defense has been leaking goals, conceding 11 in May. The Fire are bringing in Chilean 1998 World Cup star Marcelo Salas for a trial, but patience is running thin in Bridgeview. "We're getting back on track," Sarachan said. "I feel confident of that."
RankLW Team
New York Red Bulls (5-1-2)
Bulls already have built up a +11 goal differential (15-4)
Kansas City Wizards (5-2-1)
The only team in the league that has not been shut out
New England Revolution (5-2-2)
Went from up 2-0 to down 3-2 in only 13 minutes vs. KC
Colorado Rapids (4-2-3)
Bouna Coundoul has been great of late after shaky start
FC Dallas (5-4-1)
Have conceded at least one goal in 17 straight matches
D.C. United (3-3-1)
Winless in April; the only undefeated side in May (3-0-1)
Chivas USA (3-3-2)
I'll admit it: I've underrated this team for the last month
Toronto FC (2-5-1)
Brennan's 32-yard blast an early goal of year candidate
Houston Dynamo (2-5-1)
Outshot opponents 40-18 combined in past three losses
Los Angeles Galaxy (1-3-2)
Haven't scored in 453 minutes vs. Rapids in league play
Chicago Fire (3-4-2)
Chicago's first winless month (0-4-1) since July of 2004.
Columbus Crew (1-2-5)
Herron: Two goals in just 36 minutes in return from ban
Real Salt Lake (0-3-5)
Winless slide now at 12; club (and league) record is 18
Handing out the awards for the month of May
With Ángel getting the nod as player of the month, here are some other May superlatives.
1. -- Team of the month: D.C. United. So much for that awful start. Just when it looked like D.C. was heading to its fourth straight loss to open the season, one questionable penalty call may have turned everything around. Since it battled back for a 1-1 draw against the Revs on May 3, D.C. has won three in a row -- the only undefeated team in May -- and is climbing right back up the Eastern Conference table.
2. -- Coach of the month: Steve Morrow, Despite a massive offseason overhaul and numberous Carlos Ruiz trade rumors, the Hoops are on top of the West. They won at Kansas City and Chicago before a tough 2-0 loss at Chivas USA prevented FC Dallas' first perfect May in 10 years.
3. -- Unsung hero: Carlos Mendes, New York. The injury bug has bitten New York's back line so hard that it forced Arena to use midfielders (Dema Kovalenko and Dave van den Bergh) at both left and right back against Chicago. Yet with Hunter Freeman, Todd Dunivant and Jeff Parke all battling injuries, the Red Bulls have allowed just one goal in the past three games thanks in large part to the quiet, steady play of center back Mendes.

1. Eddie Johnson
Kansas City Wizards

2. Juan Pablo Ángel
New York Red Bulls

3. Maykel Galindo
Chivas USA
Saturday, June 2
Toronto FC 2, Colorado 1 -- Jeff Cunningham makes TFC a bona fide playoff threat.
New England 3, Real Salt Lake 1 (HDNet) -- RSL won in Foxboro last year. Not this time.
Kansas City 2, New York 2 -- Two attacking teams facing ailing defenses. Should be fun.
D.C. United 1, Los Angeles 1 (FSC) -- Galaxy aren't playing badly, just a bit unlucky.
Sunday, June 3
Houston 2, FC Dallas 1 (TeleFutura) -- Hoops will miss Chris Gbandi is this Texas tussle.
Chicago 1, Columbus 0 -- Sarachan and the struggling Fire need this match. Badly.

Last Week: 3-4; This season: 20-32
It was a good move by national team coach Bob Bradley to send a European- and Chivas USA-heavy roster (it's because the Goats are off this weekend, skeptics, not because they're his former team) to the U.S.-China friendly in San Jose, Calif. Otherwise, a team such as Kansas City would have been without E.J. for its first-place battle with New York.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.