Soccer America
Wednesday August 27th, 2008

Add another variable to the perplexing task of predicting which MLS team is best suited to running the gauntlet of playoff matches that determine the league champion: attrition from yet another competition.

This year, it might be wise to look beyond the usual suspects, since the best teams may not be in the best shape come playoff time. Houston, D.C. United, New England and Chivas USA are entered in the CONCACAF Champions League, which began this week with the Revs in Trinidad & Tobago to face Joe Public FC, and Chivas USA in Panama to play Tauro FC.

If the Revs and Chivas USA advance (and that's now a big if after their poor performances on Tuesday), they'll join D.C. and the Dynamo in group play, which consists of six matches -- three at home, three away -- to be played starting in mid-September and ending right after the conclusion of the regular season. Among the featured destinations for the MLS teams will be Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and everybody's favorite in-season competitive venue, Mexico. The Revs could also travel to Canada or Nicaragua, depending whether Montreal or Real Estelí win their preliminary series.

Which team has the depth to survive those extra six games and still fight through the fatigue and pressure of the playoffs to win it all? More to the point, can any of those contenders pull it off, or will all of them be ripe for an upset by the end of October and commencement of playoff hostilities?

New England and Houston reached the SuperLiga final and are fizzing along just fine in the league race, though the Dynamo took a 3-0 thrashing at the Meadowlands on Sunday. That match ended a stretch of six games in 26 days, including the SuperLiga final -- does the result suggest perhaps the Red Bulls, Columbus, FC Dallas and Chicago, who aren't in the Champions League and theoretically should be fresher when the playoffs start, have a more realistic shot at going all the way?

Just for starters, this is how much barnstorming the Revs will have done in the past week by the time they return from Panama: 6,070 air miles.

Last Wednesday, the Revs hosted D.C. United and won, 2-1. They traveled to Toronto, where they tied TFC 1-1 on Saturday, then traveled to Port of Spain, where they were upset by Joe Public 2-1 in their first leg on Tuesday. They return to Boston Wednesday.

Thanks to the scouting and training acumen of head coach Steve Nicol and ace assistant Paul Mariner, the Revs seem to have more quality depth than any other team in the league.

The rookies and new players just keep coming into the first team: Kheli Dube, Mauricio Castro, Chris Tierney, Amaechi Igwe and Gabriel Badilla this year; Adam Cristman, Wells Thompson, Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally last year. Now that Taylor Twellman is healthy and in good scoring form, the veteran core of Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph, Matt Reis, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, Jay Heaps, Khano Smith, etc., looks stronger than ever.

There's a solid squad in Houston, as well, and its younger players gained some valuable experience during SuperLiga. Rookie Geoff Cameron is perhaps the best-kept secret in MLS (aside from how much allocation money really changes hands when clubs make trades) and Corey Ashe and Stuart Holden will be needed when the games start piling up.

United's fate will hinge on how well Marcelo Gallardo and Gonzalo Peralta recover from their sports hernia surgeries and the performance of recent additions Iván Guerrero, Joe Vide and keeper Louis Crayton.

Chivas USA has yet to recapture its form of last year and, like D.C., needs a good run of results to qualify for the playoffs. (Like New England, the Goats were upended in their first-leg Champions League match as well, falling 2-0 at Tauro FC.)

Looking beyond the CONCACAF quartet, to its stingy defense the Fire has added veteran U.S. striker Brian McBride, and four players brought in by Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio have upgraded the team.

Columbus has matched New England point for point in the standings and acquired one of its former stars, Pat Noonan. If FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake get into the playoffs, they won't be easy marks, especially against a team that's banged up.

Regardless of who finishes in the eight playoffs slots and how they line up in the final standings, which team is in the best shape and can send out its best lineup is the best bet to win it all. And that won't be known until Halloween.

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