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Power Rankings: Dempsey signs; Colorado and New York shine

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Clint Dempsey was introduced to the Seattle crowd ahead of the Sounders' 3-0 win on Saturday.

1. DempseyMania reigns in Seattle. MLS, for all of its progress and headway in the last 18 years, has not had a whole lot of maintstream Getcha Popcorn Ready moments.

Aside from David Beckham, and to a slightly lesser extent Thierry Henry, signing with the league, every other notable signing, game, goal or trade essentially falls within the niche confines of MLS' fans and its community. Clint Dempsey returning to the league at 30 years old while playing the best soccer of his career, however, completely breaks the mold.

Dempsey's return to MLS after seven years in the Premier League is cause for serious celebration in MLS circles. Not only does it ensure that arguably the best American player at the moment will continue to carry out his prime on home soil while also validating the growing quality of the league, but it also sets quite the precedent for Americans abroad who are struggling to find playing time. If you are a national team candidate but can't find minutes, there are far worse options than coming home. That might be far from the message U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants sent, but his reliance on a number of MLS players in recent months is an indicator of the league's growing footprint on the international stage.

Now it's not always going to be that simple for American players, as few teams can offer the European-level financial package that Seattle reportedly delivered to Dempsey, and if players are not going to be signed as Designated Players, then the league's allocation order leaves potential destinations up to chance (It must be said: The fact that the lack of clearly written rules prior to the signing stipulating that exception required the league to issue a statement saying so certainly did not cover MLS and its lack-of-transparency reputation in glory). Even so, the stigma that returning to MLS from overseas means that you have failed as a professional player or that your career is coming to an end is completely out the window now that a player like Dempsey, at this stage, has committed his future to the league.

As for the bigger, more mainstream picture, few U.S. soccer players carry the amount of clout that Dempsey does among casual or Euro-centric American fans, and in a World Cup year, to have Dempsey front and center for the league when more and more eyes turn to the USA's elite is an absolute boon in every sense of the word. Digging a little deeper, Dempsey's reported four-year deal with Seattle also guarantees a marquee American face for the league should Landon Donovan head elsewhere when his contract expires at the end of the season. With TV deal negotiations set to heat up, that is a huge selling point for MLS.

And then there's this: The last game of the MLS season, which is nationally televised, takes place at the raucous CenturyLink Field, with Dempsey's Sounders hosting Donovan's Galaxy and Western Conference playoff berths or positioning potentially on the line just weeks after the USA should have punched its ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Getcha popcorn ready.

2. Not to be overlooked... Dempsey's shock signing capped off what was already a landmark week for the league.

MLS commissioner Don Garber stole all the headlines from the MLS All-Star Game with his halftime announcement that four new franchises after New York City FC would be welcomed into the league by 2020. Whether you are on the side of the fence that feels that too much expansion is not a good thing for the league or the side the feels that more is better in this case, the fact that a 24-team MLS will take shape in the next seven years is a massive development, one with long-reaching consequences for different pockets of the country.

Completely buried by all of that is that the Columbus Crew sold for a reported $68 million, injecting new life into one of the league's most successful, yet stagnant, franchises. New ownership has completely turned around one of the Hunt Sports Group's former clubs in Sporting Kansas City, and if Anthony Precourt of Precourt Sports Ventures can come even close to having a similar impact to that of which Robb Heineman and his staff have with Sporting KC, then Columbus may once again thrive as an MLS club and city. With further expansion and the rising costs of doing business in MLS, the league's growth plan continues to be on track. Players, especially after seeing the deal doled out for Dempsey, will be hoping for a bigger piece of the pie once the new collective bargaining agreement discussions commence. The current agreement is in place until the end of next season.

3. Rocky Mountain rules. There is not a team in the league flying more under the radar at the moment than the Colorado Rapids. Maybe it is because Colorado's games are rarely nationally televised, or maybe it is because the Rapids are not going out and acquiring the likes of Clint Dempsey, but Oscar Pareja's charges have a league-best seven-game unbeaten streak and managed to capture the Rocky Mountain Cup -- the annual battle for a trophy between the Rapids and Real Salt Lake -- for the first time since 2006.

The Rapids' standing as the second-place team in the Western Conference behind RSL is a bit misleading, considering they are level on points with Portland and two points clear of LA and Vancouver while playing two more games than all of those teams. Even so, to overcome all of the injuries that Colorado had up and down its roster in the previous months and to be where the club currently is says wonders about Pareja and the job he has done.

The only team to which Colorado is looking up, rival RSL, stemmed the tide through a rough Gold Cup stretch in which four premiere players were on international duty. Yet there is Jason Kreis' side, sitting in first place no matter who suits up in the claret and cobalt. Prior to the LA Galaxy's ongoing reign, the MLS Cup trophy made its home in the Rocky Mountains for two years, with RSL and Colorado capturing the 2009 and 2010 titles, respectively. From the looks of things, both have serious intentions of returning to the mountaintop.

4. D.C. United's next generation shines. D.C. United's last couple of months have signified a youth movement in the nation's capital, with the acquisitions of young American talent like Luis Silva, Jared Jeffrey and Conor Doyle giving hope and promise for the future after some seriously dark days at RFK Stadium.

In three league games, Silva has scored three goals, which gives him the team lead (well, ties him with Own Goal anyway). While that might be as damning of a statement about the club's last five months on the field, it is also an indication of prudent business by general manager Dave Kasper to pluck the talented attacker from Toronto FC and former D.C. president Kevin Payne and put him in a place where he can reach his potential.

Jeffrey has long had the potential of a U.S. international, and the 2012 U.S. U-23 midfielder is getting a chance to play first-team minutes at long last. The same can be said for Doyle, who passed on a collegiate career at Creighton to sign with Derby County, only to ride the bench or play with the reserves for the majority of his time in England. He is only on loan through the remainder of the season, but if D.C. can secure a permanent deal for the U.S. youth international, it will have found a legitimate building block up front instead of continuing to swing and miss in the international market.

Silva, Jeffrey and Doyle all scored in the club's watershed day of its league campaign, a 3-1 victory over Montreal in which D.C. looked like the more dangerous team throughout. With the new nucleus taking shape, as a U.S. Open Cup semifinal game looms on Wednesday in Chicago and a new stadium seems legitimately likely, those hopeless moments in D.C. are finally appearing to subside.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC), James Riley (D.C. United)

Midfielders: Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls), Luis Silva (D.C. United), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)

Forwards: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)

Week 23 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Old Rank Team
1 4 New York Red Bulls (11-7-5)
All the Red Bulls have done in three of their last four games is beat the three other teams with the best records in the league, including Saturday's win in Blue Hell -- a 3-2 triumph over Sporting Kansas City. SKC may have been without Graham Zusi, but the Red Bulls coped just fine without the injured Tim Cahill, and Mike Petke's side delivered a statement victory to claim first place in the Eastern Conference.
2 2 Real Salt Lake (11-6-4)
RSL has Nick Rimando to thank for salvaging a point against rival Colorado, as he came up time and again with highlight-reel saves to preserve the 2-2 draw and keep RSL atop the Western Conference. The club shares the top spot in the Supporters' Shield standings, though, and has not won in its last three games. Having the likes of Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran back from USA duty should help rectify that issue going forward, though a daunting stretch against Houston, LA and Portland awaits.
3 3 Portland Timbers (8-3-11)
With just three losses, Portland has by far the fewest setbacks in the league, but the Timbers are suddenly struggling to lock down three-point hauls. Caleb Porter's side has won just twice in its last seven games, and it still has only managed to string together consecutive victories on one occasion this season. As part of their league-high 11 draws, Portland has played to a tie in all three of its Cascadia Cup games thus far.
4 12 Colorado Rapids (9-7-8)
Colorado boasts the league's longest unbeaten streak, with its come-from-behind draw with Real Salt Lake extending its run to seven games. The club's leading scorer last season, Jaime Castrillon, picked an opportune time to net his first goal of the season, as his 70th-minute equalizer clinched the Rocky Mountain Cup for Colorado for the first time in seven years.
5 1 Sporting Kansas City (10-7-6)
Consecutive league losses have quieted the All-Star Game fever surrounding Sporting KC and knocked the club out of the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference. Despite all of the starpower in the attack, young forwards continue to contribute. Following in Soony Saad's footsteps, Dom Dwyer scored his first MLS goal after a prolific stretch on loan in USL PRO to give the club a chance in the waning moments against New York.
6 7 Los Angeles Galaxy (10-9-3)
The Galaxy had the week off in league play to turn its focus to the Guinness International Champions Cup, where it lost to Real Madrid but came back with a spirited showing in a win over Juventus. More importantly, is that Robbie Keane returned to the field after his hip injury, and the Keane-Omar Gonzalez-Landon Donovan nucleus teamed to thwart the two-time defending Serie A champions. With a DP slot open and just days remaining in the transfer window, will the Galaxy answer Seattle's Dempsey acquisition add any firepower for the stretch run?
7 6 Montreal Impact (10-6-5)
The Impact were outplayed in a 3-1 loss at bottom-feeding D.C. United, which is greater cause for concern now that the team has just one win in its last seven games. All of the early season productivity has given the Impact a solid margin for error, but it is one that continues to shrink with every subpar showing. The dip in form could not come at a worse time, too, with CONCACAF Champions League group matches on the docket starting Wednesday.
8 8 Houston Dynamo (9-6-6)
The Dynamo are unbeaten in four games after a promising showing against Columbus, with Oscar Boniek Garcia turning in perhaps his finest performance of the season in the 3-1 victory. Even more importantly, Will Bruin got on the board for the first time in almost three months, and his ability to score and take the pressure off midfield attackers and current complement Cam Weaver will go a long way in getting Houston to its peak form.
9 11 Seattle Sounders (9-7-4)
Don't look now, but the Sounders are unbeaten in three straight games, looked stellar in a 3-0 rout of FC Dallas and just acquired arguably the best American soccer player on the planet for the stretch run. The lengthy MLS season is quite forgiving to talented teams that need to either overcome injuries or just require time to get to their best form, and that certainly looks to be playing into the favor of the Sounders, who quietly have the third-highest points-per-game in the Western Conference.
10 9 Philadelphia Union (9-7-7)
The Union had a golden chance to create a bit of separation in the Eastern Conference playoff race but failed to come through at home against Chicago, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat. On the plus side, with his assist to Sheanon Williams for the Union's goal, Sebastien Le Toux became the first player to enter double digits in helpers this season, notching his league-high 10th. That is one short of his career-high, which he set in Philadelphia in 2010.
11 5 Vancouver Whitecaps (9-7-6)
The Whitecaps are winless in three after Saturday night's physical 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers in a Cascadia Cup bout. Jordan Harvey's goal-scoring exploits have quietly helped save the Whitecaps this summer, with all of his career-high four goals coming at opportune times and the club being 3-0-1 when he scores. Of note, too, is that David Ousted made his debut in goal for the shorthanded side.
12 13 Chicago Fire (8-9-4)
Mike Magee's MVP candidacy is in full effect, with his latest goal giving him the league lead at 14 (and tied for the most game-winning goals with five) and helping the Fire to a crucial 2-1 road win over the Philadelphia Union to make the Eastern Conference race even tighter. Chicago, which had just two wins in its first 11 games, has six wins in its last 10 matches and is fully in the seven-team mix in the tightly contested conference.
13 15 San Jose Earthquakes (8-9-6)
The Earthquakes have won three in a row following their latest triumph, getting a brace from Chris Wondolowski to turn back Chivas USA 2-0. Also, Clarence Goodson and Jaime Alas made their debuts for the club, which could not be hitting its stride at a better time. CONCACAF Champions League play commences Wednesday, with the Earthquakes facing an Impact side that is a bit down on its luck.
14 10 FC Dallas (8-6-8)
Remember the team that started off the season as the hottest in MLS? Seems like quite a long time ago that FCD was running the show, and after another defeat, one that extended the club's winless streak to nine games, Schellas Hyndman's side is grasping for air and on the outside of the playoff race looking in. A 6-1-1 start has given way to a 2-5-7 rut, and it doesn't get much easier with consecutive games against the Galaxy and Timbers next on the docket.
15 14 New England Revolution (8-8-6)
It just wasn't Diego Fagundez's night Sunday. The 18-year-old sensation was robbed of scoring by two goal-line clearances and had a number of other chances go begging, as the Revs folded at home against Toronto FC despite carrying the majority of the action. The goal the club conceded was extremely avoidable as well, with Jose Goncalves attempting to dribble forward too much, conceding possession in an awful part of the field and leaving Stephen McCarthy exposed in a 1-on-1 situation with goal scorer Matias Laba.
16 16 Columbus Crew (6-11-5)
The Crew being sold for a reported $68 million is great news for the franchise, but it certainly looks like the new funds will be more handy for the future and not the present after another disappointing result has the club just three points clear of Trillium Cup rival Toronto FC. Columbus is in the midst of its second three-game losing streak in the last six weeks, and it will have to get a result against first-place New York to prevent that streak from stretching to a season-worst four games.
17 18 Toronto FC (4-10-8)
The Reds notched back-to-back wins for the first time all season, riding an early goal from Matias Laba and rare defensive cohesiveness to a 1-0 win over New England. Joe Bendik turned in more heroics in goal, getting help with goal-line clearances from Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan, to keep the Revs at bay. Toronto's reward for showing signs of life? Potentially being Clint Dempsey's first opponent on his comeback to MLS this weekend.
18 19 D.C. United (3-15-4)
D.C. turned in its best performance of the season, taking the action to Montreal, not fretting after conceding an equalizer and walking away from RFK Stadium with a 3-1 victory over the Impact. The confidence boost comes at the perfect juncture, with a U.S. Open Cup semifinal match looming on Wednesday. Considering all of the club's failures in league play, advancing to an Open Cup final would surely put a positive twist on an otherwise lost campaign.
19 17 Chivas USA (4-13-5)
Erick Torres' two-game goal streak is over, Carlos Bocanegra was sent off and the Goats fell again, dropping a 2-0 result to San Jose and cementing its place as the only team in the Western Conference without a realistic shot at making a run to the playoffs. Chivas trails eighth-place San Jose by 13 points, and with no first-round draft pick next season, toiling in the lower echelon of the standings won't have any real benefit to the club going forward.
 

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