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Playmakers shine in Week 20 as MLS gears for busy final stretch

1. Big week for the playmakers: Week 20 was jam-packed with nine matches. And the league's playmaking midfielders were walking tall throughout the contests.

So is it strange, then, that this round came and went as one of the skinniest ones yet in terms of scoring. Five matches finished 1-0. Two others were 1-1. Only one match, in fact, produced more than two goals.

In the weekend's high-profile encounter, the Galaxy's Juninho made the magic happen. The young Brazilian, so frequently obscured by more heralded types around him, brilliantly fed teammate Edson Buddle in the 1-0 win over New York.

FC Dallas offensive engine David Ferreira hustled into position to score against the run of play and knock the breath from D.C. United, which had done well at that point. Ferreira then collected his seventh assist this year as rookie Eric Alexander struck from 20 yards.

Seattle's Fredy Montero couldn't do enough against Chivas USA in a 0-0 draw in Southern California late Saturday night. That marks the first time in 10 matches that he didn't have either a goal or an assist for his side, which remains on a six-game unbeaten streak. But he was still involved in almost every effective Seattle attack. He's in such a great place right now, holding the ball when needed, running at players, fighting through challenges confidently rather than going to the ground.

(The only thing Montero doesn't seem to have at the moment is enough chemistry with Blaise Nkufo, Seattle's new Swiss international.)

Newly signed Jamaican Khari Stephenson played at the top of the diamond for Frank Yallop's Earthquakes, giving them exactly what's been missing since Andre Luiz's injury absence: a little more offensive punch from the center of the park. Chris Wondolowski was clinical on the end of one Stephenson pass in a 1-0 win over Kansas City.

"There's more to him than we saw tonight," Yallop said of Stephenson to reporters, "but what we saw tonight was a clean player."

Finally, Real Salt Lake playmaker Javier Morales put on the weekend's best show. He dominated the midfield as Real Salt Lake -- motivated by some words the team considered disrespectful from Crew mouths earlier this year -- beat Columbus 2-0 in a meeting of the last two league champs.

When he wasn't arranging RSL's tidy possession, he was striking great goals. Morales' first was especially beautiful, a long-range shot inside the far post when Columbus fell asleep defensively. Later, his free kick was perfectly placed to beat Crew 'keeper William Hesmer. It should be noted that Hesmer just isn't what he used to be.

Morales hasn't officially been named MLS Player of the Week. But the engravers can probably feel OK about getting a head start on this one.

2. How the Galaxy got their groove back: The New York Red Bulls seemed oddly satisfied with a 1-0 loss at home in the high-profile, high-intensity meeting with the Galaxy.

The Red Bulls weren't especially bad -- outside of Rafa Marquez, who paid dearly for his sloppiest moment. Marquez looked nothing like he did a week earlier, the toll of a midweek friendly in Mexico too much to overcome, apparently, as he had a terrible night. However, he'll be fine; Marquez certainly didn't "lose it" in the last week. Incidentally, the Red Bulls did have a pretty good central midfielder Saturday -- his name was Tony Tchani, a rookie who is developing nicely.

Thierry Henry, who has become the Red Bulls' playmaker as he works the withdrawn forward channels, had a penalty kick appeal waved off by referee Mark Geiger. (Henry probably didn't help himself with a dive attempt in the midweek win over Toronto.) So he and Juan Pablo Angel weren't bad, aside from being offside way too often.

Red Bulls winger Dane Richards seems to enjoy having Marquez and Henry around. He gave Los Angeles left back A.J. DeLaGarza all he could handle. So it's probably understandable if the loss wasn't the end of the world for New York.

On the other side, Los Angeles shook off some recent flimsy performances, turning up a classic Galaxy win under Bruce Arena (who took ill but watched Saturday's match from upstairs). L.A. pounced ruthlessly on a mistake, hit nicely on the counter, was solid in the back the rest of the way and boogied back to California with all the points.

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Juninho, who seems to figure out a little more about the league each week, was strong. And Landon Donovan wasn't at his best, but he did help Juninho and the reliable Chris Birchall run the midfield.

3. Busy days ahead: SuperLiga can turn into a minor distraction for MLS sides, but at least they get to play in the States. The U.S. Open Cup may be a nuisance depending on how teams approach it. But this CONCACAF Champions League business can throw up a serious roadblock toward league progress if not managed carefully.

Four MLS sides begin group play this week in the regional tournament. So in addition to the final third of the long MLS campaign, Real Salt Lake, Columbus, Seattle and Toronto face six Champions League tests over the next two months. And there are some serious frequent flier miles involved.

Seattle will travel to Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico, with a contest in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula up this week. Columbus' upcoming itinerary includes stops in Trinidad, Mexico and Panama. RSL and Toronto have it easy by comparison, with visits to Mexico City and Panama in addition to facing one another.

If an MLS team or two doesn't get out of group play -- and only Columbus did last year -- it will be add yet another talking point as important discussions move forward on roster sizes and reserve leagues.

Meanwhile, the best MLS teams can do for now is rotate the lineup, leaning on some reserves. RSL had six starters on the bench for the midweek tie at Philadelphia. It worked, as the side looked fresh for Saturday's win over Columbus.

"All of these games are going to affect every decision," RSL coach Jason Kreis said Saturday. "Talking to quite a few of the guys last week, we made the decision to rest a bunch of them."

Kreis was also surprised at how receptive they were to the notion. No sales job involved, he said, as they realized how important Champions League could be to the club.

4. Philly playoff hopes all but gone: Philadelphia's chances to do what Seattle did last year -- find a way into the playoffs as an expansion side -- are sinking into the Delaware River, right there behind The River End at PPL Park.

About a month ago, Peter Nowak's team seemed to have a real shot. Not a fantastic chance, but a reasonable one. With the bulk of home games still to be played, and with Sebastien Le Toux scoring and setting up important goals, it really did look like a couple of wins would have Philly nipping at the second-tier teams in the East.

But ties at home recently against New England and Real Salt Lake, along with a loss at Columbus, made Saturday's contest an absolute must-have. Le Toux set up another one, with talented rookie Danny Mwanga slipping in his seventh goal this year. But that was just the equalizer as the Union, once again, could manage only a draw. That means Nowak's men have taken just three of a possible 12 points from a foursome of home matches over the last three weeks. Cue the somber music. Maybe you'll get 'em next year.

On the other hand, speaking of next year, Saturday's game finished for Philly with 18-year-old Jack McInerney, 19-year-old Roger Torres and the 19-year-old Mwanga all on the field. That's a lot of "good" and a lot of "young."

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas)

Defenders: Omar Gonzales (L.A. Galaxy), Jeff Parke (Seattle), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake).

Midfielders: Nathan Sturgis (Seattle), Khari Stephenson (San Jose), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Juninho (L.A. Galaxy), Brek Shea (DC Dallas).

Forwards: Edson Buddle (L.A. Galaxy), Danny Mwanga (Philadelphia).