By Steve Davis
August 27, 2010

Anyone around MLS for the last few years, from coaches to players to paying customers, can tell you how appreciably the overall quality of play has improved. The collective standard, measurably better than five years ago, is virtually unrecognizable compared to most matches from the late 1990s.

Some of the improvement is simply about better players, of course. Some is about strong coaching links all along the domestic soccer chain, which is producing superior young talent. Plus, the organizations that make up MLS are just figuring things out, settling on best practices for this and that.

But much of the improved standard is down to something else: Some of it is just "math." Here's the important number involved: 16.

That's how many teams are competing for eight playoff spots. By next year, that figure will rise to 18 as Portland and Vancouver come aboard (probably with packed houses, a la Seattle). Simply put, it's harder to make the playoffs now, and that's bumping up the standard for everything about the league

This weekend tells you everything you need to know. August has usually been something of a wasteland in MLS. The energy of the early season is kaput, and the playoff stretch has yet to commence in earnest. Particularly damaging to the August product was a forgiving playoff structure. Just three years ago, there were only 14 teams competing for eight playoff spots. Five years ago, there were but 12 sides. In 2004, only 10 teams filled out the league roster. Imagine that: An entire, seven-month regular season just to eliminate two clubs. Precious few matches could be earnestly labeled "vital." And certainly none in August.

But those days of competitive leniency are mercifully over -- even if it took a little while for the previous mind-set to completely evaporate. Even a couple of years ago, as the percentage of teams booking postseason passage shrank, too many contests weren't so bitterly contested in August. By late September, as the desperation and realization kicked in? Yes. But not in August.

Now everyone gets it. Or so it seems. We're past only the two-thirds mark of the regular season but desperation fills the grounds. Three teams, D.C. United, Philadelphia and Chivas USA, are all but mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. In August! (The regular season goes through Oct. 24.)

Rarely have teams truly been out of contention in August. But more players seem to get it now: Every game really does count. It's no longer just something the players say. Those at the bottom of the standings have been scrappy through August, making life difficult on the opposition -- which makes everyone better and creates more intense matches.

FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, whose team is unbeaten in 11 matches, talked Thursday about FCD's three recent matches against weaker teams. People don't realize, he said, how hard his players had to work two weeks ago to squeeze by a D.C. United side desperate to put things right.

That kind of true intensity, week in, week out, makes everyone better. Look at Houston. Dominic Kinnear's men haven't missed the playoffs since moving to South Texas in 2006. They are within a whisker of joining the "we'll get 'em next year" bunch, too far behind to make up the ground. Last weekend's squeaker over Chicago kept them on life support for now. The Dynamo simply must be at their best the rest of the way or they'll be left behind. That knowledge, that awareness of their precarious place, will make practices even better this week. It will make Saturday's game at Colorado the central focus of their lives in a way it might not have been four or five years ago.

You hear about so-called "six-pointers"? The term gets a bit overused, but Saturday's game certainly will be for Kinnear and Co. The Rapids are a team Houston can still possibly catch. Claim the three points, swipe a potential three from Colorado and the Dynamo players surely have done themselves a solid. A six-point solid.

Same for New England, where Steve Nicol's lunch-pail bunch has not missed the playoffs since 2001. But the Revs, punchless of offense and suddenly, atypically perplexed about preferred defensive shape, will struggle to get in this year. That won't sit will with anyone around Gillette Stadium. Presumably, they'll work even harder in the offseason to identify new talent and then spend a little more to improve the roster. That should make New England better. Other teams will be forced to respond somehow, if not through spending then through better youth development systems or smarter scouting. Some teams are adding fitness coaches to improve conditioning and reduce injuries. And on it goes.

There wasn't always sufficient incentive to really push for improvements in previous years. Why expand the scouting budget or hire more coaches, etc., when your side is making the playoffs regularly as it is?

Oh, and if Houston and New England and anyone else look at things over the next two or three weeks and determine they are out of the playoffs, they'll make lineup and personnel decisions in September that will better the cause for 2011. That never happened before in MLS in September.

Ironically, some media analysts and fans worried that hurried expansion (the league will go from 10 teams to 18 in seven years) would dilute quality. That simply hasn't happened. First, there's literally a world of talent out there to be had. And adding all that hyped, high-end talent in the designated player initiative makes the surrounding talent that much better.

But mostly, it's this relevant math that should silence any alarm bells over quick expansion. Next year, for the first time, more teams will miss the playoffs than make. (That's assuming the postseason structure remains the same, and there seems to be little sentiment to hand out more than eight invitations.)

I once talked to Houston veteran Richard Mulrooney about the playoffs, and he compared them to the last few minutes of regular-season matches. "You can see that desperation. You can see how the team that's behind is pressing so hard to score. That's how an entire playoff game is over 90 minutes."

I remember thinking: When MLS games from front to back, from April to October, are like that, this will be a different product. Everything about MLS will improve dramatically.

I'm seeing that more and more in MLS now -- that desperation and pressure that squeezes the best from every player, from every team. More importantly, I'm seeing it in August. And the domestic game is wearing it well.

Dallas at Columbus (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET): Two of the league's top playmakers meet at Crew Stadium. Dallas' David Ferreira hopes to protect his team's 11-game unbeaten streak. Plus, Dallas needs a win or draw to establish the league record for consecutive unbeaten road games (the club has 10). Meanwhile, Guillermo Barros Schelotto wants to help improve the Crew's positioning for the Supporters Shield (currently second behind L.A.). And those pesky Red Bulls are lurking, taking aim at Columbus' East Coast leadership.

Real Salt Lake at Toronto (Saturday, 7 p.m.): Toronto must overcome the disappointment of a midweek Champions League road loss to Panama's Arabe Unido. Real Salt Lake must overcome a midweek Champions League loss to Mexico's Cruz Azul in one of the wildest, wettest, most ridiculous matches you'll see. No time to feel sorry for themselves, however. Both sides seem a little vulnerable at the moment; we'll see what they are made of.

San Jose at New York (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.):Thierry Henry has been a live wire for the Red Bulls, alight with sharp passing and ideas in the final third. But a goal would be nice, eh? He's come close, but who would have thought holding midfielder Rafa Marquez would score before the famous Frenchman? Meanwhile, the Earthquakes' new DP, Brazilian playmaker Geovanni, will make his second appearance for the Bay Area bunch. Three DPs against one? Get used to it in the new MLS, which will look increasingly two-tiered in its salary spending.

Houston at Colorado (Saturday, 9:30 p.m.): The Dynamo probably need six wins, maybe even seven, in their final nine matches to protect that cherished playoff streak. With just four home games remaining, they'll simply have to improve on that 1-7-2 road record (and unsightly minus-12 goal difference). Look for a low-scoring, grimy, defensive standoff in this one. Besides both teams thinking defensively in a match they believe they can have, games at DSG Park have produced the second-fewest goals in MLS, just 18 in nine matches.

Chicago at Seattle (Saturday, 10:30 p.m.): Welcome home, Freddie Ljungberg! You know where all the cool spots are around Qwest Field, right? You spent almost two years with the Sounders. They were mostly happy times, yeah? Funny thing is, the team has improved since you left. And you seem more peppy in Chicago. Hmmm. Weird. Anyway, the Sounders have lost two matches in a row, although both were in CONCACAF Champions League. They are unbeaten in six MLS matches, riding Fredy Montero's splendid form and young Sanna Nyassi's surge. Chicago is still trying to figure out what it has in Mexican attacker Nery Castillo, who looks unfit and (so far) unable to fulfill the bill as an impact DP. In a late twist, he apparently won't even travel West with the team this week.

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