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Playoff contenders falter badly; MLS coaching power rankings

1. Who is watering down the punch at the party? Some teams are seriously killing the buzz for us, tamping down enthusiasm on what should be a crackerjack of a playoff race. You know who you are.

Several sides just couldn't rise to the occasion in Round 24. We're looking at you, Chicago. And New England.

And Toronto -- Lordy, Lordy, what do you have to say for yourself after that one?

Seattle couldn't make any hay at home, but at least the Sounders are among the lucky eight that would be in if the playoffs were today. Plus, Sigi Schmid's team was facing high-flying Real Salt Lake. So perhaps the Sounders' sin, a scoreless and not very pretty draw at home, wasn't as grievous an offense. Same for San Jose, which mustered a point in a (marginally disappointing) scoreless draw at home against Dallas, which just keeps grinding out results.

Chicago, New England and Toronto all had chances to put some pressure on the "in" crowd, to close the gap, and were all nicely set up against teams below them in the standings.

But after a weekend where the pursuers just couldn't make up ground, we're getting closer to a finish that could fall flat. As it is, there are five teams sitting comfortably and three others keeping a relatively safe distance on the peloton. If this keeps up, the dash to the finish won't be worth watching outside of the quest for the Supporters Shield and a slight interest in positioning.

There was talk of urgency around Chicago as Carlos de los Cobos' team visited the Union. However, the Fire just didn't have much. Of anything. Just five shots in the 1-0 loss? (Philly, by the way, needed 22 matches to post the franchise's first shutout. That's probably not the way coach Peter Nowak thought up the season script in his head during the preseason.)

That was the Fire's second swing and miss of the week. Chicago had a chance to make up serious ground with a two-fer, a midweek home date against weary Toronto (drawing 0-0) before the visit to Philly. Chicago is 2-2-3 since Aug. 1, going down a little too gently in this fight.

New England's offense was similarly staid in a visit to Chivas USA. Revs coach Steve Nicol said they made it way "too easy" for the Goats, handing over possession thoughtlessly. New England is just bailing water at this point, not looking like a side that has the offensive vim and vigor to mount a serious challenge. (Kudos, on the other hand, to the men of Chivas USA for doing their part to keep things interesting at, at least.)

Seattle clearly missed Blaise Nkufo, who demonstrated in his absence how a team that likes to play into a target man is severely hamstrung when there isn't a good target man at the park.

And what can you say about Toronto, other than just to shake your head? Actually here's what ...

2. Tired in Toronto: The club's season is starting to resemble a bell curve. And that's not good.

Toronto started slowly under new coach Preki (No. 4 in four years if you're counting). But the curve of success rose appreciably through May and the side held fairly firm through most of the late spring and summer, arranging what appeared to be an inviting set-up for the stretch run. It looked like Toronto might finally bust the playoff seal.

But Preki's side is 1-5-2 in all competitions lately, trending back downward while simply not getting enough from designed players Mista and Julian de Guzman. The crusher was Saturday's 1-0 loss at home to D.C. United, the league's worst team. And it wasn't really close; poor finishing kept plucky United from claiming a wider margin.

You'd have thought Preki, a perennially coiled presence anyway, would have been utterly apoplectic. Rather, he calmly lamented the wretched performance, blaming it on a schedule packed with travel and matches. He said his players tried hard but were simply too tuckered to make the magic happen.

So TFC may soon establish some dubious marks in its fourth year. No team in MLS has ever needed more than four seasons to reach the playoffs. Real Salt Lake got there on its fourth go-round. (Remember, 10 teams started at the same time back in 1996.)

Plus, only one club has previously missed the playoffs four years running, the San Jose Earthquakes from 1997-2000. Yes, missing out for four consecutive years was a bigger sin back in the day because of the insufferably forgiving playoff structure. (The tougher playoff structure of today remains fairly lenient, but it can now be marked as "tolerably forgiving," at least.) But even so, a franchise doesn't want to hang its hat on this kind of dubious record.

Preki's men can still make it but they'll need to seriously mash the pedal -- and hope that Seattle, San Jose or Colorado stumbles along the way. Otherwise, if everyone just holds serve, the playoff field may already be set. And Toronto isn't part of it. Again.

3. The case of the missing PKs: We saw another low-scoring weekend in MLS, with three nil-nil draws and two other matches that finished 1-0. Part of the explanation for the dearth of goals can be filed under "penalty kick problems."

Simply put, if referees aren't going to have the courage to call the fouls they see, especially inside the 18, we can all expect more low-scoring matches.

Just ask Preki, who watched two handballs go uncalled at Chicago. One was debatable, at least. But what referee Ramon Hernandez could possibly have been thinking when he declined to call a clear handball near goal on Fire defender C.J. Brown, only he could say. Preki was so infuriated he swiped at a camera that moved in too close for his liking.

That proved just the early appetizer. New York rookie defender Tim Ream bulldozed Colorado's Omar Cummings inside the penalty area. That one, at least, probably wouldn't have made much difference, as the Red Bulls were in control all the way, clicking on offense and only troubled when the in-form Cummings got moving at speed.

In San Jose, a clumsy challenge from Dallas defender Kyle Davies on Bobby Convey could easily have supplied the Earthquakes a late, decisive penalty kick. At Chivas USA, Ante Jazic's handball in the area against New England was ignored. And on it goes.

MLS and U.S. Soccer simply must encourage referees to call the fouls they see. It's no more complicated than that.

Part II of "penalty kick problems" had nothing to do with the men in the middle. The last two penalty kicks taken in MLS have been saved. Interestingly, both were struck by members of the U.S. World Cup team. Landon Donovan had his effort saved well a week ago by Sean Johnson, Chicago's dandy rookie 'keeper. This week, Robbie Findley's unsatisfactory spot shot was easy pickings for Seattle's Kasey Keller.

4. The best two players you won't see in the playoffs: Barring a big charge, neither Chivas USA nor expansion Philadelphia will advance to the postseason. That's a darn shame, too, in one way.

Justin Braun (Chivas USA) and Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia) are having amazing seasons. And if their sides did manage to sneak into the playoffs, either one could be a serious heartbreaker and upset-maker.

Braun hit for a ninth time Friday night and has scored or assisted on almost half his team's goals (12 of 25). Bob Bradley is watching, rest assured.

Meanwhile, what else can you say about Le Toux's fantastic campaign? He hit for No. 11 in the Union's 1-0 win over Chicago. (You may not see it on the highlights, but he started the goal-scoring sequence with a great, early ball out of the back and across the field -- and then hustled into position for the quality, clever finish.)

Le Toux's scoring and playmaking are no accident. His work rate is nothing short of inspirational. He was a one-man force Saturday in Chester.

Le Toux has already secured a 10-10 season (at least 10 goals and 10 assists). Those aren't exactly rare in MLS, but they don't grow on cherry trees, either. There have been seven in MLS over the last five seasons.

Thing is, the 10-10 club is full of former and present MLS A-listers, names like Jaime Moreno, Landon Donovan and Amado Guevara. They were all guys who were in the yearly MVP conversations, and never surprisingly so.

But Le Toux is a guy who is toiling for an expansion side and is not even a striker. He has spent much of the season in midfield. And don't forget he was left unprotected 10 months ago by Seattle. It's a fantastic story -- it's just too bad that it's unlikely to be heard in the playoffs.

5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Brad Knighton (Philadelphia). Defenders: Heath Pearce (FC Dallas), Chris Leitch (San Jose), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Julius James (DC United). Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), Dema Kovalenko (L.A. Galaxy), Paulo Nagamura (Chivas USA), Juninho (L.A. Galaxy). Forwards: Alan Gordon (Chivas USA), Thierry Henry (New York).

It's a players' game. We hear that all the time. But it's up to the coaches to pick 'em. And to make 'em better. So here are the top 10 MLS coaches of 2010, based solely on how they've performed this year.

1. Hans Backe, New York Red Bulls: No one has come in and made something out of this wandering lot of a franchise. Not until Backe, that is. Yes, the pricey stars help a ton. But importantly, he had the side very well organized straight away, so the product could gain full speed once the big cats did arrive.

2. Schellas Hyndman, FC Dallas: It took a couple of years for the longtime college coach to figure out what kind of personnel could and couldn't cut it at this level. Now Dallas is unbeaten in 14 straight matches, having finally found its defensive footing in Hyndman's third year. The personnel moves have been far more "hit" than "miss" this year.

3. Jason Kreis, Real Salt Lake: It's true that the youngest manager to win an MLS crown didn't have much personnel rearranging to do this year. On the other hand, Kreis has made the side better and better (and quite enjoyable to watch). This team is clearly one of the league's best in 2010 after barely sneaking into the postseason a year ago.

4. Bruce Arena, Los Angeles Galaxy: You could argue that Arena's best work came a year ago, as he grinded away at the club's salary-cap issues through wise acquisitions. Still, 2010 has seen coaching achievement, too, as Arena has worked three young Brazilians into the rotation.

5. Gary Smith, Colorado: Getting Jeff Larentowicz to partner with Pablo Mastroeni was the offseason master stroke. The Rapids are solid and well-organized all over the field now, having been fortified over the last 12 months or so with economical, prudent personnel choices.

6. Peter Nowak, Philadelphia: The Union probably can't make the playoffs, but Nowak's team is stacked with young talent. And he's being careful to nurture the really good ones, not rushing them along before they are physically up for the long haul.

7. Robert Warzycha, Columbus: His achievement is in not losing the plot around Crew Stadium, where his job has been mostly about maintenance over the last two years. Then again, maintenance isn't always so simple; just ask a few others around MLS.

8. Frank Yallop, San Jose: No, they haven't exactly lit up the league. But the Earthquakes are in the thick of things despite a litany of injuries through the year. And grabbing Jon Busch off the scrap heap was pure genius, a move that's now paying major dividends.

9. Sigi Schmid, Seattle: The Sounders' 9-9-6 record is what it is, pretty mediocre. But credit the veteran MLS coach for making the difficult choice to jettison DP Freddie Ljungberg, finally conceding that the fleet Swede and Fredy Montero are best suited for the same spot and can't simultaneously flourish. Plus, the Sounders are a win away from defending their U.S. Open Cup crown.

10. Steve Nicol, New England: The Revs are likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001. But make no mistake, the longest-standing MLS coach is doing a respectable job, keeping the side competitive despite not having a whole bunch to work with relative to the current league leaders.