1. The annual fall frustration rises at MLS HQ: About this time every year, a nasty little late-summer bug starts upsetting tummies around MLS headquarters.
Football takes over across America. American football, that is. And it becomes almost impossible for MLS to elbow its way into the media scrum. So Major League Soccer becomes the proverbial last player picked for the sandlot game in light of the behemoths that are pro and college football. In some markets there's even high school football to gobble up inches in newspapers, segments on sports talk radio and precious seconds on the myriad TV highlight shows. Don't forget there's still plenty of baseball news to chew on as playoffs approach, and NBA teams are about to load into camp.
The chiefs around MLS surely see all this, but they still wince and want to know: "Why isn't anyone talking about us?" (Something they had better darn well remember the next time talk rises of alignment with the FIFA calendar, a move that would absolutely bury the start of every MLS season beneath an all-too-predictable avalanche of sports news elsewhere.)
And that, friends, is why Friday's Galaxy-Red Bulls contest is being given the MLS Cup treatment by the league office. The hype on this one coming out of New York has been absolutely unstoppable.
Lead line in the official game preview on Major League Soccer's Web site: "In what is perhaps the biggest regular-season game in years ... "
Really? Hmmm. Someone probably needs to tap the breaks a bit on the hyperbole.
Fact is, it should be fun to watch with four designated players scampering about for the sold-out contest. But just because The Man tells you it's important, that doesn't make it so. From a practical standpoint, there's really not much at stake.
Yes, the Supporters Shield remains in play for Los Angeles. So is playoff positioning. And the Red Bulls may peak over their shoulder a bit as Kansas City gains speed in Eastern Conference pursuit, but the threat just isn't severe at the moment.
If you pull the four available designated players off the field (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Juan Pablo Angel and Rafa Marquez -- minus the injured Thierry Henry), we're left with a match that has no more hardware implications than three other MLS contests in Round 26.
So what is likely to happen Friday at the Home Depot Center? Before you make your pick, consider that Bruce Arena's team will be without both starting center backs. (Gregg Berhalter returned to practice this week, having finally beaten the stomach bug that kept him out for weeks, and Omar Gonzalez is serving a suspension.) As a result, starting center backs Leonardo and Yohance Marshall (a pair with a combined 10 career MLS starts) will have to deal with Angel and a right winger in the form of his life, Dane Richards.
And don't expect Red Bulls coach Hans Backe to forget that Beckham, still not moving well, can't help much on defense. The former England captain figures to get about 45 minutes in his third MLS appearance this year (although Arena hasn't ruled out a start). Teams will start making Beckham prove he can put in the midfield work -- and it will probably start Friday.
2. Two MLS sides well-positioned in Champions League: Recent history has taught us that MLS is doing well to get half its entries past CONCACAF Champions League group stage.
Sure enough, unless something silly happens over the final two rounds of group play (which ends Oct. 21), two MLS sides will go through and two others ... well, they'll have to get 'em next year.
Columbus and Real Salt Lake are all but assured berths. Toronto is still alive and does have two home matches remaining, but there's lot's of work ahead to chase down Cruz Azul and Mexican soccer's Man of the Moment, Javier Orozco. Seattle (four matches, four losses) has been officially eliminated.
For MLS, this is actually a little better than a year ago when just one of three sides escaped group play. A year before that, one of two advanced.
Remember, one MLS side was eliminated from this year's tournament before the 16-team group phase; Los Angeles suffered that ugly loss at home and couldn't make up the deficit in the return leg at the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Expect all this to become additional evidence for the proponents of MLS roster expansion. An increase to 30-man rosters seems to be in the works, although that still needs owner approval. Hard to argue the point, too.
MLS teams are obviously stretched. The talent quotient falls off rather severely past the first 12-14 roster spots. The drop isn't as precipitous on the Mexican sides. Teams from south of the border are forced to reach into their benches, too, to accommodate busy fall campaigns. It just doesn't hammer the Mexican clubs like it does the teams from MLS.
3. Speaking of Mexican teams ...: Whereas MLS sides are typically no better than a coin toss to get past group play, Mexican clubs are right in their usual comfort zone, kings of the CCL hill. All four Mexican teams (Cruz Azul, Santos, Monterrey and Toluca) reside in first or second place.
That's nothing unusual. If the Mexican teams hold on, this will mark a third consecutive year that all four sides safely traversed group play. So, since the tournament adopted its current name and format three years ago, they will be 12-for-12.
Monterrey can't be stopped in any competition these days, unbeaten over eight league matches and four CCL contests, including this week's comeback win over Seattle. But the name on everyone's lips plays south of Monterrey in Mexico City. Cruz Azul's Orozco leads all CCL scorers with 10 goals. Orozco, 22, earned his first cap for Mexico only earlier this month against Ecuador. He has six goals in the Cementeros' Mexican Primera Division campaign to go with his prolific striking (including three hat tricks) in the team's Champions League matches.
4. Disappearing leads: No margin is seemingly safe when it comes to this MLS jinx south of the border. First, Real Salt Lake blew a two-goal lead in Mexico a month ago. And it was ugly. Just when it looked certain beyond most reasonable doubt that an MLS side would finally -- 15 years in, mind you! -- win a competitive match there, the night unraveled spectacularly.
The driving rain and lots of splashy puddles set a properly bizarre backdrop for a result that was just this side of inconceivable. Real Salt Lake took a 3-1 lead against Cruz Azul into the 75th minute but managed to lose 5-4.
Move ahead to Wednesday, when Seattle somehow frittered away a 2-0 lead that it held in the 74th minute. In a dizzying four minutes against Mexico's Monterrey, Seattle's outrageously poor defending allowed Monterrey to slip in three goals in a 3-2 result at Estadio Tecnologico.
The situation was a little different, at least, with Seattle. Coach Sigi Schmid's Sounders went into Wednesday's match with little hope of advancing past the group stage anyway. The Sounders' lineup choices reflected as much, as Schmid fielded a team of almost entirely reserves.
5. Sounders loss, Sounders gain: Seattle's loss is probably a blessing in disguise; the Sounders have plenty on their plates. In fact, the job ahead in MLS just got tougher -- and not just because of Wednesday's events in Monterrey.
A few hundred miles north of there about the same time, Kansas City was manufacturing its own improbable comeback, rallying from a 3-1 deficit and finishing the memorable night at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Josh Wolff's header deep in stoppage time. The heart-stopping 4-3 victory moved Kansas City to within three points of Seattle for the final MLS playoff spot. And the Wizards have a game in hand, which is sure to make Sounders fans squirm even more.
Plus, the Sounders have their Oct. 5 U.S. Open Cup title defense to think about. They'll still have two more CCL contests, but you can count on seeing more of those less familiar names as they run out the Champions League string. The ability to rest those starters and focus on the next few MLS contests and the Open Cup final is sure to help.
Dallas at Kansas City (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET): Can K.C. be this year's Dallas? The Red Stripes looked dead and buried with 6-8 weeks left last year, but made things exciting with a mighty run down the stretch. Peter Vermes' Wizards are 5-1-2 since ambushing Manchester United in a friendly in late July, and sit just three points back of Seattle for the final playoff spot. Dallas, meanwhile, missing a slew of starters because of injury, manages to keep grinding out results, now unbeaten in 16 matches.
Seattle at Chicago (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET): Didn't we just see former Sounder Freddie Ljungberg go up against his old team? Yeah, we sure did. Just four weeks ago! Oh, well, sometimes the quirky MLS scheduling works for us, because this one should be a doozy. The Sounders hold the final playoff berth. Since Chicago is among the teams hoping to steal that spot, this one is a true "six-pointer," one Chicago needs badly. Time for Ljungberg to earn some of that DP dough.
Colorado at Real Salt Lake (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET): L.A. has clinched a playoff spot and RSL can join the Galaxy with a win here (or even with a tie depending on other results). It won't be easy as the sides scrap for the Rocky Mountain Cup. It is "Advantage, RSL," however. Gary Smith's Rapids have been money at home lately but they aren't great shakes on the road. And Real Salt Lake hasn't lost at Rio Tinto since the spring of 2009, including a 10-0-3 record and a staggering plus-22 goal difference this year.