Five things we learned from Week 17:
1. Drawing an ugly picture. MLS is dealing with an epidemic of ties and, alas, this is a mess of the league's own making.
At the halfway pole, 67 MLS matches have finished level. That's just two off the league record for draws over an entire season (69 in 2009). More alarming are the real groan inducers: The dreaded scoreless ties that fuel the soccer bashers' tired invective is already an all-time league high. When San Jose and Philadelphia slogged their way to another 0-0 result over the weekend, the all-time high total climbed to 21 for the year.
So, what's going on? First, is something we've all talked about before, the injured playmakers. With players such as David Ferreira, Javier Morales and Steve Zakuani on crutches, the scoring has been reduced to a pitiful drip, which kicks up the odds of ties and scoreless ties.
The second explanation falls under "law of unintended consequences." By unwisely adding those two extra playoff berths for 2011, league owners have incentivized the cautionary approach of playing for ties. Teams that can drag themselves along, chipping away deliberately with a point here and a point there, keep a place in the playoff race, at least. So MLS at the moment is heavy on clubs that prioritize organization, pressure and players behind the ball over outright attacking. Too many coaches see that as their best stab at a playoff spot, and coaches that make the playoffs generally keep their jobs.
For example, watching Columbus isn't much fun, but Robert Warzycha's men dutifully grind out the results. They did it again in Round 17, striking late in a 1-0 win. Same for Philadelphia, where coach Peter Nowak keeps tinkering in efforts to get the attack going. (Meanwhile, they lead the East while scoring barely more than a goal a game.)
Lastly, sadly, we must drag the referees back into the street and beat on them some more. Too many referees continue to stubbornly refuse to administer the laws of the game. So the hacks and heavies prevail in MLS, which also serves to reduce scoring and add to the sum of draws.
Don't believe it? Go back and watch Saturday what referee Jasen Anno allowed Kansas City's Roger Espinoza to get away with against Chivas USA. Espinoza is guilty of three, perhaps four, tackles that were worth yellow, if not red. He finally saw yellow late in the match, despite having already administered a virtual checklist of potentially injurious tackles that deserved justice -- straight-legged tackle, cleats-up challenge and reckless lunge and a from-behind scissoring move. All these rogue ways strip away offensive sheen by ruining another attacking opportunity or by creating the very intimidation they aim toward. The match ended 1-1 (the 67th draw this year), which meant another contest dragging scoring totals in a season likely to set record lows.
2. Who had July 6 in Jeff Cunningham pool? Jeff Cunningham's big strike early in Round 17 didn't generate big news. Blame the late hour of a midweek match (it was in Vancouver.) Blame the ongoing Women's World Cup or Copa America, tournaments dominating the soccer headlines. Or, if we're being honest, you can cite the Crew striker's moody ways, which make him less lovable than D.C. United hero Jaime Moreno.
Regardless, Cunningham's late game-winner against the Whitecaps equaled Moreno's all-time MLS mark of 133 goals. It seems certain that Cunningham will soon fly solo with the record since Moreno is retired. Then again, it seemed certain that Cunningham would catch Moreno before July; he entered the season needing just one goal for the tie.
Saturday's strike was actually a double marker for the history books; his 63rd in a Crew shirt is now one better than Brian McBride, the club's former all-time co-leader.
Cunningham lamented the four-plus month drought that prolonged the chase. "It's been a lack of confidence a little bit," he said. "I didn't know when and how that goal was going to come but I'm pretty pleased the way it happened."
3. Juan Pablo Angel may suffice for now, but what about later? A strike rate of one goal every six games is not what Los Angeles had in mind when it added Angel and his big salary last winter.
And yet here we are, 18 games into his 2011 season, and just three strikes to show. Actually it's worse, since the veteran Colombian missed three matches.
Compare that to his gangbuster totals in New York: 58 goals in a 102 matches.
So the Galaxy keeps seeking answers. On Saturday, the response was moving Landon Donovan closer to Angel, hoping his runs off the Colombian target man could kick start a stalled attack. Hard to say if it worked, since both goals in the Galaxy's 2-1 win came offset pieces (abetted by brutally poor restart defense). Otherwise, Bruce Arena's side created precious few scoring chances in the run of play.
The problem isn't the here and now. The Galaxy back line and the midfield -- other than Chris Birchall, who was lucky to be on the field after his awful challenge late in the match -- is solid enough to mitigate Angel's hurried rush into retirement. But the Galaxy isn't interested in playoff spots; they want hardware, especially considering this is Beckham's final year under contract.
4. Fans' All-Star omission. How ironic that MLS All-Star Best XI fan balloting was announced at halftime of Sunday's Portland-Seattle contest -- the latest installment in this three-way Pacific Northwest brouhaha that teems with passion and more than a touch of acrimony.
The irony fell in the one glaring All-Star omission, who happened to be on the field. Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso was having yet another match of kingpin influence on this sunny day in downtown Portland.
Alonso's ability to screen the Seattle's back line -- which is good but not outstanding -- and his reliable distribution are major factors in Seattle's steady climb into second place in the West. And Alonso has added to his two-way ability this year, with greater offensive potency. His goal in Sunday's 3-2 win came from the penalty spot, but two other strikes this year weren't spot shots. So it was yet another memorable performance in a year full of them for the man who has dislodged Shalrie Joseph as the league's top defensive midfielder. And that's quite an achievement considering that moniker had belonged to Joseph since probably 2005. Alonso's choppy-stepped style won't win points for elegance, but it's clearly effective.
Nothing wrong with the midfield the fans selected (David Beckham, Jack Jewsbury and Brek Shea) in voting via Twitter and text. But if you were actually assembling a midfield to face Manchester United at Red Bull Arena on July 27, you sure could use a midfield harrier like Alonso sitting just a little deeper behind them all.
5. Team of the Week.
Goalkeeper: Jon Busch (San Jose)
Defenders: Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake).
Midfielders: David Beckham (Los Angeles), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Brian Carroll (Philadelphia), Nick LaBrocca (Chivas USA), Joel Lindpere (New York).
Forward: Fredy Montero (Seattle), Conor Casey (Colorado).