Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 18:
1. There's a new sheriff in charge of New York goal: It looks like the last ingredient may be in place at Red Bull Arena. Whether this bunch can finally deliver an MLS Cup to the league's biggest market, only time and Thierry Henry's dodgy knees can say. But at very least, they won't be denied by a glaring weakness that was screaming to be fixed.
Indeed, no MLS club will address a more dire problem, relative to the rest of the side, than New York did late last week in signing German goalkeeper Frank Rost to a DP deal.
Rost, big and brawny and armed with a no-nonsense scowl, needed just a "howdy" session and one hurried training session before taking over against Chivas USA on Saturday.
Rost may be 38, but he was Hamburg's No. 1 last year in the demanding Bundesliga. He looked up for the MLS job on Saturday, posting a shutout in the scoreless draw at the Home Depot Center. (There were six MLS matches Saturday, three of which ended without a goal. See last week's column for explanations and laments over that one.)
If we're honest, there wasn't a lot for Rost to deal with against a Chivas USA team that's still light in offensive ability. But, if we're still being honest, previous Red Bull goalkeepers Bouna Coundoul and Greg Sutton never really needed "a lot to deal with" to turn something routine in high comedy.
Rost was beaten in the 38th minute by a Jorge Flores blast off the crossbar, but his night was a Southern California breeze otherwise.
Rost's ability to communicate and organize will be as important as his shot stopping (and, of course, his ability to avoid calamity). A goalkeeper's ability to assist his back line through communication and by providing constant, useful information is probably underrated as an asset.
"He's a veteran goalkeeper, he talks a lot, and he communicates well, so it was pretty easy for us," center back Tim Ream said of the change behind him.
There was a telling and humorous instance in the 41st moment Saturday. Red Bulls right back Jan Gunnar Solli clattered a ball awkwardly and dangerously out of the back, across the field, where it was easy pickings and nearly turned into a Chivas USA chance. Rost quickly admonished Solli, telling him to play that ball back to him next time, that he could clear the danger from there just fine.
Rost probably didn't understand that his fullbacks and center backs will need to be retrained on these situations. Because it was definitely not a swell idea to ship a ball like that back to Coundoul or Sutton, as Red Bulls players who have been around for a while know all too well.
2. The friendly dilemma: The personnel calculus in this cash crop of high-profile friendlies can be quite tricky. Maybe more than you think.
These matches are more than just money making bids; the U.S. remains full of soccer snobs who won't cross the street to watch an MLS contest, but do live and die with their beloved team from (fill in the country). Valuable credibility points are always at stake these matches, and possibly a few paying fans, too.
So you play the starters, right? Who wants to get clobbered inside their own city limits? As an NFL coach famously, incredulously said, "You play to win the game!"
Only, what if you have a more important game just ahead?
Take Los Angeles on Saturday against mighty Real Madrid. Bruce Arena put his top side on the field, even running with David Beckham for 62 minutes against his former team -- and the Galaxy still got smoked, 4-1. Even if Cristiano Ronaldo won't be around to fake and flummox and hit another stunner like Saturday, it's not going to be much easier next week against Manchester City -- definitely not your father's Manchester City.
The trouble is that L.A. must fly to little ol' Columbus for a league match in between, one that must appear quaint by comparison. Still, it won't appear so inconsequential to anyone who notices Seattle running up the Galaxy's back side in the Western Conference standings, or notices Dallas and Real Salt Lake poised to strike with games in hand.
Seattle has a Wednesday date with Manchester United, one that's sandwiched inconveniently between Saturday's win over Colorado and a trip into steamy Houston this weekend.
Vancouver had a novel, uh, "solution." Citing rain and an unplayable field -- unplayable because it was a temporary pitch assembled for Monday's friendly against Manchester City -- the club postponed its MLS match Saturday against Real Salt Lake. Check back later for repercussions over that one.
Other teams also are dealing with the friendly conundrum. Fans remember when you stink it up against high-profile opposition. Of course, they also remember when you don't make the playoffs.
3. Not Colorado's year: If the playoffs started today, the champs would be in. But just barely -- and almost every pursuer has a game, two or three in hand.
More and more, it's looking like this just isn't the Colorado Rapids' year.
They still need to find a trusty left back. There was the unpleasant Brian Mullan distraction (a 10-game suspension for breaking a players' leg). Striker Omar Cummings has come back to the planet after his 2010 breakout season, with injuries providing some of the explanation. In fact, every Rapids front line striker has dealt with injuries this year.
The defense just isn't what it was last year, when playoff positioning was built by allowing just 32 goals in 30 games. This year, Gary Smith's troupe has already allowed 27 in just 21 games. To make matters worse, Conor Casey, who had been scoring lately in his stop-and-start campaign, limped away from CenturyLink Field on Saturday with an Achilles injury.
The Rapids haven't issued a prognosis, but Achilles injuries are rarely short-term. If they can't get him back in a month, when CONCACAF Champions League group play begins, things could get very dicey for a team that had quite little to deal with or overcome during last year's title campaign.
4. Is the next Fredy Montero run coming?: Perhaps there isn't a more streaky player in MLS than Seattle's Fredy Montero. Not this side of Dwayne De Rosario, at any rate.
With fingers crossed, fans in the Sound are hoping Montero has launched another of his momentous runs -- the kind that can alter a season. He has three goals in the Sounders' last two MLS matches, both quality wins. Last week's victory was in Portland, where Montero's free kick was picture perfect. Saturday, Sigi Schmid's team beat the champs, which is still worthwhile, even if the champs just are a little un-champ like these days.
Montero also struck in a midweek U.S. Open Cup win over Los Angeles, pushing his Sounders into the semifinal. So, all in all, this is what a Designated Player is supposed to be.
But can he sustain it? If he can, Seattle is a legitimate MLS Cup contender. The midfield is terrific now. Kasey Keller remains rock solid in goal. The back line still has some issues, but the capable screening of Osvaldo Alonso helps a ton.
Montero really is the difference between "title contender" and Seattle as just another ordinary Joe in a playoff field that's grown too large.
Consider that Seattle was limping along last year, 4-8-3 on July 5 at the season's midpoint. Montero had five goals.
But he doubled that total over the next few weeks and added several assists, as Seattle shed the Freddie Ljungberg anchor and gained top speed. At one stretch, Montero had scored or assisted on 14 of his side's 17 goals. He was especially strong during a nine-game unbeaten run (6-0-3).
But he hit No. 10 on Aug. 28 -- and that was that for Montero. He didn't score again in MLS. His side crashed out meekly in Champions League action and then fell without enough fight in the first playoff round.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Troy Perkins (Portland)
Defenders: Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia), Bobby Burling (San Jose), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia), George John (Dallas), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United).
Midfielders: Mauro Rosales (Seattle), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Brian Carroll (Philadelphia), Brad Davis (Houston).
Forward: Fredy Montero (Seattle).
It's high season for high-profile friendlies here. Manchester United and Real Madrid met MLS sides last week and the whackings ensued. Here are the top 10 friendlies still on the docket that involve MLS teams or take place in MLS cities:
1. Man United vs. MLS All-Stars (July 27 at Red Bull Arena): The same matchup got ugly last year, and fast. Sir Alex Ferguson's men put a 5-2 beating on an MLS All-Star team that learned an important lesson about proper preparation and roster balance. This year, MLS coach Hans Backe hopes put together a team that can actually compete.
2. L.A. Galaxy vs. Man City (Sunday at the Home Depot Center): You just know Bruce Arena isn't happy about getting ambushed in L.A. on Saturday by Real Madrid (4-1). Manchester City isn't Real Madrid, but Manchester's "other" club could well challenge for EPL glory this year. This is part of the World Football Challenge, like so many others on the list.
3. Barcelona vs. Man United (July 30 at FedEx Field): Another in the World Football Challenge series, this is the real headliner, a rematch of last year's Champions League final, won so elegantly by the Spaniards. It's being played in Landover, Maryland, down the street from D.C. United's grounds. Both teams left a few stars behind but still brought enough to fill up the marquee. Twice.
4. Seattle Sounders FC vs. Man United (Wednesday at CenturyLink Field): Having properly taken care of MLS business on Saturday with a win over Colorado, the Sounders can lean into this one a bit. From there, United travels east to Chicago to face the Fire on Saturday at Soldier Field.
5. Barcelona vs. Club America (Aug. 6 at Cowboys Stadium): The Catalan giants will face both of Mexico's most popular teams during their U.S. tour, including this one against the heavyweights from Mexico City. Barca also travels to Miami to play Chivas de Guadalajara. The game lost one draw when flashy Mexican international goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa signed 10 days ago to play for France's Ajaccio, but longtime Mexican mainstay Pavel Pardo remains on the roster for now.
6. D.C. United v Everton (Saturday at RFK Stadium): This is second of two for the traveling Toffees, whose official Web site insists they are looking forward to taking advantage of "America's excellent training facilities to step up the squad's preparation for the Premier League season." Ahem. They've seen RFK Stadium, right? Surely goalkeeper Tim Howard has mentioned the rats, cats and raccoons that live in that place?
7. Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs. Man City (Monday at Empire Field): After postponing an MLS weekend match to protect the soggy field for their high-profile EPL visitors, 'Caps officials had better get this one played. Seriously, guys, this unpleasant little episode is making everyone look a little bush league around here. City has left a couple of biggies at home, dealing with issues, but England internationals Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright-Phillips and James Milner, plus Edin Dzeko (Bosnia), Mario Balotelli (Italy), David Silva (Spain) and Jerome Boateng (Germany) is a good place to start.
8. Juventus vs. Sporting Clube de Portugal (Saturday at BMO Field): We're a little light on Italian representation in this year's World Football Challenge. But we do get this one, and Juve's provisional squad list includes six members of Italy's 2006 World Cup winning squad: Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Andrea Pirlo, Andrea Barzagli and star goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
9. Sporting Kansas City vs. Newcastle United (Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park): Too bad the good soccer fans in the Midwest won't get to see Joey Barton in this one. Newcastle's naughty boy was denied a U.S. entry visa because he served a prison sentence for a 2008 assault conviction. Newcastle finished midtable last year after climbing back into the Premier League.
10. Houston Dynamo vs. Bolton Wanderers (Wednesday at Robertson Stadium): Let's just name this one the Stuart Holden and Friends Tribute Match, shall we? The Bolton man made his bones at Houston before bolting for England's Wanderers and a shot at the big time. Ironically, he won't play Wednesday, still on the mend from a nasty spring injury, so fans in Houston will settle for seeing English internationals Kevin Davies and Gary Cahill, among others. Officially, this is the Dynamo Charity Cup.