1. Dwayne De Rosario time: Dwayne De Rosario has been sneaking up lately on trendy league MVP candidates -- Brek Shea, Thierry Henry, Brad Davis and David Beckham, to name a few.
But his screwball season -- such a wonderful talent, but somehow on his third team in 2011 -- meant De Rosario needed something truly special to insert himself more forcefully into MVP conversations. After all, how can a guy with only half a season spent at his current address be adjudged the most important man in the league?
Well, something special has been delivered. And how.
He was a marvel in a 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake. The Canadian international had a hat trick inside 31 minutes Saturday, the earliest ever in MLS. If his goals were a complete package of skill, smarts, accuracy, audacity, pace and grace, his early assist to Andy Najar was every bit as delightful. It truly was the stuff of legends, the league's top individual performance this year. (In fact, best night ever for a man in a D.C. United shirt? Perhaps. You longtime denizens of RFK, discuss. And someone see what Marco Etcheverry has to say about it?)
Never mind that De Rosario probably shouldn't have been playing as karma apparently went on holiday. In a reprehensible burst of selective enforcement, the league chose to ignore De Rosario's sorry, midweek dive against Chivas USA. Serious playoff implications are at stake, and MLS looks really bad on this one. After suspending Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio and United's Charlie Davies for similar stunts, the league chose to look the other way De Rosario's obvious embellishment that gave D.C. United a potential go-ahead penalty kick late on Sept. 21 against Chivas USA. (The spot shot was saved, so the game finished in a 2-2 draw.)
With four rounds remaining, De Rosario leads the league in goals (14) and is fourth in assists (10). He has 10 goals and six assists in 13 appearances for D.C. United. Barring injury, he'll play just over half the season at RFK.
Is that enough? Or with a couple more goals and assists, does it even matter?
And will there be a "lifetime achievement award" sentiment at work here? As it stands, De Rosario is probably the most influential MLS man never to capture a league MVP honor. He's been MLS Best XI five years, a two-time MLS Cup MVP and was runner-up in 2005 for league MVP.
United had 18 points in 15 matches before De Rosario arrived. The side has 20 points in 13 matches since he landed at RFK, so there's a sure impact beyond his individual stats.
It will probably come down to this: can United squeeze into the playoffs? If he can drive the team past the gaggle of fellow playoff pursuers, it may finally be De Ro time in the MVP sweepstakes.
2. Stacked and packed in the East: The Eastern Conference race remains scrambled like eggs; a measly four points separates the top six, with even seventh-place Chicago having a game in hand on most playoff-chasing rivals.
It would be foolish and hardly time efficient to dissect who must do what, as everything remains so fluid. Best bet for now: a quick look at the most favorable schedules remaining.
Houston sits atop the table but has just three matches remaining, lowest among the contenders. With just one road win this year, they travel to Chicago and Portland and then finish by hosting L.A. down in South Texas. So, Dominic Kinnear's remaining slate is the easily the toughest.
D.C. United is easily in the best position, schedule-wise, with six games remaining. The final three are at home, with two against sides (Chicago and Portland) that probably won't be in playoff contention by then. So, it's all there for Olsen's young side.
In between, everyone else is about equal. Philadelphia has an extra game on Sporting Kansas City, Columbus and the Red Bulls, but the game in hand is on the road. And none of the Union's three trips (Chivas USA, Seattle and New York) are pushovers. Sporting Kansas City's path looks just slightly easier than New York's or Columbus'.
3. A huge lineup choice looms in New York: Let's forget for a minute that New York's decision to trade away De Rosario currently looks like the king daddy of MLS personnel blunders this year. After all, Toronto traded him away, too.
The Red Bulls may get a chance at some small measure of redemption in terms of managing their salary hogging DPs. But do they dare?
We're speaking of Rafa Marquez, of course. While they issued the "sell" order on a potential league MVP, they kept a man who looks like selfish, destructive locker room catastrophe. Red Bulls boss Hans Backe said "enough" when Marquez scorched his teammates last week, dropping excoriating comments that were unnecessary, unprofessional and utterly tone deaf.
So Backe put the league's third-highest player on the bench for a match the Red Bulls desperately needed to win. And guess what? They got a huge win that put them right back in the thick of the playoff picture.
For those keeping score, the Red Bulls won in Dallas two weeks ago sans Marquez. Then they got roasted at home by Real Salt Lake as Marquez returned. (Of course, that wasn't his fault. Just ask him.) Then they beat Portland at home, sans Marquez, who watched from a suite at Red Bull Arena. Spot the trend?
So now the real toughie: What does Backe do with his lineup? Keep the winning arrangement, and leave a DP on the bench?
Marquez has a point about his fellow defenders. Tim Ream admits he hasn't been good enough this year. Jan Gunnar Solli holds his own as an attacking right back but struggles frequently with defensive chores. Roy Miller is a midlevel MLS left back and utility knife replacement Carlos Mendes is a squad player at best.
But none of that matters. MLS is what it is, and Marquez knows that. A highly paid leader simply cannot dog out less seasoned teammates. So Backe now must weigh the tricky math of addition by subtraction. Can the Red Bulls bond around their desire to show Marquez they aren't a bunch of ninnies who can't kick straight?
We'll see. But consider that Backe talked up Stephen Keel, who has been solid for two consecutive matches as Marquez's replacement. "You need that kind of central defender in the MLS, a center back who is a kind of a cleaner, battles all the time, go for headers and not give the striker too much time to control the ball," Back said. Hmmm.
4. Juan Pablo Angel, where have you been?: After months of fruitless, frustrating searching, Juan Pablo Angel has finally found his scoring shoes. Back story: The formerly high scoring Colombian and his high salary weren't wanted in New York, so they traded him to L.A. this year. But he just couldn't get going, so the Galaxy shipped him across the hall to Chivas USA.
Suddenly, it's "game on!" He has six goals in six outings for the Goats, including two in Saturday's 3-0 win over Toronto. (Justin Braun, with a goal and an assist, was outstanding in this one, too.) All year, everyone has looked at Angel (age 35) and assumed he was done. And he probably is. But ... is he doing just enough at the end to pique some 2012 interest around MLS, perhaps at a renegotiated rate?
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Jon Busch (San Jose)
Defenders: Geoff Cameron (Houston), Julio Cesar (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy), A.J. DeLaGarza (L.A. Galaxy).
Midfielders: Dane Richards (New York), Dax McCarty (New York), Brian Carroll (Philadelphia), Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United).
Forward: Fredy Montero (Seattle), Juan Pablo Angel (Chivas USA).