Between the league's bevy of new big-name additions and some questionable in-game personnel moves, here is a look back at Week 21 in MLS:
The close of the MLS summer transfer window was met with the urgency and fervor of a heated arms race, one that should make the regular season's final months all the more intense and competitive as teams go after spots in the postseason.
Even though Seattle and New York were among the major players this past month, the big moves were not limited to the usual high-spending giants. Chicago, Vancouver, Houston, New England and Columbus all made substantial additions, with last year's run by the Los Angeles Galaxy that was sparked by big-name signings still lingering a season later and demonstrating the growing trend of teams spending to win.
With the recent signings of Designated Players Tim Cahill, Sherjill Macdonald, Christian Tiffert and Federico Higuain adding to those who joined the league upon or soon after the opening of the transfer window (Marco Di Vaio, Barry Robson, Kenny Miller, Jerry Bengtson, Oscar Boniek Garcia), nine new DPs will grace the league with their presence during the push to the playoffs. Two others, Eric Hassli and Alvaro Fernandez, were acquired by Toronto and Chicago, respectively, with in-league trades. Another huge name, Montreal's Alessandro Nesta, may not have the DP distinction, but he is as vital as any player taking up a large chunk of his team's salary cap. Credit the front offices around the league for not sitting pat and staying content with the status quo, something that used to be the rule and not the exception across the league. Ownership groups are putting more into their on-field personnel, and the quality of rosters around MLS is rising as a result.
The high-profile signings may not be done yet, either. while the transfer window may be closed until the winter, any free agents who would not require an international transfer certificate can sign with MLS until the Sept. 15 roster freeze deadline. That means players like Ricardo Clark, for example, who is out of his contract with Eintracht Frankfurt as of Tuesday, can still make for difference-making additions over the course of the next six weeks. Clark is reportedly in talks with Houston about a return there, and even though he is a U.S. international potentially returning to MLS, he would not need to go through the allocation order, because he left the league on a free transfer and his league rights still belong to Houston, much in the same way that Chris Rolfe was able to return directly to Chicago.
With Sporting Kansas City pressing for a late goal Saturday night against Columbus to try and force a draw, the club's substitution pattern was quite peculiar, to say the least.
Reigning league rookie of the year and U.S. national team January call-up C.J. Sapong sat on the bench, fully fit based on the most recent injury report, as manager Peter Vermes opted to give Korede Aiyegbusi his season debut in the 71st minute followed by doing the same with new defensive signing Neven Markovic 13 minutes later. Between Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury's combined missed sitters and golden opportunities and the club's overwhelming possession advantage, SKC could have used a finisher like Sapong to find the equalizer instead of using substitutions on a seldom-used midfielder and a brand new center back.
Sapong has already matched his five-goal output from his rookie season, but in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport and league, Sapong has been rather absent. He has not scored in the team's last nine matches, he has been in and out of the starting lineup and wound up being a healthy scratch against Columbus for reasons only Vermes knows. It is difficult to criticize Vermes considering the job that he and his staff have done this season in cultivating a winning team, but to leave Sapong, who is no stranger to late heroics and was not overly exerted in the club's mid-week friendly against Montpellier, unused during such a crucial juncture was one of the more questionable moves of the weekend.
Much as with Sapong's situation, it is easy to look back on match events in hindsight and make what would have been the right decisions. That being the case, perhaps Martin Rennie would like a do-over for starting captain Jay DeMerit Friday night.
DeMerit was forced to play 90 minutes in last Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game after an in-game injury to Aurelien Collin forced MLS coach Ben Olsen's hand when the plan was originally to have DeMerit go no longer than 45. DeMerit answered the bell and was arguably the most valuable player for MLS in its win over Chelsea, but his mid-week showing certainly took its toll two days prior to a big Western Conference showdown against Real Salt Lake. DeMerit was noticeably not at his peak and was responsible for the handball that gifted RSL its first goal along with the decision to play a risky ball way back toward goalkeeper Joe Cannon that ultimately resulted in the goalkeeper's handball outside the box that had him get sent off.
With the versatile Alain Rochat capable of sliding into central defense and DeMerit not at 100 percent, Rennie and Vancouver should have adapted and made DeMerit a substitute even despite the magnitude of the match. Of course, everything seems simpler in hindsight.
Two of the league's title contenders will get a potential glimpse into the postseason this weekend, with a rare home-and-home series taking place in the middle of the season.
The Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls play each other on consecutive Fridays on NBC Sports Network with playoff positioning at stake. The league's last two undefeated teams at home, both New York and Houston boast 7-0-3 marks at their respective soccer-specific stadiums. The storylines for the upcoming matchups are overflowing, between first place in the East being on the line, to the home dominance each team has showed, to Houston looking to avenge a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on May 9, to new Red Bull Tim Cahill's MLS debut likely to come as soon as the first of these two crucial games.
The most telling one to watch for during Friday's sold-out encounter at BBVA Compass Stadium, though, is one-time New York/New Jersey MetroStar and star Houston left winger Brad Davis licking his chops at the chance to go up against the right side of New York's defense that looked absolutely lost in Montreal on Saturday. If Brandon Barklage or Heath Pearce cannot return from their hamstring strains, then the overlapping tandem of the in-form Davis and left back Corey Ashe could have a field day going at Jan Gunnar Solli and Markus Holgersson in the Houston heat.
Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
Defenders: Danny Califf (Chivas USA), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Boswell (Houston Dynamo)
Midfielders: Felipe (Montreal Impact), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)
Forwards: Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)