Analyzing the fallout from a one-sided SuperClasico to digging deeper on Jurgen Klinsmann's MLS selections, here are some thoughts from the league's Week 23, as the playoff chase continues to heat up:
1. The Galaxy bring Chivas USA back down to earth. Chivas USA are still mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, but if Sunday night's 4-0 pasting at the hands of the rival Los Angeles Galaxy was supposed to be the Goats' chance to make a statement and announce their postseason intentions, then it's clear that only goalkeeper Dan Kennedy is ready for primetime. For Chivas, the loss is more disappointing considering that, in the last three months, the club has gone out to reinforce the middle with some of the Eastern Conference's best, trading for Danny Califf, Juan Agudelo and Shalrie Joseph. Yet nothing is coming easily. The results have not changed all that much.
While it will still require time for all of the moving parts to congeal and for Joseph to be worked into the fold, there just isn't much time remaining to impact the season. With four games in hand on the fifth-place Galaxy and Chivas trailing by 10 points in the table, the potential to make a playoff push technically exists. But scoring a league-worst 14 goals in 21 games means that Chivas would need to surpass any other contenders and not just pull even,given the league's new tiebreaker system that values goals scored as the top metric.
Even with David Beckham absent for the Galaxy while at the Olympic closing ceremonies (which seems like nothing but an afterthought now), Chivas never stood a chance Sunday. The Goats came out looking to defend, allowing the Galaxy to dictate everything instead of attempting to go at Los Angeles as an equal. All that was made of Chivas' progress and L.A.'s decline following Chivas' victory over the Galaxy in the first meeting between the two clubs this season seems like ancient history, especially considering the manner in which the Galaxy came back to take the season series yet again.
For Los Angeles, the four-goal outburst is nice, and Landon Donovan tying the MLS record with four assists in one match is clearly notable and yet another bullet on his résumé. But the grandest development to emanate from the match was the return of the club's first-choice back line. Todd Dunivant, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin combined for a historic 2011 season but had yet to play a game together in 2012 after injuries ravaged the club. That they were able to hold the league's worst attack scoreless is not all that shocking, but it provides quite the reminder for the rest of the league that the defending champion, and awakening giant, is on the way to hitting its stride when it matters most.
2. Reading into Klinsmann's MLS selections. Jurgen Klinsmann selected nine MLS players for his U.S. men's national team roster that will head to Estadio Azteca for a friendly with rival Mexico on Wednesday. And while the timing of the match indicated that Klinsmann would pick more of a U.S.- and Mexico-based roster than normal, there is still plenty to read into with his selections and omissions.
Less than a year ago, Klinsmann dubbed Bill Hamid as the No. 2 goalkeeper in the entire U.S. pool, second only to Tim Howard. Yet with an opportunity to take multiple MLS goalkeepers, Hamid is nowhere to be found, and it is Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson that gets the call as one of the two U-23 Olympic qualifying netminders. That Johnson, whose last-second gaffe against El Salvador prevented the U.S. U-23s from competing in a play-in match to reach this summer's Olympics, remains higher in the pecking order is quite the reward for Johnson's response to adversity. It also provides a bit of a wake-up call for Hamid.
"We said that after the disappointment of Nashville, we said to the players that your path will be much tougher than you thought it will be," Klinsmann said on a conference call with reporters Sunday evening. "Sean put this horrible moment behind him. He simply focused on work day-in and day-out."
As for Hamid's D.C. teammate, Chris Pontius, it seems as if he is close, but still on the periphery of Klinsmann's radar. Despite being fully fit, having his best season as a professional and providing a true left-sided attacking option -- something that has been lacking for the national team -- Pontius was passed over for the call-up, which would have been his first since last September, just prior to when he broke his leg.
"He was on the standby list," Klinsmann said, hours prior to adding San Jose Earthquakes forward Alan Gordon late Sunday night to round out the 23-man roster. "One injury up front, and Chris was next in line. We are in touch. I'm very happy with what happened the last couple of months with D.C."
For those clamoring for Seattle Sounders forward Eddie Johnson's return to international play, his omission -- along with Klinsmann's apparent assessment that Pontius is a forward and not a winger -- make it clear that he's not on the verge of a national team comeback yet, either. Despite Johnson's return to form during his breakout season in Seattle, it is going to be increasingly more difficult for him to break through in a suddenly deep positional group. Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Herculez Gomez, Terrence Boyd and Chris Wondolowski are in the top tier, and evidently Gordon and Pontius -- and don't forget about January camp standout C.J. Sapong, Sporting Kansas City teammate Teal Bunbury and Agudelo, either -- are on the second rung down the ladder.
3. Making sense of Brek Shea's surprise recall. The recent life and times of Brek Shea have featured more plot twists and drama than the TV series Breaking Bad, but at the end of it all is a return to the national team for the FC Dallas winger.
Shea's last few months have included an atrocious dip in form, a public outburst at coach Schellas Hyndman, a couple of weeks away from his team and a return to action that has coincided with some of his best soccer of the season. Even with some in and out of the FC Dallas organization questioning Shea's maturity, Klinsmann deemed it an appropriate time to bring back a player who had been a regular in the first year of his time as U.S. coach before being left out of the May-June camp, friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
"I had good conversations with Schellas Hyndman the last week," Klinsmann said. "We both see a lot of upside in Brek Shea. We all knew that after the big disappointment of not qualifying for the Olympics that all our players in our program would fall into a hole and go through an emotional roller coaster. That's what happened with Brek."
It's not as if Klinsmann is completely forgiving or ready to look past Shea's recent struggles, but it seems as if Klinsmann sees Shea and his potential in a different light than some of the other national team candidates. On one hand, he is truthful and harsh in his assessment of where Shea stands, but on the other, he is willing to offer preferential treatment for a player who is still figuring things out.
"People may be feeding him information that he's already there, and he's not," Klinsmann said. "We think he needs our support and the feeling that we are there when things are getting tough. Similar to an Agudelo, Bunbury, Hamid, Sean Johnson. This whole generation that should have been in London, it was a tough pill to swallow for him. We have to integrate those players in our plans and give them the possibility to be close to the international level. He has to learn to focus in and learn to become a full professional 24-7. He's in the middle of that process, and we coaches are responsible to help him in that process."
4. Races for third enter the spotlight. The MLS playoff schedule was released during the week, and even though five teams in each conference qualify and the team with the best record after the conference finals will host MLS Cup, it is the race for third place that ultimately should matter most to teams in the hunt. For teams seeded fourth or fifth to get to the MLS Cup final, they'd have to play five games in an 18-day span, which gives a huge advantage to the three teams in each conference that can avoid the wildcard match and enter in the conference semifinals.
As it stands, the races for third place in both conferences are up in the air. In the West, third-place Seattle's match against Vancouver this week -- the teams are level on points, one clear of the Galaxy -- is much more than just a Cascadia Cup showdown. It's a chance for either Seattle to put some distance between itself and the lower portion of the playoff standings and an opportunity for Vancouver to enter into the top-three mix. In the East, the games in hand that D.C. and Chicago have on Sporting Kansas City, New York and Houston mean that the current standings, which are tight enough to begin with, need to be taken with a grain of salt. The top five teams in each conference appear to essentially be settled, but that hardly means that there will not be any drama in the league tables as the season goes down to the wire.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA)
Defenders: Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps), Markus Holgersson (New York Red Bulls), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Arne Friedrich (Chicago Fire)
Midfielders: Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Fabian Castillo (FC Dallas), Juninho (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire)
Forwards: Camilo (Vancouver Whitecaps), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)