The half-dozen teams shut out of the MLS postseason party are sorting out where they went wrong, and as they observe the elite eight that are still playing, each of them should be taking notes.
Real Salt Lake and Columbus are case studies in getting it right. Houston proves that you can play a boatload of games in disparate countries and prosper. Chivas USA is a marvel of perseverance. And so on.
Here's a rundown, starting from the bottom, on what needs to be done by whom.
SAN JOSE: That nine-game unbeaten run got the playoff fever bubbling, but balanced with a lackluster finish left the Quakes four games under .500 at 8-13-9, so there's still a lot of work to do.
The Quakes could be losing midfielder Francisco Lima, though he'll be 38 next year and not too many teams in Europe or South America are shopping for players of that age, even a solid, dependable Brazilian. Still, the injury absence of Ramiro Corrales pointed out that San Jose must be better in midfield, and though Eric Denton played capably at left back, he's not among the league's elite.
LOS ANGELES: Just when you think it can't any worse for the moribund Galaxy, mega-icon David Beckham initiates a loan deal with AC Milan, and Landon Donovan casts his eyes to Europe while leading the league, and setting a personal best, in scoring. The team's strong point, offense, could be left with just Edson Buddle and whatever Beckham can contribute when he's not too busy. And this is a team that won just two of 10 games under BruceArena to finish with same record as its Northern California expansion rival.
Unfortunately, an upgrade could mean the loss of a reliable, dedicated professional in Chris Klein, who's just not a right back. Sean Franklin is, but moving him to the outside means finding at least two, and preferably three, reliable central defenders, the count of which at the present time is zero. Maybe Klein can play in the middle; he's got to be better than Eduardo Domínguez. Or in goal, since there's not much there, either.
TORONTO: Somehow, TFC fielded a few very good players -- Marvell Wynne, Chad Barrett, Jim Brennan -- and still finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference (9-13-8), which is just what it deserved for selling Maurice Edu in midseason even though he'd been going through a bit of a sophomore slump.
Putting so much faith in Carlos Ruiz and Amado Guevara, predictably, blew up, and if Barrett leaves for Europe and Danny Dichio retires, TFC will need to rebuild and retool yet again. Three years into the reign of coach Sigi Schmid, Columbus posted the league's best record -- TFC will be three next year and isn't anywhere near playoff caliber, never mind a Supporters' Shield winner.
FC DALLAS: Dumping head coach Steve Morrow early in the season and refusing to sell Kenny Cooper to a foreign club addressed the short-term; now, what's to be done about the long-term?
FCD went 4-5-8 under coach Schellas Hyndman, who noted that any team that can only win five of 15 home games needs to do better. Whether or not Cooper stays, Hyndman has to shore up the back line, find a more reliable option in goal, and refine his system to fully exploit the skills of wide players Bruno Guarda and Victor Sikora. Otherwise, the removal of Morrow will leave FCD still spinning its wheels, unable to escape the rut of a capable team not good enough to reach the top level. A sharp drop in attendances doesn't bode well for general manager Michael Hitchcock, unless it really is the economy.
D.C. UNITED: Injuries never fully excuse a good team going bad, and United fans must hope and pray that it's just the 2008 season, and not their team, that reeks.
An extreme makeover of a good team didn't work, so what are the sturdy blocks on which to build? More to the point, was a wave of injuries a function of misfortune or mismanagement of preseason training? Coach Tom Soehn has promised to re-evaluate his conditioning methods, but he's got a long checklist to address, and has yet to be informed if he'll be handled the pen and clipboard for '09.
Marcelo Gallardo played well in spurts but didn't prove he's a worthy DP. If Fred and Luciano Emilio stay healthy, D.C. can lessen its dependence on ageless but injury-prone Jaime Moreno. Clyde Simms can use some help and/or competition, and if defender Greg Janicki isn't a two-month wonder, the back line has been improved. Thabiso Khumalo has great promise but too many players like him have flashed and then flattened out in MLS.
"Ben Olsen's passion and spirit were sorely missed. This is a recording."
COLORADO: After Fernando Clavijo got the boot, the Rapids posted a 4-4-2 record under interim head coach Gary Smith, who benched Christian Gómez and squeezed a lot out of Conor Casey, among others.
Settling the future of Pablo Mastroeni, who is hinting about heading overseas, is just one of numerous player situations that need to be resolved. True, had Colorado held on to its 1-0 lead in the season finale against RSL, it would have snatched a playoff spot from its Rocky Mountain Cup rival. But being more or less equal with a four-year-old team making its playoff debut isn't an accomplishment for one of the MLS Original 10 that can't fill half of its two-year-old stadium most of the time.
What the Rapids need are smart, experienced, passionate people to take the competitive side of the organization out of its sinkhole. Smith can't do it alone. Calling Robin Fraser!