MLS Week 21 Perspecto-Scope: Boys Pegged; What About the Men?

Holy hell, was Week 21 a busy thing.  But for all the running, kicking, and noise, does anyone feel like they’ve got a bead on which team – or even teams – stand as best in Major League Soccer (MLS)?  I know I can’t.  On other end of the table, however, MLS’s whipping boys bared their sensitive bits to yet another thrashing, so the “boys” of the league have stepped up, or rather lain down, to be counted.

Rounding into September and the playoff push, here’s the real question about the playoffs’ first round: have the top teams made the long trek through puberty and into manhood?  Or will we all be treated to a series of boys-versus-boys dirt-clod skirmishes?

Dispensing with the “boys” who won’t even make the dirt-clod fight seems a good place to start.  Real Salt Lake (RSL) met expectations this weekend by losing on the road to a Chivas USA team that not only never loses, but that rarely concedes a goal at home.  Odds are RSL would have lost at home as well; for all the admirable fight they showed down the stretch, this simply isn’t a good team.  Speaking of which, the Los Angeles Galaxy did RSL one better by sliding past expectations on the way down to contempt: suffering a rout at the hands of a typically goal-shy Colorado Rapids all but mathematically slaps a “road-kill” stamp on the Galaxy’s 2007 season.  Finally, Toronto FC added another franchise first in their weekend loss to DC United, a stain of sorts they won’t likely get out before switching to a new kit: MLS Canadian team have, officially I believe, gone longer than any team in league history without scoring a goal.

In a sense, the wins by Chivas and Colorado tell us less about each team, than they amount to a kind of pillow mercifully smothering the miniscule flickers of life left in their hapless opponents; it doesn’t take a lot to beat on the infirm.  DC is another story, though, and I’ll get to that below.  Even so, I’d be getting nervous about Chivas if played for or coached FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo.

Those last two, Dallas and Houston, have been part of what has been a fairly stable top four in MLS this season, along with the New England Revolution and DC from the Eastern Conference.  Of the three teams that played this weekend – Houston, New England, and DC – only DC, who played twice and won twice, displayed hair in, um, the relevant places.  Week 21 started, in fact, with DC’s commanding win over Eastern Conference rivals, Red Bull New York; New York went down two goals in the game’s opening minutes and only put up a scrappy, fitful fight against a DC team functioning like well-wound clockwork.  I only caught the highlights for DC’s win over Toronto, which was mentioned above; they looked less assured here and relied one hell of a save and hard-scrabble recovery from goalkeeper Troy Perkins for their slim, one-goal win.  Because fatigue could have played a role in that one, I’m giving them a pass.

Of all the top four teams, however, none toy with my reality so much as Houston.  In a home game against an undoubtedly slumping Columbus Crew, Houston’s struggles with finding goals continued; if it weren’t for Joseph Ngwenya, not least for so flustering Crew defender Marcos Gonzalez that he picked up two yellows, defeat looked likely for Houston.  Instead, they snuck out with a draw.  But what a way to drop points: Guillermo Barros Schelotto – and respect demands his whole name be used – set up Columbus’ goal with a blistering, weaving run at Houston’s ever-ready defense.  Let me go on record as saying Schelotto plays some seriously next-level shit.  He doesn’t have David Beckham’s “Q-Factor,” but he’s the kind of player people pay to see and should be hyped to the sky (OK, “should pay to see”, the rest I stand by); make him MVP if that’s what it takes.  My man-crush on Schelotto aside, this is precisely why Houston should be checking over their shoulder for Chivas; after a good, mid-summer spell, the old funk has bit the Dynamo.

The remaining top-four team, the Revolution, offered even less compelling evidence of “manhood.”  Sure, they topped Houston in that, due to winning, they picked up two more points, but any sane mother would not only kick that win out of the nest, she’d kill it on principle.  It’s a rare own-goal that’s hit with power and precision (see: Jeff Agoos; 2002 World Cup) so, seeing as Mendes shot possessed only the former, it took black-comedy-blunders, the kind that comes from pure Cosmic Spite directed at one person, in this case Red Bull ‘keeper Jon Conway, for his shot to roll into the goal.  For what it’s worth, I’m thinking the gods momentarily struck Conway blind (what do we know about his relationship with his mother?).  Bottom line: New England’s win absolutely relied on a blunder one doesn’t see in games featuring five-year-olds; a wellspring for confidence, that ain’t.

The confusion borne of two of the three top-four teams (shit…I’m confusing myself) failing to impress doesn’t hold a candle to the sloppy stack of inputs coming in from teams further down the table.  I’ve already touched on one of these – e.g. the meaning of Columbus’ brave draw in Houston – but what to make of the split, two-game series between the Kansas City Wizards and the Chicago Fire?  Having been denied the chance to watch either game – and this was my first choice for this weekend (asshole programmers run DC v. TFC instead?) – my first impulse is to see meaning in the aggregate score: e.g. Chicago 4, Kansas City 3.  What I’m reading tells me Chicago fought KC hard at home and there was that fluky, out-of-bounds thing (I think it was Jose Burciaga Jr. who carried the ball out of touch, but play went on) to consider as well.  All in all, Chicago looks like a team on the up….quite unlike Red Bull…fair warning, Bruce.

Let’s see…did I get to everyone?

By way of wrapping that together, I’d file DC United away under the “man” category, while New England and the Dynamo only do a fair imitation of manhood at this point.  On the other side of the ledger, Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy, and Toronto FC clearly fall into the “boys” file.   That leaves, by my count, seven teams in transition.  Some like Chicago and, arguably, Colorado appear to have hit growth spurts…the other five, well, they’re taking a keen interest in comic books, near as I can tell.

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