Given the unbalanced schedules of so many MLS clubs, there appears to be no definitive halfway stage in the regular season. Having said that, only New England (12) has played fewer than 14 games, while New York (18) is the only club to exceed 16.
Thus, with the majority of clubs having played at least 50 percent of their schedule, it's high time I gave my thoughts as to who I think are the leading candidates to lift the MLS Cup in Seattle in November, based on the evidence at hand.
The championship game's host has certainly shown that it has a squad capable of making a run deep into the postseason. From back to front, Seattle has balance and solidity, as does Chivas which, despite coming back to the pack in recent times, remains a well-organized threat.
However, Houston remains my pick as the best team in the West. Dominic Kinnear's side has championship experience in abundance, but the key to the Dynamo's resurgence after a slow start has been the way some of its youngsters have stepped up. In galvanizing their club, Geoff Cameron, Stuart Holden and Kei Kamara have established themselves as All-Star candidates.
While I am confident in picking Houston as the MLS Cup participant from the West, selecting the best side in the other conference is a more troubling process. D.C. United is just about worth its lead at the top of the standings but I remain concerned that their veteran players might struggle with the rigors of a full season.
United's ascent has been assisted by the enigmatic form of defending champion Columbus, which has become overly reliant on its talisman, Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Similarly, Chicago has flattered to deceive at times too, in part due to Denis Hamlett's continued struggle to find an effective attacking balance. After claiming seven points from its opening three games, the Fire has since taken 12 from 11.
What my eyes have seen tells me that two of the aforementioned half-dozen teams will battle it out at Qwest Field in the MLS Cup final. As we all know, the key to the MLS playoffs is to be there. After that, anything can happen.
Of the rest, Los Angeles is an interesting team, especially if Landon Donovan and David Beckham can put aside their personal differences when they reunite. Toronto has a ton of talent but I wonder if Chris Cummins' side has what it takes to eke out the road performances it will need to make a postseason impact. I look at Real Salt Lake in the same way.
Kansas City and Colorado are each a player or two short of challenging as they are currently constituted, but a couple of smart moves could thrust them back into the hunt. Meanwhile, New England is still in the picture despite a shocking run of bad luck with injuries, and you wouldn't bet against Steve Nicol to orchestrate another playoff run.
San Jose and Dallas do not have the depth to sustain a run up the standings in the West, while New York, which has the fewest points from the most games, should already be starting to look ahead to 2010. For everyone else -- though it might seem that MLS has been in the back of the minds of most in recent weeks -- the 2009 season is very much alive.
The gap closes in the Open Cup
For all but four clubs, MLS Cup is the only remaining piece of domestic silverware on offer, following a week in which several of the big boys had their noses bloodied, both literally and figuratively in some cases, by representatives of the USL, four of which have made it through to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup.
Impressive showings from lower-league clubs in the competition are nothing new -- three made the last eight in 2008 after five had done so a year earlier -- and instead continue to show that, outside their first-choice XI, most MLS clubs do not have the depth to just "show up" and win with an under-strength side.
Adding further to the woes of MLS sides this year has been the reduction from 28 to 24 in roster sizes. Squad rotation has been made even more difficult by this, meaning that coaches have been forced to take risks just to get a team on the field.
An extreme example of this was seen Tuesday when, having started the game against Harrisburg with four subs, New England lost two more players to knocks after making their allotted changes, which themselves were necessitated by a need to give starters some sort of rest. A late red card meant they ended the match, farcically, with eight men.
It's been said before but I'll say it again. Rosters are not deep enough to sustain participating in multiple competitions at the same time, especially as many clubs also lose players to international duty. The travel involved adds further to the strain. It all means that, as we enter MLS' self-titled "Summer of Soccer," the story for several clubs will be what is happening off the field as opposed to on it.
A thing that made me go "hmmm "
As I consider my picks for the All-Star game, I am reminded of the numerous flaws the match has in its current format. For example, beating B-list European teams -- no matter how great their history may be, not since Chelsea in 2006 has a legitimate powerhouse provided the opposition -- in preseason does little to boost the identity of the league.
If the MLS team wins, it's because its opponent was undercooked. If it loses, the league is viewed as weak. It's not as farcical as baseball's All-Star contest, from which the victor gains home-field advantage in the World Series, but it does seem to be taken a little too seriously (though only by one side). Let's have a USA versus Rest of the World contest featuring MLS-based players only and be done with it.
Two more factors irritate me. First, when selecting my starters, I have to pick a 3-5-2 formation. Soccer is a flexible sport in which alignments are fluid and ever-changing. Give me some options! Why is Landon Donovan classed as a forward only? Can he not also play in midfield? So let me pick him there if I want to!
Second, due to their participation in CONCACAF Champions league preliminary matches, players from D.C. United and New York will not be able to play in Salt Lake City if they are selected. Granted, in the case of the latter, there are likely to be no conflicts given the Red Bulls' wretched form but, where United are concerned, legitimate candidates such as Chris Pontius and Santino Quaranta, to name but two, will be involved in name alone.
Anyway, we have what we have and, overall, despite my objections about some of its aspects, the All-Star game has its merits. Chief among those is the chance it offers players to pad their résumé. Many have bonus clauses built into their contracts which are triggered by selection, which means making the squad is often more important than actually playing in the game itself.
Well played, young man
One man who will, barring injury, be in All-Star colors July 29 is Fredy Montero, who, after following a fine start to the season with a slump during which he failed to score between March 28 and May 23, has since rebounded spectacularly with five goals and five assists in his past seven games.
Montero was the early star of 2009 but suffered an alarming loss of form as rumors of off-field issues appeared to take their toll on the 21-year-old forward. Those now appear to be behind him, and Seattle has reaped the rewards as the Colombian has continued to develop a potent partnership up front with Nate Jaqua, who may himself be rewarded for his impressive form -- he has six goals and five assists -- with an All-Star berth.
In each of their three defeats, Sigi Schmid's men have failed to find the net. If their star strikers are able to sustain their form, the Sounders have a chance to challenge at the top of the Western Conference throughout the summer and into the fall.