What to look for in the second half of MLS 2005
1) Who can survive on the road?
Chicago, Chivas, and Los Angeles all face month long road trips starting in August. The Fire will not play at home from 8/13 until 10/5, five straight road games. Thanks to the X-Games, the HDC will not be available in August. Except for the rescheduled Chivas-Galaxy classico at the LA Coliseum, both teams will be on the road following the Open Cup matchup tomorrow. The Fire have done ok away from home, but you can't say the same for those two, both winless away from LA.
2) Can DC cope with fixture congestion?
Fighting for third place in the East, DC United faces a rough schedule that will really test their depth. In August, the club will have nine matches, including two friendlies. Then there's the Copa Sudamericana. If they progess in that and the Open Cup, it will just make things nightmarish. You have to think this hurts their chances of repeating. DC fans, get used to seeing David Stokes and Kenny Arena!
3) Can New England handle being front-runners?
They're so used to coming from behind late in the season; now they find themselves as front-runners. This is a team with some very talented players, but also with no depth as the Gold Cup has shown. They really need to trade for a forward, if Twellman gets hurt again they might be doomed. It will be interesting to see if the rookies Parkhurst and Riley can keep up their impressive play.
4) Who's left out in the East?
First, Columbus has no chance. They may be Andrulis-free, but also only four more home games. They won't make up the difference. That leaves 2/3 teams to make it, and somebody's not going to be happy. DC will probably make it, despite their schedule problems, and whoever they add in defense should go a long way to solving that problem. I have to pick the Metrostars over KC. They just have too many talented guys to miss out. I know they're a walking train wreck. I also know that KC will have their Gold Cup guys back and are virtually the same team as last year's MLS Cup finalist, but they just don't inspire me this season. When the Metros have been on, they look incredible. And that's the difference.
5) Chivas USA: A miracle comeback?
They have the reinforcements to do it. I don't know if any MLS team has brought it two more talented players midseason than Juan Pablo Garcia and Francisco Palencia. Still, they are nine points back of the playoffs, and the teams in front of them have more home games. It appears unlikely, but they will at least make a respectable showing, more than you can say for their season so far.
6) Who will step up for 2006?
There's only 23 players chosen, and a few guys have a great chance to put themselves right at the doorstep of a World Cup spot. Brian Ching, Kerry Zavagnin, Jimmy Conrad, and Greg Vanney for example. For some other guys, it may be their last chance to show Bruce that they are ready: Chad Marshall, Jeff Cunningham, even Clint Mathis and Freddy Adu. Everybody will be playing harder this year with that weighing on their minds. And that goes for the foreign players too.
7) Will FC Dallas handle the pressure?
10/13 games remaining are at home, in their beautiful new stadium. Already assured of a playoff spot, they'll likely have the conference final at home as well as the MLS Cup. Rarely is a team been such an obvious favorite to win the title. With a roster full of super talents, they've proved that sucking for two years straight is the way to go. With everyone healthy, it's hard to beat a team with guys like Mina and Alvarez coming off the bench. And they might even have Mulrooney back for the playoffs. It's up to them to get it done. (oh, and see question 10)
8) Harrison...for real?
Yes, the stadium that will never happen may actually happen. There is supposed to be a vote in the New Jersey legistature, probably in early September, that could finally set the wheels in motion on this long overdue project. I don't know if my heart can take one more 60-90 joke. But on the bright side, we're looking at no more "move San Jose" jokes (sorry Quakes fans).
9) Who will win the reserve league?
With single table and only a few games to go, this could be a tighter race than for the senior teams. Colorado is already way back and the expansion teams are bringing up the rear, so some things never change. DC is actually leading at the moment, so maybe the answer for question 2 is yes. But I think Chicago, LA, and Dallas are the deepest teams from 1-28, and one of them will lift the crown.
10) What key players will miss the MLS Cup?
That's right, MLS has scheduled its championship game on the same night as the World Cup Qualifying playoffs. It is on 11/13, and the qualifying dates are 11/12 and 11/16. The Fire could lose Slovakian Lubos Reiter, but of greater importance is who finishes fourth in CONCACAF. There's a very real chance that FC Dallas could be playing in the final without Ruiz, or Los Angeles with Pando. Not good.