First XI: Deal with it

Zach Thornton, Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov and now Armas -- you wonder who can step up in Chicago and be the leader down the stretch.

10. New England: Suddenly healthy. It's been a long, strenuous haul for the Revolution, but suddenly, with seven games to go, the Revs seemingly have all the pieces in place to stage their annual stretch run. This weekend's home game against the Earthquakes presents the Revs with the ideal launching pad. New England will be playing before a large, pre-qualifier crowd, against a San Jose team that will most likely be missing Pat Onstad, Landon Donovan, Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario. The Revs have been a hard luck squad this year, but with home games remaining against Colorado, Dallas and Chicago, you have to like New England's chances of securing a playoff slot.

9. D.C.: Staying in the East. If any team controls its own destiny it's D.C. United. With six of its remaining seven games against Eastern Conference teams, United will have a huge say in the final standings. Only six points separate United from the first place MetroStars, a team D.C. will play twice down the stretch. First order of business for United, however, is taking some points from Chicago (Sept. 4 and 18). A sweep of that series could put the Fire down for the count. Keep in mind, though, D.C. has beaten every team in the East this year except the Fire. Don't you know Peter Nowak's got that on his mind.

8. San Jose: The road. The Earthquakes may be the best last-place team in sports history. Of course, it would be hard to find another last place team anywhere that's so close to being in first place. Still, if the Quakes are to climb from worst to first in the West, they're going to have to do it on the road. We all know by now how tough the fast-passing Quakes are at Spartan Stadium, but the Quakes are down to the final three home games on their schedule, and will have to play one of those games on Sept. 8, when their Call Up Contingent will be spread out around the hemisphere. The Quakes schedule will take them over some of the roughest road in the league, with games at New England, K.C., L.A., Colorado and Dallas. Winning the West will be a tall order.

7. Columbus: Head-to-head with Metro. If Sunday's 1-1 tie is any indication, the final two meetings between the Crew and MetroStars will be must-see matches. I don't want to hear all this garbage about the game being ugly. Fact is, the game was fiercely competitive. Players know when a lot is on the line and they instinctively raise the intensity a few notches. The Crew have become the hardest team to beat in the East, a tough three-point game for anyone. With a little more luck on Sunday they could've taken a strangle hold on the East. The inside of the post is all that kept them from taking three in the Swamp. Columbus is also one team we know will be improving its roster down the stretch. The addition of Tony Sanneh, a two-time MLS Cup champ, will surely pay dividends. Sanneh's performance in past playoffs with D.C., as well as his great showing for the U.S. in the 2002 World Cup, is proof enough that he's a big-game player.

6. Dallas: The next two weeks. At Colorado and at D.C. That's the challenge that faces the Burn over the next two weeks. If the Burn take four, even three points, from those two matches, I like their chances to win the West ... and go all the way. The Burn have the look of a team that'll be the toughest out in a playoff setup. They're defending well, tackling hard, and counter attacking with amazing speed. They are truly punishing teams for mistakes. If the Burn can gain even a little ground on the field in the next two weeks, they come home for very winnable games against Los Angeles and the MetroStars. And if the Burn can somehow gain home field for a conference final series at the Cotton Bowl, you've got to like their chances. And all of that will lead to a strange controversy. How do you go about re-branding a championship team?

5. Colorado: The home front. Four of the Rapids' six remaining games are at Invesco Field, where they never surrender a goal. If the Raps can take 10 points in those four games, you've got to figure they'll comfortably make the playoffs. Bruce Arena's decision not to call in Joe Cannon also helps Colorado as they make their playoff push. As I said a week ago, you get the feeling Cannon may be in the midst of a Tony Meola 2000 run. If the Rapids somehow win the West, go ahead and give JC the MVP.

4. MetroStars: Depth. You can't look back if you're the Metros, but it's hard to imagine this team won't curse some of the points it let slip away in the past month. This week in K.C., Metro will be playing without call-ups Jonny Walker, Eddie Pope, Craig Ziadie, Amado Guevara, Eddie Gaven and Cornell Glen. They'll also be missing Mike Magee on caution points. That doesn't even get into injuries to Gilberto and Joselito Vaca, both the result of tackles from behind. Metro have no choice but to change things up over the next month. Fabian Taylor, who's been injured for most of the season, will need to score some goals. Sergio Galvan Rey, who has yet to find his place on the team, will certainly get more minutes. Rookie keeper Zach Wells, will have to play beyond his years. Reserves like Kenny Arena and Tim Regan will have to step up. Rookie defender Jeff Parke will have to push through the wall so many young players hit in MLS late in the summer. So many challenges for a club that's clinging to its first-place lead in the East.

3. Los Angeles: The toughest schedule. A huge challenge faces new coach Steve Sampson, and it has nothing to do with playing entertaining soccer. The Galaxy, without Carlos Ruiz, play at Columbus this Saturday. Then, believe it or not, the schedule gets really hard. Two games left with Kansas City. Two games left with San Jose. Two games left with Dallas. No easy points there for a coach who's been told that getting points is not going to be good enough.

2. Kansas City: Three games in 10 days. Beginning Wednesday night, the Wizards play three games in a nine-day span. The play desperate Chicago on Wednesday at Soldier Field, depleted Metro at home on Saturday, then travel to Colorado for a Friday night game at Invesco. The Wizards will push hard for three points against the Eastern teams and probably would be content with a draw at Colorado. If they can pull that one off, it's hard to believe the Wizards will be caught down the stretch. Of course, seven points in those nine days will be quite a challenge, but not beyond the grasp of a team that's played the most consistent soccer in the league.

1. The U.S. national team: Chance to put the semifinal group away. Home at Foxborough against an El Salvador team that's in transition. Away to Panama. Win at home, tie on the road and there's no reason to believe the U.S. is not on to the next stage with ease. The U.S. will have to do better with its chances on Saturday then it did in Jamaica, when so many numerical advantages on the break resulted in so few quality shots. We all know at this point that El Salvador is going to have a nice contingent of fans in Foxboro and they will play hard for a point. The burden is going to be on Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna to get the U.S. into an offensive flow. Counter attacks, which have been the key to the U.S. strategy under Arena, will not be easy in this game as El Salvador is not likely to commit any numbers forward ... until they're forced to, anyway.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at jbradleyespn2003@yahoo.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.


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