First XI: Everybody in!
It's been a recurring theme this season. This is the year when all 10 MLS teams have a shot to win it all. Sounds contrived, I know, but it's true. Really. This week's First XI lays out the evidence to prove, as we head into the final month of the 2004 season, the MLS Cup is completely up for grabs.
11. The New England Revolution just routed the Colorado Rapids 6-1 on Saturday. That's a six-spot against the league's best defense. Now, this weekend, the Revs travel to Chicago to play the Fire on the weekend after the Fire play in the U.S. Open Cup Final. If the Revs can win another six-point swing game, it not only puts them back into the playoffs, it gets their confidence rolling into their final three games, two of which will be played on their home turf at Gillettte Stadium. Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and many other New England players have witnessed first hand the last two seasons what it means to get hot at the right time. If the Revs can gain that fourth spot and set up a showdown with Columbus, don't think for a second that they can't come out of that series with an aggregate victory. The last two meetings between the Revs and Crew have ended in ties, which indicates these teams are very close. But when it comes to winning playoff series, it's the team from Foxborough, Mass., that has the edge in experience against Columbus.
10. The Chicago Fire have a little thing called pride on their side. The guys on this team still have a bitter taste in their mouths from letting MLS Cup 2003 slip away. They've struggled this season, for sure, but a couple of recent home victories, 3-1 against K.C. and 3-1 against D.C., are proof that the Fire can roll up a big number at Soldier Field, which makes them a very tough out in a two-game aggregate series. Losing Justin Mapp takes some of the attacking options away from the Fire, but there's still enough playmakers on Dave Sarachan's team to get this team through the first round. Put them in a one-game semifinal with an MLS Cup berth on the line and I doubt you'd find any teams in the East who'd feel like they've got an easy route to the final.
9. The Dallas Burn are another team that's starting to brim with confidence on their home field. A 4-1 win against Chicago in late August. A 2-0 win against L.A. last week. These results lead you to believe the Burn, even with a fourth-place finish in the West, can put a lot of heat on their first-round opponent. I've said it before, the Burn have a style of play that's going to be conducive to winning in the postseason. They concentrate hard on defending and attack with speed. That said, the likely first-round opponent for the Burn is Kansas City, a team that's had its way with the Burn in their last four meetings (including an Open Cup match) by a 12-1 margin.
8. The San Jose Earthquakes are the ultimate wild card team. Sure, they've got their work cut out for them just to make it to the postseason, but once they get there, who's going to be excited to head to Spartan for Game 1 of the playoffs? The Quakes have got games with L.A., K.C., Colorado and Dallas remaining on the schedule, which means they control much of their own destiny. It doesn't help that their home game with K.C. falls on a World Cup qualifier day, which likely takes Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, Pat Onstad and Dwayne De Rosario out of the mix, but the Quakes can pull it off. Remember, the Quakes are 1-1-1 against the Wizards this year, including a 2-0 victory at Arrowhead.
7. The MetroStars have been an elevator team that needs to hope it can finish off its season on the up. They've been evenly matched with all of the East. They're 1-1 against D.C. They're 1-1-1 against Columbus. They're 1-2-1 against both New England and Chicago. What's important for the young Metros is to get some goals from Fabian Taylor and Cornell Glen down the stretch. Both players have shown to be the wave-riding type. When they're playing with confidence, you see the decisiveness around the box. When they're knocked off their games a bit, both become hesitant. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if the Metros continue to play Amado Guevara in the deep role, or try to work Ricardo Clark or Gilberto back into the mix. When the Metros have been at their best this year, it's been when Guevara is finding Eddie Gaven in dangerous positions. When teams have been able to push Gaven far away from the goal, the MetroStars have become too reliant on the long ball. Back to the main point, though. The MetroStars can win it all if, and only if, they find the attacking swagger they had earlier in the year. When a team is so young, that's a tough thing to predict.
6. D.C. United is ready to restore one of the original MLS rivalries over the next few weeks. They've got two games left with the MetroStars. Two games that will likely serve as a prelude to a first-round playoff matchup between the two clubs. The last meeting between the two clubs went to D.C. in resounding, 6-2 fashion, and did not sit well at all with many of the Metros. These games have the potential to be racehorse games as D.C. believes it can harass the Metro midfield and, more importantly, force players like Gaven and Mike Magee to defend. When they cause turnovers hear the center of the field, that's when they love to spring players like Jaime Moreno, Ben Olsen and Dema Kovalenko on super-fast counter attacks. There's one thing you can count on with a Peter Nowak coached team. It's something he preached for years as a player in Chicago. D.C. will pick out the opposition's dangerous players and clamp down on them. In the case of the MetroStars, they're going to challenge players like Pablo Brenes or Joselito Vaca or Mike Magee to beat them. They're going to be all over Guevara and Gaven.
5. The Los Angeles Galaxy have a brutal schedule remaining. They play at San Jose, come home for K.C. and Dallas, then travel to K.C. for their season finale. Making the playoffs might end up being a huge challenge for the Galaxy, but a strong finish could be the thing that finally gets this team rolling. The Galaxy need to finish strong, not just to make the playoffs, but to finish in the 2-3 position, which would give them a chance to host the semifinal. I do not see this as the type of team that's going to go on the road and win a big game.
4. The Colorado Rapids will have a great chance to roll into the playoffs on a high as they finish their schedule with home games against San Jose and Columbus. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's going to be very hard for the Rapids to get the bad taste from their 6-1 drubbing in New England out of their mouths for a while, as they travel to Kansas City this weekend to play a Wizards team that's looking to put a stranglehold on the Western Conference title. It's tough to get a handle on just how good the Rapids are. Sometimes they seem more impressive in defeat than they do in victory, if that makes sense. If they're serious about winning the West and hosting the semi at Invesco, they'd better figure out a way to go and steal three from the Wizards this weekend. If they were ever to roll up nine points in their final three, they become my hands-down pick. Big if.
3. The Columbus Crew played brilliantly in Saturday's 4-2 victory over the MetroStars. They played a fast-possession game that had the Metros backline befuddled. It is simply the best game I have seen the Crew play all season. They seem to have the right combination of grit and skill to make a serious run at a title this year. Especially if Edson Buddle can parlay this four-goal explosion into a final-month surge.
2. The Kansas City Wizards are pretty machine-like. Their last six MLS wins have been by a one-goal margin which says to me they're the toughest bunch in the league. Still, winning the West won't be easy, as they have a pair of tough road games, one with L.A. and one with San Jose, left on the schedule. I think taking the West could pay huge dividends for the Wizards because, to do it, they're going to have to come up huge in the final four games against their toughest conference rivals. Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud are trouble for every team in the league, but it's the K.C. mentality that makes them the favorites to win it all this year.
1. So how do I see it playing out? Make sure to check back every week, as I'll re-calibrate the scale, but as I type it out today, look for a Kansas City-D.C. United final.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at email@example.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 its clubs.