Keys to the 2005 stretch run in MLS
or in the case, somewhere between fifth place and third place in the conference standings -- it'll take a total team effort to secure a place in the postseason.
With that being our theme, let's take a look at 28 factors -- one for each roster spot -- that will surely determine how the rest of the season plays out from now right through MLS Cup in Dallas.
1. World Cup qualifiers -- CONCACAF qualifying is only halfway through, so those in places like Los Angeles, New England and Dallas will have to hold their collective breaths once again while their stars serve international duty. Should Bruce Arena's side get three points against Trinidad & Tobago on Aug. 17 and a win or a tie against Mexico on Sept. 3, then players from other clubs not used to mixing and matching their lineups could get the call for the final three qualifiers. Something to consider.
2. Home-field advantage -- Those out West had their chance. If FC Dallas was ever going to stumble this season, it was going to come during the first four months while waiting for Pizza Hut Park to be finished. Despite losing three in a row to end July on a sour note, Colin Clarke's side will play an astounding 10 of their last 13 matches at home. That includes their last three, and a block of four consecutive games to open the month of September. Oh, and if you have forgotten, FC Dallas happens to be leading the conference despite injuries to Richard Mulrooney and Eddie Johnson.
3. Youri Djorkaeff -- I don't care about his age, his injury woes or that despicable turf he is forced to play on at Giants Stadium. If Youri is able to play in at least 10 of the MetroStars' last 12 matches, they'll make the playoffs. A stat that warrants mentioning: The Metros are 4-1-1 on when Djorkaeff either scores a goal or tallies an assist.
4. The Chivas factor -- We all know that the "other" team in La-La Land has improved and should only get better with help on the way from south of the border. However, it's not as though opposing teams are shivering when they see Chivas as their next opponent. Maybe it will matter. Maybe it won't. But it must be pointed out that only New England and Chicago won't get another chance to play the bottom-feeders in MLS down the stretch.
5. Justin Mapp -- He's getting better seemingly by the minute. If Chicago is to stay in a fight with New England, they'll need every trick the 20-year-old has in his bag.
6. Robert Warzycha -- From being in Columbus for four days, I can tell you first-hand that the boys love playing for the interim boss. Is that enough to make up the eight points that separates them from a playoff spot right now? It was for the Revs in 2002 under Steve Nicol.
7. Rookies -- Have they hit the wall yet? Some of them have, yes. Others are just starting to come on. At this point in the season, Chicago can't afford to see Chris Rolfe and Gonzalo Segares morph back into obscurity. Speaking of which ...
8. Scott Sealy -- How nice of the Kansas City Wizards striker to provide a challenge to his former Wake Forest teammate, Michael Parkhurst, for Rookie of the Year honors. If Sealy can continue his recent scoring ways after a slow start, Bob Gansler's side could be just as dangerous late in the fall as they were last year.
9. Road woes -- Are the hotel beds and the continental breakfasts that bad for Chivas USA, Columbus and Real Salt Lake? Whatever it is, those three sides have not won a single match between them when not playing at home. Unless that dramatically changes, the aforementioned teams will make up three of the four sides not allowed in at the postseason dance.
10. Taylor Twellman -- I picked him to lead the league in goals back in March, and I'm standing by that claim now that we're in August.
11. Columbus Crew and their schedule -- Of their 13 remaining matches, nine will be played outside of Crew Stadium. That includes a very dangerous trio of road matches to end the 2005 campaign against FC Dallas, Chicago and D.C. United. That's about as challenging as it gets.
12. Carlos Ruiz -- The Major League Soccer version of Manny Ramirez. Was it just "Carlos being Carlos" when he skipped the All-Star Game? We'll soon find out. Unless Ruiz is back on his game and limiting the drama that sometimes surrounds him, FC Dallas will have a hard time holding off Los Angeles down the stretch.
13. Real Salt Lake's defense -- Let's be frank: Eddie Pope hasn't been at his best. Brian Dunseth hasn't been at his best. Rusty Pierce hasn't been at his best. And, while we're on the subject, what exactly happened with Marlon Rojas? For John Ellinger's side to really --- and I mean really -- make in interesting in the West, Pope, Dunseth and Pierce need to play in the manner that they have shown over the years in this league. In addition, Gustavo Cabrera and Robert Scarlett have to provide an immediate impact once they are available for duty after Aug. 15.
14. Jeff Cunningham -- Hey, if he can score two goals in four minutes against Fulham, he should be able to light up some of the defenses he'll be playing against in the coming weeks. Cunningham has always been a streaky goal-scorer. If he can remain on his game, there's no reason that Colorado can't clinch a playoff spot with ease and improve on its woeful 1-7-2 road record.
15. Tony Meola -- He has always had a flair for the dramatic. Let's see if he can save both the MetroStars season and Bob Bradley's job.
16. The pride of a champion -- No one in their right mind would have predicted that D.C. United would rebound in the second half of the season and win yet another MLS Cup last year. Yet, that's exactly what they did to everyone's surprise. Maybe their impressive performance will buoy them to similar heights this fall. Of course, if that is to happen, then they need to hear from ...
17. Alecko Eskandarian -- I'm sorry, I still can't get his post-up-and-turn around Nick Garcia for a scintillating goal in last year's MLS Cup out of my head. He's got the game in him. Everyone knows that. Once he's healthy, Peter Nowak needs him to be the player he showed he was last year. Without him, there might not be enough offensive power on that side to make enough noise.
18. All-Star goalkeepers -- Look no further than Matt Reis and Scott Garlick if you really want to look at players who are of the utmost importance to their clubs down the stretch. Two of the pop-out-at-you stats from the first half of the season are the amount of goals allowed at home by both of these 'keepers. Reis has only let in six goals in nine matches at Gillette Stadium, while Garlick has surrendered a mere five goals in six home games. There's no secret why each of their teams is leading their respective conference.
19. Landon Donovan -- Steve Sampson needs him at his best. If it means granting him extra days off during the week in the way that Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear used to, then so be it.
20. Clint Mathis -- In the past, he started strong and ended poorly. Maybe he'll do the exact opposite now that he's in the Rockies.
21. Brian Ching -- Once the behemoth striker returns from hamstring surgery, look out. Since the Earthquakes have had to go it without him since mid-May, getting him back onto the field will be as though they went out and make a big signing.
22. October 15 -- Just as it was last season, the Revs and Fire will close out their season at Gillette Stadium. In 2004, a playoff berth was on the line. This time around, it could decide the Eastern Conference championship.
23. Freddy Adu -- Coming off a huge game-winning goal out in Los Angeles as well as a pretty good performance against Chelsea last week. How he accepts his role and combines with Jaime Moreno should continue to be a factor in the East.
24. Eric Vasquez -- This is why they even have a Supplemental Draft.
25. Carlos Bocanegra -- You're looking at your screen rather oddly right now, aren't you? Who is to say he doesn't transfer back into MLS sometime this fall if he's not playing regularly for Fulham? He knows he needs to see the field if he is to make his mark with the U.S. national team and his contract does run out in January. Stranger things have happened. I'm just throwing it out there.
26. Brad Davis -- He's been impressive thus far. But now the 23-year-old All-Star needs to start scoring goals, especially with that lethal left foot of his.
27. Colorado's last four games -- Five of their last six matches come against either Chivas USA or Real Salt Lake. If Fernando Clavijo and his staff can keep their side together through mid-September, they should be OK.
28. Preki -- You know the oldest player in MLS will have his say on the playoff race at some point.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.