Layoff doesn't keep Ruiz down

a midfielder known more for his passing. With his two goals against San Jose in just his second start since returning from injury, Ruiz is once again the top scorer in MLS with a league-leading eight goals.

It begs an explanation of why other scoring leaders have been so slow to emerge. A sudden three-goal outburst this weekend boosted Kansas City's Davy Arnaud to an unlikely position behind Ruiz in the rankings. He is followed by another domestic-born player in Brian Ching, whose seven goals and overall solid performances have earned him a U.S. national team call-up. But in reality aside from Ching there is no other player, U.S. or foreign, who has been able to emerge as a consistent scoring threat during Ruiz's one-month layoff.

To have a Taylor Twellman serve as a competitor to Ruiz as in 2002 does not just present another story to follow from week to week. More importantly it validates the pool of forwards in MLS, which although promising, has yet to offer any new names. With the MetroStars forward corps continuing its alternating system, John Spencer figuring on the left side of the Rapids attack in his first game back from suspension and Damani Ralph praying for quality service in Chicago, Ruiz's best competition may come from his own team, in the likes of Alejandro Moreno and Jovan Kirovski.

SURPRISE OF WEEKEND IN DENVER: The fact that the Colorado Rapids earned a 1-0 home victory over the last-place club in the Eastern Conference, the New England Revolution, is no surprise in itself. But how it happened proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend. The visiting Revolution carried the play throughout the match on the wide and inviting pitch of Invesco Field while the Rapids held true to their recent modus operandi: keeping things tight with solid team defense.

Led by goalkeeper Joe Cannon and U.S. national team defender Pablo Mastroeni, the Rapids have successfully built the best defensive record in MLS, allowing a league-low 12 goals in 14 games. That is a strange development for a squad coached by Tim Hankinson, who is known more for his attack-minded tactics. In fact in 2002 and 2003 the Rapids conceded 48 and 45 goals respectively, among the three worst totals in the league each year.

This newfound defensive respect in 2004 may be a result of the absences at different junctures of Mark Chung, Spencer and Zizi Roberts (who is now out for the season) which have greatly impacted the Rapids' ability to sustain an offensive game. The team has also scored a league-low 13 goals.

But it was also interesting that Hankinson would opt to shift Spencer, one of the team's all-time leading scorers and one of MLS' top finishers, to the left flank of the attack while unproven newcomer Alberto Delgado operated in the center of the attack. Aside from a few solid crosses into the box, what the move ensured was that the Revolution's Steve Ralston, who himself made the rare move from right midfield to right back, was occupied by Spencer, which limited Ralston's offensive forays. All eyes will be on Spencer once again at The Home Depot Center on Saturday and whether the experiment is repeated or whether the Independence Day game actually featured a game specific tactical shift.

Ralston's move to right back was part of yet another formation employed by Revolution head coach Steve Nicol, who adopted a 4-5-1 (changed from a 3-5-2), a move dictated by a shortage of players due to a long list of injuries. The crowded midfield did bring about the desired result of nullifying the Rapids midfield corps, which was able to generate little in attack while consistently on its heels defending the darting runs of Clint Dempsey, Felix Brillant and Richie Baker.

As in the case of Spencer's new position on Sunday, it remains to be seen whether the Revolution's tactical change was forced by an opponent (Colorado has one of the strongest wing players in league history in Chris Henderson) or whether it is here to stay. With as many forward options as the Revs will have once they are healthy, Nicol's 4-5-1 should have a short lifespan.

CONCERNS GROW OVER FIRE: The players themselves acknowledge there are issues to be resolved and the coach admits that the team was outplayed and did not serve up the requisite competitive spirit last weekend. As long as the members of the Chicago Fire are not in denial there is always hope.

The single problem that plagues the Fire is of the most delicate kind in the sport of soccer: mental. The lack of fight and spirit in recent matches including the one in Columbus are inexplicable from a team which returns eight of 10 field players from the team which that showed championship resolve just last year, advancing to MLS Cup 2003 and capturing the 2003 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Last weekend's game in Columbus, however, saw DaMarcus Beasley, Andy Williams and Justin Mapp, three of the most creative and unpredictable midfielders in MLS, register mundane performances without the dribbling accelerations that open spaces and break down back lines for forwards Damani Ralph and Ante Razov up top. Credit goes to an admirable effort of the Crew's team defense. However, on a more basic level, the Fire midfield -- including Logan Pause and Chris Armas -- continues to struggle mightily to maintain possession and in fact both of the Crew's goals came from turnovers in the center of the park.

A look toward the bench does not offer many alternatives for head coach Dave Sarachan. If the team is going to emerge from this slump it must begin from the players on the field on Saturday: starting with Beasley, Armas and Williams. But these players first have to be wearing the uniform to make the difference. On July 11 at Soldier Field, Beasley and Armas will be wearing the U.S. national team jersey instead of their Chicago jersey. The test of character for the Fire could not be greater.

PARITY HIGHLIGHTS WIZARDS' CONSISTENCY: Another round of weekend matches led to another series of results which leave fans and critics with more questions than answers about nearly every club in the league.

The MetroStars first defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy, owners of the league's best record, in two consecutive games (at home and on the road) only to come back and lose three in row. The Galaxy have had to wait until their 16th game of the season to string back-to-back wins for the first time this season. Colorado goes winless in four (0-2-2) and reels off three consecutive wins. The leaders in the Eastern Conference, D.C. United, have a 5-5-5 record to lead a pack which includes the reigning Eastern Conference champion Chicago Fire who have done the best Jekyll & Hyde impersonation of any club this season.

In a murky quagmire which sees so many teams flipping from one extreme to the next, the Kansas City Wizards continue to stand out. On a streak of their own (4-0-2 in their last six games), the Wizards have maintained the semblance of consistency that made them a team to watch even during their string of three losses in four games.

Those losses were less a factor of the team deviating much from its normal game plan and more the case of a stretch of matches in which the breaks did not fall their way (including a mesmerizing Jaime Moreno run vs. D.C. United and a miraculous comeback by New England in the final minutes). There are very few chinks in Kansas City's armor that critics can point to, as they once again proved this weekend registering a strong performance while incorporating a new element, rookie Taylor Graham, in the back line.

Andy Pavon is a freelance soccer writer taking another perspective on the matches of the past weekend, past the box scores and standings. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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