The Throw-In: Juicy matchups best served rare

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, right? We’re just past the halfway mark of the Major League Soccer season, which means MLS Cup is somewhere up ahead. Three-and-a-half months ahead, in fact.

I’m already psyched about a late-fall trip to Toronto, but just take a second to appreciate how grueling the MLS regular season is, especially compared to other American sports. The regular seasons in baseball and the NHL are seven months apiece. The NBA’s is six months. The NFL’s is a mere four months.

But MLS, the granddaddy of endurance, stretches nearly eight months before playoff time. And there’s no other American league that has every team playing every other team exactly twice – home and away – either.

That makes most matchups pretty special and unique. And appropriately, it’s a pretty special MLS weekend ahead.

For the first and likely only time this season, we’ve got the top seeds in each conference dropping in on the No. 2 seeds in the opposite conference: the West-leading Los Angeles Galaxy at the New York Red Bulls and the Eastern frontrunners Columbus Crew at Real Salt Lake.

One matchup is a sexy cavalcade of stars: Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle & Co. (plus recovering David Beckham in tow) at the DPHQ of Red Bull Arena. The other is, quite simply, a succulent battle of the past two MLS Cup champions, Designated Players be damned.

These are delicious matchups of the best MLS has to offer, and ones that will go miles toward dictating positioning for the playoffs. And in the current playoff format, they’re also meetings of the teams occupying the only guaranteed postseason berths.

Remember, after the top two spots in each conference, the remaining four teams make the playoffs by total points, regardless of conference. But also, don’t forget, that same playoff format has made it possible for the past two MLS Cup finals to be showdowns of teams from the same conferences.

So enjoy the No. 1 vs. 2 East-West showdowns this weekend while you can – you may not get another chance.

Welcome to Spenlandia

“On that field, we’re gonna work hard for you and we’re gonna die for you.”

Classic John Spencer on Wednesday at his official introduction as head coach of the MLS Portland Timbers.

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I can’t imagine a better fit for Stumptown than “Spenny.” The former Scottish international isn’t exactly someone you’d call shy. Even as a player, he was always outspoken and fiery, a hardworking guy with a heart of gold and an offbeat sense of humor.

Portland is a city where they just have to do things a little differently – often just for the sake of doing them that way. There aren’t many places, if any, in America where you’ll find a tattooed hipster playing hacky sack with his buddies while blasting the Wu-Tang Clan out of an old boom box.

“Spenny’s definitely a big personality,” says Houston defender Ryan Cochrane, a Portland native who played under Spencer during the Scot’s four seasons as a Dynamo assistant coach. “He’s perfect for Portland. It’s a blue-collar place, just like him, but passionate and just a little bit different.”

Portland will welcome Spencer as a guy who will help them show their town is where soccer is done right. I still have a laugh when I think about the dozens of Timbers Army representatives who drove up to Seattle in March for First Kick, just to talk a little smack and stoke the Timbers-Sounders rivalry in anticipation of the 2011 season.

But here’s another interesting little nugget that tells you a bit about Spencer’s new home. Portland is so ready for MLS next season, the Timbers’ efforts to renovate PGE Park into a soccer-specific stadium may actually drive the current co-tenants – the minor-league baseball Portland Beavers – out of town for good.

A suitable replacement home for the Triple-A team has yet to be found, which may prompt the Beavers to move way south to the San Diego area. And honestly, it doesn’t sound like anyone’s really that upset about it.

Soccer over America’s Pastime? Yeah, I think Spenny’s gonna like it in the PDX.

Think good thoughts for Papi

Chivas USA suddenly have depth in offense – something they’ve been lacking recently – and that made Maykel Galindo the odd man out. The Cuban striker was loaned to USSF D2 Tampa Bay this week.

That’s all fine and good, since “Papi” could use the minutes and the extended rehab project – plus he’ll be closer to Miami, one of his favorite cities in the world. But there’s a part of me that was sad to hear this news. Galindo has my favorite back story of any MLS player, and one I followed very closely after he defected from his homeland five summers ago.

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Anyone who can just walk out of a hotel in a strange country, without knowing the language, and hope somehow he can make it big and support his family back home – well, that’s the American dream, kids. And Galindo made it happen. Plus he’s one of the nicest, funniest guys in the league. It’s impossible not to root for him.

Sadly, Galindo hasn’t been able to stay healthy since his breakout season in 2007. And being loaned out to Tampa Bay is the latest hope that he’ll be able to get healthy and rediscover the form that not too long ago saw him torch MLS defenses with speed and precision. Here’s hoping Galindo comes back stronger.

Suerte, Papi.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.