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Five-a-side: What's hot around the league

a sticking point, if you will -- sometime around 2004 or 2005.

This improvement manifests itself in several ways. Among them is this one: It's increasingly difficult to hide weaknesses in MLS.

Yes, there was a time when a club that was weak at center back or vulnerable on one flank could probably "hide" the malady a bit. Even a weakness over one whole area of the field could be marginalized. Say a team was deficient in midfield, but owned a good defense or a pair of quality strikers. That club was probably OK; a spot in the playoffs could still be had.

Teams in 2009 can shade their blemishes some -- just not to the extent they could before. Reason: the quality of everything else has improved.

Look at the Los Angeles Galaxy today. Bruce Arena might have (finally!) propped up the club's previously dreadful goalkeeping situation. Donovan Ricketts was quite the backstopper last week. As they say, that's just "one in a row." He'll have to prove he can do it over time, etc. Still, it's a step in the right direction.

Anyway, the defense appears to be getting better and any strike force headlined by Landon Donovan is one to reckoned with. And yet, the Galaxy midfield is a mess. And the defective link between attack and defense at the Home Depot Center explains why Los Angeles remains one of five clubs desperate for a first win.

In the middle of the country, the two clubs from Texas are battling to collect the initial "W" of 2009. In Houston, the trouble is partially attributable to those strikers, who can't seem to steer enough efforts toward goal with consistency. The Dynamo defense has experienced its shaky moments. But in another day, the steady midfield, solid goalkeeper and adequate defense might have been enough to gather up a win or two, because even struggling strikers would have found a way past the lesser defenses of the day.

Something similar has afflicted the team north of there. FC Dallas has had difficulty finding the right combination of defenders. The result is an average of two goals a game yielded, which is tied for league worst. In another day, striker Kenny Cooper could have turned more of those league-leading totals in shot (20) and shots on goal (12) into successful efforts, and Dallas probably wouldn't be winless through four rounds.

5. It all starts in goal: Reporters and bloggers are filling up their notebooks and on-line entries with news from the nets in MLS right now. In some spots, it's about a confidence crisis. In other MLS parks, there's a choice to be made.

And, in general, it's just fascinating to watch the current and coming transition, as MLS is suddenly a land of old hands who will soon step down and young types still prone to the untimely bobble or the killer bane of improper positioning.

Just look at some of the young starters likely to stand in goal this weekend: Stefan Frei, Ray Burse, Brad Knighton and Danny Cepero all figure to make yet another start. At the other end of the age spectrum, Pat Onstad is 41 and Kasey Keller is 39. Zach Thornton is 35. Kevin Hartman will be 35 next month.

If you take the position that a goalkeeper's best years are between 30 and 35, when the brain is stuffed with useful info and the legs remain springy, then only four teams currently feature men in their prime: Louis Crayton (31), Jon Busch (32), Ricketts (31) and Joe Cannon (34). Nick Rimando (29) and William Hesmer (27) would be just south of their prime, if you accept the conventional wisdom.

There are starting choices to debate in some cities for MLS Week 5 or in coming rounds. Preston Burpo and Matt Pickens have split the duty so far for Gary Smith in Colorado.

Knighton in New England and Burse in Dallas will soon have to fend off challenges from healing vets to keep their spots. Same for Cepero, although his challenger, Jon Conway, will be coming off suspension rather than injury.

The situation is compelling in Toronto, where Frei is an early candidate for Rookie of the Year. That would be a first; no goalkeeper has ever collected that honor. Even if Frei can't outlast some of the other talented rookies in a special crop, his bid to keep the starting assignment at BMO at the expense of 2008 starter Greg Sutton will surely be worth watching.

And this weekend, the goalkeeping decision du jour belongs to Sigi Schmid. He's got a humdinger of a choice as he tries to plug Sounders FC's one-game gap for suspended Kasey Keller. The choices for this week's big Western Conference clash at Chivas USA are unheralded Chris Eylander or less-heralded Ben Dragavon. Both played in a midweek reserve contest.

Steve Davis is a freelance writer who has covered Major League Soccer since its inception. Steve can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com. 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.