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Five-a-side: Understated and underrated

even if it's slightly less noticeable. Here's a great "for instance:"

Discussion about the Chicago Fire these days always seem to begin and end at Cuauhtemoc Blanco, McBride or, increasingly, Marco Pappa. Oh, somewhere in there we might get around to talking about Wilman Conde or Gonzalo Segares, if they are healthy. Or we might mention Chris Rolfe's good work or, lately, how much John Thorrington's return has meant in Bridgeview.

But don't they have a guy backstopping the whole thing that won a Goalkeeper of the Year award at this time last year?

Jon Busch seems to be the steady, quiet presence these days at Toyota Park.

Busch had a few uncharacteristic moments earlier this year, so he kind of fell out of discussions of top-flight league goalkeepers. Flavors of the moment like Kasey Keller and Donovan Ricketts and the resurgent Zach Thornton claimed the collective awe when it came to MLS 'keepers.

But Busch diligently kept the peace at Toyota Park over the back half of the campaign. Lately, he's been as stable as anyone in the league. Consider that Chicago has allowed three goals in its last five overall.

Now consider the trying circumstances. There's been so much coming and going lately in the Chicago Fire defense that it looks like shift change over at the South Side precinct. Busch has been just about the one and only constant back there.

It's not just the shot saving, but the calming balm that he applies to the entire work. They'll need a super application of it this weekend, as confidence is surely soaring for in-form RSL striker Robbie Findley and other teammates (who might be getting that "it's our time" feeling). Plus, there's pressure aplenty as a sold-out Toyota Park plays host to its first conference final (and the team's first since 2003).

Home field hasn't been an enormous advantage in conference finals since MLS went to the current playoff format. The hosts are just 7-5, so Busch's 10 years in MLS and 12 games of playoff experience should go a long way.

2. Understated and underrated at Real Salt Lake: I'll have two enduring images of last week's Eastern Conference Semifinals. One is the rock concert atmosphere around Toyota Park, a virtual postcard for how an MLS playoff scene should unfold.

The other lasting image was from nearby Columbus, one of Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson ricocheting around the park, at one moment crashing forcefully, at the next careening almost elegantly, but always in motion. Never underestimate what that kind of contagious effort can do to inspire teammates. They see one man working that hard, so obviously committed to the cause, and they dare not let him down with anything less than their own best effort.

It took that kind of extra pep to push Real Salt Lake past Columbus in the opening round. No, Columbus probably wasn't at its tip-top best. But that shouldn't subtract from Real Salt Lake's effort and achievement. Saturday against the Fire, Johnson will have to be similarly energetic. So will Kyle Beckerman, who also punched the clock against Columbus and pounded away like some old railroad worker who desperately needed the paycheck.

Tactically, Johnson's effort makes RSL's diamond midfield work. Without his willingness to ping pong around, moving inside and outside without complaint, there's just too much space centrally. And who's the master of finding the space when it's left unattended? Yep, that would be Blanco. Johnson will need to be spry once again.

Johnson's industry also provides balance as Andy Williams lines up across the field. The veteran linkman is more of an attacking slasher and playmaker. Ordinarily, considering Javier Morales is the primary offensive conduit, that would toss a midfield out of balance. But Johnson's willingness to hustle, harass and cover wherever needed while Beckerman works as the primary holder helps round out the RSL midfield.

3. Understated and underrated for the L.A. Galaxy: We heard so much this year about Omar Gonzalez, who claimed a Rookie of the Year Award. And we know plenty now about long and strong Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. He was an anonymous figure as the 2009 season kicked off -- but not anymore.

Obviously, two guys alone didn't help the Galaxy cut their goals conceded in half -- something that's never happened in MLS from one year to the next. (Kansas City came close once, going from 53 to 29 in 2000. The trick to repeating this nearly-unrepeatable feat is that you have to be historically dreadful on the front end just for a shot at it.)

Gonzalez keeps trying to tell us how much Gregg Berhalter has done for him, so it's quite possible that all that veteran tutelage still hasn't been fully appreciated.

Meanwhile, it's also quite possible that Sean Franklin's contributions have gotten a bit lost in the hubbub over Gonzalez's award, David Beckham's playoff presence (finally!) and Landon Donovan's ever-growing legacy. Franklin has provided what was sorely lacking along the Galaxy back line -- speed. We saw it last week as Franklin raced over from his spot on the right, crossing the field to snuff out danger.

That good pace also allows Franklin to get forward -- and then get back in good measure. Friday against Houston, that could keep Brad Davis just a little more honest, a little less sure about getting all the way forward on that big Home Depot Center pitch. Or it might keep Stuart Holden from fully committing to an offensive push if Davis is already forward.

Plus, when Franklin makes those runs, Dynamo defenders must peel out of the middle and chase him along the wings. When they do, that opens more room inside for Beckham and Donovan -- which is surely not what Houston would prefer.

In the back, Franklin has been safe as an armored truck since taking the position from A.J. DeLaGarza back in September. That's going to be critical in a match where goals are sure to be at a premium. These conference finals have averaged less than two goals (1.88) over the last four years.

4. Understated and underrated for the Houston Dynamo: Brian Mullan is 150 pounds of fire and desire. Of course, he's also 31 years old. And after 30, your capacity to rain destruction over some hapless opponent with said "fire and desire" begins declining.

Mullan just went through his first MLS regular season without a goal. For eight previous campaigns before this year, the Littleton, Colo., man tore up and down the right wing with a mighty vengeance and always managed to push a few by the goalkeeper.

Not so in 2009, when he also generated only four assists -- also low on the career production chart. So, suffice to say, he can't get it done as consistently as "back in the day." But hear this: the man can still get it done in bursts.

So it was last week, as Mullan poured it all out in the second leg against Seattle. He helped keep tabs on Sounders FC rookie Steve Zakuani on one end and then caused a lot of grief on the other end. It might have been one of Mullan's best end-to-end matches of 2009.

Across the field, doing much of the same, was reliable ol' Brad Davis.

Davis is in his eighth MLS season, having just turned 28 years old. He's a fringe national team guy and, in all honesty, that's probably where he'll land. He probably isn't far enough up the U.S. depth chart to make the World Cup roster in 2010, and by the next go-round he'll be 32, a little long in the tooth for an international midfielder.

Guys like that tend to be 'tweeners in terms of fan and media mention. That is, we like to talk about venerable old war horse vets (Blanco, Beckham, Berhalter, McBride, etc.) or the exciting and promising newbies (Gonzalez, Pappa, Findley, etc.). Guys like Davis, they just kind of grind away with a little less appreciation than they probably deserve.

But check out this: If you strip away Davis' injury-slowed 2007 season (he missed almost half the Dynamo matches that year) the man has averaged more than 10 assists a season since the club moved to Houston four year ago. In terms of goal scoring, five this year puts him behind only Eddie Gaven (Columbus) and Claudio Lopez (Kansas City) among the list of players who line up primarily as wide midfielders. Take a second to absorb those numbers and you'll see that the flat out gets it done.

Yeah, Clark and Ching are the U.S. internationals, and Holden is the promising young Yankee star. But Mullan and Davis are the bookends that tie together the ever-intrepid Dynamo effort.

5. The injury factor: There's an interesting situation at The Home Depot Center, where an injury to a starter might have served the Galaxy well in the long run.

Stefani Miglioranzi had developed a real feel for the holding midfield role, sitting behind David Beckham, happily doing the work and always looking to combine quickly with his England international teammate. But a groin injury has kept Miglioranzi out for more than a month.

Dema Kovalenko has played the role over the last four matches, and it doesn't seem to be hurting L.A. too much; the Galaxy have three shutouts during that foursome. Still, Kovalenko lacks pace, which could hurt against the Dynamo's buzz saw of a midfield. But here's where it gets interesting. Kovalenko does bring a little more bite compared to Miglioranzi. That could come in handy against the Dynamo, always a league standard bearer in terms of attacking matches with physical play. Miglioranzi is back at practice now but it doesn't look like Bruce Arena is in a hurry to make a change.

Also, Chris Birchall should be back after missing last week's match due to illness. When he plays along the right he's quick to scoot into the middle to help out defensively, which helps mitigate Kovalenko's lack of pace.

No team has as many injury concerns as Chicago, as the trainer's table remains a distressingly busy place in Bridgeview. Wilman Conde has resumed training at Toyota Park, but manager Denis Hamlett still doesn't sound confident that his first-choice center back will be healthy enough to help deal with the speedy Robbie Findley and RSL's other attackers. So it may be C.J. Brown and Dasan Robinson once again in the middle.

Gonzalo Segares seems behind Conde in terms of recovery, so he seems unlikely to regain his spot at left back. Hamlett said Daniel Woolard did well last week against Sainey Nyassi. RSL won't have anyone as speedy along the flank, although the Utah side certainly presents its own special set of issues.

Tim Ward is back at practice. But as he has been absent since early August, Hamlett might be wary of making yet another change in the back, which means sticking with Brandon Prideaux at right back.

Real Salt Lake and Houston are good to go in terms of injury, although Houston will be missing suspended left back Mike Chabala. What a luxury to have Wade Barrett, the Dynamo's original team captain and a man with 10 years of MLS experience.

Steve Davis is a freelance writer who has covered Major League Soccer since its inception. Steve writes for www.DailySoccerFix.com and 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.

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