Bigger they are, harder they fall

who has carried the team on his shoulders through the entire season, including in Saturday night's performance.



1.Brian Ching (SJ)11
 Eddie Johnson (DAL)11
 Pat Noonan (NE)11
 Carlos Ruiz (LA)11
2.Edson Buddle (CLB)10
 Alecko Eskandarian (DC)10
 Amado Guevara (MET)10
 Damani Ralph (CHI)10
3.Davy Arnaud (KC)9
 Josh Wolff (KC)9


1.Carlos Ruiz (LA)15
 Taylor Twellman (NE)15
2.Ante Razov (CHI)14
 John Spencer (COL)14
3.Landon Donovan (SJ)12
 Brian McBride (CLB)12
 Preki (KC)12
4.Mark Chung (COL)11
 Damani Ralph (CHI)11
5.Edson Buddle (CLB)10
 Pat Noonan (NE)10
CREW HAVE CHANCE TO SECURE PLACE IN HISTORY: Despite the failure of the Rapids to use their improbable position at the top of the standings as a launchpad to bigger and better things, the Columbus Crew continue their march and are presently the most credible candidate to earn the title of most dominant team of 2004. However, fluke of all flukes, despite a record unbeaten streak, the team still finds itself behind the Kansas City Wizards in the race for the Supporters Shield with the best point total in MLS (though with a game in hand).

Despite their difficulties at the beginning of the season, the 2004 Crew have put together what is likely a record that will be one of the toughest to break for any team in the parity-laden MLS for years to come. Their 13-game unbeaten streak strung together in a single season has never been done in league history. The Los Angeles Galaxy went 15 games without defeat but that spanned two seasons (1998-'99).

With two of the next three games scheduled to be played at home including two against the hapless Chicago Fire, the Crew run may rise to unexpected heights. However, for the streak (on the strength of seven ties) to carry any prestige for posterity the team must finish the season at the top of the MLS standings and with a No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. Convincing displays as in Edson Buddle's four-goal game this past weekend need be the lasting mark of a team in search of its first MLS Cup final appearance.

U.S. FORWARDS CONTINUE TO PROMOTE CANDIDACY: Buddle is one of a group of forwards who is using this season, and last weekend's results in particular, to put forth his candidacy as an established MLS striker, shedding the "up-and-coming" prefix with every goal.

Buddle joins Eddie Johnson (Dallas), Alecko Eskandarian (D.C. United), Pat Noonan (New England Revolution) and John Wolyniec (MetroStars) in the weekend highlight of striker performances, with all five happening to also be from the United States. (Although Noonan continues to be listed as a forward, he shares tendencies with Landon Donovan of being one of the first U.S. "10 1/2" players -- not really a forward but not limited to midfield duty either). These are players (aside from Wolyniec) who came into MLS with important credentials and are now ready to be tested at the international level as well. The fact that they are producing on a week-to-week basis should arguably place them ahead of the likes of former Crew player Brian McBride, who is yet to break into the starting lineup at Fulham -- and has also been unspectacular in his recent international appearances. Although international experience is considered a positive, one must begin to wonder when the likes of McBride, Clint Mathis and even Donovan have to start worrying about their automatic call-ups to the U.S. squad.

NEW BLOOD SLOW-MOVING IN L.A.: When one speaks of new blood, however, a thought can be directed to the Los Angeles Galaxy where Steve Sampson continues to bring in Memo Gonzalez and Arturo Torres off the bench. For a coach like Sampson, who has had to endure much-publicized fall-outs with veteran members of teams in the past (see John Harkes with USA '98 and Mauricio Wright with Costa Rica '04), the situation could be growing increasingly uneasy.

Who to take out of the lineup? Andreas Herzog, who is subtle in exhibiting his displeasure as a halftime substitute? Cobi Jones, who is the lone remaining original Galaxy player and a staple of the team? In order to avoid reliving past situations and furthering an infamous reputation, Sampson may just have to bide his time right now and wait it out until the end of the year before making the changes everyone can see coming in 2005.

FIRE IN ONE OF WORST PERFORMANCES OF YEAR: Changes could be aplenty in Chicago by then as well. After showings like the one against D.C. United where the team did not even belong on the same field, thoughts of an overhaul may not be so farfetched. The squad had no possession of the ball, a lonely and ineffective Damani Ralph up top, and no idea what to do after winning the ball in its own defensive half. The misguided clearances from the back were a sign of a team in disarray.

The excuses are many with injuries to Ante Razov, Chris Armas and Justin Mapp proving difficult to overcome. However, with players of Razov's and Armas' age it is a necessity to have up-and-comers ready to fill in. The likes of Nate Jaqua, Logan Pause and Scott Buete have proven they are not the answer.

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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