The champs are back

all distinctive characteristics of a San Jose club known for its pressure and tireless work rate.

But Colorado Rapids head coach Tim Hankinson assisted matters considerably with his starting lineup. It was obvious from the start and throughout the first half that Quakes right midfielder Brian Mullan was running roughshod up and down the Rapids' left flank. During an in-game interview Hankinson took issue with the Rapids' Matt Crawford vacating the space at left back to meet Mullan at midfield, thus providing a space for the Earthquakes' incisive runs behind the back line. The fact is Crawford didn't have much choice.

It was growing painfully evident in the early going that Crawford was not getting any help whatsoever from left-sided midfielder Jordan Cila. Given the pressure applied by Mullan it would have made more sense for Mark Chung to move from the center to the left side in order to keep Mullan honest. A second-half substitute, Seth Trembly could have ably manned the middle of the field alongside Kyle Beckerman, who was left to cover a lot of ground on his own.

Hankinson's squad was fortunate not to be down by more than a goal at halftime, at which time Cila exited the match. However, the central midfield problem remained and Chung, in his first game back from injury since May 29, was never a factor in the match. By the time Trembly came off the bench, the score was 3-0 and well out of hand.

The absence of Pablo Mastroeni in the heart of the back four was another aspect of a game that went wrong from so many aspects for Colorado. It's safe to say that the Rapids coaching staff will not be using this game tape for reference purposes anytime soon.

CREW MAKE MOVES TO SALVAGE TIE: While the Rapids were slower to react to the mismatches presented in their game in San Jose, Crew head coach Greg Andrulis did not waste any time in dealing with Revolution right midfielder Richie Baker in the first half.

In the 28th minute Chris Wingert came on for left wingback Eric Denton, and Frankie Hejduk shifted from the right side to the left side in order to keep Baker at bay. Although the Revolution still managed to score just after the move -- and Baker won Man of the Match honors -- the damage was contained and the Crew had a chance to fight back in the game, eventually earning a draw.

Although Columbus managed to recover, there are still questions as the Crew once again was flat at the start of a game. They were fortunate not to have been down by several more goals against a dominant Revolution team in the first half and its ability to squeeze points out of below-average displays cannot be expected to continue.

What also raised eyebrows was the fact that Andrulis replaced both starting forwards, gamebreakers Jeff Cunningham and Edson Buddle, toward the end of the match. In a home game with a 1-1 result, one would expect the home team coach to pull a midfielder and insert a forward as opposed to replacing his two most skillful strikers, whatever the level of fatigue.

THE RALSTON EXPERIMENT? NO MORE: He may not enjoy the time on the back line, but the fact is that former right winger Steve Ralston has looked at home since being moved to right back. He has contributed on both sides of the ball, combining good positional awareness in his own box while jumping up to join the attack when it's on.

Revolution head coach Steve Nicol has shown himself to be industrious when it comes to tactical shifts -- at times this season utilizing a three-man back line, employing Brian Kamler and Jay Heaps in central defense, and moving Pat Noonan and Clint Dempsey to forward. The installation of Ralston in the back four has been one of the most enlightened moves of the year, ranking up there with the transformation of the Galaxy's Chris Albright into a right back.

In doing so, Nicol has provided his back line with yet another pair of good feet. Defenders who can assist with a team's attacking buildup can make the difference between an average team and a championship one.

When Rusty Pierce is back to full health Nicol will have to decide whether to keep Heaps at central defense and an unhappy Ralston at right back. However, that Daouda Kante -- the central defender once hailed as the savior of the Revolution during the run to MLS Cup 2002 -- continues to ride the pine proves that Nicol is content to stay the course with Ralston.

IF IT WAS HIS LAST GAME ...: DaMarcus Beasley should hope that last Saturday night's match was not his last in a Fire jersey. It is not the type of showing he will want to be remembered by. And a player of his caliber will not be content with his performance which began in a wide left role in midfield before moving centrally.

Although the fact that he has played a lot of soccer of late may be a mitigating factor, Beasley was never a factor in the match against the MetroStars except for one play during the first half. Known for his reckless abandon in his running and tackling, Beasley was rarely seen just as talk about an impending move to Europe seems on the verge.

METROSTARS BETTER WITH VACA: MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley started Kenny Arena at defensive midfield for the first time this year, keeping Joselito Vaca out of the starting lineup. Although the Metros held up well in the first half, they were more enterprising after the break when Vaca came on and brought his creative skills on the right side of midfield.

Despite this fact, however, having Vaca as an option off the bench to spark the attack as needed is a move worth a second shot. In a frenetic game as was Saturday night's at Soldier Field, Vaca may have been out of gas if inserted from the opening kick.

With Arena in a holding role behind Amado Guevara and Ricardo Clark -- both of whom also like to sit deep in midfield -- the MetroStars had stability and balance on the road against a Fire squad with numerous attacking options. In the absence of Gilberto it's a formation that deserves an encore performance next Saturday against the same team. And if the Fire happen to bring Andy Williams into the mix, Arena's man-marking abilities could be even more useful in midfield.

SEASON'S BEST LOOMS ON SATURDAY: In what is arguably the biggest game of the first half of the 2004 MLS season, the Los Angeles Galaxy will travel to meet the Kansas City Wizards in a matchup of the teams with the two best records in MLS next Saturday.

The Wizards have been a more consistent and dominant team and will be carrying an eight-game undefeated streak into the game. The Galaxy have had alternated results throughout the season and have played two more games but will be fielding the league's top goal scorer of the last three years in Carlos Ruiz. The Wizards have already defeated the Galaxy 2-1 on the road earlier this year and a win against Los Angeles would cement its position as the team to beat in MLS.

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

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