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The Cheap Seats: Play for next year

the old Bob and Doug Mackenzie flick that should be required viewing for every film student, beer master, and peacenik looking to move to Canada -- always comes back to me at this point in the season. In the scene, Bob and Doug are driving downhill in their van when suddenly the brakes go out. Doug, who's behind the wheel, turns to Bob and says: "Well, no point in steering now."

"What's that mean, you hoser?" you're probably asking.

Here's the connection. Around now, the MLS playoffs start to take shape. Out West, the playoff ink's been dry for a few weeks, but for the most part this season's expansion and realignment has amped up the competition for playoff spots. We've got a nice knockdown dogfight in the Eastern Conference between playoff hopefuls Kansas City, Chicago and the MetroStars.

So while a lot of people are contemplating the frenzied playoff-bubble chase and the possible ramifications if K.C. beats Chicago or the Metros tie with D.C. or whatnot, I've got the other side of the coin on my mind. What about those teams that are out of the running already?

Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA are down and out and nowhere near Beverly Hills. The Columbus Crew, who are still mathematically eligible, have about as much chance of making the playoffs as I do of getting a date with Keira Knightley. So what keeps these guys going? How do these teams keep playing, keep pushing, keep working when they know at this point that the MLS Cup is a motel-room pipedream?

Here's the big-picture danger: The castrated teams still have games against teams that need points. Here's a hypothetical scenario for you: Kansas City is two points up on the MetroStars going into the last weekend. On that weekend, K.C. plays at FC Dallas, the Metros play at Chivas USA. At that point, FCD will still be locked in a battle with Los Angeles for home-field advantage (if such a thing exists) in the first round, so they will come out fully loaded. Chivas on the other hand will have been out of the playoff hunt for roughly five months. Half the Goats will have one foot in the sand of a Cabo San Lucas beach at kickoff time.

Upshot is the MetroStars are in and K.C. is out.

The Powers That Be don't like to think that any player or team might not show up 100 percent in any game. And neither do I. (I am most certainly not a PTB.) Not because I don't understand the instinct to slack off. Heck, I was a second-semester senior once, skipping class and spending whole afternoons in the Little Caesar's parking lot.

But because I'd hate to see some of the quality players on those teams blow a chance to prove themselves. Right now, if you're on Columbus, RSL, or Chivas, you're playing for your career to continue. As Crew coach Robert Warzycha intimated a week ago, coaches and GMs are still assessing players in games that don't matter. In fact, if they're smart, they're assessing with an even more keen eye. Because now is a good time to get the measure of the men who wear the jersey.

Do they lie down like beaten dogs? Or do they bleed the colors?

Do they just let the van careen off the road? Or do they keep steering?

In a league where money is tight and salary caps are tighter, nothing is guaranteed for a player, especially a player on a last-place team. (Did you know the Goats have fewer wins than San Jose has losses?) And anyone who tanks it might have it easy for 90 minutes, but come January they might also get a rough one-way ride to the USL.

Or maybe someplace further, like, Canada, eh?

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at cheapseats@g73.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.