By the numbers: Mea culpa

There's only one number to leadoff this column, and that's five. As in fifth place, which is where the San Jose Earthquakes are languishing in the Western Conference as I write this, contrary to my claim last time out that they were neck-and-neck with the Galaxy for the top spot.

It's a funny story, really, and one that I'm sure San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear and whoever is running the team when you read this (rumors? what rumors?) would find amusing. I looked at the point totals in the West, and just assumed that L.A. and San Jose held down those spots. Can you blame me for counting out Kansas City? It seems everyone else in the league does, and the Wizards have made them all pay dearly for it.

The question, then, is whether or not my gaffe goes on to destroy my argument, that the Fire lack a guy like Carlos Ruiz or Landon Donovan (or, it's now very apparent, Amado Guevara in the East) who can bend the game to his will like a Beckham free kick. Or a Beckham penalty kick, but that's not the kind of bend that gets movies made after the England captain's Euro 2004 performance.

As much as I'd like the answer to be no, or at least a qualified no, I think I was flat-out wrong. There are just too many factors that enter into the equation of what a team needs to be successful in MLS to isolate any single one and say that's what we're missing right now. It could be a bit of that game-changing dynamic, although Chicago certainly has guys on the squad that force their opponents to adjust.

It could be something that you see in guys like Cobi Jones in L.A. and John Wolyniec in New Jersey, who seem to find something extra in their tanks at the ends of matches. It could be a certain consistent level of play up and down the starting lineup that seems to be propelling Kansas City in lieu of a single dominating performer, which is scary when you consider Preki is still out of the lineup. Ten different players have already scored goals for the "Missouri Azzurri."

Then again, the key ingredient may have been yellow jerseys all along, if the Open Cup is any indication.

All of this speculation may be overlooking the obvious. Fire head coach Dave Sarachan - and by that I mean Dave Sarachan is the head coach of the Fire, not that I think he should be fired, not by a long shot - fielded a starting lineup in Colorado just before the All-Star break with a grand total of 4 players who started the MLS Cup Final last November.

The team that came just short of three championships last season had a grand total of 1,406 games of MLS experience, not counting the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The team that came just short of, well, scoring in Colorado had only 803 games between them, and four players who haven't played out two years in the league, five if you don't count the 28 minutes Justin Mapp played for D.C. United in 2002.

Inexperience is a tough nut to crack, obviously, because in order to get experience, guys have to play in games when they're lacking that experience. The glut of injuries and national team call-ups the Fire have faced this season has meant more than a few first- and second-year players going straight from the frying pan and into the Fire lineup at the same time.

This is not necessarily ideal from a developmental standpoint, but it is what it is, and you deal with it. On the other hand, guys are getting valuable minutes, and nobody likes losing or giving up leads, so the old Nietzchean argument that things that don't kill you make you stronger may apply. With the possibility of some more experienced help coming to the roster with the opening of the FIFA transfer window, it's time for that strength if the Fire is going to make a run for the playoffs.

Of course, a couple of calls going our way wouldn't hurt, either. A certain MLS columnist whose name rhymes with "Jeff Bradley" was giving me the standard litany of platitudes the other day about how bad - or to be more diplomatic, questionable - calls even out over time, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

As a former ref, it bothers me that I'm becoming one of those people that complains a lot about referees. Hopefully incidents like Alex Prus being absolutely right to not call what looked like an obvious handball and red card against Cobi Jones at Giants Stadium on Sunday - the corner kick curved out of bounds before reaching the six-yard box, making the contact moot - will help restore my faith in the men in the middle.

Chris Costello is a contributor to

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