Stretch-run storylines

August 7, 2003
By Marc Connolly
(Archive)

The two biggest storylines in the first half of the 2003 Major League Soccer campaign did not include the Man United signing of Timmy Howard, the play of Kansas City's forty-something left-footed maestro, Bob Bradley's hotshot rookies or the sudden ousting from the league's throne that Los Angeles experienced.

Those have all been memorable parts of the league's eighth season, but none affected the standings and overall run of play than the two international tournaments -- the Confederation's Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup -- held in June and July.

If you look back, you'll notice that nine of the 10 teams (poor Dallas) were either preparing for the loss of their best players by integrating younger players into the side in April and May or actually battling without their full complement of stars the past two months. It killed continuity and made for such eye-opening results throughout the first four months of the season.

In fact, one of the reasons why Colorado rebounded from a winless start through its first six games and went 5-2-2 since June 11 to ascend to third place in the Western Conference is due to the momentum it was allowed to build as a unit having only lost Pablo Mastroeni to National Team duty.

But that's all over now. No more National Team friendlies, tournaments or camps are on the horizon. Get to know the teams now because it's all MLS from this point right through to November 23 when the two playoff survivors meet at the HDC in Carson, Calif., to play for the Cup.

The next three months of regular season play will undoubtedly reveal each team's true colors rather than the abbreviated versions seen at times throughout the first half. Here are the best bets for storylines to watch down the stretch:

Landon's impact
Coming off a successful stint with the National Team over the past month which included a four-goal performance against Cuba, Donovan is playing his best soccer since last year's World Cup.

If his scoring touch continues for the first-place Earthquakes, Frank Yallop's squad won't be caught by anyone out West. Once he reestablishes the rapport with strikers Brian Ching and Brian Mullan that showed flashes of brilliance in the early spring, this could be the most dangerous team in the league.

Here's an additional point to consider: Donovan has been outstanding in the month of August over the past two years, scoring six goals and registering four assists for 16 points in just nine games. It's his highest scoring month.

Connolly's predictions for the second half
Eastern Conf. champ: MetroStars
Western Conf. champ: San Jose
MLS Cup champion: San Jose
Scoring champion: Taylor Twellman
Impact attacker: Landon Donovan
Impact defender: Eddie Pope
Impact rookie: Arturo Alvarez
Best record: San Jose
Biggest jump: Los Angeles
Biggest drop: Kansas City
Expansion cities: Seattle and San Diego

New England's imported midfielders
No team needed the all-star break more than the Revs after their recent collapses and lapses in concentration.

The break also gave recent signee Jose Cancela a chance to catch his breath and take in his surroundings after moving here from Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica.

The Uruguayan midfielder could make an interesting pairing with fellow South American (Argentina) Jorge Vasquez in Steve Nicol's midfield and add a bit of flavor and creativity to the usually-direct Revs style of play. It also gives the coaching staff several options with Shalrie Joseph and Leo Cullen, as well as depth on the bench that wasn't there last year during their run to the league's championship match.

Their combined impact could be enough to vault the Revs past the MetroStars and Fire in the East, and make the league's leading goal scorer, Taylor Twellman, even more dangerous than he already is.

Can the "Ra-Ra Boyz" be stopped?
No coach in the league has gotten as much out of his players this season than Dave Sarachan has in Chicago.

For a young team like that to sit atop the Eastern Conference at the all-star break after losing Peter Nowak, Dema Kovalenko and Josh Wolff last offseason is simply mind-boggling.

Of course, much of the success has come via the front-running tandem of Ante Razov and rookie Damani Ralph, who rank third and fifth respectively in the league scoring race.

What's amazing about this partnership is the differences between them as players.

At 29, Razov is known more for his powerful left-footed ball-striking ability around the goal than anything. He's a longtime commodity in this league and is feared by defenders.

Then there's Ralph, who scored four or five goals this spring before most players in the league knew who he was. The 22-year-old Jamaican striker burst on the scene as a second-round draft pick whose game is based on speed and creative flashes both with the ball and in his run-making.

Opposing teams will have to do a better job keeping numbers back against Chicago, especially now that DaMarcus Beasley is back from the National Team. If not, the Ra-Ra Boyz will not only continue to get space to roam in the offensive third, but also create opportunities on counter-attacks for others such as Kelly Gray on runs through the middle.

Los Angeles: Making a run or not?
Despite a miserable first half, even the most pessimistic Galaxy supporter has to look at the side's 4-1-2 record at home since the HDC opened on June 7 and believe that a second-half run can be made.

Seeing Sigi Schmid's boys in fourth place in the West at this point in the season is truly shocking, considering that there haven't been any major injuries as well as the simple fact that Cobi Jones has been more available this year than in any of his previous seven seasons with the club do to a lack of time with the National Team.

Trading for Ryan Suarez and Chivas Martinez should help matters on the field, as should a balanced schedule this half rather than being the away team for two months followed by a long stretch of home games for the next two months situation they played through up to this point.

The talent and experience is there, which is not the case for a few teams higher up in the standings. It's just a matter of Schmid working his usual magic, and getting some much-needed points on the road.

Then again, even if late October arrives and the Galaxy just hung on to make the playoffs, no team in the league will want to play this team, especially knowing it has to travel to the cauldron that is the Home Depot Center at some point.

Pope and Jolley
Sounds like a sitcom on the WE network doesn't it? With Eddie Pope and Steve Jolley both healthy, the MetroStars can win the Cup. It's that simple. Yet, without one or both veteran central defenders, Bob Bradley's defense is average, at best.

It goes without saying, though, that Pope is the key for the second half. He was arguably the MVP of the league for the first two months of the season before breaking his kneecap, and is unquestionably the best defender in the league when he's at full strength.

His presence in the back will help goalkeeper Jonny Walker as he continues to get acclimated to the league after playing in Chile for the past five years. Jolley has played the best soccer of his life next to the National Team defender this season, as well.

Expansion
Two more franchises could be announced by the end of the season to bring the league's total up to 12 teams. For most of the spring, the top candidates for teams appeared to be Philadelphia, Seattle and Houston.

But now that Chivas de Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara wants to own a team, San Diego and San Antonio have entered the mix as contenders. Having Vergara in the mix is a positive sign for the league, as it needs new owners with fresh ideas as well as leaders from well-established leagues like the Mexican First Division to help MLS continue to grow and evolve.

If a franchise goes to either Houston or San Diego, a natural in-state rivalry will be instantly created with either Dallas or Los Angeles.

Even if one-tenth of the Chivas fans adopt such a club, there'd be an overwhelming immediate fan base unlike anything seen in Major League Soccer before.

That's one of the many reasons that MLS commissioner Don Garber saw to it that the popular Mexican club took on the MLS all-stars last weekend in Los Angeles. It certainly beats the old ways of trying to gain Mexican fan support (i.e. Galaxy's signing of Luis Hernandez and Carlos Hermisillo).

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.