As we have learned far too many times in Major League Soccer history, the first half of the season isn't generally a good barometer of how things will shake out at season's end. It is the second half of the season, the crucial months from August into the fall when transfers, trades and injuries have a major impact, and where champions and pretenders are identified.
Last season we saw the Chicago Fire look terrible in the first half only to have Cuauhtemoc Blanco arrive and carry the club to within a game of the MLS Cup final. We also saw the New York Red Bulls get off to a strong first half of the season before collapsing late and eventually bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.
This year, with 14 teams vying for eight playoff spots, the race for the postseason is tougher than it has ever been and with the exception of San Jose, the league's other 13 teams have a realistic chance of making the playoffs if certain things break their way and certain key questions are answered positively.
Here is a closer look at 10 key questions facing MLS playoff contenders down the home stretch:
1. Will Taylor Twellman be the Twellman of old?
Go ahead and say it, the New England Revolution don't need Twellman to win. You can say it, after all the results of the first half of the season bear that out, what with Twellman having played in just three games this season (starting none) and the Revolution still boasting the best record in the league.
Only it isn't true. The Revolution need Twellman to get and stay healthy, and be the goal-scoring machine we've gotten used to because no other player on the roster has the history of crunch-time goals and playoff success that Twellman has. As good as Adam Cristman and Kheli Dube have been, neither have carried an attack in playoff time and if Twellman isn't back in his old form come October and November, then all New England's regular season success could be for nothing.
2. Can the Columbus kids keep it up? As good as Columbus has been this season it is easy to forget just how young the Crew lineup is. Aside from Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk and Alejandro Moreno, Columbus's list of key players could pass for a U-23 team. While Robbie Rogers, Chad Marshall, Andy Iro and Will Hesmer have done well, none of them have ever played an MLS playoff game and none of them have been in a real playoff race. Will Sigi Schmid's youngsters feel the pressure late in the season, or will they be too young to feel the pressure and make a dream run?
3. Which D.C. will show up down the stretch?
The definition of a roller-coaster season, the current D.C. campaign is in another ebb as the club's SuperLiga washout and corresponding home loss to Houston has D.C. United looking for answers and head coach Tom Soehn promising changes. Will the return of Marcelo Gallardo from sports hernia surgery later this month, as well as the recent acquisition of Ivan Guerrero from San Jose, be enough to straighten things out? Don't bet against D.C. As the club showed in June that when it is playing well it can still play some of the best soccer in the league.
4. Will Brian McBride be enough to boost the Chicago Fire attack?
Missed chances have plagued the Chicago Fire all season, but the impending arrival of McBride is supposed to help fix that problem. With Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Justin Mapp and Chris Rolfe providing service, and rookie Patrick Nyarko potentially providing a speedy sidekick, McBride should be able to flourish. If he doesn't, then Chicago could struggle to get past the first round of the playoffs, assuming the Fire makes the postseason.
5. Can Mo Johnston find Toronto FC a goal scorer?
There isn't anybody in MLS better at wheeling and dealing than Mo Johnston, but Toronto's director of soccer is having a heck of a time finding some goal-scoring help. Danny Dichio's uncertain future due to his concussion issues coupled with Jeff Cunningham's recent demise as a scoring threat have left TFC scrambling for options.
While newly-acquired Chad Barrett could benefit from a change in scenery, Toronto needs an international forward in a hurry and TFC might want to consider using its Designated Player slot to lure a high-profile striker to Toronto.
6. Are the Red Bulls' new additions enough? When Jozy Altidore made his big-money move to Villarreal you figured the Red Bulls offense would struggle to replace him. Little did we know the club would struggle this badly. Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio is scouring the league trying to find a forward that can at the very least test defenses with speed to take some pressure off Juan Pablo Angel (Dane Richards would have been that player before being sidelined by a hip injury).
With that proving extremely difficult, Osorio and the Red Bulls will need newcomers Jorge Rojas, Gabriel Cichero, Juan Pietravallo and Diego Jimenez to play at a high level to pick up the slack. Rojas looks like the real deal, but even the newcomers might not be enough to keep the Red Bulls from missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
7. Can RSL win on the road?
One of the biggest surprises of the first half, RSL has ridden an unbeaten home record to first place in the West. The only problem is the club's poor road record (1-6-1) and the fact that six of the team's next eight will be on the road as its new stadium is completed.
Plenty is made of Real Salt Lake's advantage at Rice-Eccles Stadium (widely regarded as the worst playing surface in MLS). Now RSL will have the chance to prove that it is the team's revamped roster and not the home-field advantage that has Real Salt Lake riding a 5-1-4 stretch.
8. Can anything help the Galaxy's defense?
When Ruud Gullit cut Abel Xavier and signed Eduardo Dominguez it was supposed to be the sort of upgrade that could help boost the league's worst defense. One game in, the boost isn't being felt yet.
Dominguez was torched by Kenny Cooper and FC Dallas in a 4-0 rout, leaving us to wonder whether the problem doesn't actually lie in a midfield that just doesn't contribute defensively. Rumored transfer target Nolberto Solano won't help solve that and if Gullit doesn't straighten his defense both he and Alexi Lalas could be looking for jobs come November.
9. Can Chivas USA win without Brad Guzan?
What was forgotten in the wake of Guzan's transfer to Aston Villa is the fact that Guzan wasn't actually enjoying that good of a season. Sure, he could still turn in a world-class performance and did so at times, but he also cost the team points in the season's first half with his share of blunders.
That said, Chivas must now rely on relatively unknown Dan Kennedy to man the net. Kennedy has looked good early on but his lack of experience could hurt a Goats team that has had other issues to deal with, including an inconsistent offense.
10. Will Kenny Cooper stay or leave FC Dallas?
If you thought this question was already answered earlier this week when the club issued a release saying Cooper would not be sold, think again. Cardiff City manager Dave Jones stated on Thursday that his club has not given up its pursuit of Cooper and an increase on Cardiff's original $4 million bid could force the Hoops to sell.
If Cooper stays, he and FC Dallas has the talent to make a run for the third (and likely last) playoff spot in the Western Conference. Without Cooper, FC Dallas will be in full rebuilding mode under new coach Schellas Hyndman.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.