Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are five things I found lying around:
1. A first look at the playoffs. Rarely are the postseason favorites so well defined. It's Columbus and Houston.
No warning bells were sounded in Week 31 as managers from both conference winners fielded first-choice lineups. Both were rewarded with agreeable results, a road draw for Houston and a 1-0 win for Columbus, which finally snuffed out D.C. United's turbulent season.
Chivas USA does have the capacity to cause some trouble in the playoffs. Chicago could possibly scare up an upset, given that Brian McBride is scoring goals and Cuauhtémoc Blanco is rising after a slightly sleepy summer. There's even an outside chance that in-form Kansas City could rattle someone along the way; there is precedent in MLS for fast finishers who ride the momentum to glory.
But it's really the Crew's and the Dynamo's to lose heading into a Nov. 23 MLS Cup date at the Home Depot Center.
To find the last Dynamo loss in MLS you must go back to August, when the Orange played a stinker in New York. The previous loss before that came on June 12. Got that? Since early June, Dominic Kinnear's team has lost once in 17 matches.
Preki's battlers at Chivas USA could surely pose a problem, assuming they first handle a Real Salt Lake team that still seems lacking in mental toughness. But Kinnear knows how to play for ties; the Orange have 32 in 92 matches over three years. In a potential meeting with Chivas, Houston can most likely tie in Los Angeles and win on that tight field in Houston.
Columbus won more than half its matches this year, which is saying something in a league with parity aplenty. Since 2001, only four other sides have done so.
And Sigi Schmid's team was steady throughout, taking care of the business from wire to wire, not starting fast and limping into the finish line as some Supporters' Shield winners have.
2. USL to MLS -- a big jump? We're seeing increasing amounts of evidence that perhaps there isn't such a giant leap from USL into MLS quality. USL held their own against MLS in Open Cup play, with Charleston giving D.C. United fits in the final despite playing at RFK Stadium. The CONCACAF Champions League has been a disaster for MLS (except for Houston), while USL clubs have acquitted themselves splendidly.
Now we have the case of Thabiso Khumalo and Greg Janicki, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds' striker and center back, respectively, who have assisted United down the stretch. Neither has looked outclassed. Not even close. Janicki even stepped up with several important interventions in Sunday's pressure-packed match in Columbus. (United needed a win to get into the playoffs, but lost, 1-0.)
Perhaps MLS sides would do well to scout USL more closely. Buying players from Portland or Puerto Rico may not be as sexy as purchasing from Europe or South America, but what if that European or South American can't assimilate and turns into a bust? We've certainly seen it happen.
3. Exposed in NY. Has Red Bulls manager Juan Carlos Osorio been exposed? Maybe he just fell into the right place at the right time last year in Chicago and just isn't a good fit in MLS.
He over-thinks everything. His handpicked mid-season additions, the alleged season saviors, are highly suspect. And he must drive his players bonkers by constantly rearranging formations and altering individual roles.
On top of it all, Osorio, nice fellow that he is, doesn't seem capable of accepting any responsibility. He called out players following last week's 5-2 loss at Chicago, which left the Red Bulls playoff fate in the balance. He said most of the players should be "ashamed."
That's weak. He picked 'em. He's responsible for preparing them.
Osorio has been the chief Red Bull for a full season now, 32 matches. So how is it possible that he still hasn't identified a first-choice starting 11? Osorio has a league-high 21 players with at least six starts. Most clubs fall somewhere around 16 or 17. The best ones -- i.e., the club's with personnel stability -- fall in at around 14.
And speaking of player selection, where is the logic in this? Osorio says he didn't start Diego Jimenez against Chicago because the defender wasn't 100 percent. Fair enough. But in the same interview he said Jorge Rojas is dealing with a knee issue, so he needed to be withdrawn at halftime of that match.
Well, which is it?
I have no doubt that Osorio knows Xs and Os. But can he manage lineups? Can he select players? Can he get through to them? Can he tutor young talent, improve it and polish it, or does he just want to throw up his hands and move on?
Mostly, can he learn from his own mistake and be a better manager in MLS because of them?
4: Queue the circus music ... again. The puppet masters pulling the strings in L.A. are now having to get creative to generate maximum chaos at the HDC. Here's the important thing to know about David Beckham's potential loan deal: Decisions are being made by Beckham's handlers, a group that prioritizes what's best for the Becks enterprise, but one that will rarely considers what's best for the Galaxy.
And shame on AEG president Tim Leiweke for hanging Galaxy GM and manager Bruce Arena out to dry on this one. If Arena isn't involved in an important decision about what's best for the team as it pertains to the (ostensibly) best player, then Arena can rightly question how much power he actually has to make moves and determine the direction of things.
5. The danger of denial. United certainly showed some spunk and heart at the end of the season, fighting hard to salvage postseason ambitions. But the big October effort shouldn't fool anyone. A close loss on the road against a team with nothing to play for shouldn't obscure major issues at RFK.
United's defense was just OK on its best days and comically inept on its worst.
Jaime Moreno may be increasingly injury prone. One or both of the club's significant offseason defensive acquisitions is likely to be excused. There are important decisions -- but perhaps only limited options -- on pricey attackers Luciano Emilio and Marcelo Gallardo.
Of course, to hear United president Kevin Payne, you'd think a lost season at RFK was all about injuries, hard luck and bogus refereeing decisions. Sounds like a little denial at work. And you can't spell "danger" without the "D" from "denial."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.