What's the Difference

With only four weeks remaining in the MLS regular season and eight postseason berths up for grabs, all 14 teams are very much alive, and which clubs make the cut may ultimately be determined by the extent of their depth.
Sometimes the difference between a so-so season and a very special one can prove somewhat startling.

Who can make an impact? Maybe it’s the guy who makes the club via a tryout, or the converted forward who was listed at the No. 4 center-half back in preseason.

When hit with the spotlight, superstars often step up. However, just as important are the actions of the lesser-known cast operating in the shadows.

With only four weeks remaining in the MLS regular season and eight postseason berths up for grabs, all 14 teams are very much alive, and which clubs make the cut may ultimately be determined by the extent of their depth.

“What will really help a team in the long run,” says Chris Henderson, “is having guys on the bottom of your roster who are improving every day, pushing the starters. The teams that create that environment at training where the players are competing for positions, where the coach’s lineup choices are tough–that competition is really important.”

Henderson, the Sounders FC technical director, is assembling lists of potential Seattle players, from youngsters with potential to projected starters to possible Designated Players. In a league known this season for its parity, it takes all kinds to be competitive.

“You’ve always got to be paying attention, developing and working with guys,” Henderson says, “because while you may not need those guys at the start of the season, pretty soon they’re going to be logging minutes.”

Better Late Than Never

Columbus was the first to clinch a berth and has one hand on the Supporters Shield, and it’s required the entire Crew. Twenty-two different players have started; nobody has scored more than eight goals.

No matter. With 50 points, the Crew is eight points clear of the next best, New England. Still, they must maintain that form through MLS Cup.

Failure to do so opens the door to anyone finishing fast. Even those clubs currently bringing up the rear–Toronto, L.A. and San Jose–still have a shot.

“With a couple wins, suddenly you can be right in the thick of it,” says Henderson.

He recalls just such a situation at Colorado in 1997. “We were having just an average year, maybe around .500, but then we gained momentum going toward the playoffs. We were playing with confidence, then beat the No. 1 seed and all of a sudden we made the MLS Cup.”
Every Match Matters

On these October days and nights it’s plain to see that every single match matters. No doubt, coaches have been hammering that point home since opening night, only now the message resonates more than ever.

“For a lot of teams it always seems to come down to the last 5-6 games, to see the urgency to get points,” Henderson says. In such tight situations, matches in April are just as pivotal as those in October.

Perhaps it’s human nature, Henderson allows, but by this stage everyone, from the stands to the board room and locker room, recognizes that each point is precious. However, the earlier you figure it out, the easier you breathe come autumn.

“I think the teams that realize the importance of every game are the same teams you see at or near the top of the table right now,” he says.

Players who get it, who exhibit character in tense times, those individuals score points with Henderson as he evaluates possible selections in the MLS expansion draft.

“This is a time, leading into the playoffs, where players differentiate themselves as leaders and winners,” he says. “This is when you need people on your team who will step up, who will come through in big games.”

Take the Quakes

Certainly it’s heartening to see San Jose, Seattle’s expansion forerunner, surging over the second half. No first-year club has made the playoffs in the last 10 years, and early on the Earthquakes were woeful.

As late as mid-March, San Jose listed only 14 players on the roster, rather than adding warm bodies, they developed younger ones and were selective in bringing veterans aboard. One such addition arrived under the radar.

Outside of England’s East Anglia, Darren Huckerby was far from a household name, but once he arrived in the Bay Area, the Quakes began clicking. They recently went unbeaten in nine matches. After scoring just 11 times in the first 16 matches, San Jose no longer looks like an expansion team. The difference maker has been Huckerby, scorer of six goals in his nine appearances.

Henderson is impressed and also believes that Seattle’s commitment to character and building for the long-haul will pay dividends.

“I saw San Jose when they were training with like 9-10 guys, building the team,” he says. “Now they’re in the heat of it.

“It’s encouraging to see how on any given day, any team can beat any other team in this league,” he says. “If we go into it mentally strong and have some luck avoiding injuries, I believe we’ll compete with any of the teams, just like San Jose has done this year.”

Turn On, Tune In

08-10-02 Taylor Graham

Taylor Graham

Friday, Oct. 3
5 p.m. (Pacific), FSC, Connecticut v West Virginia
Why Watch: No. 4 Huskies’ O’Brian White, winner of last year’s Hermann Trophy and likely high No. 1 pick in MLS SuperDraft, and UConn home matches draw well

Saturday, Oct. 4
9:30 a.m. (PT), FSC, Blackburn-Manchester United
Why Watch: Rovers decent start has masked fact that they leak goals and United attack looking sharper as Berbatov settles in

4:30 p.m. (PT), HDNet, Columbus-L.A. Galaxy
Why Watch: Unbeaten in seven (6-0-1), Crew can clinch Supporters Shield with victory in matchup of top two scoring clubs in MLS

Sunday, Oct. 5
7 a.m. (PT), FSC, Manchester City-Liverpool
Why Watch: City has scored 10 times in its first three at home while the unbeaten Reds are coming off strong midweek showing v PSV

7 a.m. (PT), Setanta, Chelsea-Aston Villa
Why Watch: Villains face leaders & tall order in that no Bridge visitor has won since 2004, but the reward could be a place at the top of the table

3:30 p.m. (PT), FSC, Vancouver-Montreal
Why Watch: Will Whitecaps stop the Impact juggernaut and take a step toward keeping the First Division crown in Northwest in this semifinal second leg?

Wednesday, Oct. 8
8 p.m. (PT), FSC, Santos-Puerto Rico
Why Watch: Islanders are undefeated in Concacaf Champions League but Santos, second in their Mexican Apertura group, seek revenge for a 3-1 road loss

Thursday, Oct. 9
7 p.m. (PT), ESPN2, Real Salt Lake-New York
Why Watch: The debut of Rio Tinto Stadium. Can RSL, 7-1-5 on the Rice-Eccles rug, adapt quickly to new home or will Red Bull get first road win since May?

Throw-Ins

Seattle’s towering centerback, Taylor Graham, is a finalist for USL defender of the year. Graham made the all-first division team for the third time in four seasons. Forward Sebastien Le Toux, scoring four more goals than his MVP campaign, is on the second team…USL sides Montreal and Puerto Rico remain undefeated (2-0-1) halfway through the Champions League group play…Huge midseason women’s match in Rose City on Friday afternoon (4:30 p.m.) as Portland hosts UW. Both teams are 9-1-0 with Pilots No. 3 in one poll…Washington and No. 11 Cal, owning the top two records in the Pac-10, meet Sunday at 1 p.m. on Montlake…Seattle U. hosts Cal State Bakersfield, another D-1 transition program at noon Saturday. It’s the Redhawks’ second (and next-to-last) home match…Federal Way’s Todd Beamer stands 14th in the girls national high school rankings…The top two men’s team in the GNAC, SPU and Western Washington, face-off at Interbay Oct. 8…Whitworth remains the state’s sole nationally-ranked men’s program, at No. 20 in Div. III. The Puget Sound women are No. 4 and the Pirates 13th. Among Div. II women, Western is No. 11 and SPU No. 15.
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