Posted: Monday July 30, 2012 11:56AM ; Updated: Monday July 30, 2012 12:45PM
Avi Creditor

MLS Week 21 Power Rankings: Contenders spending, dreaming big

Story Highlights

MLS has seen nine new high-priced additions as Designated Players this year

C.J. Sapong is scoreless in nine straight matches and has seen minutes decrease

Red Bulls, Dynamo to face-off as last two teams to be undefeated at home

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Tim Cahill's move from Everton to the New York Red Bulls was one of a number of Designated Player additions in MLS.
Tim Cahill's move from Everton to the New York Red Bulls was one of a number of Designated Player additions in MLS.
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Between the league's bevy of new big-name additions and some questionable in-game personnel moves, here is a look back at Week 21 in MLS:

1. MLS arms race heats up

The close of the MLS summer transfer window was met with the urgency and fervor of a heated arms race, one that should make the regular season's final months all the more intense and competitive as teams go after spots in the postseason.

Even though Seattle and New York were among the major players this past month, the big moves were not limited to the usual high-spending giants. Chicago, Vancouver, Houston, New England and Columbus all made substantial additions, with last year's run by the Los Angeles Galaxy that was sparked by big-name signings still lingering a season later and demonstrating the growing trend of teams spending to win.

With the recent signings of Designated Players Tim Cahill, Sherjill Macdonald, Christian Tiffert and Federico Higuain adding to those who joined the league upon or soon after the opening of the transfer window (Marco Di Vaio, Barry Robson, Kenny Miller, Jerry Bengtson, Oscar Boniek Garcia), nine new DPs will grace the league with their presence during the push to the playoffs. Two others, Eric Hassli and Alvaro Fernandez, were acquired by Toronto and Chicago, respectively, with in-league trades. Another huge name, Montreal's Alessandro Nesta, may not have the DP distinction, but he is as vital as any player taking up a large chunk of his team's salary cap. Credit the front offices around the league for not sitting pat and staying content with the status quo, something that used to be the rule and not the exception across the league. Ownership groups are putting more into their on-field personnel, and the quality of rosters around MLS is rising as a result.

The high-profile signings may not be done yet, either. while the transfer window may be closed until the winter, any free agents who would not require an international transfer certificate can sign with MLS until the Sept. 15 roster freeze deadline. That means players like Ricardo Clark, for example, who is out of his contract with Eintracht Frankfurt as of Tuesday, can still make for difference-making additions over the course of the next six weeks. Clark is reportedly in talks with Houston about a return there, and even though he is a U.S. international potentially returning to MLS, he would not need to go through the allocation order, because he left the league on a free transfer and his league rights still belong to Houston, much in the same way that Chris Rolfe was able to return directly to Chicago.

2. What happened to C.J. Sapong's place at SKC?

With Sporting Kansas City pressing for a late goal Saturday night against Columbus to try and force a draw, the club's substitution pattern was quite peculiar, to say the least.

Reigning league rookie of the year and U.S. national team January call-up C.J. Sapong sat on the bench, fully fit based on the most recent injury report, as manager Peter Vermes opted to give Korede Aiyegbusi his season debut in the 71st minute followed by doing the same with new defensive signing Neven Markovic 13 minutes later. Between Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury's combined missed sitters and golden opportunities and the club's overwhelming possession advantage, SKC could have used a finisher like Sapong to find the equalizer instead of using substitutions on a seldom-used midfielder and a brand new center back.

Sapong has already matched his five-goal output from his rookie season, but in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport and league, Sapong has been rather absent. He has not scored in the team's last nine matches, he has been in and out of the starting lineup and wound up being a healthy scratch against Columbus for reasons only Vermes knows. It is difficult to criticize Vermes considering the job that he and his staff have done this season in cultivating a winning team, but to leave Sapong, who is no stranger to late heroics and was not overly exerted in the club's mid-week friendly against Montpellier, unused during such a crucial juncture was one of the more questionable moves of the weekend.

3. All-Star appearance takes toll on DeMerit

Much as with Sapong's situation, it is easy to look back on match events in hindsight and make what would have been the right decisions. That being the case, perhaps Martin Rennie would like a do-over for starting captain Jay DeMerit Friday night.

DeMerit was forced to play 90 minutes in last Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game after an in-game injury to Aurelien Collin forced MLS coach Ben Olsen's hand when the plan was originally to have DeMerit go no longer than 45. DeMerit answered the bell and was arguably the most valuable player for MLS in its win over Chelsea, but his mid-week showing certainly took its toll two days prior to a big Western Conference showdown against Real Salt Lake. DeMerit was noticeably not at his peak and was responsible for the handball that gifted RSL its first goal along with the decision to play a risky ball way back toward goalkeeper Joe Cannon that ultimately resulted in the goalkeeper's handball outside the box that had him get sent off.

With the versatile Alain Rochat capable of sliding into central defense and DeMerit not at 100 percent, Rennie and Vancouver should have adapted and made DeMerit a substitute even despite the magnitude of the match. Of course, everything seems simpler in hindsight.

4. Houston, New York set for playoff simulation

Two of the league's title contenders will get a potential glimpse into the postseason this weekend, with a rare home-and-home series taking place in the middle of the season.

The Houston Dynamo and New York Red Bulls play each other on consecutive Fridays on NBC Sports Network with playoff positioning at stake. The league's last two undefeated teams at home, both New York and Houston boast 7-0-3 marks at their respective soccer-specific stadiums. The storylines for the upcoming matchups are overflowing, between first place in the East being on the line, to the home dominance each team has showed, to Houston looking to avenge a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on May 9, to new Red Bull Tim Cahill's MLS debut likely to come as soon as the first of these two crucial games.

The most telling one to watch for during Friday's sold-out encounter at BBVA Compass Stadium, though, is one-time New York/New Jersey MetroStar and star Houston left winger Brad Davis licking his chops at the chance to go up against the right side of New York's defense that looked absolutely lost in Montreal on Saturday. If Brandon Barklage or Heath Pearce cannot return from their hamstring strains, then the overlapping tandem of the in-form Davis and left back Corey Ashe could have a field day going at Jan Gunnar Solli and Markus Holgersson in the Houston heat.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)

Defenders: Danny Califf (Chivas USA), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Boswell (Houston Dynamo)

Midfielders: Felipe (Montreal Impact), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)

Forwards: Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)

Week 21 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 1 San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 13-5-5)
Those Goonies really do never say die, making every match in which they trail a suspenseful affair until the final whistle. With Steven Lenhart scoring the game-tying goal on his Wig Night a year after Teal Bunbury scored one on his Bobblehead Night, shouldn't more teams offer player-specific promotions going forward?
2 4 Real Salt Lake (13-7-3)
Fresh off an important home win over Vancouver, Salt Lake turns its attention to its return to the CONCACAF Champions League this week with the opening match in Costa Rica. Despite San Jose's dominance and RSL's inconsistency at times this season, RSL is just two points behind the Earthquakes through the same number of games and is positioned to challenge for the Supporters' Shield.
3 5 Houston Dynamo (10-5-7)
Has any team lost a player as vital as Geoff Cameron and not skipped a beat like Houston is currently doing? With four straight wins and shutouts in five of six matches the Dynamo are cruising and getting contributions from front to back. The upcoming pair of games against New York will put that hot streak to the test.
4 2 New York Red Bulls (11-6-5)
Defensive calamities cost the club precious points in Montreal, and Tuesday's friendly against Tottenham will be used to work out the kinks while welcoming the team's newest star, Tim Cahill, into the lineup. With a crucial bout against Houston set for Friday, expect Hans Backe to go to his bench against Spurs infinitely more than he does in league play.
5 3 Sporting Kansas City (11-7-4)
Earning just one point from home matches against New England and Columbus is hardly satisfactory for a team locked in a tight race for the top spot in the East. SKC dominated the Crew in every aspect of their match but lacked the killer touch in the final third. They've got one more game to rectify that problem before hosting the U.S. Open Cup final against a surging Seattle side a week from Wednesday.
6 6 D.C. United (10-7-3)
The bye week was spent having Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario combine for some All-Star Game magic followed by welcoming Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris-St. Germain and tying the French power. It's back to work after a weird month of July, with the reloaded Columbus Crew up next in a rematch of a frustrating performance from a week ago.
7 7 Chicago Fire (9-7-5)
Despite Sean Johnson's heroics, Chicago could not get through an agonizingly long period of stoppage time unscathed and settled for a hard-fought draw. While the Fire came so close to making a major statement on the field, they made a major one off of it by acquiring two DPs in a matter of days. Don't expect to see Chicago cower out of the playoff hunt.
8 8 Seattle Sounders (9-5-7)
After a lengthy rough patch, the Sounders are rounding into form at the right time, with the playoff push, U.S. Open Cup final and CONCACAF Champions League on the horizon. The acquisition of DP Christian Tiffert gives Seattle a different look in the midfield, while Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero appear to be more cohesive in their play up top together.
9 5 Los Angeles Galaxy (10-10-3)
It took practically all season, but the Galaxy are back to the .500 mark. Winning on the road without Landon Donovan and David Beckham and having Omar Gonzalez make his first 90-minute appearance while back from injury are all welcome developments as well. It would appear that the storm is over in Galaxyland.
10 9 Vancouver Whitecaps (9-7-7)
The Whitecaps are in danger of being overtaken by the Galaxy for fourth place in the West after a road loss to Real Salt Lake. Darren Mattocks keeps playing at a high level, though, notching his seventh goal and nearing Damani Ralph's MLS rookie record for goals (11) -- something made all the more impressive considering Mattocks played just a single minute in the club's first nine games.
11 11 Columbus Crew (8-7-4)
Two great strikes by Jairo Arrieta coupled with a heroic effort by goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum and the 10 bodies constantly in front of him to thwart a furious Sporting Kansas City second-half run have the Crew knocking on the playoff door in the East. With two games in hand on Chicago and trailing the Fire by just four points for the coveted fifth playoff spot, the Crew control their own destiny.
12 13 Philadelphia Union (7-10-2)
Late-game heroics from Jack McInerney cemented a massive three-point haul for Philadelphia, which is still alive in the East. While John Hackworth is getting much of the credit -- and rightfully so -- for righting the ship, it is worth noting that moving Amobi Okugo to center back was a Peter Nowak development, and the third-year player has flourished in his new position, so much so that it will be tough for Hackworth to move him out for Bakary Soumare, who is nearing his return to full fitness.
13 14 Chivas USA (7-8-5)
The Goats finished off the three-game sweep of the lowly Portland Timbers and still remain the last real hope to knock out one of the five Western Conference teams currently in playoff positioning. Also of note was the return of Juan Agudelo from injury, as he should be able to provide the attacking spark up top that the team has lacked all season.
14 12 New England Revolution (5-7-5)
Has it really gotten to the point in New England where a healthy Shalrie Joseph is not an automatic starter? The Revs were unlucky to have conceded the lead after an awful penalty call should have been a free kick outside the area. The club can also look in the mirror, though, knowing it wasted a handful of quality chances that could have put the Union away earlier instead of letting them hang around.
15 15 Montreal Impact (8-13-3)
Alessandro Nesta's presence along the back line was immediately felt, and Marco Di Vaio's breakthrough up front was equally as important for a team that will give opponents fits down the stretch but may be a little too far back with a little too few games remaining to make a run to the postseason.
16 16 FC Dallas (5-11-7)
Brek Shea Watch continues as the out-of-favor star was held out for the second straight match after his sideline tantrum at coach Schellas Hyndman. The looming return that may matter even more, though, is that of Panamanian striker Blas Perez, whose absence up top has exposed how thin Dallas' true forward selection really is. At least the new sponsored uniforms look sharp.
17 17 Colorado Rapids (7-14-1)
Make that eight losses in nine games and six in a row. The Rapids have not had a single thing bounce its way despite some quality players combining for quality chances that just are not finding their way into the back of the net. After all of the breaks the club got in its 2010 title run, the exact opposite is taking place in 2012.
18 18 Toronto FC (5-12-4)
The Reds lacked a killer threat up front against the Dynamo, but that problem will be rectified as newcomer Eric Hassli makes his return from an ankle injury. With all of Toronto's struggles it's easy to remember that the club was a half at Santos Laguna away from reaching the 2011-12 CCL final, and its quest to return to the regional spotlight begins Wednesday night.
19 19 Portland Timbers (5-12-4)
The Timbers are headed down a slippery slope after being swept by Chivas USA and now face more potential home humiliation on national television by playing the FC Dallas team that just posted a 5-0 pasting on them. How much pride do these Timbers players have? This weekend's match should be quite telling of that.
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