Posted: Monday September 17, 2012 4:50PM ; Updated: Monday September 17, 2012 5:28PM
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MLS clubs must juggle playoff race, CONCACAF Champions League

Story Highlights

We'll see how big a priority teams put on CONCACAF Champions League this week

Thierry Henry may have netted the goal of the season -- an Olimpico -- Saturday

Chris Wondolowski and the San Jose Earthquakes remain atop Power Rankings

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Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry scored twice and had an assist in the Red Bulls' 3-1 win over Columbus on Saturday.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Four MLS contenders enter a busy week with some decisions to make, and the overall quality rises as the playoff chase heats up following MLS' Week 28:

1. Managing the CCL balancing act

Four managers will find themselves facing lineup predicaments this week when it comes to balancing the value of playoff positioning against the value of winning a high-pressure CONCACAF Champions League group-stage match.

The Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake all have to pull double duty this week, and with the margins for error in both the new-look CCL group stage and MLS playoff race being so thin, Dom Kinnear, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid and Jason Kreis, four of the top coaches in the league, will have more than earned their salaries if they can navigate through the week's stretch unscathed.

All four can ill-afford a slip-up in the Champions League considering how much is on the line with the reduced number of group matches this season and only group winners advancing to the knockout stage. Where some managers might have been a bit more lenient with turning to reserves in past CCL tournaments under similar circumstances, the gamble is that much greater with the new format. Los Angeles, Seattle and Salt Lake are all on the road, where points are harder to come by and where untested reserves are more prone to slipping up. The problem, then, extends into the weekend league matches, where weary legs could cost teams precious points. All three are jockeying for positioning -- and the potential MLS Cup hosting rights and first-round bye that come along with higher seeding -- in the playoff race out West, while Houston, which has the most favorable CCL draw of the week, suddenly has a battle on its hands to get out of the dreaded four-versus-five wild-card match in the East.

MLS and its participating teams have expressed how big a priority the CCL is and how important it would be for an MLS team to win the regional title and clinch a place in the FIFA Club World Cup. With that competition going head-to-head against a furious playoff chase, we will see just how big of a priority teams decide to make it during the most important part of the league schedule.

2. Quality spreads throughout

With the playoff chase in full swing and the final six weeks of the season upon us, it's a pleasure to see some of the league's biggest names rise to the occasion and deliver some of the season's top moments in major situations.

Week 28 was marked by a series of brilliant moments, none more audacious than Thierry Henry's intentional, high-arching Olimpico -- a goal directly off a corner kick -- that helped the New York Red Bulls finish off the Columbus Crew in the dying minutes of a critical match. While his tally might be a lock for Goal of the Week and one of the contenders for Goal of the Season, it was not the most important goal of the weekend. That belongs to FC Dallas' Julian de Guzman, whose self-volley and blast in the dying seconds of a must-win game brought Dallas closer to what seemed to be an improbable playoff berth just weeks ago.

Elsewhere, Seattle Sounders star forward and Portland Timbers nemesis Fredy Montero's ability to body off a large, physical center back in fellow Colombian Hanyer Mosquera and immediately turn and rifle a shot past ice-cold backup Timbers goalkeeper Joe Bendik was poetry in motion, much like San Jose's passing sequence in the build-up to its second goal against Chivas USA. The play was downright Spanish in nature, with advancing fullback Justin Morrow crossing through the box, where a dummied ball was unselfishly laid off by Chris Wondolowski for Alan Gordon for a pass into the back of the net. The pressure might be rising as the weeks go by, but so, too, is the level of play across MLS contenders.

3. Contract extension a win-win for D.C., Pontius

Chris Pontius' new long-term contract with D.C. United looks positive for both parties. The club locked up its star attacker on Friday for three additional years and two club option years beyond that, according to The Washington Post, ensuring his place in the nation's capital, where he continues to play a vital role for a team on the rise. Considering the 25-year-old Pontius is entering his prime and reportedly only had one more season left on his current deal, the fact that he would sign a such a long-term MLS extension may come as a curious development, but it makes sense considering both the team's and player's goals.

For D.C., the club gets to keep one of the top attacking talents in MLS as it attempts to get back to perennial relevancy. If Pontius remains on his current trajectory, he'll be positioned to wind up in Europe at some point before the end of the contract, and if those European offers start pouring in, then D.C. can earn a return on its investment through a transfer fee as opposed to losing him for nothing much like the way the likes of Chris Rolfe, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark and Robbie Rogers departed MLS for Europe at the end of their contracts.

For Pontius, he is in a place where he is happy and will be earning a raise after a career season that has him on the brink of a national team call-up during a vital stretch of World Cup qualifying. After witnessing MLS products Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron -- prior to his departure for Stoke City -- make the most of their national-team chances starting in January's training camp (for which Pontius is a virtual lock this coming winter), Pontius has the example set for him that MLS productivity can lead to a ticket to the international stage, so staying put is hardly something that will hold him back.

4. Hahnemann return highlights roster freeze deadline

As of last Friday, MLS teams will have to move forward for the rest of 2012 with whomever they have on their respective rosters. The league's roster freeze deadline passed with a few notable free agent signings, but none that should really alter the fortunes for any team this season.

Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann had fallen so far off the soccer radar that most assumed that he quietly stepped into retirement, but the 40-year-old netminder got his wish to finish his career in his native Seattle. He signed with the league on Friday, and the Sounders made an 11th-hour deal with Toronto FC to acquire the top spot in the allocation order that paved the way for his selection, making him the fifth goalkeeper the Sounders currently employ. Hahnemann has not played a competitive match in more than a year and was last seen being the second backup for Tim Howard at Everton. But he'll provide a voice of experience and add a local flair to a goalkeeping corps that is set with the steady Michael Gspurning at the top of the pecking order.

The Chicago Fire's signing of former Mexican national team forward Guillermo Franco helps the club replenish its forward depth after its loan of Orr Barouch to Israeli club Bnei Yehuda became final. Franco, though, is 35 and coming off very little activity for Pachuca, and it is unclear what the well-traveled striker still has in his tank and can offer to the already-set Fire aside from giving El Tri teammate Pavel Pardo a familiar face in the locker room.

The most intriguing deadline signing was the Red Bulls going after Digao, a Brazilian center back better known as Kaka's younger brother. With the club heavily linked to the former FIFA World Player of the Year during the course of the last year and his agent expressing Kaka's interest to one day come to MLS, New York's signing sends a not-so-subtle message and lays the groundwork for a future swoop for the Real Madrid midfielder. Anything tangible that Digao can provide on the field would figure to be a bonus.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Defenders: David Horst (Portland Timbers), Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)

Midfielders: Marcelo Sarvas (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Julian de Guzman (FC Dallas), Alvaro Fernandez (Chicago Fire)

Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Eric Hassli (Toronto FC)

Week 28 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 1 San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 17-6-5)
The 2-0 scoreline did not tell the story of the domination the Quakes exerted over Chivas USA, as San Jose closes in on the Supporters' Shield. Chris Wondolowski got on the board again from the penalty spot for his career-high 19th goal of the season, and he should solidify his second Golden Boot in three years. He leads Kenny Cooper and Alvaro Saborio by five goals, but his scoring slump ensured that Roy Lassiter's single-season record should be safe for another year.
2 2 Sporting Kansas City (15-7-6)
Sporting Kansas City needed C.J. Sapong to step up, and that he did in the dying moments against Houston on Friday night to force the draw and keep the club atop the Eastern Conference table. For Sapong, snapping a 12-game goal drought might just be the spark he needs to return to his Rookie of the Year form from a season ago. He adds a necessary complement to Kei Kamara in the aftermath of Teal Bunbury's season-ending injury.
3 3 New York Red Bulls (14-7-7)
Thierry Henry has the look of a player ready to put his team on his back and charge into the playoffs on a mission. The Red Bulls remain one of two teams to be unbeaten at home this season (Houston is the other), and four of the club's final six games are at Red Bull Arena, including a pair against Sporting KC and one against Chicago. They'll have every opportunity to win the Eastern Conference's top seed.
4 4 Seattle Sounders (13-6-9)
Playing without injured midfield catalysts and Designated Players Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert, the Sounders nearly walked out of Jeld-Wen Field with three points before settling for a draw. Nevertheless, retaining the Cascadia Cup is still within reach, and the club still has a buffer for second place over the Los Angeles Galaxy, leading the defending MLS Cup champions by two points with a game in hand.
5 5 Los Angeles Galaxy (14-11-4)
Welcome to MLS, Christian Wilhelmsson. The Swedish veteran winger made an immediate impact in his debut with a goal to help the Galaxy leapfrog Real Salt Lake and get into a coveted top-three place out West. Landon Donovan also returned for the first time since injuring his hamstring in the U.S. men's national team's win over Mexico at Estadio Azteca last month as the Galaxy continue to round into peak form at the right time.
6 6 Chicago Fire (15-8-5)
After a two-win week over Toronto and Montreal, the Fire continue to build momentum while sneaking up on the powers in the Eastern Conference. They've pulled within a point of Sporting Kansas City for the top spot in the East. Frank Yallop is likely the hands-down MLS Coach of the Year winner considering San Jose's season-long dominance, but what Frank Klopas has done with a revolving door of players and a team striving to get back to the top of the mountain after some down years is impressive.
7 7 Real Salt Lake (14-11-4)
RSL fell out of the top three in the West after watching the Galaxy move even on points (but ahead on goals-scored tiebreaker) following an off weekend, and the club faces a road CCL test before returning home for a big bout with improving Portland. It's the first of two leagues games RSL has to rebuild form and restore confidence ahead of what is shaping up to be a huge clash with the Galaxy on Oct. 6.
8 8 Houston Dynamo (12-7-10)
There is no need for Houston to panic, and the club was oh-so close to a road win in Kansas City, but the Dynamo's overall dip in form (1-2-3 in their last six) has them suddenly and dangerously close to the edge of the playoff picture. Houston leads fifth place D.C. by two points and sixth place Columbus by four points, and both teams have a game in hand. Fortunately for Houston, though, the club's remaining five games come against teams currently out of the playoff picture.
9 10 D.C. United (13-10-5)
The 2-1 victory over New England was far from a beautiful display, but D.C. will take any three-point hauls without injured captain Dwayne De Rosario. Chris Pontius, fresh off his new contract, stepped up with a goal and an assist, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid played as well as he has in months. The favorable stretch in the schedule continues with matches against also-rans Philadelphia and Chivas USA this week.
10 9 Columbus Crew (12-10-6)
The Crew dropped their second straight match after four straight wins, falling back into sixth place after appearing primed to climb the standings even more. Star acquisition Federico Higuain was a curious no-show until the final moments off the bench in New York, and unless Higuain was not able to go more than a few minutes (he was listed on the injury report as "probable" with inflammation in his foot) there's no sufficient reasoning for leaving him out of such a crucial matchup that was there for the taking in the second half.
11 13 FC Dallas (9-12-9)
There are teams of destiny and teams that attempt to defy destiny, and FC Dallas certainly falls among the latter. Despite having so much go against them, both all season and in Saturday's last-gasp win over Vancouver, the Hoops remain in playoff contention after surviving a must-win scenario against Vancouver. Kudos to coach Schellas Hyndman for taking a gamble on maligned TFC DP and Saturday hero Julian de Guzman. That trade has paid off in a big way for FCD.
12 12 Vancouver Whitecaps (10-12-7)
The loss in Dallas is a hard pill to swallow, especially considering the heroics of the back line and goalkeeper Brad Knighton, who looked to lead the club to a draw that would have sufficed. Now the 'Caps are up against it even more with Dallas within range of knocking them out of the playoff picture altogether. Much like they were against the U.S. national team for Jamaica, Dane Richards and Darren Mattocks were conspicuously absent from the starting lineup for Vancouver, a team that is trending down and in need of a spark that the two Reggae Boyz could provide.
13 11 Montreal Impact (12-15-3)
The Impact essentially bowed out of the playoff hunt with their loss in Chicago, failing to hold onto an early lead in a must-have match. With just four matches to go, they trail fifth place D.C. by five points and sixth place Columbus by three, and both have two games in hand. The Impact outperformed most expectations this season, but it appears that coach Jesse Marsch will not be part of a third expansion team to make the playoffs after winning MLS Cups in the first years of D.C. United and the Chicago Fire.
14 14 Philadelphia Union (7-13-6)
The Union will claw and fight until the end of the season under coach John Hackworth, and that proved to be the case again as the club managed to find a late equalizer to salvage a point at Toronto in a heated match between two frustrated sides. Tension should be even higher Thursday when the Union, who have long been reduced to the role of spoiler, can deliver a gigantic blow to rival D.C. United if they can come up with an inspired home result.
15 16 Portland Timbers (7-14-7)
Imagine if the Timbers brought the same intensity, fight and passion to all of their games as they do to their matchups with the Sounders. The Cascadia Cup seems to bring out the best of a limited Timbers side, one that has to monitor the arm injury to goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts the rest of the way. Regardless of where the club sits in the standings, the fans in Portland deserve a shout for continuing to foster such a crazed atmosphere in an otherwise lost season.
16 17 New England Revolution (7-15-7)
For some reason, a fully healthy Benny Feilhaber remains only a bench option for Jay Heaps despite the season being a lost cause at this point. Perhaps Heaps would rather get a look at his younger attacking assets to see what he can work with for next season, but considering how lively the attack can be when Feilhaber is running the show, it remains curious to see him be such an afterthought. One of his competitors for minutes, Juan Toja, looked quite capable in his club debut in D.C. on Saturday night.
17 15 Chivas USA (7-13-7)
It's not just that Chivas USA is losing, it's the manner in which the Goats have completely fallen apart. There was never a moment during Saturday's match against San Jose where it felt like they had a shot to stay with the Earthquakes, and as a result, they have fallen into last place (on points, they still have games in hand) in the Western Conference just weeks after controlling their own destiny to climb into a playoff berth.
18 18 Colorado Rapids (9-18-2)
The Rapids continue to shoot themselves in the foot away from Dick's Sporting Goods Park, where their minus-18 road goal differential is tied for second-worst in the league with Montreal and only better than Portland's minus-22. When looking back on this season, Colorado, still only eight points out of the postseason picture despite a league-worst 18 losses, can look back on some of its road efforts and point to them as the reason the 2010 champions could not get over the hump. The roster is far better than the record it has amassed.
19 19 Toronto FC (5-17-7)
The late-game letdowns keep coming for the Reds, who are looking golden for the No. 1 overall pick in January's MLS SuperDraft. With Paul Mariner at the helm -- he aced the draft along with Steve Nicol during their Revolution days -- that could prove to be a valuable commodity. The club's roster is certainly more than just one college star away from being able to compete at the highest level.
 

 
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