It may be easier to spot a hero or a goat on the flanks, where time and space are more widely available, but I say the solidity of a club's title chances are directly tied to the strength of its spine.
Netminder. Central defense. Midfield stopper. Traffic director. Playmaker. Finisher.
Just ask Spain, who rode Casillas/Puyol/Marchena/Xavi/Fabregas/Villa to Euro 2008 glory after decades of frustration.
I've always found spine talk to be a woefully underused facet of soccer analysis. As a piece of sports lingo, it ranks up there with the best from any sport. To me, the term is every bit as meaningful and evocative as "cleanup hitter" or "in the paint".
As we are already to the IN portion of the MLS scorecard, I thought it would a fine time to rate the title contenders by checking their backbones. It's just a shame my top two will almost certainly not meet in the championship final.
Before unveiling the list, I must give a quick and hearty nod to Real Salt Lake (Rimando, Olave, Borchers, Beckerman, Morales, Findley), who were a very close #6 and would be a good bet to instantly jump a spot or two if Mexico target master Jared Borgetti does come aboard... or if they continue winning as is, whichever comes first.
And without further ado...
#5 - Columbus Crew (Hesmer, Marshall, Ekpo, Schelotto, Moreno)
Solid up the middle, the Crew have unearthed perhaps the league find of the season in Nigeria prodigy Emmanuel Ekpo, who brings them a new and exciting two-way gear. And yet, unlike the top four in this list, they would "come down with Scoliosis" if a certain piece went missing for any appreciable length of time. Set-up wizard Guillermo Barros Schelotto not only holds the key to the Crew's engine, he turns them from charming also-rans into a team nobody would want to play in a title one-off.
#4 - D.C. United (Wells, Martinez, Simms, Gallardo, Emilio)
After a slow start, the capital city bunch have straightened their posture. Although Marcelo Gallardo and Ben Olsen have missed out plenty due to injuries, coach Tom Soehn's anger management regimen of five wins, a draw and 18 goals in their last seven league games has cooled off what was turning into a hot situation at RFK. Sure, they stunk up SuperLiga, but that's irrelevant. The reason they are a slippery #4 on this list, despite the veteran pedigree, is an enduring spell of shaky spine play at the back. Of course, that works both ways because, aside from the scorching hot Luciano Emilio, they do have the ability to play better than they have so far this season.
#3 - Houston Dynamo (Onstad, Boswell, Robinson, Clark, De Rosario, Ching)
The champs have been another slight disappointment, but who out there thinks they won't be running with their typical fall sturdiness by the time the playoffs arrive? Anybody? With shrewd pick-up Bobby Boswell rounding back into top form, this team could eventually be tougher to beat than in previous seasons. Don't discount the return of forward Nate Jaqua - teams with one contributing striker don't usually get the job done. Still, I can't see them breaking into the top two - or winning MLS Cup a third straight time, for that matter - until Dwayne De Rosario rediscovers his attack acumen.
#2 - Chicago Fire (Busch, Soumare, Gutierrez, Pause, Blanco, McBride)
It would be so easy to slide the Fire into the top spot with Wednesday's official acquisition of wonder boy Brian McBride... and I nearly did. This group of players is a bit of an oddball ingredient mix, but they compliment each other beautifully. Bakary Soumare keeps them menacingly upright, Diego Gutierrez adds gutsy guile, Logan Pause quietly points the right direction and Cuauhtémoc Blanco freaks everybody out. And now, they have the best striker America has ever produced. Can you smell what Chicago is cooking? I know that's a tall task considering how darn far out of the city Toyota Park is located.
#1 - New England Revolution (Reis, Parkhurst, Joseph, Ralston, X Factor)
I know it's hardly a surprise that I tabbed the table-topping Revs as the Big Dog, but then again, who else would be in first place but the team with the best vertebrae? From keeper Matt Reis on through to MLS assist king Steve Ralston, each of the first four players is at or near the equal of any at their position in the league. As for the strike role, it would have been comfortable to simply insert Taylor Twellman's name at the end and be done with it. However, he's missed most of the season to date and could well be headed to Europe soon. In his absence, New England have managed to get 12 of their 25 goals from second year bull Adam Cristman and the African rookie tandem of Mansally & Dube. With loads of playoff experience, this is clearly the team to beat if a Twellman stays.
- Greg Seltzer