Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Hush [Print without images]

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Updated: September 30, 5:36 PM ET
Prelude to the MLS Cup matchup?


This weekend sees two regular-season matches that could easily be dress rehearsals for MLS Cup. First, Chicago takes on Los Angeles (Friday, ESPN2/ESPN360.com at 11 p.m. ET) before Seattle visits Columbus a day later.

The Home Depot Center plays host to a Chicago-L.A match, which, statistically, could hardly be more evenly matched. Both are second in their conference standings. Both have 41 points. Both have records of 10-6-11. Historically, the all-time regular-season record between the two clubs is 14-14-3.

Outside team rivalries, the contest features some intriguing individual battles. For example, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan, who have a combined 168 goals and 124 assists in the regular season, will face off in MLS for the first time since 2003. Assuming both shake off injuries, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and David Beckham will go head-to-head in a battle of the DPs.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, much of the attention will be on the return of Sigi Schmid to the team he led to a championship last year. However, I am more interested to see a matchup of two South American players at opposite ends of their careers, both of whom are challenging for MVP honors.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto is the current holder of the award and, with 12 goals and three assists in 21 games this season, is in contention to become the first player to retain the prize. Among those opposing the Argentine is Fredy Montero, the 22-year-old Colombian, whose goal at New England on Saturday was his 12th of the year. Attending the game, I was keen to see him up close for the first time.

Aside from his remarkable goal, it was clear that Montero is an exceptional player who, when he is on, has the pace and touch to suggest that he has a big future on a bigger stage. However, it is also true that he must continue to polish the finer points of his game so that his influence can be even greater on matches. If he needs a role model, he can look no further than Columbus' No. 7 on Saturday.

There were times this past Saturday when Montero was too peripheral a figure. As a result, Seattle allowed New England back into a game that it had been utterly dominating for the opening 25 minutes. Not that Montero was solely responsible for this lapse but, with the Sounders having now won one in six, the need is to right the ship fast. Continued and more consistent production from their exciting young forward would help achieve that.

Bad luck, veteran man

What a mixed weekend it was for New England. Although Shalrie Joseph deservedly drew plaudits, as well as MVP consideration, for his one-man rescue act against Seattle, the enthusiasm was tempered by the news that the Revs have lost their skipper, Steve Ralston, to a season-ending knee injury.

For the second straight year -- Ralston suffered a broken leg in October -- the veteran midfielder will be sidelined for the stretch run of the regular season as well as the playoffs, and his absence is a further hammer blow to a New England squad that has been without its leading striker, Taylor Twellman, for all but 109 minutes this season.

Beyond the impact his injury will have on the Revolution in 2009, it remains to be seen what the longer-term implications are after the torn ACL suffered by Ralston in what was an innocuous-looking incident against Seattle. The road back from such a setback can be long and arduous and, considering he's 35, one must wonder when, if ever, we will see the league's all-time leader in assists, as well as games and minutes played, back on the field.

As New England coach Steve Nicol said in the aftermath of the diagnosis of his injury, Ralston cannot be replaced, and Revs fans will be hoping that this is not the end for their inspirational playmaker. The hope is that he can return to the stage he has graced for so many years, if only so he is able to depart on his own terms. Here's wishing one of the game's nice guys a speedy recovery.

A thing that made me go hmmm

Although much of the attention generated by the league's recent organizational announcements for 2010 was devoted to the two-week break MLS will take during the group stages of the World Cup, also of interest was the confirmation that each club will play a 30-game schedule next year, featuring home and away games against each of the other MLS teams.

However, don't expect the even schedule to bring with it an end to the conference system. Although a single-table format would appear logical in the short term, more distant projections of how the league will grow make such a scenario unlikely.

In 2011, the league welcomes Portland and Vancouver into the fold and, with further expansion mooted, such a system would push 24-man rosters to the breaking point. Clubs struggle enough as it is to compete in a 30-game regular season, which also features various cup competitions, and asking them to play even more games would run the risk of diluting the quality of play we see on the field.

Besides, the single table is, in a way, already here. Outside the top two in each conference, playoff berths go to the teams with the best records, regardless of their coastal affiliation. Adding teams to MLS will not hinder this system, nor will it compromise standards of play on the field.