MLS contenders and pretenders

GARETH WHEELER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

The de facto halfway point of the Major League Soccer season is here, with the all-star game taking place in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.

So let the stretch drive for the playoffs begin.

MLS changed its playoff format for 2009, with the top two teams from each conference making the post-season, as well as the next four best teams, regardless of what conference they play in.

Aside from the embarrassingly bad New York Red Bulls, the San Jose Earthquakes and FC Dallas, the 12 other teams all are in the mix.

Title contenders

A new head coach, injuries and international duty haven't knocked Columbus off its championship form.

Playing without defender Chad Marshall and midfielder Robbie Rogers again on Saturday was not a problem, and it shows the Crew has ample cover to remain the class of the East.

When healthy and not diving, Guillermo Barros Schelotto is as influential as any player in the league. The Crew is deep, tactically sound and built to win another title.

If there is one team that can match the Crew in terms of depth, it's the Chicago Fire.

Injured forward Brian McBride, out with a shoulder injury, is a massive loss, but the blow has been softened by the team's unmatched depth.

Seven of its final 12 games are at home, where you can expect the most talented defence in the league, anchored by all-stars Wilman Conde and Bakary Soumare, to dominate.

Playoff shoo-ins

The Houston Dynamo sits atop the Western Division, despite trading away Dwayne De Rosario. Houston relies on its defensive system and aging Canadian goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who, at 41, backstops a team that has conceded a mere 14 goals in 19 games -- and only four at home.

If the mantra "defence wins championships" ever applied, it applies to Houston.

MLS newcomer, Seattle Sounders FC, has shown how to win as an expansion team: Get a top-tier head coach (Sigi Schmid), a proven goalkeeper (Kasey Keller), a young talisman (Fredy Montero) and a designated player to signify high expectations (Freddie Ljungberg).

Shockingly, the Sounders are sending four players to the all-star game and have the best goal difference in MLS.

Westside strong

There is a distinct possibility that the four teams to fill the remaining playoff spots could all come from the West.

The Los Angeles Galaxy, have been decent, even without David Beckham.

Bruce Arena's biggest move was drafting defender Omar Gonzalez with the third overall pick in last year's SuperDraft. Gonzalez has started every game for the Galaxy, addressing its biggest concern -- the backline.

It makes you wonder why Toronto overlooked Gonzalez, who would have addressed its most glaring need.

With MVP candidate Landon Donovan and Beckham back in the lineup, the Galaxy may very well be this year's New York Red Bulls.

Chivas USA roared out of the gate, but depth issues have caught up with it, and it has dropped four games in a row. Star midfielder Sacha Kljestan was a significant loss while away at the Confederations Cup.

The Colorado Rapids have had an up and down season, but always are dangerous. The Rapids are capable of beating anyone with the return of top goal-scorer Conor Casey, in addition to strike mate Omar Cummings' superior form.

Real Salt Lake was highly touted to start the season and other than a bad May has been solid. The team seems to be hitting its stride, and has the league's top midfield.

East is least

Toronto FC is the East division's best chance at having another playoff team.

DC United simply is too young, while New England and Kansas City have too many question marks.

As for TFC, inconsistencies at the back and poor road form continue to haunt it. The pressure is on Mo Johnston, but nothing suggests he is ready to upgrade his backline any more than he already has.

Offensively, the Reds can run with any team, but that isn't good enough to ensure wins, particularly away ones.


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