Bye Week: Take A Fire Break, Let's Talk MLS

Kekuta Manneh asks the crowd if they are entertained. The answer is yes. Manneh makes my list of favorite players to watch early in the season. - Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire have a bye week, which means we all get to take a break from the frustrating 'good enough to compete, but not enough to win' narrative. We whip around the league and take a look at how things have gone so far.

Another week, another draw.

This could be a column about the disappointing lack of leadership from Jeff Larentowicz, who has twice allowed the "wrong guy" to take a potentially game-winning penalty kick according to his own admission. As captain, there comes a point where you have to stop saying the mistake is on me and take charge and make sure the right man is in the right place at the right moment. At least he owns up to his mistakes publicly, which I greatly appreciate.

This could be a column on the now-historic run of draws as the club has matched a league record with six consecutive ties. The frustrating trend has been even more infuriating lately because, as the players and coach have said, the team has outplayed its last three opponents. Two heartbreaking endings to Philadelphia and New England and a dominant performance for naught in Montreal.

Times won't get easier after the bye as they host Real Salt Lake. Had the Fire taken care of business, a draw at home against a side as talented and in-form as Real Salt Lake would actually be pretty good. But should they manage a draw May 3, the feeling of helplessness will continue because of the points they have left on the pitch early on.

I've already written too much in this column about the Fire. They are on a bye week and it's a good time to take a step back from the narrative of six consecutive draws. I'm pretty sure we're all burned out on it at this point.

Instead, it's a good time to take a look at the rest of the league through the first month of the season and put some perspective on it.

The best non-superstars to watch: The Magnificent Seven

We all know players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and a whole slew of others are going to wow us at some point. Fun performances are expected. But I always enjoy watching the rising stars live up to some of that potential. And sometimes it's just a veteran on a hot streak playing above his level that makes for a feel-good story.

After seven or so games for most teams, a few players have already stood out. Hopefully you enjoy my list and share yours. (I picked seven because these are the guys that really stood out.)

1) Quincy Amarikwa

Easy call. He plays for my favorite team and he has swept the nation with his unexpected surge. Amarikwa has been a goal-scoring machine early on and plays with the endless motor Chicago fans love and appreciate. He's done well to endear himself to the entire MLS community through his charismatic MLS Fantasy obsession.

2) Sam Lloyd

I absolutely adore this guy. I go out of my way to watch the Red Bulls to watch Lloyd display his ridiculous athleticism and to watch Armando and friends make awful mistakes in the back end. Lloyd will likely always be too erratic to become the next Graham Zusi or Javier Morales, but his seek-and-destroy, full-on attack mode is about as entertaining as soccer gets.

3) Stefan Ishizaki

Of everyone on this list, he has the best chance to be a legitimate superstar one day. Yes, he had expectations coming in, but for him to be standing out as much as he is when Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes are out there is impressive. Compare Ishizaki's work to another highly touted arrival in Gaston Fernandez and it's easy to it's more than just showing up to live up to the hype. His soccer IQ seems pretty high already.

4) Thomas McNamara

I hate the man's hair but my goodness he is fun to watch. Watching his performance against the Fire, I thought maybe it was a fluke. But to see the portly youngster continue to make inspired runs week after week until his unfortunate injury was fun to watch. His physique and his play confuse the eyes, which is great. I wish him a speedy recovery.

5) Kekuta Manneh

The Jamal Crawford of the MLS. The 12th man extraordinaire. Instant offense. I hope he keeps coming off the bench because his frenzied offense is unmatched. Shoot first, then think if it was a smart decision or not. Good times.

6) Michel

FC Dallas has a lot of things going for them right now, but as I said at the beginning of this list, it's fun to see an old veteran on a nice run. Michel's set-piece work and service to this point in the season is enough to make Harry Shipp blush. He has been in incredible form and is one of the more entertaining defenders in the league this season.

7) Luke Mulholland

Let's just admit Joao Plata is the most fun to watch, but Mulholland's story has been great. Wasn't expected to have a key role necessarily, but with all the injuries he has been a machine. What he lacks in skill, he makes up for in precision, intelligence and timing. I can't remember watching him make a mistake out there.

Re-examining preseason predictions

Is it too early to look back at early season picks? Never!

East: NY, SKC, NE, TFC, CHI

West: POR, LA, SEA, RSL, FCD

SS: Portland

MLS Cup: SKC vs LA

Golden Boot: Robbie Keane

MVP: Graham Zusi

So, I actually look OK right now, except for of course the teams I picked to top both conferences. I would be shocked if New York and Portland missed the playoffs but I would be even more shocked at this point if either topped their conference. Galaxy besting Sporting Kansas City in the MLS Cup seems very possible still as does Robbie Keane winning the Golden Boot.

MVP, however, is going to be a tight race. Early on it looks like Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Mauro Diaz are leading the way.

There have been a lot more draws this season but I have found it be an entertaining season nonetheless, highlighted by the Game of the Year to this point with Portland/Seattle. It will be nice to have a stress-free MLS weekend where we can take in the action without a potential Fire draw looming large to cause frustration.

So what are your thoughts on the season? Who have you enjoyed watching? Let's have a fun conversation for a change of pace this week.

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