Say what you will about Major League Soccer’s new playoff format, but here we are in the season’s final month, and 15 of the league’s 18 teams are still mathematically alive for the postseason.
When he announced the new playoff structure last February, MLS’ competition poobah, Nelson Rodriguez, said he believed it could enhance the regular season. “It will mean that the battle for the playoffs will have added intensity and last longer through the regular season.”
Case in point: Every game on the schedule in Week 29 affected the playoff and/or Supporters’ Shield races. Two teams were eliminated from postseason contention this week, three hung by the barest of threads, and three continued to balance on the bubble.
Beyond the playoff intrigue, we saw the debut of a sparkling new stadium, a couple of new records, and some dramatic, late golazos.
Let’s take another look.
Chasing the Shield
The LA Galaxy’s game against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night presented a three-pronged opportunity: With a victory, LA could 1) eliminate RSL from the Supporters’ Shield race, 2) tie the MLS record for wins in a season (18), and 3) inch closer to the league record of 68 points in a season.
All three objectives: accomplished. LA got a scrappy goal from Chad Barrett and an own-goal off the leg of RSL defender Nat Borchers, to rally for a 2-1 victory at The Home Depot Center.
RSL were without midfielder Kyle Beckerman (red-card suspension), but they did welcome back playmaker Javier Morales, who made his first start since May 7 and assisted on Fabian Espindola’s opener.
Meanwhile, at Gillette Stadium, second-place Seattle Sounders FC rallied from a goal down to defeat New England Revolution, 2-1, and keep pace with LA. Fredy Montero scored both goals for Sounders FC, while 16-year-old academy product Diego Fagundez hit the net for New England.
Still, the Galaxy (18W-3L-10D) can clinch the Shield with a win in any of their three remaining matches, including Tuesday's massive tilt away to New York Red Bulls.
While Seattle and LA cruised to their third and fourth straight wins, respectively, RSL and FC Dallas are headed in the opposite direction.
Salt Lake’s loss to Los Angeles was their third straight, and it followed a shocking 3-0 trouncing at Rio Tinto by Chicago Fire this past Wednesday night.
The Fire’s Marco Pappa opened the scoring in the ninth minute, and after Beckerman was red-carded two minutes later, Pappa added two more, leading Chicago to their third-straight win and a sudden reappearance in the playoff picture.
Dallas tumbled to their fourth consecutive loss, losing to Colorado Rapids 1-0 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Drew Moor headed home Sanna Nyassi’s corner kick in the 26th minute for the game’s only goal. What’s worse for FCD: They’ve been shut out in all four losses.
The Rapids, on the other hand, broke a five-game winless skid and have now pulled to within a point of FCD in the standings.
Leaving Points On the Table
The Fire’s stunner over RSL lifted them to within three points of the 10th and final playoff berth, and on Saturday they traveled to Eastern Conference rivals Houston Dynamo with a chance to boost their postseason stock some more.
The Dynamo had slightly different aspirations: A win over Chicago would put them back on top of the congested Eastern Conference standings.
As it happened, both teams failed to capitalize on the opportunity. They traded first-half goals by Colin Clark and Dominic Oduro (his 12th) and settled for a 1-1 draw.
A similar scenario unfolded at BMO Field, where Toronto FC hosted New York in a match-up of two teams badly in need of three points. The Reds looked to be on their way after Danny Koevermans struck his seventh goal in nine games for TFC just after halftime.
But New York’s designated player Thierry Henry worked a bit of magic in the 88th minute to salvage a point for the visitors. The draw kept New York in the final playoff position - and eliminated Toronto from postseason contention. (Chicago and New York also racked up their MLS-record 16th ties of the season.)
Former Red Bulls man Juan Pablo Angel performed an 11th-hour magic act of his own to lift Chivas USA to a 1-1 draw against Philadelphia Union on Sunday night. The Colombian striker snapped a header in off the post in the 90th minute to answer Justin Mapp’s earlier goal and keep the Goats’ playoff hopes flickering. Chivas are four points off the pace, with just two games left.
Taking Care of Business
Just days before picking up that point on the road against Chivas, the Union bagged all three at home against D.C. United, getting two goals from Sebastien Le Toux and a sizzling winner from rookie Michael Farfan to outscore the visitors 3-2 in the most exciting game of the week.
Philly jumped from fourth to second in the East with the win, while D.C. remained on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
United went right back out on the road after the Philly game, taking on Columbus at Crew Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Crew welcomed back Eddie Gaven after a two-month injury lay-off and the veteran winger did his team - as well as New York and Portland - a huge favor, burying a diving header in the 60th minute to put Columbus up, 2-1.
They held on for the victory - after D.C.’s Najar clanged one off the crossbar in time added on - to break a six-game winless streak and regain one of the seeded playoff spots in the East, where the top-five teams are separated by five points.
In Vancouver, visiting Portland got a 'golazo' from Kenny Cooper to edge Whitecaps FC 1-0 and reassert themselves in the wild-card chase.
The result spoiled the re-opening of BC Place, Whitecaps FC's new stadium, which underwent a $563 million renovation this summer. In addition to a retractable roof, the refurbished venue features the second-largest video screen in the world, after the one in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Texas.
As chaotic as the East standings are, they began and ended the week with the same leader, Sporting Kansas City. Peter Vermes' men, who began the season 1W-6L-3D, jumped into first with a 2-1 win over Columbus this past Wednesday, then held the top spot after a 1-1 draw at San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday night.
Chris Wondolowski bagged his 12th of the year to put the Quakes up 1-0 in the 85th minute, but Kansas City rookie CJ Sapong took the re-start, weaved his way downfield and set up teammate Teal Bunbury for an immediate, 86th-minute equalizer.