It was a volatile playoff market right up until the closing bell on Sunday night.
The minute their 3-1 win over LA Galaxy went final, Houston Dynamo shot from fifth to second in the Eastern Conference, while Columbus Crew tumbled out of a top-three position and into a wild-card meeting with Colorado at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
There were plenty of other gains and losses, too, as a compelling final week of the regular season sorted out the 10th and last playoff spot, the wild-card seedings, the first-round byes and the Golden Boot race.
Let’s roll back the ticker.
Do or Die
When the week began on Wednesday night, four teams were still alive for the 10th and final playoff berth. Just more than 24 hours later, that number was reduced to one.
The first to go were D.C. United, who could muster only a 1-1 draw with Portland Timbers in their must-win game on Wednesday at RFK Stadium. Kenny Cooper opened the scoring in the 24th minute for the visitors, and Dwayne De Rosario answered in the 73rd, turning in the box and rifling a shot in at the near post for his league-leading 16th goal of the season.
That set the stage for a frenetic, end-to-end final stretch in which D.C. had a goal called back for offside (correctly so) and Portland hit the crossbar. But the score remained level, a result that eliminated United - who went winless in their final six games - and left the Timbers hanging by a thread.
That thread was severed the following night, when New York Red Bulls hosted Philadelphia Union and produced a gut-check effort to win 1-0 without their leading scorer, Thierry Henry, who was serving a red-card suspension. Dane Richards’ eighth-minute goal stood up for New York, propelling them into the playoffs, while knocking out both Portland and Chicago Fire.
New York’s win completed the field of 10, but the playoff picture remained out of focus, as the weekend approached.
In the East, Sporting Kansas City, Columbus Crew, and Houston all had a chance to win the conference, depending on results in their season finales. Sporting’s path was simplest - a win was all they needed - and they went first, kicking off against D.C. United at RFK Stadium at 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday night.
They didn’t miss their chance. Matt Besler scored in the 54th minute, and KC held on to win, completing one of the more remarkable turnarounds in MLS history. Peter Vermes' men began the season 1W-6L-3D and in last place after a 10-game road trip - then rallied to win the Eastern Conference.
That left Columbus and Houston to battle with Philadelphia for the remaining two first-round byes in the East. The Crew travelled to Chicago and went down 2-0 on two headers by Chicago rookie Jalil Anibaba (the first and second goals of his MLS career) in the first half-hour.
Then, Columbus battled back impressively, getting goals from Emilio Rentería (on a brilliant, three-quarter bicycle kick) and Dilly Duka to make it 2-2. But just one minute after Duka’s equalizer, Diego Chaves put Chicago back on top, stabbing home the rebound of Dominic Oduro’s shot, and the Fire hung on for a 3-2 win.
That capped a strong finish to the season for the Fire, who went 7W-2L-3D in their last 12 MLS matches.
It also left the door open for Houston to muscle past Columbus and into the top three in the East. A win against a reserve-heavy Galaxy side in the final match of the season would do the trick.
Midfielder Adam Moffat put Houston on their way in the 27th minute, one-upping his long-distance golazo against Portland earlier in the season with a 40-yard tracer into the upper corner past Donovan Ricketts. Bobby Boswell added one just after the break, and Carlo Costly made it 3-0 in the 74th minute, heading in a beautiful cross from Brad Davis, who nailed down his league-leading 16th assist on the play.
Sixteen-year-old striker Jack McBean, making his MLS debut, pulled one back for LA in the 89th minute for the final 3-1 scoreline.
DeRo and Wondo
With Dwayne De Rosario held scoreless in United’s season-ending loss to Kansas City, San Jose Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski had a chance to win the Golden Boot for the second year in a row. He had 15 goals for the season, one behind De Ro, and the Quakes faced a weary FC Dallas side resting several players ahead of the playoffs.
Sure enough, San Jose jumped all over the FCD reserves, scoring four goals in a 12-minute barrage in the first half. Wondo equalled DeRo in the 34th minute, scoring from the spot for the third goal in the spree. Dallas scored just before the break to make it 4-1, but the only suspense in this one concerned Wondo’s quest for the Boot.
He hit the bar in the 55th minute, and had shots brilliantly turned aside by Dallas backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz in the 71st and 81st minutes. The Quakes saw out the game, 4-2, but Wondo couldn’t find that 17th goal, and he and DeRo finished tied atop the goals list with 16.
DeRo takes the Golden Boot because his 12 assists trump Wondo’s three.
Ready for Their Closeup
FC Dallas’ loss ensured that Real Salt Lake (who conceded a late equalizer to Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium) would secure the third seed in the West and the first-round bye that goes with it.
That left just one loose end, and Colorado Rapids tied it up, along with home-field advantage in the Wild-Card round, with a 2-1 a win at Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
So here - drumroll please - is your playoff picture:
FC Dallas (WC1) vs. New York Red Bulls (WC4)
Colorado Rapids (WC2) vs. Columbus Crew (WC3)
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Sporting Kansas City (E1) vs. higher-seeded Wild Card winner
Houston Dynamo (E2) vs. Philadelphia Union (E3)
Western Conference Semifinals
LA Galaxy (W1) vs. lower-seeded Wild Card winner
Seattle Sounders (W2) vs. Real Salt Lake (W3)
Pride, Professionalism and the Peril of Predictions
In the two games on the schedule without playoff implications, Toronto FC and New England Revolution played to a lively 2-2 tie, thanks to a late equalizer by Danny Koevermans, and Seattle Sounders FC sailed by Chivas USA 3-1, on an own-goal and strikes by Álvaro Fernández and Sammy Ochoa.
Seattle’s win came at a price, though, as their assists leader Mauro Rosales (13) was stretchered off early with a knee injury. Early word is that it is not all that serious, but we’ll have to see.
Chivas USA’ loss came with a lesson: The Goats’ goal was scored by Ecuadorean striker Víctor Estupiñán, who, at the start of the season, predicted he would score 30 goals in 2011.
He was off by only 29.