You may recall that this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another, came from back in the pack, surging dramatically down the stretch to pass the leader and win both races.
Those events come to mind, as we enter the stretch run of Major League Soccer’s 17th season, and a pair of late closers have emerged, one in each conference, charging into contention from off the pace.
They’re chasing a pair of teams looking to go wire to wire (more or less) in both conferences, and they’re shuffling the playoff pecking order.
In the East, where only 11 points separate first from seventh place, multiple clubs are jockeying for position, as they pound down the straightaway. The picture is a little clearer in the West, but final places remain up in the air, and one club is falling off the pace, as the finish line approaches.
Sound the bugle; we start in Columbus.
Look back on the fairly brief, somewhat checkered history of the Designated Player in Major League Soccer, and ask yourself if a DP has ever made the kind of instant impact that Columbus Crew's Federico Higuaín is making right now.
WATCH: Crew top Montreal
The 27-year-old Argentine has three goals and six assists in five games with the Crew, and is almost single-handedly leading their charge up the Eastern Conference standings.
On Wednesday night at Philadelphia Union, he express-delivered a free kick to the head of teammate Josh Williams for the Crew’s first goal, and then, after Williams had been sent off, reducing Columbus to 10 men for the final 22 minutes of the game, Higuain orchestrated Eddie Gaven’s unlikely stoppage-time winner.
More of the same followed on Saturday night at Crew Stadium, where Columbus hosted Montreal Impact in a match-up of the hottest two teams in the East. The Crew had won three straight, Montreal five, and the clubs were tied on 39 points, battling for playoff contention.
Higuaín looped in a pair of crosses to set up both Columbus goals in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory. The result ran the Crew’s unbeaten run to six games and put them in fifth place in the East, level on points with Houston Dynamo and one point ahead of D.C. United, with a game in hand on both.
While Columbus have been charging for six games now, LA Galaxy have been gaining ground since June, following a miserably slow 3W-8L-2D start to the season.
After Saturday night’s comfortable 2-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC - courtesy of sweet strikes from Juninho and David Beckham — the Galaxy are 10W-3L-2D in their last 15 games, with seven shutouts in that span.
Vancouver still hold on the fifth and final playoff berth at 10W-11L-7D.
As the conference packs shuffle behind them, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose Earthquakes continue to set the pace, with neither one breaking stride in Week 26.
Kansas City rallied from a 1-0 deficit to clip last-place Toronto FC 2-1, getting the winner in the 87th minute from newcomer (and former Barcelona youth product) Oriol Rosell.
WATCH: Quakes hammer Chivas USA
Yet, despite outshooting Toronto 24-6 and controlling 71.1 per cent of possession, Sporting KC were fortunate to get the full three points. Rosell’s goal slipped through TFC keeper Freddy Hall’s hands, and the Reds’ Ryan Johnson, who scored in the 44th minute, hit the post in the 49th, before Luis Silva forced an acrobatic save from Jimmy Nielsen in the 78th minute.
San Jose gave up a few dangerous chances to Chivas USA on Sunday, but their 4-0 win was about as decisive as the scoreline suggests. A pair of free kicks by Ramiro Corrales, one from Victor Bernardez, and a strike from the run of play by Simon Dawkins did the damage, locking down the Quakes’ third win in their past four games.
San Jose, who have scored a club-record 56 goals this season (with seven games to play), are seven points clear of Real Salt Lake in the West, and three ahead of KC in the MLS Supporters’ Shield race.
Four points behind Kansas City in the race for the Shield are New York Red Bulls, who rallied for their second consecutive away draw last Wednesday, tying D.C. United at RFK Stadium courtesy of Wilman Conde’s 88th-minute golazo.
United followed up that tie-that-felt-like-a-loss with an actual loss, albeit a hard-fought one, at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. The 1-0 defeat at Real salt Lake wrapped up a stretch of five games in 14 days for D.C., during which they gathered only five points and tumbled to sixth place in the East, one point out of the fifth and final playoff berth.
WATCH: Nyarko wastes no time vs. Houston
Fellow East contenders Houston also had cause to be weary this weekend: their 3-1 loss to the Fire in Chicago on Sunday was their second game in three days, following Thursday’s 1-1 draw at Honduran side CD Olimpia in CONCACAF Champions League play.
The Chicago result extended Houston’s MLS winless streak to four games and lifted the Fire into third place in the East, two points ahead of the Dynamo.
The third-place team in the West, Seattle Sounders FC, travelled to FC Dallas Stadium on Sunday for a game that marked winger Steve Zakuani’s return to the starting line-up for the first time since April 2011, when he suffered a horrendous broken leg in a match against Colorado Rapids.
The speedy former Arsenal Academy product did not disappoint, setting up Mauro Rosales for Seattle’s goal in a 1-1 draw that pulled the reins on Dallas’ playoff push.
FC Dallas are four points behind, but Vancouver does have a game in hand.
New England Revolution have seven games to play, but even if they were to win them all, they’d be hard pressed to make the postseason. The Revs had another tough week, giving up two goals to former club icon Shalrie Joseph in a 3-3 draw with Chivas USA on Wednesday, then slogging to a 0-0 result against Philadelphia on Saturday to run their winless streak to 10 games.
The club also lost leading scorer Saer Sene to a torn ACL during the Chivas game.
Fellow strugglers Portland Timbers topped Colorado 1-0 in a battle of Western Conference cellar-dwellers on Friday night.