Posted: Monday October 1, 2012 3:11PM ; Updated: Monday October 1, 2012 9:20PM
Avi Creditor

MLS Power Rankings: Flaws abound for playoff-bound clubs

Story Highlights

Sporting Kansas City is rolling without Teal Bunbury despite attacking questions

The Red Bulls fell into another early deficit, which will cost them in the playoffs

MLS-leading San Jose continues to live dangerously witho last-minute heroics

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C.J. Sapong
C.J. Sapong has seven goals in 21 starts (28 appearances) this season.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sporting Kansas City's staunch defense, another key injury for the Los Angeles Galaxy and more from MLS Week 30:

1. Sporting KC defense has team poised for big things

When Sporting Kansas City starting forward Teal Bunbury went down for the season after suffering a knee injury Aug. 26, the big unknown was whether the club had enough firepower to maintain its place atop the Eastern Conference. But the real question should have been this: If opponents can't score on Sporting KC, does Bunbury's injury even matter?

The club is 3-0-2 since Bunbury's departure, with Friday's 2-0 win over second-place Chicago. C.J. Sapong has come through as a steady replacement for Bunbury in the starting lineup, and Kei Kamara and Graham Zusi have done their part while flanking the second-year player to complement a defensive unit that is the best statistical group in the league. Sporting KC has conceded just 25 goals in 31 matches, followed by Seattle (31 goals allowed in 30 games) and Real Salt Lake (34 in 31).

Steady goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen boasts a league-high 14 shutouts, including three in a row and two that have come away from the club's home. Nielsen has only had to make 66 saves in 31 matches, though, the fewest among regular starting goalkeepers with at least 20 starts this season. His success has been, in large part, a product of the players in front of him. The starting unit of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers is balanced, organized and smart. The midfield triangle lining up in front of them is tireless; if there's a common trait among all Sporting KC players on the field at a given time, it's having an endless work rate, something that coach Peter Vermes deserves plenty of credit for cultivating over the course of a long season. With the club in the midst of a nine-game unbeaten run, the longest active streak in MLS, the well-oiled machine is finding its groove at the right time.

The attacking questions will remain as the club's 39 goals scored are the second-fewest among the 10 teams currently in playoff position (Vancouver has scored 31), and the team has not scored more than twice in a game since July 4. But with the club owning the possession game and overwhelming teams with its pressure and disciplined marking, any attacking deficiencies may not cost it in the playoffs.

2. New York's early-minute woes continue

Thierry Henry made sure to hog the spotlight with his three-assist, golazo masterpiece against Toronto FC on Saturday night, but his performance also served to mask the Red Bulls continuous problem of conceding early goals. Ryan Johnson's sixth-minute beauty put the club in yet another early hole, as the groans of the faithful could be heard from Harrison, N.J., and throughout the Twitterverse. Sure, the Red Bulls have the attacking pieces to overcome early deficits, but that is completely missing the point.

The bottom line is that the Red Bulls have no shot of winning the first trophy in team history if they continue to begin games so recklessly in the back. It is one thing to do it against the likes of lowly Toronto FC, but the times when they have conceded early against strong opposition, the outcome has not been nearly as favorable. The Red Bulls have conceded in the opening 25 minutes of a game in 17 of 31 matches this season, and they are 1-5-4 in such matches against teams currently in playoff position.

Sporting KC showed New York how problematic falling behind early against a team that defends well and can dictate the tempo can be a couple of weeks ago, and with the club's next two matches coming against Chicago and Sporting KC, the margin for early error will be quite slim. For New York, failing to correct its early-game woes could easily mean the difference between having Henry share the spotlight with his teammates and a trophy in hand and having another talent-stacked, yet fatally flawed team come up short of the grand prize.

3. Is San Jose living too dangerously with its last-minute heroics?

As routine as New York's opening-minutes struggles have become, the strongest constant throughout this MLS season has been the Earthquakes' late-game heroics. Steven Lenhart's latest tally to salvage a wild, 3-3 home draw against FC Dallas brought the club's total to a staggering nine goals scored in second-half stoppage time as the late-game aura around the club continues to grow.

Much like New York pressing its luck in the early going, though, can San Jose really continue to live so dangerously late in games against the league's best when the playoffs begin? It's uncanny how the Earthquakes always seem to come through, but at some point they are going to run into a veteran, disciplined unit that won't fall victim to the antics of Lenhart, Alan Gordon, Chris Wondolowski & Co. And at that point the club needs to be better for the duration of 90 minutes instead of relying on somebody to come through with its back against the wall.

It is also worth noting that the late-game heroics that salvage draws in the regular season lead to points, but heroics that force ties in the postseason may do nothing but extend a match into the crapshoot that is a penalty shootout, which is far from a comfortable way to advance. San Jose is definitely balanced and disciplined enough to win the MLS Cup, but the club's penchant for having games come down to late drama increases the riskiness of making them a sure-fire favorite.

4. Center back quandary returns for Galaxy

Just as the season began with major questions at center back for the Los Angeles Galaxy, it appears that the end is unfolding in the same way.

Stalwart defender A.J. DeLaGarza went down with a left knee injury in Sunday night's draw at Colorado, and while the prognosis has not yet been determined, the Galaxy have to prepare themselves for a worst-case scenario. DeLaGarza's presence in central defense alongside Omar Gonzalez was key in the club's run to the MLS Cup last season and has been key in the club's resurgent run this year. Unlike at the start of the season when Gonzalez's absence due to a torn ACL appeared to be the undoing of the Galaxy, the team is better positioned to cope with this injury.

When Gonzalez was out, his absence was far from the team's only issue, even though it became the scapegoat for the team's woes. The club struggled from front to back, though, with the forwards yielding little and Juninho uncharacteristically struggling as the midfield lacked its typical sharpness all in addition to the back line being unable to find the same cohesiveness and cleanliness as last year's championship unit.

Most of that was corrected when Bruce Arena paired Landon Donovan up top with Robbie Keane, Juninho and David Beckham found their groove and Gonzalez worked his way back to health and fitness well ahead of schedule. As talented and important as DeLaGarza is to the Galaxy's fortune, there is no question that he is much more of a complement to Gonzalez than the other way around. As long as Gonzalez is still providing his size, presence and coverage in the center, Los Angeles should be able to navigate through a potential loss of DeLaGarza.

In the nine matches since Gonzalez returned full time to the starting lineup, the Galaxy have posted five clean sheets and conceded eight goals total (four coming in that embarrassing 4-0 loss in Seattle on Aug. 5), with the club going 6-1-2. The Tommy Meyer, David Junior Lopes, Andrew Boyens center back variety pack (Leonardo is still nursing a sore knee and never was right after coming back from a serious injury) is tested from this season's early travails, and Meyer showed well in his first action since May as DeLaGarza's replacement in Colorado. Make no mistake about it, this is far from an ideal scenario, and if the Galaxy are to lose DeLaGarza for an extended period of time, it would be a blow, but it would not be as completely debilitating as it was starting the season without Gonzalez and having the rest of the club out of sorts.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Jeff Parke (Seattle Sounders), Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Midfielders: Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Gershon Koffie (Vancouver Whitecaps), Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls)

Forwards: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake), Jairo Arrieta (Columbus Crew)

Week 28 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 1 San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 18-6-7)
San Jose's penchant for coming through late surfaced again, as Steven Lenhart played the role of hero. The team with the fewest losses in the league made another late comeback to salvage a point, but San Jose is living dangerously in its quest for the Supporters' Shield. Its failure to secure three points allowed Sporting Kansas City to creep within three points for the silverware with three games remaining.
2 2 Sporting Kansas City (17-7-7)
Graham Zusi is locked in at the moment, and if not for Chris Wondolowski and his goal-scoring exploits, Zusi could walk away with league MVP. Zusi has five goals for the season, which tied his career high set last year, and his 14 assists are tied for the most in the league. Clearly, last year was no fluke for the rising U.S. men's national team candidate.
3 3 Los Angeles Galaxy (15-11-5)
Losing A.J. DeLaGarza to injury is a cause for concern for the Galaxy, who hit a bit of a speed bump in a draw at Colorado. Nevertheless, the club is still unbeaten in seven matches, and rookie Tommy Meyer did well in his first competitive minutes since May. The DeLaGarza injury does come at an inopportune time, as the Galaxy's clash with Real Salt Lake this weekend may determine which of the two stays out of the 4-5 wildcard matchup in the playoffs.
4 5 New York Red Bulls (15-8-8)
After a virtuoso performance, and perhaps one of the best individual showings in MLS history, Thierry Henry left a stark reminder about how good he still is and how much he can impact a match. He also showed how much he can overshadow his teammates because Lloyd Sam's showing on the right wing was an indication that the club finally has a speed option out wide for the first time since dealing away Dane Richards. The hope for the Red Bulls is that Sam's hamstring tightness that forced him out of Saturday's match does not turn out to be a debilitating injury.
5 7 Real Salt Lake (16-11-4)
Following one of the more complete performances by the club, Real Salt Lake is hitting its stride at the right time. We've said it all season, but in-form Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola have a penchant for being the streakiest striker tandem in the league. It's a scary proposition for the competitors in the West if that form carries over to the playoffs for a veteran-laden RSL team starved for another trophy.
6 4 Chicago Fire (16-9-5)
The Fire had a chance to go to the top of the Eastern Conference table at Sporting KC but let the opportunity get away and snapped a four-game winning streak in the process. A two-game week against Philadelphia and New York is next, but playing without the suspended Gonzalo Segares against the Union will prove a challenge at one of the few thin positions on the club. Manager Frank Klopas will also miss out for being sent off in the KC loss.
7 6 Seattle Sounders (13-7-10)
The Sounders clinched a playoff berth with a 0-0 draw at Vancouver and return to the postseason for the fourth straight season. In addition, three U.S. Open Cup titles and a reputation as one of the best soccer destinations in America should be more than enough for the club's fan base to vote in favor of retaining general manager Adrian Hanauer. The club's unique, unprecedented voting process begins Sunday.
8 8 D.C. United (15-10-6)
D.C. missed an opportunity to steal three points on the road, but a draw at Portland is hardly meaningless consolation, especially when the club is now just six points shy of clinching its first playoff berth since 2007 and faces lowly Toronto FC this weekend. That's followed by an all-important clash with Columbus at RFK Stadium following the international break.
9 9 Houston Dynamo (13-8-10)
The Dynamo turned back the clock against the Revolution on Saturday night to remain a point ahead of Columbus in the furious race for fifth in the East. Houston reverted to a 4-4-2 and had its veterans Brian Ching, Brian Davis and Ricardo Clark combine for a vintage goal to deliver the much-needed win.
10 10 Columbus Crew (14-11-6)
The Crew were fortunate to have kept pace with Houston and D.C. in the playoff hunt, getting a generous no-offside call on Milovan Mirosevic's late winner after the club blew a two-goal edge at home. Jairo Arrieta had played the role of hero with his brace, marking the fourth straight game that he either scored or assisted on a goal. Arrieta labored through an ankle injury before being subbed off. The Crew need their leading goal scorer for Sunday's massive home contest against Sporting KC.
11 11 FC Dallas (9-12-10)
Buck Shaw Stadium has become a house of horrors for FC Dallas, with the club missing out on a point after Jair Benitez's late missed penalty in July and a stoppage-time loss to San Jose on Saturday. Dallas has kept pace with Vancouver and trails by just two points with three games remaining, but the club can look at its two road trips to Northern California if it eventually misses the postseason.
12 12 Vancouver Whitecaps (10-12-9)
The Whitecaps' scoreless draw with Seattle extended the club's winless skid to seven matches, and in the thick of the playoff hunt, Camilo Sanvezzo has to bury the chance he had at the end of the match. Vancouver still maintains a two-point edge over FC Dallas, but it's no contest as to which of the two teams is in better form at the moment. The club also figures to play without star rookie and leading scorer Darren Mattocks, who awaits word on the severity of his hamstring injury.
13 13 Montreal Impact (12-15-4)
After a bye week afforded the Impact some rest, the club has one last crack at playing the role of spoiler when it faces the Houston Dynamo this weekend before finishing up against Toronto and New England. Following all of the drama between the two clubs over the Brian Ching saga in the preseason, it sets up great theater when the teams meet at BBVA Compass Stadium.
14 14 Philadelphia Union (8-15-6)
The Union will feel hard-done by the missed offside call that ruined a spirited comeback and took a deserved point off the board. With four of the club's five remaining games coming against teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Union have an opportunity to play spoiler. They'll have a major say in the final conference standings despite them being officially eliminated from the postseason.
15 16 Portland Timbers (7-15-9)
Bright Dike's late equalizer helped salvage a point for the hard-done Timbers, who had plenty of gripes with the penalty call that D.C. got to go up a goal in their meeting Saturday night. For players who have not had much go their way and have yet to draw a penalty of their own this season, can you blame them? Portland can end on a high note if it can go into Seattle and claim the Cascadia Cup in Sunday night's nationally televised bout.
16 17 Colorado Rapids (9-18-4)
The Rapids held the Galaxy to a draw in a meeting between the last two MLS Cup winners, just a couple of weeks after being overwhelmed in a 2-0 defeat to the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. The effort, boosted by Jaime Castrillon's team-leading eighth goal, gave the club its third non-loss in the last four games. It's further evidence that the Rapids are still continuing to play hard for first-year manager Oscar Pareja.
17 15 New England Revolution (7-16-8)
Seventy-seven strong minutes were undone by a couple of defensive breakdowns that ultimately led to another defeat as the club maintains its look ahead to next season. Such has been life in 2012 for the Revs. At least Benny Feilhaber got the chance to start again. The skilled midfielder's absence from the starting lineup in five of the previous seven matches had been a head-scratcher considering he has been fit.
18 18 Chivas USA (7-16-7)
Winless in 10 straight and losers of six in a row, Chivas USA has been waving the white flag for some time. For the last few months the mantra has been that there's only so much stout goalkeeper Dan Kennedy can do, and after the performances teammates churned out in recent weeks, it's evident that the shot-stopper needs more quality in front of him. His 1.63 goals-against average -- tied for second-worst among keepers with at least 26 starts -- is hardly an indicator of how well he has played.
19 19 Toronto FC (5-19-7)
It went overshadowed in the aftermath of Henry's dominance and the Red Bulls' four-goal blitz, but Ryan Johnson's goal to open the scoring at Red Bull Arena was truly phenomenal. In a season thin on positive talking points -- the club is now winless in 11 straight matches -- Johnson's strike from distance that caught Luis Robles cheating off his line was certainly a point of pride.
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