Posted: Monday October 8, 2012 12:21PM ; Updated: Monday October 8, 2012 12:59PM
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Avi Creditor>INSIDE SOCCER

Spectacle in Seattle, changes in New York, MLS Power Rankings

Story Highlights

The Cascadia Cup is likely to remain in Seattle after its 3-0 shutout of Portland

The Dynamo and Crew both drew, leaving Houston one point up in their battle

Chris Wondolowski is two goals shy of the single-season record after a hat trick

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Fredy Montero
Fredy Montero scored one of three Seattle goals in a shutout of Cascadia rival Portland on Sunday night.
Ted S. Warren/AP

Breaking down all the happenings in Cascadia and the playoff races and taking a look around MLS after a storyline-packed Week 31:

1. Sounders rule Cascadia, but Whitecaps emerge as big winners. The highly publicized and attended Cascadia Cup derby in Seattle on Sunday night was pretty much as advertised. Passion reverberated throughout the almost 67,000 in attendance -- bravo, creators of that enormous tifo -- to the point Sounders coach Sigi Schmid called it "heaven." Quality rose to the surface on the field (well, from one team, anyhow). The Sounders showcased the flair and attacking aptitude that separates them from the past three Seattle teams in a 3-0 win over the rival Timbers. Players entered challenges with a distinct desire, some leaving bloodied along the way. In short, the Seattle-Portland spectacle that MLS continues to boast as its showcase event met expectations yet again.

The big winners in the Cascadia region this week were not situated at CenturyLink Field, though. They were not even in action over the weekend, nor were they in the United States. Instead, the Vancouver Whitecaps sat back and watched their chief rivals duke it out as an encore after FC Dallas threw away a result to Chivas USA, settling for a draw against the team Vancouver blew out in a one-sided, mid-week clash just days before. The stunning result created a four-point buffer for fifth place in the Western Conference with two matches remaining, and one that puts the Whitecaps on the brink of reaching the postseason in their second year in the league.

Had the Whitecaps fallen out of that spot and let Dallas overtake them, it would have been one of the great collapses in league history, considering where Vancouver has stood for the duration of the season and how far back Dallas was before transforming into a winner three months ago. Instead, Vancouver can cement things by taking care of business against the lowly Timbers at home when MLS resumes following the international break, as Dallas must take care of its own business and pray for a minor miracle.

So while the actual Cascadia Cup is likely to remain in Seattle for another year after Sunday's performance -- Portland could still claim it by going to BC Place and winning Oct. 21, but is anyone really expecting the Timbers, they of the 0-12-4 road record, to pull that one off? -- it looks as if a second Cascadia entrant will be joining the Sounders in the fight for an even more important cup, MLS Cup, after all.

2. Dynamo, Crew fail to assert themselves. Little has separated the Houston Dynamo from the Columbus Crew, and with two games remaining in the MLS regular season, that battle for the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is going down to the wire. Houston maintains a one-point edge over Columbus, as neither could take advantage of the other's slip-up over the weekend. For Columbus, battling back to tie first-place Sporting Kansas City after trailing for the duration of the match is nothing to hang its head over. For Houston, though, failing to defeat Montreal at home in a game of that magnitude, even without injured captain Brad Davis, is borderline inexcusable.

In fact, the club's home record against non-playoff Canadian teams in general has been rather disappointing altogether, and the two home ties the club settled for against Toronto FC and Saturday's draw against Montreal could ultimately be its undoing during a season in which the inconsistent Dynamo have had the look of both a title contender and an also-ran. Instead of tallying up those points, the Dynamo let them slip away, and they find themselves on the precipice of missing out of the playoffs as some under-appreciated challenges await.

The schedule for both clubs -- who are so close to the point that they've played two 2-2 draws this season in head-to-head matchups, but Houston maintains the overall goals-scored tiebreaker -- going forward does not make for smooth sailing. Houston plays a Philadelphia side that is gaining form and would love nothing more than to exact some revenge on the team that eliminated the Union from the postseason last year. The Dynamo follow that up by playing at altitude in Colorado all while balancing a crucial CONCACAF Champions League match in between. Columbus, meanwhile, has to travel to play D.C. United at RFK Stadium, where the hosts are undefeated since March 10, before finishing up with a Trillium Cup battle against last-place Toronto FC. At this juncture, it is very much a toss-up as to who makes the playoffs.

3. A scheduling dream. As stated above, there are some tremendous playoff races that are unlikely to be officially decided until the last weekend of the season. Between the fights for the final playoff spots in each conference and the constant jockeying for position to determine which teams avoid the wild-card matchups, the season's final weekend has the potential for some wild drama. The only problem is, the way the schedule is currently constructed zaps the chance to maximize that for the fan experience.

Houston and Vancouver will play their final games Saturday, Oct. 27, while Columbus and FC Dallas play the following day, by which point they will know exactly what is necessary to -- if it is still possible -- reach the playoffs. Imagine if that was not the case, that all of the final-week games were scheduled for the same start time, as is the practice in many leagues around the world. Not only does that make for a competitive balance for the teams in action, it creates that kind of buzz off the field that is unique to soccer and generates unbridled excitement as fans go through the permutations and possibilities with each passing goal and minute. The league moved to create a live-updated standings page on its official website, but that is something that is really best-served being used on a last-day bonanza, when fortunes across the league actually do change in real time.

The only way to try and replicate the magic that encompasses the last day of the season (i.e. the final day of last season's Premier League campaign and Manchester City's magical, dramatic win to claim the title) is to follow suit and have all teams in action play simultaneously. With an odd number of teams in the league it is impossible to make it logistically perfect until expansion to a 20th team, because one team will not be playing (this season, it's Sporting Kansas City), but having a go at it even with that caveat is certainly better than losing the potential to capitalize on that drama altogether.

4. RBNY's front-office fail takes its toll. The New York Red Bulls may wind up enjoying eventual success under the stewardship of Jerome de Bontin and Gerard Houllier, two well-qualified individuals with top-notch soccer brains and experience at the sport's highest levels. Nevertheless, their introduction coupled with general manager Erik Soler's ouster this past week came at the most peculiar time for a team that looked to be on its way to being a title contender. Soler had his rough moments in MLS and has been well acquainted with the hot seat, but considering the team he had built and the rhythm it was developing, now was not the ideal time to look in another direction.

In his first remarks to reporters, de Bontin mentioned that manager Hans Backe, a Soler hire who is in the final year of his contract, would have his future evaluated at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Backe is in the thick of a chase for the club's first trophy, one that is realistically within reach. Even talking passingly about Backe's future as manager of the team at this point is purely asinine.

The front-office distraction appeared to take its toll on the club's performance Saturday afternoon, one that was on display for all who have NB, and whether there is a correlation between the two only those in the Red Bulls locker room truly know. But with the overall flatness and lack of focus, it appeared on the surface as if the club's curious front-office personnel moves had a trickle-down effect to the field, where the defending was simply not good enough and the seeds of doubt were replanted. For a franchise that historically seems to enjoy the act of self sabotage, even this development is an unfounded head-scratcher.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas)

Defenders: Arne Friedrich (Chicago Fire), Hernan Pertuz (FC Dallas), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake)

Midfielders: Gabriel Gomez (Philadelphia Union), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Juninho (Los Angeles Galaxy), Camilo (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Forwards: Sherjill MacDonald (Chicago Fire), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake)

Week 31 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 1 San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 19-6-7)
Roy Lassiter, you are in Chris Wondolowski's sights. After another late-season hat trick, Wondolowski is just two goals shy of Lassiter's single-season MLS record of 27 goals, and, barring injury or a red card, he will have two more matches to reach the summit and cement his place as the single-season MLS king. Regardless, Wondo's three-year scoring run has been as prolific and impressive as any stretch in league history.
2 2 Sporting Kansas City (17-7-8)
Sporting KC dropped points and settled for a draw at Columbus, but the club likely breathed a couple sighs of relief after C.J. Sapong was able to go on after taking an apparent knock to his ankle and after post-game reports suggested that Roger Espinoza's injury that forced him out of the match was not as serious as it may have looked as he was stretchered off the field. The club, now unbeaten in 10 matches, will need those two to entertain thoughts of adding an MLS Cup trophy alongside the U.S. Open Cup.
3 5 Real Salt Lake (17-11-4)
Is there any team in the league that would feel comfortable drawing RSL in the playoffs next month? The veteran-laden club is 6-1-1 in its last eight matches, put forth a vintage showing in a comeback victory at Los Angeles and is playing as well as it has all season. Success in MLS is very much about timing, and RSL's is currently impeccable. As it stands, the club would match up with Seattle in the conference semifinals for the second straight year in a series worthy of an MLS Cup final.
4 6 Chicago Fire (17-10-5)
Sherjill MacDonald earned his DP dollars Saturday afternoon in front of a national audience, clinically finishing his chances, timing his runs to perfection and displaying strong hold-up skill to lift the Fire to a 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena and help the club clinch its place in the postseason. The win also snapped a mini two-game losing skid for Chicago, which celebrates the club's 15th anniversary with an event featuring a who's-who of Fire past in the Windy City on Monday.
5 7 Seattle Sounders (14-7-10)
The Sounders coasted to a Cascadia Cup victory and looked comfortable doing so. It may have gone overshadowed, but just how sleek and professional was Christian Tiffert's dummy run to take the attention of the defense just enough to help set up the opening goal? That touch of class has been lacking from the Sounders in past postseasons, and the German DP may just be part of the reason why 2012 is a different story in the Emerald City.
6 3 Los Angeles Galaxy (15-12-5)
The Galaxy fell for just the second time in their last 13 matches to rival RSL in a match that boasted some of the best overall quality MLS has. The back line struggled to contain RSL's Fabian Espindola without both A.J. DeLaGarza and Todd Dunivant in the lineup, as rookies Tommy Meyer and Bryan Gaul looked a step behind at times during the loss, one that likely relegates the Galaxy to the wild-card match in the West. Of more concern is the undisclosed severity of the injury that knocked Landon Donovan out of the game.
7 8 D.C. United (16-10-6)
Another ugly win, another three points happily accepted by D.C., which is all but in the postseason after its late win at Toronto and with sixth-place Columbus failing to keep pace. The two sides meet in a crucial bout at RFK Stadium -- where D.C. has not lost since opening night -- following the international break, with D.C. needing just a draw with the Crew to cement a place in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
8 4 New York Red Bulls (15-9-8)
Our sincere thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Red Bulls youth coach Michael Jones, 25, who was tragically stabbed to death in New York City in the early hours of Sunday morning. Based on early reports, it was a senseless, needless act of brutality, and one that cost a young man rising in the sport his life. Rest in peace, Michael.
9 9 Houston Dynamo (13-8-11)
The Dynamo came so close to defeating Montreal in the most poetic way -- a late winner by Brian Ching of all people -- but his stoppage-time goal was correctly ruled for being offside. The club got away with that draw this weekend after seeing Columbus suffer the same fate a day later, but the margin for error is essentially nonexistent going forward. The Dynamo do own the goals-scored tiebreaker over the Crew (45-40), so they have that working for them.
10 10 Columbus Crew (14-11-7)
Eddie Gaven gave the Crew a lifeline with his late equalizer that salvaged one point from a game that Columbus really could have used all three. The club still maintains hope of a postseason berth and has its life in its own hands but will need to avoid any ties, because of all of the teams alive in the Eastern Conference that have yet to clinch playoff berths, Columbus has scored the fewest goals.
11 12 Vancouver Whitecaps (11-12-9)
The Whitecaps can breathe a little easier after FC Dallas' slip-up against Chivas USA Sunday night, one that puts the Whitecaps four points clear of sixth place with two games to go. Vancouver, which saw Camilo enjoy a necessary breakout performance against Chivas in a mid-week rout, will undoubtedly want to take care of business at home against Portland instead of having the race go down to the season's final day, when the club plays at Real Salt Lake.
12 11 FC Dallas (9-12-11)
After all the hard work Dallas put in to get in position to play for a postseason berth, the club has nobody to blame but itself for blowing second-half leads in consecutive matches. Doing so at San Jose is more acceptable considering the Earthquakes' penchant for coming back on everybody, but letting a lead slip away to a Chivas team that had lost seven straight matches will eat away at FCD, which was without Brek Shea (abdominal strain), for the duration of the offseason if the club does not spring a minor miracle to overtake the Whitecaps.
13 13 Montreal Impact (12-15-5)
The Impact did their best to play spoiler and further the venom between themselves and the Houston Dynamo following the preseason Ching saga, holding the 2011 MLS Cup finalists to a draw at BBVA Compass Stadium and keeping Houston's playoff chances in the balance. Even without midfield stalwart Felipe running the show, the Impact created enough chances to trouble the Dynamo defense, with Sanna Nyassi landing the breakthrough equalizer.
14 14 Philadelphia Union (10-15-6)
The Union are finishing the season by playing winning soccer, which will be a plus to carry into the first full year with coach John Hackworth at the helm. One of Hackworth's most notable moves, slotting Jack McInerney into the starting XI, continues to pay dividends after the 20-year-old tallied in both of the club's wins this past week (and three games in a row) and is putting the finishing touches on a breakthrough third season in MLS.
15 15 Portland Timbers (7-16-9)
Portland's promising opening minutes gave way to some calamitous defending and lackluster attacking in Seattle, and the Timbers' one last shot at salvaging some pride this season by winning the Cascadia Cup is slowly trickling away. It will take a win at Vancouver, which would be the club's first win away from Jeld-Wen Field this season, following the international break to bring the regional bragging rights to the Rose City.
16 16 Colorado Rapids (9-19-4)
The Rapids absolutely rolled over for San Jose, having no answers whatsoever for the likes of Wondolowski, Steven Lenhart and Marvin Chavez in a 4-1 rout. The look on Andre Akpan's face after he netted a last-minute penalty kick to salvage a goal for Colorado said it all: There's nothing to celebrate here.
17 17 New England Revolution (7-17-8)
The sun came up, the sun set and the Revolution gave away a game off of an unnecessary defensive gaffe. Unfortunately for the Revs, it's becoming clockwork. On the bright side, youngster Diego Fagundez earned a Uruguay Under-20 call-up and will test the international waters on the youth level, further increasing his experience and potential value going forward.
18 18 Chivas USA (7-17-8)
After putting forth little fight against Vancouver in a mid-week embarrassment, the Goats came through to play spoiler against FC Dallas Sunday night to end their seven-game losing streak. The club still sits in last place in the Western Conference but can climb out of the cellar and leapfrog the Rapids to get as high as seventh place in their meeting following the international break.
19 19 Toronto FC (5-20-7)
TFC's penchant for conceding late rose to the surface again, with the club's 16th goal allowed in the final 15 minutes of games gift-wrapping three points for D.C. United. With all of the high-profile injuries on TFC it is hard to expect much from the Reds, but Milos Kocic simply has to smother that ball that former TFCer Maicon Santos sent in instead of letting it slip to the opportunistic Hamdi Salihi on the doorstep.
 

 
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