Lewis Neal sent D.C. United into the playoffs with a stoppage-tiem goal on Saturday.
Ned Dishman/Getty Images
With a week left in the regular season, all of the playoff spots are set and a long-standing goal record remains within reach. Here's where things stand following a decisive MLS Week 33:
1. Playoff drama hits fast Saturday night. Oh, how things can change in a span of 30 minutes.
At one point Saturday night, the Columbus Crew were headed toward a road upset of D.C. United, which would have inched Columbus toward a playoff berth while putting playoff-starved D.C. on the ropes for the season finale in Chicago. The Houston Dynamo had also thrown away an early lead over the Philadelphia Union and were staring its playoff fate in the face. Then, suddenly, the drama flipped.
There is nothing quite like simultaneous action in different places across the country, and that is exactly what occurred when D.C.'s Marcelo Saragosa (who has been playing with a heavy heart after the death of his father earlier this year) and Houston's Oscar Boniek Garcia scored within minutes of each other to completely turn the Eastern Conference playoff picture on its head. The Crew were forced to scramble and throw numbers forward, with Robert Warzycha having no choice but to take off a defender and throw forward Emilio Renteria into the mix. Columbus still would have maintained a minor shred of hope entering the final week of the season if it could have hung on for a 2-2 draw, but when Lewis Neal's stoppage-time winner rolled cruelly into the back of the net followed by the final whistle at RFK Stadium, the men in yellow collapsed to the field one-by-one, their playoff dreams up in stadium-flair smoke.
MLS does not have the last-day simultaneous drama like leagues elsewhere around the world, but Saturday night's back-and-forth was as encompassing and enthralling as gets. While some may gripe that MLS allows so many of the league's teams into the postseason, there is no denying the fact that having so many teams playing meaningful games this late in the season makes for tremendous theater.
2. Western Conference field is all set. The road to the MLS Cup through the Western Conference was always going to be a treacherous, but now that the matchups are locked in, a number of title contenders have their work cut out for them.
The only seeding that can change is Seattle and Real Salt Lake swapping the second and third seeds, but it will impact which team hosts either leg of their conference semifinal battle. RSL had the slightest of edges over Seattle in their regular season meetings, going 1-0-2, including a 1-0 win in May. There were also two scoreless draws, including last Wednesday (with the caveat that neither team was at full strength after the international break). Either team could rightfully claim the MLS Cup, and the series will be a fascinating tactical matchup between a pair of battle-tested sides that make it no secret about how they want to go about their business.
Supporters' Shield-boasting San Jose awaits the winner of the Los Angeles-Vancouver wildcard game, and if this season's results are a harbinger of who will win that opener at the Home Depot Center on Nov. 1, it will be the defending MLS Cup champions. In its two home games against Vancouver, L.A. coasted to 3-0 and 2-0 victories. The Whitecaps backed into the playoffs with just one win in their last nine matches (a blowout of lowly Chivas USA), while the Galaxy are 5-1-3 in that time span. Anything can happen in a one-off scenario, but it's hard to picture Vancouver going on the road and besting Bruce Arena's side, which could set the table for another conference semifinal between championship-caliber clubs who just played this week.
3. Timbers' Cascadia Cup triumph. The only possible consolation remaining for the Portland Timbers this season was to capture the Cascadia Cup, and after throwing away an opportunity to do so at home, it seemed unlikely that the club would manage to secure it on the road, where it had won a total of zero times this season. Captain Jack Jewsbury altered that outcome with a hellacious, trademark strike from distance, and atypical resolute defending thwarted off the Whitecaps and delivered Portland a sorely needed respite from the norm of underachieving and facing disappointment.
Earning the Cascadia Cup trophy not only gives the Timbers regional bragging rights, but it also provides a more stable foundation for University of Akron and U.S. Under-23 national team coach Caleb Porter when he takes over in December. The win also ensured that the club would not finish in last place in the Western Conference, sparing some embarrassment as it looks to move forward and put forth a team that is capable of matching the level of passion in the stands at Jeld-Wen Field with a consistent high level of play.
As Timbers owner Merritt Paulson wrote on his much-scrutinized Twitter account following the victory, in perhaps the most appropriate summation of the night's events and putting the season as a whole into proper perspective, "Damn .... we needed that! #cascadiacup."
4. What to watch for in the final week. All of the 10 MLS playoff spots are already spoken for, which renders the final week of the season meaningless, right? Not exactly. There is still plenty on the line in regular-season finales across the league. All of the postseason matchups might be set in the Western Conference -- and coaches may opt for reserves in a pair of head-to-head matchups featuring playoff teams (RSL-Vancouver, Seattle-LA) -- but San Jose's MVP front-runner Chris Wondolowski has a legitimate chance to break Roy Lassiter's single-season goal record that has stood since the league's inaugural season in 1996. With one tally against Portland, Wondolowski will tie Lassiter's mark of 27 goals. With two, he'll break it. If history is any indicator, he'll get at least one, as he has scored single goals in the Earthquakes' finales in each of the last two seasons, and in his last showing against Portland, Wondolowski came off the bench and scored twice.
In the East, all of the playoff teams have punched their tickets, but not a single one is locked into its current seed. For as unbeatable as Sporting Kansas City has been, the club will fall out of first place with a loss to Philadelphia and a D.C. United win over Chicago. Four teams are still jockeying to avoid having to play in the wild-card round while trying to balance roster fitness and keeping starters fresh for the playoff run. The major details have all been sorted out, but the playoff picture in the East could look vastly different than it currently does at this time next week.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
Defenders: Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Andy Najar (D.C. United)
Midfielders: Marcelo Saragosa (D.C. United), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Martin Rivero (Colorado Rapids), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)
|Week 33 MLS Power Rankings|
||San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 19-6-8)
It was not exactly convincing, but San Jose managed to snag a home point by coming back from one-goal deficits on two occasions against the Galaxy in a potential Western Conference semifinal preview. But the biggest accomplishment came off of the field, where the club broke ground on its new stadium with the help of a world-record groundbreaking crowd of 6,256. Both the present and future are looking quite bright for the Quakes.
||Sporting Kansas City (17-7-9)
Sporting KC would be the first to admit that the club was not at its best for Saturday's 0-0 draw in New York, but most teams would love for their "subpar" to result in road points against playoff competition. SKC is on a league-best 11-game unbeaten run as it eyes an MLS Cup to add to its U.S. Open Cup and needs just a home draw against Philadelphia in the season finale to wrap up the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
There will be no Cascadia Cup for the Sounders this season, but that is about the only downside for a club that is eyeing postseason success for the first time. After their win eliminated FC Dallas from postseason contention Sunday night, the Sounders ensured that they will have gone more than four months without a loss against a team that was not San Jose (who beat the Sounders twice). Unfortunately, there is nothing really on the line when Seattle meets Los Angeles in a high-profile season finale, as both teams should use the game to ensure they enter the postseason with their stars in full health.
||Real Salt Lake (17-11-5)|
RSL could not take advantage of 60 man-up minutes in Seattle in a mid-week clash and settled for a scoreless draw. But perhaps that was a matter of Jason Kreis taking it a bit easy knowing that the two were likely to tangle in a playoff series yet again. Before the club can focus on that though, CONCACAF Champions League business is at hand, as a home win over Herediano is a must to win its group and move on to the quarterfinals.
||D.C. United (17-10-6)
D.C.'s five-year playoff drought is officially over, with the club improving to 5-0-1 since Dwayne De Rosario's season-ending knee injury and finishing off a 16-game unbeaten run at home to punch its ticket. As has been the case the past few weeks, a cast of players have stepped up to get the job done, with Marcelo Saragosa, Lewis Neal, Nick DeLeon and Branko Boskovic getting the club on the scoreboard to twice battle back from one-goal deficits to Columbus.
||Chicago Fire (17-11-5)
Chicago's lackluster showing in New England raises a bit of a red flag as the team gears up for a return to the postseason, and the inability to take points from that matchup puts the Fire in a position where they may have to play in the wild-card round after being in second place just days ago. A loss to D.C. and wins by either Houston or New York would dump the Fire to the 4-vs-5 matchup, making a run at the MLS Cup all the more difficult.
||Los Angeles Galaxy (15-12-6)
The Galaxy blew one-goal leads twice in the second half against the Earthquakes, failing to find a way to defeat their California Clasico rivals for the third time this season. The two will meet again in the conference semifinals if L.A. can defeat Vancouver in their wild-card matchup. The question remains whether the injured Landon Donovan will be there to help the defending champions on their quest for a second straight MLS Cup.
||New York Red Bulls (15-9-9)|
New York staved off Sporting Kansas City in their scoreless tie with a much better showing than its 2-0 loss to the first-place team a few weeks earlier. But going 0-1-2 against the club it is likely to face if it makes the Eastern Conference semifinals (barring a change in the table after both teams get a crack at the Philadelphia Union in their respective season finales) does not bode well for New York's fortunes.
||Houston Dynamo (14-8-11)
The class of Houston's midfield came shining through when the club needed it most, with Oscar Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis delivering the decisive blows in the team's win over Philadelphia, the result that sealed the return to the playoffs for last year's MLS Cup finalists. Even more important for the club was the showing of forward Mac Kandji. Houston was playing at its best during the summer when Kandji was in form, and he adds another dynamic player up top for Dom Kinnear. The Dynamo are a dangerous lower seed.
||Columbus Crew (14-12-7)
There will be no playoffs in Columbus this year, as the club's transformation from mediocre side to serious contender came up a bit short following the loss at RFK Stadium. A full season of attacking stars Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta will do wonders for Robert Warzycha's rebuilt side, which needed just a bit too long to sort out its roster issues and ultimately could not make up for a slow start.
||Vancouver Whitecaps (11-13-9)
Congratulations to the Whitecaps for becoming the first Canadian team to reach the MLS playoffs (and for doing it in their second season as an MLS franchise). But the club backed into the postseason and faces the daunting task of trying to rediscover top form while going up against defending champion Los Angeles in the wild-card round. Vancouver has put forth a few handfuls of disappointing showings when it needed better -- Sunday's home loss to Portland being one of them -- and will find its playoff life short-lived barring a massive turnaround.
||FC Dallas (9-13-11)
A valiant run at an improbable postseason berth came to a screeching halt in Seattle. The inability to mark up on a set piece was the final blow for a club that overcame plenty to put itself in position to reach the playoffs but came up just short. If there's a candidate to go from missing the playoffs to postseason contender next year (a la San Jose) it's FC Dallas, provided the club does not wade through as many injuries and suspensions as it did in 2012.
||Montreal Impact (12-15-6)
Montreal's opening season in MLS concludes with a whimper following a scoreless draw at hapless Toronto FC. With 12 wins, though, Montreal has the most among the three Canadian teams in the league -- including playoff-bound Vancouver -- and the club has plenty to build on for its second season. The major questions will surround the club's aging stars, as lineup centerpieces Marco di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta battle father time heading into 2013.
||Portland Timbers (8-16-9)
The Timbers are finishing out their season on a high after claiming the Cascadia Cup, a win they can celebrate with their deserved home fans prior to the season finale against San Jose. The attention at Jeld-Wen Field will be on Chris Wondolowski and his chase of the goal-scoring record, but for the Timbers Army, they can at least take solace in the regional silverware.
||Philadelphia Union (10-16-6)
Philadelphia's chance to play spoiler went by the wayside after the Union succumbed to a pair of second-half goals against the Dynamo, and now the club gets the pleasure of finishing up against playoff-bound Sporting KC and New York before John Hackworth reviews who will be joining him for the 2013 season. A sure bet is striker Jack McInerney, whose game matured greatly over the last few months and will be a major part of the club's attacking solution going forward.
||Colorado Rapids (10-19-4)
Argentine playmaker Martin Rivero quietly had one of the more effective seasons among all newcomers in MLS, and his performance against Chivas USA carried the Rapids to their 10th win of the campaign, one fewer than fifth-seed Vancouver. As poor as Colorado was at times this season, the club is not far away from getting back to the playoffs. All offseason eyes will be on captain Pablo Mastroeni, though, as he determines whether he can return from a concussion that kept him out for the majority of the year.
||New England Revolution (8-17-8)
Cheers to the Revs, who not only came out and managed to defeat an in-form Chicago team with plenty to play for, but did so in front of a crowd of more than 25,000 in a home finale. Jay Heaps' first season in charge had plenty of trying moments, but Saturday's victory was a nice break from a rough campaign while also serving as stepping stone for future star Diego Fagundez.
||Chivas USA (7-18-8)
Just how fruitless has the Chivas attack been this season? The club's 22 goals scored (only nine of which came at home) are by far the fewest in the league, and the next-closest team, Portland, has scored 11 more times. On the other side of the ball, Chivas' 56 goals allowed are topped only by Toronto FC's 60. Major changes figure to be coming for a club that is winless in its last 13 matches and has shows no signs of being able to end that skid against FC Dallas in the season finale.
||Toronto FC (5-20-8)
A week remains in another forgettable season north of the border, and judging by the empty seats at BMO Field for a rivalry game against Montreal, the club's supporters could not care less. There is still meaningful soccer remaining for the Reds, though, as they have a mid-week bout at Santos Laguna in which a win (and one by a big margin) is a must to maintain CCL hopes.