The league itself is beginning to thump out playoff drumbeats, bleating out the rhythmic march of the postseason that has that bloodcurdling finality to it. We are weeding out contenders, sussing out dark horses and booting pretenders off the island. And we are ridding ourselves of Chivas USA, shedding the fat and the useless. Which is always a positive for those who enjoy watching enjoyable soccer. So here is our crossroads, at a place where the league is beginning to make sense as it pertains to the playoffs. LA is unbelievably hot, Columbus is incredibly flighty, Toronto is horrible (yeesh), Thierry Henry is a bad, bad man and we all weep for Gavin Wilkinson.
Let's get to it. Some quick-hitters here to break down what matters right now as the playoff chase hits the back stretch.
— 2012 San Jose is among the league's best offenses of all time. The Earthquakes crested the 58 goal plateau on Saturday, which puts them in rarified air. Look at it historically. Since MLS teams actually began playing organized defense around the turn of the century (this didn't happen in any formative way until around 2001 — LA scored a fantastical 87 goals in 1998, an uncommonly absurd sum to think of now), nobody has been quite as good in an era of increasingly structured defense as 2012 San Jose. In 2007, DC set a record pace in the "new era" of MLS by thumping home 56 goals in 30 games. That's 1.8 goals per game, a fantastic return by the league's standards. Not since the 2001 Miami Fusion, who scored 2.1 goals per game with Diego Serna, Preki and Alex Pineda Chicon pulling the strings, has MLS seen a team average 2+ goals per game, which is right where San Jose is sitting. With six games left on the schedule, the Quakes have some yeoman's work to do to ensure that they're included in that group by season's end. And I'd argue they'd be the 2.0 club's most impressive members. Four teams surrendered 50+ goals in 2001, which back then was a third of the league. In 2011, four teams surrendered 50+ goals, but that's with six more teams on the ledger. That San Jose has been able to maintain this kind of absurd scoring pace in an era where absurd scoring paces aren't necessarily en vogue is something to appreciate. Big time.
— Thierry Henry is blargagjdkgsdjhgksdjhg.
— FC Dallas is fortifying itself with mortar and hot sauce. Need proof? Look at this Opta Chalkboard madness from FCD, which illustrates a key point as to why this team could make opponents sweat in the playoffs (should it come to that). There is a dogged approach to the attack now that didn't exist during the lagging days of early summer, and that will undoubtedly serve the Hoops well when it counts. Now that FCD has drawn all its various pieces inward, healthy and in shape, there is an expectation here that Dallas, and not Vancouver, will end up with that fifth spot in the playoffs. Need I remind you how FCD got there, with this brilliant 96th minute (!) winner bopped home by TFC castoff (!!) Julian de Guzman, who had some interesting comments for TFC post-goal. Check out the video below (skip ahead to about 6:50) to see de Guzman's well taken goal. TFC... no words for you, bro.
— We're all bummed about DeRo, but... what are the implications? Look at it this way, United fans. Andy Najar has suddenly developed into arguably the best, and certainly the most anticipated right back in MLS. Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon are both superbly inventive wingers. And Maicon Santos has the ability to hold up back lines and occasionally thump home wonder strikes. Even without DeRo, this is not a team bereft of talent, and they proved it when they came back from a goal down to bury New England 2-1 over the weekend. One thing you noticed on Saturday is that DC is liable to give up more possession without DeRo on the field, but United still has the ability to string together incisive passes and hit teams on quick counters with meaningful balls. This is not a better team without DeRo, but it is arguably leaner. DC was out-shot 12-2 by New England on Saturday, but it was obvious that without the reigning MVP, United was content to pick and choose battles to be fought on its own turf. If it can continue that theme — a dangerous gambit but one that might pay off — United may be able to hold off the streaky Crew for the East's final playoff spot.
— Seattle couldn't even let Portland have the Cascadia Cup. Harsh. I feel you, Timbers fans. As an unbiased observer, MLS needs the Timbers. The league needs Portland like Woody Allen needs his neurosis. Like Hemingway needs whiskey and a good bull fight. Like... well, like MLS needs a riotously good home crowd in the playoffs. The league is all about revenue stream, yes, but it is also about public appearances, about putting on a good face that this whole soccer thing is, yes, working out just like we always knew it would. We, the washed literates, know the league's monetary figures are good, that attendance figures are well up, that designated players are better than ever, that the product on the field is miles even from where it was a few years ago. But will Average Joe Sports Pack 6-Bud Lights-On-A-Tuesday-Morning get that? He sees what the league tells him to see, and the more Portland's obscenely fantastic home crowd is thrown in his face the better. Screw 'em? Been there, and it's a zero-sum game. Having been the fan of a college franchise that was destitute for a decade and is now among the nation's "elite" across the board, I know what it is to understand T-shirt fans. They are to be understood and put in their proper cubby, but they are also to be appreciated as a harbinger of success. Yeah, so maybe you're a "better, more loyal" NYRB fan than that dude who cherry picked an Henry jersey off Ebay last week. But your money is just as good as his. Appreciate them while they're here. Fail to miss them when they leave. Thus is the nature of the thing.
— Now that we can start parsing out teams... we can look at what went wrong for a number of them. Today I'd like to focus for a moment on the Rapids. What Oscar Pareja discovered about his plan to institute his flowing 4-3-3 is that it's only as good as the middle prong on the advanced shelf, and he's never truly had a striker to fill the void. Omar Cummings' struggles with an ankle injury and sagging form in addition to Conor Casey's ubiquitous injury issues left Pareja with a continual selection crisis up top. He's mostly toggled between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, but the 4-3-3 as a revolution in MLS — much like Aron Winter's abandoned project in Toronto — isn't quite here yet. I wouldn't say Sanna Nyassi would've fixed all of these problems, but as a wide player in the 4-3-3 I can think of few better fits. Colorado is still kicking itself for a lost offseason that's still haunting this side.
— Five players who aren't grabbing major headlines who will matter in the playoffs. San Jose's Victor Bernardez, New York's Dax McCarty, Houston's Calen Carr, LA's Marcelo Sarvas and FCD's Brek Shea (yeah).
— Can Eddie Johnson really win MLS MVP? The easy answer is "probably not." Wondo has the inside edge on the thing and, really, Eddie will need a splendid postseason to snatch it away. But the fact that he's in the discussion in his first year back in MLS after an extended period wandering "north of the wall," (any Game of Thrones fans in the house?) is impressive enough to note. As I've said before, there is enough tactical sense in Eddie's game to make a case that he's playing as well, and certainly as smart as he has perhaps ever. Whether or not Seattle can extend its season beyond pleasing USOC runs might be largely down to how much Johnson can produce in the playoffs. That or Fredy Montero is about to have pretty sore back.
— Key games. New York hosts SKC on Wednesday night in a game with immediate Eastern top-seed implications on the line. Saturday's best feature is a double dip, with Seattle-San Jose and Chicago-Columbus both offering delectable story lines in different conferences. Remember, the Sounders and LA both have CCL duties at midweek as well, which will test both sides as they gear up for playoff pushes.
- Will Parchman