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MLS West the conference to beat; Rodgers' return saves Red Bulls

Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 27:

1. Why the playoff format looks this way: You may regard the MLS playoff format as stinky cheese. You may also turn up your nose at the lenient MLS standards for postseason entry. On both accounts, you would have plenty of company; playoff structure ranks high on the list of laments among hard-core MLS supporters.

The problem is, there still aren't enough of those. (Supporters, that is, not complaints.) Which is why Major League Soccer likes a high percentage of teams in the playoffs, theorizing that extended races heightens and maintains regular season interest.

Again, you may or may not agree. But this much cannot be argued: It does create exciting finishes, as games down the stretch almost always count for something.

Of nine matches in Round 27, something was at stake at each venue. Whether it was Los Angeles maintaining Supporters Shield advantage or Chicago or San Jose desperately scratching for points to resuscitate flat-lining playoff prospects, meaning came attached to each.

Over the weekend, during a stop in Dallas, MLS commissioner Don Garber referenced long-standing gripes: that the MLS season is rendered less relevant by an insufficiently discriminating playoff structure, and that adding two more playoff sides (the field is now 10) further trivialized regular season stuff.

He said "nonsense," pointing to an intense weekend of matches. (Nine matches, no ties!)

"These teams need points, and they are going to fight hard to get them," Garber said. "I think we've got a good group of teams still in the race, I think the race will go to the end. ... This is why everyone gets excited about officiating, why we've had some aggressive play. Whether it's the beginning of season or now, guys are playing hard to win every day."

The problem with that stance is that fans don't always "get" the big-match implications in March-July. But that's an ongoing debate. The here and now is, as Garber contests, teems with playoff subplot:

The foursome at the top of the West (Los Angeles, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Dallas) are safe, now jockeying for position. Everyone wants to be first, second or third, so drama remains.

As of today, Columbus, Kansas City and Philadelphia are the automatic selections from the East, but treacherous footing abounds. Colorado, Houston, New York, D.C. United and Portland all will have their say in the race. Chivas USA and Chicago might possibly elbow their way into the playoff conversation. Even Toronto and San Jose can keep the dream alive, although it would some outrageous karmic convergence at this point.

2. The tricky art of appreciation: Sometimes athletes must go away for a while for everyone to collect a fresh appreciation of their value. Two examples from MLS Week 27:

In Columbus, the Crew continued to limp along, now winless in its last four after a 1-0 loss at Philadelphia. And things won't get better until valuable center back Chad Marshall returns; the Crew captain picked up a hip flexor injury in a midweek 2-2 draw in Houston.

The defense wasn't terrible in his absence. On the other hand, Philadelphia's lone goal came on a run in behind young replacement Eric Gehrig. Would the more astute Marshall have been better positioned? It's certainly possible. He's been steady this year, as always. It's just that younger U.S. center backs have stolen some of his thunder lately, so everyone outside of Ohio tends to overlook his long-standing dependability. Marshall's presence has also greatly boosted Julius James, formerly a journeyman defender who has suddenly found career footing as Marshall's central partner. James will suffer in Marshall's absence, too.

In New York, Luke Rodgers was among the least appreciated, major contributors in MLS earlier this year. The Red Bulls certainly missed him in that bummer of a summer, the two-plus months without a victory.

But Rodgers, in his first start in two months, lifted his team with a vital goal in a 1-0 win over Dallas (a game where both teams missed their top stars). No other Red Bull provides what he does in terms of a target presence (despite his relatively small size) and in terms of his ability to be a foil for Thierry Henry. Plus, he's an underrated passer.

3. These good players will be right back: Writers should never miss a chance to throw a little love the way of the outside backs, positions that frequently get short shrift when the high-fives of flattery are being passed around. So, for the record, it was a great week for MLS right backs.

Sheanon Williams was chalk full of energy and effort in the Union's critical 1-0 win over Columbus. Right back isn't exactly a position of need for Jurgen Klinsmann's national team, but Williams' bright season at PPL Park might get him into the upcoming January camp.

Chris Albright put in a solid shift in the Red Bulls' 1-0 win over Dallas (surely happy not to have Brek Shea around to deal with)). Lovel Palmer was all over the right side in Portland's important, exhilarating win over New England, enjoying a great partnership with Sal Zizzo on their side.

L.A.'s Brian Jordan struggled early against Vancouver but rallied to have a fantastic match in the Galaxy's 3-0 win. The converted forward even picked up two assists. Finally, Richard Eckersley was a solid citizen in Toronto's 2-1 win over Colorado, a result that allows TFC to hang around the playoff picture just a little longer.

4. MLS West rules: It's still quite hot in the West. In MLS that is, at the top of the Western Conference standings. Meanwhile, it's just plain hot in Dallas, but not around the MLS team.

Los Angeles just can't stop winning. The Galaxy is 4-0-1 in MLS matches recently, now with a death grip on the Supporters Shield.

Not that either Seattle or RSL have given up on the chase. Since a little dip in mid-August, RSL has won four in a row in MLS, including twice on the road. But those high-flyers have nothing on Seattle, where the sun has never shined brighter.

Sigi Schmid's team is 9-1-1 in all competitions since July, including a resounding 3-0 weekend win over D.C. United. The Sounders sit majestically atop Champions League Group D, and the U.S. Open Cup final is right around the corner (Oct. 4 in Seattle).

There is a dark cloud looming, however, as terrific playmaker Mauro Rosales faces an MRI to determine a knee injury's extent. It happened late Saturday and has ignited a fresh clamor for referee protection from the "thugs," as Schmid said. He's right, too. As the stakes keep escalating, so will general match intensity -- and so will the need for referees who can properly police these things.

Regardless, the attitude is right at CenturyLink Field. Listen to in-form Sounders' midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, who needed some time for the MLS adjustment but now is a guiding light: "Even though we're taking every game seriously, we're also trying to have fun ourselves and have our fans have fun," he said.

Would that they could say the same in Dallas, where injuries, a taxing summer of training in record heat and a packed schedule may have left the team wilted. Coach Schellas Hyndman, after his team's 1-0 loss to New York, said he is sensed genuine locker room discouragement for the first time.

5. Team of the Week:

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Lovel Palmer (Portland), Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Danny Califf (Philadelphia), Corey Ashe (Houston).

Midfielders: Mauro Rosales (Seattle), Roger Torres (Philadelphia), Brad Davis (Houston), Alvaro Fernandez (Seattle).

Forward: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles), Danny Koevermans (Toronto).

Some guys need a little more time than others to achieve maximum career velocity. Here are the top 10 in Major League Soccer this year who have taken things to the next level. (Note: rookies not included.)

1. Dominic Oduro, Chicago Fire -- The guy always had blazing speed, but his choices near goal and inability to convert all that athleticism into productivity is the reason he moved from Dallas first, then from Houston. But he's putting it together this year and, with 10 goals, could even challenge for the Golden Boot.

2. Jack Jewsbury, Portland -- Where was all this as the American midfielder spent eight undistinguished seasons in Kansas City? Whatever the reason, he's a big part of a great story in the Rose City, where Jewsbury's industry and set piece service have the Timbers positioned for a playoff run.

3. Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City -- The issue with Kansas City's smooth-passing midfielder has always been this: Where, exactly, to play him? He was always something of a 'tweener. Now Peter Vermes is using Zusi as a two-way central midfielder, leaning slightly forward. It's working.

4. Nick LaBrocca, Chivas USA -- He always seemed to make things happen at previous addresses, in Colorado and Toronto. So why didn't he play a little more? Great question. Ask some of those coaches -- if you can find them. Either way, Robin Fraser is happy to have this hardworking attacking midfielder around. LaBrocca's goals and assists come from industry and instinct more than from brilliant technical work.

5. Juninho, Los Angeles Galaxy -- Don't let all the Home Depot Center luminaries fool you. The young Brazilian midfielder is having a terrific season for Bruce Arena, a two-way central midfielder who works hard, covers ground and does his part in L.A.'s killer transition game.

6. Chris Pontius, D.C. United -- He started fast as a 2009 rookie but lost most of 2010 to injury. Now he's back and better than ever with seven goals and five assists. Or, he "was" back. Pontius' recent injury is a big setback for United considering his 2011 contributions around RFK.

7. Corey Ashe, Houston -- Ashe had entered the part of a career where players are what they are, and he was pretty much stuck as a complementary part, an occasional midfield starter at Houston. Then Dominic Kinnear experimented with Ashe at left back, and now he's a lineup mainstay who continues to grow into the position. Ashe is already among the top attacking left backs in MLS.

8. George John, Dallas -- FC Dallas' center back was more or less "discovered" by the national media late last year. But he's kicked it up a notch this year, and his good season came close to a Premiership reward. A transfer to Blackburn fell through at the last minute, but it won't be the last time Europe beckons.

9. Tally Hall, Houston -- It's not the best season around Robertson Stadium, but it might be worse if not for a couple of big nights from their youngish goalkeeper. At 26, Hall may not be the American up-and-comer in goal that Chicago's Sean Johnson or D.C. United's Bill Hamid might be, but he's having a breakout season just the same.

10. Andrew Jacobson, FC Dallas -- He never found a settled spot in the D.C. United (2009) or Philadelphia (2010) lineups over the last two years. But FC Dallas is a much better team when he does the central running for Daniel Hernandez, who can then hold and link.

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