The Red Bulls inched closer to silverware, playoff hopefuls fell by the wayside and the Western Conference playoff quintet is just about set following MLS Week 34:
1. New York is on the cusp of winning a trophy
New York Red Bulls fans have waited too long and been through too much heartbreak to get ahead of themselves just yet, but the Supporters' Shield is on the verge of making its way to Red Bull Arena.
On the heels of Tim Cahill's fastest goal in MLS history, the Red Bulls cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on Sunday and have the Shield's destination in their control. With a win over the Chicago Fire in Sunday's home finale, New York will clinch the Supporters' Shield -- and its first major competitive trophy in franchise history -- along with hosting rights for a potential MLS Cup final, should the club make it there. Let that sink in for a moment, Red Bull Nation.
During a year in which the New York Cosmos were relaunched and MLS continued to go out of its way to ensure that the league's 20th franchise would make its home in New York City, the Red Bulls have responded in kind and made sure that their relevance in the area does not wane a single iota.
Plenty have and will continue to point to first-year manager Mike Petke's training clash with and ensuing benching of Thierry Henry as a turning point for when the club rallied together and took things to the next level. The proof is in the results, as New York is unbeaten in those seven games since (5-0-2) after enduring a three-game winless streak that included a listless loss to Chivas USA in the build-up to the blowup.
If the Red Bulls can finish off the trophy quest and secure the league's top record, it would also cement a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. Something about the words "Henry" and "Champions League" in the same sentence seems natural, and it would be a boon for the profile of the competition to have the likes of the former Arsenal and Barcelona icon playing on the region's grand stage. But before the determined Red Bulls can take that step, they must finish off the job, and that means not having the likes of former MetroStars and Red Bulls Mike Magee and Joel Lindpere and former Red Bulls academy product Dilly Duka returning to play the cruelest kind of spoiler.
2. Houston stands on thin ice
Even with all of their ups and downs over the last couple of months, it never truly seemed like the Houston Dynamo would miss out on the playoffs altogether. The way their summer was unfolding had a similar feel to last season, when a swoon was met with an uptick in form, a place in the wild card round and an eventual run to a second straight MLS Cup final.
Heading into the final week of the season, though, the Dynamo are on the thinnest planes of ice. Sunday's collapse at BBVA Compass Stadium against New York -- remember when Houston was virtually unbeatable at home? -- has left the Dynamo with work to do while hoping other results go their way. First things first, Houston needs to top D.C. United on the road, and while that may seem like a gimme, don't underestimate the revenge factor for D.C. No matter if the club has won just three times all season, with United having nothing left to play for itself, what better way to go out than by ruining the season of the team that eliminated it from the postseason last year? Bad blood lingers between the two sides, and Ben Olsen will have his charges ready regardless of their current standing.
In terms of tiebreakers, Houston is in a disadvantageous position. Its wins total (the first tiebreaker) is one less than that of Montreal and Chicago and equal to that of New England. Its goals scored total (the second tiebreaker) is considerably less than all three teams it is chasing. Simply put, a win alone would not be enough.
If Houston manages to get into the playoffs though, it will be a battle tested, veteran side that nobody will want to face. But suddenly that "if" is a lot more of an uncertain proposition.
3. The West is set (basically)
Barring a miracle, the five playoff teams from the Western Conference are in place. The order is still yet to be determined, but Portland, Real Salt Lake, LA, Seattle and Colorado will duke it out for a place at MLS Cup.
The only way Colorado, which is the lone one of the five to not have officially clinched a playoff spot yet, can miss out is by losing to Vancouver and having San Jose win its finale against FC Dallas all while scoring more than 12(!) more goals than the Rapids to take the edge on the goals scored tiebreaker. San Jose's Goonies might have made a habit of leaving it late and coming up with some improbable comebacks, but it's safe to say that this quest is just a tad too ambitious for Chris Wondolowski & Co. to pull off.
Just because the five places are spoken for does not mean there is nothing on the line in the final week of the season, though. With three points separating first from fifth, any of the five teams could wind up in the wild card round with a slip-up in the finale. While having to go through the wild card certainly does not mean no MLS Cup (LA and Houston both went through the extra-game gauntlet last season), it would make for a considerably more taxing path to the championship match.
Individual postseason awards should reflect a whole season's worth of work, but the races for Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year could very well come down to how the final week of the season shakes out.
Montreal's Marco Di Vaio and Chicago's Mike Magee are going down to the wire to determine both the Golden Boot and MVP outcome, with both of the 20-goal scorers' strikes seemingly having a major say on their club's respective postseason fortunes. Both scored vital goals over the weekend in games their clubs just had to have, and as they enter the final week of the season, it's all there for the taking.
Other candidates still have plenty for which to play, with the likes of Portland's Diego Valeri, New York's Tim Cahill, LA's Robbie Keane and even 18-year-old New England Revolution stud Diego Fagundez each bringing strong MVP cases to the table. However, the high-quantity goal scorers tend to get the individual award love, and with postseason places riding on each of their strikes, Di Vaio and Magee have plenty at stake from an individual standpoint this weekend.
As for the coaches, winning the Supporters' Shield would certainly give Petke a leg up over the likes of Portland manager Caleb Porter and Colorado Rapids' boss Oscar Pareja, both of whom have sterling candidacies for the award. Porter, with college success and Olympic qualifying failure on his pre-MLS resume, has validated the hype surrounding him while making the Timbers the hardest team to beat in the league (an MLS-low five losses) and bringing the club its first postseason berth. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that Portland ekes its way to the Supporters' Shield, if a few results go its way.
Pareja, meanwhile, waded through an unbelievable injury crisis in the early months of the season, balanced his vastly changed roster, got the most out of his rookies and untested commodities and now has the Rapids back in the postseason picture.
Petke, though, came in completely untested as a manager -- it's easy to forget now that he was essentially a fall-back plan for the Red Bulls when he was given the job -- and has turned New York from a perennial underachiever to a team on the cusp of greatness. A win over Chicago would not only bring the Supporters' Shield silverware to New York, but it could also bring some individual silverware to Petke.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Ibrahim Sekagya (New York Red Bulls)
Midfielders: Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Michel (FC Dallas), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls)
Forwards: Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids), Dominic Oduro (Columbus Crew), Marco Di Vaio (Montreal Impact)
New York Red Bulls (16-9-8) Red Bulls fans are a result away from seeing the empty trophy case at Red Bull Arena receive its first entry. Compared to all of the scenarios and stipulations surrounding other teams, things are rather straightforward for New York: Following a 3-0 triumph at Houston, the Red Bulls can collect the Supporters' Shield with a win in their season finale at home against the Chicago Fire.
Real Salt Lake (15-10-8) Nick Rimando made known his intentions to seal up a Goalkeeper the Year award with his showing late in RSL's 0-0 draw against Portland, one that cemented the club's long-earned place in the playoffs. RSL finishes up its season against Chivas USA while fighting for seed positioning before heading back into contention for another trophy following its U.S. Open Cup disappointment.
Portland Timbers (13-5-15) Portland is heading to the playoffs for the first time in its three-year MLS existence, with Seattle's loss to FC Dallas prior to Saturday's 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake sealing the deal. Caleb Porter's side can cement first place in the Western Conference with a win over Chivas USA on Saturday and still has an outside shot at the Supporters' Shield, provided that New York and Sporting KC slip up in their respective finales.
Sporting Kansas City (16-10-7) Sporting KC's hopes of snatching the Supporters' Shield are still alive following a 1-0 victory over D.C. United. USL PRO goal machine Dom Dwyer scored the lone tally Friday night, and if the Red Bulls lose or draw against Chicago, Sporting KC would collect the Shield with a win in Philadelphia. Prior to that, though, the club must focus on its CONCACAF Champions League clash with Olimpia on Wednesday, with advancement to the knockout stage on the line.
LA Galaxy (15-11-7) The Galaxy did not get the result they were hoping for, but Sunday's 0-0 draw with San Jose was enough to clinch the 15th postseason berth in club history. Landon Donovan remains tied with Jeff Cunningham for the MLS all-time lead in goals, taking his tally of 134 with him to Seattle to face Clint Dempsey and the Sounders in next Sunday's star-studded season finale.
Colorado Rapids (14-10-9) Colorado has all but clinched a playoff spot following a vital 3-2 win over Vancouver. Fresh off World Cup qualifying disappointment with Panama, Gabriel Torres turned the page with an excellent showing and a game-winning goal, one that has the Rapids on the verge of postseason return. The club can afford to lose its season finale and still make the playoffs as long as it does not somehow score 12 fewer goals than San Jose.
Seattle Sounders (15-12-6) The Sounders clinched a playoff spot, but not on their own volition. A 2-0 loss at FC Dallas was the club's fourth consecutive defeat, as doubt continues to rise regarding the club's postseason chances. Clint Dempsey remains without a goal as he plays through a shoulder injury, and the overall lack of sharpness remains astounding. In order to avoid playing in the wild card round, Seattle needs a win over LA in their anticipated season finale.
Chicago Fire(14-12-7) The Fire are quite alive heading into the final week of the season, and it is no surprise that the club has Mike Magee to thank for that. His Panenka penalty kick provided the difference in a 1-0 win over Toronto FC that has the club currently in fourth place in a muddled mess of an Eastern Conference. Simply put, a win in New York would seal the deal for Chicago, while anything else requires scoreboard watching and prayers.
New England Revolution (13-11-9) Diego Fagundez is the Little Engine That Could that is driving the Revs back to the postseason. The 18-year-old's latest goal netted three gigantic points for New England, which can clinch a playoff berth with a second straight win over the Columbus Crew in its season finale. Fagundez's numbers aren't as gaudy as those of Mike Magee or Marco Di Vaio, but he certainly merits a place in the MVP conversation alongside the two 20-goal scorers.
Montreal Impact (14-12-7) Two ends of the player spectrum helped the Impact come from behind to inch closer to the club's first MLS playoff berth. 37-year-old Designated Player Marco Di Vaio's 20th goal brought Montreal level with Philadelphia, while 21-year-old Homegrown Player Karl Ouimette's late header won it, as the Impact snapped a six-game winless streak at the perfect time.
Houston Dynamo (13-11-9) The Dynamo might not even get a chance to play their way to a third straight MLS Cup final. A 3-0 home dud against New York has left Houston needing a win and some help just to crack into the postseason party. Fortunately for the Dynamo, they get last-place D.C. United in the season finale, but a three-point haul will need to be paired with a slip-up by Montreal, Chicago or New England to keep Dom Kinnear's side alive.
Philadelphia Union (12-11-10) The Union had the lead on Montreal in a game the club just had to have, but a pair of second-half concessions, including one in the final minutes, left the club with no points and little hope of making the playoffs. Now Philadelphia needs a result against Supporters' Shield-chasing Sporting Kansas City and a boat load of help to avoid missing out on the postseason for the second straight season.
San Jose Earthquakes (13-11-9) The Goonies are on expiring life support. San Jose needed a three-point haul at LA on Sunday night, but the scoreless draw left the Earthquakes needing a win and a Colorado loss while making up a goals scored deficit of 12 to sneak back into the postseason. In other words, it's not happening. San Jose's horrid start wound up being too much to overcome, but interim manager Mark Watson did plenty to stake a claim to the permanent coaching job after taking over for Frank Yallop.
Vancouver Whitecaps (12-12-9) All that potential on that roster, and Vancouver will still miss out on the playoffs. Needing a result in Colorado, the Whitecaps fell 3-2 to get eliminated from postseason contention. Not even another Kekuta Manneh wonderstrike or Camilo goal could keep the club alive heading into the final weekend. The 'Caps return home for a farewell finale instead of a potential playoff coronation ceremony.
FC Dallas (11-11-11) FC Dallas gave manager Schellas Hyndman a send-off present, defeating Seattle 2-0 in his final home game on the bench before stepping aside. The result did not come without some serious eyebrow raising, as infighting between Jackson and David Ferreira at the end of the first half raised plenty of questions about the club's internal issues. Matt Hedges and Michel put the attention back on the field, though, with goals that salvaged some pride heading into the final game of the season.
Columbus Crew (12-16-5) Columbus' faint playoff hopes were extinguished in New England, despite a goal and assist each from Dominic Oduro and Aaron Schoenfeld. The Crew can exact some payback by topping the Revs in their season finale and preventing them from making the playoffs, but the tall task facing interim manager Brian Bliss after taking over for Robert Warzycha proved to be too much to complete.
Chivas USA (6-18-8) Chivas USA was off this weekend, but the rested side will have a chance to have a big say in how the Western Conference seeding shakes out with final games against Real Salt Lake and Portland remaining this week. The Goats have taken a combined one point off of both of those sides in their four meetings thus far though and will be hard pressed to cause either motivated side to slip up.
Toronto FC (5-17-11) A questionable penalty call left Toronto FC on the wrong end of yet another result, with the club falling 1-0 to Chicago. The Reds are fighting to the end though, and they can still have a say of sorts in the final week with a clash against Montreal. It would take a series of results for the Impact to miss the playoffs and ensure no Canadian presence in the postseason, but a loss to TFC is the biggest piece of that puzzle.
D.C. United (3-23-7) D.C. is another poor result away from becoming the new standard for MLS regular season futility following Friday night's 1-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. There is more incentive to get a win in the season finale than just avoiding the dubious section in the league record book though. D.C. could prevent the Houston Dynamo -- the club that ended D.C.'s playoff run last season -- from making the playoffs again with a shock win at RFK Stadium.