Five things we learned from Week 28 in MLS:
1. With playoffs all but set, let the offseason churn begin: Don't let the mathematic possibilities fool you. The playoffs may not be finalized yet ... but they are more or less set.
Kansas City still has a chance, but it's a slight one. Kansas City must win its last three and hope that Colorado doesn't so much as tie either of its last two. And good luck with all that.
So for argument's sake, let's say we already know the eight sides that will miss the postseason. The looming question with the sad-faced set becomes: Who has the most daunting rebuilding job ahead? Good cases can be made for several sides, including Toronto, Chivas USA and D.C. United.
Toronto is a headless wonder at the moment, a team on the hunt for a director of soccer and, most likely, a head coach. Once in place, the director of soccer will have a locker room mess to sort out. Player discord seemed to hasten the exit of former coach Preki, and this kind of "tail wagging the dog" is never a good place to start. Plus, the TFC salary structure is all topsy-turvy, with two unproductive players (Mista and Julian de Guzman) making more than one sharply productive one (Dwayne De Rosario). And by the way, should Stefan Frei take flight in the offseason, the reconstruction project becomes that much harder. Because the oustanding work of Frei, a young goalkeeper whose Swiss citizenship make a move to Europe more conceivable, has papered over a lot of cracks for two years now.
D.C. United has a budding young star to build around, at least. Unless, that is, Andy Najar takes his skill and sizzle abroad. And the wolves are baying from across the Atlantic, with some of the big boys possibly sniffing around at the 17-year-old Honduran-born sensation, depending on which report you believe. Aside from sorting that out, United must decide on a coach and rebuild a roster with middling talent (at best) in defense, the midfield and at forward. Plus, the execs in charge have made more poor personnel decisions lately than good ones. Otherwise, everything looks fine.
Chivas USA might or might not have some talent on hand. It's just so hard to tell. The team had a direction under its former taskmaster boss, Preki. It may not have been a great one, depending on your point of view, but there was a visible direction and a plan.
Under current coach Martin Vasquez, the team seems to lack a personality. Vasquez probably deserves another year to establish his brand, but an uninspiring 8-15-4 mark so far means he won't have much longer than that.
Houston also has a rebuilding job ahead. But with Houston, it's really more about tough choices rather than drawing up a new plan. Coach Dominic Kinnear won't change his M.O. or team style, nor does he need to. But choices on what to do with aging vets such as Richard Mulrooney and Pat Onstad will help chart the course. And the back line may require a complete overhaul.
2. The matchups at the moment: Here's how the playoff matchups look for now. (Remember, they could still change a bit, as Seattle, San Jose and Colorado remain a bit jumbled at the bottom of the playoff standings.)
The Red Bulls would meet Colorado in a matchup of the league's top striker tandems. Red Bulls bigwigs Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry get the oohs and ahs, but the Rapids' high-scoring duo of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey has rung the goal bell far more frequently of late.
Columbus would meet San Jose in a series that has huge upset potential. The Crew are slumping. San Jose is rising under recent DP acquisition Geovanni and has the league's hottest striker in Chris Wondolowski. Yes, that Chris Wondolowski.
Los Angeles would meet Seattle in what would be the highlighted matchup of the opening round. And what a whale of a series it would be. The Sounders' confidence is soaring thanks to sprightly play and to last week's successful U.S. Open Cup title defense. The Galaxy's confidence is climbing thanks to David Beckham's reintroduction.
Finally, Real Salt Lake would face Dallas in a series that could swing on Dallas' ability to get healthy. Dallas hasn't lost since May. RSL hasn't lost in MLS since July -- but that was to Dallas.
3. The Crew need to bail some water: Columbus manager Robert Warzycha keeps suggesting the travel-taxed players just need rest. His team is winless in its last six in all competitions. The Crew's last win in MLS came on Sept. 4 against hapless D.C. United. You have to go back to Aug. 21 against Colorado to find the most recent Crew win in MLS over someone other than United.
It's true that the men from Ohio have been ricocheting around the continent pretty good lately thanks to MLS and CONCACAF Champions League action. They just played 13 matches over a little more than six weeks. There is some merit to this too-much-motion notion.
Still, Seattle and Real Salt Lake are logging the frequent flier miles, too, playing as many matches -- and both of those teams are on the upswing, brimming with confidence at the right time, just as the playoffs approach.
The Crew, on the other hand, appear to be circling the drain. Last week's loss to Chicago (a team already out of playoff contention) looked alarmingly listless. Chad Marshall hardly looked like his usual, dominant self along the back line. The offense is flat-lining. Take away an own goal courtesy of New England and a penalty kick, and the Crew have scored just twice in their last five matches.
Six weeks ago, the Crew strutted into this busy stretch talking about a Supporters Shield. Now this looks like a team that needs a few sessions on the psychiatrist's sofa.
"We have to rest the body, rest the mind," defender Gino Padula told MLSSoccer.com.
He's probably right. The question is, can they get the rest and then regain the sharpness and the lost confidence in time? The playoffs begin in a little more than two weeks.
4. The clock is also ticking in Dallas: The other Hunt family MLS team, FC Dallas, has problems of a different nature. Young center back George John got back on the field Saturday, which should help solidify a back line that is leaking goals at a rate that looks more like FC Dallas circa 2008-09.
But coach Schellas Hyndman's team is in a pickle if two key figures can't get off the trainer's table -- and fast. Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman and holding midfielder Daniel Hernandez are the real critical cogs in the defense.
Dallas has allowed seven goals in its last five matches. That's not horrible, but it's not the way Dallas constructed its league-record 19-game unbeaten streak. That came with Hartman and Hernandez on patrol. In 14 matches during the streak for which both men were available throughout, the side conceded the same number, just seven.
Backup goalkeeper Dario Sala didn't react well on one Colorado goal in the 2-2 tie in Texas over the weekend. And the team certainly misses Hernandez's leadership; the FCD captain keeps people accountable on the field.
Hyndman has advised caution in the recovery chase for both players, just as he has for starting center back Ugo Ihemelu, who remains out with concussion-related symptoms. But the coach has also said that his wounded men will need matches before the postseason, that he can't just insert them at crunch time and hope they have the sharpness and fitness required in tough playoff matches.
5. MVP race not getting resolved: This is the Most Valuable Player race that just won't settle itself. Usually at this time, players are quietly falling out of the process. And we've seen that a little this year. For instance, Sebastien Le Toux seemed to be making a case six weeks ago. Now? Perhaps not so much.
In fact, it won't be easy at all to identify three finalists, which is the next step in the process.
The problem is that players keep introducing themselves to the MVP race. Colorado's Omar Cummings is making something of a late charge. But his charge may not pack the punch of Wondolowski's late reach. Wondolowski slammed two more for San Jose over the weekend -- with 14 goals, he's just two off Edson Buddle's Golden Boot pace -- so all the valuable late-season pub is falling Wondo's way.
De Rosario nearly struck again over the weekend and was once again about all Toronto has going. But considering that an MVP winner has never come from a non-playoff club (and considering that silly check-writing stunt that so many voters may find distasteful), he has some pretty severe handicaps working against him.
Landon Donovan and Buddle have cases, but you have to wonder if Galaxy lovers may split their votes. That leaves Dallas' David Ferreira, who continues to maintain his strong case, and Fredy Montero, who has gone a little cold lately. The last two weeks will have a lot to say about it all.