Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 26:
1. Galaxy rising. Yes, even higher: From a hard news standpoint, the big take-away from Los Angeles' dominant win Friday over Colorado is that it's officially a playoff clincher. Bruce Arena's team is the first to book passage to a postseason that culminates in Southern California.
But a Galaxy playoff spot was a foregone conclusion weeks ago. So the more meaningful take-away is that Arena's team is still trending up. The rest of the league will read that and weep. Yes, the team with one hand on the Supporter's Shield (and the postseason home-field advantage that comes with it) keeps improving.
How, exactly, is the Galaxy still rising? Donovan Ricketts made his return to goal, a first appearance for the long-limbed Jamaican since June 25. Nothing wrong with Josh Saunders, who was more than capable in backup duty, but Ricketts has more big-save ability in his gloves.
Landon Donovan hit a good goal, his 12th of 2011 to retain a co-share of the league lead. It's an important strike for Donovan. Even if his national team year has been subdued, Donovan remains vital to the Galaxy cause, and another game-winning goal will only boost his confidence.
But here was the real deal of Friday: rookie forward Paolo Cardozo. The young Uruguayan, developed in Argentina as part of River Plate's system, was nothing less than outstanding. Skillful through most of his 66 minutes, he was dazzling in a few of them. Only a good counterpunch performance from Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens kept Cardozo off the score sheet in his third start this year.
"He's a player that we've been bringing along the whole season and in the beginning of the season we adapted to him," Arena said. "Over the past couple of months we forced him to adapt to us and it's never easy but it's all part of the development of a young player. He's responded well and has had such a great attitude over the past couple of months to try to get better and listen to some of the things we've talked to him about."
2. D.C. United's weekend of high and low. Mixed feelings surely abound at RFK Stadium, where fans and players must weigh a decisive and significant road win against an injury that might be surprisingly significant in the big picture.
Chris Pontius was a man on a mission Saturday, already with three assists in a resounding 3-0 road win over Chivas USA. (He helped on all three goals by Charlie Davies.) But Pontius' own reckless tackles ended badly for players on either side. Chivas USA's David Junior Lopes lunged along with Pontius but got there first, so referee Ricardo Salazar got it all wrong by red carding Lopes. No matter in the long run as the game was long decided -- and because the DCU attacker is by far the worse for it all.
Pontius appears to have a tibia fracture and is probably out for the season. That's devastating news because Davies, Dwayne De Rosario and maybe even Andy Najar rate higher in media mentions, but Pontius was having a wonderful season. His apparent replacement, Santino Quaranta, was once in the Pontius zone, a valued up-and-comer with looming national team interest. But Quaranta isn't anywhere close to Pontius in the here and now.
United is well-positioned in the playoff chase, but the high-stakes postseason pursuit just got a little tougher due to Pontius' loss.
3. A three-DP calamity in New York. Clearly, things aren't going well when analysts and broadcasters around the league use words like "disaster" and "calamity" to describe your season. And yet, here are the Red Bulls.
It also says a lot when a 1-1 draw against expansion Vancouver in New Jersey is seen to any degree as a success, regardless of extenuating circumstances.
Two months ago, the New York Red Bulls were in first place in the East after treating poor little Toronto like a dog's chew toy in a 5-0 win. There were too many ties at the time, but only three losses after 19 games, so things were swell. But today the Red Bulls are laboring, sixth in the East, currently out of the playoff safety zone.
Yes, the Red Bulls were at less than full strength Saturday -- but so is everyone else in September. Plus, Hans Backe's team was coming off a lengthy and helpful break.
And yet, in a match that should have been awash in emotion (attached to some 9/11 remembrances) the home team was inexplicably sluggish and unfocused. The biggest culprit: well-compensated Mexican international Rafa Marquez. Playing as a holding midfielder he was slow of foot but quick of jaw, arguing liberally with referee Terry Vaughn. Marquez was ball-watching as Davide Chiumiento was left alone to give Vancouver a deserved 23rd-minute lead.
Minutes later, who knows what the man in the middle was thinking when the Mexican international, sitting on a deserved yellow, scythed down Eric Hassli from behind? It seems clear, though, that Vaughn knew he had blown it. Because when Vaughn showed Jan Gunnar Solli a ridiculously harsh, straight red card a few minutes later, he surely had Marquez's brainless stunt in mind. So, justice seemed done in the match.
Either way, the Red Bulls were down a goal, down a man and looking beaten down in the latest of alleged "must-win" matches. A more spirited, 10-man second half effort rescued a point, but many questions remain.
Coach Hans Backe will surely get the blame if the Red Bulls can't make up ground and earn a playoff berth. Failure to do so would mark historical levels of underachievement for a team with three DPs, a side picked overwhelmingly to rule the Eastern Conference.
But blame should also fall to whoever made the apparently fateful choice to sign Marquez through 2013. Yes, he has two more years on his MLS contract. Oh, dear.
4. Strange things in Seattle, plus three huge points. Sounders announcer Arlo White nailed it Saturday: "I think we've entered the Twilight Zone here today at CenturyLink Field." Indeed, it was a strange one. An important one, too.
The ageless Kasey Keller was responsible for the oddest of own goals in a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake. He scooped an early cross and managed to throw in back into his own net, a rare and unsightly hickey from a man who still remains strong in goal at age 41.
Not long after, Seattle attacking dynamo Mauro Rosales missed a penalty kick. What's really odd: this is nothing new for the Sounders, who have blown three PKs this year.
Referee Mark Kadlecik added to the strangeness, cautioning Tony Beltran in the 35th minute but apparently not realizing that he was showing a second yellow to RSL's left back. Would it have made a difference had he known?
No matter, because a straight red shortly thereafter that leveled the match at 10 against 10 was worse. Seattle center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado was rightly shocked when Kadlecik went quickly to the back pocket after an inadvertent and muzzled elbow to Alvaro Saborio's face.
From there, an old Seattle bugaboo bit once again in a failure to turn chances into goals. (One great chance flew right off Nick Rimando's face in RSL's goal.)
Either way, the impact is far-reaching. Sounders coach Sigi Schmid isn't conceding defeat, but the last team perhaps capable of catching the Galaxy now has acres of ground to make up. Meanwhile, the points RSL took out of CenturyLink will put enormous pressure on Seattle and Dallas in the West, as all shoot for those top three spots and a pass on the early round of playoff games.
As massive as the point drain is on Seattle, it was hugely inspiring for RSL. Weakened by injury and international duty, RSL coach Jason Kreis struggled to piece together a lineup and a plan for this one. He was also grief-stricken by the sudden death of friend and former teammate Bobby Rhine. "Going through this season this team started to get rattled but lately they have stayed very resilient, disciplined and together," Kreis said. "I'm proud and happy we had learned through all of this and hopefully we are a better team."
5. Team of the Week.
Goalkeeper: Matt Reis (New England)
Defenders: Perry Kitchen (D.C. United), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy), Jay DeMerit (Vancouver).
Midfielders: Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Chris Pontius (D.C. United).
Forward: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Charlie Davies (D.C. United).