Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Round 31:
1. A special night for a special player: If you ignore Thierry Henry's mad moment for New York, if you and avert your eyes to D.C. United's dreadful, late collapse -- and you should -- and if you dismiss a Galaxy-Chivas USA SuperClasico that doesn't look very Super or Clasico these days, then the primary talking point of Round 31 was easily in the Pacific Northwest.
Evocative subplots brimmed at CenturyLink Field, where only the most hopelessly jaded could escape being impressed with the ongoing attendance tale. A club-record crowd 64,140 set the stage for Kasey Keller's curtain call, the final regular season home match for a decorated, 20-year professional. That crowd represented the third-best ever for an MLS match not attached to an international contest.
Oh, that 38,498 final season average. Yep, yet another league record. Ho-hum.
San Jose's Chris Wondolowski put one past Keller, ruining the shutout all the green scarves in downtown Seattle had hoped to see. It also positioned the Earthquakes' striker for a possible second consecutive Golden Boot, something unseen in MLS.
But nothing else would get past Keller, who was typically outstanding. The best of his seven-save night was a 65th minute super-sequence, where he turned away four consecutive thrusts toward Seattle goal.
"I'm just so humbled and honored to be here today, with what this club means to me," he said later. "I grew up watching the Sounders play, like all of you did. So to be able to finish my career playing with the Sounders is the biggest honor I could have in my career."
Later, creative Sounders' midfielder Mauro Rosales returned to the field for the first time since Sept. 17, even providing a wonderful assist on young Sammy Ochoa's breakaway goal. Rosales' ability to get back to his difference-making best will be critical to Seattle's playoff chances.
"When he came onto the field, he just changed our whole dynamic a little bit," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said.
Finally, know this about these cardiac Sounders: they're never really out of it. Goals in the 82nd and 87th minute not only rescued a remarkable evening; those late strikes were emblematic of a side that can always get it done late. Seattle has 15 goals after the 76th minute this year, best in MLS.
2. Playoff reset: Nine of 10 playoff spots are decided. So with one round (10 matches total) remaining, the focus falls on four sides desperate to rake up the lone, loose postseason berth.
New York has the best shot. A win at home against Philadelphia puts Hans Backe's listless lot in -- whether they deserve it or not. A tie would probably even suffice.
If Philadelphia prevails at Red Bull Arena, the door cracks open for D.C. United, which could swipe the spot with final-week wins at home over Portland and Sporting Kansas City.
Portland could still slip in, but John Spencer's team would have to win at D.C. United and Real Salt Lake while getting help from others. Chicago's chances are even more remote: the Fire not only needs help, but also a high-scoring, lopsided win against visiting Columbus.
3. Honors still looking for a taker: While we can now check most of the playoff boxes, there's no such clarity in races for individual honors. There probably never has been such a lack of clear front-runners going into the final week in competition for Golden Boot, Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, etc.
We do know Thierry Henry won't add the MLS Golden Boot to his impressive mantle. And you can possibly scratch his name from MVP candidacy, too. He ensured as much with the stunt he pulled Saturday, crashing petulantly into a fallen Roger Espinoza. Henry feigned innocence, but does anybody really believe such an agile, world class athlete could not avoid a stationary target? Espinoza was on the ground when Henry dangerously planted a knee in the back of his head/neck area and was properly, immediately shown red.
So the subsequent suspension means he won't be around for the Red Bulls final game, which eliminates Henry's opportunity to make up the one-goal lead San Jose's Chris Wondolowski and D.C. United's Dwayne De Rosario now hold for Golden Boot, on 15 goals each. A big weekend from Columbus' Andres Mendoza (13 goals) or any of the foursome currently on 12 goals could still prove a factor.
Most Valuable Player? Still a mystery. De Rosario's late charge will take a serious blow if United can't sneak into the playoffs. Dallas' Brek Shea had a goal Saturday but his chances went on the decline when FCD lost its footing through September. Some burgeoning talk for Kyle Beckerman was eviscerated after an ugly head-butt incident left him suspended for three matches. Otherwise, there's assist kings Brad Davis and David Beckham, plus an assortment of long shots and longer shots.
Rookie of the Year? Last year's abundance has devolved into this year's drought in terms of clear candidates. (And word to local and national MLS broadcasters: Good for any rookie who has claimed starting spots. But that doesn't automatically make them a "Rookie of the Year" candidate. So stop it, eh?)
One with some Round 31 momentum is Kansas City's C.J. Sapong, who wasn't among the early candidates but has quietly put together a nifty season. He tucked away goal No. 5 on Saturday.
Even Coach of the Year is elusive. Good cases can be made for any of the men currently at the top of the Eastern Conference standings: Philadelphia's Peter Nowak, Sporting Kansas City's Peter Vermes or Columbus' Robert Warzycha.
4. More selectivity, please: Major League Soccer's surprise decision 11 months ago to expand the playoffs (from eight teams to 10 teams) meant a generous 56 percent of MLS clubs would qualify. The intent, clearly, was to gin up the playoff races, adding attendance and goosing publicity along the way.
It's a marketing tactic, so fair enough there. But from a competitive standpoint, here's what Major League Soccer's playoff generosity has left us: A bunch of teams are still in the fight that, if we're being honest, are hardly playoff worthy teams.
D.C. United, Chicago, Portland and New York are fighting for the final playoff spot. Please raise your hand if you believe those teams deserve to be in the playoffs.
Oh, you may look at the Red Bull's talent and adjudge it postseason worthy. But barring a trip to Southern California late next month for MLS Cup 2011, this will go down as one of the biggest bunch of underachievers in MLS history.
The others? Please.
D.C. United's defense is abysmal. Witness the stunning, late collapse Saturday against Chicago. United led in the 89th minute on its only shot on goal all night. (Let that sink in. A team desperate for points, at home, against a depleted Chicago Fire side, needed 89 minutes and an iffy penalty kick to gather its first shot on target. Geesch!). But never mind the offense. It's that defense (with 50 goals allowed, easily highest among the playoff and playoff-potential set) that simply must be addressed in offseason personnel moves.
The Fire scored twice, which, aside from underscoring United's rear guard woe, said great things about a Fire side that's vastly improved since the season's first half. Still, Chicago doesn't look like a playoff team. It opened Round 31 with a crushing 2-1 loss at home to Dallas, which was without its heart, soul and captain, Daniel Hernandez.
Portland? Props to John Spencer for cobbling together a terrific expansion season. But does a side with a minus-8 goal difference deserve playoff entry?
Here's hoping the league looks at this again. And let's hope they add a little more "selectivity" into the mix.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller (Seattle)
Defenders: Kosuke Kimura (Colorado), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia), Geoff Cameron (Houston), Gonzalo Segares (Chicago), Jair Benitez (Dallas).
Midfielders: Graham Zusi (Kansas City), David Beckham (Los Angeles), Sebastian Grazzini (Chicago).
Forward: Fredy Montero (Seattle), Andres Mendoza (Columbus).