Repeating trends, doomed teams providing resistance as gatekeepers to valuable points, and Power Rankings word association after MLS Week 29:
Rafa Marquez limped off the field again. Freddy Adu followed up moments of brilliance with an unfortunate setback. Chris Wondolowski is back on fire. For some of the biggest names in MLS, some things really do never change.
Despite statements by New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe and captain Thierry Henry praising Marquez and calling him misunderstood and a key figure for the club's title aspirations, Marquez has been a punch line for the New York Red Bulls season, and his premature exit against the New England Revolution Saturday was the latest instance. When he's on the field, he ensures that Dax McCarty, one of the league's unsung heroes this season, is shifted out of the holding role where he has excelled. In the brief moments during which Marquez has been on his game, he is still capable of providing those moments of class, but they have been far too scarce and overshadowed by the countless times he hobbles off as spectators shake their heads in collective disappointment. Marquez's $4.6 million price tag for this season may be recovered in the marketing realm, where he still carries plenty of value, but more has to be expected on the field from the league's second-highest-paid player.
As frustrating a figure as Marquez has been for the Red Bulls faithful, the same can be said about Adu for Philadelphia Union supporters, albeit in a different manner. Finally given a chance to direct things from the center of the formation and in a starting role, Adu delivered two goals and thrived in a victory that showed the potential the Union carry when it all comes together for the young squad. Much like has been the case in Adu's return to MLS over the last year, though, steps of progress have been met with a backward counterpunch, with the latest being a quadriceps injury that forced him off the field in the midst of his top-notch display. For Adu to become a consistent achiever would do wonders for his career, the Union's fortunes and MLS as a whole. But after another instance of potential coming with a caveat (remember his showing earlier this season against New York that was promptly extinguished with two yellow cards?), what will it take for some Adu success to be met with no strings attached?
On the other end of the spectrum, if anyone is still attempting to doubt Chris Wondolowski or thinking that his magical run of form was reaching its end, stop. Following a seven-game stretch in which the 2012 MLS MVP (book it) only scored once, Wondolowski is at it again, with four goals in eight days to put him back within striking distance of Roy Lassiter's single-season goal record. With three goals in two games this week, Wondolowski, whose goal against Seattle on Saturday was his 10th game-winning tally this season, became the league's first 20-goal scorer since 2008. He needs five more goals in the final four games to tie Lassiter's total of 27. If there's one element of Wondolowski's three-year reign over MLS that has remained constant, it is that he delivers when shreds of peripheral doubt start to seep in. The Golden Boot is his, as are the league's MVP honors. With time running short and the odds seemingly against him for Lassiter's record, it would be foolish to count him out from claiming that as well.
For D.C. United, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
None of the club's victories since losing captain and reigning league MVP Dwayne De Rosario for the remainder of the season has been a Game of the Year nominee or a clinic on how to play the beautiful game, and D.C. always seems to leave its fans sweating until the final moments, but Ben Olsen's club has been able to find a way to gut out points when they need them most while facing tremendous adversity.
With wins over New England, Philadelphia and Chivas USA in an eight-day span, D.C. has done what it was unable to do last year: Overcome a serious injury, rely on its complementary pieces and win as a team. For a club that had gone more than two years without winning consecutive games until early this season, three wins in eight days is no small feat, especially considering the time of year. Suddenly, D.C. finds itself in a tie with rival New York for third place in the East -- and just as close to first place in the conference as it is to falling to sixth place -- as opposed to the high pressure it was under just a week ago when it appeared that extending its streak of missing the playoffs to five seasons was a looming fate.
At the center of it all is Branko Boskovic, a much-maligned man who has done nothing but act as a consummate professional despite publicly being deemed not a 90-minute player by Olsen and having an underwhelming stint as a Designated Player before restructuring his contract this summer. After being subbed off rather early against the Revolution and Union, Boskovic came off the bench against Chivas and provided the difference and spark Olsen needed -- a game-winning goal that also happened to be his first in MLS competition since joining the league in June 2010. His contribution followed up under-fire trade acquisition Lionard Pajoy, who continued to prove his worth with his mid-week winner at PPL Park (Pajoy scoring meaningful goals in Chester in late September: Just like Union executives drew it up, right?). Without De Rosario, the team has rallied together to grind out points.
Of the 19 teams in MLS, essentially only 12 maintain realistic hopes of making the playoffs and lifting the trophy following MLS Cup. Nevertheless, every club is playing until the season's final whistle, which is a refreshing alternative from what has become the norm in professional sports. Unlike in the NBA or NFL, teams in MLS rarely, if ever, mail it in at the end of a lost season or tank for better draft position, and as a result, the potential for some of these teams to be spoilers down the stretch is quite high.
This past week alone, New England, Colorado and Philadelphia all fought for results that had a major impact on the playoff races, while Chivas USA and Portland put forth commendable road efforts against playoff contenders in trying to end their seasons on high notes. All could have rolled over, gone through the motions and called it a day, and few would have thought anything of it.
Instead, the Revolution (who surprisingly have not lost by multiple goals since March 31, suggesting they are closer than their record indicates) went down a goal in stoppage time to New York but managed to escape with a draw with the latest of equalizers. Colorado's Jamie Smith did FC Dallas a huge favor with his late equalizer that prevented the Vancouver Whitecaps from taking three much-needed points and instead reducing their lead over Dallas to just two points for the Western Conference's final playoff berth. Philadelphia took the action to the Houston Dynamo, a team rapidly losing its grip on a postseason berth after appearing to be a legitimate contender to get back to the final just weeks ago.
The teams with little or no hope will continue to play a big role in the chase for the postseason. Just look at the matchups this weekend, for example: New York vs. Toronto, Portland vs. D.C., Columbus vs. Philadelphia, Houston vs. New England. For the playoff-eligible teams in need of points to either strengthen their foothold in the playoffs or climb into playoff position, these games are not going to be the gimmes that some may expect.
The more things change in MLS, the more some things stay the same for these consistent franchises.
The two Western Conference staples punched their tickets to the postseason with clinching victories over the weekend. For L.A., it marks the fourth straight season in the playoffs after a brief stretch of futility and cements a remarkable turnaround from the club's horrific start to the season. RSL's playoff streak is now at five seasons, with a never-ending carousel of injured starters failing to threaten the club's ambition and aspirations.
Both 2009 MLS Cup finalists have relied on veteran cores while embracing alternative spending philosophies to fill out their rosters, and both have the championship pedigree that would make a title run anything but a major surprise. In an era of extreme parity during a changing league landscape -- one in which the rules to even make the playoffs are far from set in stone from year to year -- the Galaxy and RSL have maintained their high standards to a successful degree, and there is something to be said for that.
Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Gonzalo Segares (Chicago Fire)
Midfielders: Juninho (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)