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MLS playoff picture finally taking shape, more Snap Judgments

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When the dust settled after a dramatic night of Eastern Conference action in the penultimate round of matches, the identities of the five clubs who will proceed to the playoffs were confirmed, meaning heartbreak for the Columbus Crew.

1. High drama in DC -- It's the time of year when already-thrilling matches are given an extra injection of adrenaline by events happening simultaneously. When fans in stadiums have one eye on the action in front of them, another on their cell phones, waiting for goal updates from games a thousand miles distant that matter just as much as the one unfurling a few yards away.


For a while on Saturday night, Columbus Crew was occupying the final playoff place in the Eastern Conference and looked like holding at least a point advantage on the Houston Dynamo going into next weekend's final round of regular-season fixtures. By the end of the evening, Columbus was done, DC United was back in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and the Dynamo, last year's MLS Cup runners-up, is still entitled to fantasize about hoisting the trophy.

The climax of a wonderfully entertaining see-saw match in DC was cruel on Columbus. Surging forward in stoppage-time in search of a winner it was caught on the counter-attack. Lewis Neal was sent clear and calmly tucked the ball beyond the onrushing goalkeeper to give DC a 3-2 win and provoke pandemonium at a roiling RFK Stadium.

To cap the wild momentum shift, at roughly the same time, Brad Davis was putting Houston Dynamo 3-1 up on a feisty Philadelphia Union from the penalty spot.

2. Assessing DC's potential -- How dangerous could DC United be in the playoffs? Very, considering its excellent home form and strong set of results even without the injured Dwayne De Rosario, who could return at some point in November.

DC did go behind to an early Eddie Gaven sidefoot after defender Dejan Jakovic failed to step up, playing everyone onside. It was a surprisingly slack moment as DC has upped its game defensively since De Rosario's injury prompted head coach Ben Olsen to adopt a more cautious, sneak-the-points mentality.

But Chicago Fire's shocking 1-0 defeat to the lowly New England Revolution means Olsen's side is in second place above the Fire and need only a point next Saturday to keep it that way since the rivals will meet at Toyota Park.

That third-versus-second matchup is good news for New York, who know that an away win over Philadelphia will guarantee a top-three spot and so bypass the stress and risk of the one-off qualifier between the teams who finish fourth and fifth. Each of the top five still has plenty at stake as they jostle for position down the home straight.

3. Houston, we have the playoffs -- The Dynamo's win showcased the best and worst of Mac Kandji. At 6-foot-4 and fast, the forward is one of those players whose ideal physique is undermined by inadequate technique.

Kandji is a threat to defenses yet has only four goals in 28 games in his first season in Texas. He was never as prolific as his potential suggested he could be when with the Red Bulls or Colorado Rapids, where he suffered a serious knee injury assisting on the play that won the Rapids the 2010 MLS Cup.

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At 27, there is little reason to think he will suddenly develop a clinical streak in front of goal, though the success of Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski at San Jose ought to give all late twenty- or early-thirtysomethings hope.

A fine run and finish from Kandji gave Houston a fourth-minute lead at BBVA Compass Stadium, but after Philadelphia had equalized, Kanji sent the ball soaring over the bar from six yards with the goal not just gaping, but open.

That 40th-minute blunder did not end up costing the Dynamo, thanks to second-half strikes from Boniek Garcia and Davis. The result put Dominic Kinnear's men four points ahead of the Crew with one match to go. The Dynamo is more fitful than last year's solid unit, but has still ended the regular season unbeaten at its smart new stadium. Jittery at times down the stretch, perhaps this strong set of players will click consistently now that its playoff place has been secured with a little help from DC.

4. Red Bulls make their point -- No goals in New Jersey means Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has 15 shutouts on the season, one shy of the MLS record set by Tony Meola with Kansas City in 2000.

Nielsen made several terrific saves on Saturday as the Red Bulls claimed a moral victory against the Eastern Conference leaders.

They were outplayed last month when KC ended the Red Bulls' unbeaten home record with a comfortable 2-0 win. At least Hans Backe's side (how much longer will we be able to write that?) fashioned the bulk of the chances in the rematch. It was a necessary confidence-booster for New York given the possibility they could meet Sporting again in the play-offs.

But the outcome or pattern of play won't have dented KC's self-belief, any. A draw was a good result, especially as Chicago's defeat knocked it out of the chase for first place. Undefeated in 11, Kansas City was without the electricity generator in their midfield engine room: Roger Espinoza, missing with a sprained ankle. The exceptional Graham Zusi was less influential than in recent matches. And despite the home team's pressure, the visitors should have pinched all the points: Luis Robles saved well from Kei Kamara's close-range header in the 86th minute after the striker was left unmarked at the back post.

So there's reason to think New York CAN beat Sporting if they meet again in the post-season; but not much cause to believe they WILL. Lloyd Sam's speed on the wing adds a fresh dimension to an already-stacked attack, but he went into this match with a hamstring injury and went out of it in the second half with a knee problem. The same applies for Sam and for his team as a whole: considerable potential, questionable reliability.

5. TFC go back to the future -- A flare sending gray smoke billowing across the stands at BMO Field during the goalless draw with the Montreal Impact was presumably lit by supporters, but it wouldn't have been a bad PR tactic from Toronto FC officials, either. The plumes briefly helped obscure the large number of empty seats.

BMO Field on Saturday afternoon was a good place to visit for anyone with a phobia of crowds. The 22,000-odd-capacity stadium appeared from television pictures to be only around half full, though this was the last home game of the season for Paul Mariner's side. And it's not like there is any hockey to distract the locals.

After Canada's 8-1 evisceration by Honduras in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, this match offered only modest entertainment for Canadian soccer fans in need of a boost. Toronto is now winless in its past 13 MLS games, but did at least keep its first clean sheet in the competition since July 14 thanks to a late miss by Montreal striker Marco Di Vaio.

In the circumstances it's a great move from Toronto's ownership to reduce next year's ticket prices to 2007 levels for past and present season-pass holders. It rewards loyalty and reduces the prospect of more embarrassingly low attendances in 2013. But the promotion is also a reminder of how quickly demand has cooled.

For the first couple of years since the franchise's birth in 2007, a seat at a Toronto FC game was the Death Valley of hot tickets. But the club is yet to qualify for the playoffs. Whatever deals, incentives or sales tactics a sports team might try to woo fans, only one marketing device ultimately works: a winning team.