With a week left in the regular season, all of the playoff spots are set and a long-standing goal record remains within reach. Here's where things stand following a decisive MLS Week 33:
1. Playoff drama hits fast Saturday night. Oh, how things can change in a span of 30 minutes.
At one point Saturday night, the Columbus Crew were headed toward a road upset of D.C. United, which would have inched Columbus toward a playoff berth while putting playoff-starved D.C. on the ropes for the season finale in Chicago. The Houston Dynamo had also thrown away an early lead over the Philadelphia Union and were staring its playoff fate in the face. Then, suddenly, the drama flipped.
There is nothing quite like simultaneous action in different places across the country, and that is exactly what occurred when D.C.'s Marcelo Saragosa (who has been playing with a heavy heart after the death of his father earlier this year) and Houston's Oscar Boniek Garcia scored within minutes of each other to completely turn the Eastern Conference playoff picture on its head. The Crew were forced to scramble and throw numbers forward, with Robert Warzycha having no choice but to take off a defender and throw forward Emilio Renteria into the mix. Columbus still would have maintained a minor shred of hope entering the final week of the season if it could have hung on for a 2-2 draw, but when Lewis Neal's stoppage-time winner rolled cruelly into the back of the net followed by the final whistle at RFK Stadium, the men in yellow collapsed to the field one-by-one, their playoff dreams up in stadium-flair smoke.
MLS does not have the last-day simultaneous drama like leagues elsewhere around the world, but Saturday night's back-and-forth was as encompassing and enthralling as gets. While some may gripe that MLS allows so many of the league's teams into the postseason, there is no denying the fact that having so many teams playing meaningful games this late in the season makes for tremendous theater.
2. Western Conference field is all set. The road to the MLS Cup through the Western Conference was always going to be a treacherous, but now that the matchups are locked in, a number of title contenders have their work cut out for them.
The only seeding that can change is Seattle and Real Salt Lake swapping the second and third seeds, but it will impact which team hosts either leg of their conference semifinal battle. RSL had the slightest of edges over Seattle in their regular season meetings, going 1-0-2, including a 1-0 win in May. There were also two scoreless draws, including last Wednesday (with the caveat that neither team was at full strength after the international break). Either team could rightfully claim the MLS Cup, and the series will be a fascinating tactical matchup between a pair of battle-tested sides that make it no secret about how they want to go about their business.
Supporters' Shield-boasting San Jose awaits the winner of the Los Angeles-Vancouver wildcard game, and if this season's results are a harbinger of who will win that opener at the Home Depot Center on Nov. 1, it will be the defending MLS Cup champions. In its two home games against Vancouver, L.A. coasted to 3-0 and 2-0 victories. The Whitecaps backed into the playoffs with just one win in their last nine matches (a blowout of lowly Chivas USA), while the Galaxy are 5-1-3 in that time span. Anything can happen in a one-off scenario, but it's hard to picture Vancouver going on the road and besting Bruce Arena's side, which could set the table for another conference semifinal between championship-caliber clubs who just played this week.
3. Timbers' Cascadia Cup triumph. The only possible consolation remaining for the Portland Timbers this season was to capture the Cascadia Cup, and after throwing away an opportunity to do so at home, it seemed unlikely that the club would manage to secure it on the road, where it had won a total of zero times this season. Captain Jack Jewsbury altered that outcome with a hellacious, trademark strike from distance, and atypical resolute defending thwarted off the Whitecaps and delivered Portland a sorely needed respite from the norm of underachieving and facing disappointment.
Earning the Cascadia Cup trophy not only gives the Timbers regional bragging rights, but it also provides a more stable foundation for University of Akron and U.S. Under-23 national team coach Caleb Porter when he takes over in December. The win also ensured that the club would not finish in last place in the Western Conference, sparing some embarrassment as it looks to move forward and put forth a team that is capable of matching the level of passion in the stands at Jeld-Wen Field with a consistent high level of play.
As Timbers owner Merritt Paulson wrote on his much-scrutinized Twitter account following the victory, in perhaps the most appropriate summation of the night's events and putting the season as a whole into proper perspective, "Damn .... we needed that! #cascadiacup."
4. What to watch for in the final week. All of the 10 MLS playoff spots are already spoken for, which renders the final week of the season meaningless, right? Not exactly. There is still plenty on the line in regular-season finales across the league. All of the postseason matchups might be set in the Western Conference -- and coaches may opt for reserves in a pair of head-to-head matchups featuring playoff teams (RSL-Vancouver, Seattle-LA) -- but San Jose's MVP front-runner Chris Wondolowski has a legitimate chance to break Roy Lassiter's single-season goal record that has stood since the league's inaugural season in 1996. With one tally against Portland, Wondolowski will tie Lassiter's mark of 27 goals. With two, he'll break it. If history is any indicator, he'll get at least one, as he has scored single goals in the Earthquakes' finales in each of the last two seasons, and in his last showing against Portland, Wondolowski came off the bench and scored twice.
In the East, all of the playoff teams have punched their tickets, but not a single one is locked into its current seed. For as unbeatable as Sporting Kansas City has been, the club will fall out of first place with a loss to Philadelphia and a D.C. United win over Chicago. Four teams are still jockeying to avoid having to play in the wild-card round while trying to balance roster fitness and keeping starters fresh for the playoff run. The major details have all been sorted out, but the playoff picture in the East could look vastly different than it currently does at this time next week.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City)
Defenders: Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Andy Najar (D.C. United)
Midfielders: Marcelo Saragosa (D.C. United), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Martin Rivero (Colorado Rapids), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders)