MLS Week 24 is in the books, and it continued to be evident that it's that time of year when the contenders start to emerge, the pretenders fade to the middle or back of the back and the MVP trophy is secured.
MVP candidates David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco and Diego Valeri all made contributions in key victories, while Ignacio Piatti tallied four times in two impressive Montreal Impact victories.
There was plenty of drama as well, with late winners catapulting a pair of title contenders to three-point hauls, and that's where we'll start our look at the best from the week in MLS:
I. Sundays are for stoppage time
Clint Dempsey and Jonathan Lewis are on opposite ends of the MLS player spectrum. One's a lock for the National Soccer Hall of Fame, a fourth World Cup (provided the USA qualifies) and an accomplished star. The other, a talented rookie getting his feet wet. So what do they both have in common? Netting stoppage-time winners in Sunday's matchups.
Lewis continued his first run of form as a pro with this nifty winner vs. the New England Revolution, as Villa teed up Ben Sweat, who wisely found Lewis by the far post through traffic. Give credit to the rookie for keeping his composure in the moment and delivering the goods–and the three points.
Dempsey, meanwhile, converted from the penalty spot (which wasn't always the friendlies of locales to the Texan) after a Minnesota United handball, allowing surging Seattle to win a third straight, make it six wins out of seven and keep their place atop the Western Conference.
Chris Wondolowski was a stoppage-time hero from the PK spot as well, converting to salvage the San Jose Earthquakes' 2-2 draw vs. the Philadelphia Union.
II. Did they peak too soon?
It seems like it happens in MLS every year. Teams look great until August, then fade to the middle of the pack, make the playoffs anyway and flame out early. This season's candidates: FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire.
The Fire, twice losers this week, have fallen in five of their last six games, while FC Dallas is winless in four (0-3-1), scoring just once in that span. It was held scoreless by the very stingy Sporting Kansas City, which also scored two fantastic goals:
With the talent on the two rosters, there's reason to believe they can get over this hump, figure it out and find their best form, but MLS has cautionary tales every season, and these two are writing themselves into the script.
III. Starting to peak?
Here comes Montreal. With a motivated Piatti at the wheel, the Impact polished off an impressive two-win week to vault into the playoff places in the Eastern Conference. Piatti had two goals in each of the wins over Chicago and Real Salt Lake, making a case for an improved contract.
With four straight wins, Montreal is the hottest team in MLS.
IV. Give the Shield to Toronto FC
At least that's what Patrick Vieira is saying. The NYCFC manager is either playing head games, or he has a very valid point. TFC only leads NYCFC by four points in the race for the Supporters' Shield, but the club is on an absolute tear and is getting contributions from all over. The DPs are doing their job, but so, too, are the complementary pieces, and TFC's three losses are the league's fewest. Toronto is 6-1-3 in its last 10 matches and has a VERY friendly schedule to close out the regular season. Another piece of silverware could soon be on its way to BMO Field.
V. Houston's road woes continue
The Dynamo's resurgence under Wilmer Cabrera has been one of the stories of the season, but the club simply cannot get three points away from home with any semblance of consistency. The latest evidence was a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, which dropped the Dynamo to 1-8-4 away from BBVA Compass Stadium, where the club, by contrast, is unbeaten at 9-0-3.
Full credit to Vancouver, too, for securing the victory with help of this Yordy Reyna beauty:
Everyone should look forward to Houston's 2-0 win at home in the first leg of a playoff series, followed by a 3-0 loss in the away leg and prompt elimination.
VI. This is the kind of goal that decides a game between two awful teams
D.C. United beat the Colorado Rapids 1-0 ... on this:
VII. Bravo, Timbers Army (again)
One of the most progressive, vocal fan bases in all of sports was at it again with another poignant, timely, simple tifo:
VIII. This is how you do a suspension
Kaka, suspended over a controversial and upheld red card, took in Orlando City's 1-1 draw with Columbus from the supporters' wall at Orlando's new stadium. Not a bad view!
IX. Diego Valeri, maestro
Diego Valeri has become a perennial MVP candidate, and the Argentine wizard was at it again in helping Portland take advantage of a New York Red Bulls side just two days removed from an emotional U.S. Open Cup semifinal triumph.
X. The kids must honor the past
O.K., so this happened in USL, but it's too good not to highlight. Sounders 2's Sam Rogers made like Sounders 1 legend Roger Levesque and replicated his "TIMMMBERRRR!" goal celebration in the USL side's clash vs. Timbers 2. Is this a more pointed, epic goal celebration tailored for an opponent than Alecko Eskandarian's spit-out-the-Red-Bull-vs.-the-Red-Bulls classic?
XI. Another L for LA–even on a bye week
It just hasn't been the LA Galaxy's season, and the latest piece of devastation was the club sending stalwart, MLS Best XI defender Jelle Van Damme back home to Belgium, where he wanted to be closer to his children. There's more to life than soccer and there's admiration in the club meeting Van Damme's request, but there's now even more of a gaping hole in an already thin area of the club's roster. LA is winless in eight (0-7-1), has a tricky double gameweek (at Columbus, vs. San Jose in a California Clasico) and manager Sigi Schmid has his work cut out as he looks to turn things around before noisy neighbor LAFC enters the fray.