As summer turned to fall, MLS Week 29 featured more of the weird moments and results that have become part of the league's fabric.
NYCFC played a home game in Hartford. All three Uniteds won. A player with no goals suddenly has four. Chicago and FC Dallas's shocking swoons continued. Gyasi Zardes started at right back. Toronto FC fell twice in four days (to non-playoff teams!)–after losing three times all season.
Underneath all that craziness, though, emerges a playoff picture that is clearing up. NYCFC punched its ticket, while streaking Atlanta United closes in on one of its own. Columbus and Real Salt Lake strengthened their playoff credentials, while the Vancouver Whitecaps continue to quietly go about their business and remain atop the West. On their heels, though, are the Diego Valeri-led Portland Timbers and U.S. Open Cup champion Sporting Kansas City, which showed no hangover effect whatsoever in continuing to dominate at home after lifting its latest piece of silverware.
A full slate of midweek action is on the horizon, but take a look back here at the best of MLS in Week 29:
I. Hat Trick Mullins does one better
If only this had been a more consistent sight for D.C. United this season. Patrick Mullins scored four goals in 31 minutes, as D.C. routed the playoff-hopeful San Jose Earthquakes 4-0 in the penultimate match at RFK Stadium. His four-goal showing (which came on an efficient four shots) came almost two years to the day of Robert Lewandowski's five-goal-nine-minute masterpiece for Bayern Munich, and while Mullins's achievement wasn't as gaudy, it was still unprecedented. No player in MLS history has ever scored four goals in one match so quickly, and only 10 others have scored four in a game, period. If there's a down side to the fourth goal, it's that it ruined one of the most natural nicknames in the game.
The real staggering stat: That four-goal haul accounts for about 15% of D.C.'s total scoring output this season.
II. Nick Rimando never sleeps
Especially not in stoppage time. Nice try, Clint Dempsey. This quickly taken free kick probably would have beaten 21 other goalkeepers in MLS.
Rimando had denied Dempsey some 13 minutes earlier in a more conventional fashion, helping RSL strengthen its playoff credentials, while snapping Seattle's 13-game unbeaten streak. It's in semantics, too: The Sounders are winless in five after drawing their previous four matches.
III. Everyone wants to be like Christian Pulisic
We bring you, Luke Mulholland: Game-icing goal, Pulisic-like slide.
To be fair to Pulisic, his slide game had been on fire before his midweek faux pas.
IV. Supporters' Shield on hold
It's only a matter of time before Toronto FC gets two-thirds of the way to the treble, but it endured a rare two-loss week–to Montreal and New England of all opponents–with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore on the mend. The long view is the one for manager Greg Vanney to take, so rushing back either (or both) stars from minor knocks is not the way to go, but the chase is still technically on for the Supporters' Shield, with the Reds unable to lock it down this weekend.
Without any help, TFC can clinch the league's best point total on Saturday night with a win at home against the Red Bulls.
Toronto still has its eye on the league's best single-season point total (68), but it'll have to recapture its best form to add the impressive bullet point to its resume.
V. A stalemate in ... Connecticut?
A rescheduled Yankees game forced NYCFC to move its Saturday clash vs. the Houston Dynamo away from Yankee Stadium, and instead of the setting the club is accustomed to having in the Bronx, it settled for a more awkward affair in front of just over 10,000 at Rentschler Field in Hartford.
The venue has housed U.S. national team games before and is generally fine, but it's a little ridiculous that the club had to be put in this position–in the midst of the playoff hunt, no less.
Remember when expansion teams had to have concrete, viable stadium plans to even be considered? Let's sort the permanent home situation out, NYCFC, and let's keep the message consistent, MLS.
Regardless, Montreal's loss the following day made NYCFC's 1-1 draw enough to clinch a second straight playoff berth. Provided there are no more scheduling snafus with its landlord, NYCFC can prepare for some late-October soccer at its actual home.
VI. A successful two weeks at home for Atlanta
Make that 4-0-1, five multi-goal games, four clean sheets and a 19-3 overall scoring edge in the last 14 days at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Atlanta United. The latest, a relatively pedestrian 2-0 win over the Montreal Impact, featured a goal that was anything but pedestrian by Hector Villalba.
The win vaulted Atlanta all the way to third in the Eastern Conference and to the cusp of a playoff berth, which is a tremendous accomplishment for the expansion team–and it's far from done. The only bit of rain on United's parade is the apparent hamstring injury to playmaker Miguel Almiron. The club will hold its breath while hoping for a favorable diagnosis.
VII. Super work from MNUFC's heroes
Minnesota United's Christian Ramirez (nicknamed Superman) and Miguel Ibarra (nicknamed Batman) have one of the league's greatest bromances and one of the best tandem nicknames, and they also happen to provide a lethal attacking connection. Exhibit A:
Minnesota went on to down FC Dallas 4-1, continuing the Texas side's slide from the summer into fall and adding to its quite respectable expansion campaign. Between Ramirez, Ibarra, recently acquired Minnesota native Ethan Finlay and No. 1 overall draft pick Abu Danladi, a proven foundation has been laid on which the club can continue to build.
VIII. Valeri for the ... Golden Boot?
Diego Valeri's ridiculous hot streak continued Sunday night, with the Argentine maestro extending his MLS-record scoring streak to nine games and setting a Portland Timbers record for goals in a single season. His double helped Portland to a 3-0 romp over Orlando, giving him 20 goals this season and first place in the Golden Boot race. If you'd have picked Valeri to win the Golden Boot a month or two ago, you'd have been mad, but combine Nemanja Nikolic's cold spell with David Villa's injury and Valeri's form and, well, here we are.
IX. Portland's best accomplishment of the week
Portland is not the only club that goes out of its way for great causes–far from it, and it's an area where many MLS clubs excel–but it seems like when the Timbers get involved, it is done extremely right. The latest instance: 5-year-old Derrick Tellez, who is battling a cancerous brain tumor and had his Make-A-Wish dream granted. The Timbers signed Tellez to a one-game contract, made him honorary captain for the day and treated the goalkeeper as part of the team, while the Timbers Army went all out like only it can in showing its love.
Just awesome, and a beautiful display of commitment to the cause from the entire Timbers organization.
X. Gyasi Zardes, right back?
In Sigi Schmid's defense: What the LA Galaxy have been trying hasn't been working, personnel forced his hand and if his foe, Sporting Kansas City, can try it with their G.Z.-initialled U.S. national team attacker, then why not? Not in his defense: Gyasi Zardes is not ready to be a right back.
The result was an ugly experiment and one that did not put a player in a position to succeed–and it's especially not sharpening his tools if he's to be part of Bruce Arena's USA World Cup qualifying squad next month. If only the Galaxy could win about five free kicks within Romain Alessandrini's range per game. Now that's a more sustainable game plan.
XI. No Cup hangover for Sporting KC
We'll save the best for the U.S. Open Cup champs, who won again at home in beating the Galaxy just days after capturing a third U.S. Open Cup title in six years. The midweek triumph over the Red Bulls, while not the Sporting KC Cup Final Usual (a.k.a. a penalty-kick thriller), could have resulted in a letdown and a trap game. Instead, Peter Vermes's side was focused and in control and kept its eye on the next prize: a first-round bye and a potential top overall seed in the Western Conference.