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Things we learned from Week 29

The story didn't break in Week 29, but it's news that cannot be ignored and the biggest talking point in the land of Red Bull and MLS at the moment...

Papa Red Bull: Dietrich Mateschitz
Papa Red Bull: Dietrich Mateschitz
Ker Robertson

1. "Sources" really don't like Red Bull GmbH

Wait long enough to write a round-up of the weekend's action and you're almost guaranteed to bump into a story that has little to do with the on-field action.

This week's tardiness has run right into the story of the week in RBNY-land: the suggestion, made in an article written by Grant Wahl for Sports Illustrated, that Red Bull GmbH is ready to cut and run from MLS.

Wahl's story broke three pieces of news:

a) "a source with knowledge of Red Bulls' plans" says there is "zero chance" Thierry Henry will be back for RBNY in 2015. And this is in part because Red Bull GmbH has "dramatically reduced" the money it is putting into the club.

b) "A couple of years ago", Red Bull GmbH met with a "New Jersey-based investor group" and subsequently with Manchester City, to discuss sale of its MLS team and the stadium it plays in.

c) A source says that if someone offered Red Bull GmbH $300 million for the team and the stadium, the Austrian overlords would sell up "within 48 hours".

The Henry tidbit is scarcely worth reporting on its own. "A source" says Henry is leaving RBNY at the end the season? We have passed the point where we need anonymous sources to comment on Titi's tenure in Harrison.

Tim Cahill implied this was the captain's last season in May. Gerard Houllier came out and said he thought this was Henry's last season in New York back in July. Arsenal came to America for the first time since 1989 to play one match - against Titi's RBNY. The great man's appearance at the All-Star game was deliberately staged to allow the entire stadium to bid him a formal farewell.

Yes, to say "zero chance" is to leave out all the caveats that have surrounded discussion of Henry's exit from RBNY. But the simple fact remains that he is in the last year of his contract and has yet to sign another one. We're not waiting for confirmation that Titi is leaving the Red Bulls; we're waiting for any serious evidence that he might not. The balance tipped in favor of "Adieu, Henry" some time ago.

The snippet about Henry in Wahl's story does provide a bridge to the main suggestion of the article: the owners want out. The suggestion the captain is going in part because the team is no longer willing to invest either in him or the caliber of player he expects to have alongside him (or both) allows the writer to link to the news about the alleged interest Red Bull had in selling the club in 2012, and from there the article can flow smoothly to the more current allegation: that Red Bull is ready to sell right now.

In itself, it is merely the latest in a string of rumors, inferences and straight-up facts that have punctuated this season and all been directed to the same conclusion: Red Bull GmbH is edging out of MLS.

What we learned from Wahl's article was not, however, that Henry might really be leaving RBNY or that Papa Red Bull may be ditching his American son. What we seem to have learned is that someone or some people in or around MLS really want rid of Red Bull GmbH.

The tell is Wahl's revelation about the club's current ownership opening discussions to sell back in 2012. This was news that didn't get a lot of coverage at the time. There were no unnamed sources whispering about wavering commitment back then that I can recall.

And RBNY was an absolute shambles in 2012: desperately scrambling to win something before the clock ran out on the Backe-Soler regime; apparently, utterly lacking any plan to move beyond the Vikings' last season other than sacking most of the coaching and playing staff. If there was a time to pile on Red Bull GmbH for short-termism, it was surely when the overlords were actively negotiating for a sale. Can any MLS owner seriously contemplate selling up independent of any consultation with the league?

That we are only learning of this desire to sell now seems odd when one considers the current Red-Bull-wants-out narrative crescendo. Wahl's article is his second in the last couple of months to pass on anonymous murmurings about Red Bull GmbH. The first reported that RBNY's failure to sign a third Designated Player this season was a sign of waning enthusiasm and ambition with regard to MLS, concluding the club's current ownership might not be around "10 years from now".

Really? The club won the Supporters' Shield in 2013 without a third DP. In 2012, it basically had Thierry Henry and two half-DPs: Rafa Marquez only managed to play 17 games; Tim Cahill showed up halfway through the season. In 2011, the third DP was Frank Rost because Hans Backe was desperate for a goalkeeper. The club hasn't had three DPs worth getting excited about since the latter half of the 2010 season - and it broke up the combination of Juan Pablo Angel, Henry and Marquez before it ever really got going.

Also, "10 years from now" is an odd way to frame a lack of commitment to MLS. How many owners in the league are publicly pledged to hang on to their club for the next 10 years?

Similarly, saying any owner in MLS would sell up for $300 million isn't much of a scoop. Finding an owner who wouldn't sell if offered that amount of money is the real question.

Grant Wahl knows this. But something about this Red Bull GmbH story has got his attention - and one suspects it isn't what he is being told. "Red Bull might not be in MLS in 10 years" and "Dietrich would sell for the kind of offer any MLS owner would be cock-a-hoop to receive" is not a scathing indictment of RBNY's ambition. It's a simple statement of facts that would seem to apply to 90% of the league's owners.

Neither article made any effort to substantiate these claims (for example, to find owners who definitely are on board for 10 years or wouldn't sell for $300 million), because that isn't the point of either article. The point is people are seeking out one of US soccer journalism's highest-profile writers to have a dig at Red Bull GmbH.

Back in 2012, when Dietrich reportedly sat down with not one but two allegedly legitimate potential buyers, and when the team was in such disarray that it very nearly went into the 2013 season without a head coach - we weren't getting these sort of comments leaked to the press. We certainly weren't seeing them printed.

Wahl's articles to date have, pointedly, been short and one-sided. There are few direct quotes, and almost none from persons on the record. There is no effort to chase down RBNY for rebuttal or verification (in the most recent piece, there is a reference to Marc de Grandpre stating the club is not for sale: this was reported in August).

Why? Only Wahl can say for sure, but it feels like he's reporting exactly what we need to hear: not that Red Bull GmbH may be ready to leave MLS - that has apparently been true since 2012 - but that MLS unnamed sources are ready for Red Bull GmbH to leave.

2. Toronto FC's most important result of the season could be a draw

TFC beat Portland Timbers 3-2 in Week 29. The Reds got a lot of help: home advantage; Timbers' captain Will Johnson went down with a broken leg in the first minute; and Donovan Ricketts couldn't decide what to do about Michael Bradley's last-minute free kick, leaving it too late to do anything once the ball bounced in the six-yard box and skipped into the net for the winner.

It was a tremendously important win for Toronto. Three points bumped TFC back into contention for the Eastern Conference playoff spots. The club is sixth in the standings after Week 29, but just a point behind fifth - with a game in hand.

The greatest win in Toronto's history? If you say so.

But it wasn't the result that will take TFC into the post-season for the first time ever. If that happens, it will most likely occur away from home.

The Reds have five games left. Two are at home, but winning both of them will only put Toronto on 46 points. The team in fifth - RBNY - can get to 47 points with two wins, and has three of its next four games at home.

The Red Bulls are no more assured six more points than Toronto. But in these cases, we fall back on what seems likely. Par for any team in MLS is 1.5 points per game, and if the Red Bulls make par in their run-in, they'll have exactly 47 points.

Toronto probably needs more than just two wins at home to get to the post-season. It needs at least one more point (if Toronto and RBNY finish equal on points, TFC should win the tiebreaker - since it has one more win than the Red Bulls at the moment). And that point will probably come on the road.

Win at home, hope the Red Bulls stumble, and get a point on the road is TFC's easiest route to the playoffs. If that happens, the point that tips the balance will be the most important result of Toronto's season - and its history.

3. It is going to be very difficult to make Nick Rimando Goalkeeper of the Year this season

Rimando is the best 'keeper in MLS. Watch him play, look back at his history in the league, consider his extraordinary statistical record. It doesn't take much effort to make the case, and it would take considerable effort to dispute it conclusively.

Surprisingly, Rimando has never been recognized as the best 'keeper in MLS in any single season. He has never won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award.

This year, it felt as though he ought to win it just to correct the oversight. But it doesn't look like it will be possible. D.C. United's Bill Hamid pretty much has to be given the award.

Hamid kept his ninth clean sheet of the season in Week 29. That tied him with Vancouver's David Ousted for the league's best shutout total for the year - but Vancouver has 40 points from 30 games and is struggling to make the playoffs. DCU has 51 points from 30 games and is clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Conclusion? Hamid's shutouts count for more than those of Ousted.

At the end off Week 29, Hamid had the league's best save percentage (75%) of any 'keeper who had played more than 10 games. He'd racked up the third-most saves of the season (99) despite facing only the sixth-greatest number of shots (132) - and he's played fewer games than any of the 'keepers who have faced more shots.

Nor is he getting a great deal of protection from his defense. The stats suggest Hamid is facing an unusual number of shots per game: 5.08. Rimando has faced an average of four shots per game; Chivas USA's Dan Kennedy has seen 4.79 shots per game; Ousted's impressive shutout total has been built on dealing with an average of 4.27 shots per game.

Hamid doesn't sit behind the most porous defense in MLS in terms of shots allowed (spare a thought for San Jose's Jon Busch, who is currently facing, on average, 5.62 shots per game), but the DCU back line is exposing him more often than most other defenses in the league, and he is still outperforming the majority of 'keepers in MLS.

There are a great many ways to slice and dice the data, and most teams in MLS would almost certainly take Rimando over Hamid if given the choice. But this season, Hamid looks like the 'keeper making the greatest impact on his team's fortunes, which likely means another year without the award his career deserves for Nick Rimando.

4. The Rookie of the Year award looks likely to revert to type this year

There is quite an argument building over who should be considered the league's MVP this year, but it boils down to the same argument that is had about that award most seasons: who is the best attacking player in the league? Parse that question however you like, but it is at the core of the MVP discussion in MLS. The award has only once been won by a player who wasn't an attacker of some sort: 'keeper Tony Meola in 2000.

The Rookie of the Year award isn't quite so homogeneous, but it does have a detectable bias toward defensive players: defenders have won eight of the 18 awards to date, and that excludes Maurice Edu (2007) and Andy Najar (2010) - both midfielders who can fill defensive roles.

This year, we might be looking at another defender when Rookie of the Year is handed out. Harrison Shipp, the front-runner for much of the season, has been increasingly quiet as the season drags on and Chicago's playoff chances diminish. FC Dallas's surprise striking sensation, Tesho Akindele, was bumped back to the bench for FCD's last match - the 3-1 home win over Seattle.

As the regular season closes, the new favorites would appear to be two defenders who are getting regular starts for their respective clubs. Steve Birnbaum was given the chance to join D.C. United's starting back line back in June when Jeff Parke was injured. He hasn't looked back, and is now a surefire starter for what increasingly looks like the Eastern Conference winner.

Nick Hagglund plays for a much more erratic team: Toronto FC. But he scored two goals in Week 29 - a reminder that he is the sort of defender capable of contributing at both ends of the field. Were he to score the goal that put TFC into the playoffs for the first time ever, he would have a strong claim to the Rookie of the Year title.

There is no necessity to give the award to a player on a team that makes the playoffs or wins its conference, but rookies tend to get the award not so much for being exceptional as for being consistent. This explains the bias toward defenders (for whom dependability is arguably the most important quality), and explains why Birnbaum and Hagglund should probably be regarded as favorites in the hunt for the prize for the league's best rookie.

5. Landon Donovan has two more games to break one more record

This has been an extraordinary season for Landon Donovan. He has chased down the league's all-time career records for goals and assists in the regular season (three assists in Week 29 gave him a share of Steve Ralston's assist record, and he still has three games to break it).

Along the way, he also set league records for goals scored away from home (62 - he broke that last year, in point of fact) and game-winning goals (41).

There is one more significant scoring record he could match or break before he retires: career goals scored at home in the regular season.

Donovan has scored 82 regular-season goals on home ground over the course of his career. He has two more home games (against Toronto on 10/4 and Seattle on 10/19) to catch Jaime Moreno's all-time record: 83 goals.