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Things we learned from Week 33

Toronto sunk itself to ever lower depths, but RSL got a few reasons to be cheerful in Week 33...

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

1. Real Salt Lake has a 50% chance of making CONCACAF Champions League

OK...so probability doesn't quite work like that - but hear me out.

There are four places in CCL for teams from the USA, and one for Canada.

Seattle clinched its CCL 2015-16 place by winning US Open Cup. This week, it also clinched the Western Conference and the Supporters' Shield. The latter title qualifies its holder for CCL, but the Sounders already have a berth, so the Champions  League slot falls to the next best team in the Shield race - LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, D.C. United has the third CCL spot courtesy of having won the Eastern Conference.

There is one more place available to a team from the USA and it is due the winner of MLS Cup. Since Seattle, LA and DC have already qualified for CCL, if any of them win MLS Cup, the next-best unqualified team in the Shield race will take the last US berth in the Champions League. That is Real Salt Lake.

RSL will also qualify for CCL if Vancouver wins MLS Cup, since a Canadian team cannot claim a US team's place (and, incidentally, the Caps will be Canada's representatives in the regional tournament next season).

And, of course, if RSL wins MLS Cup, then RSL is in CCL.

All told, five of the 10 possible winners of MLS Cup this season will hand a CCL berth to RSL.

It's not quite as simple as that: four of those five teams, including RSL, are in the Western Conference - and only one of them can get to the MLS Cup final.

But Real Salt Lake's postseason outlook is encouraging. If it gets to the Cup final, it will host against any opponent other than DC United (since it got more points in the regular season than every team in the East except the Conference winner) - and if DCU wins the final, RSL is in CCL. If any Western Conference team other than Dallas wins the Cup: RSL is in CCL.

A CCL berth means a little extra cash to help keep a team together or build squad depth for the tournament. All of which means RSL will likely retain a rooting interest in the playoffs whether it advances to the final or not.

2. Toronto FC is all-in for doing things wrong

In what appears to be a valiant effort to wipe the slate clean and get all the bad decisions out of its system at once, TFC has spent much of the past week making itself look steadily more incompetent.

First, and perhaps foremost, the team lost 1-0 to New England: its seventh loss in 11 games since General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko told his players to "take it up a notch". TFC was third in the Eastern Conference at the time, with 33 points. It finished the year in seventh place, having picked up eight points from its last 33.

In the days prior to the game, it was revealed that young, inconsistent but still highly-rated center back, Doneil Henry, had been transferred to "a club in Cyprus". The club's commentary on the deal was comical. Bezbatchenko said the team "took the offer seriously", but would not reveal the name of the club to whom Henry is under contract.

To restate: TFC received a serious offer for a player, which it took seriously, accepted, negotiated into a loan back to itself under remarkably preferential terms ("It's an arrangement where he's a Toronto FC player as long as he and we agree on that," said head coach Greg Vanney) - but never bothered to ask the name of the team on the other side of the deal.

Huh.

In point of fact, TFC is not pretending it doesn't know who Henry is contracted to, it just isn't saying. Nor is Henry, who suffered through an end-of-season press conference forced to simply refuse to disclose to whom he is under contract.

The Henry situation is made more baffling by the fact the deal was apparently done at the beginning of the season, and never announced. Reportedly, there was a transfer fee, allocation money was disbursed to TFC - but no public report issued.

Why? Good question. Crippling embarrassment on the part of all involved? Perhaps Toronto doesn't rate the club with which it did the deal, feeling it is one beneath the station of a vaunted young player like Henry. Maybe Henry feels the same. And maybe the team that paid Toronto for his services was so overcome by buyer's remorse that it immediately agreed to let Henry stay with TFC indefinitely.

Anything is possible. But it seems unlikely. One more plausible explanation: TFC didn't transfer Henry to a club at all. Kia Joorabchian has been described as the player's representative in some reports. Joorabchian is perhaps best known as one of the most successful exponents of "third-party ownership", an arrangement in which outside investors pay for the economic rights to a player and essentially use the global market for soccer talent as an investment vehicle.

It is a business model which gets a bad rap: the English Premier League doesn't like it; UEFA doesn't like it; FIFA is at least pretending not to like it.

The reasons for its shabby reputation in some circles are a little too involved to get into here - but it is an existing soccer transfer model that would explain how a team could sell on a player without being able to name a club on the other side of the deal. The fact we are only learning about Henry's transfer now, and the details are still vague, could simply be because Joorabchian owns all or part of the player's rights and is just getting around to finding a buyer for those rights.

We don't know. All we know is that TFC (with MLS's cooperation, since players are contracted to the league not its clubs) made a deal at the beginning of the season that it simply won't explain. A lack of transparency is not a good thing. Engineering patently ridiculous situations where you refuse to answer simple questions is not a good thing.

The latest suggestion - from a well-sourced reporter of good reputation - is that Henry was sold to Apollon Limassol for somewhere in the region of $500,000. Not an earth-shattering transfer if true, but hardly anything to shamefacedly conceal for the best part of a year.

The icing on the cake of TFC's epically bad week: an extraordinary hatchet job on Jermain Defoe's mother in the Toronto Sun, which relied heavily on "sources" from within the club.

It is hard to read the piece as anything other than TFC's parting gift to Defoe, and it is a breathtakingly unprofessional way to cut ties with a player.

The striker appears to have been unsettled by the sacking of Ryan Nelsen (itself an episode somewhat lacking in grace and dignity: "take it up a notch"), and seems to have done his best to jump ship as quickly as he could. But TFC didn't want to let him go, and Defoe was dragged back to Toronto to finish out the season. It didn't go well, either for Defoe or Toronto.

But Defoe, whatever his fault in what appears to be a growing detachment between himself and his club, has never said anything publicly to bash the team or its management. That may change.

For TFC, one hopes this frenzied rush of bad decisions is an end-of-season purge.

The team has some serious rebuilding work ahead. Ultimately, it just needs to finish fifth or higher next year to declare itself a success.

It got close this season, until it decided third place in the Eastern Conference was tantamount to a crisis. It ought to be able to get close again. Everyone should get the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Perhaps TFC is simply getting all its learning done in the last weeks of the 2014 season to ensure it kicks into 2015 with as much accumulated wisdom as possible.

3. Chivas RIP

The worst-kept secret in MLS was confirmed the day after the final round of the regular season ended: Chivas USA is shutting down for good.

The news brought with it a long-suspected realignment of MLS's Conferences for next season: newcomers NYCFC and Orlando City will slot into the East; Houston Dynamo and Sporting KC will shuffle over to the West. In 2015, MLS will have 20 teams, evenly split between two conferences.

The hole left in MLS by Chivas's exit will be filled by a new LA-based club in 2017, which is the year Atlanta is expected to join the league as well.

In the short-term, the failure to keep Chivas alive is a step back for MLS. The league will try move on quickly, and the fact it has two new teams arriving certainly helps to offset the loss.

Nonetheless, it was a sad day.

The league is richer and more popular, we think, than it has ever been - but still not immune to failure. And the shuttering of Chivas - including its academy - serves as a reminder of the continuing frailties of the business model MLS has chosen for itself.

The league is often criticized, justly, for lacking transparency and occasionally bringing an almost paranoid obsession with controlling it image to its media output. Add to that criticism the troubling decision to shut down the Chivas academy, which would appear to run counter to MLS newfound enthusiasm for player development.

There will be more details forthcoming. And it is entirely possible that the league has to formally close down every last scrap of the old franchise in order to ensure the new ownership is legally disentangled from any lingering issues attached to Chivas USA. Or not. We'll find out soon enough.

In the meantime, Chivas's demise serves as a reminder that MLS's hyper-sensitive response to any public criticism may not be as paranoid as one tends to imagine. The model can fail. Soccer is a sport, but MLS is a business. And while the sport is too big to fail, the league is not.

This doesn't mean scrutiny and criticism isn't warranted or necessary. Nor does it justify heavy-handed, borderline megalomaniacal, responses. But it does perhaps serve to remind why the league is occasionally so defensive of its image.

4. MLS still isn't doing CCL right

In the midweek, CONCACAF Champions League wrapped up its group stage. MLS had two teams already qualified for the quarterfinals (D.C. United and Montreal Impact), and two who simply needed not to lose (or to lose by the right number of goals) in their last game.

At the end of the final round of group stage matches, the two MLS teams which had secured quarterfinal berths early were the only representatives of the league in the CCL knockout rounds.

Portland sent a good-but-not-best-available team to Honduras, and lost, 3-1, to Olimpia. Sporting Kansas City did much the same, and lost, 2-0, to Costa Rica's Saprissa.

It has long been evident that MLS squads aren't deep enough to expect their reserves to beat the better teams in the region. And now we have further evidence for that conclusion.

Ultimately, it comes down to priorities. If MLS teams don't treat CCL as a priority, most of them won't get very far. This may change if and when a team from this league wins the competition - but until then, it would appear the haphazard performance of MLS clubs at the regional level will persist.

5. It has been a helluva a year for records in MLS

This week, Bradley Wright-Phillips tied the league's all-time regular season goal-scoring record, knocking in his 26th and 27th of the year against Sporting Kansas City. But for an unsympathetic referee, who turned down Roy Miller's claim for a penalty, BWP would likely have broken the record.

Nonetheless, 27 goals in a single season is an extraordinary feat. More extraordinary perhaps, was the number of other significant league records broken this year.

Landon Donovan reset the career records for goals (144) and assists (136) in the MLS regular season. Nick Rimando set a new career high for shutouts (115). (Not to mention lesser achievements, like Chicago Fire's all-time record for ties in the regular season; or Lee Nguyen's single-season record for goals scored by a player who is nominally a midfielder.)

Single-season records are hard to predict. There's no greater or lesser probability of someone doing something exceptional in any particular year. But it will be a while before we see more significant all-time records fall.

Of the easiest to identify, and therefore arguably the most significant, Donovan's goals record seems likely to be safe for some time to come. Of players still active, Dwayne De Rosario has the most career goals in MLS: 104. But he will turn 37 next season, and his scoring dropped off significantly this year as he struggled for playing time. Edson Buddle has 100 goals to his name, but he is 33 and hasn't scored in double-digits in the league since 2010.

Chris Wondolowski would seem to be the most likely candidate to break Donovan's scoring record. He just wrapped up his fifth consecutive season with double-digit goals in the league, to lift his career total to 93. He is 51 goals short of Donovan, and he's scored 49 in the last three seasons. If he can maintain similar levels of production for the next three seasons, he should at least get close. But he will be 32 next season. Time is not on his side.

Another man in a race against time: soon-to-be 33-year-old Brad Davis, who finished the season with 112 career assists. He's just 24 behind Donovan's all-time MLS assists record, and that is conceivably just a couple of season's work by his standards. How long he can maintain those standards is the question.

Finally, there are appearance records waiting to be broken. Nick Rimando is 46 games behind Kevin Hartman's all-time appearance record in MLS, and he is 3,807 minutes behind Hartman's minutes-played record. He'll be 34 next season, and should have at least another couple of years left in his career - which makes Hartman's records vulnerable.

But none of those records would seem likely to be broken before the 2016 season. And it will be a surprise if such events coincide with a rash of single-season achievements of the sort we've also seen this year.

2014 was a good year for MLS's history books.