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Things we learned from Week 30

Is this the week MLS revealed a double standard in its adjudication of assists?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

1. LA Galaxy has qualified for CONCACAF Champions League

Results in Week 30 mathematically confirmed what has been apparent for a while now: the Supporters' Shield is a two-horse race between Seattle and LA.

The only team still capable of catching either is D.C. United - eight points behind with three games left to play. The maximum points total achievable by DC is 61. The minimum points total achievable by either LA or Seattle is 61, but for that to happen one or the other will have a minimum of 64 points, since the Sounders and the Galaxy play each other twice in their last three matches.

The lowest total both teams could reach is 62 (if they each lose their next game and twice draw against each other to close out the season). 62 is greater than 61: if LA and Seattle are winless through the end of the year, both will beat DC's points total.

So DC can can catch up with one team, but not both. The Shield will be won by either Seattle or LA.

Impossible to say at this point whether the Galaxy or the Sounders will win the regular season, but what we do know is that LA Galaxy will be in next year's CONCACAF Champions League.

This is because Seattle is already in the 2015-16 CCL, courtesy of winning this season's US Open Cup. US Soccer sends four teams into CCL: the US Open Cup winner, the winners of the Eastern and Western Conferences (one of which will be the Shield winner), and the winner of MLS Cup.

If one club takes up two or more of those berths, the next-best team in the regular season standings gets the spare spot in CCL.

So, if LA wins the Shield, LA is in CCL. If Seattle wins the Shield, LA will be second in the Western Conference - and will be the side best-placed to take over the CCL slot Seattle doesn't need. This is because DC is the only team that can win the East with a points total surpassing LA's current total (60 points). And if DC gets any total higher than 57 points (the maximum attainable by New England Revolution, currently second in the East), then DC wins its conference. Conference winners automatically get into CCL; LA is not competing with DC for a CCL spot, and there isn't another team in the East that could beat the Galaxy's current points total.

Worst case for the Galaxy: it finishes second in the West and secures its CCL place by virtue of being the next-best team in the standings not already qualified for the tournament.

(Of course, if LA goes on to win MLS Cup, it doesn't need the charity berth, which would then fall to the third or fourth team in the overall standings - depending on who wins the East; New England or Real Salt Lake might sneak into CCL in this scenario, if current league positions hold to the end of the season.)

2. MLS needs to explain what constitutes an assist

Seriously. The league's "assist" category seems to be drifting away from the traditional definition, which is a pass leading directly to a goal. Like goals, all assists are not created equal: some are simply down to the luck of having been the last person to touch the ball before a teammate did something extraordinary. Eric Alexander had one such assist earlier this season when he made a simple pass to Dax McCarty, and McCarty scored arguably the most extraordinary goal of his career:

Alexander's pass was an assist, no question. But the goal wasn't down to any great creative vision on his part, nor was McCarty in an obvious goal scoring position. No big deal: rules are rules.

Last week, Landon Donovan made a very good pass that did put Robbie Keane in a goal scoring position. The pass created an opportunity, but Keane's initial shot was just saved by Luis Robles. The "save" merely pushed the ball a little closer to goal, and Keane recovered to punch the rebound into goal.

Generally speaking, an assist is not awarded if the initial shot is saved, since the pass in question did not lead directly to the goal. Here's an example from this week:

Shea Salinas crosses to Chris Wondolowski; Donovan Ricketts saves the initial header; Wondo taps in the rebound. Unassisted goal is recorded.

So how is it Salinas doesn't get an assist but Donovan does? Maybe, MLS's statisticians thought Robles didn't actually touch the ball. That's a stretch: Keane's initial shot is upwards, trying to lift the ball over the 'keeper, but it comes straight back down to earth in a manner that suggests it has deflected off Robles. Alternatively, MLS has effectively awarded Donovan a second assist on a goal that doesn't have a primary assist, since Keane is the only Galaxy player to touch the ball (three times) after Landon's pass, and the league has yet to bend its rules to allow players to be named assist-makers for their own goals.

Either way, one might attribute it simply to the league's enthusiasm over Donovan's astonishing run at the all-time MLS assist-record. Even statistics are mistaken from time to time.

And MLS's assist rule is, deliberately, subjective - as noted in this article. But as also noted in the league website's defense of its official statistics, the rule was changed to make secondary assists harder to come by, not easier. And the article is intended to defend the secondary assist Donovan was credited with this week - which doesn't really need defending at all, since it is entirely consistent with the league's policy on secondary assists. Nothing to see there.

But last week's decision to call Donovan the primary assist-maker on Keane's goal does seem to be at odds with the usual practice.

Or it did until the league decided to give Clint Dempsey an assist for Marco Pappa's goal this week:

Great move by Dempsey, no question. But Pappa's shot is clearly saved. Indeed, he has to move to get back to the rebound to knock the ball in at the second attempt. Again: why is Dempsey getting that assist but Shea Salinas isn't being credited for Wondo's tap-in against Portland?

And, for that matter, why was neither Lloyd Sam or Bradley Wright-Phillips credited with an assist for Thierry Henry's goal against Houston? BWP's run and dummy was every bit as instrumental in creating the opportunity for Henry to score as Dempsey's back heel to Pappa. What's that? BWP didn't actually touch the ball? If you say so.

But the ball was originally crossed by Lloyd Sam, and whatever deflection it might have taken off a Houston player caused a less dramatic change to the trajectory of the original pass than either the save made by Robles on Keane or Clint Irwin on Pappa. By whatever logic was applied to Donovan's assist last week, or Dempsey's this week, it would seem Salinas, Sam and maybe BWP are owed a little statistical boost.

The league should step in and explain its thinking on these matters, because it looks dangerously like a double standard. And that hurts the league and the players: Donovan and Dempsey should not be playing by a different set of rules to the rest of MLS, not if their achievements are supposed to mean anything.

Someone, anyone, please explain how the four decisions described above can be made consistent with one common set of rules on what constitutes an assist. Otherwise, we're in danger of being forced to accept the conclusion that MLS is juicing its own stats.

3.  Chicago may as well go big before it goes home

The Fire ignored this column's plea, and shattered its own (tied) record for ties in the MLS regular season this week. First, the record was broken in some style: Robert Earnshaw chipped in a last-minute equalizer on the road against Philadelphia Union. Next, Chicago played out a 0-0 draw at home against Montreal Impact, raising its season total for ties this year to 18 out of 31 games played.

The Fire still has three matches remaining to further gild this particular lily. Even if doesn't draw again this year, Chicago has already set a remarkable record: 18 is, of course, more than half of 34. The Fire has drawn more than half the league games it will play this season, and the season isn't yet over.

Mercifully, results this week eliminated Chicago from playoff contention. The team's only lasting achievement for 2014 is taking sole possession of the league's all-time record for ties.

The club may as well push the record out further and make this record-breaking season a truly emphatic statement on the 2014 squad's ability to neither win nor lose.

Go for broke, Chicago: tie 'em all from here on out.

4. The Timbers are favorites to make the playoffs in the West

Vancouver and Portland are still battling for the final post-season spot in the Western Conference. The 'Caps managed a highly creditable home win over FC Dallas in week 30, meaning they have claimed maximum points from their last two games.

Unfortunately for Vancouver, the Timbers pulled out a 2-1 win on the road in San Jose, which means Portland is just a point behind the 'Caps in the standings.

And the schedule now favors the Timbers, who will play two of their last three games at home. Portland has the tougher opponents on paper: Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas to close out the season after hosting San Jose in week 31.

But RSL seems to be in a slump, especially on the road: it hasn't won a match away from home since August 2. And if, as seems likely, FCD is mathematically assured of fourth place in the West by the time the last game of the regular season rolls around, Portland may find itself playing a reserve team for that match.

Vancouver, on the other hand, has to protect a one-point lead over Portland by heading to Seattle to play the Shield-chasing Sounders, then hitting the road again to play the Quakes in San Jose, before returning home to close out the year against Colorado.

And beating the Rapids doesn't seem likely to be sufficient to stay ahead of Portland. Vancouver is probably going to need at least a point on the road - which it hasn't achieved since drawing with Chivas USA on August 16. And it may well need to find an away win, which hasn't happened since the 'Caps beat the Timbers in Portland on June 1.

5. It was a bad week for every team below the red line in the East

Toronto, Philly, Houston, Chicago and Montreal managed to gather two points between them in week 30.

The lackluster results saw the Fire join L'Impact on this year's scrapheap: neither team will be in the playoffs. Houston's shot at the playoffs got longer with a loss to RBNY: the Dynamo is seven points outside the top five with four games left to play; it could be eliminated by the end of week 31. Philadelphia might also be out of the playoff race if results don't go its way in the coming week: a loss to Columbus and a win for RBNY would bounce the Union out of contention for the post-season.

Toronto is the only team in the bottom five of the East that isn't facing the possibility of elimination in the coming week.

For no better reason that it has been that sort of year, it is hard to imagine the playoff race in the East not going down to the wire. But the results of week 30 have raised the possibility that the Eastern Conference could have its post-season representatives settled sooner than expected.