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Things we learned from MLS Week 18

This week, there is a lot to say about the Western Conference in general, and the Sounders in particular.

Otto Greule Jr

1. Goonie Time is over

It's time to spike the whole San-Jose-is-most-dangerous-when-time-is-running-out narrative. It just doesn't fit anymore. This week, MLS's alleged late-game snatch-and-grab experts huffed and puffed against D.C. United, but could not reverse a 2-1 deficit. They lost, and they are bottom of the Western Conference.

Back in 2012, the Quakes perfected a simple formula: big men up front, crafty dashers in midfield, capable fullbacks bombing up the flanks - they could get big bodies in the box and plenty of crosses in to feed them. Throw in Chris Wondolowski at his predatory best, and they were a difficult outfit to play at any time - but particularly at the end of games when legs were tired and San Jose could pull big men off the bench and crowd either goalmouth.

San Jose won a lot of games. San Jose won the Supporters' Shield. The Quakes were good enough back then to beat most teams well before the final whistle, but they also had a knack for nicking a winner or equalizer at the death.

Many teams (when chasing points) will try to raise the tempo to grab a goal at the end of a game, but it doesn't come off all that often, and San Jose was conspicuously good at it. Steven Lenhart got an injury-time winner against Seattle in August, 2012.

The team could turn on this frantic, rampant assault on goal seemingly at will. In June, 2012, it was 3-1 down to LA after 41 minutes. By the 61st minute, the Quakes were winning 4-3.

The three wins prior to that game were perhaps the high point of what was dubbed "Goonie Time": June 23rd, San Jose beats RSL on an 84th minute winner from Wondo; June 20, 2012, the Quakes find two goals in the last ten minutes in Colorado to turn a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 win; May 23rd, San is 0-2 down in LA in the 73rd minute - wins 3-2 off an injury-time winner from Alan Gordon.

Throw in the two games preceding that 3-2 win over LA - 1-1 ties with Chivas and Columbus, both earned off late equalizers - and you have a stretch in which San Jose got points in six out of seven games by scoring late or overturning seemingly insurmountable deficits, or both. Goonies never say die, indeed. It was a reputation well-earned, and a tag-line that got trotted out every time the Quakes launched another late surge.

Those late surges have been happening a lot recently, because now, in 2014, the Goonies aren't good.

San Jose fans may point out this is pretty much what their team did in 2013: awful for the opening half of the season, then winning 10 of the last 17 games to almost Goonie into the playoffs.

But that late run failed, and in 2014, the late runs are failing again. In 2014, the Quakes have lost eight of 16 games played. They scored an injury-time equalizer against RSL to salvage a point on opening day, and found another one against Vancouver to turn a 3-1 loss into a 3-2 loss. And they were Goonied out of all the points by the New England Revolution in San Jose - a last-minute Lee Nguyen winner gave the Revs a 2-1 win - back in March.

"Goonie Time" has yielded a point to date this season, and lost three.

The New York Red Bulls have twice stolen draws this season off last-minute goals - against Chivas USA and Toronto FC. No one is calling RBNY a never-say-die team. The Red Bulls are more a rarely-able-to-win side so far this year.

So it's time to put Goonie Time to bed. If the Quakes perk up and ride a series of late winners and equalizers to an unlikely playoff berth, fire up the hashtag again. But right now, San Jose is just like any other team finding itself down a goal with time running out: desperate, and generally unsuccessful.

2. Caleb Porter needs a reality check, or a new media strategy

The Portland Timbers' head coach has a pretty simple method of dealing with the media: he keeps it positive. Last week, when his team lost to Seattle in the US Open Cup, he said, "It was a battle, it was tight." Portland lost that one 3-1.

The weekend before, after the Timbers went to LA and drew 2-2, Porter said, "If we play like we did tonight, over the course of the next 16 games, we're going to be where we need to be." Portland had been winning until an 86th-minute own goal gave LA a share of the points.

This week, Portland went to Seattle and lost 2-0. Porter said, "There are more important games ahead. The swing playoff  teams, those are the six-point swings against teams that are in and around us that are the more important games."

OK. Sure, losing to the runaway league leaders doesn't mean you lose ground in the playoff race. The Timbers are not going to win the Supporters' Shield. Well...if they won every one of their remaining 15 games, they'd have 66 points and pretty good shot at the regular season title. Few things are mathematically impossible at this stage of the season.

But, more realistically, Portland is in a battle to make the playoffs. These "teams that are in and around us" don't exist right now for the Timbers, because the Timbers are effectively dead last in the Western Conference.

Portland's points total - 21 from 19 games - isn't terrible: it would be good for sixth in the East and just three points away from third place in that Conference. But Portland plays in the West.

The Timbers are in eighth place in their Conference right now. They are just four points behind fifth-place Vancouver, but Vancouver has two games in hand on Portland. So the four points could balloon to 10 points, if the 'Caps go on a run.

LA is three points ahead of Portland, in sixth in the West. But the Galaxy has four games in hand - so could in fact be double-digits ahead of the Timbers by the time the schedule evens out. Chivas USA is just two points ahead, but also has a game in hand: the Goats might actually be five points ahead.

A true "six pointer" is one in which the result of a game could leave two teams separated by six points. It therefore means one team is three points ahead of the other when they play - and a win for the better-placed side means a six point gap, a loss means level-pegging. Such a situation does not exist for the Timbers at the moment.

Because of the uneven scheduling, Portland doesn't have any teams "in and around" it. Even San Jose, currently five points behind the Timbers, has three games in hand. The Quakes would be four points up on Portland if they win all three. (Ergo: Portland is dead last in the West, if you take the view San Jose might turn around its form some time soon.)

Portland needs points, desperately, from every team it plays. This is no time to be talking about six pointers: things aren't that close. The team needs about six points from its next two or three games to make the step up to six-pointers with the sides it is hoping to beat out of playoff contention.

The Timbers need to stop dropping points, and getting to a position where they aren't relying on the teams around them losing all their games in hand. They need at least three points to be certain San Jose is behind them.

It is true that the teams around them still have plenty of work to do. But the optimism of his public statements is starting to make Porter look naive. He isn't - so he should find a new script for his press conferences.

He's the reigning MLS manager of the year, and a well-respected coach: it's time he started sounding a little more attuned to the realities of the situation his team is in.

Right now, his team's battle is the one to avoid finishing last in the West, and it looks like a tight race.

3. New England's results don't matter a great deal at the moment

Despite being just two points better off than the Timbers, the New England Revolution is sitting pretty in fourth place in the East, one point behind fourth-placed Toronto.

The Revs are on the right side of the line, and have the benefit of being in a Conference where 23 points puts them a full three points above sixth place.

That means the Revs have a cushion, as well as a game or two in hand, over most of the teams in the East.

If New England's five game losing streak extends to seven matches (because their next two are on the road in LA and Dallas) it won't matter too much in terms of playoff contention.

The Revs worst-case scenario in the short term is they roll into their last 15 games of the season about three points outside the playoff spots in the East, with nine of those 15 to play at home.

4. Seattle hasn't got away...yet

The Sounders won again this week. They have a seven point lead at the top of the Supporters' Shield table. They have now won six of their last eight. They have won with big names like Clint Dempsey (who scored this week), and without them.

There are three teams currently, just about, lurking within range of Seattle.

D.C. United is second in the table, and matching the Sounders point for point in the last four games. Toronto FC just won its first match in its last four attempts, but has so many games in hand that is could pull within five of Seattle if it manages to win them all.

And LA Galaxy won - just - against RSL, to stretch its unbeaten streak to seven matches. Like Toronto, the Galaxy could be merely five points adrift of the Sounders if it wins its games in hand.

So the Sounders haven't broken loose quite as definitively as the table might suggest. They are, however, solid and deserved favorites for the Shield as the season moves into its second half.

5. Set the target for the Shield at 62 points

The Sounders are setting the pace, so the Sounders get to dictate what counts as an achievable total to win the Shield.

After 18 games, Seattle has 38 points. Mathematically, no other team in the league can reach that many points after that many games. Clearly, for any team other than Seattle to win the Shield, the Sounders must hit a losing streak at the same time as a challenger emerges with a sustained winning streak.

Might happen; might not.

The Sounders probably will slow down: 2.11 points per game would be an unprecedented pace for a team to sustain over a 34 game season. Since 2011, when MLS moved to a 34 game schedule, the highest ppg average for any team over a full season was LA Galaxy's 67-point (1.97 ppg) effort in that very first year of the longer schedule.

Right now, with almost half the season left, a lot can happen. Still, one can look at Seattle's points total and see where the team would get too if it cooled off a little in the second half of its year. If the Sounders average 1.5 points over their remaining 16 games (i.e. win one, lose one - effectively, the average every MLS team aims for at the start of the year, given the persistent home advantage most sides expect to enjoy in this league), they'll pick up another 24 points - for a total of 62 points.

So that's the line in the sand for the Shield right now: 62 points.

The Sounders current pace would see them end the season with more like 72 points. But every team runs into issues with injuries, inspired opponents, or simply a bit of bad luck with the referees.

And 62 looks like plenty to win the Shield at the moment. The two teams with the most games left in the season - LA and Toronto - would need to average 2 points a game to get there. D.C. would need 1.94 ppg. It's an imposing target for every team in the league, except Seattle.