1. Seattle Sounders picked a good week to lose
This was the week the league finally caught up with Seattle: the Sounders third loss in four games (and fourth loss in their last six matches) is unquestionably a slump, and losing to Real Salt Lake allowed RSL to leapfrog to the top of the Western Conference.
Seattle is now third in the Supporters' Shield race, a point behind Sporting Kansas City and RSL and just a point ahead of D.C. United. Even FC Dallas - lurking just two points behind Seattle and riding a nine-game unbeaten streak - must be considered a contender for the regular season title.
But the Sounders have games in hand on all those teams. One more week like this - in which they lose while those other four challengers each win - and Seattle will be sucked into a dogfight for the Shield, but it remains the clear favorite at the moment.
The team the Sounders perhaps most want to keep at a distance is LA Galaxy, because Bruce Arena won his first skirmish with Sigi Schmid convincingly (a 3-0 Galaxy victory in Seattle back in July 28), and because Seattle's season concludes with back-to-back games against LA.
The Galaxy got crushed in Columbus, which means LA remains seven points behind Seattle with a game in hand.
The Sounders do need to start winning again if they are to stay in the hunt for the Shield. Seattle has lost its last three consecutive road games against Western Conference opponents, so even if Sigi Schmid doesn't much care about the Shield, he ought to care about securing home advantage for the playoffs.
Fortunately for Schmid and his men in green, the schedule now delivers four games against the bottom four teams in the West - San Jose, Portland, Colorado and Chivas.
2. It is too early to say Houston Dynamo has turned a corner
The Dynamo's form is unquestionably better than it was: this week's 2-0 win over Philadelphia was the team's second victory in its last three games, and six points from a possible nine is a huge improvement for a side that only collected five points from the 10 matches preceding the current revival.
But Houston beat the Union at home, and the Dynamo's home form is the only reason it isn't completely out of the playoff race. Dominic Kinnear has coaxed his faltering club to six wins on home turf (second-most in the Eastern Conference) and the 21 points won in BBVA Compass Stadium this season is the joint second-best home-points tally in the East (tied with KC; second only to DC).
The real test of Houston's playoff credentials comes over the next couple of rounds: a trip to Columbus on 8/23 followed by a visit to Sporting KC on 8/29. The Dynamo has gathered just four points on the road this season.
While Houston might be favorite to win all five of its remaining home games, those 15 points will boost the Dynamo's total for the season to just 40 points - almost certainly not good enough to make the playoffs. (Not least because three of those five home games are against Montreal, Chicago and New England - none of which is currently in a playoff position.)
Kinnear needs to find at least five points from his team's remaining six road games (assuming he drops none at home for the rest of the season) to reach the 45 points mark which still looks like the cutoff for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The race for the last couple playoff places in the East is close enough that Houston may not clearly be out of it until the last couple of weeks of the season, but if the team doesn't start finding points on the road the appearance of a playoff challenge will be entirely illusory.
3. It is also too early to write off LA's Shield challenge
Yes, the Galaxy got blown out by Columbus this week. Yes, the loss set LA's challenge for the Shield back considerably, not least because the Galaxy dropped points at home to San Jose last week. One point from six isn't a helpful return if you're trying to muscle in on an end-of-season sprint finish.
There are currently five challengers to Seattle's claim to the regular season title: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, D.C. United, FC Dallas and LA. With the Shield-winning points tally still hovering at a presumptive 62 points, only Seattle can reach the target by averaging fewer than 2 points per game over the rest of its schedule. Most likely, however, the Shield is won with fewer than 62 points, because most likely ALL the contenders will drop more points than expected during the remaining games of the season.
Over the next five games in their respective schedules, RSL and FC Dallas will play each other twice: so it is impossible for both those teams to sustain their current 13-points-out-of-15 pace. Sporting Kansas City is pretty good at home and away, but it has three of its next five league games on the road - and three CONCACAF Champions League games to play on either side of that MLS schedule. D.C. United has a brutal stretch of four-out-five games on the road coming up, as well as its own CCL commitments.
Scanning the upcoming schedules of all the contenders, the eye is drawn to Seattle's run of four games against the weaker half of the West, plus RSL at home (which may turn out to be the game which decides whether Salt Lake is in the Shield race to the bitter end). And the Galaxy's fixture list also brings an opportunity to regain the ground recently lost.
LA's next match is a trip to Colorado. The Rapids have won two of their last 10 games, and are currently spiraling to the bottom of the West (they've lost four straight). Even if the Galaxy lose in Colorado, it can look forward to four straight home games - against Vancouver (poor on the road and against Western Conference opponents in general), DC (who will be three games into a four-matches-in-twelve-days schedule), Chivas USA (back to being generally terrible) and Colorado (currently terrible).
Oh - and after that run, the Galaxy travels to Montreal (the current worst team in the league and favorite to finish the season in that position) and San Jose (one of the few teams LA has managed to beat on the road already this year).
It may well be the case that we look back at this week and declare it to be the moment when the league figured out how to beat the Galaxy. Perhaps Columbus's success presages a season-ending losing streak for LA. But this is still the team that took the Sounders apart in Seattle on July 28. And it is still a team that hasn't lost at home since its first game of the season.
So LA is still in the hunt for the Shield - for now, and until or unless its near-term home form prevents it from keeping pace with the rest of the challengers.
4. Columbus Crew is a solid favorite for an Eastern Conference playoff spot
Beating LA convincingly at home doesn't suddenly make the Crew one of the best, or even one of the better, teams in MLS. This week's result did, however, suggest that we should look at Columbus more as side which has won three of its last five games, rather than one winning for the first time in three attempts.
This bodes well for the Crew, since it is hard to find a team in the league with an easier ten-game schedule remaining. Columbus currently has the 11th-best record in MLS, i.e. it has fewer points than most of the teams in the league so far this year.
Remarkably, the Crew's remaining ten games are all against teams even worse than 11th in the standings. The club has two matches to play against Houston (currently 15th in MLS), two against Montreal (19th), one versus Chivas USA (18th), two against the Revs (13th), two against Philly (14th) and one versus RBNY (12th).
From those ten games, of which five are at home, the Crew will need at least 15 points to get to a total of 45 for the season and a likely playoff place. But since those games also happen to be almost all against the teams chasing Columbus in the Eastern Conference at the moment (only Chicago isn't on the list), any points gained by the Crew (except against Chivas) are points a potential challenger won't be able to use to catch up.
Columbus could blow it: the team's record so far this season indicates it is every bit as inconsistent as most of the rest of the East. But it has long had this run-in to look forward to, and three points against the Galaxy this week means the Crew enters the final phase of the Eastern Conference playoff race with less work to do than might otherwise have been expected, and lesser opponents to face than any of its rivals for the fourth or fifth playoff place in the East.
5. This could be the Quakes' last week in playoff contention
Even the best teams in MLS have bad days: Seattle lost 5-0 to New England back in May; the Revs were among the best in MLS at the time, but had themselves started the year with a 4-0 loss to Houston; LA had its worst day of the season this week. Some good teams have several bad days: RSL started the year with a 12-game unbeaten streak, before losing four of its next six matches; FCD's current nine-game unbeaten run was preceded by eight matches without a win.
San Jose had recently started to look like a good team which had suffered many bad days. The Quakes lost eight of their first 16 games of the season, and won just four in that stretch, but had rebounded with a couple of home wins (including one over Seattle) and road draws (in NY and LA) to make an unlikely late bid for the Western Conference playoffs.
Unfortunately, the 5-0 drubbing by Dallas this week may mark the end of San Jose's post-season challenge in 2014. It's not over yet, but the team's next two games - both in week 24 - are on the road in Seattle and Philadelphia. Should the Quakes lose both, they'll be where Chivas USA is right now: on 24 points with 11 games left to play.
The cut-off for the playoffs in the West may shortly need to be revised downwards - all of the bottom six teams in the Conference dropped points this week, and many of them will probably drop points again next week - but for the moment, the assumption is it will take 50 points to claim the fifth and final playoff spot in the West.
After week 23, San Jose needs to average two points per game for the rest of the season to reach 50 points - a pace that was briefly sustained over the four matches preceding this week's collapse. Another couple of losses in the coming week and the Quakes will need 2.36 ppg to get to 50, and that is with seven of their last 11 games on the road.
Merely drawing on the road doesn't get San Jose to where it needs to be either: two points from the next two games only drops the ppg requirement to 2.18.
The Quakes need a win on the road - quickly - to offset this week's result and pitch themselves back on the unlikely path to the playoffs they had been following before Dallas came to town.