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Things we learned from Week 24

Most of what was learned this week was about the Supporters' Shield and the playoffs...

All hail the Eastern Conference truth-tellers
All hail the Eastern Conference truth-tellers
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

1. There are six teams in the Supporters' Shield race...

Seattle is still the favorite for the Shield, because Seattle is still top of the league, and still has a game in hand on three of the chasing pack.

The Sounders are top of the league because they beat Portland Timbers at the end of week 24. But Seattle also dropped points this week - at home in a 1-1 draw with San Jose - and that prevented the team from re-establishing its commanding lead over the rest of MLS.

Last week, Seattle was on the cusp of dropping into an even race for the Shield. This week, it is still the favorite, but it has picked up a few more challengers.

There were several top-of-the-table clashes in week 24. The overall results benefited Seattle: FC Dallas beat Real Salt Lakestopping RSL from pulling level with the Sounders on points; D.C. United beat Sporting Kansas Citypreventing KC from getting to 45 points as well.

So the table-toppers can take comfort from the fact they are the clear, undisputed points leader in the Shield race. But it is a narrow lead.

DC's win puts it just two points behind the Sounders, with just as many games left to play (10) as the league-leaders. All it takes is a week where Seattle has a draw and DC wins, and so long as their other results balance out, those two teams are locked in a sprint to the finish.

FCD's win over RSL bounces it into the three-team group sitting on 42 points. All three (RSL, FCD and KC) have played 25 games, so they need the Sounders to drop points in a couple of games, but they are legitimately in the hunt.

LA Galaxy was the big winner in the race in week 24: back-to-back wins (most notably, the remarkable turnaround to beat the Rapids 4-3 in Colorado) brought LA to 40 points. That is five points back from Seattle, but the Galaxy has a game in hand - and will play its next three matches at home.

If the game in hand is won, LA pulls within two points of the Sounders, with all eyes on the last two games of the season when the Galaxy plays Seattle home and away in what might effectively be a playoff for the Shield.

2. ...but there are only three teams in the race to 62 points

This column is stubbornly sticking to the notion the Shield will be won with 62 points this year. It is increasingly looking like the target ought to be dropped, because Seattle has cooled off a little since the hypothesis was formed, and none of the other teams are yet at a stage where getting to 62 could be described as more likely than not.

But we're also into the last ten games or so of the year, a small enough sample of games to sustain the thought some team could go on a little run. And the point of the target is it assumes only one team will get there in the end - so it ought to be set slightly out of reach of all but a very good team continuing to play better than most.

By that standard, the three teams currently on 42 points with nine games to play - Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas - can be regarded as being just a little bit too far off to be considered in the chase for 62. Each would need 20 points from the remaining games, and though that is not at all impossible, it feels as though each needs to take a step or two more in the right direction before being penciled in for 62.

FC Dallas just beat RSL, but has to play five out of nine on the road, including a revenge opportunity for RSL and a trip to play the Galaxy in LA. Let's see how FCD's road form, and ceaseless battle with injury and suspension, shakes out.

RSL also has to play five out of nine away from home. Its October schedule looks promisingly weak, but there are big games on the road against San Jose, Seattle and Vancouver to get through first. Again, let's wait and see.

Finally, Sporting KC is also looking at five on the road from nine left to play, and three of those come in nine days at the front end of September. The team also just lost to its only rival in the East (DC) at home. And there is CONCACAF Champions League, for which Peter Vermes appears ready to sacrifice a little ground in the league in pursuit of optimum results. He sent a strong team to Nicaragua this week, and that may have had some impact on the surprising result when the squad returned for its MLS match. So KC is another team that could get to 62, but needs to clear some hurdles first before being declared a contender for the target.

So there are three teams lurking, but just three teams right now that can be considered in the hunt for 62 points by season's end.

Seattle is 17 points shy of 62 with 10 games to play. The Sounders have five games at home, five on the road and need basically five wins and a couple of draws to get to 62: not inevitable, but hardly out of reach. As long as the Sounders are in reach, the 62-point target stands.

Pulling up alongside Seattle is D.C. United: 19 points short of 62 with 10 games to play. That is more like six wins and a draw, and DC has to play six of its last 10 on the road, plus three CONCACAF Champions League games. Tough? Certainly. But DCU just trounced Sporting KC on the road in the same week it won its opening CCL match with a reserve team. One has to acknowledge the method has delivered promising early results: DC is trying to keep its best players fresh for MLS while keeping the fringe players match-fit and ready, and it is working, for now.

Also in the hunt: LA Galaxy: 22 points required to get to 62, 11 games to play. Two points per game is the equivalent of going undefeated for the rest of the year, which should generally be discounted as unlikely. But from 11 games, 22 points can also be attained with seven wins and a draw - and LA has six of its next eight matches at home. Oh, and the Galaxy's record over its last 11 games? Seven wins, two draws and two losses. It has picked up 23 points from the last 33 available, and appears to be getting better as a team, not worse. LA is in the race.

3. The race for fifth in the West is probably not to 50 points

There is one playoff spot up for grabs in the Western Conference. Seattle, RSL, FCD and LA all look to be set fair to get past 50 points for this season, and the remaining five teams in the conference will each have to play much better than they have managed so far to reach 50, let alone beyond.

Still, the cutoff for the playoffs is being held at 50 for the moment, because it is just about feasible one of the bottom-five teams in the West might go on a run.

Say what? OK - let's eliminate Chivas USA from the equation. The Goats may yet have a role to play in this season, but it will discussed at greater length below. For now, suffice it to say that it is too much of a stretch to suggest a team which has lost five of its last six matches might win eight or nine of its remaining ten games.

So there are four teams in the West chasing the fifth and final playoff spot, and (for now) presumed to need 50 points to get there.

The main reason to hang on to the 50 point target for the moment is Vancouver. The Whitecaps are in a bad way: they have won just one of their last eight. This week, they lost to LA Galaxy. They are only clinging to fifth because all the teams below them are even worse (all of the bottom five teams of the West lost this week, though San Jose also picked up a point).

But the Caps have 33 points from 24 games. They need 17 to get to 50, which seems way too much to do until you consider their next three games are at home. There was a time the Caps were quite good at home. Until a few points are dropped in the upcoming home stand, Vancouver gets the benefit of the doubt and the playoff cut-off for the West remains at 50 points.

The 50 point target is really being held open for Vancouver. Realistically, it seems more probable that one of these shambling teams at the bottom of the West goes on a mini-run and sneaks in to the playoffs with about 45 points. And the leading candidate in that scenario is the Portland Timbers.

The Timbers were thrashed by Seattle (4-2) in Portland this week. This in keeping with the the team's recent pattern of losing to the better teams in the league (Seattle twice and LA once in the past seven games). But the Timbers have also recently been quite good at beating the lesser teams: they have beaten Colorado, Montreal and Chivas in their last six matches.

Fortunately for Portland, the bulk of its remaining schedule comprises lesser teams: three games against San Jose, two against Vancouver and one against Colorado.

A few weeks back, Caleb Porter was talking nonsense about "six-pointers" when it was clear his team just needed to beat anyone it could and hope to still be in the mix toward the end. It has just about managed to do that: keeping pace with Vanciuver's plummeting form, and holding steady two points behind the Caps. Now it has some real six-pointers: games against the teams it is directly competing with for the last playoff spot in the West.

Even the Timbers' talent for ties helps here, since draws mean points dropped for both parties, and will lower the playoffs-bar in the West. So Portland has greater control over its destiny than the teams around it, since it is going to be playing those teams more often than they'll be playing each other.

All there is to say about the Rapids' playoff hopes is that if they are still hanging around after their next four games - which include road trips to Seattle, LA and RSL - then they are contenders for the post-season. The team lost another match, and more key defenders, this week and looks headed in entirely the wrong direction. But as long as the teams around Colorado continue to be just as bad, there is hope.

Finally, there is San Jose, whose future depends on finding the ability to win on the road. The Quakes won't have found great encouragement in that regard from this week's 4-2 loss in Philadelphia, but the team has four of its next six matches away from home against fragile opponents: Portland, Vancouver, Montreal and Colorado.

None of these teams is peaking right now. One will make the playoffs, and each still has a chance because none really seems likely to break free and get to 50 points.

4. Chivas USA could end up deciding the Supporters' Shield race

The Goats have picked up one point from their last six games. They lost to New England this week, handing the Revs just their second win of their last 12 matches. So while it is isn't impossible for Chivas to win seven or eight of the remaining ten games, it seems highly unlikely.

Not least because the Goats' schedule includes six matches against four of the teams still in the Shield race. That is bad news for Chivas's season, but it does give the team a say in the outcome of the regular season title. LA, Seattle, KC and RSL must all play the Goats before the season is out, and the Sounders and Real Salt Lake have to play Chivas twice.

Points dropped against the likely last-placed team in the West may end up costing one of those teams a title.

5. Toronto FC will reveal the truth about the East

The playoff picture in the East is not clearer than it was last week. DC and KC are going to make it. As for the rest: it seems likely Columbus (weak schedule) and Toronto (games in hand) will show enough to get by, leaving one place to be scrapped over by the rest of the Conference (except Montreal). But it boils down to six flawed teams fighting over three playoff places, and any one of them could collapse or catch fire over the next few rounds.

What does look likely is Toronto will play the role of truth-teller in the East's messy denouement. TFC's recent results imply the team is exactly where it ought to be: behind KC and DC (who are responsible for Toronto's last four losses) and above the rest (against the rest of the East, TFC has lost once this season - to the Revs, back in May when they were good).

With a solid claim to being the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, Toronto is looking at a remaining schedule which features eight games against six of the seven teams below it in the East. The only team TFC won't play is Columbus, and it has already beaten the Crew three times in three matches this season.

So consider TFC a bellwether for its Eastern Conference opponents. It is neither particularly good nor particularly bad at the moment: this week's draw against Chicago proved as much. Everyone draws with Chicago - the Fire has 14 ties for the season. Toronto is the East's average club right now. And it will be mostly playing teams which need to outperform average to get to the playoffs.

To make a claim for real improvement, the teams below Toronto in the East need to start winning against the Reds. One or two of them will sneak into the post-season regardless. But if they wish to claim to be more than just the best of bad bunch, they need to get past Toronto: the Eastern Conference's new lie-detector test.