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Things we learned from Week 25

We learned more about Toronto than we probably needed to know this week...

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Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

1. Toronto FC is a mess

Before this week's matches, TFC was in third place in the East. After losing 3-0 at home to New England Revolution, Toronto is in fourth: tied with the Revs on points, but behind on tiebreakers. It is also tied on points with fifth-placed Columbus, but TFC has two games in hand on the Crew. Oh - and it has a game in hand on the Revs.

In short, losing to New England was not a bloody big deal. Toronto is still in control of its destiny, at least in terms of making the playoffs; it dropped out of the Shield and Eastern Conference title races some time ago.

Faced with the minor disappointment of being in a fight to make the playoffs with 10 games to play, Toronto made an entirely rational and reasonable decision: it fired its head coach and (almost) his entire coaching staff.

Huh?

It has been an up-and-down season for Toronto. Much better than last year's 29-point effort, but not the assured march to a first-ever playoff appearance the club would have hoped for after signing Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe, Julio Cesar (briefly), and a full team's worth of support, including Gilberto, Dwayne DeRosario, Bradley Orr and Luke Moore.

The new signings have produced a better team, just not an exceptional one. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some of which may include the fact Cesar was only at the club to stay fit for the World Cup, Defoe has had injury problems, Gilberto has struggled to find form, senior defenders Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow are currently injured, and Michael Bradley hasn't looked capable of carrying whatever cluster of the team's remaining players is fit week-in and week-out.

"We're just not into excuses," said Tim Bezbatchenko, TFC's General Manager, in his measured explanation of the entirely sensible decision to rid the club of an entire coaching team as it heads into the make-or-break part of its year.

It affected the guys. What we do at Toronto FC is we keep it in house -Ryan Nelsen (cbc.ca)

He wasn't referring to the tempting list of excuses above, however. Bezbatchenko was talking about Ryan Nelsen's post-match comments, in which the at-the-time Toronto head coach had been invited to respond to statements made by his GM in an ad-hoc press conference on the day before the New England game.

As one might expect, especially since his team had just been soundly beaten at home, the coach wasn't impressed with the idea that front office executives were now using the press to tell the players how to conduct themselves.

Bezbatchenko told the team to "take it up a notch". Nelsen responded by suggesting the club "keep it in house".

The next day, Nelsen was fired. Because "excuses".

I would not take back anything that was said -Tim Bezbatchenko (mlssoccer.com)

There's more to it than that, of course. On the pitch, TFC has had issues, but it was also apparently dealing with an old-fashioned GM vs head coach power struggle behind the scenes. Once Bezbatchenko decided to take his ideas about the team public, it was presumably a matter of time before someone moved on.

Both sides have been busy briefing the media. The club, as you would expect, has closed ranks around its GM, and the new coach, Greg Vanney. Quotes have appeared pointing out Nelsen's lack of coaching experience, and the relative lack of experience of his backroom lieutenants. Vanney has never been a head coach of a senior professional team, but he's spent a lot of time working in youth soccer since retiring as a player, and he was an assistant at Chivas USA for a while.

On the flipside, someone - presumably from the Nelsen camp - has let it be known that at least four players in the current squad were signed in spite of Bezbatchenko's objections. And it has also been noted that Nelsen's contribution to attracting Defoe and Cesar to the club (both players were attached to teams, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers, that Nelsen played for in the recent past) was "more than most".

The immediate effect of the coaching change was a transfer deadline day tussle over Defoe between TFC and just about every Premiership club in England that might have need of a forward. Toronto won, Defoe is staying - for now.

That episode might be nothing more than opportunistic clubs taking advantage of what is obviously a sub-optimal situation in Toronto. TFC doesn't need the money from a Defoe transfer, so presumably didn't have much difficulty turning down any offers. And if Defoe really wants out (which is certainly not confirmed), now he has incentive to play well for the remainder of the season: he'll need a few goals behind him to get to a better place in January.

Caught in the middle of all this is Toronto FC: a MLS team with a better-than-most chance of making the playoffs this year, even after this week's loss.

The club was clearly a mess behind the scenes. And if results continue to be less than great, the mess will presumably continue.

TFC has no choice but to rally behind the man left standing, Bezbatchenko. The team didn't appear to be broken, and it still isn't. It's fourth in the East, and though it is a mess, so too - at least on the field - are most of the teams around it in the standings.

2. It was a good week to be Philadelphia Union

The Union had the week off from MLS, to prep for its last nine games and a final push for the playoffs.

It's unlikely the team will have been too perturbed by the surprise wins for Chicago and Houston. Those results put both the Fire and Dynamo within striking distance of Philadelphia, but all three teams are outside the playoff places. The Union doesn't need to worry about the teams behind it in the standings, it will be focused on overtaking the teams in front of it.

In that regard, Philly has a pretty forgiving schedule: six of its last nine games at home. And the standings were made more forgiving by the fact three of the four teams in front of the Union lost this week - the Crew, RBNY and Toronto all failed to pull away from the pack, or score a goal, in week 25.

Toronto's recent effort to derail itself will have caught the Union's attention, since it plays TFC twice in week 26.

Philadelphia's next two matches are against a team three points ahead of it in the East, which has just sacked its coach, might have a star striker dreaming of escape, and definitely has four players aware of the fact that they're on the outs with the new regime.

Trouble in Toronto could mean points for Philadelphia.

3. Vancouver needs goals

The Whitecaps need points too: this week's loss to Portland was doubly unfortunate, since the Timbers used those three points to leapfrog back into the playoff places in the Western Conference.

But it is impossible to win a game without registering a goal, and the 'Caps have not scored for three consecutive matches. Zero goals, and one point out of nine, has let the Timbers back into the race for fifth in the West.

Vancouver still has a game in hand - an advantage that won't be erased until its 9/13 match in Dallas. But it's not much of an advantage without goals. Win or lose against DC on 9/3, the Whitecaps have to show they can remember how to find the net if they are to continue to be considered a contender in the West.

4. Time to recalibrate the race for fifth in the West: 46 points looks like the target

Last week, this column suggested the notion the last playoff spot in the West would be won by a team with 50 points might need to be adjusted, but the urge to recalibrate was resisted out of respect for Vancouver's pending three-game home stand.

Well, by dropping all three points in the very first game of that home stand, the Caps have made 50 points seem an unlikely target. Vancouver now needs to average 1.89 points per game in its last nine games to get to 50. Portland would need to average 2 ppg; San Jose would require 2.4 ppg; Colorado is looking at 2.5 ppg; and Chivas USA would need 2.89 ppg.

Not mathematically impossible, just improbable for five consistently inconsistent teams.

Drop the presumed target to 46 points, however, and we have a race again: the Caps need 1.44 ppg; the Timbers are chasing 1.5 ppg; Colorado and San Jose each would need 2 ppg; and Chivas trails after a highly unlikely 2.44 ppg.

That seems about right. Until or unless one or two of these teams breaks into genuinely good form, assume they're all scrapping for something close to 46 points to make the post-season.

5. Landon Donovan might have saved his best for last

A few weeks ago, this column suggested it was delusional to talk about Donovan breaking the all-time MLS record for assists in the regular season.

He would need 18 assists in 2014 just to tie Steve Ralston's career record. In 2013, the top assist-maker was Diego Valeri: he got 13. In 2012, Graham Zusi got 15; in 2011, Brad Davis tallied 16, as did Donovan himself in 2010.

In the early years of MLS, the top assist-makers topped or matched 18 with some regularity: Marco Etcheverry (19) in 1996, Carlos Valderrama (19) in '97, and Etcheverry (19) again in '98.  Ralston tallied 18 in 1999, and Valderrama managed 26 in 2000 - still the league's single-season record.

Since then, however, it has happened twice: Ralston got 19 in 2002 and Guillermo Barros Schelotto got the same number in 2008.

So it is certainly not impossible or unprecedented to get 18 assists in a MLS season, but it is unusual, at least over the last 13 seasons.

Donovan was expected to break the league's all-time regular-season goals record this year, and he did. He was not expected to break Ralston's record. He is still not expected to break Ralston's record: he needs six assists in nine remaining games just to match it.

But he's got close enough to make it seem possible, especially since he's playing for a team that cannot stop itself from scoring goals (13 in the last four games).

If he breaks Ralston's record, all hype will be justified, given the magnitude of the task when he started the year. But the record will likely be broken again eventually (perhaps even soon - Brad Davis is a couple of seasons away from getting close).

What may never happen again is one player breaking both the MLS goal-scoring and assist-making records in one season. If Donovan does that, he really will have saved his best for last.