1. It's time to push the Shield target up to 63 points, and for Seattle and LA to get a room
The Sounders won their third game in a row this week, and LA Galaxy pushed its winning streak out to five straight. The two teams lead the Supporters' Shield race (with Seattle ahead of LA by two points) and their current form requires a recalibration of the presumed target.
This column takes a conservative view of the Shield race, and suggested several weeks ago that the title-winning points tally should be presumed to be 62 - until or unless events required the assumption to be changed.
The assumption was based on the observation that, although higher or lower totals could (and likely would) be achieved by several teams in the hunt, 62 was a total within reach of Seattle (at the time, the runaway leader in the race) if it slumped to merely average form, while all other contenders would need to remain quite - or even improbably - good to get there.
"Average form" (in truth, slightly above average, since a sub-51 point total often qualifies at least one team for the post-season) in MLS can be presumed to be 1.5 points per game, which would get a team to 51 points in a season, and likely a playoff berth, but not a Conference title, let alone the Shield.
As things stand after Week 26, the Sounders need just 1.38 ppg from eight games to get to 62 points. So the target needs to be raised, but not by much: 1.5 ppg for the rest of the season would get the Sounders to 63 points. LA would need to average 1.75 ppg.
On current form, it does seem likely the two clubs will breeze past 63 points without great difficulty. But consider that Seattle must play three of its next five league games on the road, and it has the US Open Cup final to deal with also. Meanwhile, LA has four of its remaining eight matches against two of the better teams in the West: the Sounders and FC Dallas. Slowed momentum for either team wouldn't be a great surprise - and it is impossible for both to win out.
What about the rest of the field? Forget them for now. There are four other teams with more than 40 points at the moment, and all of them are stumbling: Sporting Kansas City just lost its fourth game in a row; FC Dallas has lost two straight; D.C. United and Real Salt Lake have each won one of their last three matches. And Seattle and LA don't just have more points and a better run of form than those teams, they also have games in hand on all of them.
So until or unless Seattle and LA take a serious dip in form, and allow another team into the hunt, the Shield race is a private matter to be settled between the Sounders and the Galaxy. Let them get a room to work out their differences , and the rest of the league can focus on figuring out how to stop either of these teams from winning MLS Cup.
2. It's time to adjust the Eastern Conference playoff points target to 47 points...
Here's an unlikely scenario: take five teams that have been tripping over themselves all season and have them all start pulling themselves together at the same time. Seems fanciful, but it is what is happening in the Eastern Conference at the moment.
New England won its fourth straight game this week: the Revs are averaging 2 ppg over their last eight matches. Columbus also won, and is also averaging 2 ppg in its last eight. Philadelphia won twice in week 26, and has 17 points from the last 24 available (2.13 ppg). The Red Bulls beat Sporting KC, and are just about hanging in there, despite only having 11 points to show for their last eight outings (1.38 ppg). And Houston won its second game in a row, bringing its per-game points average over eight matches up to 1.63.
Toronto hasn't won a match since it decided being slightly better than all five of those teams was a crisis and allowed its front office to wreak havoc on the coaching and playing staff. But TFC had a few points to burn, so its still in the pack - for now.
TFC has bigger issues than most of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders, but it does share one problem with them: the near-simultaneous resurgence of five clubs is pushing the playoff qualification bar ever higher.
Not too long ago, it appeared that 45 points would be sufficient for a lucky team or two to stumble into the post-season in the East. Now, since ALL the challengers have decided to get their acts together (at least temporarily), the target for playoff qualification is on the rise.
Columbus and Philadelphia are effectively tied for the last playoff berth in the East at the moment: each has 36 points with seven games remaining. Both are accumulating points at a high rate, but assuming they level out a bit and cool down to the "par" rate of 1.5 ppg, they would both arrive at 47 points.
They still have to play each other twice before the season is out, so there is a strong possibility that one of the two will finish with more than 47 points and the other perhaps with less. But for now, they are marching forward together, and dragging the bar for playoff places up with them for as long as they keep their respective runs going.
3. The Timbers don't need to get better to make the playoffs
Portland isn't a bad team, indeed, form-wise it's doing quite well: 14 points out of a possible 24 is 1.75 ppg - which, sustained over the season, would put the Timbers at the top of the East and third in the West right now.
But Portland is also not a very good team.
The Timbers drew again this week (their 11th tie of the season), at home, despite scoring three times. This is a team that has scored 17 goals in eight games, and conceded 14. It isn't very good at defending: only Houston, Montreal, Chivas and Colorado have conceded more than Portland's total of 46 goals against in MLS to date. But it is very good at attacking: only LA and Seattle (54 and 48 goals respectively) have scored more so far this season than the Timbers (47 goals scored in the league).
Portland's problems are strikingly similar to those of the New York Red Bulls this season (the teams have been tracking each other's points total for most of the year), though RBNY's goals for and against totals don't stand out quite as much.
The Timbers, like every other middling team this season, ought to be concerned about missing out of the playoffs. However, they have one advantage: they're in the Western Conference.
Both Conferences are currently nurturing extremely tight playoff races - at least for the fifth and final available spot. In the East, as described above, all the so-so teams seem to heating up. In the West, not so much.
Ostensibly, the race for fifth in the Western Conference is a tight battle set to go down to the wire: Portland holds a one-point advantage over Vancouver, but the Caps have a game in hand. Colorado is five points back, but hosts the Timbers for its next match. San Jose is eight points behind Portland, but has two games in hand and will play the Timbers twice more (after their 3-3 tie this week) before the season is out. Only Chivas USA looks to be entirely out of the running.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the bottom four teams in the West are awful. Vancouver has picked up two points from its last four games. Colorado has lost seven straight. San Jose is winless in six. The Goats haven't won since mid-July.
This isn't a playoff race, it's the slow-motion revelation of the fact the West only has five teams that can remember how to win a game of soccer.
And unless Colorado and Vancouver remember the way back to winning very quickly, Portland - which plays those two teams next in its MLS schedule - will simply start to further separate itself from the wrecks piling up at the bottom of the Western Conference table.
4. Another week, another record for LD
Scoring the first goal of LA's big win over Colorado gave Landon Donovan another match-winner for his collection. He has now scored 41 game-winning goals in MLS regular season matches - and that is a new all-time record.
The last few weeks of his career likely hold a few more records for Donovan: after two goals against the Rapids, he is three goals short of breaking Jaime Moreno's league record for goals scored at home in a career (83; LD has 81). And he already holds the record for career goals scored on the road in the regular season.
He got another couple of assists too, which means he's just five short of breaking Steve Ralston's all-time assist record for the MLS regular season, though he only has eight games remaining to do it.
And if he plays just three more matches for LA, he'll set a new personal best: 27 appearances in a regular season. Donovan has never played in more than 26 league matches in a single season before.
5. Next year will be all about Wondo
Chris Wondolowski scored twice this week, bringing his MLS goals tally for the season to 12. Those goals were also the 90th and 91st regular season strikes of his career. Assuming he sticks around, he should hit 100 career goals in the league some time next season (he might do it this year, though nine goals in nine games is asking a lot, even of him).
Once LD retires, the league will be looking for new heroes to carry the "living legend" tag. It will likely have to anoint a few, since there simply isn't a player of Donovan's singular talent with a long-term commitment to MLS.
When Wondo breaks 100 goals, he'll be the front-runner to challenge Donovan's scoring record (which will presumably be set somewhere just short of 150 goals). To do so, he'll need to keep scoring consistently for at least three or four seasons. The 2015 season will tell us how realistic an expectation that might be.
This season is already suggesting the striker may flourish in a new-look, brains-over-brawn, tactical set up. And while that doesn't guarantee anything for next year, it does provide San Jose fans with something to look forward to after a couple of disappointing seasons since 2012's Supporters' Shield win.