1. Kaka was right: Orlando City SC is a contender
After its first 10 games in MLS, OCSC looked a strong candidate for a tough year: just two wins, and neither of those at home or against in-conference opposition. A couple of early-season victories against Houston and Portland were nothing to get too excited about.
But in recent weeks the expansion club has started to figure itself out. The 4-0 thrashing of LA Galaxy on May 17 started what is now the second-longest active unbeaten streak in MLS. This week's 1-0 win over D.C. United makes it five games without a loss for OCSC - and three of those have been wins.
Before the game against DC, Kaka said he thought his team was a playoff contender. This was not a contentious statement: OCSC was four games unbeaten at that stage. The squad is laden with players who would be expected to start for almost any team in MLS: 'keepers Donovan Ricketts and Tally Hall, defenders Aurelien Collin and Amobi Okugo, whatever position Brek Shea seems best suited for in a given week; and, of course, Kaka.
There should be no surprise about this team finding its way to a top six finish. But the players were thrown together in the off-season. The question about OCSC is whether the team could find sufficient chemistry and momentum to reach the relatively modest goal of a playoff spot in 2015. After five games unbeaten, it's fair to say there is chemistry and momentum.
Beating DC by a single goal does not dramatically change things for Orlando. But that's the point: it should be able to string together a decent run in the league with the players it has assembled.
Orlando still has more than half a season to play. There will be injuries, suspensions, call-ups and more than the occasional contentious refereeing decision in the weeks and months ahead. There is plenty of time for the team to stumble and fall out of the top six in the Eastern Conference - perhaps never to return. But the little run it has put together up to and including Week 15's win over the top team in the East should be enough to at least say Kaka was right: OCSC is a contender.
2. D.C. United is wobbling
DC played its 17th game of the season in Week 15, so it has reached the halfway point of its regular season. So far, so good: the reigning Eastern Conference champion is leading the East, and only three teams in the conference (Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, and Montreal Impact) are mathematically capable of matching DCU's haul of 28 points from 17 games.
A narrow loss in Orlando is no reason to panic. DC can spot the rest of the East a few points without damaging its own prospects too greatly.
But this week's loss was the fourth DCU has suffered over its last seven games. The team won six and lost just one of its first 10 matches of the season, which is why it remains top of the East despite its recent form.
The latest loss is also troubling because it stretches DC's return from its last four road games to just one goal and one point (both arriving in the 1-1 draw in New England on May 23). Part of the reason the team is top of the East is because it has played 10 of its first 17 games at home. And DCU is good at home: it has picked up 21 of its 28 pointsfrom matches at RFK Stadium.
Now the team has to catch up on its road games. It will play New England at home on June 21. After that, DCU plays four consecutive matches on the road: in Chicago (June 24), Toronto (June 27), Seattle (July 3), and Dallas (July 18).
If DC is still top of the East after that run, it will be the favorite to win the Conference and perhaps the Supporters' Shield. If current road form persists, however, we could be about to see DCU's recent wobble turn into a full-fledged fall down the league table.
3. FC Dallas is in trouble, but perhaps not as much as its recent form suggests
If DC is looking for an example of how quickly a bad run on the road can cause a team to fall from grace, it should look at FCD's current predicament. In Week 15, Dallas lost 3-0 to Seattle. The Sounders are good and in good form; they will likely have many more comfortable home wins this season: FCD need not fret too greatly about the result.
But the loss in Seattle was the third consecutive game without a goal for Dallas. Indeed, the team has scored just once in its last five matches - and won none of those. Two points from five games is disastrous form. The only reason FCD is still in the playoff positions is because it started the season hot: six wins in its first 10 matches. Now it is in an awful slump.
The slump coincides with a brutal run of five away games - the last of which will arrive in Week 16, when Dallas visits Colorado. Another loss could see FCD drop out of the playoff spots in the West.
Is Dallas a bad team now? Maybe. It could be just a bad traveler, like the vast majority of MLS teams. Only Orlando and Vancouver have winning records on the road at this moment in the season; Seattle and Toronto have managed to win as many as they have lost, which is also impressive. The rest of MLS is basically not very good on the road.
FCD's slump won't be all that bad if it can get back to winning ways during a four-out-of-five-games-at-home stretch from June 26 to July 25. Until that home stand gets underway and we see how the team reacts to being back in a more hospitable environment, don't count Dallas out of the race for the top places in the Western Conference.
4. Columbus Crew is in just as much trouble as its form suggests
Dallas can take consolation from an unusual cluster of road games but Columbus has no such excuse. The Crew's draw with LA Galaxy in Week 15 paired with the fact New England finally found a win (beating Chicago 2-0) means the longest active winless streak in MLS currently belongs to Columbus.
Six games: three at home, three away; six goals scored, 12 conceded; three draws, three losses, no wins.
The Crew is clinging to sixth in the Eastern Conference, but it won't be in the playoff spots for much longer in this sort of form. Not least because three of its next six matches are against teams (Montreal and a home-and-away tussle with Chicago) below it in the standings.
5. It could be a banner year for parity in the Supporters' Shield race
Last week, this column lost its mind and tried to predict the cut-off for the playoffs in both Conferences. We'll see how well that premature prediction holds up in due course. This week, our senses are still on leave: it's time to have a stab at predicting the total points required to win the Shield.
It is, of course, way too early to be taking such forecast seriously - most of this week's lessons are about the dramatic ebb and flow of form that most MLS teams endure during a season. Most teams aren't even halfway through their schedule, and there is no breakaway leader in the Shield race. Seattle has a bit of a cushion, but is only a couple of games away from falling back into the pack. And a few teams - Montreal, Toronto and RBNY - haven't even played 14 matches yet.
Nonetheless, let's have a go at a prediction. The leader of the Shield race after Week 15 is Seattle, with 29 points from 15 games. The Sounders current points per game average (1.93) suggests they're on pace for around 66 points this year. That should be a Shield-winning total, but it's also a helluva pace to sustain through another 19 matches.
If Seattle's ppg settles in at the more sedate 1.5 that this column likes to think of as "average" (it's what you get if you win one, lose one), then it would finish the season on something more like 58 points - a 1.71 ppg average for the year.
Since MLS moved to a 34-game schedule in 2011, the Shield-winning points totals have been as follows:
2011: LA Galaxy - 67 points
2012: San Jose Earthquakes - 66 points
2013: New York Red Bulls - 59 points
2014: Seattle Sounders - 64 points
One of those totals is not like the others. In 2013, RBNY won the Shield in a season that was unusually affected by the league's prized competitive parity. Four seasons isn't much a sample size, but it's all we have for now and it suggests that fewer than 60 points won't often win a Supporters' Shield in MLS.
Will 2015 be the year to make RBNY's achievement in 2013 look like less of an outlier? Maybe. Pencil in 58 points for the Shield and we'll see how long it takes for that number to need to be revised upward.