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Things we learned from MLS Week 21

The All-Star break is in the rear view, so here's a look back at Week 21 as the league prepares itself for Week 22.

1. The Supporter's Shield race is still for 58 points

It's looking like a low-ebb year for the Supporters' Shield: MLS is parity-stricken in 2015. The anyone-and-everyone's-a-winner nature of the current regular season has made it difficult for any team to break away from the pack. The last-placed team in the Eastern Conference - Chicago Fire - is only five points outside the playoff places; the bottom team in the West - Colorado Rapids - has won three in a row (the second-longest active winning streak in the league at the moment).

Even the stand-out class act of the present time - FC Dallas- has parlayed a five-game winning run into a mere share of the lead in the Shield race, because prior to seizing 15 points out of 15, FCD was mired in a three-points-from-18 winless slump that was starting to put its playoff ambitions in jeopardy.

So FCD's 4-1 thumping of Portland in Week 21 merely keeps it level in the Shield race with D.C. United. Both teams have 38 points, but FCD has two games in hand - so we'll use FCD to forecast the potential league-winning points total in 2015: 58 points.

Per this column's favored formula (which is to assume a "par" points-per-game average by the current Shield-race leader for the remainder of the season - and "par" is 1.5 ppg), FCD would gather 19.5 points from the 13 regular season games it has left to play. Team's can't win 0.5 points, so we round up to 20 - and that leaves FCD on a hypothetical 58 points after 34 games.

That would be the lowest Shield-winning total yet in MLS's 34-game era: LA got 67 in 2011; San Jose accumulated 66 in 2012; RBNY topped the league with 59 in 2013; Seattle had 64 in 2014. History suggests it is likely that at least one team will sustain winning form over the last third of the season and finds its way to more than 60 points.

Or not. The last time we had a stab at forecasting the Shield race - back in Week 15 - the leader was Seattle, and the 1.5-ppg formula suggested the Sounders might finish up with...58 points.

This column's forecasting system is extremely suspect, but it has been telling us for some time that the Shield contenders are in a race for 58 points, and Seattle's epic slump (six losses in its last seven league games) suggests that's a hard target to reach this year.

2. The bar for playoff qualification is slowly rising, but every team is (just about) keeping up

Parity may be subduing the forecast for the Shield-winning points total, but the presumptive requirement for making the playoffs has risen slightly since we had a glance at it in Week 14. Back then, the conclusion was 46 points might be sufficient for a post-season berth in the East; 48 points looked like the target for the West.

After Week 21, the sixth-placed team in the East is Montreal, tied with NYC FC and Orlando City on 24 points but with three games in hand on those rivals. If L'Impact continues its current form for the remainder of the season (Montreal has won two and lost two of its last four matches), it will finish the year with 48 points. So we pencil in 48 as the cut-off for the playoffs in the East based on the current standings - a two-point improvement on the last assessment.

Over in the West, Portland is occupying sixth place with 32 points from 22 games played. If the Timbers can keep to 1.5 ppg for the next 12 matches, they'll finish with 50 points - so that is the where we put the marker for making the post-season out of the Western Conference.

In both cases, perhaps the key conclusion at this stage of the season - when it is still somewhat premature to be making any predictions about where any club will finish in the standings - is that no team is out of the running for the post-season.

Bottom-of-the-pile Chicago plays league-leading FC Dallas in Week 22, in Chicago: a win for the Fire would punch the lackluster club back into something resembling playoff contention. Montreal and NYC FC play each other in the coming week - so the sixth and seventh placed teams in the East cannot both pick up three points. The Fire would pull to within two or three points of at least one of those post-season contenders with a home win this week. And if dismal Chicago - averaging less than a point per game after 20 matches - can't be counted out of the playoffs, no one can.

3. It will be a sprint finish between the two 2015 expansion teams

In Week 21, NYC FC beat Orlando, 5-3. It was a fun match that generated pleasing highlights for fans of both teams. It also was a six-pointer in this year's "which expansion team is best?" race. NYC FC needed the win to pull level with Orlando, and duly found the three points required: the expansion teams are level on 24 points apiece with 13 games to play.

Both teams are hoping to execute mid-season turnarounds and glide into the playoffs, having slumped to slightly precarious positions over the first 20 games or so of this campaign. Both teams are averaging 1.14 ppg, which is not the sort of form that traditionally leads to the playoffs (it is the sort of form that leads to 39 points for the season).

The clubs have followed divergent paths to their currently shared state of being: not-quite-good-enough. The loss to NYC FC pushed Orlando's losing skid to three straight games: OCSC is slumping. NYC FC by contrast is in the best form it has managed all year: five of its six MLS wins have arrived in its last eight games.

The challenge for Orlando is the more straightforward: start winning again. The club has a relatively settled on-field identity; it is Kaka's team, for the most part. July has been used to acquire some experienced assistance: defenders Corey Ashe and David Mateos; midfielders Servando Carrasco and Adrian Winter. OCSC's short-term target is to stop conceding goals quite so generously (12 have been allowed in the last six league games) and score them a little more regularly (the team has been shut out in four of its last six matches - all losses).

For NYC FC, the challenge is to maintain the current upward trajectory while integrating some major new additions to the squad: Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo in midfield; Angelino, Andoni Iraola and Jefferson Mena constitute an almost entirely new back line for the team. Just as the squad seemed to be figuring itself out, it has been retooled on the fly. Initial returns - such as the 5-3 thumping of Orlando - are encouraging, but there will be sterner tests of the coherence of a new-look lineup ahead.

Over the course of the next 13 games, we'll see which of the league's two debutants has figured out the best way to salvage its inaugural season.

4. Bruce Arena is chasing a rare type of perfection

LA Galaxy traveled to Houston in Week 21 and got thrashed, 3-0. The result preserved the Galaxy's curiously polarized record in MLS 2015: imperious at home (the team has scored 19 goals in its last four home games) and dreadful on the road.

Bruce Arena's job is basically to win MLS Cup: he's won five in 12 seasons coaching in MLS (arguably, he only had a legit shot at winning the Cup in nine of those seasons, so he's won MLS on more than half the occasions he has been afforded the chance to prepare a team over a full campaign). Other tournaments - US Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, the MLS regular season - are essentially a distraction. One gets the impression Arena doesn't start fretting too much about results until it is time to start plotting a course through the playoffs.

Thanks to its home form - nine wins from 12 games to date; 28 goals scored and just seven conceded - LA looks to be cruising to the post-season once again: it is third in the Western Conference after Week 21. Thanks to its away form - zero wins from 11 matches so far; eight goals scored and 21 conceded - the Galaxy looks an unlikely candidate for the Supporters' Shield: it is only four points off the top of the table, but all the teams ahead of it (and most of those trailing) have figured out how to win on the road.

But Bruce Arena cares principally for MLS Cup. The Galaxy's protracted winless streak on the road is starting to look deliberate - as though Arena is trying to find new and interesting ways to deliver the result to which he and his club have become accustomed: MLS Cup. LA hasn't won a road game in MLS since August 31, 2014 - and that was against Chivas USA, so it was played in LA's home stadium. The Galaxy hasn't won a real road game since August 20, 2014 - when it beat the Rapids, 4-3, in Colorado.

Week 22, as it happens, will bring LA back to Colorado. The Rapids have a three-game winning streak to celebrate at the moment, but the Galaxy should still be regarded as the favorite. But Arena's team is on the brink of a rare achievement: a full season without a road win - without being terrible. In each of the last two years, there has been one team in the league held winless on the road for the entire season: the one that finished last - Montreal in 2014 and D.C. United in 2013.

Can Bruce Arena and LA Galaxy turn conventional wisdom on its head by remaining winless on the road for a full season and still winning MLS Cup? It is an interesting project - one the Galaxy kept on course with Week 21's loss in Houston. A fresh challenge to the club's currently unblemished record of road failures awaits in Week 22.

5. Brad Davis is (slowly) sneaking up on the MLS assists record

The Dynamo's Davis had an assist in Week 21 - just his fifth in MLS so far this season - to raise his career total in the league to 117. He is third on MLS's all-time regular season assists list, behind Steve Ralston and Landon Donovan, who have 135 and 136 respectively.

Davis will turn 34 in November 2015, which is to say that the end of his career is in sight. But he has been good for double-digit assists in five of his last six seasons - if he can creep to within 10 or so of Donovan's assist record this year, he should have a shot at breaking it in 2016, assuming he is still playing.

Houston only has 13 games remaining in its 2015 regular season, and Davis probably needs another five or six assists from those games to have a reasonable chance of challenging Donovan's record in 2016. And the Dynamo will also benefit from greater productivity from their veteran playmaker: the club is five points outside the playoff spots at the moment.