1. D.C. United might be the best bad team MLS has ever known
DC's achievement in Week 23 was unprecedented in MLS history:
Throw in the achievements of the last two weeks - when DC fell behind by two goals in consecutive games, and fought back to win them both - and it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Supporters' Shield leader is not a very good team.
DC's three-game winning streak comprises three games it ought to have lost, but somehow found a way to win. It is often said that the mark of a good team is the ability to find results when not playing well. DC did not play well in Week 23, but it got out of Montreal with three points - much like it got out of its previous two games with three points.
The standings don't lie: DC United is the best team in MLS at the moment. Yes, there are teams that could catch the Shield leaders if they win their games in hand, but real points count for more than hypothetical points - and DC has more real points than any other team in the league. And it holds that position after three rough weeks in which it could just have easily lost every game and started a tumble down the standings.
DC hasn't been playing particularly well for a while. The team won six of its first 10 league games, accumulating 21 points from the first 30 it contested. In the subsequent 15 matches, it has picked up 23 points from 45 available. It really ought to be on a five-game losing streak right now, but instead it is gathering momentum and is tied with Vancouver for the longest active winning streak in the league (three games).
Presently, DC isn't a good team - and at the same time it is the best in MLS. If it starts playing well again, it will run away with the league. And if it doesn't: it has proven over the last three games that it could still run away with the league. The current Supporters' Shield race leader and increasingly likely winner of the Eastern Conference is building toward being remembered as the best bad team MLS has ever seen,
2. The Vancouver Whitecaps are prioritizing MLS over CONCACAF Champions League
The Whitecaps have a crowded late-season calendar, with CCL and the Canadian Championship swelling their August schedule to eight matches. Squad rotation would be essential even in the Caps weren't in the thick of a Supporters' Shield race, trying to keep pace with a seemingly unbeatable D.C. United.
In Week 23, we got a glimpse of Vancouver's current priority: MLS. On August 5, the Caps kicked off their CCL campaign by hosting the Seattle Sounders - and put out, essentially, a second-string side held together by playmaker Pedro Morales. The result was a 1-1 draw, which puts the Whitecaps at an early disadvantage in CCL: points dropped at home in the group stage are hard to recover on the road. On August 8, head coach Carl Robinson sent out a stronger lineup to compete for points in MLS - and duly saw his team beat a makeshift RSL, 4-0. And on August 12, another less-than-full-strength selection wrestled Montreal to a draw in the Canadian Championship.
Robinson has used the first part of the season to demonstrate his Whitecaps are capable of winning the league this season (whether you define that as the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup is up to you: the Caps are legitimate contenders for both on current form). And in Week 23 we learned Vancouver will probably rely on its reserves to carry it through the initial stages of other competitions, as it seeks to consolidate its position in MLS over the next few months.
3. New York Red Bulls fans may want to start rooting for NYC FC
RBNY beat NYC FC in Week 23 to extend the team's MLS-best active unbeaten streak to five games. You heard: after Week 23, the New York Red Bulls have the longest current unbeaten streak in the league.
But RBNY still has work to do to secure a playoff spot. Thirty-six points from 22 games is good for second in the Eastern Conference, eight points clear of seventh-placed Orlando City. The Red Bulls have a comfortable points cushion and might get to the playoffs with as few as 12 points from its remaining 12 games.
But to breathe easier in the season run-in, and perhaps make a late run for the Supporters' Shield, the Red Bulls would doubtless not refuse a little help. And NYC FC is particularly well placed to help RBNY down the stretch.
The two New York teams won't play each other again this season unless NYC FC manages to make the playoffs and the clubs run into each other in the post-season. Right now, that seems unlikely: if 48 points is the current target for playoff-chasing teams in the East, NYC FC needs 24 points from its remaining 11 matches. That is more than two points per game - which is a tough pace to sustain over 10 games or so.
Still, if you're a fan of RBNY, you might like to see NYC FC go on a late-season charge for relevance. Of the 11 games the Yankee stadium tenants have left, seven are against Eastern Conference teams - and six are against teams currently occupying playoff places in the East.
NYC FC will play DC twice (August 13 at home and October 2 away), Columbus twice (August 19 and August 29), Toronto FC on September 16, and New England Revolution on October 25. The Tenants could win all those games and still miss the post-season: the 18 points from those six wins only gets them to 42 points, which likely isn't enough for sixth in the East after 34 games. But if NYC FC wins all those matches, it will slow the roll of four of the current top five teams in the East - and that would help whatever points RBNY is able to accumulate count for more than just holding its position in the standings.
Go get some points, NYC FC - with RBNY's blessing.
4. Separation is occurring - in both Conferences
In Week 23, all the teams below the red line the league uses to mark the cut-off for the playoffs on its standings tables stayed below the red line. Only one team outside the top six in its Conference managed to win this week - and that was Houston: winning at home over fellow Western Conference struggler, San Jose.
Chicago lost in Portland; Orlando lost to Toronto and drew with Philadelphia; NYC FC lost to RBNY; Colorado got beat by Columbus; Real Salt Lake was thumped by Vancouver: including Houston's win, the eight teams propping up the two MLS Conferences picked up five points (counting Orlando and Philly as having one each) from seven games.
There is still time for these teams to turn their seasons around and make the playoffs. But we are more than two-thirds of the way through the regular season, and it's starting to look as though the bottom four teams in each Conference are below the red line for a reason: they are not as good as the teams above them.
That hypothesis will be tested again in Week 24. NYC FC hosts league-leading D.C. United; San Jose and Colorado will battle for the points they urgently require to get back into the Western Conference playoff conversation; Houston travels to New England; RSL hosts Portland; Orlando visits slumping Seattle. Another week without success for the league's lackluster teams and it will start to feel like the 12 sides that will compete for MLS Cup this year have already been determined.
5. But don't count Houston out just yet
Beating the Quakes at home doesn't make the Dynamo much of a contender for anything: San Jose has one point from its last six league games. But Houston's win in Week 23 was its third in its last five matches. The Dynamo is unbeaten in its last three outings, which include a 3-0 win over LA and a 1-1 tie with Sporting Kansas City.
Of the eight teams in danger of being cut adrift from playoff contention, Houston is in the best form, and perhaps best placed to move above the red line as the regular season winds down. Five of the Dynamo's last eight games will be played at home against fellow Western Conference teams - and Houston is just one point behind sixth-placed Seattle with a game in hand.
Prior to that crucial run of home games, however, the Dynamo has to go on the road: three consecutive away matches from August 15 to August 26. Three or four points from those nine would be sufficient to keep Houston in touch with the team above it in the West - might even be enough to get it over the red line, if Seattle keeps losing. But even if the Dynamo loses them all, it will have September to try to build momentum for a late run at the playoffs.