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Things we learned from MLS Week 24

The front-runners in the Shield race both lost this week, reminding us it is still a wide open race for the regular season title.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

1. LA is doing that thing again

Remember last year? As the summer waned, LA Galaxy was good but not great: nine wins, seven draws and five losses after 21 games. Then the team bounced back on the road in Colorado, turning a 1-3 deficit into a 4-3 win - and rattled off a 10 game unbeaten streak that comprised eight wins and two draws. By October, LA was a bona fide Supporters' Shield contender: so much so that despite slumping in its last three games - just one point out of nine available - the Galaxy finished merely three points behind Shield-winning Seattle.

And, of course, LA shrugged off whatever disappointment was felt during that end-of-season swoon to win MLS Cup.

This season is starting to feel a little bit like last season. After 21 games in 2015, LA had accumulated eight wins, seven draws and six losses: good but not great.

In 2014, LA's 21st game of the regular season was a 4-1 road loss to Columbus: a reminder that the team was still flawed, regardless of the fact that it had spanked New England (5-1), the Sounders (3-0, in Seattle), and Portland (3-1) in the preceding month. Then the win over Colorado sparked a Galaxy run that would sidestep Supporters' Shield but lead to MLS Cup.

In 2015, LA's 21st game was a 4-0 home win over Toronto. It fit the pattern of a team that is dominant at home: beating TFC was preceded by thrashing Philadelphia (5-1) and Portland (5-0) - and the Galaxy's next home game was a 5-2 win over San Jose. Four home games, four home wins, 19 goals scored, three conceded: swaggering form. But those imposing wins were punctuated by poor results on the road: a 3-1 loss in San Jose on June 27 and a 3-0 loss in Houston on July 25.

The loss to the Dynamo meant LA had got 23 games deep into the regular season without a win on the road. All the home wins were essentially compensating for dire form away.

And then LA traveled to Colorado and won 3-1. This week, the Galaxy went to Dallas - and scrambled back from going a goal down to win 2-1. It was LA's third consecutive win and third consecutive comeback from conceding the first goal - and two of those comeback wins have been away from home.

More ominous, perhaps, unlike Colorado and Seattle - both sides in poor form when LA played them most recently - Dallas is a good team: a Shield contender (though that perception has taken a dent this week). This week's victory suggests LA's form is not contingent on demoralized opposition.

LA is in fearsome form - home and away - as the season kicks into its home stretch. And this is a team presumed to be still settling into the tactics required to get the best out of mid-season acquisitions Steven Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santos.

The Galaxy is doing that thing again: the thing where it is the best team in the league in time for the playoffs.

2. The Shield race is wide open

LA's seemingly irrepressible form has caught the eye in recent weeks, and allowed it to catch up with the leaders in a Supporters' Shield race that was threatening to narrow to just two realistic contenders: DC and Vancouver. After Week 24, in which both DC and Vancouver lost, it must be conceded the Shield race is wide open.

Points in hand count for more than games in hand, so D.C. United deserves respect for leading the race with 44 points from 26 games. But LA's win over Dallas puts the Galaxy just one point behind DC: 43 points from 26 games. Vancouver, loss to Sporting Kansas City notwithstanding, is in striking distance of both teams: 42 points from 25 games. And KC's win over the 'Caps - 4-3 after trailing by two goals heading into the last 10 minutes - was a reminder that Sporting has the best points per game average in the league (1.82) and the fewest losses (four). KC trails DC by just four points, with four games in hand.

That's a four-way Shield race. But if KC can arguably be called the favorite in the race with 40 points from 22 games, can the New York Red Bulls - 39 points from 23 games (and the league's longest active unbeaten streak - now at six games) - be counted out? No. RBNY is in this race too.

And if RBNY is in the race, FC Dallas - 38 points from 23 games - must surely be included. And Portland - level on points with RBNY (39) having played two games more (25) - should be acknowledged as having a shot. One more win and the Timbers are just two points behind DC's 26-game points total (44). Also, Portland will host KC twice and RBNY once before the season is out, as well as having a trip to LA still on its schedule. If the Timbers find form, they'll quickly be among the league's leaders.

So it's a seven-way race; DC, Vancouver, LA, KC, RBNY, Dallas, and Portland.

And Columbus, New England, Toronto, Montreal (only 28 points, but five games in hand on DC), and Seattle could plausibly insert themselves into the conversation if they go on a run over the next three or four games.

After Week 24, there are seven teams still in a close race for the Shield, and a total of 12 teams that are not deluding themselves about being in the hunt if results start to go their way in the run-in. Parity is in full effect in 2015.

3. Test of nerve ahead for Toronto

A concerning week for Toronto: the Reds were swept aside at Red Bull Arena - losing 3-0, despite having all their expensively acquired stars (Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley) in the starting lineup. It was Toronto's third loss in its last four games.

Last year, at a similar moment (10 or 11 games left to play) and in a similar position in the standings (one foot in the playoffs), TFC lost its mind. Coach Ryan Nelsen was jettisoned, Toronto picked up just eight points from its last 10 games - and missed the post-season by some distance.

At the time of Nelsen's firing, Toronto had accumulated 33 points from 24 games. Not good enough, said General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko (per Yahoo Sports):

We are in a results-oriented business, and over the past 13 matches, we've won three games. More important for our fans in Toronto, we've won one game in the past six matches ... I know we can get more out of this group of guys.

Bezbatchenko wasn't wrong about the team's trajectory: it had picked up 14 points from its last 13 games under Nelsen. (He was, ultimately, wrong about getting more out of the team.) Still, it seemed an odd moment to panic - and so it proved as Toronto slumped out of the playoff places and toward another year without a post-season.

Nelsen had Toronto at 9-9-6 after 24 games (33 points) when he was sacked. His replacement, Greg Vanney, has the 2015 Reds at 9-10-4 (31 points) after 23 games. If TFC doesn't win its next game, it will have accumulated fewer points from 24 games in 2015 than it did under Nelsen in 2014. Panic time again in Toronto?

Fortunately for TFC fans, it would appear not. The club is not showing signs of once more losing its nerve - despite the recent rumors suggesting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was being interviewed for the not-at-all vacant position of head coach - and the schedule is kind to TFC: eight of its remaining 11 games will be at home (it is worth remembering Toronto played its first seven games on the road and has played 14 of its 23 league matches to date away from home).

So the Reds should be able to close out from here (just as they were expected to be able to close out last year, but let that pass for now). They have games in hand on those below-the-line teams that are threatening to catch them in the standings. And they will have home advantage for most of the remainder of their regular season.

But the latest capitulation is a reminder that this Toronto team is fragile. It has a strong squad on paper, but the road-heavy schedule has weighed the team down: it has just two wins in its last nine games (but five in its last 13: presumably the reason Vanney is still head coach).

Last year, TFC let a promising season slip away in a moment of madness. This year, no one is expecting a repeat - but we watch to see if Toronto can live up to those expectations and glide into the playoffs for the first time in its history.

4. Obafemi Martins is the answer to the question of what will make Seattle win again

The Seattle Sounders regular season was derailed by US Open Cup. In one match on June 16, Seattle lost Obafemi Martins to injury and Clint Dempsey to a suspension that made his anticipated absence from the squad for Gold Cup even longer.

Up to June 13, the Sounders had played 15 games in MLS and won nine of them. They had 29 points - averaging almost two points per game. They were flying.

On June 20, absent Dempsey and Martins, the Sounders lost 2-0 at home to San Jose. They lost again on June 24 (1-0 to Philadelphia) and again on Jun 28 (4-1 to Portland). An 88th-minute goal afforded a 1-0 home win over DC on July 4, but that has been all the points Seattle has accumulated in the league since bombing out of USOC in mid-June.

In nine matches from June 20 to August 9, the Sounders lost eight games and won one. They scored three goals and conceded 16. They were terrible.

Dempsey returned at the beginning of August: Seattle lost 3-0 at home to Vancouver. He has since been hobbled by a hamstring injury, and the club has been dealing with a spate of injuries throughout the squad. Reinforcements have arrived in the form of Andreas Ivanschitz, Nelson Valdez and Roman Torres (and Erik Friberg, who was signed on June 29) - to strengthen both attack and defense.

And two of those players - Valdez and Torres - made their debuts for Seattle this week. They had immediate success: Valdez scored a goal, Torres had an assist and helped shut down an Orlando attack that didn't register a single shot on target. The Sounders won 4-0.

But the game-changing spark, the player who seized the match for Seattle and didn't let go until he was substituted in the 66th minute was Obafemi Martins. He scored the first and third goals, and missed a penalty in between. He was as dominating and electric as he had been before his injury.

So far this season, he has scored nine goals and provided four assists in just 12 appearances (11 starts) or 995 minutes. That's a scoring contribution every 77 minutes or so: he's good for more than a goal a game, effectively.

He might be the only player in the league capable of challenging the assumption that Sebastian Giovinco is this season's MVP: Martins has converted his nine goals from 26 shots - a scoring chance percentage of nearly 35%; Giovinco has 16 goals from 126 shots - i.e. 13% of his scoring chances have gone in (and three of those were penalties).

But more importantly for Martins and his Sounders, his team scored some goals and won some points this week. That is the habit they were in before June 16, and the habit they hope to return to now that Martins is returned to fitness.

One win (especially against rickety Orlando) doesn't mean Seattle's lamentable slump is over, but the team hasn't looked this dominant since it lost Martins - and the evidence of his return is that he is the player that transforms the Sounders from ordinary to extraordinary.

5. Colorado is not going to break the league's single-season record for tied games

The Colorado Rapids are not having a good season. A three-game winning streak in July has now given way to a three-game losing streak - the most recent loss being this week's 1-0 defeat by San Jose Earthquakes. It would seem the best the team can hope for this season is to find the nine points it needs to at least better its 2014 performance (8-18-8; 32 points).

A few months ago, it appeared as though the Rapids might be able to claim something extraordinary from this year: they started their season by drawing nine of their first 15 games, setting a pace to break Chicago Fire's single-season record for draws in the MLS regular season (18 - set last year).

It's not a great record, but it would provide some reason for the Rapids to regard this season as more than just a struggle not to be as bad as they were last season. Unfortunately, the chance to challenge Chicago looks lost. Colorado hasn't tied a league game since June 19: eight consecutive matches without a draw.

It is still mathematically possible for the Rapids to match or break the Fire's record:they have 11 games left to play and only need nine draws to tie Chicago's ties record, or 10 to claim it outright. But nine or 10 draws over 11 games is tremendously unlikely.

The prospect of a record-breaking season appears lost for the Rapids, as does making the playoffs (the team is currently 11 points behind sixth-placed Seattle in the Western Conference, with 11 games to play). Time to start planning for 2016, perhaps.