1. The Supporters' Shield race has become the playoffs (if the playoffs were a race to 57 points)
We've known the Shield race would be a sprint for some time. This week, it threatened to turn into a stumble: all the front-runners lost.
In the East, the New York Red Bulls went to New England in midweek, and got beat, 2-1, in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the scoreline makes it sound. The Revs then went to Montreal at the weekend and were thrashed, 3-0. D.C. United - a fading force in both the Shield and Eastern Conference title races - welcomed (at the time) fourth-placed Columbus Crew to RFK Stadium, and lost 2-1.
Over in the Western Conference, Vancouver - the top team in the league, still - was drubbed at home, losing 3-0 to Seattle. Second-in-the-West FC Dallas lost on the road to Sporting Kansas City (3-1). LA Galaxy, the third-best team in the West and MLS Cup favorites for many observers, was thumped, 3-0, in Salt Lake.
All told, the top eight teams in MLS mustered three wins between them in Week 29. Two of those (New England's against RBNY and the Crew's over DC) were wins over one of their own. Forced to step outside the pack of MLS's supposed elite, they were all generally terrible. At least until Sunday, when RBNY picked itself up and slapped down the Timbers in Portland, tiptoeing past its rivals to finish Week 29 at the top of the East and second in the Shield race on tiebreakers.
But we've heard this story before: this is MLS parity at work. And parity has been particularly hard to shake all season. The projected winning total - using the method favored by this column - has hovered below 60 points for weeks. Most of the time, the target seems to be around 57 or 58 points. This week, it's 57.
That target is reached by the simple method of looking at the remaining games of the points leader in the Shield race and projecting its end-of-season total if it averaged 1.5 points per game for the rest of the season. Most teams in MLS tend to win at home and lose away, so 1.5 ppg is "par" - it's average form. Regression to the mean is a near-inevitability, we are told. The "par" forecast assumes such regression is just around the corner for any front-runner.
Right now, Vancouver and RBNY are level on points at the top of the table, but the Red Bulls have a game in hand. We calculate the "par" score for the Shield using RBNY's remaining games, because they have more matches available to pile up points. Currently on 48 points with six games left to play, the Red Bulls' will finish the year with 57 points if they can manage to simply win one and lose one for the rest of the season.
Everyone else is therefore chasing 57, at least until a team gets to 57. That means for most contenders, the Shield race is flat-out sprint. There are 10 clubs still mathematically capable of reaching 57 (or more) points. Seattle and DC (45 points with four games left) need to win out to get there: count them as long-shots right now. Montreal also needs to win out to reach 57, with seven games to play: even longer shot.
New England can get to 58 with four wins from its remaining four games. LA and Columbus can get to 57 merely by winning three of their last four matches and drawing the other. More forgiving chances than the aforementioned long-shots, but not by much. The Revs, Galaxy and Crew are not true contenders at the moment, but they could move into position if other results go their way.
But those six teams will drop out of contention if the four better-placed sides keep winning.
The furthest back of the four main challengers for the Shield is Sporting KC, with 44 points from 28 games played to date. To get to 57 requires 13 points from 18 remaining: four wins and draw in six games. Doable, for sure - just not quite as doable as nine points from 18, which is what RBNY needs to get to 57.
But the margin for error is slim: if the Red Bulls lose their next game and KC wins, for example, then RBNY need nine points from 15 games left, and KC is looking for 10 out of 15. The Shield race is quite delicately poised, still.
FC Dallas only needs 10 from the 18 remaining points it will play for, and Vancouver needs nine from the five games it has left. And that is just to get to 57. Any of the top four contenders could still peel away from the pack with a two or three game run of wins, putting themselves on track from a 60+ point season.
In a nutshell, it's a three-horse race at the moment (between RBNY, Vancouver and Dallas), with KC poised to muscle in if it can sustain better-than-average form. And there are six other sides that could insert themselves into the race for the Shield if they can win all their remaining games while the top four contenders slump precipitously.
But with so few games remaining, a couple of losses in a row counts as a potentially fatal slump in form. It is basically win-or-go home time for 10 teams chasing the Supporters' Shield. There's about a month left to run in the regular season, and we should start to see contenders dropping out of the race almost every week from here on out (unless they all contrive to lose to worse-placed opponents simultaneously, as they did this week).
A month-long competition between 10 teams; winners stay in the hunt, losers (for the most part) drop out; the field narrowing as each week passes; the stakes rising for those remaining: the Shield race has turned into the playoffs.
2. RBNY is the first team in 2015 to clinch a playoff spot, and could be the second team also
Thanks to all the good teams being bad this week, RBNY went into its second game of Week 29 with the possibility of being the first team in MLS 2015 to clinch a playoff spot. Three points later, the Red Bulls were indeed the first team this season to secure their place in the post-season. They now have the rare opportunity to clinch the next post-season berth in the playoffs as well.
In Week 30, the midweek games - Montreal vs. Chicago and Houston vs. KC - do not have playoff-clinching implications. But the Friday-night match, featuring RBNY and Orlando, does.
OCSC is currently seventh in the East: one place (and one point, though sixth-placed Montreal has three games in hand) outside the playoff places. It won't be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for a while, and might even sneak into the post-season if it wins all or most of its remaining games and gets a heavy helping of luck in the form of a Montreal collapse in form.
But Orlando's maximum end-of-season points total is 47. None of the teams below OCSC in the table can reach 47. Columbus Crew currently has 47 points. The Crew can become the second team in MLS 2015 to be guaranteed post-season soccer on Friday, September 25 - and they won't have to kick a ball to do it.
If OCSC drops any points to RBNY on Friday, the Crew has clinched a playoff spot. Or rather, the Red Bulls will have clinched a playoff spot - this time for Columbus - for the second week running.
3. NYCFC almost certainly won't make the playoffs, but it will impact the post-season
The tenants of Yankee Stadium won twice in Week 29. Frank Lampard scored a goal. Andrea Pirlo got assists. Ned Grabavoy effectively won a game by himself. This is the NYCFC we were supposed to be seeing all season.
Maybe. Winning at home in MLS is the first step to being a good team. Winning away is a much more difficult proposition - and NYCFC will play three of its remaining four games on the road. And the maximum points total it can achieve is 46 points, which probably isn't sufficient to make the playoffs ("par" for sixth-placed Montreal right now is 10.5 points - or 46.5 by the end of the season, if 0.5 points were possible; which it isn't, so let's call it 47).
RBNY and Columbus are already out of NYCFC's reach (48 and 47 points, respectively). New England (46) and DC (45) are close to being the same. Realistically, NYCFC is chasing Toronto (40 points from 29 games) and Montreal (36 from 27 played) - and it plays neither of them in its last four games.
All the Tenants can do is keep winning and keep hoping. If they are successful, win pretty much all the matches they have left to play, and other results fall kindly - maybe they make the playoffs. But it's an improbable dream.
Regardless, NYCFC will have a say in the perceived success or failure of several other teams. It has Vancouver, DC, Orlando, and New England left to play. With the possible exception of Orlando (who could be out of the playoff hunt by the time it plays NYC on October 16), each of those teams will be playing for something when facing New York's blue team.
For Vancouver, next week, it will be holding on to first place in the West and the Shield race. For DC and New England, it will most likely be playoff positioning, possibly the Eastern Conference title, and even an outside chance at the Shield.
If NYC's Week 29 success proves illusory, it will help all three opponents toward their respective goals. If it is indeed suddenly finding the sort of form it had hoped for from the get-go this season, it will set back the ambitions of some post-season contenders. Curiously, from the perspective of RBNY fans, since the Red Bulls are competing with Vancouver in the Shield race and DC and the Revs in the Eastern Conference, it is conceivably time to start rooting for NYCFC to win out.
Whatever happens, NYCFC finally seems to have what it hoped for out of this season: a competitive squad playing meaningful matches all the way to end of its schedule. Those matches will just be more meaningful to the opposition (and its cross-river rival) than to NYCFC.
4. Sebastian Giovinco is going to break a record
Per MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle
Record is 34 (27g, 7a) by Wondo in 2012. Giovinco now 2 back (19g, 13a). https://t.co/OzQSol3a1G
— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) September 19, 2015
That was before Giovinco added an assist to his tally in Toronto's 3-1 win over Colorado. He is now one goal or assist shy of tying the record for most combined goals and assists in a single season. And two from setting a new mark in his first year in the league.
With five games to play and given Giovinco's free-scoring role in TFC's tactical set-up, it seems imprudent to bet against him.
He will break the record. At the very least, he will match it. And that record should end all argument over the identity of this season's MVP.
For the same reasons Bradley Wright-Phillips should have won last year's MVP award: exceptional performance is a decisive measure of value. Like BWP last season, Giovinco's ability to fulfill his role at the highest level the league has ever known is pulling his entire team up with him. Like BWP last season, his team would be in danger of sinking into irrelevance without the spark he provides. Unlike BWP last season, very few seem to be inclined to even attempt to make a serious argument against his MVP credentials.
There isn't a player in MLS this year who so consistently makes the difference for his team the way Giovinco does for TFC. Giovinco is the league MVP, whether he sets a new single-season goals and assists record or not. But he's almost certainly going to do so, and that should settle what little debate remains about his qualifications for the award.
5. Sebastian Le Toux joins the MLS 50/50 club
Hat-tip to reddit user drewuke for the heads up.
That's Sebastien Le Toux's 50th MLS assist. Welcome to @MLSAnalyst's 50-50 club (52 goals).
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) September 20, 2015
It was a good week for another of MLS's Sebastian's: Philly's Le Toux set up Tranquillo Barnetta for the opening goal of what became the Union's 2-0 win over Houston. It also won Le Toux entry to an elite club of players who have scored at least 50 goals and tallied at least 50 assists in a career's worth of MLS regular season play.
It is one measure of all-around attacking prowess, paired with a long enough stint in the league to post significant numbers in both categories. The full list, drawn from mlssoccer.com's stats archive:
|Goals + Assists
|Dwayne De Rosario
|Sebastian Le Toux
Le Toux is the 16h player to join the club. It will likely be at least a year before the number swells to 20.
Of active players, Robbie Keane appears the next most-likely candidate to hit 50/50: he has 68 goals and 42 assists in his MLS regular season career to date. He'll likely reach 50 assists sometime next year, assuming he stays in the league. Javier Morales (45 goals and 76 assists) and Davy Arnaud (50 goals and 46 assists) are also within a typical season by their standards of joining the club - if they don't retire first. After that, there a number of players who might put themselves close to the 50/50 mark with a high-scoring season.
But it is a rare achievement, and likely to remain that way for a while. Congratulations, Sebastian.