A topsy-turvy week in MLS produced a few surprises, perhaps the greatest of which was the revelation the race for the Supporters' Shield might be a little closer than expected. A little. Not a lot. But there's not much fun in forecasting a certainty, so now is the time to have a look at the race, while there are more than a few contenders.
For several months, it has looked like a two-horse race: Colorado or FC Dallas will win the Shield, and there's nothing any of the other teams in the league can do about it. Those two are still the favorites, but no longer prohibitively so. FCD has slipped a bit, as it tries to balance the league with CCL, US Open Cup, and the sudden defection of Fabian Castillo to Turkey. Colorado has slipped a lot, as it too-rarely scores more than a goal a game.
Slowly, other teams in the league have caught up. There aren't many games left to play in the season, and we can already rule out several clubs.
New England is already eliminated: it could win all its remaining games and still lose to FCD (if FCD didn't get another point, and no other team passed its current 48-point total) on tiebreakers. Columbus, Houston, and Chicago are a game or two away from joining the Revs.
The cut-off for making this list is "better off than Sporting Kansas City". KC has 38 points from 28 games. It has played more matches than any other team in the league, but sits just ninth in the Shield table - and 10th in the rankings by points-per-game average. KC seems to have too much to do to make up the 10 points that currently separate it from table-topping FCD. It's not impossible, but it's more than than this observer is willing to contemplate. So KC is the top of the teams deemed out of the Shield race.
Portland, DC and San Jose are all hoping to have KC's points total by the time they get to 28 games - so they're out. Seattle, Vancouver and Orlando are behind KC's pace, unable to get to 38 points in 28 games - so they're out.
For the purposes of this review, there are nine teams still chasing the Shield. Here's where they stand at the end of August:
1. FC Dallas
The most valuable asset in the Shield race is points, and FCD has more than anyone else. So FCD is clearly the front-runner. Recent form, however, has been uneven. But for the three-goal second half in Houston that gave Dallas a 3-1 comeback win this week, we'd be suggesting the team was faltering. As it is, it has been proven at least flawed. Its last three wins have been over Chicago, Vancouver, and Houston - all troubled teams in one way or another.
In its remaining seven games, FCD must play Colorado (its closest challenger), RSL (the team that beat it two weeks ago), and LA twice (the Galaxy is the Galaxy - rarely a weak opponent, especially as playoffs approach).
Perhaps more importantly, FCD also has other competitions to consider. Between Colorado's visit on September 10 and a trip to NYCFC on September 17, Dallas has the US Open Cup on September 13. It probably wants to win that game, which might mean key players get rested for the league games before or after. Or both.
And it still has two CONCACAF Champions League games to play. FCD's biggest upcoming pressure is its own success: it has more games to fit in between now and the end of the season than most of its rivals for the Shield. Squad depth will be tested as much as ambition over the next couple of months.
Key Stretch: September 10-17.
See where FCD stands after the week of the US Open Cup final. It will still have four league games left, and two CCL matches to play - and it might have a new trophy. Whether that trophy is won at the cost of sinking back into the chasing pack in the Shield race is the question.
The Rapids have two games in hand on FCD - and if they win those games, they'll have more points than FCD.
Well, those games in hand won't actually be played until October. Until then, however, Colorado can loom in FCD's rear-view, just tracking its prey until it is time to pounce.
The problem with that plan is Colorado doesn't win nearly enough games. It has won just twice in the league in its last 10 matches. It doesn't lose much either - the loss to RSL on August 26 was only the the fourth time the Rapids have been beaten in MLS all season.
But it is hard to sell the idea that Colorado can match FCD's points tally in September, and then glide into the outright lead in the Shield race in October. In the Rapids' last 10 games, they have picked up 12 points. FCD has won 20 points in its last 10. The reason Dallas is leading the race is because Colorado has faltered.
And the Rapids play three of their four games in September on the road. Including one in Dallas - a six-pointer at least, in the context of the chase for the Shield.
So Colorado has the opportunity to win the league this year. But it may not quite have the necessary tools to accelerate down the stretch as required.
Key Stretch: October 8-13.
The two games Colorado will play in this span (at Houston on October 8 and hosting San Jose on October 13) will finally give the Rapids the same number of games played as Dallas. And if the Rapids are still in the race, their final two matches (at Portland on October 16 and vs Houston on October 23) look a little easier to deal with than those of FCD (vs hot-and-cold Seattle and at LA).
3. Toronto FC
But that Montreal result might just have been a blip. Toronto will play five of its remaining seven league games at home. And its two away matches are in Chicago and Montreal. The match against L'Impact might be another banana skin, but that isn't until October 16. TFC has five very winnable games to play before then - and it will be front runner for the Shield if it does get back to the form it was in before Montreal spoiled its streak.
Key Stretch: September 18 to October 1.
Four consecutive home games against fragile Eastern Conference opponents: RBNY (hapless on the road), Philly (sometimes good, sometimes bad), Orlando and DC (battling to be the best of the bottom half of the East). Win all of those, and TFC will surely be in the mix for the Shield.
RSL's last two league games were against Dallas and Colorado - and it won both. That, plus a competitive points total, is why Salt Lake is clearly a Shield contender.
Its problem has been the MLS-usual uneven road form, and a tendency to tie a few too many games at home. But the latter issue seems to have been fixed: RSL has won its last three games in Utah. And it plays two Shield-challengers at home before the season is out: LA on September 7 and Dallas (again) on September 24. It can be a spoiler at the very least. And if its road form picks up, RSL will rapidly become a favorite to win the league.
Key Stretch: September 7-10.
The time for RSL to assert itself is now. It has beaten FCD and the Rapids in its last two games. Beat a third Western Conference heavyweight - LA Galaxy - at home on September 7, and there can be no ignoring RSL's claim. Then win a game on the road - in Portland on September 10 - and the September 24 game against FCD will start to look like a title fight.
NYCFC has one of the easier run-ins on paper. Over its remaining seven league games, it has to play just one against a team on this list: FCD (at home) on September 17.
Once A Metro spends most of its time focused on RBNY, and therefore has perhaps found it hard to credit the idea that the team the Red Bulls hammered 7-0 this season is a title contender. But NYCFC is a title contender.
Its principal advantage is it doesn't seem to matter whether NYCFC plays at home or away: it is equally capable of getting its points in either situation. So far this season, the newer New York team has won 20 points at Yankee Stadium and 21 on its travels.
And it will spend most of the rest of the season playing teams (New England, Chicago, Columbus, Houston) that have struggled to pick up points either at home or away.
NYCFC's weaknesses are reflected by its last result: it lost 2-1 to Orlando (on the road). It's a tough team to forecast. Just when it seems to be reliably bad, it starts winning. And when it seems to be good, it stumbles. In its last four games, it has tied San Jose and Columbus, lost to OCSC, but beaten LA.
NYCFC could crash out of contention by mid-September, or be holding its first trophy at the end of October. Neither would be a great shock.
Key Stretch: September 17-23.
Back-to-back home games against FC Dallas (9/17) and Chicago (9/23) should determine whether NYCFC really has what is necessary to stay the course in this race. It will be the first team to test whether Dallas has any hangover from US Open Cup (the final is 9/13). FCD then has to tussle with RSL on the road, while NYCFC greets one of the lowest-ranked teams in the league. There's a chance to make up six points on Dallas in this stretch, if NYCFC is up to it.
6. LA Galaxy
LA has a game in hand on all the teams above it but Colorado. It has the best goal difference in the league. And is tied with the Rapids for the fewest losses (four). The Galaxy's problem is it hasn't won in MLS since July 23. It is currently on a six-game winless streak, and it has only won four of its last 17 league outings - and all four came together in a streak in July.
So the Galaxy needs to start winning again. It can live with the best teams in the league, and it will play Dallas twice before the end of the season. But for those games to have any Shield-race significance, LA needs some points now. It's already eight points behind FCD - two matches in October won't be enough to close that gap.
Key Stretch: September 3-11.
In a nine-day stretch, LA will play three times. And two of those games will against visiting teams from the East Coast. Struggling teams: Columbus and Orlando. In between is a mettle-testing trip to RSL. After those three matches, we'll know if LA is in this race for real.
Hush now. Atrocious as they are on the road, the Red Bulls aren't that far off the Shield pace. Making up eight points on FCD in just seven games will take some doing, but RBNY is currently nine games unbeaten in MLS - picking up 17 points in that stretch. It will probably need at least another 17 from the remaining seven to really challenge for the Shield, but it is one of the teams that could benefit if the current leaders start to stumble.
Key Stretch: September 3-24.
Whatever happens to RBNY in the rest of this season, it will have to go through Canada to find out. Over four matches in September, the Red Bulls will play all three of the Canadian teams in MLS: Vancouver away on 9/3, Toronto away on 9/18, and Montreal at home on 9/24.
That run won't decide if this season is good or bad - there should be a post-season to make that call - but it will likely decide whether RBNY is still technically defending its 2015 Shield title in October, or has dropped out of the race.
About a week ago, the Union was clearly dreadful. It had lost three of its last five games, and won just once in that run. Now, Philly has won two games inside a week, and can say it has won three of its last four MLS matches. So now Philly is good again.
Its chances of making a real run at FCD and the Shield seem more remote than most on this list because it has to play four of its next five games on the road. And it only has two matches left after that brutal run. The Union has only won three road games in the league all season - and two of those were against Columbus. The third was against New England, in the midst of the Revs' current five-losses-in-six-games spiral.
Philly has the longest of shots at getting out of September with even a mathematical chance of winning the Shield. But it's in the conversation now, which is was not expected as recently as last week.
Key Stretch: September 17-October 1.
Back-to-back-to-back road games. First, Portland on 9/17. Then Toronto on 9/24. Then RBNY on 10/1. To have any chance at all of being in the Shield mix in the final weeks of the season, Philly needs to spring some surprises on that three-game road trip.
L'Impact is only on this list because it has a game in hand on Philly and RBNY. And if it wins that game in hand, it has the same points total as those two alleged Shield contenders.
Its form is all over the place. Montreal just went to Toronto and beat the best team in the East, if not the league, with 10 men. A week earlier, it lost 3-0 to Chicago - at home. Some days L'Impact seems to be the best in MLS. Other days, it looks a lot like the worst.
It has been that way all season, so there's little reason to believe it will change. Montreal looks headed for a low seed in the playoffs and that's all it needs. It is a team built more for post-season speed than league comfort. But if L'Impact can muster a little consistency in the run-in, it is still theoretically capable of bouncing up the table and into position to challenge for the Shield.
Key Stretch: September 7-10.
Make that game in hand count. Montreal is only in this conversation because it has an extra game to play, and that extra game needs to be won - at home against Orlando on September 7. And then so does the next one, since it is on the road against Philly, and the Union is a rival in this race and the (more realistic) hunt for a high seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.