• Columbus, DC and Houston chase playoff places
• Dallas and Vancouver suffer setbacks
• Cascadia Cup comes to the boil
• New England, Philadelphia and Toronto fall flat
1. Zusi gives Sporting a chance
Sporting Kansas City took a huge step towards capturing the Eastern conference crown for the second time in as many years on Friday night, thanks to a 2-0 win over Midwest rivals Chicago.
Their push back to the top of the pile in the East won't have surprised many, yet after their exhilarating start to the 2012 season – seven wins in seven games – Sporting dropped off the pace and many questioned their title credentials. But with a win against the league's form team at a packed Livestrong Sporting Park – the game attracted a record crowd, of 20,010 – comes renewed confidence that KC will be seeing the MLS Cup arrive in December.
Injuries, untimely absences and a lack of ability in front of goal have threatened to derail SKC's season at times. But at the worst of times Sporting were hard to beat and every team that visits LSP feels grateful if it walks away with anything more than a point.
The star shining brightly as SKC aim to add another star above the badge on their sky-blue jerseys is US international midfielder Graham Zusi. It has been quite a month for the University of Maryland product, who played all but one minute of the team's unbeaten run in September. Zusi also starred for Jurgen Klinsmann's US side in a crucial World Cup qualifying win against Jamaica, staking his claim for a regular spot in midfield.
Zusi's 2012 MLS stats are impressive. He has scored the same number of goals, five, and doubled his number of assists – a league leading 14 – from last season. Zusi is hungry to improve those stats in postseason.
"In no way are we satisfied with just what we've done so far," he said. "We want to win the Eastern Conference, possibly make a shot at the Supporters' Shield and then make a run at the MLS Cup as well."
Zusi's creativity and nous on the ball are underrated. And though many top European clubs are interested in the abrasive panache of Sporting's holding midfielder, Roger Espinoza, Peter Vermes will have a job on his hands to keep the young Floridian from flying the nest next.
Zusi has grown with Sporting and alongside Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and CJ Sapong he helps maintain an attacking core that is feared across the league. The power, strength and speed of Bunbury, Kamara and Sapong are well known, but the seam that holds them together is Zusi. His range of passing, his expert set-piece delivery and his ability to ghost in unmarked to solidify or enhance attacks is remarkable. At 26, he is approaching his prime and Sporting are the lucky beneficiaries.
With Zusi backed by a wonderful defense marshaled by the Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen – who is on course to record the lowest season goals-against average in franchise history (0.81), having produced a league-best 14th shutout of 2012 – Sporting prevailed without much perspiration on Friday night, under the eyes of the nation on NBC Sports. They are now unbeaten in nine.
They won't face many tougher tests than the in-form Fire and now the biggest obstacle for Sporting will be themselves. If they can take that awful feeling of missing out on the 2011 MLS Cup at the final hurdle and turn it into a positive, two stars will be on show above the badge on the 2013 edition of Sporting Kansas City jerseys.
2. Eastern promise
Elsewhere, its a case of as you were in the Eastern conference, after a weekend of high drama saw Houston, Columbus and DC United continue their scrap for the final two playoff spots.
There's no doubting that DC have the upper hand with just three games remaining. They have 51 points from 31 games, Houston are on 49 from 31 and Columbus are one place outside the playoffs, a point behind the Dynamo.
The Crew showed just how badly they want to make the postseason, with a gutsy display against the Union. The late winner – the Crew are fast becoming the San Jose of the East, with their last five game-winners all coming after the 86th minute – was much disputed, after Milovan Mirosevic slotted home from an offside position. The Crew deserved all three points – they led 2-0 before Philadelphia initiated a valiant comeback, before Mirosevic struck to keep Columbus' playoff dreams alive. They are unbeaten at home in seven matches, winning their last five in a row, and with two of their final three games at Crew Stadium they have to fancy their chances.
Their late-season surge is worthy of a place in the playoffs. A consistent year from DC and Houston may be just as worthy but the Crew is a team peaking at the right time and they have a talismanic attacker in fine form, in Gonzalo Higuain. A deep run in the playoffs isn't out of the question.
As for DC, they are stumbling towards the finishing line. Much like Vancouver out West, United were flying in the first half of the season but they have huffed and puffed offensively since the All-Star break and losing Dwayne De Rosario to injury was a big blow. It was definitely a case of a point gained after the 1-1 tie with Portland on Saturday.
Chris Pontius' back must already be sore after taking on the role of head honcho from DeRo. Pontius carries United's hopes of winning a record fourth MLS Cup, and his controversial penalty to put United ahead against Portland was his 12th goal of the year. Surely a US national team call-up is on the horizon. DC will need their main man to keep coming up trumps, with two of their last three games away from RFK. All season United have struggled on the road but they have picked up four points from their last two away games, so Ben Olsen will be hoping that trend continues.
Then there's Houston. Every season they seem to time their run just right, and 2012 may be no different. Defender Bobby Boswell sums up Houston's mentality after their hard-fought 2-0 win over the New England Revolution on Saturday.
"We weren't going to give up any goals in the back and guys were getting the ball wide and bombing the box," he said. "We're tough at home for a reason. Sometimes it ain't the prettiest, but all that matters is that we're still undefeated and we're getting wins and that's what we need to do, and that's the most important thing."
Boswell's bullishness bodes well, but Houston have won just three of their last nine matches and they trail second-placed New York by four points, after the Red Bulls dispatched Toronto 4-1 thanks to a Thierry Henry master class. Yet Houston are still unbeaten at BBVA Compass Stadium and with the trusty 4-4-2 system appearing against the Revs, Dom Kinnear is fine tuning his team for another late jolt at an MLS Cup. Their remaining games, against Montreal, Philadelphia and Colorado, constitute an extremely favorable schedule, and it seems inconceivable that the playoffs won't come to BBVA in its MLS first season.
3. Dallas blasted, Vancouver subdued
Within the first 15 minutes of Dallas's game against San Jose on Saturday night, Schellas Hyndman knew a win for his side would put them in the playoff places for the first time since late April. But though Vancouver dropped points after a 0-0 tie with Seattle, the Texas side failed to take advantage. Dallas were two minutes plus stoppage time away from controlling their own destiny down the stretch, but it all fell apart in injury time, the match finishing 3-3.
Hyndman was livid in his post-match press conference, lambasting elementary defensive errors. His harsh words exemplified the extreme pressure Dallas is under.
"To be up twice and to give up goals of that nature, it's shit," he said. "The ball is up in the air, coming down, people are physically knocking you over. What are you going to do? We don't have the size to match. We're very disappointed. The goals we've given up, you guys see it. It's just knocking balls into the box. Continue knocking balls into the box, and if you don't get to the first ball, you'll get to the second one. Maybe we'll get some good officiating and continue to score three goals."
The incredible late 3-3 tie with SJ was a sickening blow for Dallas. Steven Lenhart popped up late yet again to prove that yes, we get it, "the Goonies never say die", but seriously – San Jose's exploits are beyond belief. The Supporters' Shield favorites have scored 12 game-tying or -winning goals in the 82nd minute or later this year. Dallas aren't the first side to came unstuck late on against the 'Quakes, but that didn't make it any easier for the Texas outfit to swallow.
However Dallas' late capitulation played out perfectly for Vancouver. The 'Caps occupy the final playoff spot in the West, two points ahead of Dallas with three games to go. But after a wonderful start to the campaign the Whitecaps are limping across the line.
The Whitecaps' revolving-door policy regarding attacking talent hasn't helped. Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli and Davide Chiumineto left midseason, with Kenny Miller, Barry Robson and Dane Richards arriving in their place. You could argue Vancouver are better off after those trades but it takes time for new signings to bed in and the disjointed nature of recent displays proves that. In spurts the 'Caps have looked outstanding, stringing multiple passes together in the final third – but they have lacked the killer blow.
They have been solid defensively all year, but that spark of magic has evaded them. With Darren Mattocks injured just before halftime of the energy-sapping tie with Seattle, a potential match-winner could be out down the all-important stretch. That might cheer-up Schellas Hyndman.
Vancouver plays two of its last three at home, however, and they have at least racked up an impressive 7-2-4 record at BC Place. Next up is Chivas USA, followed by a massive match with Portland. Portland would love to scupper their Cascadia rivals' playoff hopes. A daunting trip to RSL rounds off Vancouver's season and they'll be hoping an offensive spark returns way before that trip to Rio Tinto.
4. What's up with the Cascadia Cup?
After that scoreless Cascadia match between Seattle and Vancouver on Saturday, the door has been left wide open for Portland to salvage their season and win a third Cascadia Cup in the last four years. The Timbers just need to win against Seattle on 7 October. But has the heat been turned up for this year's version of arguably the biggest MLS rivalry?
Not really. Yes, off the pitch the various supporters groups have made the games wonderful spectacles, full of color, tifos, vibrant chants and passion that is unrivalled across the US soccer spectrum. But on the pitch it's been a bit of a let down.
Vancouver snatching a late draw against Portland (with Darren Mattocks scoring his first MLS goal) back in May has probably been the Cascadia highlight so far. There have been four draws in the seven games so far and Seattle's 2-0 win over Vancouver was the only game to be decided by more than one goal.
Seattle and the 'Caps played out a tentative affair at the weekend, the Sounders sealing their playoff spot and reducing Vancouver to speculative efforts and route-one soccer.
However, one thing has unquestionably been better this season – the quality of the play. Vancouver and Seattle have been incumbents of the top five in the West almost from start to finish. While Portland's playoff hopes all but vanished on Saturday, their raucous supporters have lifted them for every Cascadia Cup match.
In 2011 this wasn't the case, with the 'Caps struggling at the foot of the West, Portland failing to make the playoffs and Seattle doing their usual routine of making the postseason but bailing out at the first hurdle. This year there has been so much at stake for all the teams that closely fought encounters have been the flavor of Cascadia.
The passion on show has been relentless and given the Timbers' lackluster displays against pretty much every other side so far this season, they're really the only team determined to win this piece of silverware. Gavin Wilkinson's side know that a win against Seattle will make them the kings of the Pacific Northwest. They have nothing to lose and no postseason to worry about and the players have an owner, future backroom staff and most importantly the fans to impress ahead of the 2013 season. Ruling the roost in Cascadia will repair some of the damage for the Timbers, if not all of it, as they look longingly at their nearest rivals' exploits in the 2012 playoffs.
5. Three teams fall in the East
With teams in both conferences shuffling and sweating on making the playoffs, some sides can only dream of being in that situation.
A season that started with extreme hope for Toronto FC, Philadelphia and New England ended over the weekend, their playoffs hopes finally extinguished. In the West Portland, Chivas USA and Colorado (after their 1-1 tie with LA on Sunday night) are clinging on to faint hopes of mathematical miracles.
For the Eastern teams, the main problem has been scoring goals. The Union have a conference-worst 31 goals, Toronto have bagged 35 and the Revolution 37. Philadelphia and New England at least have steady defensive records, conceding just 36 and 43 respectively.
But has their cautious approach been worthwhile? In the long term, it may pay dividends. Jay Heaps and John Hackworth are finding their feet in their first MLS seasons as head coaches, their playing philosophies are developing and you could see New England becoming more adventurous as the season wore on. Losing their main striker, Jerry Bengston, during the Olympics didn't help but at least the Revs had a "go to" man.
That was something the Union severely lacked. Danny Mwanga and Sébastien le Toux were traded, as was Lionard Pajoy (who never really found his feet at PPL Park) and they were replaced by players already at the club. Freddy Adu has been sublime in parts but consistency isn't his finest trait. Jack McInerney is a great prospect but without another striker to feed off he has been frozen out of many games since Hackworth took charge. A top-notch No9 must be the focus in the offseason.
Defensively the Union is sound, with a hugely talented crop of youngsters leading the way. They're very much DC circa 2010-11. Until DeRo arrived, United were a rudderless ship. Philadelphia need a similar talisman, well versed in generating offense, to give their attacks more purpose and put them back on track.
As for New England, Heaps has brought a new flavor to Gillette Stadium. His reliance on dipping into the South and Central American markets has produced some gems, with Bengston and Fernando Cardenas shining. Yet defensive errors have been an issue at crucial moments on several occasions. Wins against LA, New York and Chicago show that New England can beat anyone.
In Toronto, Paul Mariner won't be feeling the same. The Reds haven't deviated much from their inexcusable start to the season under Aron Winter. Mariner's task in the offseason will be to clear house and start again. Whether he's given the chance to do that is another matter.
With those three out of the race in the East, we're sure to write a similarly damning piece very soon on the sides struggling out West. But for now, Colorado, Portland and Chivas are hoping for a road into the playoffs that seems improbable – even more so than Europe's unbelievable Ryder Cup comeback at Medinah.