Monday Postgame: Contenders make their move in Week 26

Monday Postgame: Sept. 3

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You may recall that this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another, came from back in the pack, surging dramatically down the stretch to pass the leader and win both races.

Those events come to mind as we enter the stretch run of Major League Soccer’s 17th season, and a pair of late closers have emerged, one in each conference, charging into contention from off the pace.

They’re chasing a pair of teams looking to go wire to wire (more or less) in both conferences, and they’re shuffling the playoff pecking order.

In the East, where only 11 points separate first from seventh place, multiple clubs are jockeying for position as they pound down the straightaway. The picture is a little clearer in the West, but final places remain up in the air, and one club is falling off the pace as the finish line approaches.

Sound the bugle; we start in Columbus.

Thoroughbred

Look back on the fairly brief, somewhat checkered history of the Designated Player in Major League Soccer, and ask yourself if a DP has ever made the kind of instant impact

WATCH: Crew top Montreal

that Columbus’ Federico Higuaín is making right now.

The 27-year-old Argentine has three goals and six assists in five games with the Crew, and is almost single-handedly leading their charge up the Eastern Conference standings.

On Wednesday night against Philadelphia, he express-delivered a free kick to the head of teammate Josh Williams for the Crew’s first goal, and then, after Williams had been sent off, reducing Columbus to 10 men for the final 22 minutes of the game, Higuain orchestrated Eddie Gaven’s unlikely stoppage-time winner.

More of the same followed on Saturday night at Crew Stadium, where Columbus hosted Montreal in a matchup of the hottest two teams in the East. The Crew had won three straight, Montreal five, and the clubs were tied on 39 points, battling for playoff contention.

Higuaín looped in a pair of crosses to set up both Columbus goals in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory. The result ran the Crew’s unbeaten run to six games and put them in fifth place in the East, level on points with Houston and one point ahead of D.C. United, with a game in hand on both.

LA Express

While Columbus have been charging for six games now, LA have been gaining ground since June, following a miserably slow, 3-8-2 start to the season.

After Saturday night’s comfortable 2-0 win over Vancouver — courtesy of sweet strikes from Juninho and David Beckham — the Galaxy are 10-3-2 in their last 15 games, with seven shutouts in that span.

READ: Beckham surprises himself with goal output

Vancouver, on the other hand, are faltering; they failed to put a shot on goal against LA while stumbling to a fourth straight loss. They’re still hanging on to the fifth and final playoff berth, but have dropped below .500 (10-11-7).

Pacesetters

As the conference packs shuffle behind them, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose continue to set the pace, with neither one breaking stride in Week 26.

Kansas City rallied from a 1-0 deficit to clip last-place Toronto 2-1, getting the winner in the 87th minute from newcomer (and former Barcelona youth product) Oriol Rosell.

WATCH: Quakes hammer Chivas USA

Yet despite outshooting Toronto 24-6 and controlling 71.1 percent of possession, SKC were fortunate to get the full three points. Rosell’s goal slipped through TFC keeper Freddy Hall’s hands, and the Reds’ Ryan Johnson, who scored in the 44th minute, hit the post in the 49th, before Luis Silva forced an acrobatic save from Jimmy Nielsen in the 78th.

San Jose gave up a few dangerous chances to Chivas USA on Sunday, but their 4-0 win was about as decisive as the scoreline suggests. A pair of free kicks by Ramiro Corrales, one from Victor Bernardez and a strike from the run of play by Simon Dawkins did the damage, locking down the Quakes’ third win in their past four games.

San Jose, who have scored a club-record 56 goals this season (with seven games to play), are seven points clear of Real Salt Lake in the West, and three ahead of SKC in the Supporters’ Shield race.

Medium Odds

Four points behind Kansas City in the race for the Shield are the Red Bulls, who rallied for their second consecutive away draw last Wednesday, tying D.C. United at RFK courtesy of Wilman Conde’s 88th-minute golazo.

United followed up that tie-that-felt-like-a-loss with an actual loss, albeit a hard-fought one, at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. The 1-0 defeat wrapped up a stretch of five games in 14 days for D.C., during which they gathered only five points and tumbled to sixth place in the East, one point out of the fifth and final playoff berth.

WATCH: Nyarko wastes no time vs. Houston

Fellow East contenders Houston also had cause to be weary this weekend: their 3-1 loss in Chicago on Sunday was their second game in three days, following Thursday’s 1-1 draw at Honduran side CD Olimpia in CONCACAF Champions League play.

The Chicago result extended Houston’s MLS winless streak to four games and lifted the Fire into third place in the East, two points ahead of the Dynamo.

The third-place team in the West, Seattle, traveled to FC Dallas Stadium on Sunday for a game that marked winger Steve Zakuani’s return to the starting lineup for the first time since April 2011, when he suffered a horrendous broken leg in a match against Colorado.

READ: Zakuani makes huge progress in first start

The speedy former Arsenal Academy product did not disappoint, setting up Mauro Rosales for Seattle’s goal in a 1-1 draw that pulled the reins on Dallas’ playoff push.

With Vancouver’s loss to LA, FCD had a chance to pull within two points of the Whitecaps and the fifth and final playoff spot. As it stands now, they’re four points behind with five games to play.

Also-Rans

New England have seven games to play, but even if they were to win them all, they’d be hard pressed to make the postseason. The Revs had another tough week, giving up two goals to former club icon Shalrie Joseph in a 3-3 draw with Chivas USA on Wednesday, then slogging to a 0-0 result against Philadelphia on Saturday to run their winless streak to 10 games.

The club also lost leading scorer Saer Sene to a torn ACL during the Chivas game.

Fellow strugglers Portland topped Colorado 1-0 in a battle of Western Conference cellar-dwellers on Friday night.