It’s that time of year again.
We'll cross the three-quarters mark of the 2012 season this coming weekend, and the jockeying for playoff positions has begun. The weeks of preparation and the months of grueling on-field battles all culminate in this: the home stretch.
As teams approach the final quarter of the regular season, the stakes are simple: step up and perform for a shot at hardware, or falter and find yourself on the outside looking in come playoff time.
There are still so many questions yet to be answered. Will Chris Wondolowski come to life again in the stretch run for San Jose? Which Seattle team will show up on a consistent basis? And when the dust finally settles, who will rise from the melee atop the Eastern Conference?
Heading into the last two months of the campaign, we take a look back at how teams and players fared during the stretch run in 2011.
Conference winners and results
East – Sporting Kansas City: Peter Vermes’ club finished the season with 51 points, and found themselves atop an extremely tight conference race in which the top five teams were separated by a mere five points. Their supremacy came to a bitter end in the playoffs, however, as they bowed out to Houston, 2-0, in the Eastern Conference Championship.
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West – LA Galaxy: It all went right for Bruce Arena & Co. as the Galaxy took home their second straight Supporters’ Shield with 67 points on the season. LA then used that momentum to carry them all the way to the MLS Cup where they knocked off the Houston Dynamo, 1-0, for their third league championship and second Shield/Cup double in franchise history.
Teams who finished strongly
Chicago Fire: Sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings at the end of August with only four wins and 27 points, Frank Klopas’ side surged in the last eight games with a record of 5-2-1 to more than double their season win total. Although this late turnaround did not result in a playoff berth, Chicago finished the 2011 regular season with 43 points, just eight behind East winners Sporting Kansas City and three behind the fifth-place Red Bulls, who had to get a win on the final matchday to secure a postseason spot.
LA Galaxy: Despite having locked up a playoff berth with six weeks remaining in the season – the earliest clinch since FC Dallas did it in 2006 – Arena’s squad showed little signs of packing it in. Like the Fire, the Galaxy also went 5-2-1 in their last eight games. They needed to in order to hold off an equally productive Seattle Sounders team – Seattle finished up their season with a 5-2 record – for first place in the West and their well-earned Shield.
Teams who finished poorly
Columbus Crew: The Eastern Conference title was sitting in their laps and they let it get away. After finishing August in first place with a four-point cushion, the Crew ended their season by going 2-5-1 and dropping all the way down to fourth place in the East. A 1-0 loss to Colorado in the MLS Cup playoffs play-in game soon followed for Robert Warzycha & Co. Injuries – particularly to defensive midfield ace Rich Balchan, who still hasn't made it back to full health – undid the Crew's good work from earlier in the year.
FC Dallas: Although they only dropped from third place at the end of August to fourth place at the end of the regular season, Dallas concluded 2011 with a 2-5 mark. FCD sat within five points of the Galaxy, but following a run of just six points from seven games, they finished 15 points behind the eventual Western Conference and MLS Cup champions before flaming out in the play-in round against Colorado.
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Dwayne De Rosario: The league MVP – who was named August’s Player of the Month after scoring three goals and adding two assists – rattled off seven goals in his last eight games including a hat trick vs. Real Salt Lake on his way to the MLS Golden Boot award. DeRo became the first player in MLS history to score goals for three different teams over the course of a single season (Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, D.C. United) and tallied 13 goals and seven assists in just 18 games in D.C.
Sébastien Le Toux: French forward paced Philadelphia with eight goals and an assist in his last 10 games, bringing the Union to third place in the East, just three points outside of first. The Player of the Month in September, Le Toux scored seven goals in six games that month – including getting his name on the score sheet in all but one of the Union’s six matches. Few players were more clutch than him down the stretch.
Chris Wondolowski: The 2010 Golden Boot winner sat three goals out of first at the end of August, but he went on an absolute tear over his last nine games with eight goals and an assist to tie De Rosario for the league lead in tallies. Wondolowski scored six goals in San Jose’s last five games of the campaign and was on the score sheet in each one. While the Earthquakes were not much of a factor come October – they finished seventh in the West – Wondo seemed to set the stage for his gaudy numbers in 2012.