or so it seemed. That summer-long assumption that five playoff teams would emerge from the East, leaving a measly little three spots for the West, suddenly looks a lot less stable.
That's partially because East met West in three weekend encounters. The West won two of those and split two points in a draw in the other.
Los Angeles did its part to rescue Western honor by thumping suddenly troubled D.C. United 5-2. Dallas shocked Chicago 4-1 in a Midwest ambush at Toyota Park. No team had put more than two past league-leading goalkeeper Jon Busch this year, but the Hoops came crashing into Bridgeview and left Denis Hamlett's men looking for answers.
Chicago is 2-4 in MLS matches since early August, and their failure to collect points lately is but one of the reasons the Eastern stranglehold on all those playoff spots suddenly looks tenuous.
New England and Colorado drew 1-1 outside Denver. That was the only semi-bummer on the Western weekend romp. It might look like a relative win for the Rapids, a team that was facing the three-time MLS runner-ups, and a team that had been desperate to rejoin the playoff chase just two weeks ago.
But a closer inspection would reveal that New England's house of horror has been in and around Denver, where Revs success has been hard to find. New England owned a 3-11-1 mark all-time in Colorado before Saturday's visit. So a 1-1 draw at Dick's Sporting Goods Park was probably a result that brought a certain amount of relief for Steve Nicol's team.
But it also gave the Rapids another point in the playoff chase. Now, interim manager Gary Smith and his Rapids have propelled themselves squarely back into the hunt, and that's not good news for the East.
As of today, D.C. United is in fifth place in the East. And as of now, that would be the final playoff berth. The way it works this year, the top three teams in each conference qualify for Major League Soccer's 13th playoff "season." The final two berths fall to the highest point earner, regardless of conference.
Six teams get left behind -- which is two more than ever in MLS, so the pressure to collect points is greater than ever.
That's why United can't feel too comfortable in its current spot. And that is only partially because of key injuries and the busy schedule ahead for Tom Soehn's men, one laden with five matches in the coming weeks in CONCACAF Champions League play.
It has more to do with the fact that five teams in the West -- Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Jose -- are within four points of United. Houston and Chivas USA currently sit at the top of the West.
All that means that if a couple of Western Conference teams chasing Houston and Chivas USA collect a few quick points, the fifth-place team from the East could be passed and pushed aside in the playoff chase. Even the fourth-place Eastern team (New York Red Bulls at the moment) can't afford much slippage.
East meets West in five of seven matches coming up this week, Round 27 of MLS play. Eastern teams host three of those -- so maybe they can reclaim a bit of ground lost over the past weekend.
Jorge Rojas started on the left for the Red Bulls as manager Juan Carlos Osorio attempted to plug the big hole left vacant by Dave van den Bergh's injury-related absence. Van den Bergh is one of those players you might notice a bit (like teammates Seth Stammler and Mike Magee this year), but whose value becomes more obvious when they aren't in the lineup.
Rojas, a more natural central, attacking midfielder, was a non-factor for 60 minutes last week against Sigi Schmid's confident Crew. Osorio made a couple of changes and got the Venezuelan international back into middle, which significantly improved the Red Bulls attack, although they still didn't have enough to make up the ground on Columbus. The Crew prevailed 3-1.
Eddie Gaven had a big night for Columbus. Good for him for stepping up in Guillermo Barros Schelotto's absence. But you have to wonder if Gaven would have been more contained had van den Bergh been at his usual spot in the Red Bulls lineup.
FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman has been trying to figure out all year what to do with his bookcase full of central midfielders. He imported one flank player, Dutchman Victor Sikora, who played well in two matches but moved quickly to the injury shelf.
So, Hyndman has been plugging in midfielders more comfortable in the middle along the outside. He might finally have hit upon the winning combo in Sunday's surprising win in Chicago, where the team from Texas sat in a fairly defensive posture and relied on Jeff Cunningham's speed and Kenny Cooper's dribbling to steer the counter attack.
So, Andre Rocha was on the right and Marcelo Saragosa on the left in the 4-4-2. Neither have games oriented to a wide midfield role. In fact, you could make the case that Rocha is Dallas' best passer. Pablo Ricchetti was situated in the holding role, with rookie Bruno Guarda in the attacking role.
Nick Rimando has had a good year in Salt Lake, regardless of the bad moment between he and Nat Borchers that led to Saturday's vital Chivas USA goal (in the 1-0 win for the Red-and-White in the Rice-Eccles closer, a victory with significant impact in the playoff chase.)
It's hard to say what caused the communications breakdown here, but this much is clear: Rimando has had similar problems before, failing to communicate in critical moments. Making big saves is just one part of a goalkeeper's job, like distribution. Rimando does a great job on those aspects. But communication with defenders is vital, too, and the rap sheet is growing on RSL's No. 1 in goal.
Interesting thing about RSL: Javier Morales had a good first half, and RSL created countless chances. But for more of the sloppy finishing that has plagued RSL all year, Jason Kreis' team could have been up by a goal or two. Then Morales shrank after the break, and the men from Utah rarely threatened, often bypassing the midfield in a rush forward. More than perhaps any other club, as the RSL playmaker goes, so goes the team.
Speaking of playmakers, D.C. United clearly missed theirs, as Marcelo Gallardo continues to miss time due to injury and Jaime Moreno fights knee inflammation. So neither played against Los Angeles.
The result is less possession for Tom Soehn's team. Gallardo and, especially, Moreno are the best of the RFK bunch at keeping the ball and patiently moving it about until the defensive cracks appear.
A couple of home wins, spurred by an improved attack, has Kansas City back in the playoff hunt. One reason is Davy Arnaud, who had a three-game scoring streaked snapped over the weekend, but still had a hand in pressing Toronto in what could have been a three- or four-goal win. (K.C. prevailed 2-0 against a TFC team that managed not a shot on goal all night.)
Here's what some people may not realize about Arnaud's contributions of late: he's gotten the job done while making quick adjustments to several roles. Arnaud has been deployed as right-sided midfielder, as a withdrawn forward and as a central midfielder. Arnaud's value, especially considering a relatively small hit on the salary cap, his ultra-competitive nature and his clear versatility, cannot be undervalued on Curt Onalfo's team.
Steve Davis is a freelance writer who has covered Major League Soccer since its inception. Steve can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.