We've played seven months, and the difference between first place in the Western Conference and out of the running entirely is seven points. That's a couple of flubbed clearances and a blown 1-v-1 with the keeper, or a hospital ball and two times you didn't track the near-post run.
It's a damn good week of results, or a bad road trip. Which is to say, it's not much of a difference at all.
In the East the gap is slighly more sizeable - 10 points and growing, given the games the New York Red Bulls have in hand. But it's still narrow as hell compared to how most of the rest of the world sorts itself out, which is a pretty strong argument against the "the regular season is meaningless!" arguments I see pop up every now and again. I kind of hate those arguments because sports is, by definition, either A) completely meaningless, or B) wildly meaningful in every official endeavor, and banging that kind of philosophical drum holds no appeal for me. I'll let the priests and capos sort it out.
The long point I'm making here is that you'd best remember these tense autumn nights come next March when we get to start this journey all over again. Teams that get it right early, like RBNY, Vancouver, FC Dallas and D.C. United did this season, inevitably end up with enough cushion to ride through the lulls and fight for homefield advantage in the postseason.
Teams that get it wrong out of the gate? They can still come back and sort themselves out as the weeks tick by. Nobody's season is over because of a lousy March.
They just, by and large, shouldn't expect to be hosting many games come November.
Onto the weekend that was:
1. Leave Home
The only team that really struggled through their first five and is yet in good position to host meaningful games next month? That'd be the LA Galaxy, who on Sunday night went to Seattle and got a 1-1 draw out of CenturyLink Field. A road draw is almost always a good result, and if I were a betting man I'd put my money on... sigh... another trip to LA for MLS Cup. RBNY could make that a dumb bet, and there are any number of Western Conference teams capable of derailing the Galaxy in a home-and-home.
But we all know that the Galaxy get things done when they have to. Anyone really ready to bet against Bruce?
With that as preamble: In Sunday's draw I felt more like the Sounders kept letting LA off the hook than like LA was putting in some sort of vintage performance. Seattle - through injury and inconvenience - haven't really been whole at any point this season, so a certain amount of choppiness is expected, and was apparent.
More glaring than the choppiness, however, was the sort of laconic and aimless off-the-ball movement.
Juninho is LA's d-mid and main backline protector. When he came high - pushed up the field in pursuit of the ball, or to close down possession - that left a gap right in the most profitable spot of the field for the Sounders to exploit. This has been their bread and butter, and Obafemi Martins is probably the league's best at hitting that mark, then playing runners through:
Except they never, ever exploited it. Martins had Omar Gonzalez's knee in his back all night, but even so he was able to turn and get a few playmaking looks.
When he did, though, the runs weren't there. And they should be there, even with the choppiness, because guys like Clint Dempsey, Lamar Neagle and Gonzalo Pineda have played with Martins for two years now.
Things did improve for the Rave Green once Marco Pappa and Chad Barrett came on, and their final 20 minutes of sustained pressure paid off with a deserved equalizer.
But this still doesn't look like the Seattle team that stomped the league in April and May. And getting only one point out of this game probably means an unpleasant midweek date in the play-in round, because the top two spots in the West look very much out of reach.
2. Sometimes I Feel So Deserted
RSL's switch to the 4-3-3 has been the subject of much debate and no little consternation among players and fans alike this season. "Why switch from something that's worked?" is the primary question, a direct query about the lost, lamented and forever beloved diamond 4-4-2 that took the Claret-and-Cobalt through their glory years.
Just behind that question in the pecking order: "Can Kyle Beckerman cover enough ground to make a more open, transition-based attack work on both sides of the ball?"
The secret superpower of the diamond as it was employed in RSL was just how many miles it saved guys like Beckerman, Javier Morales, Jamison Olave et al. They were so good and compact with the ball, and kept it for such huge swathes of the game, that it only rarely felt like they were chasing.
So this year's switch to the 4-3-3 has asked for more hard minutes and more hard miles, and at times it just didn't work. Beckerman and Luke Mulholland were put side-by-side in a double-pivot, both asked to track forward and back, and the balance was poor.
That balance has sorted itself out over the past six weeks, as Beckerman has dropped into his more comfortable and customary No. 6 role, while Mulholland has been let off the tether to chase. One is a defensive midfielder, and the other is a destroyer, and it's important to understand the difference.
Here is the Opta map of their defensive interventions (interceptions, blocks, recoveries, tackles, clearances) in Sunday's season-prolonging 2-1 win over Colorado:
They both share similar duties, but Mulholland (on the right, #19) pushes higher and registers more interceptions (blue triangles), while Beckerman (#5) sits deeper and more central to shield the backline and win second balls.
Striking this balance has brought RSL back into the Western Conference playoff race, and a win this Wednesday at home against the struggling Timbers will put them on 44 points - the same as Portland and San Jose. They don't quite control their own destiny because of goal differential, but after a season of scuffling along, they suddenly have a puncher's chance.
It's not exactly the glory days born again, but it's been a positive step into a new identity.
3. Do It Again
The Chicago Fire finally played Harry Shipp as a No. 10. In related news, Harry Shipp had a goal and an assist, and led the Fire to a 3-1 win over the New England Revolution. It's too little, too late for this season, but hopefully it's the start of something new and permanent in terms of how and where Shipp plays for the rest of his career.
His best moment was this little bit of interplay with Gilberto (who's been excellent since returning to the league), which came just before he was subbed:
I have no idea why Shipp hasn't been playing in the hole all along, because he's a creative, game-changing force from that spot who absolutely murders over-aggressive defenders with one-touch passes.
He still obviously needs to get better at receiving the ball in traffic and to boost his fitness. These are things he should clearly work on.
But one of the original sins of MLS coaches is a willingness to take their time with foreign imports in those creative, attacking roles while giving domestic talent the short shrift. How long did it take Cristian Maidana to settle in for Philly? Conversely, why did Lee Nguyen have to wander the globe until he was in his mid-20s?
I'm hoping Chicago are determined to avoid that kind of mistake and will give Shipp the keys to the attack going forward. Given his eye for the final ball and their utter lack of other creative options over the past two seasons, it's kind of remarkable that only now will we get to see (hopefully) one of the league's best young playmakers - of any heritage - given a series of games as a No. 10.
A few more things to ponder...
7. I wrote a bit about Toronto FC finally finding their fit and formation in the 4-4-2 following their 3-1 win over an exhausted Union team on Saturday.
It was a convincing win, and TFC have looked good. One word of warning, though: Their three-game winning streak has come at home against the three bottom teams in the league (Colorado, Chicago, Philly). There's still a bit of caveat emptor about the Reds.
That's our Face of the Week, and also quite likely the end of NYCFC's season. They coughed up a late goal in an RFK rainstorm on Friday, losing 2-1 to United.
5. RBNY continue to be the league's most consistent team, and were well worth their short-handed 2-1 home win over Columbus on Saturday.
Their goal differential is +15, while the next five in the East range from +2 to -2, and I put a lot of stock in that.
However, it's hard to ignore how much they've struggled against speedy wingers throughout the year. It'll be interesting to see how they handle the Impact on Wedensday.
4. Another team with speedy wingers? That'd be FC Dallas,who throttled the Dynamo by 4-1 on Sunday. In the video at the top of the page I explain a bit about how crucial Mauro Diaz is to FCD, and a large part of it comes from his ability to put guys like Fabian Castillo into running space.
Portland have a game in hand, which comes October 14 at Rio Tinto against RSL. Mark the calendar.
2. Should Portland lose that game at Rio Tinto, then it'll be the Quakes who control their own destiny in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth. They only got a 1-1 draw against the Whitecaps at home on Saturday, and really haven't made the most of their home-heavy schedule.
But they're still in it.
That backheel into space to start the break is beautiful, purposeful stuff. Too many players don't understand where the space actually is coming out of a set piece, but there's no dawdling from the Brazilian superstar.
And then that weighted, on-the-run, defense-splitting, left-footed ball to Carlos Rivas? That is filthy, filthy stuff.
Kaká and Orlando City ended Montreal's six-game unbeaten run with a 2-1 win on Saturday night, and still have a slim chance at the final Eastern Conference spot.
They won't get there - the Impact aren't going to crumble. But credit to Kaká, Cyle Larin, Brek Shea et al for making a run at it even as the season slipped away for good.