What is momentum, or Big Mo, as proponents of sports, both team and individual, sometimes like to call it?
There's momentum as in the ebbs and flows that unfold during a particular game or match, as when a basketball team runs off 20 points while its opponents get two, or Roger Federer rallies from a 5-1 deficit to win the set. In soccer, perverse persuasion that is it, dominance and control can sometimes translate into a glut of goals, maybe just the one, or none at all.
There's also a momentum that builds from day to day, week to week, and month to month during a season, and how powerful the force has been during a long stretch is quite often manifested in another enigmatic aspect of sports, referred to as "the breaks," "the bounce of the ball," or simply, "fate." Teams riding a wave of emotion and success often get the breaks, teams sliding in the opposite direction often don't.
MLS coaches and players often talk of building momentum heading into the playoffs, yet this season, a half-dozen teams needed strong surges just to get in, and not all of them did.
D.C. United seldom generated any momentum this season and didn't get any breaks in its crucial match Sunday in Columbus. Needing a win to reach the playoffs, D.C. hit the post twice, hit the crossbar twice more, and surrendered a backbreaking goal when Brad Evans moved into space to drill a rising blast that caught the inside of the post on its way into the net.
One could say luck abandoned D.C. and that certainly was true when Boyzzz Khumalo's shot from six yards out hit the crossbar. But in this case one team's misfortune benefited another straggler.
United's failure propped up New York, which had utterly failed its own road test three days earlier to finish the season on a miserable note. When it took the field against Chicago last Thursday, New York had won just one of its last five games, and played down to that record as it absorbed a 5-2 pasting that guaranteed a playoff spot for Kansas City and left its own chances dangling on the Crew-United result.
By winning, the Crew tooketh away the playoffs from United and gaveth to New York, a reward in effect for the Red Bulls, which had strengthened their position by beating Columbus the week before, 3-1. They won only two of their last eight games, yet had just enough points to reach the playoffs, thanks to an unbeaten August that netted 10 points in four games.
Speaking of the Wizards, now there's a team with major Mo. They took advantage of three straight home games in October to tie Chicago and beat both New England and San Jose. Tied late with the Quakes, 2-2, last week they pushed forward frantically, and snagged a precious three points in stoppage time when Herculez Gomez nailed home a Claudio Lopez corner kick.
New York's loss took off the pressure in its final game. By beating New England away, 3-1, on Saturday, Kansas City rolls into the playoffs unbeaten in its last four games.
More than results go into building momentum. New signings, coaching changes, injured players getting healthy, and dozens of other elements can factor into the equation. Take the case of Real Salt Lake, which brought in Robbie Russell and Will Johnson during the season to good effect, and moved into Rio Tinto Stadium a few weeks ago.
RSL took the field against Colorado Saturday with two wins and two ties in its last four games and needed just a tie in the season finale to secure its first playoff berth. The Rapids had to win, and stormed forth to score early and swarm all over the visitors, who defended stoutly in the face of fierce pressure.
RSL kept the deficit at one and gradually its desperation reversed the momentum, but the goal would not come. RSL keeper Nick Rimando flew skyward to save a rising free kick as his teammates pressed, and in the 90th minute a shot by Andy Williams came off keeper Bouna Coundoul's hands for Yura Movsisyan to bang into the net.
In this match, despite the 1-1 result, there could be only one winner, and according to Coach Jason Kreis, for once, his team went against the grain yet came out ahead.
"I would say that's the first point that we picked up all year, that I would say, maybe we didn't deserve," said Kreis. "There've been a lot of points out there this season that we feel like we deserved and didn't get. For me, this is the first time, perhaps, that the ball bounced our way."
On another weekend, maybe that bounce goes in favor of D.C., but also maybe, the luck fell to the team that deserved it more.