Missing the suspended Pablo Mastroeni, Colorado exploited the presence of Conor Casey, who timed the removal of his wisdom teeth to perfection. The procedure, performed last Monday, knocked him off the U.S. squad but into a crucial league match against Toronto FC. Casey's header early in the second half provided a 1-0 win and opened up a three-point gap between Colorado and a cluster of chasing teams with 33 points.
New England lost at home to Kansas City, 4-2, after losing Shalrie Joseph to a red card midway through the first half, and must play at Chivas USA Sunday without him. Chivas USA and New England are in that pack of teams with 33 points and Chivas has at least a one game in hand on all of them.
United rallied to tie FC Dallas, 2-2, with a Jaime Moreno penalty kick whistled when Santino Quaranta tumbled in the penalty area under a challenge, sort of, by Daniel Torres. With five straight home games on tap, D.C. has every chance to nail down a playoff berth prior to the final weekend.
None of the top four teams played last weekend. Columbus (39 points) and Chicago (38) are the one-two teams in the East, and Houston (40) and Los Angeles (38) remain atop the West. The top two teams in each conference qualify automatically, with the next four spots determined by overall points.
Below is a rundown of the seven teams in serious contention for the remaining four spots, ranked not by record, but by their chances to reach the elite eight.
The bottom two teams in each conference (Kansas City and New York in the East, FC Dallas and San Jose in the West) are excluded. The Wizards must win at D.C. United Wednesday to get back into the hunt. Toronto FC's visit to Colorado this weekend is the first of 10 head-to-head matchups among teams in the Serious Seven.
NEW ENGLAND (9-7-6), 33 points )
Upside: Excellent goals by Kheli Dube and Edgaras Jankauskas against Kansas City give teammates and fans hope that loss of Taylor Twellman can be overcome down the stretch.
Downside: Five of eight remaining games on the road, and two of last three are against Columbus. Every week, the team is demanding an awful lot of Joseph, Steve Ralston, Jay Heaps and Jeff Larentowicz; other guys need to step up.
Schedule: @ Chivas USA, @New York, Seattle, @FC Dallas, @ Colorado, Columbus, Chicago, @ Columbus.
D.C. UNITED (7-5-12, 33 points)
Upside: Getting a point in Dallas after disappointing result in Open Cup final as host team is to be commended; is there anything left of the RFK mystique that can be applied to league games?
Downside: Josh Wicks blew up again and Dejan Jakovic was exposed again in the Open Cup final. Such defensive brittleness won't withstand the pressure of six crucial games without a major mindset overhaul.
Schedule: Kansas City, Seattle, San Jose, Chivas USA, Columbus, @ Kansas City.
COLORADO (10-7-6, 36 points)
Upside: Growing maturity of Mehdi Ballouchy and Nick LaBrocca gives Rapids one of the league's better midfields, and Matt Pickens might steal a game or two down the stretch with clutch goalkeeping.
Downside: Mastroeni will also miss the next two games, and those five road games are steep steps to climb.
Schedule: @ Toronto FC, @ San Jose, San Jose, @ Kansas City, New England, @ FC Dallas, @ Real Salt Lake.
SEATTLE (8-6-10, 34 points)
Upside: Winning Open Cup is a valuable jolt of accomplishment and inspiration heading into stretch run.
Downside: Emotions will be running high this week at RFK and for the rest of the season, Sounders young players may not handle the pressure cooker.
Schedule: @ D.C. United, Chivas USA, @ New England, @ Columbus, @ Kansas City, FC Dallas.
CHIVAS USA (10-9-3, 33 points)
Upside: Week off to correct problems and further incorporate new players into the team may add up to three points in crucial home game with Revs. Chivas USA is the only team with eight games remaining.
Downside: Not yet known is whether Sacha Kljestan is out of his funk. Loss of Sasha Victorine to a concussion and Zach Thornton's lingering quadriceps injury deprive team of experience.
Schedule: New England, @ Seattle, New York, @ D.C. United, Kansas City, San Jose, @ Chicago, Houston.
REAL SALT LAKE (9-9-6, 33 points)
Upside: Fans believe their team can get it done, and there are game-breakers galore in Fabian Espindola, Clint Mathis, Javier Morales and Robbie Findley. Defense has allowed only four goals in the last six games.
Downside: Against teams it will face in the final six games, RSL is 2-3-3, and it will probably need at least 10 points to get a playoff spot.
Schedule: Chicago, @ Houston, @ FC Dallas, New York, @ Toronto FC, Colorado.
TORONTO FC (8-9-7, 31 points)
Upside: Veteran leadership of Carl Robinson, Jim Brennan and Amado Guevara can carry TFC to the results it needs.
Downside: Lackluster performance in Colorado without Guevara magnifies dependence on Dwayne De Rosario, and teams are setting up to shut him down. Rookies Sam Cronin and Stefan Frei need to play their best soccer in the next six weeks.
Schedule: Colorado, @ Los Angeles, @ Chicago, San Jose, Real Salt Lake, @ New York.