By Ridge Mahoney
While most of the top Western teams maintain their winning ways, the Eastern Conference is crowding up as the leaders labor and challengers Houston and New York apply more pressure. Week 27 of league play concluded with just one team, Los Angeles, having clinched a playoff spot. Wins for Portland and New York left them with 36 points, and tied for the 10th and final playoff spot. Here's how MLS teams rate from top to bottom after 27 weeks of action ...
1. LOS ANGELES (16-3-10, 58 pts.). A 3-0 thrashing of Vancouver featured two goals by Mike Magee and two assists from Bryan Jordan, who started at right back in place of Sean Franklin, one of several players rested by Coach Bruce Arena. Contributions from players like Magee and Jordan will be critical in the last month of the season as the Galaxy juggles its CCL schedule with league matches. In its last five MLS games it has won four and tied one. Last week: 1.
2. REAL SALT LAKE (14-7-6, 48 pts.). A Nat Borchers header from a Kyle Beckerman free kick propelled RSL to its fourth straight victory, a rugged 1-0 dispatch of Sporting Kansas City. On Monday, midfielder Javier Morales – out since April with a broken ankle – accompanied the squad to New York for a Wednesday meeting with the Red Bulls. He won’t play, but outside back Chris Wingert’s broken wrist has healed sufficiently for him to also travel. He may not be ready, but Tony Beltran is sidelined with an adductor strained suffered Sunday in a reserve match. Last week: 2.
3. SEATTLE (14-6-9, 51 pts.). Mike Fucito justified his place in the starting lineup by powering through a challenge to shoot low inside the far post and open the scoring in a 3-0 home defeat of D.C. United. A sprained MCL suffered by Mauro Rosales, who registered his 11th and 12th assists of the season before hobbling off, taints the Sounders’ prospects down the stretch, yet they can clinch a spot in the CCL quarterfinals by beating Herediano at home Tuesday. A cross-border battle in Vancouver highlights the weekend’s league schedule. Last week: 4.
4. FC DALLAS (13-9-7, 46 pts.). FCD produced good chances against New York but the finishing of Maicon Santos and Co. failed to get one past keeper Frank Rost in a second straight loss, 1-0, and third in the last four league matches. This week it hosts UNAM in CCL play Wednesday and then hosts Houston for what figures to be another fierce in-state shootout Saturday afternoon. There’s certainly talent available but is FCD’s stamina suspect? Last week: 3.
5. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (10-9-10, 40 pts.). With all of the Eastern leaders stumbling, SKC hasn’t been able to put together a run of good results to vault itself atop the heap. The return of defender Aurelien Collin from injury has stabilized the back line, and he also tested RSL keeper Nick Rimando with a good shot in a 1-0 loss at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. SKC plays crucial conference tests in its next two home games: against Philly Friday and Columbus a week from Wednesday. Last week: 5.
6. PHILADELPHIA (9-7-12, 39 pts.).There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Coach Peter Nowak, so when seven of his 11 starters – including 16-year-old Zach Pfeffer, who made his league debut -– are age 23 and under, and they grind out a 1-0 victory against Eastern leader Columbus, he’s focused on the pragmatic, not the romantic. Sebastien Le Toux’s sixth goal in the last six games and a second consecutive shutout ended an eight-game winless streak, and edged Philly within two points of the conference lead. Last week: 9.
7. COLUMBUS (11-10-8, 41 pts.). The Crew is clinging to the conference lead despite losing three and tying one of its last four games, and recently hasn’t looked anything like a serious contender for the title. It generated just one shot on goal – by Andres Mendoza -- in a 1-0 loss at Philadelphia, but at least shored up a defense that had conceded 12 goals in its previous three games, including a 2-2 tie with Houston on Wednesday. The back line will get another tough task Saturday in a home game against the Galaxy. Last week: 7.
8. COLORADO (10-9-11, 41 pts.). The added burden of Concacaf play seems to be taking a toll; after being pasted on Wednesday, 4-1, by Mexican club Santos Laguna at home, the Rapids lost their third straight league game, 2-1, in Toronto. In those three games they’ve scored just one goal as opponents have stifled a Rapids attack deprived of Conor Casey (ruptured Achilles' tendon). Starting with a CCL match against Real Espana Wednesday, they play four games in 11 days, so the key league match is a home date Saturday with San Jose. Last week: 6.
9. HOUSTON (9-9-12, 39 pts.). A road game in Columbus (2-2) and home match against San Jose (2-1) provided four valuable points that moved the Dynamo into a third-place tie with Philly among Eastern teams. Substitute Calen Carr struck in the 86th minute against the Crew, which converted two penalty kicks awarded while playing a man down in a bizarre game. Rookie Will Bruin, goalless since April 29 and coming back from a two-month injury layoff, bagged what proved to be the winner. Last week: 10.
10. D.C. UNITED (8-8-10, 34 pts.) A 3-0 thumping in Seattle doesn’t bode well for a critical double-dip this week. Though it plays Chivas USA (Wednesday) and Real Salt Lake (Saturday) at home, United’s RFK record of 3-3-6 isn’t cause for optimism. Against the Sounders, the absence of injured Chris Pontius and struggles of Charlie Davies, replaced in the 54th minute, magnified the team’s offensive woes. But since it beat Chivas USA, 3-0, 10 days ago and tied RSL, 1-1, at Rio Tinto in June, perhaps it can exploit the first two of its league-most eight games remaining. Six points would be great, but it needs at least four. Last week: 8.
11. PORTLAND (10-12-6, 36 pts.). Playing just their second league game in more than three weeks, the Timbers rode the momentum of an especially raucous crowd at Jeld-Wen Field to trample New England, 3-0. Goals by Diego Chara, Kenny Cooper and Darlington Nagbe, not to mention a third straight shutout, swept the Timbers to their fourth straight home win. They go for No.5 Wednesday against San Jose, then head to New York for a showdown against the other occupant of the 10th and final playoff spot. Last week: 11.
12. NEW YORK (7-6-15, 36 pts.). Luke Rodgers marked his return to the starting lineup by banging home a low cross from Juan Agudelo for the only goal of a 1-0 defeat of Dallas at Pizza Hut Park. Keeper Frank Rost came back into the nets to post his second MLS shutout. With just their second road win the Red Bulls pumped some life into a dismal second half of the season; it had not won in eight league games, dating back to July 6. Last week: 12.
13. CHICAGO (5-8-15, 30 pts.). Leading Chivas USA, 2-0, the Fire threw away the advantage after Cory Gibbs went off with a straight red card, yet rallied to win, 3-2, in the final minutes on Dominic Oduro’s 10th goal of the season. By winning for the third time in the last four games under adverse conditions Chicago maintains its playoff hopes, and with six more games, the math is do-able. Just. Last week 15.
14. TORONTO FC (6-12-12, 30 pts.). A pair of goals by Danny Koevermans earned him Player of the Week honors and TFC a gratifying 2-1 triumph over defending champ Colorado. There are only four games to play, so the future is now, but with 10 points in the last five games and some genuine team spirit emerging after a mostly bleak season, TFC won’t be an easy out the rest of the way. Last week: 16.
15. CHIVAS USA (7-12-10, 31 pts.). A penchant for spectacular goals and defensive breakdowns persists; after scoring an own goal for a 2-0 deficit against Chicago, Juan Pablo Angel triggered a comeback by hitting the correct net, and Nick LaBrocca followed suit two minutes later with a Goal of the Week nominee. But playing 11-against-10, Chivas USA surrendered a third goal in the final minutes. The 3-2 loss was its fourth straight and left it five points out of the playoff tier with five games to go. Last week: 13.
16. NEW ENGLAND (5-12-12, 27 pts.). No doubt Portland is a tough place to play, and the speed by which the Timbers attack can trouble any team, yet despite the importance of last Friday’s game the Revs looked completely unprepared as they went down, 3-0. With a road record of 1-8-6 and a spot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, New England is rife with problem areas heading into the offseason. Last week: 14.
17. SAN JOSE (6-11-11, 29 pts.). The Quakes reverted to the ways of their 13-game winless streak (prior to last week’s 2-0 defeat of Chicago) in a 2-1 loss at Houston. Provided a 1-0 lead by a Khari Stephenson volley in the 40th minute, San Jose gave away a penalty kick early in the second half and conceded the winner with 10 minutes left. The Quakes are a league-worst 5-3-3 when scoring the first goal. Last week: 17.
18. VANCOUVER (4-14-10, 22 pts.). The Whitecaps, as expected, lost to the high-flying Galaxy, 3-0, at Home Depot Center but did so grudgingly as a move to their new home draws nearer. Their final game at Empire Field Saturday is against the cross-border rivals from Seattle, and they open B.C. Place next weekend against the other noisy Northwest neighbor, Portland. Despite their on-field struggles the ‘Caps are third in average attendance (20,542). Last week: 18.