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Dramatic late goals tighten MLS Eastern race
by Ridge Mahoney, August 30th, 2012 3:19AM

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With a few minutes, goals scored in MLS games approximately 128 miles apart Wednesday night drew two teams closer in the playoff race, and cast further doubt on feelings the top five in the Eastern Conference might be decided by Columbus Day.

At RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., a spectacular strike from long distance by Wilman Conde in the 88th minute earned the Red Bulls a 2-2 tie that also snatched two points away from the home team. A few minutes later at PPL Park, Eddie Gaven tapped in the rebound of a saved shot in the fifth minute of stoppage time to earn the Crew a vital victory against Philadelphia, 2-1.

Though the tie moved D.C. United into fourth place -- it has the same points, 41, as Chicago but has scored more goals, which is the first tiebreaker -- and the Crew's victory left Columbus in seventh place, they are separated by just two points. Columbus (11-8-6) has a game in hand compared to United (12-9-5), and Gaven's goal extended its winning streak to three games. It also scored that goal while down to 10 men; its other goalscorer, Josh Williams, had followed his first MLS goal with his first dismissal, for fighting, in the 68th minute.

Yet in the final seconds Federico Higuain broke down the left side and directed Justin Meram into a shooting lane from which he fired Higuain's pass off the leg of keeper Zac MacMath. It ricocheted right to Gaven, who couldn't possibly miss, and didn't. Conde's shot, by contrast, didn't seem plausible when a half-clearance rolled toward him well beyond the penalty arc. But with time and space to line up a shot, he crushed one into the top corner to stun an RFK crowd that had bounced and sang when Dwayne De Rosario's 100th MLS goal had provided a vital 2-1 lead half an hour earlier.

The double filling in this playoff sandwich is composed of Chicago (12-8-5, 41 points) and Montreal (12-13-3, 39 points), in fifth and sixth place, respectively. (Neither played Wednesday.) With only six more games to play, the Impact may simply run out of opportunities to make up points their rivals may accrue.

And all of the teams are within one victory of catching third-place Houston (11-6-9, 42 points), which effectively puts three places -- third, fourth, and fifth -- into play for the final weeks of the season.

This is certainly what MLS had in mind when it decided to allot playoff spots by conference finish by final placing rather than overall points, and increased the intraconference portion of the schedule. After years of stronger teams coming from the Western Conference, so far this season -- aside from overall leader San Jose -- several Eastern teams in the middle of the standings have more points than their Western counterparts:

East vs. West
3rd -- Houston (42), Real Salt Lake (43)
4th -- D.C. United (41); Los Angeles (40)
5th -- Chicago (41), Vancouver (37)
6th -- Montreal (39), FC Dallas (32)
7th -- Columbus (39), Chivas USA (28)

With San Jose showing few signs of slippage, and Seattle and the Galaxy gathering steam for strong finishes, the top teams overall may again come from the Western Conference. But the dogfight for spots in the East should be compelling theater as the season heads into the final weeks. It will be a finish to savor if we see more game nights like Wednesday night.



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