By Ridge Mahoney
The best offensive team, San Jose, and the top defensive outfit, Sporting Kansas City, finished the season atop the conferences and in the first two ranking spots.
All 10 playoff teams had been determined prior to the final round of games, yet SKC needed a 2-1 defeat of Philadelphia Wednesday to clinch the conference title, and the final placings weren’t determined until Los Angeles beat Seattle, 1-0, in the season’s final game Sunday night.
The goals-scored standings tiebreaker, adopted by MLS this season, came into play; New York and Chicago finished tied for third place with 57 points, but the Red Bulls scored more goals (57 to 46) and thus avoided the wild-card round allotted to the fourth-place finishers.
1. SAN JOSE (19-6-9). Chris Wondolowski matched Roy Lassiter’s single-season record of 27 goals as the Quakes closed out their remarkable turnaround – they were seventh in the Western Conference a year ago – with a 1-1 tie in Portland. They conceded 10 goals and posted no shutouts in their last six games of the regular season, which is looser than Coach Frank Yallop would like things to be, but they also didn’t lose any of them, so they retain the top placing. Yet if defense win titles, the Supporters’ Shield winner isn’t such a clearcut favorite. Last week: 1.
2. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (18-7-9). C.J. Sapong, the defending Rookie of the Year, hasn’t been at full go for much of the season, but he’s finishing strong. His ninth goal in 2012 and a secondary assist on Jacob Peterson’s tally propelled a 2-1 SKC defeat of Philly by which the Eastern Conference champion closed the regular season on a 12-match unbeaten run. Kei Kamara assisted on both goals to set a personal best of eight, which might not be impressive unless it is considered with his team-high 11 goals. Jimmy Nielsen saved a Union penalty kick and finished second in goals-allowed average with a ridiculous 0.79. Graham Zusi topped MLS with 15 assists. Yeah, these guys are very good. Last week: 2.
3. REAL SALT LAKE (17-11-6). The attack sputtered in October, yet still RSL extracted five points from games against the Galaxy (2-1), Seattle and Vancouver (both 0-0) to secure second place. Seven teams lost fewer games at home than RSL (11-4-2), so Rio Tinto Stadium isn’t the fortress it once was. RSL’s 35 goals allowed was third-lowest in the league, and against the Whitecaps it became just the second team in league history to not allow a goal in the first 15 minutes of every regular-season game. Though top scorer Alvaro Saborio struggled through barren spells his 17 goals trailed only Wondolowski and Kenny Cooper. What RSL needs, however, are sharp showings from Javier Morales and Fabian Espindola. Last week: 4.
4. SEATTLE (15-8-11). The Sounders went for the win at Home Depot Center, but Fredy Montero thundered a header off the upright and negated an apparent goal with a handball as they fell to the Galaxy, 1-0. A hamstring injury suffered by Eddie Johnson forced him off the field shortly before halftime. Like RSL, this team probably faces massive upheaval if it doesn’t reach MLS Cup. With the second-best defense (33 goals allowed) in the league, and craftsman Mauro Rosales (13 assists) on board, the tools are there. Last week: 3.
5. D.C. UNITED (17-10-7). Keeper Bill Hamid stoned Chicago several times with big saves as United held off the Fire for a 1-1 tie that ran its mark to 5-0-2 in the last seven games and clinched second place. Lionard Pajoy’s stooping header five minutes into the second half tied the game. United thus gets the second conference semi at home, where it lost just once and outscored opponents, 37-17. Dwayne De Rosario is talking up his readiness for the playoffs; seeing as how well the team finished without him, can he be the super-sub to complement top scorer Chris Pontius (12 goals)? Last week: 7.
6. LOS ANGELES (16-12-6). Robbie Keane showed his deft touch can set up goals as well as score them; his perfectly weighted layoff to Mike Magee was steered into the net for the only goal needed to beat Seattle, 1-0, in the season finale. Keane led the team with 16 goals, Landon Donovan contributed 14 assists, and though the defending champion has to navigate the wild-card route, it has the weapons to go a long way. Last week: 6.
7. CHICAGO (17-11-6). Patrick Nyarko’s scything run and stunning shot provided the Fire a 1-0 home lead against D.C. United but an equalizer early in the second half produced a 1-1 tie. Nyarko’s goal was his fourth; in-season arrival Chris Rolfe ended up leading the team with eight in 22 games. Winner of just one of its last five matches, the Fire cooled off in the final month and hosts troublesome Houston, MLS Cup finalist last year, in a wild-card game Wednesday. A significant revival this year will end sourly if it can’t advance to the conference semifinals. Last week: 5.
8. NEW YORK (16-9-9). Union-buster Kenny Cooper upped his second-best goal total to 18 with a pair as the Red Bulls overran Philly, 3-0, to sweep the three-game season series in which Cooper scored five times. Thierry Henry glided through the left channel to score his 15th goal and confirm that if he’s on form, the Red Bulls can beat anybody, even with a patchwork defense. Yet because of their inconsistency they could be seen as the longest Eastern Conference shot to reach MLS Cup despite exceptional talent. Last week: 9.
9. HOUSTON (14-9-11). Keeper Tyler Deric – making his first career start in a league match -- was one of many backups to play as the Dynamo fell to Colorado, 2-0, in the season finale. Brad Davis and Will Bruin finished among league leaders in goals and assists, respectively, with 12, as did Tally Hall with the same number of shutouts. The Dynamo ended the season unbeaten at home (11-0-6), which will only be relevant if it can win at Chicago Wednesday in the wild-card game and thus earn a match at BBVA Compass Stadium. Last week: 8.
10. COLUMBUS (15-12-7). Eddie Gaven earns praise for his 2,970 minutes played -- second only to Colorado defender Drew Moor among field players -- and in those 34 games, he scored nine goals, which teammate Jairo Arrieta matched in nearly half as many games, 18. Federico Higuain capped off his remarkable 13-game stint by notching both goals in a season-ending defeat (2-1) of Toronto; his five goals and seven assists in such limited action bodes well for 2013, as does Arrieta’s performance and Andy Gruenebaum’s league-high 124 saves. Still, a season without playoffs stings. Last week: 10.
11. VANCOUVER (11-13-10). Coach Martin Rennie said his team answered some defensive questions by holding RSL to a 0-0 tie in the season finale and will utilize that knowledge in the wild-card game against Los Angeles at Home Depot Center Thursday. Even if the ‘Caps had not stumbled down the stretch – only one win in their last 10 matches – they would be decided underdogs in a one-game playoff against the glamorous Galaxy, and the fact Rennie has benched DPs Barry Robson and Kenny Miller isn’t a positive sign. Yet the tenacity of Jay DeMerit and trickery of Camilo Sanvezzo won’t be easily quelled. Last week: 12.
12. MONTREAL (12-16-6). The Impact, already eliminated from playoff contention, controlled most of the play in its final match at New England, but fell, 1-0, to a goal in the 89th minute. Its playoff push fizzled as it struggled during the last six matches of the season, winning none of them and scoring just three goals, after it had won five in a row. Despite missing the playoffs, Montreal reached a high-water mark for Canadian MLS teams by winning 12 games and hit the jackpot on a few signings, such as Patrice Bernier and Marco Di Vaio. Last week: 11.
13. FC DALLAS (9-13-12). Cruising to an apparent 2-0 triumph over Chivas USA to close out the season, FCD instead coughed up two stoppage-time goals to end up tied, 2-2. Jackson, with his fourth goal, and Fabian Castillo, who scored his sixth, had provided the lead that FCD couldn’t maintain for the remaining 14 or so minutes. Tying four of its last six matches after driving to the brink of a postseason berth gives Coach Schellas Hyndman plenty to ponder during what will probably be an active offseason. Last week: 14.
14. COLORADO (11-19-4). A dismal season ended on a high note with a second consecutive 2-0 victory. Two lesser-known players, Andre Akpan and Kamani Hill, got the goals in a defeat of Houston, and backup keeper Stewart Ceus posted his second shutout in as many MLS starts. The victory gave the Rapids only their second two-game winning streak of the season and a 3-5-3 mark in their last 11 games. Defender Drew Moor set a notable milestone by playing every minute of every game, but the first season for Coach Oscar Pareja has to be labeled a learning experience. Last week: 15.
15. PORTLAND (8-16-10). The emergence of Bright Dike, who scored his fifth goal of the season in a 1-1 tie with San Jose, is one of the few bright spots of this year’s disappointment. Despite fanatical fan support, the Timbers won only seven of 17 home matches, and the pathetic road record of 1-12-4 – with a minus-25 goal difference – need no explanation. They won only one of their last seven matches so the momentum going into 2013 will have to be generated by new head coach Caleb Porter. Last week: 16.
16. PHILADELPHIA (10-18-6). The Union closed out season with a third straight loss, a disheartening 3-0 home defeat to New York. Defender Carlos Valdes took down Tim Cahill in the box to concede a penalty kick in the 13th minute and Philly never caught up. The home mark at PPL Park dropped to 7-8-2. Losing all three games against the Red Bulls will chafe during an offseason during which head coach John Hackworth, who had the “interim” tag removed in late August, rebuilds for 2013. Last week: 13.
17. NEW ENGLAND (9-17-8). The Revs won for the first time in Canada, beating Montreal, 1-0, with a goal by A.J. Soares in the 89th minute. They had been 0-5-3 north of the border and winless in 13 away games overall. Still, the 2-13-2 road mark ranked near the bottom of MLS, and while the loss of striker Saer Sene (11 goals) can be blamed somewhat for a poor finish, that won’t make first-year head coach Jay Heaps avoid the reality of a bad season. The positives moving forward include solid MLS debut seasons for Lee Nguyen (five goals) and rookie Kelyn Rowe (30 games, three goals, five assists). Last week: 17.
18. TORONTO FC (5-21-8). TFC lost its last game, 2-1, in Columbus, to finish the season on a 14-game winless streak (0-10-4) and with the fewest points (23) in the league. Acting head coach Paul Mariner railed at Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath, who had discussed joining the TFC staff as head-coach-in-training but elected to stay in Florida. Announced average attendance of 18,154 is the lowest in team history, and a disgruntled fan base is just one more reason the job won’t be easy to fill. Last week: 18.
19. CHIVAS USA (7-18-9). A season-ending 14-game winless streak, during which it was outscored, 37-10, left Robin Fraser’s team last in the Western Conference. It managed to rally with a pair of very late goals by Laurent Courtois and Juan Agudelo (remember him?). Courtois’ goal in the 90th minute was his first in 2012 league play, which isn’t the effect Fraser was hoping for upon signing him in August of last year. How far down a front-office shakeup will extend, and whether an ESPN Deportes report that former Mexican international Efrain Flores has already been hired to replace Fraser, will bear watching. Last week: 19.