Since this weekend's games did little to resolve the playoff picture, I thought I'd helpfully provide a primer on who's in, who's on the brink and who can start booking clinics and tee times:
In Like Flynn:
Columbus: Their 1-0 win over the Gals, with a rusty Schelotto, a suspended Hejduk, Sigi in the stands yammering into poor Robert Warzycha's bluetooth earpiece and 22,000 fans who came - amazingly - to bury Beckham rather than to ogle him, locked up the Eastern Division crown and leaves them one win away from the Shield. But the playoffs are a whole different deal, and it remains to be seen how the Crew's run and gun attack translates into the grit, mud, blood and bruises of the MLS post season.
Houston: 3-1 win over Colorado puts them in the playoffs, and their four point lead over surging Seedy Chivas, whose final three matches appear much the tougher, really makes them the heavy favorite to take the West. Talk all you want about the how the salary cap ensures a uniformly mediocre league and an insurmountable "parity" between all the teams, but then explain to me why some guys, like the Dynamo, show up at the top of the conference year after year.
New England: Oh come on, you didn't really buy all that "We're so tired and worn out we can barely get out of bed" garbage from Steve Nichol did you? Saturday's late game comeback against an RSL team with aspirations of their own served notice that, unless Joe Public somehow turns up in the Eastern Conference finals, the road to the Cup still runs through Foxboro. Like Houston, a team that looks the "parity" complaint square in the eye and then kicks it in the junk.
Chivas: After a 3-0 depantsing of a DC team that desperately needed a result, it's hard to see how they could possibly not end up second to the Dynamo in the suddenly competitive West. Somehow, Sensei Preki has managed to patch together a lineup week after week - last weekend he got goals from two guys who probably still need maps to find their way home after practice - and have shoved, grabbed and fouled their way into the playoffs.
Chicago: Let's put it this way: maybe they don't look all that hot at the moment - last week's 1-1 draw with KC being Exhibit A - but they still have a seven point lead over a disintegrating New York side which would have to close the season with three straight wins to overtake them, a proposition which seems about as likely as Jessica Alba showing up at your house tonight asking for a boob massage. We're all still waiting for the Blanco-McBride Golazo Bonanza we were promised, but in the meantime, regardless of how the next three games go it'll be the Revs and the Fire in the first round.
Real Salt Lake: The Stormin' Mormons had a golden opportunity go six points up on Colorado for the last automatic qualifier spot and, before conceding two late goals and settling for a draw against New England they looked like they were headed for a first round matchup with Preki's bunch. They close the season Dallas-and-Rapids, meaning they'll be facing off against the guys they need to stay in front of, which is great, but sub-500 teams looking to convince someone they've turned it around don't do it by coughing up two goals - and two badly needed points - in the last 15 minutes of must-win games.
New York: As Vince Lombardi famously said: "What the hell is going on around here?" Losers of four out of their last five since that stirring, gutsy 0-0 draw with DC at RFK which had them on a six-game unbeaten streak that now seems a dim, distant memory, they close the season RSL-Crew-Fire and it's likely that last one will have a ton of marbles, maybe ALL the marbles, on the table. The worst part is that I just don't think this is that bad a team. Maybe Jimmy Hoffa doesn't like soccer.
DC United: Laugh while you can. Like Dracula, it's never safe to assume that just because you've seen the corpse that they're not going to bite you. Gallardo looked terrific on his return until he flat ran out of gas, and Crayton, who's been sensational, stunk the place up, but isn't likely to do it again. Nonetheless, starting this Thursday they're looking at six games in 20 days, including a brutal MLS windup that goes Dynamo-Revs-Crew, with two of those on the road. They probably need five, maybe six points out of those three to make the playoffs. It's a tall order.
Need Some Help:
KC: Beats me. These guys defy explanation. They play well against good teams, suck against the bums, trade away players who immediately light up their new teams and their big-money Argentine forward who only has four goals on the season finally showed up for a game and promptly trashed his knee. How in the hell are they still hanging around? And apparently they really pissed off the schedule maker as they're staring into a Revs-San Jose-Revs final three games, from which, in the immortal words of Miracle Max: "It would take a miracle".
FC Dallas: Just as they were warming up the hearse, these guys are finally showing some signs of life under crusty old Schellas Hyndman. This is a team that looks good in the front and the back, but the midfield just can't seem to get the job done on a consistent basis. Then again, with Toronto and the Galaxy as two of their last three opponents, how good do they have to be? If they can grab six points from those two games, even if they lose to RSL they'll still end the season at 40 points, which really ought to be enough.
Colorado: The Clavijo-free Rapids seemed to be cruising along on a nice playoff run until the solid beat down they got from Houston on Saturday threw cold water on the party. (Why pick just one metaphor when you can use three or four?). Nonetheless, they currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot, something which was pretty inconceivable a few weeks ago. The last couple of slots won't be decided until the final whistle on the final game, and the Raps better hope the era of good feeling sticks around another three weeks.
San Jose: The temptation is to say "Nice try boys, but Darren Huckerby can't really carry you around on his back forever". Then you look at the schedule and see that they close the season KC-and-Toronto, a scenario which would give anyone hope. Still, standing at 30 points, there's no room for error, and they're going to have to get some help in the form of three or four other teams simply collapsing in the last couple of weeks. Probably not gonna happen.
Toronto: They're all perky and making happy noises north of the border after actually beating someone besides Colorado for th first time since May. Break out the Moosehead and pass around the donuts. I like Chad Barrett as much as the next guy, but it will take more than a cheesy plastic pitch and MLS's notorious reluctance to do anything about their "great great fans" showering opponents with beer and dog crap for them to make it into the playoffs. See ya next season.
Los Angeles: We all know the old expression about how you can't help but watch a train wreck. Well this is a train wreck that you run from, screaming "Sweet Jesus, make it stop". Even if you're a Buddhist. The only reason to watch this outfit is as sort of an exercise in nostalgia: the last team Alexi Lalas destroyed in his long and incompetent career. And you'll need to look fast because Arena is going to take an axe to this outfit starting about tem minutea after the final whistle. He just sits there on the bench plotting his waiver list which, if this thing gets any uglier, will be longer than the casualty roster from the third day at Gettysburg.