10 things we learned from MLS gameweek 31 of the 2016 season

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Here are the ten things we learned from the penultimate week of the 2016 MLS season.

1. Who Would You Want To Be In The West?

We will enter the final day of the MLS regular season next weekend with four teams vying for the final three Western Conference playoff spots.

All four teams – Real Salt Lake, Seattle, Sporting Kansas City, and Portland – would clinch with a win. RSL and the Sounders play each other at CenturyLink Field, Sporting hosts San Jose, and Portland travels to Vancouver.

Question is, of these four teams, who would you want to be?

Salt Lake hasn’t won since August, and has to play on the road next weekend at Seattle. Sporting has an easier fixture against the ‘Quakes, but they also won just once in their last six. That win, as luck would have it, came in San Jose.

Seattle, meanwhile, stood on the precipice of clinching their place in the postseason twice this week – only to fail to score at home against Houston, and then blow a lead at Dallas on Sunday.

The defending champion Timbers, meanwhile, were the only one of this quartet to win on Sunday, beating Colorado 1-0 at a rain-lashed Providence Park, and their final match comes against a team in Vancouver with nothing to play for.

But Portland hasn’t won a road game all season, and they’ll be without at least Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell next weekend due to suspension. The Timbers also have to play a do-or-die CONCACAF Champions League match midweek.

Needless to say, it’s going to be a dramatic final day in the West.

2. The Eastern Conference Playoff Picture Clears

As muddled as things remain in the Western Conference, that’s how clear they’ve become in the East.

Sunday’s results mean this: The Red Bulls will win the conference. They’ll be joined by either NYCFC or Toronto with a first round bye. The team that misses out will host a Wild Card game along with DC United or Montreal. Philadelphia will take the final spot.

New England was nice enough to clear things up early by inexplicably losing at Chicago on Sunday, ending, for all intents and purposes, an extremely frustrating season for Jay Heaps.

The Union, meanwhile, have plenty of reason to be worried. They’re now winless in six, and lost 2-0 at home on Sunday to an Orlando team with nothing to play for in a nervous performance. Jim Curtin has a big job ahead of him.

3. The End of Drogba in Montreal?

In Montreal’s home finale last season, Didier Drogba put on quite the show: A dominant, gravitational performance in a 2-1 win over Toronto that clinched home-field advantage for the Impact heading into the playoffs.

On Sunday, the circumstances were similar: A sold-out Stade Saputo awaited another 401 Derby with massive playoff implications for both teams.

This time, however, Drogba was absent. Not just from the starting lineup, but also from Montreal’s bench and, possibly, the stadium altogether.

The Impact claimed that Drogba was out with a sudden back problem, but Nick Sabetti reported that Drogba had asked to be lifted from the Impact 18 after learning that Maruo Mancosu would start the game up top ahead of him.

Mauro Biello confirmed those reports after the game, saying, “Didier was not selected to start the game. I spoke with him yesterday. He did not accept to come off the bench. In the end, he did not want to be in the 18.”

Two things: One, good for Biello for making a big call. The Impact have been measurably better with a more mobile forward starting this year, and two goals and a punched playoff ticket later, Biello comes away from this particular decision looking just fine.

The other is that this was always a possibility with Drogba, who has never been heralded for his professionalism. Aging is hard, not starting games is hard, but Drogba’s conduct here is simply disgraceful.

Biello has said that he needs him going forward – off the bench – but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen the end of Drogba with the Impact. It’s highly doubtful that any other player would be welcomed back into the team at this stage of the season in similar circumstances.

But in just a year-and-a-half, it’s fair to say that Montreal has gotten the full Didier Drogba experience.

4. Steven Gerrard’s Status

The LA Galaxy were able to scratch out a late win in Houston on Sunday thanks to a classic Alan Gordon goal, but Bruce Arena’s team continues to labor – even with Landon Donovan making the starting lineup for the first time since his return.
Both Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard didn’t make the trip to Texas, with The Mirror reporting midweek that Gerrard was – inexplicably – in Liverpool receiving treatment.

Gerrard would never be as openly insubordinate as Drogba, and it seems like he had LA’s permission to travel back to England this week, but this is unquestionably a terrible look for a player who, it seems, never got comfortable in MLS.

Gerrard wasn’t terrible on the field this year, even if he didn’t fit in LA’s system. But the incessant injuries, disappearances, and dour body language were grating.

Perhaps Gerrard underestimated both the demands of the league and the demands of leaving the only home he’s ever known on Merseyside. But a spell Stateside that began with so much promise last year is about to fizzle to a close.

5. What Has Gotten Into DC United, Part II

Not only did DC United thrash NYCFC 3-1 on Sunday to move up into fourth place and a potential home Wild Card game in the Eastern Conference, but more than 30,000 fans were on hand at RFK Stadium to watch the match.

Certainly, the attendance had plenty to do with New York’s brand and star power. But when NYCFC was in town over the summer, United drew just 14,504.

The fact that DC is, along with the Red Bulls, the league’s hottest team, also has something to do with the sudden explosion in attendance. It also likely doesn’t hurt that the team’s Buzzard Point stadium is going to a reality in 2018.

Things are happening for this franchise – and as far as the team on the field, they’re going to be a real threat to make the Eastern Conference Final.

6. The Timbers Fight On

It was do-or-die for the Portland Timbers on Sunday afternoon at a rain-swept Providence Park against a Colorado Rapids team chasing the Supporters’ Shield, and – though it wasn’t pretty – the defending champs got the job done.

Thanks to one of Fanendo Adi’s penalties – he rather forget the other one – the Timbers got their league-leading twelfth home win of the season and gave Jack Jewsbury the sendoff he deserved in his final home match.

The dichotomy between Portland’s home and away form this year has been maybe the crown marvel of another bonkers MLS season. In the end, it’s most likely going to take just one road win to give the Timbers a shot at defending their crown.

If Portland can’t get that road win next Sunday in Vancouver – without Diego Chara and Liam Ridgewell due to yellow card accumulation – then they absolutely shouldn’t be in the postseason.

Colorado, meanwhile, has potentially let one of the most improbable Supporters’ Shield titles in league history slip through its grasp. The Rapids now a win over Houston and an LA win over Dallas next weekend.

7. Mauro Diaz

Dallas got a huge, come-from-behind 2-1 win over Seattle in Frisco on Sunday, but it may have come at what, for this team, is the ultimate price: Mauro Diaz was stretchered off at full-time with what the team reportedly fears could be an ACL tear.

This Dallas team – which stands now just one point away from winning the Supporters’ Shield – was able to weather the loss, for the most part, of Fabian Castillo earlier in the season.

But it won’t survive losing Diaz. If he is out for the year, you can stick a fork in Dallas. That team, for several years now, has only been itself with Diaz on the field. He makes the entire operation go.

A major injury to Diaz, who has been injury-prone throughout his career, would be heartbreaking for Dallas and a terrible loss for the league as a whole going into the playoffs.

One thing is for sure: The Western Conference is as wide open as it has been in years.

8. Vancouver and San Jose

Tied 0-0 at Avaya Stadium, which, I think, tells you all you need to know about those two teams.

Both clubs have the chance to play spoiler next weekend, but the ‘Caps – at least ostensibly – have more to play for. They’ll be at home, against a rival, and, though it’s a long-shot, they still have an outside chance to win the Cascadia Cup.

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