The weekend after the All-Star Game begins the traditional second half of the MLS season. On this particular beginning of the second half, headlines were mostly dominated by something off the field -- Landon Donovan's pending retirement -- than the important matches on it.
Still, as temperatures heat up across the continent, so do the playoff races in each conference. Things in the middle are tight, and any match that pits two playoff contenders takes on outsized importance.
Time to recap Week 22 of the MLS season, from Donovan's announcement (and the game the next day) through to the battle for playoff spots on each side of the divide.
Say Hello to Donovan's Goodbye
What a week for Donovan. On Saturday, the Galaxy star showed flashes of his old trademark speed while helping his MLS team to a 3-1 win over Portland. Then, on Wednesday, Donovan scored the winning goal in a 2-1 MLS All-Stars win over Bayern Munich -- his first All-Star Game goal in 12 years.
Thursday brought the stunning announcement that that Donovan, at just 32, will be retiring from professional soccer at season's end.
It seemed fitting that a day after the retirement news, Donovan's Galaxy played his first MLS club, the San Jose Earthquakes. The game ended in a 2-2 draw despite L.A.'s domination, with Donovan himself playing a large role in the outcome. Thus begins a three-month farewell tour for a man who is inarguably Major League Soccer's greatest-ever player.
Over the course of the remainder of the 2014 MLS season, fans across the country will get their chance to say goodbye to Donovan. His legacy as a pioneer of the league -- a preternaturally gifted player who chose to stay at home rather than scrap for a place at a club in Europe -- should be unassailable.
How the fans in cities like Columbus, Seattle, and Dallas will choose to send him off isn't entirely clear as Donovan is far from a universally loved figure, but even that fact says something about the foundation Donovan helped to build in a league that is very different from the one he joined in 2001.
Perhaps overshadowed by the news that the American face of MLS will retire this season was the record set by Nick Rimando in Real Salt Lake's 3-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday. From a team standpoint, the victory bolstered belief that RSL is rounding into the type of form that will make them a real contender for a return to the MLS Cup final this season; on the individual front, the clean sheet was Rimando's 113th of his long and stellar MLS career, a record.
- Carlisle: Week 22 Power Rankings
- Carlisle: Donovan's retirement plan affects L.A.'s fans deeply
Rimando passed Kevin Hartman on the all-time shutouts list, a testament to the RSL keeper's longevity. At every stop in career, he excelled, from the Miami Fusion through to his current team in Utah. Alongside Kyle Beckerman, the goalkeeper is the face of a franchise in the league's smallest market that has carved out a successful existence along the Wasatch Front. It's not crazy to think that success doesn't happen without Rimando, one of the most engaging, likeable players in MLS.
There's a flip side to Rimando's record, which deserves mention even if it takes something away from the achievement. One can't help but wonder if the goalkeeper -- listed at 5-foot-10 -- might have departed MLS for Europe a long time ago if only he were slightly taller. At the same time, his small stature (for a goalkeeper) only makes his feats all the more impressive. Not blessed with the natural advantage of taller keepers, he is still among the best of all time in a league rich with great keepers.
Best of all, Rimando shows no sign of going anywhere anytime soon.
This is MLS, which means that even a poor first half of a season doesn't necessarily bury teams striving to make the postseason. Such is the case for the Portland Timbers, a side that has underachieved for much of 2014. Despite lurking below the playoff line for most of the year, the Timbers have now won three of their last four games and can reasonably believe qualification is within reach.
The Timber still sit outside the playoff spots, but the recent run is proof of their potential to surprise. In a comprehensive 2-0 win over Chivas USA at Providence Park on Saturday, the Timbers got goals from Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace. Valeri, in particular, drives the Timbers; if there's a postseason to be had in Oregon, it might come on the back of Valeri's play.
But it only gets harder from here for Caleb Porter. The Timbers enter CONCACAF Champions League play next Tuesday, adding a new ball to the juggling act the head coach must do with his squad. Portland is a team that doesn't want to throw in the towel on any competition, but it will be interesting to see how seriously the Timbers take the Champions League with their MLS season hanging in the balance. Throwing in midweek games, some of them with significant travel, makes an already difficult job even tougher.
If Toronto FC makes the playoffs for the first time in franchise history this season, we may look back at their 3-2 victory over Columbus on Saturday as the moment that solidified their postseason credentials. Staring down a 2-2 road draw against a rival for a top-five spot in the East on the road that would do little for them, the Reds pulled out a victory thanks to a fantastic headed goal from English striker Luke Moore.
Defensively, the performance wasn't one Toronto will want to replicate down the stretch. But Ryan Nelsen's team created numerous chances in the match, exhibiting the problems they can create for opposing teams. Brazilian forward Gilberto scored for the second consecutive match; if TFC gets contributions from the 25-year old commensurate with that of Moore, they'll be a much more dangerous team. That's especially true if Jermain Defoe's groin injury keeps him out of the lineup any longer than it already has.
For a variety of reasons, TFC hasn't looked like a complete team at many points this season. They are still working through issues of rhythm and selection, but the win on the road in Columbus -- one that gives them a four-point gap on fourth-place New York -- bodes well for a first postseason appearance.
Team of the WeekGoalkeeper: Nick Rimando
Defenders: Chad Marshall, Bakary Soumare, Chris Schuler
Midfielders: Diego Valeri, Michael Bradley, Pedro Morales, Michel
Forwards: Luke Moore, Chris Wondolowski, Joao Plata