The deeper into the MLS season we go, the more unpredictable the league seems to be. Consistency is a tricky proposition, with even the most talented squads hit by the grind of travel and injury at a point in the season when every match seems to count just a little bit more.
Week 23 was marked by a couple of surprising routs, the fight for the top spot in the West and the potential relegation of a high-profile player to the bench, thanks to the work of his replacement.
Routs, Routs, Routs
The MLS weekend delivered three routs, one of them truly surprising by virtue of the victim.
If it was rude of the Columbus Crew to punish the LA Galaxy 4-1 in Columbus on Saturday immediately after honoring the retiring Landon Donovan, the fans didn't care. Gregg Berhalter's team showed scoring prowess it had been lacking for much of the season, with Justin Meram's wonder strike the goal that got the Crew off the mark. Only Gyasi Zardes' ninth goal in his last 10 games sullied the Columbus domination of the Western Conference power.
LA's defensive unit was slow to respond to the Crew attack. Time and time again the home side got behind the Galaxy back line. Bruce Arena's team created chances, but poor finishing and quality goalkeeping from Steve Clark prevented the Galaxy from making a game of it.
In Kansas City, Sporting used two penalties from Dom Dwyer to jump to a 2-0 lead before tacking on to crush Toronto FC 4-0. Soony Saad's half-volley rocket deserves special mention, as does the consolidation by Sporting of their first-place spot in the Eastern Conference. While Seattle swoons out West, Sporting will have a rightful claim to best team in MLS. The kings of the conference taught the upstart Canadian club what it means to be on top.
In San Jose, FC Dallas put on a show by blitzing the Earthquakes 5-0. Rookie striker Tesho Akindele collected a hat trick, bringing his season total to seven and placing his name into the Rookie of the Year running. Fabian Castillo -- an incredibly talented player who is now coming into his own for FC Dallas -- made life hell for San Jose's defense. The rout extends Dallas' win streak to three games and keeps the team in the thick of the incredibly competitive Western Conference race.
Crew Throw Down
Who needs Mix Diskerud, or another striker? The Crew's destruction of the Galaxy also throws another wrinkle into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Every win looms large, especially a somewhat unexpected one against a Western Conference power. The remaining schedule will turn the respective conferences inward on each other for the bulk of the stretch run, and there might not be a better way for Columbus to build confidence than by destroying an acknowledged MLS Cup contender.
The Crew have needed striker help for months but failed to bring one in during the transfer window. They might still add an unattached player to bolster their forward corps, but any such signing is unlikely to be of significant quality. Berhalter must instead figure out a way to make what he has effective.
The West's Best
It's difficult not to see Real Salt Lake's 2-1 win over the Sounders at Rio Tinto Stadium as something important to the future of the Western Conference. Seattle could hardly be said to be foundering at this point, though three losses in their last four match represents a significant downturn for Sigi Schmid's team. RSL has taken advantage, jumping over the Sounders for first place.
If Seattle doesn't regain the top spot in the West -- and it does have two fewer games played than RSL -- Saturday's game might be the moment when others staked their claim. In the aftermath of the game, RSL's sixth game without a defeat, Joao Plata's name entered the MVP conversation. Plata, who measures all of 5-foot-2, scored a headed goal for the second game running to bring his season total to 11. Plata's goal-scoring exploits come at a crucial time for Real, with Alvaro Saborio still recovering from injury.
Combined with LA's big loss in Columbus, RSL's win ensures the battle for Western Conference supremacy will be one worth watching down the stretch of the MLS season.
Eddie Johnson didn't play for D.C. United on Sunday night against the Colorado Rapids because of a two-game suspension handed down by MLS for his ill-advised kick of the ball into a prone Carlos Salcedo last week. After the performance put in by Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva in United's 4-2 win over the Rapids, one can't help but wonder if Johnson's absence from the lineup might not extend past his ban.
Johnson's behavior, made worse by the Twitter spat he had with a fan in the aftermath, isn't sitting well with head coach Ben Olsen. As D.C. United continues their surprising challenge for first place in the Eastern Conference, distractions like Johnson's latest petulant turn are exactly what Olsen wants to avoid. A collection of veteran, team-first players, with a few young stars in waiting mixed in, have United overachieving by almost any measure. If Johnson isn't contributing enough to overcome his behavior (he has four goals in 19 starts), and the combination of Espindola and Silva is working, Olsen has no choice but to leave the DP on the bench.
Of course, United heads into CONCACAF Champions League this week, so depth will be needed. Johnson figures to play: The question is, how much?Team of the week: