Where did the MLS season go?
Just five minutes ago we were all picking the L.A. Galaxy to steamroll through the schedule and have a playoff berth wrapped up by July 4, while saying that clubs such as the Chicago Fire and the MetroStars would struggle in "rebuilding" years under new head coaches.
Now we're left shaking our heads as the eighth season of Major League Soccer comes to a close on Saturday with the playoffs starting next weekend.
What exactly happened this year? Good question.
Taylor Twellman and Carlos Ruiz renewed their goal-scoring race from a year ago, momentarily giving us a case of déjà vu before a pair of hard-luck injuries sidelined the Revs star striker for several weeks and eventually the rest of the season, playoffs included.
The Home Depot Center opened to a rousing success
The MetroStar uniform suited Eddie Pope well.
Chris Armas returned to excellent form from a knee injury. And Josh Wolff got injured. Again. And Again.
Those were all items we could've predicted. Other than that, nothing seemed to go as planned.
Just when the Colorado Rapids were seemingly left for dead and Tim Hankinson was headed for Fernando Clavijoville, they piled up point after point as the summer's biggest blockbuster next to Finding Nemo.
Just when fans had thought that Jeff Agoos was finished, he turned back the clock and masterfully led the Earthquakes defense and was one of the top players in the league for the Western Conference champions.
Just when Columbus looked like the team to beat in the spring, they slumped worse than Alfonso Soriano and found themselves fighting for their playoff lives.
Just when Tim Howard looked like the league's best player, he kicked it up another level. For Manchester United.
For eight teams, the fun is just beginning. For the players on the other two squads, there's probably a high school game down the road for you to watch.
March to October. Just like that. If you happened to miss it or need a refresher course on what transpired, here's a look at the year's best:
MVP: Landon Donovan, San Jose. If you lined up all the league's players on a line and chose sides, you'd be wise to take this 21-year-old first. He backed up his talent this year, scoring 12 goals and serving up six assists to go into the last weekend of the season as the fourth-leading scorer in the league. He did this despite missing seven games due to National Team duty, as well. His 20 points (9 goals, 2 assists) since the All-Star break helped San Jose clinch the top seed in the West without having to play any late-season stressful games.
2. Ante Razov, Chicago. 3. Preki, Kansas City. 4. John Spencer, Colorado. 5. Tie. Ruiz and Pope.
Rookie of the Year: Damani Ralph, Chicago. An easy choice. This second-round choice out of UCONN not only scored several huge goals (11 goals, 6 assists) for the Fire, but also made Razov a better player as his partner up top.
2. Ricardo Clark, MetroStars. 3. Pat Noonan, Revolution 4. Nat Borchers, Colorado. 5. Todd Dunivant, San Jose.
Coach of the Year: Dave Sarachan, Chicago. He inherited a squad that took the field without Peter Nowak, Dema Kovalenko, and Wolff, who were all major contributors under Bob Bradley. Mixing several veterans and newcomers such as Ralph and Logan Pause, the longtime assistant to Bruce Arena simply made it work in Chi-Town when several of us forecasted a down year for the side.
2. Frank Yallop, San Jose. 3. Hankinson.
Goalkeeper of the Year: Pat Onstad, San Jose Came into a tough situation taking over for last season's top goalkeeper, Joe Cannon, but picked up right where the current Rapid backup keeper left off. Posted a league-high nine shutouts and 14 victories, as well as a 1.05 goals-against-average in 26 matches.
2. Nick Rimando, D.C. 3. Zach Thornton, Chicago
Defender of the Year: Pope. It's hard to imagine where the MetroStars would have been had they not acquired the longtime National Team centerback in December. For the first two months of the season, Pope was arguably the league's most valuable player, steering the Metros to the top of the East right out of the gate.
2. Agoos. 3. Carlos Bocanegra, Chicago.
Best Game: San Jose 4, MetroStars 4 on July 2. So what if this game didn't carry any playoff implications -- no match had the excitement and wide-open play of this bazaar mid-week affair during the Dog Days of the season.
There was something for everyone: Three blown leads by the Metros; a rare off-the bench cameo by Donovan; a red card issued over a rare towel slap by Ramiro Corrales to the back of Amado Guevara while he was making a throw-in; and two stoppage-time goals by Clint Mathis and Donovan to ignite and then silence a rabid Meadowlands crowd.
Worst Game: Any one that involved the Dallas Burn, especially at home where the goalmouths were covered with blue paint due to the football end zones.
Best Goal: Ruiz's bike? No. Something off the foot of Ralph? Keep trying. I'll take John Wolyniec's over-the-shoulder left-footed volley in double overtime against Columbus on Sept. 20 to give the MetroStars a 1-0 victory. Considering all of his late-game exploits off the bench for Bradley's squad this year, his heroics in this match seemed fitting.
Worst Goal: Onstad's own goal against Kansas City. In just his second match with the Earthquakes, the Canadian National Team goalkeeper didn't exactly endear himself to the home fans who worshipped Cannon. Trying to make a play on a corner kick by Preki, Onstad's punch went straight up into the air. The ball seemed to be heading straight back down into his arms, but Onstad treated it like a game of "hot potato." Without any help from a Wizard attacker, the routine corner kick found its way into the goal and gave Kansas City a point on the road with a 1-1 tie.
Best Moment: Watching Howard get serenaded by MetroStar fans after playing his last match in MLS against New England before embarking on what has been a wildly successful season as Man. United's starting keeper.
Worst Moment: Watching the video clip of Hristo Stoitchkov's leg-breaking tackle against that poor freshman from American University during a preseason scrimmage.
Hardest-nosed player: Twellman. Literally. Ask Danny Califf's right foot.
Softest-nosed player: Guevara. No man ever hurt so much from a towel snap.
Best Storyline: Chicago's unlikely run to the Supporter's Shield crown.
Worst Storyline: Bobby Convey's dealings with Tottenham Hotspur. What started out as a great opportunity for one of the National Team's young stars ended in embarrassment for everyone involved. The fact that the D.C. United midfielder was denied a work permit to play in the English Premier League was yet another example of the lack of respect that exists in the true established soccer nations around the world for U.S. players and Major League Soccer as a whole.
The All-Acquisition Team: Walker (MetroStars), Frankie Hejduk (Crew), Jimmy Conrad (Wizards), Pope (MetroStars), Borchers (Rapids), Ross Paule (Crew), Brian Mullan (Earthquakes), Guevara (MetroStars), Brad Davis (Burn), Kovalenko (United), and Brian Ching (Earthquakes).
The All-Foreign Talent Team: Onstad (Earthquakes), Ryan Nelsen (D.C.), Igor Simutenkov (Wizards), Marco Etcheverry (D.C.), Andy Williams (Fire), Ronnie Ekelund (Earthquakes), Jose Cancela (Revolution), Guevara (MetroStars), Ralph (Fire), Spencer (Rapids), and Ruiz (Los Angeles).
The All-Rookie Team: Doug Warren (D.C.), Dunivant (Earthquakes), Borchers (Rapids), Shavar Thomas (Burn), Pause (Fire), Clark (MetroStars), Shalrie Joseph (Revolution), Arturo Alvarez (Earthquakes), Ralph (Fire), Noonan (Revolution) and Mike Magee (MetroStars).
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.