As the 2014 MLS season trudges into the final quarter, a distinct group of tiers is forming among its teams.
The deeper Western Conference can count four squads -- the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Los Angeles Galaxy -- in the top group. In the East, Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United look down on the rest of the conference.
Logic dictates that one of those six teams will lift the MLS Cup come December; but this is Major League Soccer, which means anything can, and likely will, happen.
Time for a review of the major storylines coming out of Week 24.
Sounding off in Portland
The Cascadia Derby matches between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are invariably the best MLS has to offer in terms of passion and intensity.
Seattle's 4-2 win on the road in the most recent edition, played Sunday in Portland, might serve to relaunch the Sounders' 2014 season. Sounders fans in full voice at Providence Park certainly expressed that well-won belief.
Make no mistake, the Sounders are still the best team in MLS over the balance of the campaign, even if they briefly slipped behind D.C. United in the Supporters' Shield race heading into their match with the Timbers, in large part due to their league-best points per game average.
Still, there was reason to think that Seattle might be coming undone at roughly the same time that last year's season flagged, with three losses in its past five matches portending a downward slide.
Seattle could still fade a bit -- especially in light of serious competition for not only the Supporters' Shield but also first place in the West -- but the way Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins & Co. took apart the Timbers gives reason to believe this year is different.
Sigi Schmid's team has an embarrassment of riches on the attacking end of the field, and as long as Chad Marshall can stay healthy (his status in the coming days is worth watching after the centre-back took an elbow to the head from Norberto Paparatto), the Sounders will still top any list of MLS Cup contenders.
Red Bulls take off
At the halftime break in Harrison, New Jersey, on Saturday afternoon, the New York Red Bulls trailed the last-place Montreal Impact 1-0 thanks to a disastrous defensive breakdown that allowed midfielder Dilly Duka to fire a shot past Luis Robles.
Mike Petke's halftime interview revealed the coach's disgust, perhaps presaging a fire-and-brimstone speech in the locker room.
Whether Petke lit into his players or not, the Red Bulls responded. Four second-half goals, two by the stellar Thierry Henry and two by new all-time New York single-season goal-scoring record-holder Bradley Wright-Phillips, led New York to a much-needed win.
Wright-Phillips collected his 19th and 20th goals of the year, extending his league-leading total and pushing him past Juan Pablo Angel for the franchise record.
Again, Henry played a vital role in setting up his teammate, though it was the two tallies put home by the Frenchman that again showed his brilliance.
Forgiving the fact that it was Montreal on the other side, New York's goal explosion in the second half should give the club belief it can overcome some consistency issues and stake a solid claim to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Kings in the east
While New York scrambled to grab three crucial points at home against the conference's worst team, the two best teams in the East squared off in Kansas City with first place on the line.
The round, and the right to call themselves conference leader, went to D.C. United via a surprising 3-0 scoreline.
Over a span of just eight minutes midway through the first half, United struck for three goals and put the game away.
Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe and Perry Kitchen each punished Sporting on the counter, making hay of a strategy that led to the visitors controlling possession only 37 percent of the time.
Keeping the ball didn't matter to Ben Olsen's side, with its incisive movement punishing a Sporting team perhaps lagging due to a midweek Champions League match in Nicaragua.
Both teams entered the game with Champions League openers under their belt, but D.C. benefited from playing at home midweek and having the luxury of using reserves ahead of the crucial league matchup.
Whatever excuses Sporting might have, however, there's no denying that the defending champion isn't nearly as good at home as it should be. That fact might play a large role in whether Sporting is able to lock down the top seed in the conference by season's end.
Burn Baby Burn
The MLS club in north Texas hasn't gone by the "Dallas Burn" moniker since 2004, but maybe a revival of the name is apropos considering the team's form over the past 10 matches.
In other words, FC Dallas is on fire.
A 2-1 result against Real Salt Lake in Frisco, Texas, pushed Oscar Pareja's team to a run of 10 games unbeaten with seven wins and vaulted FC Dallas into a tie for second place with RSL.
The club took advantage of a relatively easy portion of its schedule -- including facing Chivas USA, New England Revolution, San Jose Earthquakes and the suddenly bad Colorado Rapids (twice) -- to give itself a chance to contend for Western Conference honors.
More impressive than the unbeaten run was the way FC Dallas stifled the RSL attack on Saturday while still creating chances through Fabian Castillo (one goal) despite being a man down for nearly all of the second half.
Striker Blas Perez received a second caution just minutes into the final 45, putting the home side at a disadvantage against a team that needs little help to leverage its fluid passing game into scoring opportunities.
Unlike Seattle, L.A. or even RSL, the other teams in the upper echelon out West, FC Dallas transitions from one type of style to another without missing a beat. That's a credit not only to Pareja and his direction but also to a group of players who selflessly fill whatever role is required of them through injuries or fatigue.
FC Dallas' opening goal came from Je-Vaughn Watson, a player who embodies that spirit. Watson's ability to slot into defense, where he played against RSL, is even more impressive considering his quality play this year in the team's ever-shifting midfield corps.
Team of the Week