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Final week of MLS regular season provides fitting end to a wild year

For possibly the first time in MLS history, every match during the final week of the season had some meaning to the playoff race.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Hopefully you've finally had a chance to catch your breath after what has to be the craziest finish to the most competitive season in MLS history. For what I believe is the first time in the league's 18 seasons, every game during the final month had some effect on the playoffs. Also a league first: the Supporters' Shield winner wasn't decided until the final day of the season, with the New York Red Bulls needing to pull out a win over the Chicago Fire in order to win the franchise's first major trophy.

As it were, the Red Bulls result also sealed the playoff field, as the Fire were the final team to be eliminated.

Here are some of the highlights of the final week (in chronological order)

Real Salt Lake applies the pressure

A lot of things needed to happen in order for the tension to be ratcheted up, and the games followed the script almost perfectly. The first was that RSL needed to beat Chivas USA, which was actually the only game in the final week that pitted a playoff qualified team against an opponent that had already been eliminated. Chivas USA at least managed to make a game of it, taking it in halftime tied and causing RSL some heartburn with several close misses before class prevailed.

In any case, the result temporarily put RSL in the top spot in the West.

Union can't close

It has been an uneven season for the Philadelphia Union, never winning more than two straight or losing more than two in a row. For the most part, they've bobbed up and down around the playoff line. So maybe it's fitting that their season ended in such fashion.

After looking listless for much of the first 85 minutes, they came to life and finally equalized in the 88th on a Jack McInerney goal. A tie was never going to be enough to get them in, but they at least had life.

But Sporting Kansas City extinguished whatever hope there was when Lawrence Olum scored his first career goal in the 92nd minute. The win also temporarily lifted KC into the Supporters' Shield lead, with only a Red Bulls win standing in their way.

Impact back in

As much attention as the Sounders late struggles have garnered, it's a little easy to overlook what has happened to the Impact. Here's a team that was leading the Supporters' Shield race on Sept. 8, but was suddenly in danger of missing the playoffs after going 1-5-1 heading into their season finale.

Facing lowly Toronto FC -- a team that had claimed six points in their last 11 games -- the Impact could still book their ticket with a win. As we know by now, that didn't happen.

TFC got a goal from Robert Earnshaw in the 16th minute and held on. That put the Impact in the precarious position of needing some help to get in. Luckily, for them, they did.

Timbers put exclamation point on amazing turnaround

It's almost crazy to think that a year ago, the Timbers were one of the worst teams in MLS. They had just finished a season in which only two teams had fewer points than their 34 and a worse goal-difference than their -22.

Fast forward to Saturday.

By thumping Chivas USA 5-0 on the road -- which, it should be said, was the franchise's first-ever win in Southern California -- they completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in MLS history. Their 57 points were 23 better than a year ago and, even more remarkably, they ended the season with a league-best +21 goal difference that represented an almost-hard-to-believe 43-goal turnaround.

More relevantly, the win guaranteed them the top seed in the Western Conference and potentially the first all-Cascadia playoff series.

Revs are back

It's been awhile, but the New England Revolution are finally in the postseason again. They didn't make it particularly easy on themselves, though.

The Revs got a 28th minute goal from Juan Agudelo -- who has seven goals in about 1,000 minutes since being traded to New England -- and then held on for dear life. Not that they are complaining, of course.

Once one of the proudest franchises in MLS, the Revolution had not made the playoffs since 2009. But in just his second year at the helm, Jay Heaps has shown that he can turn a group of talented players into an effective team. Keep an eye on these guys.

Red Bulls off the schneid

There's a joke that has made its way around MLS supporters group circles that goes something like this: "Why does Red Bull come in cans? Because they have no cups." It was funny because it was true. The Red Bulls were the oldest MLS team that had never won the MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield or U.S. Open Cup. Opposing fans will now have to come up with a new diss.

The Red Bulls finally got the monkey off their backs, doing so in pretty impressive fashion. Needing a win of their own to accomplish the feat and facing a Fire team that needed at least a tie to make the playoffs, the Red Bulls fell behind early but stormed ahead with a dominant second half.

After Mike Magee scored his 21st goal of the season in the 6th minute, the Red Bulls answered with Thierry Henry's 11th. The Fire had most of the play for the rest of the first half, and seemed quite capable of at least holding on for a tie. But Ibrahim Sekagya won a goal-mouth scramble near the start of the second half to grab a lead and then Lloyd Same effectively put the match away with a beautiful left-footed strike in the 56th minute. Two more Red Bulls goals followed allowing the Red Bull faithful to stretch their celebration out even further.

Say what you will about the real value of the Shield in a league with an unbalanced schedule, but Red Bulls fans deserved this as much as anyone. They've stuck with a team that has, at times, looked completely listless, and the organization did them a solid by having a postgame ceremony to mark the occasion.

For their part, the Fire only needed a tie to get into the playoffs and end the Impact's misery. Instead, the Impact live to fight another day.

Sounders limp to finish line

It wasn't the prettiest game, but the MLS regular-season finale was at least worth watching, which is really the way this campaign needed to end. The Sounders grabbed an early lead on Clint Dempsey's first goal since signing with the Sounders, but the Galaxy equalized on Robbie Keane's turf-aided 78th minute strike.

The tie allowed the Galaxy to get a few days of rest before taking on RSL in the Western Conference semifinals, while the Sounders must regroup for a home game against the Rapids on Wednesday in the "first-round" knockout game.

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