Dane Richards had one of his best games of the season on Sunday.
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Monday Postmortem: Richards wins LA-NY, Wizards lose their magic

Welcome to the first installment of the Monday Postmortem, a new feature here on MLSsoccer.com in which we break down the most recent week of action as the push for the playoffs heats up.

As potential weeks to launch a column go, this one could hardly have been better: There was a hat trick in Toronto (though not by a Red), one of the most hotly anticipated games in league history in LA, a pair of record unbeaten streaks extended and, of course, the unruly playoff picture.

Also: For the second straight week, no scoreless draws! 

Let’s get to it:

Showdown In Tinseltown

Has enough been said about this game? Maybe. Maybe not. So, here are three (hopefully) new thoughts on this one and its aftermath:

  1. The Dane Richards Paradox: We asked Mrs. MPM for a definition of “paradox” last night, and she immediately shot back: “a seeming contradiction that is nonetheless true.” Well played, Mrs. MPM. 
    The Richards Paradox is that he is simultaneously boneheaded and brilliant. No player in the league, and maybe the world, combines the two qualities like Richards does. Frequently in the same play. Friday night’s game encapsulated the phenomenon. Multiple promising attacks fizzled at his feet, causing Red Bulls fans to slam their foreheads, and he scored a goal and set up the other one in the Red Bulls’ big win. It’s really quite something. Fortunately for New York fans, though, the good has far outweighed the bad recently. Richards has three goals and an assist in his last five games.
  2. Joel Lindpere has been the most consistent Red Bull—and the most valuable. He scored the first goal of the year for New York back in March, setting the tone that he’s maintained all season, up to and including Friday night. He was, as usual, excellent on both sides of the ball, and he banged one off the post to set up Richards’ opening goal.
  3. He may not know the expression, but Hans Backe has been “playing possum.” This solid, comprehensive victory was the Red Bulls’ best result of the year—and it came without their most gifted player, Thierry Henry. For us, one of the leading indicators of Red Bull title-readiness was the excellent performance of the central defenders, Tim Ream and Carlos Mendes. When newcomer Carey Talley went down with an injury, Mike Petke came in to the middle and Mendes moved out wide. Number of beats skipped: zero—just like the number of goals allowed. Despite what their coach says, this team is ready to compete for a championship now. 

Playoff picture

Toronto, Chicago and Kansas City all faced must-win games, and all three stumbled. Now the gate is even wider for the Western Conference to put dibs on six of the eight postseason berths.

It’s not a done deal—the above three teams are still mathematically alive—but if we were looking at the possibility of six Western teams last week, we are now going nose-to-nose with it.

If the season ended today, here’s what the matchups would look like:

Columbus vs. Colorado

New York vs. San Jose

Los Angeles vs. Seattle

Real Salt Lake vs. Dallas

Contenders to pretenders

Of the three Eastern Conference teams that couldn’t get it done, Kansas City surprised us the most – We thought they’d ride the momentum of their dramatic comeback win over Houston on Wednesday, and take three points at home against Dallas. It didn’t happen. They lost 3-1 and now sit five points shy of the eighth and final playoff spot with five games to play.

(Quick sidenote before we leave the Wizards: Did you see Kei Kamara’s rocket off the bar against Houston this past Wednesday? [WATCH] He didn’t score, but Sweet Mother of Science did he hit that thing. We’re surprised the ball survived the impact. Too bad they didn’t have the radar gun out at CommunityAmerica that night. That shot was Aroldis Chapman-esque.)

Toronto couldn’t overcome three goals by the Quakes’ Chris Wondolowski, and fell 3-2 to drop seven points south of Playoff-ville, which is pretty much a case of “you can’t get there from here.”

We know that MLS doesn’t have a Most Improved Player Award, but if it did, league brass could hand it over to Wondolowski right now. The 27-year-old attacker out of Chico State had never scored more than five goals in a season before. He has 12 this year.

The Fire took a shot to the gut on Saturday at Toyota Park, in the form of an 88th-minute winner by Seattle DP Blaise Nkufo. The only goal of the game, it pretty much put Chicago out of business for 2010, 12 points behind with six games to play.

Colorado kept pace with the playoff in-crowd, earning a draw at Rio Tinto Stadium against a Real Salt Lake team in the midst of a busy stretch of games and resting several starters. A stoppage-time header by Real Salt Lake’s Nat Borchers salvaged both the tie and RSL’s record 24-game home unbeaten streak.

The defense rests ... when it should be working

While there were some terrific goals in Week 26, there was an equal helping of shoddy defending.

The Wizards-Houston game last Wednesday—as thrilling as Kansas City’s 4-3 comeback was—featured some horrendously soft goals, and the euphoria of KC’s victory papered over, to some extent, their real flaws on defense.

Those flaws were exposed on Saturday by a better team—Dallas—who pierced the Wizards D twice inside the first 15 minutes and extended their club-record unbeaten streak to 17 games. Dallas also finally, you know, won a game, instead of racking up their 234th tie of the season (we’re ballparking that number).

Matador D was also on display in the Toronto-San Jose game, Philly’s 3-0 rout of Chivas USA, and in Columbus’s 2-2 fightback at New England. 

Last ... and, sadly, least

The battle between once-great franchises Houston and D.C. United pretty much typified DC’s season as a whole: Rookie sensation Andy Najar scored a goal and tormented Houston’s D on many occasions, but United made enough mistakes to lose 3-1. Coach Ben Olsen put it perfectly: “We let each other down again.”