Sweeping up after the MLS weekend party, here are 10 things I found lying around:
1. Tight games, tight nerves. Fans talk a lot here about player development, chewing on debates about which players should steel themselves in Europe, typically in agreement that only cross-Atlantic soccer can unlock maximum potential.
But you want to know how players can get better, faster in MLS? Watch a league match right now and you'll see how.
The games matter right now as never before. That means individual actions matter. Choices matter. Little things count. Fewer mulligans are being handed out -- and that elevated pressure is required to squeeze the best out of players, the way pressure squeezes flavor from espresso beans.
A more forgiving playoff structure has generally failed to furnish that degree of stress. But the league has grown and the ratio of playoff sides has shrunk, creating ever fiercer competition for postseason spots.
Mistakes are being severely punished at the moment. D.C. United goalkeeper Louis Crayton made a mess of things early for D.C. United; goal Chivas USA! Colorado goalkeeper Preston Burpo screwed up; goal Houston! Increasingly erratic Red Bulls defender Gabriel Cichero botched another one; goal Toronto!
(Is anybody having a worse two weeks than Cichero? He'll miss this week's trip to Salt Lake to play for Venezuela, which hosts Brazil and Ecuador. If he plays, take Brazil and Ecuador.)
All three of those crippling mistakes came at home, and in each case the home team fell. At least one of them is almost sure to miss the playoffs. Connect the dots.
2. Who can find a way? Games right now are all about finding a way to win on that day. The time for teaching and for perfecting this or that is done. Recriminations about poor personnel choices can wait. So can feeling sorry for yourself about injuries.
It's all about adapting and overcoming on that day; about using what you have, about competing.
In Round 28, neither Dallas nor San Jose could find solutions in a match in which the two clubs cancelled each other in fairly conservative 4-4-2 setups, both looking to counter.
Bruce Arena made lineup changes and tried to go more direct. But there wasn't enough going on in the central midfield area, and the Galaxy couldn't find a way to score in a loss at Columbus.
D.C. United couldn't find a way around its injury-related creativity gap, falling at home to Chivas USA, which always finds a way to stay close and, often, to win.
Toronto found a way to claim three desperately needed points, winning on the road for just the fourth time in franchise history. In New England, the Revs were off their game, unable to pass through midfield. So they went more direct and rallied for a draw with two late strikes.
3. Keeping things tight. This was the first October weekend in MLS history where 14 teams were either in the playoffs or still fighting to get there. That's great stuff.
If you could have scripted Round 28 to ensure all 14 sides remained in contention, you would've prescribed a mix of draws and wins for the road teams.
What did we get? Three draws and three victories for the travelers in seven matches. Perfect.
4. Just so there's no confusion. MLS just completed Round 28. Three rounds remain. If that's confusing, here's why: Teams play 30 matches each, but do so over 31 weeks. So now you know.
5. Playoff reset. Who's in: Columbus.
Who's officially eliminated: No one yet, but check back next week. L.A. and Toronto each have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
Who is looking pretty good: Houston, Chivas USA, New England and Chicago.
Who looks shaky in the standings, but has a slightly easier schedule: Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and San Jose.
That leaves Red Bull New York, D.C. United, Colorado and Dallas all still in the mix, but with some heavy lifting ahead.
6. Wither Beckham. David Beckham, bright and spry, had four goals and five assists in the Galaxy's first nine games of 2008. In his 15 matches since, just one goal and four assists.
Further, "Becks" has no goals and just one assist in his last six Galaxy matches, as Los Angeles' playoff chances' languish.
7. Command performances. The first note was about costly mistakes and toxic pressure. But some players certainly rise to the moment.
RSL's Javier Morales scored a wonderfully opportunistic goal, then picked up assist No. 12 on a sweetly chipped pass. Another well-weighted defense splitter led to a goal last week.
Alecko Eskandarian, helping fill the void created by Ante Razov's latest injury at Chivas USA, has scored in three consecutive matches.
Red Bulls midfielder Dave van den Bergh looked good in his return from sports hernia surgery. He couldn't do enough to save the night Saturday, but if Red Bull gains playoff grace, his passing and industry in wide areas will surely be among the reasons.
And Robbie Rogers simply continues to impress. His dribbling and combo work with Guillermo Barros Schelotto helped initiate Columbus' lone goal Saturday. Plus, L.A.'s Beckham and Pete Vagenas picked up first-half yellow cards while attempting to deal with Rogers' speed. If Rogers isn't back in Europe at this time next year, I'll be shocked.
8: Misplaced outrage. So much consternation in San Jose's locker room Thursday was over Abbey Okulaja's 89th-minute penalty kick decision on "MLS Primetime Thursday" for Dallas.
Okulaja may have missed that one, but it was a tough call and Francisco Lima didn't help by throwing his arms out just before the cross. Anyway, it was a visual error. And it was hardly Okulaja's worst moment.
His earlier choice to allow Duilio Davino to remain on the field was reprehensible. The Dallas defender reached up and intentionally handled a ball, preventing a clear scoring opportunity as Scott Sealy raced in alone. In that case, Okulaja actually had a few seconds to consider his action. He simply chose, for whatever reason, to be lenient on what was surely a red card offense.
9. Cutting off your nose to spite your face. What in the world did Christian Gomez do to Rapids interim manager Gary Smith? Down two goals at home, desperate for points, and Smith still doesn't pry the league's 2006 MVP off the bench?
10. Heads up. The next round of teeth gnashing over MLS scheduling begins in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
Playoffs are on the line in easily the most exciting, inclusive chase yet. So it really stinks that some premium talent won't be around to decide matters. Alas, MLS plays through another FIFA fixture date this weekend.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.