One fringe benefit of getting to the second half of the MLS season is you no longer have to hear hedge-your-bet phrases like, "It's early," or "All we have to do is go on a run, and we'll be right back in the playoff hunt." Twenty or so games is a sufficiently large sample size to separate the legitimate contenders from those outfits that are already planning for next year.
Now comes the really fascinating part. Can teams -- and players -- that bossed the league in the first half of the season keep it up? Will some squads in the chasing pack be able to move up the table? Which midseason moves will pay off? These and other questions will no doubt be followed closely as MLS heads deeper into the regular season.
1. Chris Wondolowski's record chase
Roy Lassiter's record of 27 goals in an MLS regular season has certainly stood the test of time. It was set back in the league's inaugural campaign of 1996, and the last time a player came remotely close to breaking the mark was in 2002, when Carlos Ruiz tallied 24 times. Only twice in the past decade has the league's top scorer reached 20 goals in a season.
So can Wondolowski be the one to break through? There are some factors in the San Jose forward's favor. Wondolowski is already on 17 goals, meaning he'll have to score 11 more times in San Jose's remaining 12 games. Seven of those matches will be at home, and eight of San Jose's remaining games are against teams currently residing outside of the playoff places. It also helps that the Quakes aren't encumbered by playing in the CONCACAF Champions League, which will test the endurance of teams such as Seattle and Los Angeles that are still on San Jose's schedule. All told, it's a race that Wondolowski figures to take down to the wire.
2. Will Tim Cahill's presumed arrival push New York over the top?
There is plenty to like about New York's expected acquisition. Cahill's attitude and desire will stand him in good stead, as will his finishing ability, especially in the air. But it seems as if every positive assessment of Cahill concludes with the words "if fit," and that is a major concern. Throughout his career, Cahill has been a player more reliant on industry than artistry, and the worry is that the Australian international lost the jump in his legs over his last season and a half with Everton. Granted, MLS isn't as fast as the EPL, but athleticism is still required. And Cahill isn't exactly the kind of player to unlock defenses. His strength is getting on the end of service into the box, something New York has plenty of already.
And all of the concern over how Cahill fits in to the team fails to address perhaps an even bigger issue: Will New York's defense hold up? The team is coming off two consecutive shutouts, but given manager Hans Backe's insistence on having Rafa Marquez in the lineup -- when healthy -- who knows how New York's defensive performance will trend over the latter part of the season.
3. Here come the Galaxy
After stumbling through much of the first half of the season, the L.A. Galaxy have righted themselves, going 6-2-1 in their past nine games. Better yet, not only are the team's three designated players in scintillating form, but defender Omar Gonzalez is inching closer to full-time duty after recovering from a torn ACL, and that can only mean good news for a defense that has had its share of struggles.
Will L.A. defend its MLS Cup crown? The Galaxy have to deal with their commitments in the CONCACAF Champions League, although with each group containing three teams -- one fewer than last year -- the travel burden will be eased. That said, come playoff time they will be difficult to beat, especially if Gonzalez's play resembles anything close to last year's Defender of the Year form.
4. Are the playoff races pretty much decided?
Not quite, but they're getting close. In the Western Conference, it's difficult to see how Dallas, Portland, Chivas USA or Colorado will pull themselves off the deck and challenge for a spot in the postseason. The only caveat is that Chivas has three games in hand on some of its conference rivals, but given that the Goats' attack has scored a paltry 13 goals in 19 games, it's unlikely they'll be able to pull off a second-half miracle.
In the Eastern Conference, Columbus is the only side on the outside of the playoff places that seems to have a shot at moving up in the standings. But like Chivas, the Crew will need to find a more consistent attack, as well as hope that one of the teams above them endures a second-half collapse.
5. What about the Supporters' Shield?
The award for the highest regular-season point total has lost some of its luster now that league no longer uses a balanced schedule, but that hasn't prevented the trophy from being handed out in the past, and the same will be true this year. At present, the Shield is San Jose's to lose given a schedule tilted slightly toward home games as well as the aforementioned lack of international commitments. But Real Salt Lake will not give up without a fight, and the same is true for New York, Kansas City, D.C. United and Houston in the Eastern Conference. The Dynamo could be an outside contender thanks to the addition of Boniek Garcia, although the loss of Geoff Cameron is a blow. Barry Robson's arrival in Vancouver could do the same for the Whitecaps.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.