A year-and-a-half into its Major League Soccer existence, the league's most ready-made villain is finally stepping confidently into the role.

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Villains should not inspire pity.

On paper, it was as if New York City FC had been created in a lab as Major League Soccer’s perfect foil. It thumbed its nose at both the league’s no soccer-only-stadium, no expansion team precedent and the idea that teams should be organically sourced rather than imported from Europe.

The club was the product of a collaboration between Manchester City and the Yankees, just to make sure it attracted the resentment of both new-money and old-money haters.

But throughout its expansion campaign last season, NYCFC languished too far down the Eastern Conference standings to inspire any kind of real resentment.

It does not have that problem anymore.

New York City FC has pulled four points clear atop the East. And with its comprehensive 5-1 rout of Colorado, the league’s stingiest defense, NYCFC has established itself as a legitimate MLS Cup contender.

That it was Frank Lampard who did most of damage on Saturday at Yankee Stadium makes for easy symbolism. Lampard was the club’s first big-name signing — only he didn’t join NYCFC until midway through its inaugural year once its parent company established that he could still be of actual use to Man City and extended what had been a short-term loan.

Lampard was a convenient target, an aging former European star cashing big paychecks while on the bench with a serious of nagging injuries. But finally healthy, he has been a driving force behind the Year 2 turnaround. His hat trick against the Rapids was the first in club history — and one more than any Timber has managed in Portland’s five-plus MLS seasons.

Former Barcelona forward David Villa is an MVP candidate, and Andrea Pirlo has found his niche under first-year head coach Patrick Vieira. Jack Harrison might be the league’s Rookie of the Year, and the role players have stepped up around the edges.

Like it or not, NYCFC has the look of a team that could make a deep postseason run.

– It would boost any kind of still-hypothetical Sounders playoff push should the top three teams in the West pull away from the pack, and in that vein, Dallas did them a favor with its comfortable 2-0 home win over Vancouver on Sunday evening.

Even if Seattle does heat up over its final 13 league games, it’s not going to catch FCD, Colorado or Los Angeles. The gap is too wide.

Kansas City, Vancouver, Portland — and to a lesser extent, Salt Lake — though? The trailing hoard of Western Conference playoff contenders is riddled with flaws. Sporting has faded down the stretch in recent seasons, and the Whitecaps have struggled to recapture the spark of last year’s breakout campaign. Portland can’t win on the road.

If the Sounders are to make a late surge, they’ll be rooting for a clean break between the legitimate frontrunners and everybody else.

– Cascadian rivals Vancouver and Portland continue to tinker in the last days of the summer transfer window. The ‘Caps, still reeling from the loss to Kekuta Manneh to injury, traded allocation money to Houston on Saturday evening for speedy winger Giles Barnes. And the Timbers, who will be without injured center back Nat Borchers for the rest of this season, on Monday announced the addition of longtime Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor.

– Goal of the week: Joao Plata, Real Salt Lake.

They don’t hit them much better than that. Plata’s long-range curler helped spark an RSL comeback, as Salt Lake rallied from one goal down for a much-needed road win in Philly.

– Matches to watch in the coming weeks: Salt Lake at Toronto (Wednesday at 4 p.m. PST on MLS Live), Kansas City at Portland (Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN), New York Red Bulls at Los Angeles (Sunday at 6:30 on Fox Sports 1).

Updated standings:

Eastern Conference

Points Overall Home Away
# Club PTS PPG GP W L T GF GA GD W-L-T W-L-T
1 New York City FC 36 1.57 23 10 7 6 40 40 0 4-3-5 6-4-1
2 New York Red Bulls 32 1.39 23 9 9 5 38 30 8 8-2-1 1-7-4
3 Toronto FC 30 1.43 21 8 7 6 28 23 5 5-1-3 3-6-3
4 Philadelphia Union 30 1.36 22 8 8 6 36 35 1 7-2-3 1-6-3
5 Montreal Impact 30 1.43 21 7 5 9 36 31 5 5-2-3 2-3-6
6 New England Revolution 26 1.18 22 6 8 8 28 36 -8 5-2-4 1-6-4
7 Orlando City SC 26 1.24 21 5 5 11 35 36 -1 4-0-7 1-5-4
8 D.C. United 23 1.1 21 5 8 8 20 26 -6 4-4-2 1-4-6
9 Columbus Crew SC 19 0.9 21 3 8 10 26 35 -9 3-1-7 0-7-3
10 Chicago Fire 18 0.9 20 4 10 6 19 27 -8 4-2-4 0-8-2

Western Conference

Points Overall Home Away
# Club PTS PPG GP W L T GF GA GD W-L-T W-L-T
1 FC Dallas 44 1.83 24 13 6 5 37 31 6 9-0-3 4-6-2
2 Colorado Rapids 38 1.81 21 10 3 8 24 19 5 8-0-3 2-3-5
3 LA Galaxy 36 1.71 21 9 3 9 35 20 15 6-0-4 3-3-5
4 Sporting Kansas City 34 1.42 24 10 10 4 28 25 3 8-4-1 2-6-3
5 Real Salt Lake 34 1.55 22 9 6 7 32 32 0 5-0-5 4-6-2
6 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 30 1.3 23 8 9 6 33 37 -4 5-2-5 3-7-1
7 Portland Timbers 29 1.26 23 7 8 8 33 34 -1 7-3-2 0-5-6
8 San Jose Earthquakes 27 1.29 21 6 6 9 23 24 -1 6-1-3 0-5-6
9 Seattle Sounders FC 21 1 21 6 12 3 21 28 -7 5-5-1 1-7-2
10 Houston Dynamo 20 0.95 21 4 9 8 24 27 -3 4-1-5 0-8-3