Here are the ten things we learned from Week 16 of the MLS season:
1. The LA Galaxy Are Back
The Galaxy got healthy. Robbie Keane, Robbie Rogers, AJ DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez – the band was back together in front of an unusually strong StubHub Center crowd on Saturday night, and the home team responded by drubbing the hapless Philadelphia Union 5-1.
This hasn’t been a fun year for Keane especially – he’s battled injury since March – but the Galaxy signed him to a long-term contract extension just a few weeks ago for a reason: When he’s on, he’s still one of the most prolific players in MLS.
Keane makes the ever-improving Gyasi Zardes that much better, and their work on LA’s third goal was a counter-attacking clinic.
In LA’s midfield, Brazilian stalwart Juninho has had to take on more responsibility this year, from the captain’s armband, to penalty taking duties in the absence of the stars the Galaxy are known for, and he’s responded with his best year since 2012.
In just a few weeks, Juninho will have Steven Gerrard next to him in the LA engine-room, and with Sebastian Lleget impressing as well off the bench, MLS’ perennial winners appear to moving into position for another Cup run.
2. All’s Well In The City
New York City was in dire straits at the beginning of June, last in MLS in points and in points-per-game. Now though, though, NYCFC has reeled off three straight wins – their most impressive victory coming on Saturday away at Toronto FC.
What was especially heartening about NYCFC’s performance at BMO Field was the grit it took defensively. It wasn’t pretty, but roughing up Giovinco worked – and the quality of Mix Diskerud, David Villa, and, surprisingly enough, Tommy McNamara told in the 2-0 win.
Everything is coming together for Jason Kreis’ team. While they were winning in Canada, Andrea Pirlo was in New York watching the Yankees. His signing appears to be imminent, and Frank Lampard is finally on his way as well.
Of more immediate concern is next weekend’s first home tilt in the Hudson River Derby against the New York Red Bulls. Yankee Stadium will be opened up to its full capacity and sold out, and unlike in the first derby at Red Bull Arena in early May, NYCFC will have all the momentum heading into this one.
3. But Not In the Suburb
Speaking of the Red Bulls, they just about hit their 2015 nadir on Saturday night at Red Bull Arena against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In just the first fifteen minutes, Bradley Wright-Phillips missed a penalty, Sacha Kljestan got sent off, and Kakuta Manneh scored for Vancouver. It wouldn’t get much better, as Wright-Phillips missed another penalty and the ‘Caps won 2-1.
The Red Bulls have now lost four MLS games in a row and have fallen below the red line in the Eastern Conference. The defense has been especially rough, conceding ten goals along the way.
There is a clear feeling around MLS that the Red Bulls miss Jamison Olave and especially Thierry Henry with the offense sputtering as well. This is a team with plenty of good players and maybe no great players – and that certainly includes Wright-Phillips, who is dependable for a truly disastrous performance once every few months.
With Red Bull not as willing to spend as they once were – New York really hasn’t signed a true international star since Tim Cahill in 2012 – and the Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis brain-trust going the non-star route anyway, this stretch is going to be a real test of Curtis and Marsch’s commitment to their plan for the Red Bulls.
Their resolve figures to be strong. Now they have to hope their team will respond – lose next weekend to New York City, and things will get ugly.
4. What Has Happened To FC Dallas?
The Frisco, Texas outfit appears to be swooning a little early this year. The kind of tailspin Dallas is in right now is usually saved for the fall, but Oscar Pareja’s team – after a predictably hot start – hasn’t played good soccer since they beat LA almost a month and a half ago.
Pareja’s return to Colorado on Friday resulted in an unwatchable 1-1 draw – and anything except a win versus the Western Conference’s only real kick-over in the Rapids qualifies as a bad result. Dallas’ playmaker Mauro Diaz has been poor of late, while the team’s tactics have gone a tad screwy of late with midfielder Michel lining up as a full-back.
FC Dallas was in the same position last year – a team with potential far outdistancing their true ability that played itself into a wild card game and an almost un-winnable first round playoff matchup with the Seattle Sounders.
With the introduction to the Western Conference of Sporting Kansas City and the revival of the Portland Timbers, the playoffs are no sure thing this year.
The truth is that Dallas is mentally weak. They’ve disappeared for stretches every year since the end of the Schelles Hyndman era, and Pareja hasn’t changed that damaging trait. His seat could get hot quickly if things don’t start to improve.
5. Trouble In Seattle
You can read plenty about the incidents in Seattle in the US Open Cup and resulting suspension of Clint Dempsey, but the fallout on Saturday at CenturyLink Field against the San Jose Earthquakes wasn’t pretty.
The ‘Quakes resoundingly beat the Sounders 2-0 for their second win in Seattle of the season, and looked like the better team in the process. Brad Evans got hurt and was pulled at halftime for an increasingly labored Zach Scott, while Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Gonzalo Pineda, and Osvaldo Alonso never took the field.
Without all those guys, Seattle is nothing more than mediocre. Alonso and Pineda, and maybe Evans, will be back this week. The Sounders play at Philadelphia on Wednesday, but the real target is the rematch with the Timbers at Providence Park on Sunday.
Seattle has gone crazy before and more or less come away unscathed. This time, though, they tantrum-ed themselves into a situation that is going to have major long-term consequences. The home loss to San Jose was just the beginning.
6. Timbers On A Roll
The Portland Timbers were beneficiaries of the Sounders’ lunacy and classlessness in the Open Cup, and they could be beneficiaries again when Seattle makes its only trip to the Rose City next weekend.
With a comfortable 2-0 win over Houston on Saturday, Portland won its fourth MLS game in a row and fifth in a row in all competitions. Before this run, Portland’s MLS best winning streak had been two in MLS, and three in all competitions.
The low-point was a loss at BMO Field, and the turnaround started with a 1-0 home win that silenced a stinging Timbers Army banner, but the real streak-starter was a Jack Jewsbury 94th minute winner at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park against the Rapids.
Now the Timbers get the LA Galaxy, the dreaded Sounders on a day when it’s supposed to be 103 degrees in Portland, and then a US Open Cup quarterfinal at RSL. With Will Johnson and Diego Valeri back, and the defense leading the way, this feels a lot like 2013 for the Timbers.
7. A Late Winner At The Riot
The most dramatic match of the weekend was the Sunday nightcap at Rio Tinto Stadium, where Real Salt Lake beat Sporting Kansas City with a stoppage time own goal from Kevin Ellis.
RSL needed the luck. They’ve struggled all year to win games and score goals at home, and they’re about to be without their best player Kyle Beckerman for a month.
Even at this stage, Real is on the outside looking in at a Western Conference playoff berth. Five of those six spots appear to be pretty well locked in (Seattle, Vancouver, LA, Portland, and Kansas City), and the battle for that last spot figures to be close.
Also important for the Claret and Cobalt in this match was Sebastian Jaime getting his first goal in MLS, and Olmes Garcia being the man who created the own goal off Ellis. Like it or not, RSL committed to those two this year, and sooner rather than later, they are going to have to deliver.
8. How Good Are The Montreal Impact?
Get this: The Impact de Montreal are, right now, a playoff team in the woeful Eastern Conference despite having only played twelve matches due to their Champions League run.
Punching bags for the better part of two years, the Impact certainly run hot and cold – but when they’re on, they’re legitimately good. Ignacio Piatti is an all-star, Dominic Oduro has been good, Evan Bush is finally the answer in goal, and Jack McInerny is coming around again up top.
The signing of Laurent Ciman has been vital in keeping the team’s defense afloat while Frank Klopas sorts out his central midfield and back-line. If the Impact win, Stade Saputo will fill back up and provide a real home-field advantage.
In the East, anyone can make the playoffs. The conference is awful, and the Impact, as inconsistent as they are, have as good a shot as anyone.
9. Is DC United Running Away With The East?
DC got a typical DC win at RFK Stadium on Sunday over New England, bouncing back from a 1-0 deficit with a lot of hard work, a little luck, and two second half goals from Chris Rolfe for a 2-1 win.
With those three points, DC has opened up a seven-point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference. Third place Orlando City is eleven points behind.
I’m still not sure if DC is a viable playoff team because of their overall lack of individual game-breaking talent – hell, Ben Olsen actually compares Fabian Espindola to Kaka and Giovinco – but they look like back-to-back Eastern Conference champions.
They’ve got a formula, and it’s working right now. Whether it will work in the postseason is another matter.
10. Get Ready For A Big Week
A full slate of games on Wednesday will be followed up by a Soccer Sunday that packs a double-header of MLS’ best rivalries: New York City – Red Bulls, and Portland – Seattle.
The opening of the transfer window on July 8th will provide more excitement, while crowds around the league will improve with the warm weather. Now that the NHL and NBA seasons are over, MLS can breath in an American summer that is notoriously devoid of sports.
Things are about to get good.