Here are the 10 things we learned from week 20 of the MLS season.
1. The Galaxy Raise The Stakes
A fair number in MLS would tell you that the 2014 LA Galaxy was the league’s best attacking team ever. The front six – Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas, Stefan Ishizaki, Landon Donovan, Gyasi Zardes, and Robbie Keane – combined for 68 goals in the regular season, and added nine more in the postseason en route to the team’s fifth MLS Cup.
It wasn’t just the numbers. The 2014 Galaxy had style too, dominating possession in most matches and carving out goals as much thanks to the ingenious brains of Keane and Donovan as the considerable talent and chemistry the group possessed.
Well don’t look now, but the 2015 Galaxy is better. By a whole lot.
LA’s master plan is coming together better than maybe even Bruce Arena could have imagined. In the last eight months, Sarvas has been replaced by Steven Gerrard, Ishizaki by Sebastian Lleget, and Donovan, eventually, by Giovani dos Santos.
Add in the continued improvement of Zardes – he’s now a national team starter – the emergence of Jose Villareal, and the boarder-line cult hero Alan Gordon, and this team is just scary. Plus Robbie Rogers happens to be one of the top attacking full-backs in the league, and a former All Star himself as a winger. It’s almost not fair.
Anyone who watched LA rip San Jose apart to the tune of five straight goals in a 5-2 win Friday night in the California would agree. The absence of Zardes, dos Santos, and Villareal pushed Gerrard into the No. 10 role in his MLS debut.
It was a bonanza. Not only did the Liverpool legend look fit, hungry, and really, really good, his presence has boosted Robbie Keane – who didn’t smiled as much in his four plus MLS seasons as he did in that single 90 minutes on Friday night.
The Galaxy have now scored nineteen goals in their last four MLS home games, and they’re about to get better. We’re looking at a team that has the capability to do something no other team has ever done in MLS – blow the rest of this traditionally even league away.
2. Analyzing The Trades
Alvaro Saborio being shipped from Real Salt Lake to DC United for Luis Silva constitutes an MLS blockbuster. I like it for both sides.
DC reunites the old RSL Fabian Espindola – Saborio forward line that won MLS Cup in 2009. DC knows that it has to improve if it wants to be a title threat this year – that lead in the East is totally deceiving – and this trade does several things.
It both helps and takes pressure off Espindola, who DC hasn’t been shy about pegging as their most valuable player. When Espindola has been out of the lineup – usually through suspension – United haven’t found any offense.
Saborio can create on his own, but he can also make his old teammate more effective when they play together. Silva never got going this year, and the reemergence of Chris Rolfe has cut down on his minutes and value.
For RSL, whose season still desperately needs a kick in the pants, this trade is a shot worth taking too. Saborio hasn’t been great the past two years, and was made expendable by Sebastian Jaime finally looking like a competent soccer player.
Silva has a bigger upside than Sabo at this point, and if RSL can work him with a number of talented South Americans in their attacking ranks, they’ll have gotten a very good deal for a player who was probably a substitute only at this point in Sandy.
The other big deal is Amobi Okugo’s impending move to Sporting Kansas City from Orlando, as reported by Goal.com. Okugo was supposed to be one of the Lions’ big players this year, but instead he found himself on the bench behind Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita.
Orlando doesn’t want to be burdened with Okugo’s salary, so this is a steal for an SKC side that has pulled into pole position as LA’s challenger this year with the Seattle Sounders.
Okugo can play – and he’s a great character – but he needs a run of games. Alongside Soni Mustivar and Roger Espinoza, that can happen. Even if he isn’t inserted into the team right away, he’ll play plenty. Peter Vermes’ side is short of depth, and they’ll be rotating their squad anyway in the coming weeks.
3. An All-Star Farce
I love Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and are pumped that they’re both in MLS. They’re two of the best players in Premier League history, icons at two of the most famous clubs in the world, and they’ll both improve their Americans teams on the field, and help grow the league off the field.
There’s really very little to complain about. Except when Don Garber puts them both in the All-Star game before playing a single game.
I get Garber’s thinking completely. This is an exhibition, and it’s meant to be a spectacle. Showing off two of MLS’ most prized assets to the world and its own fans makes plenty of sense considering that there is nothing real on the line.
Problem is, there are players who have labored the entire season for their MLS clubs who would love to be All Stars, deserve to be All Stars, and should be given a very unique and special opportunity – however corny – to take part in the greatest spectacle the league has to offer.
Putting Gerrard and Lampard in before they’ve even kicked a ball in MLS doesn’t feel right. I think that level of deference to MLS’ aging stars is a bad look for the league anyway. It promotes the wrong values – but all of that doesn’t matter much, and isn’t worth getting worked up over.
The problem is more that two players can’t have the type of moment Drew Moor had when he found out he had made the squad for the first time in his career less than a year after tearing his ACL.
Whether you care about All Star games or not, players do care. If you’ve ever seen the game in person, that much is obvious. From Landon Donovan, to Theirry Henry, to David Beckham, players have always wanted to be there. The ones who have earned it should be.
4. Drogba To MLS?
Didier Drogba has long been rumored to be one of MLS’ next big catches, and the league is about as close as it has even been to landing its man right now.
MLS has an offer on the table to Drogba, according to multiple reports, and it appears to be a two-horse race between the Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact for Drogba’s signature.
Reports in Montreal this week said that the Impact is Drogba’s preferred MLS destination, and it should be. Montreal has the guns to make the playoffs, and Drogba would fit in well in Frank Klopas’ one-forward system.
That spot has rotated all year between the likes of Dominic Oduro and Jack McInerney, but Drogba would lock it down. He would also revive the sagging attendance at Stade Saputo. It makes sense all around.
The Fire wants Drogba too, but that team is a total mess with virtually no chance of making the playoffs and major roster surgery beyond getting a player like Drogba required. Not to mention that the team’s coaching situation continues to be up in the air.
Chicago won’t give up this chase easily though. They struck out in a similar position on Jermaine Jones last year thanks to the infamous blind draw, have two underperforming DPs they’d love to more, and are nearly frantic about making something happen.
Drogba doesn’t have great options right now – the Impact and Fire, combined, haven’t won a playoff game since 2009. The likes of LA, Seattle, and NYCFC don’t have room for Drogba, while the Ivorian priced Orlando out of considering a move as well. He waited too long to make his MLS move – and with Inter making a late push for his signature, that wait just might continue.
The lesson is this – don’t wait too long to come to MLS. The options will dry up – and the step down in class from those top teams to the ones Drogba is considering cannot be overstated.
5. Good Thing There Are Six Playoff Teams This Year
Because there are definitely six playoff teams in the Western Conference. LA, Seattle, Dallas, Kansas City, Vancouver, and Portland have separated themselves in the West. They’re a long ways ahead of the teams behind them, Salt Lake, San Jose, Houston, and Colorado.
There’s a similar situation developing in the East. DC, the Red Bulls, Toronto, Orlando, Columbus, and New England appear to be quite a bit better than Philadelphia, Montreal, NYCFC, and the Fire.
The margins are thinner in the East – and certainly both the Impact and New York City have the talent to make a late run – but don’t be surprised if all the teams that are in the playoff places now finish the year in the playoffs.
6. Has Anybody Heard From Hilario Grajeda?
MLS can always use good referees. Hilario Grajeda used to be one of those guys – he was in charge of the 2013 MLS Cup Final and All Star game, and has been involved in the final in some officiating capacity in every year since 2011.
Grajeda has accrued a good reputation around the league since making his MLS refereeing debut in 2004, and has been a fairly constant presence around the league’s bigger games in this decade.
Until this year. Grajeda’s last assignment for PRO, the Professional Referees Organization that assigns referees for MLS, NASL, USL, and the NWSL, was center refereeing the Toronto FC – Real Salt Lake match at the Rio Tinto Stadium on March 28th.
Since then, nada. Grajeda is still listed on the PRO website, and there hasn’t been any type of press release or information on where he’s gone or what he’s up to. There might be, and probably is, a very mundane explanation for why Grajeda has stopped refereeing cold turkey.
But it’s unusual a little disconcerting to see a decorated ref vanish without a trace – especially considering the current predicament of MLS officiating.
7. The Rapids Win In Seattle
Colorado is still playing like a team in a relegation fight, which would be great if there was relegation to fight. The Rapids’ smash-and-grab win at the Sounders on Saturday – thanks to, encouragingly enough, Kevin Doyle – meant a ton to Pablo Mastroeni and his staff.
The Sounders, meanwhile, just can’t find any sort of offense. Long term though, Erik Friberg will be an upgrade over Gonzalo Pineda. As much as their stinging now, this team should be fine in a few weeks.
8. Controversy in Portland
The Timbers and Whitecaps played to an entertaining 1-1 draw at a sweltering Providence Park on Saturday night – a result and performance which left Vancouver the more satisfied side – but the match was marred at the end by an ugly stoppage time period and a near postgame brawl.
Plenty of players, notably Jordan Harvey (red card for a horrible tackle on Diego Valeri), Cristian Techara (cynical, brawl-inciting trip on Diego Chara), and Will Johnson (selfish and near-idiotic red card after the final whistle for arguing with the referee) didn’t cover themselves in glory.
But match official Juan Guzman let the game get away from him late by ignoring bad fouls, and letting sequences that would end with worse fouls continue. Worse yet were the accusations from a number of Timbers that Guzman wouldn’t engage or talk to the players – a window into Johnson’s frustration and post-match red.
That’s not good enough from referees. How Guzman, not though highly of among MLS refs, got the Timbers – ‘Caps derby anyway is a mystery. The league needs to continue to focus on improving its refereeing.
9. Purgatory for NYCFC
The Citizens lost again this weekend, this time at slump-busting New England in front of an announced crowd of almost 30,000 at Gillette Stadium.
Ned Gravaboy, uncharacteristically for him, got a red card (there were plenty this week), and attention now turns to what might finally be the day this team has waited since their home opener for: A big home win marked by the debuts of Lampard and Andrea Pirlo that could spark a season more frustrating than anyone predicted it would be.
He’s got a little John Spencer in him, the eminently likable, diminutive Brit, but he’s going to be a whole lot more successful as a coach. It’s been a long road to MLS, and now that he’s in the big time, he’s making a name for himself.