Here are the ten things we learned from Week 11 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. A Return To The Spotlight For Chicago
For one night, at least, Chicago finally returned to the center of the MLS universe.
With ESPN and the defending champion Seattle Sounders in town for a Saturday night primetime clash, the Fire sold out Toyota Park for the first time since the fall of 2015 – and the more than 20,000 on hand in Bridgeview got their money’s worth.
Chicago poured four goals past the Sounders, with three coming in the space of sixteen minutes midway through the second half to put the game away.
It was the Fire’s night. The club got the aid of several poor calls from rookie official Nima Seghafi – more on him in a minute – in the first half, and pulled away late.
The result left Bastian Schweinsteiger – the man most responsible for the sudden soccer revival in Chicago – bouncing around the field at full-time in celebration.
For a club that has had very few good nights in the last four years, this was a cathartic night. The Fire haven’t truly mattered since the Cuauhtémoc Blanco era ended. That’s finally about to change.
2. New Referee Struggles
It’s always positive to see PRO adding young referees to its MLS roster, and Seghafi – at just 28 years old – has followed the kind of developmental path that PRO wants to see: he refereed college soccer, then worked in the USL, and then served as an MLS fourth official for two years before making the step up to refereeing MLS games.
Going into Saturday night, Seghafi had worked three games this year – most recently San Jose’s win over Portland last weekend – without major incident.
He was assigned to Chicago-Seattle when Jorge Gonzalez, the veteran official originally scheduled to call the game, was scratched. Gonzalez had left the Colorado-Vancouver game on Wednesday night with an injury.
As important as import referees like Alan Kelly can be for MLS, the key to improving the overall standard of refereeing in the league – just like the key to improving the standard of play – lies with homegrown talent.
The hope is that Seghafi has a long, successful career ahead of him. He will not, however, look back at his work on Saturday night fondly.
Seghafi called an extremely uneven first half, gave Chicago a dubious penalty, and then ordered that penalty retaken for encroachment on Seattle after it was originally missed even though Fire players were in the box as well.
Seghafi’s positioning on the penalty – standing behind the penalty taker instead of level or just ahead of the penalty spot – was wrong as well. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets the whistle for any more MLS games in the near future.
3. Concussion Protocol Failure
Speaking of referees, Kelly was unwittingly caught in the middle of a terrible situation during the Portland-Atlanta game on Sunday when Yamil Asad took a ball to the face from point-blank range, collapsed to the turf, and then reentered the game without going through any sort of concussion protocol.
The Timbers’ team doctor rightly protested Asad’s resuming play, to the point that Kelly stopped the game again to check on Asad, but his power to act was limited. Asad played on, and went the full 90 minutes.
The whole incident made a mockery of the league’s concussion protocol. Atlanta’s staff, which cleared Asad to return in about four seconds, appeared to have no interest in protecting their player’s health.
MLS, and soccer as a whole, must act once and for all to stop the epidemic of players playing on through concussions. It’s extraordinarily dangerous.
Offering teams a temporary sub, putting a neutral medical professional on the sideline to evaluate players who suffer head injuries, or mandating a minimum amount of time that players who suffer head injuries must leave the game for would all work as deterrents to what we saw happen at Providence Park.
4. RSL Hits Rock Bottom
Real Salt Lake, after a temporary spike in form after the hire of Mike Petke, is hitting rock bottom.
On Saturday night, a depleted Salt Lake side gave up four first half goals in Foxborough en route to a humiliating 4-0 loss to the Revolution. RSL has now been outscored 13-1 in their last four games, with NYCFC up next on Wednesday.
Petke’s candor and heart make him as good a coach as any to weather a storm with, but he’s got a huge job in front of him. RSL leads the league in losses, is last in points per game, and, hasn’t even been competitive – no matter who has been on the field – for most of the season.
There’s never a good time to lose your job, but Jeff Cassar is probably sleeping pretty well right now.
5. LA Breaks Out
After an extremely trying start to the season, the LA Galaxy broke out on Sunday night – handing the New York Red Bulls their first loss at home in over a year with a 3-1 drubbing at Red Bull Arena.
It was, by far, the Galaxy’s best performance of the season. Take away the Red Bulls’ late consolation goal, and LA is outscoring its opposition 5-0 over its last three halves of soccer.
It’s not coincidental that the Galaxy’s revival has coincided exactly with Jermaine Jones getting hurt and leaving the lineup.
Without Jones’ freelancing, LA looks entirely more comfortable. Curt Onalfo has gone to a straightforward 4-4-2, gotten solid central midfield out of Joao Pedro and Baggio Husidic, and freed up space for the likes of Romain Alessandrini and Gio dos Santos going forward.
Onalfo is finally having some success. The maligned coach made a huge call last weekend when he benched Jelle Van Damme in the first half of the Chicago game, and he got the desired response this weekend with Van Damme playing his best game of the year.
All is not lost for Onalfo or his team. LA’s season may just be getting started.
6. Meram Saves Columbus
The Crew continued their hot start to the season with a rollicking 3-2 win on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in Montreal, with Justin Meram continuing his red-hot start to the season with a hat trick.
Meram, who already has seven goals and is just one short of his career high, is in the form of his life. Columbus is up to second in the East, and looks much more like the side that made MLS Cup in 2015 than the side that missed the playoffs last year.
But there’s reason for concern. The defense that blew so many leads last season still inspires zero confidence. The Crew has already dropped points late against Chicago and TFC this year, and blew a two-goal lead against the Impact before being bailed out by Meram in stoppage time.
This team’s underbelly is still soft, and that doesn’t bode well for the dog days of summer and beyond.
7. Atlanta Impresses Again
Though they didn’t win the game, Atlanta’s performance on Sunday afternoon against the Timbers in Portland was still hugely impressive.
Tata Martino’s team played with the kind of swagger and commitment dictating tempo and playing out of the back that precious few teams in the league – maybe just NYCFC – can muster on their best days.
The result for Atlanta was a whopping 70 percent possession. There was not a single five-minute interval of the game in which Atlanta didn’t have the majority of the ball.
Possession obviously isn’t a perfect measure of success – and the Timbers had the better chances in the game – but considering that Atlanta has been playing competitively for less than three months, this was some display.
The Five Stripes have now gotten results at Seattle, Portland, and Toronto, and are about to enter a significantly easier portion of their schedule. They won’t be below the red line for long.
8. Houston Continues To Roll
How about this: after eleven weeks of the season, the Houston Dynamo are leading the Western Conference.
The Dynamo are on top of the West for the first time after beating Vancouver 2-1 on Friday night at BBVA Compass Stadium and watching Dallas, Sporting, and Portland all draw over the weekend.
Houston has now won six of its first seven home games, and scored nineteen goals in the process. Wilmer Cabrera – always a better coach than his year at Chivas USA indicated – is the early front-runner for Coach of the Year.
Expect the Dynamo to come back to earth as they face a stretch of road games to finish May and begin June, but don’t expect them to fall apart like they did after a hot start under Owen Coyle last year. This is, without question, a playoff team.
9. East Over West
One of the reasons that it’s possible to so bullish on Houston is that the Western Conference is weaker than it has been in years.
Two of the conference’s 2016 playoff teams, RSL and Colorado, are 21st and 22nd in MLS respectively after eleven weeks. LA is down, and the middle of the conference – San Jose, Vancouver, Minnesota – is mediocre at best.
The Eastern Conference, meanwhile, is having something of a resurgence. The revival of the Fire has helped, as has Orlando making the jump to contender in its third MLS season.
The East went 3-1-1 against the West this weekend, and that kind of cross-conference dominance is something that we should expect to get used to as the year rolls on.
10. Toronto’s Winning Streak Hits Six
Only three teams in the last ten years of MLS play have put together winning streaks reaching ten games. Toronto FC, as of Saturday afternoon’s rollercoaster 3-2 win over Minnesota United at BMO Field, has made it four.
TFC has six straight wins since April 21 – beating Chicago, Houston, Orlando, Seattle, Columbus, and, on Saturday, the Loons. They’ve gotten a number of those wins on Giovinco, on short rest, with multiple goalkeepers, and rotated teams.
It’s been a mighty impressive run for a club that has, over the last twelve months, finally come into its own.
It’s also a wonderful reflection on the coaching talents of Greg Vanney, who is rarely mentioned amongst MLS’ best bosses but has handled his first coaching job – one of the league’s toughest – with aplomb.
TFC has a six-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, which, even at this early stage of the season, is just big enough to feel significant. As special as last season was for Toronto, this one could be even better.