Here are the ten things we learned from Week 17 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. Dempsey Saves Seattle in Portland
The continent’s best soccer rivalry didn’t disappoint – and on a scorching night in Portland, it was that rivalry’s greatest recent figure who stole all the headlines.
Clint Dempsey didn’t start for Seattle on Sunday night at Providence Park, but, when it was all said and done, it was his 94th minute header that rescued a point for the ten-man Sounders and left their southern rivals in a state of shock.
Dempsey has now scored nine goals in his career against Portland – despite missing the last three games played in the series at Providence Park through injury and suspension – and more than half of those goals have been result-changing.
Dempsey isn’t the player he once was – and credit to Brian Schmetzer for having the guts to start him on the bench in this game – but he’s still capable of great moments, and, just as importantly for Sounders fans, he still owns the Timbers.
2. Dom Kinnear Bites The Dust
The San Jose Earthquakes fired manager Dominic Kinnear on Sunday afternoon, unceremoniously ending the tenure of a decorated coach who never quite got his project in San Jose off the ground.
In the grand scheme of things, this is an understandable decision. Kinnear didn’t make the playoffs in his first two seasons at Avaya Stadium, and his teams never played particularly good soccer.
That said, the timing of the move is extremely curious – starting with the simple fact that the ‘Quakes won on Saturday, beating Real Salt Lake 2-1 to move into fifth place in the Western Conference.
San Jose hasn’t been great this year, but they are firmly in the playoff picture – which, considering the marginal talent that Kinnear had at his disposal, was just about all that could have been reasonably asked of him.
What makes this move even more curious is that Chris Leitch – the technical director – has been named the permanent manager.
Not only would there have been plenty of high-profile interest in the job from outside the organization, but within the organization, Steve Ralston – a Kinnear assistant who has long been tabbed as a future manager – was passed over for a man who has not a second of first-team coaching experience.
Kinnear was not new GM Jesse Fioranelli’s guy, and, with a new DP on his way in, this firing a lot like Sigi Schmid’s in Seattle last summer.
Short of a miracle, however, San Jose isn’t going the way of the Sounders in 2016. With Kinnear out, along with his longtime assistant John Spencer, the ‘Quakes’ performance is all on Fioranelli from here on in.
3. The Magic is Gone in Harrison
The New York Red Bulls were formidable in the last two years because they had a collection of big, fiery personalities all pulling in the same direction.
But now, with Dax McCarty in Chicago and Jesse Marsch’s mind on Europe, that formidability is gone.
The Red Bulls team that we saw lose 2-0 to NYCFC on Saturday afternoon at Red Bull Arena wasn’t just worse than the Red Bulls teams that dominated the rivalry in 2015 and 2016, it also looked less focused and less driven.
Marsch said after the game that his week-long sojourn to Europe to work on his UEFA coaching badges “had nothing to do” with the loss, but in the grand scheme of things, there’s no question that the coach’s ambition is elsewhere and his attention is divided.
That might not be why the Red Bulls lost this game, but it certainly isn’t helpful. Neither was the McCarty trade, which – no matter how good Tyler Adams becomes – was a terrible miscalculation.
This franchise feels adrift – and in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference, that’s not going to cut it.
4. Winning Culture Taking Hold at NYCFC
Contrast the Red Bulls’ situation with that of New York City’s. NYCFC’s coach is all-in, its captain and best player is in top form, and all the other pieces are falling into place.
Saturday was one of the banner days of NYCFC’s short existence, as the club won its first ever game at Red Bull Arena in comprehensive fashion.
Patrick Vieira and his team have done a wonderful job identifying talent – second half goal-scorer Ben Sweat was picked up off the NASL scrap heap and Finnish midfield enforcer Alex Ring arrived on the cheap from FC Kaiserslautern in Bundesliga – and they’ve put together a complete team.
It’s been a job extremely well done, and as Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano soaked in the celebrations, it was clear that this rivalry – somewhat against the odds – has been turned on its head.
These days, it’s NYCFC that is a force to be reckoned with.
5. Orlando Reeling
Orlando was absolutely pasted by the red-hot Chicago Fire on Saturday night at Toyota Park, losing 4-0 in a game that they trailed from the second minute on.
It was a massacre. Orlando couldn’t get close to the Fire in midfield and had all kinds of problems with the speed of David Acaam – who scored a hat trick – going forward.
The Lions have now won just one of their last eleven MLS games – one in their last twelve across all competitions – and have given up multiple goals in seven of those games.
Things aren’t about to get any easier. After Orlando travels to Real Salt Lake on Friday night, their next three games are against Toronto, Atlanta, and Atlanta again. Cyle Larin remains out indefinitely.
6. Position Change Working for Zusi
When Peter Vermes decided to make Graham Zusi his starting right back in 2017, it was an odd move. Sporting already had a quality young right back in Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Zusi lacks speed and isn’t by an means an elite defender.
But both Vermes and Zusi deserve credit: the position change has been absolute boon for both club and player.
Zusi plays his new position more like a wingback, and ability on the ball has helped Sporting dominate possession this year – one of the reasons they’ve given up so few goals – and made them more dangerous going forward.
It’s also revitalized Zusi’s career. Zusi had never exactly lit the world on fire on the right wing, but his production had dipped severely in 2015 and 2016 – just four goals and nine assists in 46 league games – and he was falling out of the national team picture.
Now, though, as he heads to Gold Cup camp, Zusi’s versatility makes him a solid bet to be with the U.S. in Russia next summer.
Sporting is about to hit a tough stretch in its season – Zusi, Matt Besler, and Dom Dwyer are with the national team, while Benny Feilhaber could miss significant time through injury – but they’ve easily been the West’s best team so far this season.
7. Kekuta Manneh Lives
It’s not been Kekuta Manneh’s year.
Since being traded from Vancouver to Columbus at the end of March, Manneh has barely been able to get on the field. He entered Saturday’s game against Montreal with just three starts and two substitute appearances in his three months with the Crew.
For a player who had been the focal point of Vancouver’s offense and began the year with a call-up to Bruce Arena’s January camp, it’s been a somewhat staggering fall.
But we might just have seen the turning point. The Gambian-born winger had a game-winning goal and an assist off the bench in a span of just three minutes on Saturday, driving Columbus to a much-needed 4-1 win over Montreal.
Talent-wise, Manneh can be one of the best players in the league. Here’s hoping that we see more of him for Columbus the rest of the season.
8. Loons’ Offense Impresses
Minnesota United – back down to last place in the West at the end of Week 16 – had a make-or-break week, with two home games against conference foes. It went, all things considered, rather well.
The Loons beat Portland 3-2 on Wednesday night, and then battled back from two goals down to draw Vancouver on Saturday night in a game that they easily could have won.
And while it was an improved defense that helped Minnesota right the ship after March and become a competitive MLS side, it’s on the attacking side that this team is doing its damage right now.
Minnesota’s front six – Sam Cronin, Ibson, Miguel Ibarra, Kevin Molino, Abu Danladi, and Christian Ramirez – is one of the league’s stronger units.
Ibson and Ramirez have been revelations, while Molino looks more than capable of repaying the huge financial gamble Minnesota took by acquiring him in the offseason.
This is a fun team to watch – and fans are beginning to respond. Attendance is ticking up for the first time this season, and the atmosphere at TCF Bank Stadium is rapidly improving.
The Loons are off the bottom of the table, and still in the hunt as July approaches.
9. Hats Off To Fair Play
A rather extraordinary scene unfolded on Saturday night in Chester, when the Philadelphia Union’s Harris Medunjanin convinced referee Sorin Stoica to rescind the red card he had just shown DC United’s Luciano Acosta.
Stoica had shown Acosta the red card for appearing to kick Medunjanin as he lay on the ground after being fouled by the DC playmaker, but Medunjanin told the referee that he hadn’t been kicked.
“I’m always honest,” Medunjanin said after the game. “I try to win and I don’t want to win with a dirty play or something like this. For me, it’s important that we won and we played a fair game.”
A similar sequence played itself out earlier in the year, when Seattle’s Jordan Morris told referee Ricardo Salazar that he’d taken the last touch after Salazar had mistakenly given the Sounders a corner in a game against San Jose.
Morris earned a heartfelt Facebook-post from Salazar after that episode, while DC manager Ben Olsen, amongst others, after Saturday’s game, praised Medunjanin after Saturday’s game. Chivalry, it would appear, is not dead in MLS.
10. Updated Playoff Picks
We’ve hit the halfway point of the season, with the Gold Cup break looming after the July 4th holiday, and teams are beginning to separate themselves. Here are updated playoff picks for each conference.
Western Conference: Sporting Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver
Eastern Conference: Toronto, Chicago, New York City FC, Atlanta, Orlando, Columbus