Here are the ten things we learned from Week 18 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. Get Cincinnati to MLS
The game of the year in American club soccer was played – get this – in the U.S. Open Cup round of sixteen on a warm Wednesday night in June in Cincinnati, Ohio.
FC Cincinnati, of the USL, knocked the MLS-best Chicago Fire out of the tournament on penalty kicks after a heart-stopping 120 minutes in front of a jam-packed sellout crowd of more than 32,000 at Nippert Stadium.
It was an incredible scene. On this night, the U.S. Open Cup felt like the most important competiton in the world. Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose previous extra time games include the World Cup and Champions League Finals, certainly played like it was.
But even he couldn’t crack Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, the 28-year-old veteran from Livonia, Michigan, who is unlikely to be playing USL soccer for much longer.
And Cincinnati shouldn’t be playing in USL for long either. All but a handful of teams already in the league would kill to boast the kind of atmosphere that Cincinnati had on Wednesday night – and it wasn’t the size of the crowd. Those fans were loud, knowledgeable, and decked out in the club’s colors. This wasn’t their first soccer game.
Cincinnati has to figure out its stadium deal – and Cincinnati has been burned by stadium deals in the recent past – but MLS can’t afford to miss out on adding the Queen City to its ranks.
Chicago, it’s worth mentioning, went home on Saturday and decked Vancouver 4-0 for their eighth consecutive win at Toyota Park. But something special happened in Cincinnati on Wednesday night. Hopefully its only the first of many.
2. Speaking of Great Games…
Since the tradition started six years ago, no MLS fixture has been as reliable for drama as the California Clasico at Stanford Stadium – and this year’s edition, played in front of some 50,000 on Saturday night, was of vintage quality.
LA took an early lead through Jelle Van Damme, but, as they always do, San Jose clawed its way back – first tying the game on a fabulous goal from Chris Wondolowski, and then winning it in stoppage time on a strike from Shea Salinas.
No matter who San Jose’s coach is, no matter where they are in the table, and no matter who they have on the field, there’s something about that game at Stanford. For one day a year, the ‘Quakes seem to have the power of god at their beck and call.
LA, meanwhile, is hurting. The Galaxy only traveled sixteen players up the coast for this game, and had just three legitimate starters on hand. Gio dos Santos can’t get back from Russia soon enough.
3. RSL On Record Pace
Real Salt Lake under Jeff Cassar was clearly – ever more so in the last six months of his tenure – a club in decline.
But the wheels didn’t really come off the wagon in Sandy until after Cassar was fired three games into this season.
Since then, RSL has posted a -18 goal differential and lost ten games – and with the loss to Orlando at home on Friday, the club is now on pace to finish with a worse goal difference than the -36 posted by Chivas USA’s 2005 expansion team.
This is dire stuff. Salt Lake isn’t as bad as that Chivas team was, but considering that it was just last year that RSL was in the playoffs, the scope of the futility this season has been staggering.
4. Lean Times in DC
You’d think that between Minnesota’s struggles in March and RSL’s struggles after March, the Western Conference would have the market on futility cornered this season.
But thanks to DC United and their twelve goals scored in eighteen games, the East is in on the action too.
DC was blanked for the twelfth time this year on Saturday in Montreal, losing 2-0. The black and red have now been shut out in two thirds of their 2017 games, and, the ho-hum acquisition of DeShorn Brown aside, no help appears to be on the way.
DC appear to be in something of a holding pattern until their new stadium opens next year, which, of course, says that the club isn’t truly serious about winning. New stadium or not, that’s highly concerning.
5. Union Revival
The Philadelphia Union beat up on the New England Revolution in the final game of the weekend on Sunday afternoon in Chester, winning 3-0 and pulling themselves within a single game of the red line in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Jim Curtin, whose job now appears as safe as it has been at any point in his Union career. Philly has won seven of twelve since the beginning of May, and has been excellent at home.
Curtin really has done a remarkable job. The starting lineup for Sunday’s game included just three players who started the club’s playoff game in Toronto last October.
This is a completely new team – and one that, by today’s MLS standards of player investment, was pieced together on the cheap. But Curtin has made it work. After starting the year so poorly, Philly is right back in the thick of the playoff race.
6. Blerim Dzemaili Starring For Montreal
Outside of Atlanta’s star duo of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, there’s an argument to be made that Blerim Dzemaili has been the MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Since joining the Impact in May, Dzemaili has chipped in with three goals and four assists – the latest of which came in a comprehensive victory over DC United at Stade Saputo on Saturday.
Dzemaili, in baseball parlance, has pop – he’s one of the best ball-strikers in the league – and his presence has taken a measure of pressure off of Ignacio Piatti.
There’s little question that Montreal is still one of the East’s better teams. The Impact played Toronto evenly over two legs of the Canadian Championship final, only losing the title on Wednesday night to a Giovinco strike in stoppage time.
Montreal needs some defensive help – especially with Ambrose Oyongo out for the year – but they’re going to score enough goals over the second half of the season to get back in the playoff race. Dzemaili is the single biggest reason why.
7. Columbus’ Downward Spiral Continues
Montreal is one of the clubs in the East that stands to benefit from the continuing slide of the Columbus Crew, whose own marquee signing – Ghanaian World Cup vet Jonathan Mensah – has been a nightmare all year.
The Crew lost 2–0 to Atlanta on Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium, with Mensah getting beat by a goal kick for the opening goal. Columbus has lost six of its last eight games across all competitions and has kept just one clean sheet in its last ten.
No team in the Eastern Conference has shipped more goals, which isn’t all that surprising. Missing on any DP is bad, but missing on a DP like Mensah defender is an unmitigated disaster. The Crew look like they’re going to pay with their season.
8. Does Orlando Have A Kaka Problem?
Maybe – and not just because the Brazilian was substituted after 72 minutes of the Orlando’s game at Real Salt Lake on Friday night and walked straight down the tunnel without acknowledging Jason Kreis.
The bigger problem – and the reason he didn’t finish the game on Friday night – was that he hasn’t been particularly effective this year.
Kaka is slowing down. He’s started fewer than half of Orlando’s games so far this year, but even when he has been healthy, he’s had trouble impacting games. In five games in June, he had no goals and only two assists – one of which came on a free kick in Seattle.
Kaka will always always be one of the faces of Orlando City – one of MLS’ premier clubs – but his contract is up after this year, and, the way things are going right now, there will little reason to bring him back.
9. Sporting Hangs On To Home Unbeaten Streak
It wasn’t at all pretty, but Sporting Kansas City – severely shorthanded – hung onto its home unbeaten streak by the skin of its teeth with a 1-1 draw against Portland on Saturday night.
Sporting, missing Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Dom Dwyer, and, after a half hour, Gerso, had only two first half shots and one shot on goal in the entire game.
But the struggling Timbers couldn’t put them away. Diego Valeri had a penalty turned away late by Tim Melia, and just after that, an unmarked Lawrence Olum sent a header from point-blank range flying over the bar.
Kansas City’s unbeaten run at Children’s Mercy Park stretches back to last summer, and likely won’t be tested again until Chicago and Atlanta come calling in a month’s time.
New York City might be one of the best teams in the league, but there are few NYCFC fans who wouldn’t like to see Kwadwo Poku back in the sky blue.
The young starlet burst back onto the MLS scene on Wednesday night when his goal – with the final kick of the game – sent Alessandro Nesta’s Miami FC to a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal berth at the expense of Atlanta United.
Poku remains an effervescent player – powerful, creative, and unendingly confident – and he should be in MLS. He’s not, though, and neither are any number of Cincinnati players who stopped that great Chicago attack cold.
There are more and more quality players and quality games in the lower levels of U.S. Soccer, and at least one lower division club will be represented in the semis of the Cup for the first time in years. This is as exciting a time to love soccer in this country as there ever has been.