Here are the ten things we learned from Week 21 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. Should Atlanta Stay Put?
It is extremely rare and perhaps unprecedented in the annals of MLS history that a club or its fanbase has second thoughts about moving out of a college football stadium and into new digs.
But with Atlanta United signing off at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday evening with a thoroughly entertaining 1-1 draw against Orlando, that barrier might be broken.
When next the Five Stripes take the field in Georgia, they’ll be doing so at Mercedes Benz Stadium – the new home built by Arthur Blank for both Atlanta United and the Atlanta Falcons, and it’s hard to say whether the experience of an Atlanta United match will ever be the same.
Where Bobby Dodd was outdoors, had a grass field, boasted a beautiful view of downtown, and was the perfect size for Atlanta United, Mercedes Benz is indoors, has a turf field, and a maximum capacity of over 80,000.
Though the new stadium is nice – and though it was built with soccer in mind – this feels like a pretty significant downgrade. Soccer should be played outside on grass, and the atmosphere at Bobby Dodd will be hard to replicate in a vastly bigger building.
Atlanta is confident that its success will carry over to Mercedes Benz, and there’s a good chance that it will. Fans aren’t going to stop coming to games. But there’s also a chance that it might feel in a month like the rug has been pulled out from under this club all too soon.
2. Red Bulls On A Roll
Forget the early season funk. The New York Red Bulls on a tear – all of the sudden just five points off of the Supporters’ Shield lead and marching up the Eastern Conference table.
With a 4-0 beatdown of Montreal at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, New York has now won four straight by a combined score of 15-3.
They’re rolling. Why? One reason is that Red Bulls are finally getting goalscoring production from someone other than Bradley Wright-Phillips. Daniel Royer has taken the lead on that front over the last month, but Sacha Kljestan is beginning to round into form, and the team’s fullbacks are pitching in as well.
Safe to say, Jesse Marsch’s switch to a 5-3-2 at the end of June has paid dividends. For the first time this year, the Red Bulls are playing with the kind of swagger they did in 2015 and 2016.
Next up on the schedule? NYCFC at Yankee Stadium on Sunday and a chance to avenge the derby loss in Harrison in June.
3. The System Rules in Kansas City
Dom Dwyer was always likely to leave Sporting Kansas City at the end of the season, and in light of that fact, Peter Vermes was more than happy to take Orlando’s money and see him off this week.
Make no mistake: Sporting will miss Dwyer. There was no forward in the league better suited to their turbo-charged high-press than Dwyer was, and his dirty work was essential to making their system hum.
But Saturday’s 3-2 K.C. win over Chicago at Children’s Mercy Park was a good indicator that Sporting will survive losing its striker.
Vermes is confident that Latif Blessing and Daniel Salloi – both amongst the goals on Saturday – can pick up the goalscoring slack, Krisztian Nemeth could be on his way back in from Qatar.
Regardless, the team’s back eight will remain its star. No one at Sporting is irreplaceable. Matt Besler, the club’s hometown captain, benched last season, can attest to that.
Few teams in MLS are better run than Sporting, and Vermes may have pulled off another coup here. This team has been the Western Conference’s best all year, and that isn’t about to change.
4. Questions Remain In Orlando
It was a big week for Orlando City, who welcomed Dom Dwyer back with a rapturous reception at Orlando International Airport on Tuesday, and then came within a stoppage time goal from winning in Atlanta on Saturday.
Orlando is much closer to the team that hung with Atlanta twice in the last two weeks than the team that has been in a tailspin for much of the summer. They’ve got good professionals throughout their squad and a smart coach to line them up.
But the team remains criminally imbalanced. It’s difficult to create offense when you start four central midfielders every week, and that’s what Orlando has done all season.
The result is that they’ve scored the third fewest goals in the league, and while getting Dwyer is great, forward play hasn’t really been the problem.
Getting Dwyer provided a big lift for a club that badly needed one. But with Cyle Larin in the fold until the end of the season, it doesn’t solve any problems for Orlando. They’re still in trouble.
5. DC Plunges To A New Low
Minnesota fans have accused their club of giving their MLS team a soft rollout for this season, waiting to invest in both players and marketing until the club moves into Allianz Field in Saint Paul for the 2019 season.
But Minnesota’s soft rollout is nothing compared to what has happened to DC United this season ahead of that club’s move to Audi Field in Buzzard Point next year.
After being pasted 4-0 by the Loons on Saturday in Minneapolis, DC is 5-14-3 with a -24 goal differential. The infamous 2013 DC team, for comparison, finished at -37.
Help could be on the way in the terrifying shape of Nigel de Jong, but with The New York Times reporting that the club might be going on the market and Daniel Synder has been contacted, things have taken a rather dark turn at the nation’s capital club.
6. Reason To Be Concerned About Mauro Diaz?
FC Dallas was obliterated 4-0 at home by Vancouver on Saturday, and has fallen out of the Western Conference lead and nine points off the Supporters’ Shield lead.
Bad games happen. Dallas lost Carlos Gruezo to a red card and ran into a Vancouver defense that, with Kendall Waston back in the lineup, entirely shut off entry into its penalty box.
The big picture question for Oscar Pareja’s team is the same as it was at the start of the year – it’s whether Mauro Diaz, Dallas’ chief creator and biggest attacking weapon, is going to contribute at the level he did last season before tearing his Achilles.
In the two months since Diaz made his season debut, that question hasn’t been answered. Diaz has chipped in four assists, but he hasn’t scored and is still clearly short of full fitness. He’s yet to play 90 minutes, and has only once gone past 70.
It’s a long, hard road to get back to full strength after an Achilles injury. Dallas is right nurse Diaz along, and good enough to stay near the top of the West while it does so.
But at some point, Dallas is going to need more from its playmaker. Their season, once again, rests on his health.
7. Does L.A. Have A Pulse?
Sigi Schmid took the reigns in Los Angeles on Saturday night, and led the Galaxy to a 0-0 draw against his former colleagues from Seattle.
There were positive to take away. LA kept its first clean sheet since June 3rd, and got some order in central midfield with Jermaine Jones ordered to sit deep and Joao Pedro given license to get forward.
That said – a 0-0 draw at home against a mid-table team like the Sounders is a very bad result for a team that is in ninth place and looking to climb back into the playoff picture.
Schmid has a huge job in front of him. The Galaxy have no attacking cohesion, play with very little urgency, and are led by guys like Gio dos Santos and Jelle Van Damme who either lack fire or lack discipline.
Most of LA’s big players are veterans with long résumés in the game. Can Schmid light a fire under them? The Galaxy season might depend on.
8. Jake Gleeson’s Promise
As Timbers fans will tell you, Portland goalkeeper Jake Gleeson has plenty of holes in his game. He struggles in the air, struggles with his distribution, and, this season, has struggled with consistency.
But damn if there’s a better out-and-out shot-stopper in MLS. Andre Blake certainly has a shout, but this save on Mauro Manotas was one of the best we’ve seen in the league this year – and it’s the kind of save Gleeson makes just about every week.
Saves like those forced MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey out of Portland, and kept a sorely mediocre Timbers team in the playoff hunt until the final day of last season.
Gleeson certainly has ample room to improve. He was at fault on the first Dynamo goal in his team’s 2-2 draw in Houston on Saturday night. But that kind of save-making ability isn’t taught – and it’s not ignorable when found.
9. Giovinco Mesmerizes Again
It’s worth taking a moment here to again appreciate the brilliance of Giovinco, who might be the best player in MLS history.
The Italian’s two goals and one assist carried Toronto FC to a resounding 4-0 win over their Eastern Conference rivals NYCFC on Sunday afternoon at BMO Field, and out to a five point lead atop the Supporters’ Shield race.
In the process, with a signature second half free kick, the Atomic Ant scored his 50th career MLS goal and broke the league record for most goals direct from free kicks.
Giovinco’s reaction upon being notified of his free kick achievement after the game? “I’m happy to have the record, but there are still more games to come.”
10. Berhalter Loses It
Last week in MLS gave us Mike Petke’s fabulous refereeing tirade. This week we got its ugly step-brother – an absurd rant from Columbus boss Gregg Berhalter after his team had two players sent off in a 3-0 loss at Philadelphia on Wednesday night.
Berhalter’s main criticism – that MLS referees aren’t focused on MLS games because some of them also sometimes ref international games or friendlies – makes very little sense.
Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that referees who have international profiles, like Mark Geiger, call different games than referees who don’t.
But it’s worth noting that Ismail Elfath, the referee for the Union-Crew game, was not on duty for the Gold Cup and is generally considered one of the league’s better officials, and it’s also beside the point. Berhalter was calling referees distracted. It just doesn’t add up.