Here are the ten things we learned from Week 25 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. The King of Rivalries
The third and final MLS Rivalry Week came and went this weekend, with editions of the 401 Derby, the Rocky Mountain Cup, the Hudson River Derby, the Texas Derby, and the California Clasico all on show.
They were plenty entertaining. But of the marquee games, the Red Bulls couldn’t sell out their stadium for their game against NYCFC. The StubHub Center was barely half full for LA Galaxy against San Jose.
The truth is that one rivalry continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest. On Sunday night, in the weekend’s finale, its showpiece event, more than 50,000 fans packed CenturyLink Field for a thrilling game between Portland and Seattle.
There is no other part of the continent where soccer matters, where it leads, like it does in Cascadia – and there is no rivalry on the continent that can match the history, the enmity, and the sheer size of Portland against Seattle.
We saw another firecracker between the two teams on Sunday night, and, the way things are going, a playoff series in November isn’t at all out of the question. We should be so lucky.
2. Portland Looks For Real
Entering Sunday night, Portland had lost every game it had played at CenturyLink Field dating back to the 2013.
In fact, in their entire MLS history, the Timbers had never won a regular season game in Seattle – and while they didn’t win on Sunday night, the 1-1 draw they got didn’t feel far away.
Portland dominated the first half, conceding only on a fairly bizarre goalmouth scramble, and was well worth its point. All of the sudden, the Timbers are on a nice run – unbeaten in three, with three wins and two draws in their last six.
The defense, aided by the addition of Larrys Mabiala, has made huge strides from where it was in the summer, while the attack – led by Diego Valeri, who, with goals in six straight games, is in the best form of his considerable career – remains one of the league’s best.
Most importantly, though, the Timbers seem to be toughening up and believing again, as they did in the early spring, that they can play with and beat any club in the league. They’re going to make their fair share of noise from here on in.
3. Dallas Imploding
FC Dallas, on the other hand, has fallen off a cliff.
Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners and one of the best teams in the league through the first half of this season, Dallas has now gone winless in its last six games and fallen all the way down to seventh place in the Western Conference.
The latest setback was a 2-1 defeat in Columbus on Saturday night in a game that wasn’t as close as the score-line suggested.
What’s gone wrong? Dallas’ attack lives and dies with Mauro Diaz, and Diaz is still clearly dealing with the aftershocks of the ACL tear he suffered on the penultimate day of last season. He’s currently out injured and hasn’t played in two weeks.
The defense, meanwhile, has taken a step back as well. Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman were excellent last year, but Hedges has had an uneven campaign while Zimmerman missed nearly the entire summer injured.
But the bottom line is that with Diaz out, Dallas just doesn’t scare teams. They don’t have any players who can consistently create their own offense. If Diaz doesn’t return to his best soon, Oscar Pareja’s team is done.
4. Chicago Too
It’s also time to worry about the Chicago Fire. Squarely in the Supporters’ Shield race in June and July, Chicago has now lost four straight and six of their last seven – including, on Saturday night, a shocking 2-1 home loss to Minnesota.
Defensively, the Fire have been a mess in August. They’ve conceded multiple goals in their seven of their last eight games and haven’t kept a clean sheet in nearly two months.
The goalkeeping has been poor, and there’s been regression along the backline, and Matt Polster has been a big miss at right back.
The other issue is that Nemanja Nikolic – who was at one point running away with the Golden Boot – has stopped scoring entirely. After opening the season with sixteen goals in his first eighteen games, he’s now scoreless in eight.
The Fire are in a precarious position. They have two teams behind them, Montreal and the Red Bulls, who had very good Augusts, and another team, Atlanta, about to play eight of their next ten games at home.
Chicago’s next two games? At Montreal, where they were pasted two weeks ago, and home against the Red Bulls. All of the sudden, the Eastern Conference playoff race has gotten awfully interesting. One good team is going to miss out.
5. Orlando Hits Rock Bottom
Orlando City’s season hit its lowest point yet on Saturday night, when the Lions lost 2-1 at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It was a shocking result. Orlando was off midweek, while Vancouver played its first-choice team in a massive home game against Seattle, flew six-plus hours across three time zones, and fielded a weakened team.
Part of that weakened team was Brek Shea – discarded by Orlando in preseason and scarcely used by Vancouver all year – and lo and behold it was Brek Shea who popped up to score what would be the winner early in the second half.
Orlando should be ashamed. Rebuilding year or not, this team has far too much talent and far too much support to have won just two of its last nineteen games. It’s been an absolute embarrassment.
The club’s season is over. The inquest into its future, however, is just beginning.
6. What Has Gotten Into Minnesota?
Minnesota United put in their best road performance of the season last weekend in Seattle, but were punched in the gut by a highly dubious stoppage time penalty call that gave that handed the Sounders a last-gasp 2-1 win.
But that was still a promising performance – and on Saturday night, the Loons finally broke through, winning their first MLS road game 2-1 in Bridgeview over the sliding Chicago Fire in front of a band of a 300-plus traveling supporters from the Dark Clouds and True North Elite.
It was a cathartic night. Abu Danladi, who missed a fistful of chances last weekend in Seattle, scored both goals. The long-beleaguered defense, led by Minnesotan Brent Kallman, held on against Chicago’s second half push.
This win, and the celebration that followed it, will serve as much-needed fuel and goodwill for the club as they look towards their offseason. It will serve a similar purpose for Adrian Heath, who has been under pressure in recent weeks.
Far from being the worst team in MLS history, Minnesota isn’t even one of the Western Conference’s worst teams this year.
7. Salt Lake Soars
There are few teams in the country more fun to watch right now than Real Salt Lake, which rung up eight goals in two home matches this week and is, all of the sudden, within a point of the Western Conference red line.
And while RSL remains a playoff long-shot, having played more games than all the teams around them, the fact that they’re in the race at all is a testament to the work that Mike Petke has already done and the talent he has already collected.
In short, this team has been reinvented. Petke started on Saturday night just four of the players, including goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who started the team’s Wild Card loss to LA in the playoffs last year.
Between Joao Plata, Brooks Lennon, Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, and Luis Silva, RSL can run half the league off the field. Add an elite central midfielder to replace Kyle Beckerman, and this should be a playoff team for years to come.
8. Signs of Life in DC
It’s been a dismal year for DC United, but – as they’d very much hoped when they spent big in the summer transfer window – it looks like they’ll be heading into their new Buzzard Point home next season with some buzz.
With the likes of Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse in the fold, DC has won three straight games by 1-0 scorelines. Canouse has been excellent, Arriola has been bright, and the East’s worst defense has tightened.
The nucleus of an exciting team – an exciting young team – is coming together. Add an international star, like a Wayne Rooney or a Gary Medel, and this team is going to be hot in the District come June when Audi Field opens.
9. David Villa Called Up
The feel-good story of the week in MLS came on Friday morning, hours before NYCFC’s clash with the New York Red Bulls, when it was announced that Spain was calling up David Villa for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
It’s Villa’s first call up since the 2014 World Cup, and a tremendous reward for a player who has done nothing but score goals and lead from the front from the moment he pulled on an New York City shirt in the spring of 2015.
Sitting on 97 caps, Villa had longed for a return to the Spain setup for years. Now, aided in part by Diego Costa’s standoff with Chelsea, he’s getting a shot just in time for a massive game against Italy at the Santiago Bernabeau.
The decision to draft Villa back into the national team is another sign that sentiment towards MLS in Europe – and indeed around the world – is softening. Coming to this league no longer means ending your international career. In many cases, it means aiding it.
10. Galaxy In The Twilight Zone
The San Jose Earthquakes entered the weekend with a 0-5-0 road record and accompanying -16 road goal differential under new manager Chris Leitch.
That all changed on Sunday night. The ‘Quakes traveled down to Carson for the final California Clasico of the year and walked all over an LA Galaxy team who had one fullback badly injured, saw another sent off, and went down 3-0.
LA’s season is sitting firmly in the twilight zone. The team has scored one goal in Sigi Schmid’s first five games. They haven’t won since June 21st.
Most incredibly, though, the 2017 Galaxy is on pace for the single worst home season in MLS history. They’ve won one – one! – of their first thirteen home games. It’s been a fall from grace like the league has never seen.