Here are the ten things we learned from Week 27 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. The Playoff Picture Clears Up
With Real Salt Lake and San Jose losing this weekend – and despite the fact that Dallas continues to stare into the abyss – the Western Conference playoff race appears to be settled.
Houston and Dallas both have games in hand on the ‘Quakes and RSL, and points to spare. Positioning is very much up for grabs in the West, but there’s a clear top six and bottom five.
The Eastern Conference is coming into focus as well. Montreal’s loss to New England on Saturday night leaves the Impact firmly on the outside looking in for a playoff berth, three points below the red line and a distant seventh on points-per-game.
Even if Montreal wins their two games in hand on Columbus, they’d still be trailing the Crew by a point – and two of the Impact’s next three are at Toronto and at Atlanta.
2. As the Supporters’ Shield Race Ends
The Supporters’ Shield race, meanwhile, is over as early as it ever has been.
Patrick Vieira conceded the regular season championship to Toronto FC several weeks ago, but his team’s loss to Portland on Saturday – coupled with TFC’s win over San Jose – makes it official.
Toronto is nine points clear atop the league, with a goal difference 18 better than the next best team. They’ve been dominant.
How dominant? Last year’s Shield winners Dallas finished the season with 60 points. The 2015 Shield-winning New York Red Bulls finished with 60 as well. TFC this year – with six games remaining – is already at 59.
3. Atlanta Opens New Home With A Bang
The league’s second best team on goal difference? That would be Atlanta United, who raised the curtain on Mercedes Benz Stadium with a comprehensive 3-0 win over free-falling FC Dallas.
The win was Atlanta’s first since July 21, and it could be the beginning of a run to threaten the likes of NYC and Chicago for the second spot in the East.
The Five Stripes have five more home games before the end of September, and finish with seven of their last nine in Atlanta – where they’re 6-0-1 since the beginning of May.
By every metric, Atlanta has been one of the league’s best teams all season. By the end of the month, the standings should reflect that.
4. Dallas Continues to Slide
We’ve seen our fair share of bad runs in MLS this year – Philadelphia to start the season, Orlando since May, Portland in June and July, – but FC Dallas’ slide might be the most shocking.
With their blowout loss in Atlanta, Oscar Pareja’s team is now winless in eight – having picked up just three points since July 22 in a stretch in which they’ve been outscored 19-7.
Dallas has seen Mauro Diaz go in and out of the lineup over the last month-and-a-half, but they certainly haven’t been decimated by injuries. This is, more or less, the same team and same manager that won the Supporters’ Shield last season.
It’s been a shocking run. Philadelphia is a small club. Orlando has never made the playoffs. Portland has missed them twice in the last three years. But Dallas under Pareja has been juggernaut – not always the league’s best team, but always one of its consistent. Not anymore.
5. A Stunning Defeat For Houston
The Houston Dynamo could have virtually locked up their return to the playoffs, and provided a lift – however small – to their fans trying to put their lives back together after Hurricane Harvey with a win on Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium.
But it wasn’t to be. A goal from Dominic Badji in stoppage time gave the Colorado Rapids a 1-0 upset victory. It was the first time Houston had been shutout at home all season.
The Dynamo – who had a game cancelled due to Harvey and hadn’t played in 17 days – were clearly rusty. Said Wilmer Cabrera after the game, “I have to leave the stadium today just comfortable, at peace with myself and at peace with the players because they fought and they are tired.”
The win was the Rapids’ first in more than two months and first since Pablo Mastroeni was fired, but, interestingly, their second victory this year over Houston – making this matchup the West’s answer to Atlanta-DC in the East.
6. Another Big Win For Portland
No team in MLS has run hotter and colder this year than Portland, and right now, the Timbers are as hot as they’ve been since they shot to the top of the league when the season opened in March.
On Saturday afternoon, they did what no Western Conference team has done for fifteen months – beat NYCFC at Yankee Stadium.
A goal one minute before halftime from Diego Valeri – more on it a minute – was enough to extend Portland’s unbeaten run to four games and send them back to the top of the West.
Valeri – who tied an MLS record by scoring in his seventh straight game on Saturday – has been integral in the run, but so has Larrys Mabiala – whose signing in July has remade what had been one of the league’s worst defenses.
We’ve seen the Timbers put together a fall charge before. Caleb Porter’s record at this time of year is as good as anyone’s in MLS, and his team appears to be putting it all together at just the right moment again.
7. Pirlo’s Embarrassment
No great athlete wants to stay on the field past the point where he or she can no longer compete at a recognizable level. Sadly, Andrea Pirlo is a long ways past that point.
Pirlo was responsible for giving the ball away on the goal that decided his team’s 1-0 loss to Portland on Saturday, being stripped by Darren Mattocks deep in the NYCFC half and then, instead of chasing after the Jamaican, stopping cold to appeal for a foul that never occurred.
It was embarrassing. Even if he was exposed defensively on occasion, Pirlo was quite good for New York City in 2015 and 2016.
This year, though, he’s just been sad to watch. Despite his incredible body control and despite his extraordinary soccer intelligence, Pirlo appears as overmatched physically as anyone in recent MLS history has been.
He played well on Wedensday night against Sporting Kansas City, but NYC can’t afford to play him – and with one or both of Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera slated to return to the NYC lineup next weekend, we might never see Pirlo on the field again.
In any case, it’s a shame that one of the game’s all-time greats is going out in such pitiful fashion.
8. Cascadia Reigning
Portland isn’t the only ascendant Cascadian team out West. In fact, heading into the final month-and-a-half of the season, it’s the Seattle Sounders, Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps who occupy the conference’s top three positions.
The ‘Caps, 3-2 home winners on Saturday night against RSL, are quietly having a very nice season. They’re second in the conference on points-per-game, and, with three straight at home before finishing the season with games at Seattle, Sporting, and Portland, have a path to the top spot.
Seattle, meanwhile, still has to be the odds-on favorite to represent the league in MLS Cup. They’ve not been great of late, but new signing Victor Rodriguez has thoroughly impressed in his first three appearances. They have the guns.
9. Shared Spoils in Chicago
The biggest game of the weekend on paper was Saturday afternoon in Bridgeview, where the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls battled to a 1-1 draw.
Both teams got goals from their main strikers – no small feet for Nemanja Nikolic, who had been scoreless in nine – and both came away none too disappointed for the result.
While it wasn’t the win Chicago would have liked to get its season back on track, there was plenty to like. Nikolic got on the scoresheet, and Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster both started for the first time since July.
The Red Bulls, meanwhile, are now unbeaten in five. They’re getting better play from Sacha Kljestan, whose up to fourteen assists, and the defense – still without a clean sheet since July – mostly took care of the talented Fire attack.
Both clubs are firmly in contention as we head towards the final push.
10. Orlando’s Nightmare Season Continues
Despite their finally getting a road win on Saturday night in DC, it was another nightmarish week for Orlando City.
Firstly, there’s the specter of Hurricane Irma, which has the team holed up in Atlanta ahead of their game there next weekend.
Then there was the news that midfielder and vice-captain Will Johnson was arrested in the early hours of Wednesday morning and charged with domestic battery after he allegedly charged his wife and tackled her to the ground following an argument.
Johnson is the second Orlando player to be arrested this year, following his compatriot Cyle Larin, and, if he’s guilty, his time at the club and in MLS should be over. There is no place in the game or the world for domestic violence.