Here are the ten things we learned from Week 32 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. What Is MLS’s Role In The USMNT’S World Cup Failure?
Whether you think MLS is an underlying cause of the U.S.’s failure to get the 2018 World Cup, there’s no denying this: MLS played a bigger role in this edition of the USMNT than any other since its founding. And this was the one to fail to reach the World Cup.
This was MLS’s show. Bruce Arena was an MLS coach, and he trusted MLS players to get to Russia. Of the eleven who started the Panama and Trinidad games, nine play or played for years in the league.
In many ways, Arena’s appointment and tenure was MLS’s revenge against the blatantly and consistently anti-MLS reign of Jurgen Klinsmann. It didn’t work.
Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras can thank MLS for their World Cup lives. Those countries have benefitted hugely from the league’s rising standard. The U.S. will, in the long run, benefit too.
But maybe it hasn’t happened yet to the extent we might have thought. In MLS’s hands, the U.S. missed its first World Cup since 1986. It’ll take a long time to get over.
2. Besler’s Experience
The common refrain, repeated with renewed urgency in the days following the collapse in Trinidad, is that American players don’t face any real pressure.
Jurgen Klinsmann, when he was the coach, talked frequently about wanting his players to be made uncomfortable in post offices and bakeries after bad performances. Taylor Twellman made similar points throughout the week.
On Sunday, none of the returning national teamers were booed. Most, if not all, were cheered by their home fans – welcomed back with open arms. This account of Matt Besler’s experience, from the Kansas City Star, is hugely informative.
Is it a bad thing that U.S. Soccer fans want to pick their players up? I don’t think so. On the whole, it’s a more a good than not. The soccer culture here tends to be positive and healthy.
But would more pressure – more fear of facing home – have made a difference in Trinidad? We’ll never know. Perhaps it might have.
3. Jermaine Jones’ Criticism
One voice that emerged during the fallout from the qualifying failure was that of LA Galaxy and former national team midfielder Jermaine Jones.
Jones, in an Instagram video, was heavily critical of U.S. players for not testing themselves in Europe. Jordan Morris’ decision to stay in Seattle rather than go to Germany was highlighted.
Leaving aside the very real possibility that Morris would have spent the last two years on a bench in the Bundesliga, Jones’ criticism was hugely one-sided. He was a Klinsmann guy, rightly dropped by Arena, and he seemed none too disappointed on Tuesday that the team didn’t qualify without him.
Jones is plenty intelligent, but you wonder how many bridges he’s burned in American soccer circles. My guess – mostly because he’s been so bad this year – is that he’s not in MLS next season.
4. Race To The Bottom in the West Continues
Playoff race? In the Western Conference, it’s a playoff crawl.
With eleven of the twelve playoff spots locked up heading into the season’s final weekend, all that remains is the West’s sixth and final berth.
The three teams contesting it, San Jose, FC Dallas, and Real Salt Lake, have won just five of their last fifteen games. On Sunday, they picked up one total point from their three respective games.
On Sunday, Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus advocated decreasing the number of playoff teams in each conference from six to four. Doing so would increase the game-to-game pressure on MLS teams and players, and for that reason, it’s a good idea.
But it’s also a good idea because there are never twelve legitimately good MLS teams. In the past, the East has had weak playoff teams. This year, the West will likely give a playoff spot to a team with more losses than wins. It has to stop.
5. Backbreaking Loss For RSL
While Dallas was trounced 4-0 in Seattle, Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of their Rocky Mountain rivals from Colorado was the weekend’s most devastating result.
Salt Lake had 72 percent possession and outshot the Rapids 30-2. They sent in 50 crosses. Colorado’s early goal – improbably – stood up.
It didn’t matter. Pablo Mastroeni, if he was watching, must have been mighty proud.
6. Martino Caught Up in Controversy Again
As far as 0-0 draws go, Atlanta’s against the New York Red Bulls in Harrison on Sunday afternoon was a good one.
The Red Bulls controlled proceedings, with Brad Guzan – who should have been in goal for the U.S. on Tuesday night – making several excellent saves to keep the game scoreless.
It was a good contest between two strong playoff teams. But the biggest fireworks would come after the final whistle, when Jesse Marsch told the media that Atlanta boss Tata Martino had been encouraging his players to kick out at Red Bulls.
Martino denied Marsch’s claims, but it’s the second time this year that the Argentine coach has been involved in a spat with a Northeast manager. Earlier this year at RFK Stadium, Martino refused to shake Ben Olsen’s hand.
Whether Martino has a petulant streak, or whether opposition coaches are envious of Atlanta’s status as the league’s favorite son, or both, there appears to be some legitimate bad blood brewing in the East.
7. Is Vancouver For Real
The Whitecaps could have locked up the regular season Western Conference championship with a win over San Jose at BC Place on Sunday night.
It didn’t happen. Though they took an early lead through Yordy Reyna, the ‘Quakes – an abysmal road team under Chris Letich – hit back through Vako to boost their playoff hopes with a 1-1 draw.
It was the kind of letdown we’ve come to expect from a Vancouver team that, when push has come to shove, hasn’t been all that menacing on the playoff stage.
If the ‘Caps are a real threat to reach MLS Cup, they’ll need to make a statement next weekend in Portland – where a draw should be good enough to win the West. We’ll see what happens.
8. Nikolic Locks Up Golden Boot
With a hat-trick on Sunday afternoon in Bridgeview, the Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic kept his side in the running for a top two spot in the Eastern Conference and likely locked up the Golden Boot.
Nikolic is sitting on 24 goals with one game to play – three in front of Diego Valeri, four in front of David Villa, and six in front of Josef Martinez.
Considering that Nikolic went nine games without scoring early July to early September, that’s quite an achievement.
One key? Nikolic has started every one of Chicago’s games this season. He’s been healthy, but he also hasn’t had national team commitments. With the way the MLS calendar is set up, that’s a not insignificant advantage.
9. Valeri Joins Exclusive Club
Though Nikolic has poured in goals this year, Diego Valeri is the league’s MVP. He’s having one of the greatest seasons in league history.
Valeri had a goal and two assists in Portland’s 4-0 dismantling of DC United on Sunday night at Providence Park, and that first assist – to Alvas Powell, of all people – put Valeri in rarefied air.
The Argentine is just the second player in MLS history to tally 20 goals and 10 assists in the same season, joining Sebastian Giovinco who put up 22 and 16 in his inaugural 2015 campaign.
Valeri right now is sitting on 21 and 11 with a game to go. His Portland team, if the playoffs started today, would be a slight favorite to come out of the West.
10. Decision Day Next Sunday
What’s on the line next Sunday, when all eleven games kick off simultaneously?
The last playoff spot in the West, which San Jose could clinch despite its -22 goal difference with a home win over Minnesota. If the Loons play spoiler, Dallas – which hosts LA – has an easier matchup than RSL, which gets Sporting KC.
The Timbers and Whitecaps, who play each other, can both win the conference. So can SKC, though the two draws they were held to by Houston this week were hugely damaging.
In the East, spots two through five are up for grabs. NYCFC has gone slightly cold, so the door remains open for the red-hot Columbus Crew, Chicago, and Atlanta to grab a bye.
Patrick Vieira’s team closes the season at Citi Field against the Crew. In a bizarre American soccer moment, that somehow feels quite fitting.