Here are the 10 things we learned from gameweek nine of the Major League Soccer season.
1. Sleepwalking in LA
Alan Gordon has, single-handedly netted LA somewhere around five of their 13 points this season. Without Gordon, who hit the 200 appearance landmark against Seattle earlier this year, the Galaxy are bottom of the Western Conference.
This is, for the moment, LA’s worst team since 2008 – one look at the Robbie Keane-less lineups of the last month makes that clear. And it’s a shame, because when the Galaxy are good, the league is better for it.
Of course, this isn’t LA’s first slow start – it isn’t really even a slow start to begin with – but long-term, the success of this team is much less assured than in the past.
Bruce Arena still appears to have no idea who to put next to Juninho in central midfield, Jose Villarreal’s progress has slowed, and Gyasi Zardes and the recently absent Keane look much more manageable without the incision of Landon Donovan.
Steven Gerrard isn’t a slam-dunk signing. His struggles with Liverpool in the last year have been well-publicized, and how he plays for LA – lying deep or playing in a more advanced role – is going to be a major point of intrigue over the second half of the season.
This is still the class operation of MLS, but as home draws like the one last Saturday against Colorado, and earlier this year against Houston show, the Galaxy aren’t scaring anybody right now.
2. American Revolution
New England is the league’s hottest team right now. They handed the New York Red Bulls their first loss of the season on Saturday at Gillette Stadium in a swashbuckling 2-1 win that was never as close as the final scoreline indicated.
They play with panache, they dance, and they’re almost all American – in fact, 10 of XI Revs starters against the Red Bulls are in the US pool. They’re managed by an American in Jay Heaps, and are putting their best run of the year together with their two best players over the last two years – Lee Nguyen and Jose Goncalves – uninvolved.
New England appears to be the early favorites in the East. How they’re winning is a model for everyone else in MLS.
3. What has happened to Graham Zusi
Sporting Kansas City got a big 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, thanks in large part to benching their starting goalkeeper for career MLS journeyman Tim Melia.
Melia came up with a huge game, and Pablo Nagamura got the winner off the bench. Nothing is coming easy for Sporting right now, especially at home, and it’s clear that all is not well with a club that, as late as last summer, appeared to be one of the league’s steadiest and most formidable franchises.
The second-half swoon last year had much to do with the exhaustion and drop-off from Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, but while Besler has had a nice 2015 thus far, Zusi appears completely pedestrian.
He’s never been the most dynamic player, but Zusi has been ineffective to the point that he’s been surpassed by Kristian Nemeth on the opposite flank in importance to his team’s overall play.
Zusi has fallen out of Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans thus far in 2015, and he’s going to have to play his way into the Gold Cup squad. With Sporting showing defensive frailties, they need one of their marquee players to find his best form again.
4. Diaz show in Dallas
FC Dallas kicked the living hell out of the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium on Friday night, with Fabian Castillo having one of those “I’m going to win the MVP award for the next 10 years” type of games.
But it’s Mauro Diaz, who himself had a big night with a goal, that makes Dallas’ attack click. Without Diaz, Dallas is a petulant, hard-working, average team. With Diaz, it’s a high-flying machine.
The same was true last year, when Dallas led the Western Conference before Diaz went down with a season-ending injury, and limped out of the playoffs in the first round after he was lost.
Oscar Pareja needs to pray he stays healthy. If he does, Dallas can contend for the Shield and the Cup.
5. Time to adapt in Houston
The Dynamo have shipped eight goals in their last two games, both at home, and linger on the outside looking in at the playoffs in the rough Western Conference.
The score under Owen Coyle has remained mostly the same as it was under Dominic Kinnear – Houston is a decent team, but it can’t dominate games, and has zero consistency.
The talent drop-off over the last six to seven years in Houston cannot be underestimated. This team has lost the likes of Stuart Holden, Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis in their primes, and Pat Onsted.
They’ve been replaced with mostly average players. Coyle went to the 4-4-2 with Will Bruin and Giles Barnes up top two weeks ago trying to find offense – he’s now going to have to switch out of it to try to find defense. There are no good options at center-back, and Luis Garrido needs to be playing instead of on the bench.
The Dynamo has spent a fair bit of money in the last year, but they’re really not in a better place than they were after the 2013 season.
6. Get ready for the TFC show
The road-trip from hell is over, and after nine points from seven games – including two wins on the trot to finish – Toronto FC has plenty of good vibes and confidence as they get ready to host Houston in their home opener and the grand reopening of BMO Field next Sunday.
TFC finish the season with 17 of their last 27 games at home, and very quickly we’re going to see the benefits outweigh the cost of starting the season on such a monstrous road-trip.
Giovinco is playing like an MVP candidate, Jozy Altidore is scoring, and – most importantly – TFC’s beleaguered defense has kept two clean-sheets in a row. This team has more talent than anyone except for the Revs and maybe Columbus in the East. It’s just a matter of chemistry and momentum, and those things finally appear to be coming along.
7. A loss lor Orlando
Orlando City went the classic MLS 2.0 route during their bye week, played a friendly, and saw one of their most influential players in Kevin Molino go down for the season with an ACL tear.
Mid-season friendlies are disasters waiting to happen, and Orlando found out exactly why on Saturday night. With Molino out, Adrian Heath is going to be forced into a decision about whether Brek Shea – who has been fantastic at fullback – should be pushed back into the midfield, or whether a different option works best for an increasingly frustrated Lions that has hasn’t won at home all season.
A summer signing – and Orlando still has a DP spot available – shouldn’t be out of the question either. Molino’s injury is going to hurt – especially because it was entirely avoidable.
8. RSL is not a playoff team
At least not right now. With a poorly played 1-1 home draw with the San Jose Earthquakes the latest uninspiring result in a season full of uninspiring results, a few things are clear.
One is that Real Salt Lake no longer does any one thing particularly well. This was the best possession team in the league in the past, but the 4-3-3 has just about taken care of that. Much of the possession that Salt Lake does have these days is mostly without purpose anyway.
It certainly hasn’t helped that Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler haven’t been on the field together since March, but there’s no masking the fact that Salt Lake is struggling and confidence is probably at an all-time low since the second year of the Kreis era. Don’t be shocked if the diamond is back sooner rather than later.
9. San Jose problems
The Earthquakes didn’t help the aesthetic quality of their Friday night clash with RSL at the Rio Tinto, but they would have taken all three points thanks to that suspicious non-offside call on Chris Wondolowski.
Instead, a horror-show own goal from Victor Bernardez cost the ‘Quakes two points. This is going to be a long rebuilding job for Dominic Kinnear. It’s not just about integrating new players – it’s also the drop-off from the guys that brought San Jose the Shield in 2012.
Bernardez is one. He hasn’t been the same since 2012. Doesn’t help that he’s undisciplined. Bernardez, Steven Lenhart, and even Wondo, who hasn’t completely found his footing around Matias Perez Garcia and Innocent Emeghara in this year’s offense, are all on career declines. Becoming less reliant on those guys is key for San Jose moving forward.
10. Yankee Stadium field ruining the games
The atmosphere doesn’t suck. Really. Against Seattle, the NYCFC fans were loud and did themselves proud. Can’t speak for the sightlines, and I know they’re not ideal, but they seem to be manageable.
It’s the field that’s ruining the games. You can’t play soccer in a baseball outfield and call it soccer. When the field is 70 yards across, it’s a different game. I expect that NYCFC will be at Yankee Stadium for at least the next four years – unless the Yankees decide the situation is untenable.
We always knew there would be major problems with the setup. The biggest problem, clearly after two months, is the field itself.