Here are the 10 things we learned from week eleven of the Major League Soccer season.
1. Seattle Is The Team To Beat
The Sounders traveled up to BC Place to take on the front-running Vancouver Whitecaps, replaced Obafemi Martins with Chad Barrett, watched Barrett nab a brace, and returned to Seattle with the Cascadia Cup all but locked up and a three-game home-stand to finish May.
Seattle has now won four of their last five, the only loss coming in a shootout at Columbus two weekends ago. Brad Evans continues to improve at center-back, Clint Dempsey is dealing, the central midfield is healthy, and if Lamar Neagle or Barrett can start scoring consistently, the Sounders will be almost impossible to stop.
Seattle is MLS’ only elite team right now. The only sides that are even close – FC Dallas and the Crew – both have too many off nights to hang in the Shield race for the entire season.
LA’s insipid start ensures that their 2014 duel with Seattle for the Shield won’t be repeated. Barring injury, it’s the Sounders’ to lose. And barring injury, Seattle will also be the favorite for the one they really want – MLS Cup.
2. Orlando’s Big Day
There was good news even before Orlando City took the field and demolished the defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy 4-0 on Saturday afternoon: More than 40,000 fans poured into a scorching Citrus Bowl to support a team that was previously 0 for 5 at home this year and stuck on two measly wins.
Orlando might be the new Seattle. Their stadium, which opens next year, was supposed to seat just 20,000. The question now is not if Orlando will expand that stadium, it’s how.
The support deserved a performance like the one it got on Sunday for a long time, and the performance on Sunday was a long time coming. Orlando has dominated home games before, but against LA, they turned that dominance into goals.
Four of them, in fact, all scored in different ways, all by different goal-scorers. Two in the first half, two in the second half. It was a wire-to-wire performance made all the more impressive by the fact that both Amobi Okugo and Aurelian Collin – two of this team’s most important players – didn’t start.
When they’re on, Orlando plays with a kind of insatiable hunger that most teams simply can’t match. Rafael Ramos is hard for teams to deal with attacking from full-back, while Brek Shea will be better in midfield than he was on defense. Martin Paterson, who made is season debut, could also be important going forward, and the emergence of rookie Cyle Larin has been absolutely vital at forward.
Orlando can be a playoff team. They can be one of MLS’ glamour franchises. The infrastructure, support, and talent are there. Don’t let Orlando City get on a roll, because with the nature of how they play, once they start winning, they’ll be tough to stop.
3. DC United Isn’t Built For The Playoffs
DC took their worst result of the season on Sunday night, a 1-0 stoppage time loss to the hopeless Philadelphia Union at PPL Park. The problem was more that the result wasn’t too surprising – DC rarely plays anyone off the field, and you can’t grind out every result.
This doesn’t bode well for the postseason when talent and skill rules. Last year, United were seeded No. 1 in the East, and lost handily in the first round to a fairly average New York Red Bulls team that simply possessed better attacking players and didn’t have to work so hard for their goals.
Fabian Espindola is DC’s elite attacking player, and that says a lot – he was deemed expendable by that Red Bulls team that knocked DC out last year. When Espindola’s not on the field – and he hasn’t been on the field much this season – DC struggles.
When they’re on, United plays hard, leans on their defense, and wins sloppy. That will get you a playoff spot. It won’t get you anywhere in the postseason.
4. Real Salt Lake Thrashed
More surprising than Orlando’s demolition of LA this weekend was Montreal shellacking Real Salt Lake 4-1 in front of a Stade Saputo crowd that would make a full middle school auditorium blush.
Salt Lake’s record isn’t great, but it continues to be their total lack of gumption on the field that is more alarming. Jeff Cassar has scraped the 4-3-3 – predictable – but hasn’t quite returned to the diamond, instead opting for more of a 4-1-3-2 with plenty of pressure on Kyle Beckerman to protect a defense that is missing the steady presence of Nat Borchers and Chris Wingert.
RSL don’t pass the eye test. They’re slow to develop their attacks, and no longer grind teams down with pressure through possession. When Javier Morales returns things will get better, but it might take a summer signing – Yura Movsisyan anyone? – to make a playoff push.
Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen isn’t well liked, and it’s completely unknown how he’ll react to losing for the first time. Cassar’s job doesn’t appear to be jeopardy, but it’s a slippery slope for RSL right now.
5. San Jose Start To Threaten
The Earthquakes have flown completely under the radar this year, but it might be time to start paying attention.
After beating a very good Columbus team on Saturday night – with the help of an early red card, it should be added – the ‘Quakes have won three out of four at Avaya Stadium. San Jose isn’t going to thrill anyone, but they continue to be a tough out and very good home team.
This looks like vintage Dominic Kinnear. This San Jose team doesn’t play particularly good soccer – part of that is that they still haven’t quite figured out how to get the best out of Innocent Emeghara and Matias Perez Garcia – but they’re recovered much of the spine that they lost under Mark Watson last year.
Chris Wondolowski continues scoring – 99 goals now – and the defense is good. Maybe this season finishes with San Jose in ninth. That’s about where their talent suggests they should be. But I doubt it. They’re getting wins consistently, and most of MLS isn’t.
6. Vancouver Isn’t Elite
The ‘Caps are good, but they aren’t one of MLS’ best teams. Let’s put that narrative to bed right now. Playoff team? Absolutely. MLS Cup winners? No chance.
Vancouver is good against bad teams. They’re good against tired teams. They play with verve, they counter-attack extremely well, and they’ve got a couple of great players in Pedro Morales and Octavio Rivero.
But Vancouver’s defense is hit or miss. The Waston-Kah center-back pairing is incredibly erratic, and the central midfield pairing of Matias Laba and Russell Tiebert has been pretty average this year.
More discouraging the regression of young talent like Darron Mattocks and Erik Hurtado. Both have fallen out of favor, while Mauro Rosales appears to have lost a step and Kakuta Manneh still refuses to come to play every week. Vancouver has gotten a couple of results they shouldn’t have – at Orlando and at home against Portland – and those will even out later this year.
I like Vancouver. But not as real MLS Cup threats. They’re not there yet.
7. What Happened To Portland?
The Timbers are a year and a third away from winning the Western Conference and coming within a game of MLS Cup. Now, the Timbers are a pretty average team. They’ve only won six of their last 22 home games in league play, and were well beaten at Houston on Saturday night.
The interesting thing is that this Timbers team, on paper, is better than the one that was so good two years ago. Individually, the defense has upgraded at all four starting positions. But the results have suffered.
What happened? Did teams figure out Porterball? That’s probably not it – the Timbers have changed their own style more over the last year than anything else. Portland has become completely unable to string together wins.
Maybe Porter figures things out and this team has a good second half. That’s what happened last year. But what’s clear is that Porter’s brand has suffered, and the Timbers are no longer among the league’s best teams.
8. Bradley Show
Michael Bradley scored the goal of the week with a powerful, determined solo run at New England. It got TFC a point in a game they probably should have lost, and provided a morale boost before the Reds return to BMO Field to face Portland.
For TFC to be great, Bradley has to be great. He, not Giovinco, is their most important player. Problem is, Bradley isn’t having a particularly good season. Greg Vanney hasn’t figured out Bradley’s best position, or the right players to put around and next to him, and it’s hurt – the Houston game, in which Bradley gave away a penalty, being the prime example.
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