Here are the 10 things we learned from week 13 of the Major League Soccer season.
1. Orlando City is the league’s best show
This week started strongly for Orlando City – the club announced last Wednesday that its new soccer-specific stadium in downtown Orlando would be completely privately financed, built on land the club has bought from the city, and will have a capacity 25,000-28,000 instead of the 19,500 it was originally planned to seat.
The stadium’s opening has been pushed back to the middle of 2016, meaning Orlando City will open next season at the Citrus Bowl. That isn’t a bad thing either – the Citrus Bowl packed another 31,000+ to watch Orlando come back for a draw 2-2 draw with Columbus on Saturday night.
Off the field, the Lions have done everything right. On the field, they’ve done everything dramatically. Against the Crew, an extremely harsh early red card to Michael Parkhurst set the stage for fireworks, and no one was disappointed as Pedro Ribero scored an 89th minute screamer to salvage a point for the home team against the valiant Crew.
No team in MLS has had more late goals in their matches, and especially at home, Orlando has delivered with a spectacle every time they’ve taken the field. No wonder they need more seats in their new stadium, and no wonder soccer is being received so warmly in Orlando.
2. The Timbers walk back from the brink
Things were getting ugly in Portland after an especially dire road-trip dropped the Timbers into a tie for last place in the Western Conference. But one week and six points later, the Timbers are back into the playoff places.
It was mostly contributions from forgotten men – Gaston Fernandez and Jack Jewsbury against the Colorado Rapids, especially – and an extremely fortunate slice of luck that has the Timbers’ season back on track.
DC United coach Ben Olsen decided to play a reserve team at Portland on Wednesday night – a decision that paid off, as the starters downed Philadelphia 2-1 at RFK Stadium on Saturday – and Colorado, clearly the West’s worst team, was Saturday.
We’re still waiting to see the Timbers truly at full-strength, with Diego Valeri and Will Johnson in the lineup, but summer reinforcements might be on the way at the striker position, where DP Fanendo Adi’s play has fallen off a cliff.
Portland could be completely healthy when they take on New England at Saturday, and now is as good a time as any to start playing good soccer – two matchups with the Seattle Sounders loom later this month.
3. Pablo Mastroeni is out of his depth
Mastroeni, a US World Cup veteran, didn’t really want the Colorado Rapids coaching job when it remained wide open just one day before the 2014 season, but in the end, he had little choice to accept.
The result for the Rapids hasn’t been pretty. While the hope continues to be that Mastroeni can grow into management, the only thing he’s proved to be good at in the last year and a half is looking awesome.
Incessantly shuffling lineups, playing players out of position, and generally failing to understand the finer tactical points of the game have been hallmarks of the Mastroeni era.
Against Portland on Saturday, Mastroeni decided to sit his best player, Dillon Powers, and play new DP striker Kevin Doyle as the No.10. Colorado predictably struggled, but found a late equalizer through a bullet of a volley from Sam Cronin, only to not get back on defense – that included center-back Axel Sjoberg staying up at center forward and most everyone else on the team jogging – and give up a stoppage time winner.
It will be interesting to see how much patience the Rapids have. Mastroeni is a club legend and well-liked manager, but Colorado just isn’t going to be competitive any time soon with him at the helm.
4. The Red Bulls lack bite
New York was probably the better team for much of the game of the week in Seattle, but the Sounders predictably got some big moments from their big players and snatched a late win on a moment of magic from Clint Dempsey.
The Red Bulls have played some terrific soccer this season, but they’re just lacking a final piece that would make them one of the best teams in the league.
One of the problems is a sorely mediocre defense that is missing Jamison Olave, but throughout the Red Bulls team, finishing games has been a problem. New York has dropped a ton of points from winning positions this year, and now has just one win in their last seven – in the derby against the dire NYCFC.
The merit in the divisive Ali Curtis-Jesse Marsch revolution is easy to see, but the Red Bulls aren’t there just yet.
5. Homegrown kids dominate
The New England Revolution versus LA Galaxy game to finish the weekend off was a showcase for homegrown players, with Daigo Fagundez and Scott Caldwell having big games for the Revs, and Ignacio Magnato and Gyasi Zardes scoring for the Galaxy.
It’s especially fulfilling for proponents of MLS academies and youth development to see players coming up through the ranks at LA, the league’s glamour club, and with the room created by the absences of Keane, Gerrard, Rogers, De La Garza, and others over the last few months, those young players have taken advantage.
The other highlights of this mostly muted – and only – MLS Cup rematch of the year were the unrelenting dreadful weather that kept most fans away in Foxborough, and Bruce Arena’s half-time interview.
Arena might be American pro sport’s only true answer to Greg Popovich in terms of interview entertainment, coaching pedigree, and true creativity. Whoever you think is the best American coach of all time, Arena is firmly in the conversation – and his presence in MLS is to be savored.
6. How good is FC Dallas?
Dallas continues to be inconsistent. They were thrashed 4-0 Friday night at Sporting Kansas City, made Krisztian Nemeth look like Lionel Messi, and had defender Zach Lloyd sent off.
This setback followed a loss last weekend at Montreal for the Hoops, who had one of the hottest starts in the league – as per usual – so what’s the problem? Mauro Diaz is healthy, and FC Dallas hasn’t had any major injuries or absences over the last month.
The Lloyd at center-back experiment in Dallas is going a whole lot worse than the Brad Evans center-back experiment in Seattle, while Oscar Pareja’s side always looks a little better when Michel plays from the start.
Dan Kennedy also hasn’t blown anyone away in goal – it’s not a stretch to say that Chris Seitz was better when he had the job. Dallas has to prove this season that they’re not a lightweight. If they want to be considered heavyweight MLS Cup contenders, they need to cut out the results like the one they suffered on Friday night.
7. Salt Lake’s problems shift to defense
RSL has gotten their swing back every so slightly on offense, though plenty of that has to do with the return of Javier Morales – who hit another excellent free-kick goal at Vancouver on Saturday. Getting Joao Plata back will help as well, but Salt Lake’s problems run deeper than that.
Defensively, the team is a bit of a mess. Kyle Beckerman hasn’t been excellent this year – part of that is surely do to the formation change – in front of a back four that has had plenty of turnover. Against Vancouver, none of the team’s four regular starters from 2014 were active.
Jamison Olave’s absence hurt, but also damaging is Chris Schuler’s injury and the real lack of strong full-back play from anyone all year except Tony Beltran, who is also out.
Jeff Cassar is having a rough year. Salt Lake is stuck in ninth place, with Beckerman and Nick Rimando gone with the US this weekend. Things aren’t going to get any easier.
8. NYCFC continues to struggle
The worst team in the league? That continues to be New York City Football Club, who are stuck on a paltry 0.62 points per game in last place in the Eastern Conference.
NYCFC needed a David Villa first-half penalty to draw the Houston Dynamo at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and quite simply, help can’t arrive soon enough. This team hasn’t won since its home opener, and be it Oguchi Oneywu, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, or really anyone, NYCFC needs to improve.
The initial effort made by NYCFC to assemble an MLS roster has been a dismal failure outside of a select few positions. Jason Kreis has started experimenting with formations, going to something resembling a diamond for the Houston match with Mix Diskerud in the Javi Morales position.
For this team for than any other, the summer transfer window cannot open quickly enough.
9. Major signings shine
The off-season and winter transfer window past have done plenty of good for the clubs who used it prominently. Nemeth looks like a fantastic signing for Sporting Kansas City – a club in increasingly desperate need for someone to live up to their potential – but he’s not the only one.
Kei Kamara has already hit ten goals this year, scoring and giving us the Reaction to a Red Card of the season in Orlando, while Sebastian Giovinco’s legend continues to grow in Toronto, where the Italian-inspired Reds downed San Jose 3-1 at a rain-soaked BMO Field.
Those three signings – Nemeth, Kamara, and Giovinco – were all of players in their 20s. Go that route with your DP money, and you’re almost sure to be rewarded.
10. International dates
One of the worst things – and there aren’t many – about MLS’ summer schedule is the games and important dates that the league’s international players have to miss.
Michael Bradley cited missing Toronto FC games when on duty with the US national team as his biggest frustration since returning to MLS, and it’s understandable. A number of players will miss their team’s game this weekend, and it’ll be even more players when Gold Cup rosters assemble later this month.
Teams have to win without their defining players. The situation is counter-intuitive, and it’s one MLS needs to continue working to rectify.
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