Here are the 10 things we learned from the 21st week of the MLS season.
Andrea Pirlo is royalty. There is no other way to explain why opposing players refuse to tackle him, refuse to harass him, refuse, really, to even look threateningly at him.
Pirlo played just a shade over 30 minutes in his NYCFC debut on Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, and he was absolutely magnificent. He looked the part and played the part of the international icon he is, starting two-goal sequences with brilliant passes, and lifting his entire team with his mere presence on the field.
Thing is, the one time Pirlo pondered on the ball looking for the perfect pass, and was challenged, he lost it, grabbed the player who stole the ball, and got a yellow card.
Problem is, tackling the Italian maestro feels like sacrilege. That’s Pirlo for you. At this point in his career, Pirlo’s aura is such that a player who looks 50, never runs, hardly plays defense, and almost never scores goals is the ultimate in coolness in the world of soccer.
It’s deserved, too. Pirlo can still play. He awed the New York City fans who chanted his name intermittently throughout one of the most entertaining 90 minutes MLS has produced this season with some superb stuff once he came on for his debut.
Pirlo will love New York City. He’s a performer at heart, and considering how he plays, he still has another couple of seasons in him. This is a home run signing for MLS. There is no one like Pirlo, and there probably never will be.
2. There Are Other Reasons For NYCFC To Be Excited Too
Sunday was a coming out party of sorts for NYCFC. The richest club in the league had played the first half of the season with one DP and at about half-strength, but now, but not anymore. All the pieces are coming together for Jason Kreis’ side.
Counting Lampard, who really does exist and will be excellent starting when he gets on the field next weekend, NYCFC has brought in four, possibly five new starters already in the summer transfer window.
The full back positions that haunted this team are now settled with Iraola and Angelino, while center-back Jefferson Mena and winger Javier Calle were starting for one of the best teams in Columbia just a year ago.
But the two most promising players on show Sunday were ones that NYCFC has brought along all year. Kwadwo Poku, the first fan favorite in club history, is an absolute tank, while Tommy McNamara looks like Ned Gravaboy minus ten years. He’s solid on the ball, has good instincts, and is improving all the time. As is Poku.
It’s important not to overreact. This team is still a dumpster fire defensively – they’ve allowed hat-tricks in their last two home games – and Chris Wingert might miss considerable time, but NYCFC should make the playoffs.
Everyone owes a hell of a lot to David Villa, who showed up earlier than his DP counterparts, worked his tail off, and pretty much willed this team to stick around the pack in the Eastern Conference.
Now Villa – who was nothing short of giddy post-game – will reap the rewards of his hard labor, which could certainly the Golden Boot. In terms of output versus expectation, NYCFC’s launch has been one of the most troubled in MLS history. But that chapter, it seems is over. The party is on in the Bronx.
3. Chicago Finally Gets A Break
Didier Drogba is on his way to Montreal. It’s a good fit for a number of reasons, as I wrote last week, for player and club. To get to the Impact, Drogba spurned the Chicago Fire, who haven’t really been competitive since Cuahutemoc Blano was around.
But the last couple years have been especially tough in Bridgeview. Last summer Chicago lost out in the blind draw for Jermaine Jones to New England, this summer, they lost Drogba to the allure of a French speaking city and a more comfortable transition to North America.
But Chicago has finally gotten some luck, and they’re cashing in.
Because of MLS’ inane player acquisition rules, the Fire owned Drogba’s MLS rights because they filed a discovery claim on the Ivorian striker. To get Drogba’s rights, Montreal had to trade the Fire a ton of allocation money – probably somewhere in the ballpark of $250,000 dollars.
The Fire, because they’re in last place in the overall league table, are at the top of the waiver order. And it just so happens that Gilberto, the former Toronto FC DP striker, is returning to MLS after an unhappy loan spell at Vasco de Gama in Brazil. Because TFC already has three DPs, they had to waive Gilberto.
The Fire pounced. Good for them, too. All three of their current DPs are expendable, and Gilberto is a decent player who already knows MLS and is young enough to become part of a solid core with Harry Shipp and Matt Polster. Thrown in Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko, and maybe David Accam, and you’re on the road to recovery.
Only in MLS would a club get a quarter of a million dollars for a player they never owned, but it’s about time Chicago got some luck.
4. Brothers Reunite in New York
After a month-long training spell amidst intense, and often frustrating negotiations, Shaun Wright-Phillips has finally agreed to sign with the New York Red Bulls.
The big news here is that Wright-Phillips took a pay cut to join up. The former Chelsea and Manchester City winger won’t be a DP in New Jersey, and his salary is likely going to be less than $500,000 – much less than he could have made in the Middle East or England.
But SWP wanted to play with his brother Bradley, and he fills a need for Jesse Marsch on the wing where Mike Grella has been. The RBNY front-six – Felipe, McCarty, Kljestan, Wright-Phillips, Sam, and Wright-Phillips – is now good enough to win the East.
According to Taylor Twellman, the Red Bulls have another player lined up too before the close of the transfer window on August 8th. Hopefully it’s someone to compliment Kamar Lawrence and Matt Miazga, who are two of the most promising young defenders in the league.
That last Hudson River Derby? It’s in two weeks at Red Bulla Arena.
5. The Texas Heat Remains Undefeated
There’s nothing to knock teams out in MLS like playing in Texas in the summer. This weekend temperatures just below 100 degrees floored the LA Galaxy in Houston and the Portland Timbers in Dallas.
The Timbers and Galaxy have been abysmal on the road anyway this year, but they weren’t even competitive in their respective games. Portland went down 4-1, and LA lost 3-0 and is still without a road win in a season in which it is still the prohibitive favorites to repeat as MLS Cup champions.
Dallas is playing terrific soccer – Oscar Pareja has found an answer in central midfield with Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa, and a healthy Mauro Diaz is one of the best players in the league. If they can hold on to Fabian Castillo, the sheer amount of pace Dallas possess in attacking areas is going to scare whatever team they face in November.
But it’s the defense that has been truly noteworthy of late: Matt Hedges deserves a USMNT call, and Zach Lloyd hasn’t been far behind this season. Dan Kennedy, who Pareja finally decided to roll with just before this team bottomed out in the spring, looks a shrewd pickup in goal as well.
6. The Will Bruin Problem
Owen Coyle wasn’t a believer when he arrived in Houston, but he sure is now. After spending the first part of the season on the bench, the wonder that is Will Bruin is back to his goalscoring ways – and he’s about to cause a major headache for his manager.
Cubo Torres, Houston’s major off-season signing, has arrived from Mexico. Torres is a gem – pretty much the only good thing Chivas Guadalajara ever did for MLS – and he’s going to play, but Houston has only started one striker this year, and it’s pretty much impossible to pull Bruin out of the team right now.
So Coyle is going to have to earn his money. He’s going to have to figure out how to use Bruin, Torres, and Jamaica’s Gold Cup hero Giles Barnes together in the same team. The obvious answer is a 4-4-2, with Bruin and Torres up top, and Barnes, Rico Clark, Luis Garrido, and Brad Davis in midfield – which is a damn solid MLS lineup.
Coyle has been deeply frustrated this season with the amount of time his international players have missed. Because Jamaica competed in both the Gold Cup and Copa America, Barnes and Jermaine Taylor haven’t been around in almost two months, while DeMarcus Beasley has also missed two weeks in his return to the US national team.
Houston still has to contend with injuries to Taylor and Boniak Garcia, but the team is about to be at full-strength. The Dynamo has enough talent in the tank for a late playoff push – but whether they have the time is another question. The next three months will be a major test of Coyle’s managerial ability.
7. Montreal’s Savior
No, it isn’t Drogba. Though he should be awesome.
It’s Laurent Ciman. If David Villa saved NYCFC earlier this season, the Belgian defender has been the only major difference between this year’s legitimate Impact side, and last year’s truly horrific one.
Ciman is certainly the best defensive signing of the season, and he’s about the only part of Montreal’s team that isn’t a maddening – and I mean that in the most endearing way. The Impact are hilarious to watch – they can’t do anything with the ball, but they can counter and they can do set pieces, which is how Ciman scored a dramatic late winner against Seattle at Stade Saputo on Saturday night.
A veteran of Belgium’s World Cup campaign, Ciman decided to join Montreal because the city has better medical care for his daughter. He’s held a bad defense together with the skin of his teeth, and if the Impact does make the playoffs, he should get MVP votes.
8. Defense, Defense, Defense
It’s going to be the death of Columbus Crew. Gregg Berhalter’s team is mostly great, and the emergence of Ethan Finley has to be one of the most unexpected, feel-good stories of the MLS season, but the Crew won’t get anywhere in the postseason if they can’t defend.
This weekend it was a miserable second-half resulting in a blown three-goal lead in the Trillium Cup against Toronto, but even in the playoffs last year, Columbus had the same problem as they shipped seven goals in two games against the New England Revolution.
Berhalter has finally tried to change up his personnel – with Emanuel Pogatetz, who is slow as molasses, and Hector Jimenez out of favor – but nothing seems to be working, and Wil Trapp’s return in place of Mohammed Saied in midfield is better news for the offense than the defense.
Both Michael Parkhurst and Steve Clark have tried at times this year to overcompensate for the shortcomings around them, resulting in shakier years for both than in 2014. The Crew needs reinforcements on defense, because this team, for all its attacking verve, is severely limited in its current form.
9. New England Needs To Kick It Into High Gear
The Dallas of the East, New England, went to Chicago on Saturday and returned to Foxborough with just one point. That kind of result isn’t good enough anymore in an Eastern Conference playoff race that is about to get extremely tight.
The Revs are currently in fifth place, but they’ve played five more games than the Impact and sixth, and two more games than NYCFC and Orlando in sixth and seventh respectively.
All three of the teams behind the Revs are capable of making the postseason, and despite the fact that they snapped their winless streak at home last weekend, New England still is playing some of the worst soccer in the conference.
Jose Goncalves’ play has fallen off the face of the earth, while Juan Agudelo has been so disappointing this season that he’s fallen out of the starting lineup. Jermaine Jones is about to return, and that was all it took for New England to bounce out of its annual summer slumber and make MLS Cup last year, but this year, it might not be as easy.
With the Eastern Conference seemingly finally on the ascent, and few if any reinforcements coming New England’s way, there needs to be a sense of urgency starting next weekend when the Revs host TFC – plus Michael Bradley for the first time in a month – at Gillette Stadium.
10. Who is The Best Team in the League?
I have no idea. LA hasn’t won on the road all year. Seattle is obviously undermanned, but they’ve been nothing short of dreadful since mid-June. Sporting Kansas City just lost to Real Salt Lake for the second time this season. DC United doesn’t scare anyone. Toronto FC can’t defend; the Vancouver Whitecaps can’t find any consistency.
The truth is the league is as good as it’s even been this year, and home-field advantage is going to matter more than ever with two Wild Card games in each conference.
The name of the game is, don’t finish in fifth or sixth. Those teams will have to travel for that one game playoff to get into the main playoff draw. Right now, those unlucky teams are Seattle and Portland in the West, and New England and Montreal in the East. It’ll change 30 more times before the season is over.
Maybe in the grand scheme of things, the regular season matters little. But it’s sure hard to believe that right now.