Here are the ten things we learned from Week 26 of the MLS season.
1. The sack race is finally over
Joey Saputo ended it, bringing down the hammer on Frank Klopas at past midnight on Sunday morning in the aftermath of a 2-1 loss at rival Toronto FC.
The Impact had lost four straight in all competitions, but it wasn’t just that the results were going south at the wrong time. This team was losing important games.
Including the TFC defeat – their second straight in the league this season – Montreal was also blown out in the Canadian Championship Final at BC Place against Vancouver and fell to Philadelphia in an extremely disappointing debut performance from Didier Drogba.
The ticks against Klopas added up. There was the alarmingly stagnant offense, the strange personnel choices, and then, last week, de facto captain Laurent Ciman saying the team lacked an identity.
In the bigger picture, criticizing Saputo for rifling through coaches is warranted. Stability in the front office and on the bench is often the best predictor of success in MLS. Firing Jesse Marsch in 2012 was idiotic, and moving on from Marco Schallibaum a year later wasn’t much smarter.
But Klopas was an iffy hire in the first place, and this has become a critical time for the Impact. They’ve invested heavily and finally made waves locally by signing Drogba, and they’re trying to return to the playoffs. At the end of the day, or the beginning of the next day, as it were, Saputo and his team didn’t trust Klopas to lead the charge.
Thanks to the miserable form of NYCFC, Orlando, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Montreal will make the postseason. There’s also a front four of Ignacio Piatti, Justin Mapp, Johan Venegas, and Drogba that, when healthy, can terrorize the league.
But in the long-term, the answer is to make a better coaching hire, then stick with the guy. Mauro Biello – a legend of Montreal soccer who has been in the organization in varying capacities for almost two decades – will be the interim boss for the rest of the year, and if he does reasonably well, the job is his.
2. We still don’t know anything yet
Last week, teams below the red line (the line in the standings separating teams in playoff spots from the field) won six games against teams above it. The top three teams in the Supporters’ Shield race lost by a combined score of 6-0, and every team in the league remains somewhat alive in the playoff race.
It was a week when Colorado won twice and pulled themselves out of last place in the Western Conference for the first time all year, while the Red Bulls were defeated by the East’s worst team and blitzkrieged the conference’s best.
With most teams playing just one game over the next two weeks during the international break, there is a built in respite before fall begins and everything starts to sort itself out. For now, though, it’s still nearly impossible to know what’s going to happen game after game.
3. Seattle’s problems remain
The Sounders were out of the playoff places for the first time all year by the time their Sunday afternoon derby against the Portland Timbers got underway, and although Seattle somehow managed to win, they didn’t alleviate any fears about their long-term viability as an MLS Cup contender this season.
Seattle were dominated on their home turf, as Portland fired off 20 shots – more than any opposing team in the MLS era at CenturyLink Field. The Sounders escaped with three points thanks to a shocking penalty call at the end of the first half, but no one was in the mood to celebrate.
For one, the integration of Seattle’s new signings hasn’t been seamless. Eric Friberg and Brad Evans have no idea how to play with each other in central midfield, as the pair were embarrassingly overrun by Portland’s fourth and fifth string central midfielders (Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive).
Roman Torres looks uncomfortable at center back next to Chad Marshall, as he was dominated by Fanendo Adi and had trouble keeping up with Portland’s supporting attackers. Nelson Valdez was fine up top, but he’s not making anyone forget about Clint Dempsey.
Seattle gambled – maybe even panicked – by bringing in so many new players so late in the season. The Sounders would have been fine with their existing roster once it got healthy. In fact, it was only late on, after the introduction of familiar faces Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda pushed Evans to a more natural spot the flank, that Seattle finally looked comfortable and able to kill off the game.
Individually, Torres, Valdez and Friberg are all good players, but they all need time to adjust to MLS and their teammates. Unsurprisingly, Seattle looked like it had the chemistry of a group of guys who had met five minutes before kickoff.
Alonso and Dempsey returning to the team will help, and eventually Evans will most likely go to fullback, so there’s still hope for the 2015 Sounders. But this game, victory or not, did nothing to convince anyone that Seattle is on the road to recovery.
4. Red Bulls dominate, DC flouders
The Red Bulls lost a classic trap game on Wednesday night in Chicago without some of their regulars but made up for it by pulverizing old rival DC United on Sunday at Red Bull Arena. The win established Jesse Marsch’s side as strong Supporters’ Shield challengers, and, unquestionably now, a heavy favorite to make MLS Cup out of the Eastern Conference.
The Red Bulls continue to have the single most impressive identity of any team in the league this season – high-pressing with a front six that are all arguably having career years. That group now has depth too, in the form of Gonzalo Veron and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
DC United, meanwhile, don’t look up to the challenge of winning in the postseason. This is a team that has a tendency to look really ordinary really fast when the stakes get high.
DC has had a busy August, and Fabian Espindola has been out of action, but when a team’s best player is its goalkeeper and that team gets absolutely overrun in its biggest game of the season, there are going to be questions.
Tactically, Ben Olsen is on the hook for answers. By now, it’s clear that what works for DC in April and May against mediocre teams won’t work in September and October against the league’s best.
5. What’s wrong with Sporting Kansas City?
Sporting, they of the innumerable games in hand, have gone out and lost three of those games in a row in the last two weeks.
You could chalk up the home blowout defeat to San Jose last weekend as an off day and the seesaw 3-2 loss at Columbus that weekend as a tough test against a great offense on short rest, but the 2-1 loss at Colorado on Saturday night was inexcusable.
Sporting are now on the outside looking in at Vancouver and LA for a top-two seed and bye in the Western Conference.
Defense has been the biggest problem – Sporting even conceded three in their last win – and although he hasn’t been at his best all year, it appears as if this team is missing the presence of Roger Espinoza. Chance Myers hasn’t quite looked the same since his return from injury, either.
Whatever the case, Sporting was streaky last year, and they’ve been streaky this year. That’ll drive Peter Vermes crazy, but all that matters is that SKC is trending in the right direction come playoff time.
6. Things get ugly in NYC
NYCFC lost another must-win game, this time 2-1 at home to Columbus, in a display that would charitably be described as tepid – one that drew heavy criticism from pretty much everyone not named Frank Lampard.
Jason Kreis ripped his team’s commitment and desire after the game, excusing the coaching staff while blaming the players for what is increasingly looking like a lost season.
It’s been an incredibly frustrating year for Kreis, whose star has diminished considerably since he left Real Salt Lake. But it’s what NYCFC get for willfully shoddy roster construction – badly, badly, badly mishandling the Lampard situation; ignoring a woeful defense; bringing in Pirlo when he wasn’t needed.
Teams that start Jason Hernandez and Shay Facey don’t win many MLS games, no matter who starts on offense. There’s nothing Kreis can do now except plow ahead – and start Kwadwo Poku and Chris Wingert – but he needs his overlords in Manchester to reassess how they’re handling their American team. If they don’t, we’ll get more of the same nonsense next year.
7. Jozy Altidore’s revival
Jozy Altidore has always been a confidence player, and even though he’s been benched the last two weeks, three goals have brought that confidence flooding back to the Toronto FC striker at a critical time.
Altidore was called on early in an injury riddled game for TFC against Montreal, and he put in one of his best shifts since his debut for the Reds. It wasn’t just the well-taken rebound goal that ended up being the game-winner, but it was also Altidore’s strong work-rate and passing that helped Toronto.
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