10 things we learned from MLS gameweek 28

mike-grella

Here are the 10 things we learned from Week 28 of the 2015 MLS season.

1. Doors remain open

It’s been a tough few weeks for the better teams in MLS – even more so than usual – and this week saw teams mostly fail to take advantage of major opportunities as the regular season whirs to a close.

Starting on Wednesday night, the Portland Timbers played one of their best games of the season at home against Sporting Kansas City – but blew chance after chance and couldn’t secure a playoff spot. That SKC team, by the way, has now played all of its games in hand and still is nowhere close to the top of the conference. 

LA has slid back down out of the coveted top two positions in the West after being held at home by Montreal. Same story for DC United in the East, where, after a drab 1-1 draw against Colorado, Ben Olsen’s side sits in real danger of having to play in the Wild Card round.

San Jose swung and missed on a big chance to get above the red line at Avaya Stadium against Seattle on Saturday night, drawing 1-1 against the fragile Sounders, while Toronto was bad in big moments at home and also failed to clamp down a playoff spot with a loss to New England. Houston is all but out of the race now after a bad home loss to Real Salt Lake.

Some teams took care of business – not without hiccups, of course, especially in the case of New York Red Bulls at home on September 11th against Chicago, but for the most part, the past few weeks have seen the pack congeal, not stretch further apart.

2. FC Dallas makes its move

Dallas is a darling of MLS purists this year. The club recently set a record by starting five homegrown players in a match, and Oscar Pareja, true to form, has done a tremendous job this season of blooding, sticking with, and improving young talent.

After a trademark hot start and midseason swoon, Dallas is rounding into form at the right time this season. There are still concerns about this team’s firepower up top with Blas Perez slowing down rapidly, but with three straight wins, this team is now in second place in the West.

The news gets better too – Dallas has two games in hand over third-placed LA, and one game in hand over first-placed Vancouver. Not only that, Dallas travels to LA at the end of the month, then has two games against Vancouver in September. If FCD can lock down a first round bye – and avoid LA in the divisional round – the Hoops are a dark-horse MLS Cup threat.

This isn’t a team that is about to get hit with fatigue. Fabian Castillo’s ability to change games rivals that of anyone in the league, and the run-and-gun counter attack style that Dallas used to devastating effect in Columbus last week should be a good look on the road in the postseason.

A year ago, before they ever got to a Western Conference Final with LA, this Dallas team almost picked off Seattle in the playoffs. Then, we said they were a year away. Now, it might be their time.

3. The NYCFC tire fire continues

NYCFC wasn’t exactly abysmal in Frisco on Saturday, but they weren’t exactly good either – and troublingly enough, New York had its best spell after Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard were yanked simultaneously in the 66th minute of the match with FC Dallas up 2-0.

NYCFC has now lost twice as many games as it has won this year, and has lost as many games as it has won and drawn combined. Just looking at the games after Pirlo’s too-good-to-be-true debut against Orlando, since Jason Kreis has had his full complement of players, NYCFC has only won once in seven and has lost five times.

Kreis is now in the unenviable position of deciding whether he can afford to drop either Pirlo or Lampard for the good of the team – not to mention that Kreis may have to survive for a while without his first lieutenant David Villa, who picked up an injury and had to come off at halftime in Texas.

This inaugural season has been harder and more frustrating than Kreis ever thought it would be. His only consolation? It’s not like Real Salt Lake are doing any better. Both teams are ninth in their respective leagues. 

4. Watch out for Portland

The big news out of the Rose City this week was Darlington Nagbe officially becoming a US citizen, and becoming immediately available for selection to Jurgen Klinsmann’s US national team. 

But Nagbe’s club team looks a real threat these days, despite the fact that they’ve dropped winnable points left, right, and central all season, with that problem reaching a head on Wednesday night against a suddenly struggling Sporting Kansas City.

But Portland is finally playing soccer with intensity and verve. The signing of Lucas Melano has given the Timbers a jolt of energy and a front four – with Nagbe, Diego Valeri, and Fanendo Adi – capable of competing for an MLS Cup.

Say what you will about Caleb Porter, but he has an unassailable record in MLS in September and October. Early in the year, Portland was little more than scrappy, pragmatic, and predictable: Decent at home, decent against bad teams, and bad against real contenders.

But now, finally fully healthy, and well reinforced, this team is playing like it knows its better than the vast majority of MLS. The flair of 2013 was back on Wednesday night – thanks in large part to Valeri finally rounding into form as well – and that’s a welcome sight.

Portland is gunning for fourth and a home playoff game, and interestingly enough, it might be the Sounders who are in their way. Long live the Western Conference.

5. Hat tip to Mike Grella

New York native Mike Grella has had a banner year for the Red Bulls, scoring key goals, nutmegging Frank Lampard, and, these days keeping both England and Premier League veteran Shaun Wright-Phillips and pricy young DP signing Gonzalo Veron out of the starting lineup at Red Bull Arena.

After idling across the pond for years – something his teammate Bradley Wright-Phillips knows a thing or two about – Grella has come back and made his name in MLS. It’s stories like those that will do worlds of good in convincing young American talent that it’s best to play here.

6. Get ready for that MLS Cup rematch

LA is going to be fine, and they’re going to represent the West in MLS Cup for the umpteenth time.

New England, meanwhile, is rolling back towards the Final themselves. No team in MLS is streakier, though Revs’ streaks are mostly just boiled down to the health of Jermaine Jones, and this is a good spell for Jay Heaps’ team that isn’t going to end any time soon.

Winners of five straight, it’s only a matter of time before the Revs surge past Columbus and DC and take second place in the East. New England has a big game at home against the Red Bulls on Wednesday – though Jones is suspended – and a win will put them in first in the conference.

It’s not just the return of Jones that has spelt the return of the Revs. Andrew Ferrell has been Best XI caliber since July in central defense, which was exactly the plan when he was converted from fullback in the offseason, and continued to be the plan when he took his lumps early on in the year.

Lee Nguyen is also playing his best soccer since he got his first national team call-up – and this team’s speed up top with the likes of Fagundez and Agudelo can punish a team like the Red Bulls that presses high and struggles with pace from wide players and forwards on the break.

It’s all setting up for the Revs again. This time, of course, the goal will be to win it all.

7. A gem for RSL

Real Salt Lake has taken a long time to figure itself out in 2015, but they’ve had a decent month or so – and it seems like they’ve signed a gem in Juan Manuel Martinez.

El Burrito made his full debut in that 3-1 win way away to Houston – a team that dearly misses Dominic Kinnear right about now – and he played a key role in what was one of RSL’s best performances of the season.

That fresh blood, plus Luis Silva fitting in nicely, gives Salt Lake the kind of midfield that it needs to be successful and it had when it was successful under Jason Kreis. Figuring out the forward situation is key – getting Aron Johannsson would have helped plenty – as is sorting out the defense, but there is a foundation now for Salt Lake.

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