Here are the 10 things we learned from week 29 of the MLS season.
1. Frank Yallop sacked
Chicago’s nightmare is finally over. The Fire sacked Frank Yallop on Sunday morning, in the aftermath of another dispiriting, sparsely attended home loss — this time to lowly Orlando City.
This move comes after months of speculation, including reports that the club had reached out to Jimmy Nielsen about the manager’s job in the summer, a sizable fan protest around a month ago, and widespread discontent, exasperation, frustration in and around the club’s playing staff.
Yallop’s tenure, in which he had majority control over the team’s soccer operations, lasted just under two years and was a total failure. It was so incompetent, both tactically and in roster construction, that Yallop will have a hard time landing another top job in the league.
The English coach, who has cut a forlorn, stubborn, borderline surly figure for months, was never going to see 2016 in Chicago. The timing of the move, just five games before the end of the season, has more to do with who is replacing Yallop as GM.
Nelson Rodriguez, a longtime MLS servant who has been involved with everything from running Chivas USA in 2014, to the creation of PRO, to supporter relations, to the MetroStars, to business operations, is in as general manager.
Rodriguez has massive respect in and around the league, and is a huge get for the Fire. Improving aspects of the organization off the field has to be a major priority, whatever owner Andrew Hauptman thinks.
Brian Bliss is in as interim manager for the last five games. Bliss’ hands aren’t completely clean – he was brought in from Columbus alongside Yallop in December 2013 – and it remains to be seen whether he stays on in the Rodriguez regime, but he’s generally considered a smart soccer guy who had a hand in building the current Columbus team.
The Fire, and Hauptman in particular, have plenty of work to do in rebuilding a once-great club’s reputation. They are, finally, off to a good start.
2. Red Bulls clinch a playoff spot
The New York Red Bulls are the first team to clinch a playoff spot, as they now lead both the Supporters’ Shield race and the Eastern Conference on their way to what might just be the best season in club history.
In short, Ali Curtis was right. Jesse Marsch is a phenomenal coach. He doesn’t just have his team playing great soccer, he has his team completely bought in to his plan for the club from the first to the last man.
That depth showed in a convincing 2-0 win at Portland on ESPN on Sunday – and just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any better, there are strong rumors around MLS that Mike Petke will return to the club in some capacity next year.
There’s no telling where this season eventually ends for the Red Bulls, but their last twelve months have been one of the most engrossing stretches in league history.
3. Houston’s slide
The Houston Dynamo were an outsider’s bet for a playoff push during the summer, with the club settling in under Owen Coyle and the entrance of Mexican star Cubo Torres.
But that run hasn’t materialized. Torres hasn’t been very good – he still hasn’t scored an MLS goal for the club – and outside of banging long-balls towards Will Bruin and beating teams up, this team doesn’t have a real identity. Needless to say, the slick soccer Coyle promised when he was hired hasn’t materialized either.
The hiring of Coyle was viewed by most of the league as an uninspired move, and that’s what it’s been so far. There’s no reason Houston shouldn’t be able to compete. They have plenty of talent. But, especially outside of the punishing home heat, they haven’t played like a team that expects to win very often this year.
The Dynamo is only one point out of last place in the West, and while the door remains ever so slightly ajar for the playoffs, a dismal 2-0 loss at Philadelphia on Sunday is a close to a killer blow.
Houston has some evaluating to do in the offseason. They need some help defensively, and possibly a number ten, but the pieces are mostly in place. They just need to play better.
4. A bad look for Steven Gerrard
The Galaxy have plenty to be concerned with right now – though they remain the clear odds-on favorite to win MLS Cup in December – but Steven Gerrard’s midweek sojourn to England to be a pundit on BT Sports’ Champions League coverage was a bad look.
Overall, Gerrard’s commitment to the Galaxy has been terrific since he’s arrived Stateside. But from assurances in the summer that Gerrard would only be appearing remotely on BT during the MLS season, to the very real toll that transatlantic travel and disruption cause, disapproval of Gerrard’s trip is warranted.
LA was blitzkrieged 3-0 by Real Salt Lake on Saturday night. Gerrard was nowhere near his best. Remember, it was only after David Beckham gave up on those midweek trips, ambassadorial work, and European loans, that he had major success in MLS.
Gerrard has a lifetime ahead of him to be on TV. But for at least a little while longer, he’s an active player with a commitment to his club – a commitment and responsibility that he should be, and appears to be, relishing. There’s no way to argue that Gerrard’s trip home was necessary. It shouldn’t happen again.
5. LA’s road woes continue
The Galaxy was pasted by RSL on Saturday, and Gerrard’s travel schedule was hardly the worst thing going. LA’s away form continues to be a nagging concern.
LA is the third worst road team in the league this year. The two below them, Chicago and Montreal, have both fired their managers. The Galaxy haven’t just been bad on the road, they often haven’t been competitive.
You have to believe that the Galaxy will pull themselves together by playoff time. Still, getting a top seed will be hugely important for LA to avoid as many road games as possible – remember, the Galaxy didn’t win any road playoff games last year – and you can’t get a top seed without picking up points away from home.
6. Shuffling the deck in Seattle
Roman Torres’ injury was an awful thing to see – best wishes to the Panamanian center-back – but it didn’t impact Seattle much in the 2015 race.
Torres may be vital eventually, but for now, the players the Sounders need most are Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, and Ozzie Alonso. They had all three at their best for their crunch trip to Vancouver on Saturday, which Seattle won 3-0 in vintage fashion to win the Cascadia Cup for the first time since the ‘Caps and Timbers’ first MLS season.
Seattle are now just three points out of first in the West, and have a top two spot in their sights. The will be making the playoffs for the seventh straight season, and Sigi Schmid will be keeping his job.
The question remains in the nuances. Gonzalo Pineda played well and scored in Eric Friberg’s absence against Vancovuer, and while Friberg may be the better player, Pineda’s understanding of and familiarity with his tactical role gives the Sounders an advantage that they don’t have with the Swede.
Andreas Ivanschitz will continue to start – he looks miles better than new DP signing Nelson Valdez – but it’s still very possible that this team needs either Lamar Neagle or Marco Pappa firing if they are going to win MLS Cup, which remains the club’s real obsession.
But as long as Brad Evans plays in midfield and not at center-back, there won’t be room for either Neagle or Pappa in the team. Moving Evans back makes all the sense in the world, but Schmid has been steadfast in his refusal to go down that road so far.
Seattle’s next two league games are against Sporting and LA – we’ll see just how legitimate they are soon enough.
7. Just when you thought they were out
I’ve been counting Real Salt Lake out of the playoff race for months. All season, RSL has waffled looked either frustrated or inept, ill equipped to play the 4-3-3, and severely undermanned along the backline.
But now, all that appears to have changed. The return of Joao Plata, and especially the signing of Juan Manuel Martinez, has made that new attack – now more of a 4-2-3-1 – viable and reenergized around the ageless Javier Morales.
Jamison Olave’s comeback has steadied a defense that still sorely misses Chris Wingert and Nat Borchers, but most encouragingly, the spirit in the Salt Lake camp has rebounded.
The veterans, Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman especially, appear unwilling to yield this season without a fight. RSL’s best hope is for Portland to keep losing before what promises to be a huge matchup at the Rio Tinto three weeks from Wednesday.
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