Here are the ten things we learned from Week 29 of the 2016 MLS season.
1. Seattle Throws Western Conference Playoff Race Wide Open
In the penultimate game of the 2015 MLS regular season, the Portland Timbers, playoff hopes hanging in the balance, traveled to the StubHub Center to face a heavily favored LA Galaxy team.
LA led 1-0 at the break. But six second half goals later, the Timbers had won 5-2 and launched a run that would culminate in the club’s first MLS Cup triumph almost a month-and-a-half later in Columbus.
Seattle’s 4-2 win at LA on Sunday wasn’t that. Not as late in the season, nor as comprehensive. But it did look pretty familiar.
If the Sounders do manage to complete their resurrection and make the playoffs, they’ll likely have done it at the expense of the Timbers – and this game will be marked as the one that made it possible.
Behind phenomenal performances from Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle handed LA its first home loss of the season in jaw-dropping fashion.
This was the Sounders’ first win in Los Angeles since 2009, and it couldn’t have come at a better time: The Sounders now sit just three points behind Portland for the sixth spot in the West, with two games in hand and four of their final five at home.
To make matters even better for Seattle, the Timbers – who haven’t won a single road game all year – have just one home match left.
2. Can LA Recover?
If Portland’s drubbing of the Galaxy in LA launched the Timbers to MLS Cup, it also had a similarly drastic effect on Bruce Arena’s defending champions. The Galaxy never recovered.
They lost the following Sunday at Kansas City, fell to a fifth place finish in the West, and lost their Wild Card game at Seattle just three days later. Omar Gonzalez and Juninho were out, and Nigel de Jong and Jelle Van Damme came in for 2016.
So the question then becomes, can LA recover from what happened to them against Seattle yesterday? The Galaxy have held up results-wise for the most part this year, but since mid-summer its been clear that this team has its fair share of major problems.
In short, none of the attacking pieces fit together. With Sebastian Lleget emerging in central midfield over the last month, where does Steven Gerrard play? Can Gio dos Santos and Robbie Keane coexist? How soon can Landon Donovan – who still appears to be one of this team’s best players – get into the starting lineup?
As good as the attacking players are individually, LA needs to lean on its defense to do anything in the postseason – and if that unit plays like it did on Sunday, it’s going to be another long offseason in Carson.
3. Has Wade Barrett Done Enough?
Houston put together one of their best displays yet under Barrett on Saturday night, battering the defending champion Timbers 3-1.
It wasn’t just the result that was impressive. The Dynamo looked more dynamic and creative going forward than they have in months, while Mauro Manotas – the type of young player who never got a look under Owen Coyle – scored his first professional hat-trick.
The Dynamo haven’t lit the world on fire under Barrett, but they’ve stayed admirably and very legitimately competitive despite having being out of the playoff race for months.
It’s been a productive second half of the year for Houston. They’ve got plenty of cap space, with both Cubo Torres and Giles Barnes gone, and have a much better idea of which young players they can build around next year.
Barrett has done very, very well. He installed a defensive foundation after getting the job, and is now building interesting attack. If he doesn’t get the job fulltime, he shouldn’t have any regrets.
4. Pablo Mastroeni’s Future
Pablo Mastroeni revealed this week that he has had no discussions with the Colorado Rapids about a contract extension with his initial three-year deal with the club set to expire at the end of the season.
It’s an interesting situation. Mastroeni has said that he wants to remain in charge, and, considering that he’s a candidate for Coach of the Year and about to lead the Rapids back into the playoffs, he’s in a good spot.
More than that, the Rapids have invested plenty in their former captain. They stuck with him through a pair of disastrous seasons in 2013 and 2014. Now would be an exceedingly odd time to cut and run.
That being said, one of the draws to hiring Mastroeni in the first place was that he was a cheap option for a franchise that was never willing to spend money. But in the last year, that’s changed.
Colorado splashed plenty of cash on Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard, and considering that they still play some of the ugliest, most regressive soccer in the league, it’s not inconceivable that an early playoff exit would make the Rapids consider testing the managerial market.
The best guess here is that Mastoreni will still be in Commerce City in 2017. But depending on how the Rapids’ season finishes, this is a story worth watching.
5. Time For Montreal To Panic?
With a 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, Montreal has won just one of its last eight and now finds itself just two points clear of New England and the Eastern Conference’s red line.
For the first time all season, the Impact are in serious danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
This team has gone as Didier Drogba has gone over the last two years, and, at the moment, Drogba looks old. His total lack of defensive presence up top makes it all to easy for teams to control games against the Impact, and, with little service to speak of, the Ivorian cutting an increasingly frustrated and petulant figure.
It’s not just Drogba. Montreal looks slow all over the field, and at this stage of the season, with their roster, that’s hardly a surprise. The starting lineup on Saturday contained eight players over 30.
This nosedive isn’t unprecedented. In 2013, when Mauro Biello was an assistant on Marco Schallibaum’s staff, the Impact led the Eastern Conference all summer before going into free-fall, finishing fifth, and seeing three players sent off in an embarrassing Wild Card loss at Houston.
Montreal has always been one of the streakiest teams in the league. Last year, that trait worked in their favor. This year, it could end their season.
6. Timbers’ Road Woes Continue
The Portland Timbers keep racking up ignominies on the road. Caleb Porter’s team failed to win away from home for the fifteenth straight time on Saturday, losing 3-1 at the last-placed Houston.
It’s confounding. Portland leads the league in home wins, and, especially over the last two months, has looked very much like a Cup contender at Providence Park. But on the road, the Timbers have just gotten worse and worse.
Saturday could have – should have – been the turning point. Over the last three years under Porter, the Timbers have gone 6-1-1 on the road in the last five matches of the season, with wins coming at RSL, LA, Columbus, and Dallas.
But the Houston performance was one of the Timbers’ worst of 2016. They looked listless and defeated from the first minute.
And now, with Seattle’s surge, Portland’s road woes might cost them a playoff spot. The Timbers have just one home game left, and 44 points likely won’t be enough to get them into the postseason.
7. Is Columbus Still Alive?
In many ways, this has been a nightmarish season for the Columbus Crew. And yet, despite winning just three games before the end of August, Gregg Berhalter’s team is still alive in the playoff race.
With a big win – for a number of reasons – over New England at home on Sunday night, Columbus sits just five points behind DC for the East’s sixth and final playoff spot.
The Crew, plagued by injuries all year, are finally healthy and gelling around Ola Kamara. It’s taken a long, long time, but with their next three games against DC, Chicago, and Chicago, Columbus’ season might just be getting started.
8. Brad Fridel
Brad Fridel, who has become a fixture on FOX’s MLS coverage this year, is generally a decent announcer. There’s been just one problem: Fridel’s calls have been marked by a remarkable single-minded focus on how teams position their fullbacks.
Go through the games Fridel has called – Seattle-Portland, RSL-Seattle, and the Sporting KC-LA Galaxy game last weekend all come to mind – and you’ll hear the former USMNT goalkeeper imploring teams to get their fullbacks forward.
On Sunday afternoon, Fridel took the motif to another level – including the line in his pregame breakdown of Columbus against New England – and it’s not just the fullback concern. Fridel also constantly harps on teams for not pressing, and complains that youth players aren’t getting enough opportunities in MLS.
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