Here are the ten things we learned from Week 30 of the 2016 MLS season.
1. What Has Gotten Into DC United?
DC United has quietly been piling up points since August, but thanks to their come-from-behind 2-1 win on Saturday in Toronto, everyone is about to start paying attention to one of the league’s most storied clubs.
What has happened in the nation’s capital since the midway point of the season has been remarkable. DC has lost just once in its last twelve games as Ben Olsen has stitched together one of the league’s best attacks with scotch tape and TAM.
Between the offseason and summer window, Olsen traded for four players who weren’t starters at their previous club – Patrick Nyarko, Lamar Neagle, Lloyd Sam, and Patrick Mullins – and has watched as they’ve posted a combined 23 goals and 19 assists.
It’s been classic DC United: Resourceful, scrappy, and full of veterans. It’s how Olsen has made the playoffs with mediocre talent in three of the last four years.
This season, though, it was the trade for a young player – Mullins – that has sparked what now looks like more than a push for the East’s sixth and final playoff spot. DC’s attack comes at you from all kinds of angles, its defensive spine is amongst the league’s strongest.
The smart money says that DC’s lack of game-changing talent will be exposed in the playoffs, and that this club still isn’t worth paying attention to until its new stadium at Buzzard Point opens in 2016.
But this team is playing better soccer than DC team has in this decade. Olsen, who has one of the toughest jobs in the league, should be in the Coach of the Year conversation.
2. Seattle’s Revival Continues
Another week, two more wins, and six more points in the bag for a Seattle Sounders team that has vaulted all the way up to fifth place in the Western Conference.
The Sounders beat Chicago 1-0 at home on Wednesday night on the strength of a headed goal from Chad Marshall, and then their fourth straight victory on Sunday night at BC Place in a bonkers 2-1 win over Vancouver.
The victory on Sunday came without Clint Dempsey, who is out for the year, Nicolas Lodeiro, who was suspended, and Andreas Ivanschitz, who was a late injury scratch. Needless to say, this team is on a pretty good roll.
Sigi Schmid talked about his disappointment in an interview with Matt Pentz of The Seattle Times this week about being fired just before arrival of Lodeiro and return from injury of Roman Torres.
He also noted that the work the club put in with Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan over the first five months of the season only started to pay off after he’d been dismissed.
And those are all fair points, but they overlook the structural changes that Brian Schmetzer has made since taking the reigns.
One of Schmetzer’s first moves – sliding Roldan next to Osvaldo Alonso and moving from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 – has paid off with Roldan emerging as one of the league’s brightest young players and Alonso playing his best soccer in years.
Marshall, who was MLS’ Defender of the Year in 2014, has been sensational as of late as well. But mostly, the Sounders are fighting for each other in a way that they simply weren’t when Schmid was around.
That this run has continued without Dempsey is no small achievement. That it continued on the road on Sunday night without Dempsey, Lodeiro, and Ivanschitz tells you all you need to know about why Seattle has roared back to life.
3. Dallas Puts One Hand On The Shield
Walker Zimmerman has scored his fair share of big goals in the last year, and he struck again on Saturday night – heading in a Mauro Diaz corner to give FC Dallas a 1-0 win over LA at Toyota Stadium and open up a five point lead atop the league.
Dallas can clinch the Supporters’ Shield at home in two weeks time with a victory over Seattle. Oscar Pareja’s team is about to be an MLS Cup victory away from American soccer’s first ever treble.
On the other side of the coin, the Galaxy’s struggles continue. LA is having all kinds of problems generating offense and controlling the tempo of games – so often the two hallmarks of Bruce Arena teams in October and beyond.
Arena pulled Sebastian Lleget from central midfield as Steven Gerrard made his return to the starting lineup alongside Jeff Larentowicz, but LA needs Lleget’s pace in the engine room. Meanwhile, Gio dos Santos still doesn’t look like the same player with Robbie Keane on the field.
Arena, it must be said, is running out of time to find a lineup that gets the most out of a group of players that is still, pound-for-pound, the league’s best collection of talent.
4. Real Salt Lake Limping to the Finish Line
Real Salt Lake’s trip to San Jose on Saturday night was an unhappy one, as the Earthquakes won their first game since August 12th by a score of 2-1.
RSL now sits just three points clear of the red line in the Western Conference, mired in a five-game winless streak. Salt Lake has been somewhat hit-or-miss all year, but Saturday’s performance was particularly ugly.
RSL’s transition from the 4-4-2 diamond of the Jason Kreis era to the 4-3-3 that has come to define the Jeff Cassar era has certainly been completed, in that this team generates most of its offense from wide positions.
Salt Lake has two excellent wingers in Burrito Martinez and Joao Plata, but teams with good fullback play can overrun RSL in the middle of the field and mostly shut down their attack.
And the league has figured that out. Portland, Houston, and Dallas – not even three of the better defensive teams in the West – all blanked Salt Lake in September. This is a team that appears to be trending the wrong way as the postseason approaches.
5. Orlando Eliminated From Playoff Contention
Orlando was officially eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday, losing 1-0 to a Didier Drogba-less Montreal Impact at the Citrus Bowl. Despite all the optimism around the Jason Kreis hire, a Lions playoff push never truly materialized.
In truth, save for back-to-back wins around the end of August, Orlando has been just as bad under Kreis as they ever were under Adrian Heath.
The defense is still a mess, the central midfield still doesn’t make teams uncomfortable, and the offense is still streaky. Cyle Larin slumping for the first time in his young career over the last month took its toll.
This season goes down as a massive disappointment for the Lions – especially when compared with that of Kreis’ old team in New York. With two games to play, Orlando is nine points off its 2015 pace.
Kreis is in it for the long haul in Orlando – he quipped to Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus two weeks ago about being “pretty sure I won’t be fired if we don’t make the playoffs” – but his honeymoon period is over.
6. The Season Can’t End Quickly Enough For…
Vancouver. The Whitecaps, who finished second in the Western Conference last year, were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday are likely headed for a ninth-place finish in a season that has been amongst the most miserable in MLS.
There were a few culprits for Vancouver’s backslide. The club had a very poor offseason, and then panicked in the summer transfer window. Losing Kekuta Manneh was a fatal blow.
But one of the major problems this year was that Pedro Morales and Kendall Waston – two stalwarts of Robinson’s first two years – both had poor seasons marred by indiscipline and inconsistency.
Morales’ conduct on Sunday, when he was sent off for an utterly needless elbow on Cristian Roldan, was especially despicable. His tenure as Vancouver’s captain and star player is drawing to a sour close.
In many respects, there were a number of parallels between Vancouver and Columbus this season. Neither club could claw its way into contention, and both have some soul-searching to do.
7. Alphonso Davies
One of the major frustrations with Vancouver’s season has been the club’s increasing insistence on acquiring and playing on aging, mediocre players.
The likes of Blas Perez, Marcel de Jong, Edgar, Andrew Jacobson, and Giles Barnes aren’t going to be part of the solution in Vancouver. Why they’ve gotten so many minutes this year – and often times at the expense of younger players like Tim Parker – is a perfectly legitimate question.
The Whitecaps were younger – and better – last season. But give Carl Robinson plenty of credit for taking a chance with fifteen-year-old Canadian winger Alphonso Davies.
Davies started the derby against Seattle on Sunday night, and he won a penalty in a first-half in which he was one of Vancouver’s better players. It’s hugely valuable experience for Davies, and on the merit of his play, it’s experience that he’s deserved to have.
Davies is an extreme example because of his age, but he’s indicative of a trend this year across the league. Younger players are getting better across MLS.
The 2016 rookie class has been the best the league has ever seen – and Dallas, it’s worth adding, is about to win a Supporters’ Shield thanks in large part to its academy and youth development programs. That progress has been one of the most encouraging aspects of a successful year for MLS.
8. Sizing Up The Playoff Races
The battle in the Western Conference is two-fold – between LA and Colorado for second and a Wild Card round bye, and between, it would appear, Kansas City and Portland for the conference’s final playoff spot.
The odds that Seattle passes RSL – who they host on the final day of the season – for fourth place and a home Wild Card game aren’t improbable. Not bad for a team that was sitting in ninth place not three months ago.
In the East, the six playoff spots look pretty well settled. New England is three points back of Philadelphia for sixth, but the Union play their last two games of the year at home.
Toronto will host a playoff game for the first time in club history, but they somehow might manage to miss out on a top-two spot. After taking three points from a four-game homestand, TFC trials both New York teams by two points with two games remaining.
The Reds need Giovinco back ASAP. Considering their well-documented history, Toronto’s last three weeks have been deeply unsettling.
9. Game of the Season?
The New York Red Bulls’ 3-2 win over Philadelphia at Red Bull Arena on Saturday afternoon is worthy of all the praise it received this weekend as one of the games of the season in MLS.
It was a fantastic spectacle, played at the kind of full-throttle pace we very rarely see even in the last weeks of the regular season.
We know the Jesse Marsch Red Bulls have that gear, but the fact that the Union hung with one of the hottest teams in the league away from home in a game like that speaks volumes about the progress that club has made in the last year.
The match in Chester between these two teams earlier in the summer was a gem as well. A playoff rematch, which looks very possible at the moment, would be an absolute treat.
10. Patrick Vieira for Coach of the Year
And it’s not close.
Vieira took a job with NYCFC that, when Jason Kreis lost it last fall, looked damn near impossible. This team had aging midfield, problems with its young players, a terrible defense, and the worst stadium situation in the league.
The stadium situation hasn’t improved. But Vieira, in his first professional coaching job and first season of any kind in MLS, has solved everything else.
Systematically, the Frenchman deserves plenty of praise for his commitment to playing out of the back and valuing the ball in a way that few MLS teams do. But Vieira’s handling of personnel has been just as impressive.
The list of young players who have improved in leaps and bounds this year under Vieira’s tutelage is a thing of beauty and includes three players in Tommy McNamara, Khiry Shelton, and Jack Harrison who will form the nucleus of NYCFC’s attack for a long time to come.
At the same time, Vieira had no problem cutting ties with the young players – namely Mix Diskerud and Kwadwo Poku – who gave Kreis such trouble last year.
It’s also worth noting that NYCFC has been the league’s best road team this year – a potential key come playoff time – and that Vieira has breathed life into New York City as a collective in a way that Kreis never could. He’s never pointed fingers, and he’s never treated his DPs any differently than the rest of his players.
This has been a coaching clinic – and it might just open doors for more foreign coaches looking to ply their trade in MLS in the way Bob Bradley is hoping to do for American coaches in Europe.
Oscar Pareja has a great Coach of the Year case. So does Pablo Mastroeni, as long as aesthetics matter not to you. Olsen, as I mentioned above, is a contender as well. But Patrick Vieira deserves this award as much as any MLS manager in recent memory.
25+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, Liga MX, MLS & World Cup
- Includes ESPN, FOX, Univision, TUDN and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
- Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
- Watch Argentine league, Brasileirāo and Copa Libertadores
- Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $6.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
- Features LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, Copa del Rey & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
- Starting price: $4.99/mo.
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & more
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
- Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more
Get All 3 And Save 30%
- $13.99/mo. for ESPN+, Disney+ & Hulu
- Includes Bundesliga, LaLiga, NHL & the home to UFC
- Features Marvel, Star Wars + shows & movies for your entire family