Here are the ten things we learned from Week 16 of the 2017 MLS season.
1. Is Columbus’ Season Falling Apart?
It was a bad week for the Columbus Crew, who lost to Cincinnati in the US Open Cup and then were handily beaten by Atlanta on Saturday night.
This loss to Cincinnati was particularly stinging. The Crew played what amounted to a first-choice starting eleven, and were shut out in front of crowd three or four times as big as what would have shown up in Columbus. There’s an argument to be made that the Crew aren’t even the biggest club in their own state.
With the loss in ATL, the Crew have now lost six of their last eight games across all competitions, and won just three times since they put together a three-game win streak at the end of March.
Kekuta Manneh, the team’s major midseason acquisition, has barely played and is now injured. The defense is just as bad as it was last year, and blown leads continue to be a problem.
Manager Gregg Berhalter – who cuts a rather dour figure even in good times – left the Cinncinati game jawing with traveling Crew supporters, and there have been suggestions that he’s lost the locker room.
Berhalter has been Anthony Precourt’s guy in Columbus since he bought the team almost five years ago, and this is the first real test of his ownership. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.
2. How About Orlando’s?
Jonathan Spector’s stoppage time equalizer in front of The Wall on Saturday night aside, it was a terrible week for Orlando City.
First, the team was pretty well humiliated on Wednesday night – getting bounced out of the US Open Cup by NASL Miami FC in a game that was hardly even as close as its 3-1 score-line indicated.
Then, on Thursday, the club’s star player Cyle Larin was faced with a much more serious humiliation: arrest for a DUI after driving the wrong way on an Orlando highway with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit.
That news, in conjunction with the Open Cup loss, drew players a visit from club CEO Alex Leitão on Friday morning that was described by Alicia DelGallo of the Orlando Sentinel as “stern.”
Then on Saturday, the Lions blew 1-0 and 2-1 leads at home against the Montreal Impact, getting a late goal from Spector to salvage a point against a team that is tied for the fewest wins in the league.
It was a week that took plenty out of Jason Kreis, who didn’t register any sort of reaction when Spector’s header hit the back of the net. With Larin out for the foreseeable future, Kreis has a big job ahead of him. His team needs to pull together.
3. And Seattle?
The Seattle Sounders lost again on Saturday, 2-1 at New York City FC, and currently sit in eighth place in the Western Conference having won just five of the first sixteen games of their title defense season.
It’s by no means a dire situation for Seattle, but Brian Schmezter has reason to worry.
The Sounders’ 2016 season bottomed out in late July with the loss at Sporting Kansas City that got Sigi Schmid fired, but Schmid was already in deep trouble by this point in June as the Sounders had lost five of six games.
Seattle’s recent form isn’t nearly that bad – thanks to a trio of recent 1-0 home wins – but it’s not pretty – and whoever the Sounders sign this summer, it likely won’t be someone who has the impact that Nicolas Lodeiro had when he arrived to save the ’16 season.
The problems that plagued Seattle last spring and summer – a sputtering offense and a generally lethargic approach – have reappeared early this season. Schmetzer has his work cut out for him.
4. Meanwhile in Chicago…
The Fire are on a tear. Chicago is unbeaten in ten straight games – nine in MLS play – with five of those results coming on the road.
This is an elite team. They have a good blend of youth and experience, quality in midfield, and firepower up top. Veljko Paunovic has outfitted the Fire with several different tactical looks, but they’re beginning to control games whether they play with three, four, or five at the back.
That’s thanks in large part to the work of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has been central to all of Chicago’s success over the last two and a half months.
Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez said that he was willing to bet his job on Schweinsteiger, and, thus far, he’s come up roses. It hasn’t hurt that Rodriguez’s other two main offseason acquisitions – Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty – have been lights out as well.
Rodriguez is highly thought of in U.S. Soccer and MLS circles, and it’s nice to see him succeeding after taking on the impossible job of leading Chivas USA in its final season. Rodriguez’s coach from that final Chivas season, Wilmer Cabrera, is also doing good things this year in Houston.
5. Signs of Life in Salt Lake
Minnesota might have started the season as the league’s laughingstock, but Real Salt Lake took that baton with gusto just after the beginning of the Mike Petke era. From the middle of April through last Wednesday, RSL was outscored by a total of 30-7. It was rock bottom.
But just as the Loons weren’t as bad as their first month suggested they might be, RSL isn’t nearly as bad as their last two months have been.
Salt Lake was hit hard by the spring’s youth international tournaments, but with a full compliment of players on Saturday night at the Rio Tinto, Petke’s team put in one of its best performances of the season and found a way to get past Bobby Shutleworth and those Loons 1-0.
Justin Glaad was excellent in central defense, while Brooks Lennon and Jefferson Savarino were both bright going forward. Even Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata – veterans who have run afoul of Petke in the last month – looked bought in.
In this Western Conference, RSL’s season isn’t over. We’ll see what they make of the next month.
6. Play Your Kids, LA
The LA Galaxy under Bruce Arena were never great about turning their academy and young players into first team regulars, but they didn’t need to be. LA spent money and stockpiled talent, and didn’t truly need their kids to contribute consistently.
But in 2017, with Arena gone and LA trying to cut its spending, that was supposed to change. This Galaxy season was supposed to be about turning a number of those young players into starters.
But through the first half of the season, that hasn’t happened. Jack McBean started several games in the spring when Gyasi Zardes was hurt, and Nathan Smith has gotten time at fullback, but other than that, LA’s next generation still can’t get on the field.
Saturday night was a frustrating example of why. With Sebastian Lleget, Gio dos Santos, and Jermaine Jones all out, Curt Onalfo opted to start Baggio Husidic, Jack McInerney, and Rafael Garcia and leave the likes of Jose Villarreal, Bradford Jamieson, and Ariel Lassiter on the bench.
Even if Husidic, McInerney, and Rafa Garcia were better players than Villarreal, Jamieson, and Lassiter – which they aren’t – it’s malpractice for Onalfo to start them. Hugo Arellano in place of the suspended Jelle Van Damme? That’s more like it.
The Galaxy aren’t going to contend for MLS Cup. To get anything substantial out of this season, they need to their young attackers minutes and improve – and it’s worth noting that once they entered the game on Saturday night, Villarrael and Jamieson combined to assist Romain Alessandrini’s stoppage time equalizer.
7. Josef Martinez Returns
Josef Martinez is back, and this finish was just scary.
Atlanta beat Columbus 3-1 on Saturday night in front of another wild crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and got all three of their Designated Players on the scoresheet in the process.
The Crew couldn’t handle the intensity of Atlanta’s high press, which is ferocious — especially at home — and is only going to get better now that Martinez is back.
Atlanta is now above the red line in the Eastern Conference, and they’ll likely stay there for the rest of the season. The defense is still shaky, but the attacking unit is going to continue to overwhelm teams.
8. Sporting’s Defense
SKC’s defense, which got Matt Besler and Graham Zusi back from international break this weekend, continues to operate on another level.
On Saturday night at Avaya Stadium, it held the San Jose Earthquakes to just five shots – and none in the first half. It was the fewest shots that the ‘Quakes have ever taken in a home MLS game.
Sporting has conceded just eleven goals in seventeen games this year, and is on pace to best Colorado’s mark from last year and break the record for fewest goals allowed in a single season.
9. Revival of the Human Spirit
Since Pablo Mastroeni’s epic tirade after his Colorado Rapids beat Sporting Kansas City on May 30, during which he stormed out of his press conference after declaring that “stats will lose to the human spirit every time,” the Rapids have not lost.
Their come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers on Saturday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park was their third straight MLS win and fourth straight win in all competitions.
In their last three wins, the Rapids have conceded the first goal before storming back with multiple goals in the second half.
It’s not sustainable – and it’s worth mentioning that all of this success has come at home – but Mastroeni must be feeling pretty good about himself and his team right now.
10. Alan Green Takes MLS
The famed BBC Radio commentator Alan Green made his MLS debut on Saturday night, calling Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew for Fox Sports South.
Green got a turbo-charged game to call, and – despite a clear lack of familiarity with the players and league – he did well with it.
The Northern Irishman was plenty enthusiastic next to Dan Gargan, and nailed all four of his goal calls.
It’ll be fun for Atlanta fans to listen to Green in the coming months as he gets better acquainted with MLS. Even in the broadcast booth, Arthur Blank’s club is making waves.