Monday August 24th, 2015

Michael Bradley often says it best. And on Saturday afternoon, moments after Toronto FC ended a two-match losing skid with record-setting 5-0 thumping of Orlando City, he offered a captain’s perspective to a reporter asking about potential “franchise firsts” on the horizon.

“I’ve said it the last two weekends after losses. I’ll say it again today after a good win,” Bradley said. “There’s still a lot of games left. Just because we lost last weekend, it didn’t spell the end of the world, and just because we win today, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to go undefeated from here on in. We understand that. I’m not sure people on the outside do sometimes, but that’s part of it.”

It’s tempting to try to plug a given 90-minutes into a bigger, season-long picture. It’s easier to draw conclusions if we can rely on the twists and turns of a particular game to tell us something about where individual players and their teams are heading. But this is MLS, where form is ephemeral. Part of the league’s appeal is that, outside of Los Angeles, fans can tune into a match uncertain of the outcome.

But there’s a fine line between uncertainty and chaos, which is why we’re wading into a review of week 25 somewhat cautiously. Is TFC the team that overwhelmed Orlando or the team that lost three of its previous four? Are the San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union now playoff threats, or were their shutout wins over higher-ranked clubs simply standard MLS unpredictability? In this league, it’s rarely black and white (again, outside of LA). Here’s a bit of what we do know as the season careens toward fall.

Galaxy put the rest of MLS on notice

Did you catch Sunday’s two-hour infomercial for the Galaxy on ESPN? LA’s 5-1 annihilation of New York City FC was less a soccer game than an ode to the Galaxy’s ability to sustain excellence, and even improve, in a league designed for parity.

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Newly-signed Designated Players Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos already have found their footing–Gerrard as a smart, midfield manager between Juninho and the forwards and Dos Santos as a mobile (and terrifying) foil for Robbie Keane. It was Keane, naturally, who made the most significant impact on MLS’s “DP Derby”, re-establishing his MVP credentials with a two-goal, two-assist tour de force.

LA coach Bruce Arena, often understated, said Keane and Dos Santos already “have a great relationship,” and he called the Gerrard-Juninho partnership “spectacular.”

The Galaxy DPs are only part of the success story, however. The key to LA’s dominance is the players around them. The back four of A.J. DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez, Leonardo and Robbie Rogers was excellent, stifling David Villa and often jumpstarting the Galaxy attack. And West Ham United refugee Sebastian Lletget now looks like one of the signings of the season. The 22-year-old Californian is a creative force and already has seven goals in two assists in 13 MLS appearances.

LA has won seven of its past nine MLS games, along with its first two CONCACAF Champions League matches by a combined 10-1. This form is real. Supporters Shield hopes in Vancouver, D.C. and New York (west of the Hudson) likely depend on how much Arena values the trophy.

Drogba overshadowed in debut

A fellow Francophone forward upstaged Didier Drogba during his MLS debut. The Ivorian icon entered in the 59th minute of a scoreless game between the Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union at a sold-out Stade Saputo. He took a couple of shots (coming close on a late free kick) and drew a couple of fouls, but could only watch as Philly’s Sébastien Le Toux did the honors. The Union escaped with three crucial points thanks to the Frenchman’s 78th-minute goal, which was his fifth in six MLS/U.S. Open Cup matches.

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Drogba declined to speak with media following the game (sometimes its easier to take the player out of the Premier League than the Premier League out of the player), but Montreal coach Frank Klopas addressed the most significant question. He said Saturday evening that Drogba would travel with the team to Vancouver for Wednesday’s Canadian Championship decider. The two-game final is tied, 2-2, following a first-leg draw in Montreal two weeks ago. Late Monday, however, reports emerged that an injured toe will keep Drogba in Montreal.

MLS teams often are patient as big summer signings settle in, but Klopas’ confidence (or wishful thinking) concerning Drogba’s fitness was telling. Montreal doesn’t have much give in their schedule as it chases a playoff spot and a third consecutive domestic cup title. Its stirring surge to April's CCL final has whet the appetite for another run. It’s missing out this season thanks to a shift in the Canadian Championship schedule and a poor 2014 MLS season (the Whitecaps are competing instead), but can secure a spot in the 2016-17 CCL with a win Wednesday. Vancouver will be equally desperate. The Voyageurs Cup has been awarded to Canada’s top professional side since 2002 and the Caps have been runner-up seven times.

D.C.'s grip on first place is slipping

United’s run atop the Eastern Conference has been remarkable. Coach Ben Olsen and GM Dave Kasper have cobbled together a squad of unheralded MLS veterans and solid draft picks and have managed to stay atop the standings for most of the past year-and-a-half. While rivals spend big on big names, United has been winning matches thanks to the savvy of men like Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, Sean Franklin, Fabián Espíndola and Davy Arnaud, all of whom offer significant bang for the buck.

But cracks are starting to show. D.C. remains in first place following Saturday’s 2-0 loss to San Jose, but the surging New York Red Bulls now are just five points back with a whopping four games in hand. And while United’s 3-4-0 record since the end of June isn’t terrible, Olsen’s team is developing habits that would sink most sides. Chief among them is giving up early goals. Chris Wondolowski struck in just the fourth minute on Saturday. It marked a league-high ninth goal United has yielded in the first 15 minutes of a match and the fourth straight home game in which the visitor scored inside the first 10. That is not a recipe for long-term success. D.C. has managed to overhaul past deficits but absent the injured Espíndola (knee), it had no answers on Saturday.

“It is definitely not healthy,” D.C. defender Kofi Opare said. “It is definitely something that we need to stop or eradicate going forward, especially during this stage of the season. It is kind of harder to play in the sense that the opposing team just has to drop off, so it is hard to break them down as opposed to a game being a free-for-all."

It sets up a big, top-of-the-table showdown next Sunday at Red Bull Arena. Both teams play midweek, (New York hosts the Chicago Fire and D.C. entertains Montego Bay United in CCL play), but United's pressing issue will be whether Espíndola is ready to go. He’s started only nine league games this season (three goals, five assists) but still remains D.C.’s most consistently creative force. Rolfe has been outstanding but needs someone to pull defenders off him, and he’s often deployed wide so Arnaud and Perry Kitchen can patrol the middle. Espíndola’s health will be one difference between a playoff bye and the knockout round for D.C. Figuring out how to hit the 15th-minute without trailing will be the other.

There’s a real race in the West

What a week for San Jose. The Earthquakes and coach Dom Kinnear, who’s made a career out of just these sorts of runs, are back in the playoff picture thanks to two stunning road wins in four days. They destroyed Sporting Kansas City, 5-0, on Wednesday before heading east to D.C. and dispatching United. SKC and D.C. had lost one home game combined this season.

San Jose has won three in a row and now is tied with the free-falling Seattle Sounders for the sixth and final playoff spot in the West. The Quakes have a game in hand and play seven of their next eight matches at Avaya Stadium. Key to the resurgence has been Wondolowski, who snapped a four-game scoreless streak with three goals in the past week, and newcomers Quincy Amarikwa and Aníbal Godoy.

The relentless Amarikwa, acquired from Chicago, has four goals and three assists in eight games with the Quakes. He had one helper in 14 games for the Fire. Godoy, a Panamanian who signed this month, has been a rock in the middle. His range and simple, effective passing have made a huge difference—San Jose has shut out its opponent in each of his three appearances.

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Just three points behind Seattle and San Jose are the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, teams that aren’t accustomed to missing the postseason. Houston’s prospects suffered slightly after blowing a two-goal lead in Friday’s 2-2 draw in Portland, but the Dynamo still have lost only once in their past five games. And RSL looked like its old dynamic self in an easy 2-0 win over Seattle that halted a three-game losing streak.

You may not be in favor of MLS’s expansion to 12 playoff teams, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t created additional intrigue. A few good results have vaulted also-rans back into the picture as Seattle and FC Dallas (three straight defeats) slide. It’s impossible to know whether it’s all a sign of things to come, but for now, almost every team has something to play for.

MLS Week 25 Best XI

GOALKEEPER: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)

DEFENDERS: Demar Phillips (Real Salt Lake), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Maynor Figueroa (Colorado Rapids)

MIDFIELDERS: Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)

FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Quincy Amarikwa (San Jose Earthquakes)

MLS Power Rankings, Week 25
  • 1
    1Los Angeles Galaxy
    last week: 1
    record: 13-7-7 | THIS WEEK: 5-1 VS. NYCFC
    Giovani dos Santos has three goals and five assists in five MLS/CCL matches since signing with LA. He had six goals in 40 appearances with Villarreal in 2014-15.

  • 2
    2Vancouver Whitecaps
    last week: 3
    record: 14-9-3 | THIS WEEK: 1-0 VS. FC DALLAS
    Cristian Techera scored his fifth of the season on a nifty back-heel following a strong run from Kekuta Manneh, lifting Vancover to its third win in four MLS games. The Voyageurs Cup awaits.

  • 3
    3New York Red Bulls
    last week: 6
    record: 11-6-6 | THIS WEEK: OFF
    Teams on a 7-1-1 roll don’t typically want a weekend off, but the break did give DP Gonzalo Verón more time to train with his new team. The Argentine has one goal in two games/14 minutes of MLS action.

  • 4
    4Columbus Crew
    last week: 9
    record: 10-8-8 | THIS WEEK: 2-2 VS. NYCFC, 3-2 VS. SPORTING KC
    The Crew, 4-1-2 in their past seven, scored twice in the final 10 minutes against SKC with MLS golden boot leader Kei Kamara on the bench. Federico Higuaín picked up the slack, setting up goals by Tony Tchani and newcomer Jack McInerney.

  • 5
    5New England Revolution
    last week: 8
    record: 9-9-7 | THIS WEEK: OFF
    It paid to be off this week, as several top 10 clubs suffered losses. The Revs are 3-0-1 in their past four and can pull above .500 with a win Saturday at Philly. Jermaine Jones (hernia) has played in each of the past two matches and will be eyeing his first 90-minute outing since May.

  • 6
    6Portland Timbers
    last week: 5
    record: 11-8-7 | THIS WEEK: 2-2 VS. HOUSTON
    Portland coach Caleb Porter said the second half against Houston “might be the most important 45 minutes of the season.” Goals from Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Melano (his first for the Timbers) lifted the hosts to the draw.

  • 7
    7D.C. United
    last week: 4
    record: 13-9-5 | THIS WEEK: 0-2 VS. SAN JOSE
    D.C. outshot San Jose 23-9, enjoyed 58% of the possession and held a 12-4 advantage in corner kicks. But the Earthquakes made the plays that mattered. “Over the course of 90 minutes, I don’t think we were outplayed. At times, maybe we were out-competed,” Olsen said.

  • 8
    8Sporting Kansas City
    last week: 2
    record: 11-6-7 | THIS WEEK: 0-5 VS. SAN JOSE, 2-3 AT COLUMBUS
    SKC has yielded 11 goals in its past three games. That’s half as many as it gave up in its first 21. One bit of good news: defender Seth Sinovic returned to the 18-man match-day roster for the first time since his early May concussion.

  • 9
    9Toronto FC
    last week: 11
    record: 10-10-4 | THIS WEEK: 5-0 VS. ORLANDO CITY
    Coach Greg Vanny called TFC’s switch to a 4-2-3-1, which left Jozy Altidore on the bench to start,“excellent” because it created “more straight-forward matchups.” TFC overwhelmed Orlando in midfield and Altidore entered late and scored twice.

  • 10
    10FC Dallas
    last week: 7
    record: 11-8-5 | THIS WEEK: 0-1 AT VANCOUVER
    FCD’s three-game losing streak is the longest current slide in MLS, and the club is now just three points above the “red line,” albeit with games in hand over their pursuers. Coach Oscar Pareja said “one play made the difference” in Vancouver and that, “We’re not going to lose our heads.”

  • 11
    11San Jose Earthquakes
    last week: 16
    record: 10-10-5 | THIS WEEK: 5-0 at SPORTING KC, 2-0 AT D.C.
    Winger Shea Salinas has been another critical component of the Quakes’ sudden surge. He scored the second against DCU and had two assists in Kansas City.

  • 12
    12Houston Dynamo
    last week: 15
    record: 8-9-8 | THIS WEEK: 2-2 AT PORTLAND
    Houston played in Portland without the injured Giles Barnes (Achilles), DaMarcus Beasley (calf) and Ricardo Clark (hamstring) and heads to Colorado for a midweek match-up on a 2-1-2 run.

  • 13
    13Montreal Impact
    last week: 10
    record: 8-10-4 | THIS WEEK: 0-1 VS. PHILADELPHIA
    Despite an 0-2-1 skid, Montreal still controls its playoff destiny thanks to the four games in hand it has on NYCFC, Orlando and Philadelphia. Midfielder Justin Mapp played Saturday for the first time since fracturing his elbow in March.

  • 14
    14Real Salt Lake
    last week: 17
    record: 8-10-8 | THIS WEEK: 2-0 VS. SEATTLE
    New DP Juan Manuel Martínez arrived from Argentina on Friday, was on the bench this weekend and is scheduled to train with RSL for the first time on Tuesday. The 29-year-old spent the past two-plus years at Boca Juniors.

  • 15
    15Seattle Sounders
    last week: 13
    record: 11-13-2 | THIS WEEK: 0-2 AT REAL SALT LAKE
    It’s desperate times in Seattle, which has lost nine of 11 in MLS play and put forth an effort at RSL that coach Sigi Schmid “wasn’t of the standard that we want it to be.” The Sounders await the return of Clint Dempsey (hamstring), who’s played just once in those 11 games.

  • 16
    16Colorado Rapids
    last week: 18
    record: 6-9-9 | THIS WEEK: 1-0 AT CHICAGO
    Visiting Colorado broke a three-game losing streak thanks to Dillon Serna’s first-minute goal at Toyota Park. The Rapids put only one more shot on target but held on as goalkeeper Clint Irwin made four saves.

  • 17
    17Philadelphia Union
    last week: 19
    record: 7-13-6 | THIS WEEK: 1-0 AT MONTREAL
    The Union’s goalkeeper carousel finally may be slowing down. Andre Blake, a 2014 draft pick, looked solid at Stade Saputo, making four saves. Jim Curtin said Blake will start next weekend against New England. Meanwhile, Philly finally severed ties with Algerian bust Rais Mbolhi on Monday.

  • 18
    18New York City FC
    last week: 12
    record: 7-12-7 | THIS WEEK: 2-2 AT COLUMBUS, 0-5 AT LA
    Frustration is starting to mount for NYCFC captain David Villa, who said Saturday, “I need teammates by my side who can help me. I can’t do it alone.” Frank Lampard has played only 107 minutes for NYCFC and missed all of the past three games.

  • 19
    19Orlando City SC
    last week: 14
    record: 7-12-7 | THIS WEEK: 0-5 at TORONTO FC
    The Lions are in free fall, winners of just one of their past nine games (1-6-2). City has been outscored 13-1 in their past four games, and the club’s nine red cards and 1.77 goals allowed per game lead the league.

  • 20
    20Chicago Fire
    last week: 20
    record: 6-13-5 | THIS WEEK: 0-1 VS. COLORADO
    The Fire reportedly will to say goodbye to DP Shaun Maloney, who’s expected to sign with Hull City this week. He had three goals and two assists in 14 MLS games. Meanwhile, Brazilian forward Gilberto made his club debut, coming off the bench against Colorado.

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