It was a short week in Major League Soccer due to the FIFA international break, but that didn’t damper the drama and energy for the players and teams still playing. FC Dallas, in particular, unleashed its full stable of hungry youngsters to great effect.
Of course, not every household name was off playing for his country. Former international Didier Drogba scored three in his first MLS start, while Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey dueled in a close match in Seattle, won by the suddenly resurgent Sounders. Despite there being only five games played, each one provided its own talking points and highlight moments.
The league certainly needs to re-evaluate its stance on playing through the FIFA windows (more on that below). Still, at this point in the season, mostly everybody at least has a good chunk of weekly training time under his belt, and it takes a full squad of focused players to win a trophy in a parity-driven MLS.
Less than two months remain before the fun really starts in the playoffs. Here’s how everything stacks up after this past week:
International breaks continue to be an issue
Maybe it’s because the league has seen more big-name signings this year than in years past. Maybe it’s the two-team expansion spreading talent underneath the internationals across a bigger landscape.
Either way, MLS really needs to stop playing during FIFA windows.
This is a drum that will continue to be beaten until change is actually made, and the pushback this year has been stronger than any other in recent memory. And why not?
Refusal to adhere to the FIFA calendar is one of the most obvious—and easily fixable—problems with the league’s scheduling.
As it is, this week offered up a watered-down schedule with just half the league in action. Despite the implications of lower attendance that come with playing midweek games to cope with missing weekend fixture dates, MLS should consider that a stronger, full-strength product on those days would be better than what was on display this past weekend.
Drogba's major impact
As soon as he was healthy and fit enough to start, Drogba turned into a difference-maker for the Montreal Impact, who are going to need one to make the playoffs. Games in hand don’t necessarily mean wins, and the Impact, with Mauro Biello on the bench in place of ousted manager Frank Klopas, needed to snap a four-game winless streak on Saturday before that perceived advantage quickly disappeared.
Enter Drogba, whose only previous MLS appearance totaled a half-hour off the bench before a toe injury sidelined him. Even after his team threw away two first-half leads and went down a goal early in the second, the former Chelsea man delivered what he was signed to do.
Two goals in four minutes around the hour mark sunk Chicago for good and completed his hat trick, which included a goal with his left foot, right foot and head. Not bad at all, especially considering the culture shock some of his big-name foreign compatriots have experienced in MLS this season.
FCD youngsters shine on road
In the last game of the week, FC Dallas pulled off a 3-0 win despite being out-possessed by a margin of 35% and out-passed 553-269 by the Columbus Crew.
Making the win even more impressive was Óscar Pareja’s decision to play a starting XI with an average age hovering in the early 20s.
Both teams needed points to climb up the table and move closer to securing a decent starting point for an elusive charge through the playoffs. Both missed players on international duty. Both were riding decent streaks that they wanted to continue.
The team with less experience, on the road and working against the run of play came out on top decisively. For those who have been clamoring for MLS coaches to have more faith in their younger players, Dallas and Pareja have again been a beacon of hope, with Sunday’s result exemplifying exactly why.
Playoff drama won't be going away
Nearing the end of the regular season, every week will have matches in which both teams involved need as many points as they can get to secure a playoff spot or solidify their positioning for the postseason. After the abbreviated slate of games this week, both conferences are as close as ever.
In the Eastern Conference, things look a little clearer as the top four places in particular are all but set. But in the West, the top eight spots are separated by just eight points, and the San Jose Earthquakes in seventh are just three points off the Seattle Sounders in fourth.
Those two come up against one another on Saturday, and the two teams between them in the standings (the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City) also play each other in proverbial six-pointers.
Back in the East, fifth-placed Toronto FC could close the currently three-point gap on the New England Revolution in fourth with a win.
Week 27 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Jesse González (FC Dallas)
DEFENDERS: Chris Tierney (New England Revolution), Andrew Farrell (New England Revolution), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas), Atiba Harris (FC Dallas)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Nigel Reo-Coker (Montreal Impact)
FORWARDS: Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact), Conor Casey (Philadelphia Union), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
11New York Red Bullslast week: 1record: 12-7-6 | This week: OffAt the beginning of the off week, the Red Bulls held their first town hall meeting since January, and the fan response was, as sporting director Ali Curtis said, “a lot different” this time around. Wonder why?
22Los Angeles Galaxylast week: 3record: 13-8-7 | This week: OffThe Galaxy are one of the teams hit hardest by the international dates, missing five players, but it’s the omission that stands out among the pack: bizarrely, Giovani dos Santos was not called in for Mexico’s friendlies this week.
33New England Revolutionlast week: 4record: 11-9-7 | This week: 3-0 vs. OrlandoLee Nguyen became the first New England player to record three assists in a match as he had a direct role in every goal the Revs scored on Saturday, taking his season total to a career-high eight.
44Columbus Crewlast week: 2record: 11-9-8 | This week: 0-3 vs. DallasThe Crew couldn’t come back despite throwing as many bodies forward as possible after going down a goal against Dallas, but they’re still in good shape for the playoffs after just their second loss in nine games.
55Vancouver Whitecapslast week: 5record: 14-10-3 | This week: OffThe Whitecaps are on a much-needed break after a crazy August schedule that they came through pretty well, with a record of 4-2-2 after eight matches in 29 days in three different competitions.
66FC Dallaslast week: 9record: 13-8-5 | This week: 3-0 at ColumbusWith a team primarily comprising homegrown talent and other young players, Dallas pulled off a big away win to jump into third place in a crowded Western Conference.
77San Jose Earthquakeslast week: 6record: 11-11-5 | This week: 1-2 vs. PhiladelphiaOf all the teams to end San Jose’s four-game winning streak, you wouldn’t have thought it would be Philadelphia, which had just one win in its previous seven before Saturday.
88Portland Timberslast week: 7record: 11-9-7 | This week: OffTimbers captain Will Johnson made his international return for Canada after over two years out, and his team defeated Belize, 3-0, in the first leg of their World Cup qualifier on Friday, with the second match coming Tuesday.
99Toronto FClast week: 8record: 11-11-4 | This week: 1-2 at SeattleWhile the Sounders continued their trek back to full strength, TFC had neither Sebastian Giovinco nor Jozy Altidore and couldn’t match Seattle’s attack as a result of its being shorthanded.
1010Seattle Sounderslast week: 13record: 13-13-2 | This week: 2-1 vs. TorontoClint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins scored Seattle’s goals as they started together in an MLS match for the first time since May 31, and they hardly seemed to miss a beat despite still being on the way back from injury.
1111D.C. Unitedlast week: 10record: 13-10-5 | This week: OffD.C. watched as the U.S. national team played its friendly against Peru at RFK Stadium, which could be one of the final international matches played at the venue with a new one supposedly on the way in 2018.
1212Sporting Kansas Citylast week: 11record: 11-7-7 | This week: OffIt’s going to be a busy month after an initial bye, with six matches packed into a three-week span for SKC that could make or break its playoff positioning and which culminates in the U.S. Open Cup final.
1313Montreal Impactlast week: 15record: 9-11-4 | This week: 4-3 vs. ChicagoOne MLS start and three goals in a much-needed, but slim victory: Didier Drogba’s hat trick was a great way to turn the page on the Frank Klopas era and give the Impact some life in the playoff hunt.
1414Houston Dynamolast week: 12record: 9-10-8 | This week: OffThe feel-good story of the week in MLS came from Houston’s academy, whose players shared a moment they’ll never forget with Lionel Messi after participating in a training session with Argentina.
1515Colorado Rapidslast week: 14record: 8-9-9 | This week: OffDespite not having a game on the weekend, the Rapids’ next match is on Wednesday, which means striker Kevin Doyle, who has scored both winning goals in the last two games, will likely still be with Ireland on international duty.
1616Real Salt Lakelast week: 16record: 8-11-8 | This week: OffRSL has an unusually long break to prepare for the kind of playoff push it hasn’t needed since 2009—when it captured the last spot and won the MLS Cup as the Eastern Conference (remember that format?) champion.
1717Philadelphia Unionlast week: 20record: 8-14-6 | This week: 2-1 at San JoseTwo goals in the final 16 minutes, both by Conor Casey, lifted Philadelphia to a comeback win and re-ignited playoff hopes despite going down a goal after the hour mark.
1818Chicago Firelast week: 17record: 7-14-6 | This week: 3-4 at MontrealChicago has four of seven remaining matches on the road, and it hasn’t won away from home since July 2014, leaving the Fire in a grim situation as the playoffs continue to slip out of reach.
1919New York City FClast week: 19record: 7-13-7 | This week: OffJason Kreis continued to stand by his criticism after lackluster responses to recent adversity: “I feel that in two matches in a row there’s been an element of quit in our group, which I haven’t seen the entire season.” It's gut-check time for the big-money expansion side.
2020Orlando City SClast week: 18record: 7-13-8 | This week: 0-3 at New EnglandManager Adrian Heath gave an honest assessment of the Lions’ loss to the Revs, admitting the opposition’s “complete, dominant” performance in another game in which Orlando found itself extremely shorthanded.