MLS Power Rankings: Red Bulls tantalizingly close to first trophy
The Red Bulls inched closer to silverware, playoff hopefuls fell by the wayside and the Western Conference playoff quintet is just about set following MLS Week 34:
1. New York is on the cusp of winning a trophy
New York Red Bulls fans have waited too long and been through too much heartbreak to get ahead of themselves just yet, but the Supporters' Shield is on the verge of making its way to Red Bull Arena.
On the heels of Tim Cahill's fastest goal in MLS history, the Red Bulls cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on Sunday and have the Shield's destination in their control. With a win over the Chicago Fire in Sunday's home finale, New York will clinch the Supporters' Shield -- and its first major competitive trophy in franchise history -- along with hosting rights for a potential MLS Cup final, should the club make it there. Let that sink in for a moment, Red Bull Nation.
During a year in which the New York Cosmos were relaunched and MLS continued to go out of its way to ensure that the league's 20th franchise would make its home in New York City, the Red Bulls have responded in kind and made sure that their relevance in the area does not wane a single iota.
Plenty have and will continue to point to first-year manager Mike Petke's training clash with and ensuing benching of Thierry Henry as a turning point for when the club rallied together and took things to the next level. The proof is in the results, as New York is unbeaten in those seven games since (5-0-2) after enduring a three-game winless streak that included a listless loss to Chivas USA in the build-up to the blowup.
If the Red Bulls can finish off the trophy quest and secure the league's top record, it would also cement a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. Something about the words "Henry" and "Champions League" in the same sentence seems natural, and it would be a boon for the profile of the competition to have the likes of the former Arsenal and Barcelona icon playing on the region's grand stage. But before the determined Red Bulls can take that step, they must finish off the job, and that means not having the likes of former MetroStars and Red Bulls Mike Magee and Joel Lindpere and former Red Bulls academy product Dilly Duka returning to play the cruelest kind of spoiler.
2. Houston stands on thin ice
Even with all of their ups and downs over the last couple of months, it never truly seemed like the Houston Dynamo would miss out on the playoffs altogether. The way their summer was unfolding had a similar feel to last season, when a swoon was met with an uptick in form, a place in the wild card round and an eventual run to a second straight MLS Cup final.
Heading into the final week of the season, though, the Dynamo are on the thinnest planes of ice. Sunday's collapse at BBVA Compass Stadium against New York -- remember when Houston was virtually unbeatable at home? -- has left the Dynamo with work to do while hoping other results go their way. First things first, Houston needs to top D.C. United on the road, and while that may seem like a gimme, don't underestimate the revenge factor for D.C. No matter if the club has won just three times all season, with United having nothing left to play for itself, what better way to go out than by ruining the season of the team that eliminated it from the postseason last year? Bad blood lingers between the two sides, and Ben Olsen will have his charges ready regardless of their current standing.
In terms of tiebreakers, Houston is in a disadvantageous position. Its wins total (the first tiebreaker) is one less than that of Montreal and Chicago and equal to that of New England. Its goals scored total (the second tiebreaker) is considerably less than all three teams it is chasing. Simply put, a win alone would not be enough.
If Houston manages to get into the playoffs though, it will be a battle tested, veteran side that nobody will want to face. But suddenly that "if" is a lot more of an uncertain proposition.
3. The West is set (basically)
Barring a miracle, the five playoff teams from the Western Conference are in place. The order is still yet to be determined, but Portland, Real Salt Lake, LA, Seattle and Colorado will duke it out for a place at MLS Cup.
The only way Colorado, which is the lone one of the five to not have officially clinched a playoff spot yet, can miss out is by losing to Vancouver and having San Jose win its finale against FC Dallas all while scoring more than 12(!) more goals than the Rapids to take the edge on the goals scored tiebreaker. San Jose's Goonies might have made a habit of leaving it late and coming up with some improbable comebacks, but it's safe to say that this quest is just a tad too ambitious for Chris Wondolowski & Co. to pull off.
Just because the five places are spoken for does not mean there is nothing on the line in the final week of the season, though. With three points separating first from fifth, any of the five teams could wind up in the wild card round with a slip-up in the finale. While having to go through the wild card certainly does not mean no MLS Cup (LA and Houston both went through the extra-game gauntlet last season), it would make for a considerably more taxing path to the championship match.
4. Late award scramble
Individual postseason awards should reflect a whole season's worth of work, but the races for Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year could very well come down to how the final week of the season shakes out.
Montreal's Marco Di Vaio and Chicago's Mike Magee are going down to the wire to determine both the Golden Boot and MVP outcome, with both of the 20-goal scorers' strikes seemingly having a major say on their club's respective postseason fortunes. Both scored vital goals over the weekend in games their clubs just had to have, and as they enter the final week of the season, it's all there for the taking.
Other candidates still have plenty for which to play, with the likes of Portland's Diego Valeri, New York's Tim Cahill, LA's Robbie Keane and even 18-year-old New England Revolution stud Diego Fagundez each bringing strong MVP cases to the table. However, the high-quantity goal scorers tend to get the individual award love, and with postseason places riding on each of their strikes, Di Vaio and Magee have plenty at stake from an individual standpoint this weekend.
As for the coaches, winning the Supporters' Shield would certainly give Petke a leg up over the likes of Portland manager Caleb Porter and Colorado Rapids' boss Oscar Pareja, both of whom have sterling candidacies for the award. Porter, with college success and Olympic qualifying failure on his pre-MLS resume, has validated the hype surrounding him while making the Timbers the hardest team to beat in the league (an MLS-low five losses) and bringing the club its first postseason berth. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that Portland ekes its way to the Supporters' Shield, if a few results go its way.
Pareja, meanwhile, waded through an unbelievable injury crisis in the early months of the season, balanced his vastly changed roster, got the most out of his rookies and untested commodities and now has the Rapids back in the postseason picture.
Petke, though, came in completely untested as a manager -- it's easy to forget now that he was essentially a fall-back plan for the Red Bulls when he was given the job -- and has turned New York from a perennial underachiever to a team on the cusp of greatness. A win over Chicago would not only bring the Supporters' Shield silverware to New York, but it could also bring some individual silverware to Petke.
5. Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Ibrahim Sekagya (New York Red Bulls)
Midfielders: Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Michel (FC Dallas), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls)
Forwards: Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids), Dominic Oduro (Columbus Crew), Marco Di Vaio (Montreal Impact)
|Week 34 MLS Power Rankings|