The top two or three teams in each conference of Major League Soccer are struggling to distance themselves a bit from the rest of the field. After eight weeks, six points separate the teams in playoff places on both coasts.
MLS matches have been accused of being too low-scoring at times, but Saturday provided 20 goals across four matches, including four apiece between the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City in a wild draw punctuated by Benny Feilhaber's thunderous strike in stoppage time.
On Sunday, Toronto FC won for the first time since Week 1. A slow-paced first matchup of the season between eternal rivals the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers closed out the week, with Clint Dempsey's late, fortuitous winner marking a return of the close matches.
Here are some thoughts as the second month of MLS play comes to a close:
NYCFC’s growing pains shouldn't surprise
Despite poor results and a six-game winless streak, New York City FC’s expansion season always seemed likely to be a struggle in the early going. The team still has plenty of time to reverse course, especially when it’s finally at full strength, as six teams in each conference make the playoffs.
Beyond attracting the wrong kind of attention off the field, the Frank Lampard debacle has left NYCFC reeling for a midfield anchor. Mix Diskerud will drift into spaces and occasionally make a major impact such as his opening-day goal, but he’s largely a chameleon-type of player who needs strong support. A couple thigh injuries have also left David Villa—pardon the pun—hamstrung between good performances so far this season.
Manager Jason Kreis has experience building a team through an early rough patch: he finished 6-13-7 with Real Salt Lake in 2007 after his surprise takeover on May 3. That team’s best form came as the season dragged on, and it finished 4-4-3 in the final run. Hopes and expectations may have been higher for NYCFC after a year to prepare for the inaugural campaign, but patience will have to be exhibited as the building in the Bronx continues.
Stingy Revs defense benefits from Jones’s return
The New England Revolution are unbeaten in their last six matches (and haven’t really been getting enough credit in our power rankings) after losses to Seattle and NYCFC to open the season.
The Revs also failed to score in their first three before exploding for four against RSL on Saturday, but it’s in defense where they have improved the most.
After conceding five in the first two games, New England has only given up two goals in six. Jermaine Jones’s return from an offseason injury boosted the defense even further in the last two games, as he now anchors the back line.
His rangy style that causes the United States problems with its shape when he plays there for the national team actually benefits the Revs. Jones led the team with nine interceptions all across the defense two weeks ago and five against RSL.
Reinforcements on the way for Portland
After beginning the season without MLS All-Stars Diego Valeri or Will Johnson, who are both recovering from long-term injuries, a return to full strength is imminent for the Portland Timbers.
Johnson played 63 minutes for Portland’s USL team on Saturday, and Valeri made the bench in a 1-0 loss to the rival Sounders on Sunday.
They were injured and began their return-to-play protocols at similar times, Johnson recovering from a broken leg and Valeri from the second torn ACL of his career. They’re both playing 100 percent in training now and just need to regain fitness through playing pain-free minutes.
Results without them have been inconsistent, alternating wins and losses for five matches since three draws to open the year. Despite their replacements having plenty of time to establish themselves, one of the league’s best passers and one of the team’s leading tacklers should comfortably slot back into the lineup and strengthen the Timbers both in attack and defensively.
If TFC's defense remains consistent...
Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco showed on Sunday what Toronto’s attack can do when it plays to its potential.
They combined well, including on the quick restart that gave their team the lead early in the second half. After going down a goal at home, Orlando City SC pressed hard for an equalizer through Kaká. The Toronto defense held strong, finishing the game with 26 clearances and 19 interceptions in its defensive half of the field.
TFC had conceded three goals in each of its two previous matches and hadn’t kept a clean sheet all season before closing out this week’s game—and it only had six all of last season as well.
The Reds still looked shaky under pressure as Orlando went forward continually, but the 2-0 win provides a springboard on which to build their next performances. If that gradual growth continues, Toronto FC could, at long last, find itself in the playoffs.
Week 8 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS: Chris Tierney (New England Revolution), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Bobby Boswell (D.C. United)
MIDFIELDERS: Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Felipe Martins (New York Red Bulls), David Accam (Chicago Fire)
FORWARDS: Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)