Major League Soccer teams’ impending entry into the 2015 U.S. Open Cup means this week’s calendar featured just five matches. The absence of several players thanks to international duty also affected the league, particularly FC Dallas and the Chicago Fire, which struggled.
The United States defeated the Netherlands and Germany last week, but all five MLS players involved whose teams played on the weekend saw action upon their return. Each made appearances off the bench, with Mix Diskerud scoring while Brad Evans adding an assist to continue their winning week.
Others, however, hadn’t returned by the weekend. The schedule only gets heavier from here, with the U.S. Open Cup ramping up for MLS teams and many players selected to their nations’ provisional Gold Cup squads.
Players who normally find themselves on the bench could begin to convince coaches they are worthy of more playing time. As Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid said, “It’s incumbent upon the guys who get their opportunities to play well.”
Here are a couple reflections on a short week of MLS play:
MLS teams entering U.S. Open Cup
The Open Cup offers teams and players outside the first division of the American system a chance to prove that they belong at the top. On Tuesday and Wednesday, 16 games will be played in the competition, all of which feature at least one MLS team.
One matchup on Tuesday, the Sounders hosting the Portland Timbers, pits two MLS teams against each other. Aside from their Cascadia Cup rivalry, Seattle and Portland have a history of explosive Open Cup games, including when Seattle's Roger Levesque scored 48 seconds after kickoff in 2009 and celebrated by pretending to be chopped down like a tree.
The Sounders will have plenty of influence over the fourth round of the Open Cup, as their USL team is also still alive, traveling to play Real Salt Lake. The only way Seattle could face itself would be in the final if both teams get that far, but it seems slightly unfair that MLS franchises could essentially have two opportunities to win the competition.
International duty starting to hit hard
Five FC Dallas players missed the 3-0 loss in Seattle because of international duty: Tesho Akindele (Canada), Je-Vaughn Watson and Atiba Harris (Jamaica), Moises Hernández (Guatemala) and Kellyn Acosta (U.S. U-20s). As a result, U.S. under-17 international Alex Zendejas received his first extended minutes by making his first MLS start at left wing.
The depth on MLS rosters is still far too thin to expect no dip in form when multiple players miss the same game. Playing with youth is never a bad idea, and teams should be encouraged to do it more often, but the short-term results are always likely to suffer when they can’t be surrounded by the veteran leaders who guide them in training every day.
Chicago lost by one fewer goal than Dallas, 2-0 to the New England Revolution, without David Accam (Ghana), Shaun Maloney (Scotland) and Joevin Jones (Trinidad & Tobago). The Fire could have used Accam in particular—with four goals in nine matches, he's the team’s most reliable attacker in front of goal.
Interesting new trends in the East
Montreal Impact's visit to New York City FC on Saturday, a fixture that looked supremely unattractive a couple weeks ago, ended up featuring two of the Eastern Conference’s hotter teams. After NYCFC’s 3-1 win, it now hasn’t lost in since manager Jason Kreis’ return to his old club Real Salt Lake, a span of three games.
The Impact entered the match with four wins in its six previous league games, including two straight wins coming in. After losing its first match following its CONCACAF Champions League hiatus, Montreal has been the most consistent team in the conference, along with Toronto FC.
The balance in the East has shifted drastically. Montreal, Toronto, NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union, once far below the standard at the top, now look dangerous.
The West is still clearly stronger for now, though; all but the Colorado Rapids at the bottom would still make the playoff places in the East based on their total points.
Orlando City starting to roll
For a while at the start of the year, Orlando City SC looked like a team that could do damage in the East, which would be particularly impressive for an expansion side. Then, failing to score despite controlling most of its matches, it fell into a funk.
The Lions couldn’t win between mid-April and mid-May, going four games without a victory and putting together just one three-point performance since mid-March. Finally, the Lions may have found their stride, knocking off D.C. United by a solitary goal on Sunday to go to five unbeaten.
In that stretch, Orlando has scored 11 goals, easily its best attacking run of the season. It has also won in a variety of ways, from dominating the LA Galaxy to grinding out a win against D.C., one of the league’s best scrappers.
Week 15 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Bobby Shuttleworth (New England Revolution)
DEFENDERS: Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Emanuel Pogatetz (Columbus Crew)
MIDFIELDERS: Mehdi Ballouchy (New York City FC), Diego Fagúndez (New England Revolution), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Federico Higuaín (Columbus Crew), Lamar Neagle (Seattle Sounders)
FORWARDS: David Villa (New York City FC), Charlie Davies (New England Revolution)
Obafemi Martins made his return for the Sounders, wearing a mask to protect his nose, and finished with a goal and assist—as did Lamar Neagle—against Dallas on Saturday.
As a Canadian club, Vancouver doesn’t have an Open Cup match—it will play the two-legged Canadian Championship final against Montreal in August—but it still took a week off from league play.
Kansas City has one of the more favorable schedules in the league, playing at home on Tuesday before traveling to Salt Lake on Sunday; four days between games is about as good as it gets in Open Cup weeks.
Since it doesn’t play in the Open Cup, Toronto has a full week to prepare for a home game against NYCFC where it will attempt to extend its three-game winning streak.
United won’t be happy with the officiating after conceding the only goal against Orlando on what could be seen as a soft penalty, but Taylor Kemp tempted fate by barging into an opponent who had his back to goal.
Both of the Red Bulls’ games next week are at home, against the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Sebastian Lletget scored his first MLS goal after getting his first start for Bruce Arena—but he only saw the field because Edson Buddle strained his groin in warmups following a two-hour weather delay.
The Timbers have a good chance to extend their best league winning streak in the MLS era when Houston travels to Providence Park on Saturday.
Two goals in two minutes early in the second half, both created by left-behind U.S. international Lee Nguyen, lifted the Revs to a home win over Chicago.
Kaká put back his own penalty to bring the Lions back up to .500 and improve their unbeaten run to five matches.
Five players missed the trip to Seattle on international duty, and the result matched expectations for a shorthanded team playing one of the league’s best.
The Earthquakes are in an interesting spot, playing an Open Cup game against its USL affiliate Sacramento Republic on Tuesday.
The Dynamo takes on former player and assistant coach Paul Dalglish, who now coaches the USL’s Austin Aztex, in the Open Cup on Wednesday.
RSL’s first team is the only one that will have to face an MLS “2” team in this year’s Open Cup, as Sounders 2 made it to the fourth round to earn a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium.
David Villa scored his second goal in three games, and suddenly, NYCFC has won two in a row after a massive winless streak that stretched back to mid-March.
The Impact continues to baffle anybody who tries to follow trends in MLS; Montreal has sprinkled losses to lowly NYCFC and Chicago, the only teams below the Impact in the Eastern Conference, among four wins in the last six matches.
Another deep run in the Open Cup, as it had in making the 2012 semifinals and hosting the 2014 final, might slightly make up for a precarious start to league play, although Philadelphia has won three of its last five.
Columbus started slowly against the Galaxy after a game delayed more than two hours by the weather, but Federico Higuaín salvaged a point in the second half.
The Rapids will play an all-Colorado match against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks on Tuesday, whose Sand Creek Stadium home is just 77 miles from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Three Fire starters, including its leading scorer, missed Saturday’s loss to New England in which Chicago outshot its opponent but couldn’t find that bit of extra quality to score.