The surging, star-powered LA Galaxy top the MLS Power Rankings after Week 24 following a weekend full of late drama, a star's triumphant return and an improbable comeback.
Between the comeback of the season in Kansas City, an extremely late win in Utah and Sean Johnson's heroics in Philadelphia, the 24th week of Major League Soccer season wasn’t short on drama. After the dust settled, just six points separated the top seven teams in the chase for the Supporters’ Shield.
The week started with a surprise 3-1 victory for New York City FC over Eastern Conference-leading D.C. United. Across the river in New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls have lost just once in nine games, and they dominated Toronto FC for a 3-0 win on Saturday.
D.C. didn’t lose its place atop the Supporters' Shield standings despite its result, a late Vancouver Whitecaps collapse at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday killing the Canadians’ chances to overtake United in the overall table. Not to be outdone in testing fans’ stress levels, Nat Borchers scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time in his return to Rio Tinto Stadium to lift the Portland Timbers to their own late win.
Here are a few thoughts on the latest set of Major League Soccer games:
Sporting KC's comeback of the year
Saturday’s match between Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver started as the Whitecaps have begun many recent games: early domination and a 2-0 lead at halftime. Even when Kevin Ellis pulled one back early in the second, Pedro Morales seemingly sealed it with another sublime free kick with a quarter-hour left.
But that’s when Sporting KC started to get serious. Three goals in the last 10 minutes of play, including the winning goal from Paulo Nagamura deep into stoppage time (his second late tally of the game, which equaled his full output from last season–he's only scored more than two goals in a season in one other year), completed the most impressive comeback of the 2015 season.
Sporting KC has lost just four times all year, and with the mental strength it showed in that epic late revival at home, the team doesn’t seem to be slowing down. SKC, which will be favored to top the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup final, has multiple games in hand on every team ahead of it in the league table and very little ground to make up to win its second Supporters’ Shield title—an event that is looking quite likely.
Coincidence? Martins returns, Sounders roll
Exactly two months after he last played, Obafemi Martins jumped straight into the starting lineup for the Seattle Sounders in a 4-0 win over Orlando. He scored a dazzling goal in the 17th minute, missed a penalty in the 30th and scored again with a little chip-pass to himself over the goalkeeper before departing in the second half.
Besides Martins’ return, the Sounders also started newcomers Nelson Valdez as his forward partner and Román Torres at center back, with both looking comfortable right away in rave green. Valdez’s interplay with Martins caused multiple problems for Orlando’s back line, and he bagged a goal of his own in the second half of his debut with a difficult header.
All in all, the Sounders looked closer to their early season form than they have since embarking on their slide down the standings in late June. Add in Clint Dempsey when he returns from his latest injury, and Seattle’s attack once again becomes one of the formidable in the league if it can maintain this newly created momentum—and if coach Sigi Schmid can sort out his latest selection headache.
“Welcome to the last 10 games of the season,” Schmid said in his opening comments after the match. “Hopefully, it will be more like the first 10 games of the season.”
Seattle went 6-3-1 in that stretch but had been 4-9-1 until Sunday's rout.
Erratic NYCFC still alive and kicking
Despite winning just once in its first 13 matches, NYCFC pulled within one point of the playoff places with its 3-1 win over D.C. United on Thursday. It was the first time NYCFC reversed a halftime deficit to win in 12 attempts and a match that coach Jason Kreis rightly said could be a “season-changer.”
The result, as well as NYCFC’s newfound hope, reinforced the forgiving nature of MLS’s schedule and the importance of simply remaining within range of the magical red line separating the top six in the standings from the rest.
Now, Kreis’ team has 10 games remaining to close the gap on Orlando City SC and the Montreal Impact directly in front. The two expansion teams have similar records despite their different fortunes at the start of the year, and they’ll meet in the penultimate match of the season, Oct. 16 in Florida, to potentially decide that final postseason participant in the Eastern Conference.
Red Bulls continue impressive transformation
That Red Bulls town hall meeting in the offseason feels like a long time ago. Since being appointed manager in tumultuous circumstances, Jesse Marsch has transformed the team into one of the most astute sides in the league.
Between a high-pressure defensive system and ruthless finishing from Bradley Wright-Phillips in attack, the Red Bulls have never looked more dangerous in the past few seasons, including when they won the Supporters’ Shield in 2013.
This incarnation of the team is much more well-rounded and dangerous, and credit has to go to Ali Curtis’ vision, with an assist to Red Bull itself.
The MLS version of the team plays like a watered-down version of its Salzburg and Leipzig counterparts in Europe, both of which are under far fewer restrictions in terms of league roster rules on player movement. It’s not that the franchise wasn’t an effective MLS competitor before, but it has gone to another level since shifting gears and favoring younger talent to the high-priced, over-the-hill players of years past.
Week 24 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS: Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Omar González (LA Galaxy)
MIDFIELDERS: Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps), Paulo Nagamura (Sporting Kansas City), Kwadwo Poku (New York City FC), Cristian Maidana (Philadelphia Union)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Kennedy Igboananike (Chicago Fire), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)