After another convincing win, the star-studded LA Galaxy remain No. 1 in our MLS Power Rankings.
Michael Bradley often says it best. And on Saturday afternoon, moments after Toronto FC ended a two-match losing skid with record-setting 5-0 thumping of Orlando City, he offered a captain’s perspective to a reporter asking about potential “franchise firsts” on the horizon.
“I’ve said it the last two weekends after losses. I’ll say it again today after a good win,” Bradley said. “There’s still a lot of games left. Just because we lost last weekend, it didn’t spell the end of the world, and just because we win today, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to go undefeated from here on in. We understand that. I’m not sure people on the outside do sometimes, but that’s part of it.”
It’s tempting to try to plug a given 90-minutes into a bigger, season-long picture. It’s easier to draw conclusions if we can rely on the twists and turns of a particular game to tell us something about where individual players and their teams are heading. But this is MLS, where form is ephemeral. Part of the league’s appeal is that, outside of Los Angeles, fans can tune into a match uncertain of the outcome.
But there’s a fine line between uncertainty and chaos, which is why we’re wading into a review of week 25 somewhat cautiously. Is TFC the team that overwhelmed Orlando or the team that lost three of its previous four? Are the San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union now playoff threats, or were their shutout wins over higher-ranked clubs simply standard MLS unpredictability? In this league, it’s rarely black and white (again, outside of LA). Here’s a bit of what we do know as the season careens toward fall.
Galaxy put the rest of MLS on notice
Did you catch Sunday’s two-hour infomercial for the Galaxy on ESPN? LA’s 5-1 annihilation of New York City FC was less a soccer game than an ode to the Galaxy’s ability to sustain excellence, and even improve, in a league designed for parity.
Newly-signed Designated Players Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos already have found their footing–Gerrard as a smart, midfield manager between Juninho and the forwards and Dos Santos as a mobile (and terrifying) foil for Robbie Keane. It was Keane, naturally, who made the most significant impact on MLS’s “DP Derby”, re-establishing his MVP credentials with a two-goal, two-assist tour de force.
LA coach Bruce Arena, often understated, said Keane and Dos Santos already “have a great relationship,” and he called the Gerrard-Juninho partnership “spectacular.”
The Galaxy DPs are only part of the success story, however. The key to LA’s dominance is the players around them. The back four of A.J. DeLaGarza, Omar Gonzalez, Leonardo and Robbie Rogers was excellent, stifling David Villa and often jumpstarting the Galaxy attack. And West Ham United refugee Sebastian Lletget now looks like one of the signings of the season. The 22-year-old Californian is a creative force and already has seven goals in two assists in 13 MLS appearances.
LA has won seven of its past nine MLS games, along with its first two CONCACAF Champions League matches by a combined 10-1. This form is real. Supporters Shield hopes in Vancouver, D.C. and New York (west of the Hudson) likely depend on how much Arena values the trophy.
Drogba overshadowed in debut
A fellow Francophone forward upstaged Didier Drogba during his MLS debut. The Ivorian icon entered in the 59th minute of a scoreless game between the Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union at a sold-out Stade Saputo. He took a couple of shots (coming close on a late free kick) and drew a couple of fouls, but could only watch as Philly’s Sébastien Le Toux did the honors. The Union escaped with three crucial points thanks to the Frenchman’s 78th-minute goal, which was his fifth in six MLS/U.S. Open Cup matches.
Drogba declined to speak with media following the game (sometimes its easier to take the player out of the Premier League than the Premier League out of the player), but Montreal coach Frank Klopas addressed the most significant question. He said Saturday evening that Drogba would travel with the team to Vancouver for Wednesday’s Canadian Championship decider. The two-game final is tied, 2-2, following a first-leg draw in Montreal two weeks ago. Late Monday, however, reports emerged that an injured toe will keep Drogba in Montreal.
MLS teams often are patient as big summer signings settle in, but Klopas’ confidence (or wishful thinking) concerning Drogba’s fitness was telling. Montreal doesn’t have much give in their schedule as it chases a playoff spot and a third consecutive domestic cup title. Its stirring surge to April's CCL final has whet the appetite for another run. It’s missing out this season thanks to a shift in the Canadian Championship schedule and a poor 2014 MLS season (the Whitecaps are competing instead), but can secure a spot in the 2016-17 CCL with a win Wednesday. Vancouver will be equally desperate. The Voyageurs Cup has been awarded to Canada’s top professional side since 2002 and the Caps have been runner-up seven times.
D.C.'s grip on first place is slipping
United’s run atop the Eastern Conference has been remarkable. Coach Ben Olsen and GM Dave Kasper have cobbled together a squad of unheralded MLS veterans and solid draft picks and have managed to stay atop the standings for most of the past year-and-a-half. While rivals spend big on big names, United has been winning matches thanks to the savvy of men like Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, Sean Franklin, Fabián Espíndola and Davy Arnaud, all of whom offer significant bang for the buck.
But cracks are starting to show. D.C. remains in first place following Saturday’s 2-0 loss to San Jose, but the surging New York Red Bulls now are just five points back with a whopping four games in hand. And while United’s 3-4-0 record since the end of June isn’t terrible, Olsen’s team is developing habits that would sink most sides. Chief among them is giving up early goals. Chris Wondolowski struck in just the fourth minute on Saturday. It marked a league-high ninth goal United has yielded in the first 15 minutes of a match and the fourth straight home game in which the visitor scored inside the first 10. That is not a recipe for long-term success. D.C. has managed to overhaul past deficits but absent the injured Espíndola (knee), it had no answers on Saturday.
“It is definitely not healthy,” D.C. defender Kofi Opare said. “It is definitely something that we need to stop or eradicate going forward, especially during this stage of the season. It is kind of harder to play in the sense that the opposing team just has to drop off, so it is hard to break them down as opposed to a game being a free-for-all."
It sets up a big, top-of-the-table showdown next Sunday at Red Bull Arena. Both teams play midweek, (New York hosts the Chicago Fire and D.C. entertains Montego Bay United in CCL play), but United's pressing issue will be whether Espíndola is ready to go. He’s started only nine league games this season (three goals, five assists) but still remains D.C.’s most consistently creative force. Rolfe has been outstanding but needs someone to pull defenders off him, and he’s often deployed wide so Arnaud and Perry Kitchen can patrol the middle. Espíndola’s health will be one difference between a playoff bye and the knockout round for D.C. Figuring out how to hit the 15th-minute without trailing will be the other.
There’s a real race in the West
What a week for San Jose. The Earthquakes and coach Dom Kinnear, who’s made a career out of just these sorts of runs, are back in the playoff picture thanks to two stunning road wins in four days. They destroyed Sporting Kansas City, 5-0, on Wednesday before heading east to D.C. and dispatching United. SKC and D.C. had lost one home game combined this season.
San Jose has won three in a row and now is tied with the free-falling Seattle Sounders for the sixth and final playoff spot in the West. The Quakes have a game in hand and play seven of their next eight matches at Avaya Stadium. Key to the resurgence has been Wondolowski, who snapped a four-game scoreless streak with three goals in the past week, and newcomers Quincy Amarikwa and Aníbal Godoy.
The relentless Amarikwa, acquired from Chicago, has four goals and three assists in eight games with the Quakes. He had one helper in 14 games for the Fire. Godoy, a Panamanian who signed this month, has been a rock in the middle. His range and simple, effective passing have made a huge difference—San Jose has shut out its opponent in each of his three appearances.
Just three points behind Seattle and San Jose are the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, teams that aren’t accustomed to missing the postseason. Houston’s prospects suffered slightly after blowing a two-goal lead in Friday’s 2-2 draw in Portland, but the Dynamo still have lost only once in their past five games. And RSL looked like its old dynamic self in an easy 2-0 win over Seattle that halted a three-game losing streak.
You may not be in favor of MLS’s expansion to 12 playoff teams, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t created additional intrigue. A few good results have vaulted also-rans back into the picture as Seattle and FC Dallas (three straight defeats) slide. It’s impossible to know whether it’s all a sign of things to come, but for now, almost every team has something to play for.
MLS Week 25 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)
DEFENDERS: Demar Phillips (Real Salt Lake), Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Maynor Figueroa (Colorado Rapids)
MIDFIELDERS: Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Quincy Amarikwa (San Jose Earthquakes)