MLS Power Rankings Week 19: NYCFC keeps rising after tournament break
To better get out of the way of the Copa America Centenario, Major League Soccer took a two-week break way back at the start of June. This MLS Power Rankings column took things a step farther. With wall-to-wall coverage of the Copa America and Euro 2016 dominating our time here on Planet Futbol, it’s now been six weeks since we’ve taken stock of where every team stands in MLS. Now the MLS Power Rankings are back, and we return to a league that looks strangely similar to the one we left all those games ago.
The Colorado Rapids continue to get solid results despite a less-than-awesome scoring record. Robbie Keane and the LA Galaxy, as professional as ever, continue to get the job done. Dallas balanced runs of total dominance with head-scratching instances of being dominated. The Fire and Dynamo are still bad. So, what has changed?
A lot! Orlando City parted ways with longtime head coach Adrian Heath, Vancouver parted ways with a disappointing Designated Player in Octavio Rivero, and the New York Red Bulls shook things up by sending winger Lloyd Sam to D.C. United.
But perhaps no change seemed as glaringly obvious as the marked uptick in the form of NYCFC, which now holds a three-point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference (the Philadelphia Union, in second, do have a game in hand and a superior goal differential). Frank Lampard may have done enough during this run alone to squash any suggestion that he is MLS’ worst-ever foreign signing.
Now, does a team leading MLS at the midway point and a player avoiding an ignominious distinction count as huge developments? Maybe not. But in a league where change is constant, the remarkable thing about the last several weeks is just how little upheaval there has been in the league's pre-Copa America order. Perhaps there are some twists and turns to come. Knowing MLS, there probably are.
This week’s rankings take into account all the games played since the end of the Copa America break. We’ll get to them in a second. First, a couple awards:
Offensive player of the weeks: Ola Kamara, Columbus Crew
He was the pick for this award here here six weeks ago, but I have no problem handing it out to Kamara again. The Crew haven’t been able to make his goals count, but that shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of the striker who replaced Kei Kamara after this season’s shocking trade. Many other players would have folded under the pressure and expectation of replacing a 22-goal scorer, but Ola has fit right in and now has nine goals in nine games as a started, including five in Columbus’ last six contests.
Defensive player of the weeks: Matt Hedges, FC Dallas
Dallas sorely missed the presence of Hedges during his recent injury layoff, and there’s no better evidence of that than the way Dallas has shut down opponents since he’s been back. Hedges’ presence was key in three straight shutout wins for Dallas, and he played no part in the team’s 5—0 loss to Seattle. When he came back against Chicago this weekend, the only goal the Fire could get came in garbage time.
When last we left you, the Colorado Rapids were on top of these rankings having not lost a game since April 9th. Six weeks later, the Rapids still haven’t lost. Colorado’s 14-match unbeaten run is tied for fifth-longest in the league’s history, it has yet to lose at home, and it’s already-solid defense now has U.S. national team star Tim Howard between the sticks. Saturday’s win over Sporting Kansas City was his first in MLS since 2003. Indications are there will be plenty more to come.
The Galaxy went 3–1–2 in its games since the break, with Saturday’s 1–0 win over Houston being the third win in a row. The Galaxy’s already-stingy defense has been especially so lately, with each of their three wins coming via shutout. Robbie Keane has been in great form since returning from Euro 2016, and Bruce Arena’s team seems poised to make one of its trademark late-season runs heading into the playoffs.
If you’re looking for an example of how a two-week break in play can benefit a team, look no further than NYCFC. Patrick Vieira’s side went into the break on the back of a devastating trio of results: A 7–0 loss in the Hudson River Derby, then two surrendered leads at home. In the six games since the break, they’ve gone 5–1–0, Frank Lampard has scored his first five (!!!) goals of the season, and rookie Jack Harrison has emerged as a bonafide young star. Once a punchline, NYCFC now look like contenders.
Dallas sputtered a little bit after the break, opening with a draw against Houston and a loss to Sporting KC. Since then, though, Oscar Pareja’s side has reeled off four wins in its last five. The one non-win? A 5–0 shellacking at the hands of goal-hungry Seattle. FC Dallas is young, talented, and top of the MLS table ... but when it loses, it loses *hard*.
The Timbers were so-so at best before the international break, but the lull in action might have been exactly what they needed. The defending champs have gone 3–0–4 in games played since the last edition of Power Rankings, adding to an unbeaten run that is now up to nine games. Diego Valeri has scored or assisted on five of the Timbers’ 10 goals during that span.
The Red Bulls had a four-game winning run snapped at Real Salt Lake, then coughed up a 2–0 lead against Philadelphia on Sunday to draw 2–2 and continue a run of indifferent results. The Red Bulls are five points off the Eastern Conference leaders NYCFC, making this Sunday’s Hudson River Derby perhaps the most consequential edition ever of the short-lived rivalry.
The Union entered the Copa America break on top of the Eastern Conference, but three losses in their next six games saw the team relinquish that position. Strangely, the Union’s struggles seem centered on its defense, which had been a strength until recently. Philly has let in an average of two goals per game since the break, which makes it impressive that they only lost three of those matchups.
For a team that has built so much of its recent success on a stellar home record at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake’s recent indifferent form there may be cause for concern. Each of the Royals’ last three home games have ended in draws, with Saturday’s 0–0 draw against New England perhaps the most frustrating of the bunch. However, RSL still hasn’t lost at home this season, so a 1–2–4 record since the Copa America break hasn’t hurt the team as much as you might think.
The Impact started off their post-break slate well enough, getting four draws and a win in its first five games. However, Sunday’s 3–1 loss to NYCFC revealed a few worrying signs. Didier Drogba hasn’t scored since the break, and without Ignacio Piatti (suspended) pulling the strings, the Impact simply looked toothless in attack. However, there’s plenty of time for Drogba to get it together, and Piatti will be back. Unless one of them gets injured, Montreal will be fine.
On a macro scale, Toronto’s problem this season has been its inability to string positive results together for longer than three matches at a time. That is still the case, as TFC went 2–2–2 in this six games since the Copa America break. If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s that TFC got that record with Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin out with injuries, combined with a dip in form from reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco. If those things correct themselves, there’s still time for Toronto to become the MLS force one would expect from that roster.
Designated Player Octavio Rivero is gone, having been sold to Chilean club Colo Colo, and once again the Whitecaps are searching for a consistent goal-scoring threat. Could Masuto Kudo be the one? The Japanese striker scored his first goal since a long injury layoff, which is a good sign. However, the Vancouver defense is still the worst in the league by goals allowed, which is part of the reason why the team drew 2–2 at home vs. a reeling Orlando City on Saturday.
On the plus side, D.C. United have been sticking to the “win at home, draw on the road” formula since the break. On the downside, they’ve only played one game at home, and they haven’t exactly looked great in their draws (and a loss) on the road. Fabian Espindola broke a three-plus month scoring drought with a goal in Saturday’s 1–1 draw with Columbus, and still only has four goals on the year. Amazingly enough, that’s good enough to be D.C.’s top scorer (in a tie with Alvaro Saborio).
Kei Kamara is finally showing up on scoresheets for the Revolution, who got solid results on the road against Vancouver and Real Salt Lake combined with a morale-boosting 3–1 win over Columbus at home. Kamara scored against his former team in that one, but the Revs will need him to keep up his good form if they’re to solidify a spot in the playoffs. A three-game losing run before this weekend’s result shows there’s still plenty of work to be done.
No team in MLS has undergone more upheaval since the last Power Rankings than Orlando City, which fired longtime head coach Adrian Heath and his assistant Mark Watson shortly after a 4–0 loss to FC Dallas on July 4th. Ostensibly, the reason for Heath’s firing was too many draws and not enough wins for an Orlando roster with no shortage of talent. However, in the three games under interim coach Bobby Murphy, Orlando has managed two more draws and a loss. It’s hard to know what direction the Lions are heading in at this point.
SKC went into the break on an absolutely brutal run, having won just once in their previous 11 games. The two-week pause apparently gave the team some much-needed perspective, as it won three of its next four, including victories against today’s top teams in the West (Dallas) and the East (NYCFC). The last week, however, has been a reality check. First a 1–0 loss to MLS cellar-dweller Chicago, then another 1–0 loss to Colorado. Star center back and captain Matt Besler has been benched, but the defensive giveaways continue.
Even for a team known for grinding out good results against all odds, Saturday’s 2–1 win over Toronto FC is one for the Earthquakes’ record books. San Jose was reduced to nine men after two red cards, but still managed to score a winner while shorthanded. It was a nice end to a rough handful of weeks for San Jose, whose last win before Saturday was on May 11th. Most worrisome, Chris Wondolowski hasn’t scored since April.
In the last edition of this column, I wrote that Columbus was beginning to look like the team that made a run to last season’s MLS Cup final. Not anymore. The Crew have yet to win since the international break, and though Ola Kamara has been tremendous (five goals in his last five games), he is just about the only one producing consistently on the attacking end for the Crew.
In six weeks the Fire have added four losses to their already-abysmal away record, the most recent being Saturday’s 3–1 failing at FC Dallas. David Accam’s return from injury was supposed to kickstart the team’s attack, but that hasn’t been the case (Accam was an unused sub on Saturday). The team did get 1–0 wins over San Jose and Sporting KC since the last Power Rankings, but time is running out for the league’s worst team to make a playoff push.
Owen Coyle is long gone as manager, but the same problems that plagued his tenure continue to pop up. The Dynamo still struggle to score, having been shut out in three of their five games since the break. And when they do score, the lead isn’t safe, as displayed in a 3–2 loss to Portland where the Timbers scored three unanswered.
The Sounders went into the Copa America break on a positive note with a win over D.C. United, but just about everything since has been dire. Seattle has lost four of its six games since, and the team’s one win in that span was a 5–0 outlier against an FC Dallas side that put out a second-string lineup. However, any positive momentum that could have been gained from that lopsided win was crushed on Sunday as Seattle fell to its Cascadia rival Portland Timbers.