- Frank Lampard didn't cover himself in glory in his first year in MLS, but he's turning the tide with his on-field play.
If you’ve followed Major League Soccer for any significant length of time, chances are you’re well aware of how quickly a team’s fortunes can change. The Portland Timbers were nothing special last season, until a late surge and an especially-epic penalty shootout put the team on a path to its first MLS Cup. In 2014, the New England Revolution memorably followed up a five-game winning streak with an eight-game losing streak and wound up as league runner-up. These are just two recent examples of a normal occurrence: Teams are good, until they’re not. Or vice versa.
The path with players has rarely been so quickly redemptive. It seems that MLS players, especially foreign signings, either fit right in, or face an especially difficult road. If they struggle at first, it’s rare that a player, regardless of experience, figures it all out in the space of a season, let alone in just a handful of games.
All of which is to say: What Frank Lampard is doing for NYCFC the last several weeks is truly special, and this week’s hat trick (the first in NYCFC history) against the Colorado Rapids is only the latest example. Just a handful of weeks ago, the former Chelsea and England player was being talked about alongside Lothar Mattaüs and Rafa Marquez as one of the league’s worst signings ever. Now he’s been arguably NYCFC’s best player as it has stormed into Eastern Conference contention. The numbers say nearly everything about how big of a turnaround this has been:
|Before the 2016 international break||Since 2016 international break|
|Appearances: 13||Appearances: 8|
|Minutes played: 777 (about 59/game)||Minutes played: 644 (about 80/game)|
|Goals: 3||Goals: 8|
|Assists: 1||Assists: 1|
|Shots on goal: 4||Shots on goal: 13|
What those numbers don’t show is how clearly Lampard’s standing has changed both within the locker room and in the heart of the club itself. It’s no small point that the midfielder wore the captain’s armband on Sunday. David Villa may have been suspended, but Andrea Pirlo played, as did numerous other figures in the locker room whose on-field experience with the short-lived club far eclipse that of Lampard. But watching NYCFC’s demolition of Colorado, it became clear that despite all his troubles earlier in his career, Lampard has the respect of his teammates. He directed traffic, took the reins when needed, and generally played like the seasoned leader in soccer we all knew him to be before he arrived in New York City.
In the past, Lampard, coach Patrick Vieira, and others at NYCFC posited any number of tried-and-true explanations for why NYCFC’s $6 million man was performing so ridiculously below his price tag (if he was performing on the field at all following his protracted Manchester City tenure). Either Lampard simply wasn’t fully fit before, or he needed time to get his feet under him in a new country, or he still needed to adapt to MLS’s playing style. With negative goodwill built up based on the manner of his arrival, these rang as hollow excuses.
If the Lampard we’ve seen recently isn’t a mirage, it may be time we start thinking about him differently.
Offensive player of the week: Joao Plata, Real Salt Lake
Lampard is the obvious choice here, but everything you need to know about his week is written above. Sebastian Giovinco is a solid second option (a goal and two assists vs. Columbus), but he’s won this award in the recent past. So instead I’m giving it to Real Salt Lake’s diminutive attacker Joao Plata, who scored what is in my opinion the best goal of the week. Check out this screamer!
Honorable mention goes to Javier Morales, who started the move that resulted in Plata’s stunner, then scored a stunner of his own to put RSL ahead of the Philadelphia Union. Good luck finding a better twosome of goals in a single game this MLS season.
Defensive player of the week: Jelle Van Damme, Los Angeles Galaxy
Van Damme has been great for the Galaxy all year, not just because of his strong play at the back but also the cultured service he has provided the Galaxy’s forwards via long balls. However, it was on the defensive end where Van Damme really shone on Sunday, making two game-saving goal-line clearances, including this block of a point-blank Jordan Morris opportunity that I still can’t believe actually happened:
This one, on Clint Dempsey, wasn’t bad either. Come for the goal-line clearance, stay for the Adrian Healey voice crack:
It took a little while for FC Dallas to break down Vancouver in the mid-summer heat, but a second-half duo of goals from Kellyn Acosta and Maximiliano Urruti sealed the deal against Vancouver. Dallas was especially quick to the trigger in this one, generating 16 shots, only three of which were on target. The potential return of Fabian Castillo after the collapse of his transfer to Turkey could boost MLS’s top-of-the-table team (or set it in line for another transfer windfall) as it prepares for the last 10 games of the season.
Yet another professional, positive performance from Bruce Arena’s side, which is a sentence it feels like I type every single week at this point. The Galaxy haven’t lost in seven games, and have only allowed three goals in that span. The team wasn’t at its absolute best against the Sounders on Sunday, but capitalized on a Seattle mistake to earn a valuable away draw.
The club-record unbeaten run ends at an astounding 15 games, and it ended in resounding fashion. Michael Azira’s first-half red card may have skewed the result a little bit here, but fact of the matter is that after so much success maybe Colorado was due for a result like this. The team’s challenge now is to respond well next week against Vancouver, to ensure that this was was nothing more than a blip on the radar.
For all the many positives contained in a 5-1 win over the Colorado Rapids, none is bigger than this team’s apparent change in resilience. Earlier this season, a deflating loss like last week’s against the Red Bulls would have given way to more negativity. Instead, missing David Villa and several others to suspension, NYCFC delivered one of their best performances of the year. This team, or at least the version of it that has shown up after the international break, is for real.
The Red Bulls continue to struggle away from home, so a 2-2 draw at the Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling Chicago Fire will go down as a wasted opportunity...and potentially a costly one. Midfielder and captain Dax McCarty exited the game in the first half with what the club called a knee contusion. If he misses serious time, the Red Bulls will have to figure out how to replace their metronome in midfield.
Toronto FC might have finally figured itself out, and Sebastian Giovinco’s return to form is a huge reason why. The Italian scored a goal and provided two assists on Sunday, and even if one of those assists was for Jozy Altidore’s lucky deflected strike in the closing stages, it’ll still be a pleasant sight for Greg Vanney. Also, they won the Trillium Cup, which will be a pleasant sight for whoever cares about a meaningless midseason trophy.
Montreal looked to be dead in the water throughout most of an uninspiring performance, especially after Didier Drogba’s downright silly red card for kneeing Marcelo Sarvas right next to the referee. However needless that was, Hernan Bernadello’s equalizer was brilliant, saving a much-needed point for Montreal in a game where it might not have deserved one.
The Timbers fought hard against Sporting Kansas City and arguably deserved more than they got, but a defensive lapse on a set pieces and some missed opportunities led to a 1-0 loss. After a nine-game unbeaten run, the Timbers have lost two straight. On the plus side, the defense played reasonably well without the services of Nat Borchers (out for the season) and Liam Ridgewell.
Real Salt Lake needed a win to keep pace in the Western Conference, and they got one thanks to two brilliant goals from Javier Morales and Joao Plata. Nick Rimando broke Kevin Hartman’s record for most starts in league history, but RSL’s performances this season haven’t had even a small fraction of their goalkeeper’s consistency.
SKC need to come up big on both ends of the ball in its 1-0 win over the Portland Timbers in a fiery, emotional game in the rain at Children’s Mercy Park. Jacob Peterson has emerged from a reserve role to be a productive starter, with two straight goal-scoring appearances under his belt. Even more impressive: The team kept a clean sheet without GK Tim Melia, center backs Nuno Coelho and Matt Besler, and with a perpetually banged-up Ike Opara playing through a gash on his chin (which caused his removal from the frantic closing stages).
On one hand, it’s easy to mark Sunday’s 2-1 home loss to Real Salt Lake as another disappointing result for a side that started off strong but seems to have lost its way. And that might be true! But If you’re going to lose a home game, might as well lose it to two of the prettiest goals you’ll see in MLS all year long. In the ultra-forgiving Eastern Conference, the Union should still be in line for a playoff spot.
The Whitecaps defense played loose again, meaning goalkeeper David Ousted had to consider 16 shots over the course of 90 minutes in Vancouver’s 2-0 loss to Dallas. Nobody, not even Pedro Morales, has made a consistent contribution on the attacking end in recent weeks. The Whitecaps will be facing a dogfight for one of the last playoff spots in the West if performances like this keep up. The acquisition of Giles Barnes from Houston could spark the attack going forward.
Jason Kreis’s most obvious change as the Lions’ new head coach seems to be paying dividends already. Freed of his conversion to left back, Brek Shea looked dangerous in his new attacking role, setting up the winning goal against the Revolution and generally displaying flashes of the skill in the position where he first broke out years ago.
Many D.C. United players collapsed to the ground at the end of the team’s 1-1 draw with Montreal, and that indicates quite a bit about how this game went. New acquisition Patrick Mullins scored on his debut for the club, the team kept Montreal’s talented attack under wraps, and then Drogba did them a favor with his silly red card. However, United couldn’t finish off numerous chances, and soon enough a much-needed win turned into a disappointing 1-1 home draw.
Chris Wondolowski scored another goal and the Earthquakes escaped Houston with a 1-1 draw in a game that was probably the least exciting of all the weekend action. Even in a league with as much parity as MLS enjoys, San Jose has more or less defined “mediocrity” so far this season–enough quality and grit to stay in the playoff picture, but rarely a team that will wow you.
After the week Seattle had, any positive point gained against the high-flying Galaxy would be welcome. Still, the 1-1 draw will be disappointing if only because it could have easily been a win. Nicolas Lodeiro played well in his debut but missed scoring chances, and Jordan Morris scuffed a chance in the six-yard box late on.
With the deal to send Barnes to Vancouver, Houston has more or less admitted that this season is a lost cause. Sunday’s 1-1 draw with San Jose was a good example of why. The Dynamo got some good play out of Cristian Maidana and a good goal from Alex, but couldn’t capitalize on other chances and gave up yet another lead before the 90 minutes were up.
The Fire let a draw slip away last week away from home, and this week they went one better in front of their home fans against the New York Red Bulls. The Fire held a 2-1 lead going into halftime but squandered numerous opportunities to build on the lead and let Wright-Phillips equalize at the death. Yet another learning experience in a season full of them.
Columbus is in a dark, dark place right now, with the team falling 3-0 to Toronto FC in a game where it never seriously tested the Toronto goal. Crew SC hasn’t won since the end of May, has a defense that has been leaking goals, and an attacking unit that hasn’t been productive with the very notable exception of Ola Kamara.