MLS Power Rankings Week 22: Union position themselves for playoff run
- After hitting a midseason lull, the Philadelphia Union are actively positioning themselves for a playoff push; More highlights from MLS Week 22.
Just a handful of weeks ago, what was going on with the Philadelphia Union was one of the great unexpected success stories of the 2016 MLS season. The team went into the Copa America break riding an eight-game unbeaten streak, played a balanced, effective style and figured at long last to be putting out a side that could make a serious run at MLS Cup.
But the team has struggled recently, and, as a result, first-year sporting director Earnie Stewart made a trio of moves that he’ll hope will swing the Union’s momentum back in a positive direction. The team didn’t just sign U.S. national team midfielder Alejandro Bedoya away from Ligue 1’s Nantes. It also completed a trade to acquire New England Revolution striker (and Bedoya buddy) Charlie Davies, while sending club icon Sebastien Le Toux to Colorado as a result of all of that.
For a side that was among MLS’s best in the early part of the season, this qualifies as a major makeover. But why?
It all goes back to the middle of that international break, when central midfielder Vincent Nogueira and the club mutually agreed to part ways, with Nogueira needing to return to his native France due to an undisclosed personal health issue. Just like that, the industrious heart of the Union’s operation was gone, a fan favorite who did all the little things taken away in an instant.
It’s not often that the departure of a single player can dramatically change a team’s fortunes, but that’s exactly what happened in Philly. Since the international break, the Union have gone 2-5-2, slipping from their perch atop the Eastern Conference to a mid-table position that may see the team needing to fight for a playoff spot if the trend continues.
The most glaring problem during that stretch: The lack of control the Union had in midfield. Bedoya, who broke into the U.S. national team as a winger but has since evolved toward a position in the middle of the park, where he starred for Nantes, can help with that.
“We have laid out very specific goals for our club this season and Alejandro adds the type of quality that can instantly guide us in achieving them,” Stewart said. “He’s a tremendous player in the prime of his career and we’re thrilled to welcome him to the club.”
Where Bedoya will slot in for Philly remains to be seen. Bedoya isn’t at his strongest in the box-to-box, No. 8 position preferred by Nogueira, but the impending return of Maurice Edu from injury will give the Union a solid defensive midfielder that can shield the back four and allow Bedoya more license to attack than he might otherwise.
And when he does attack, he may see a familiar face working to capitalize on the chances Bedoya creates.
A year after after a season when he scored 10 goals, Davies was hit with a litany of setbacks this season, be them personal–he and his wife Nina welcomed twin boys who were both three months premature in March–or physical (he suffered an adductor strain in April), or downright scary (Davies was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer, shortly after his adductor strain, but is now cancer-free).
If you can somehow look past all of that, what remains is an extremely talented player that adds a dimension the Union’s striker options didn’t provide (at least not all at once): Speed, smart movement and cunning in front of goal. C.J. Sapong will likely remain the starter in Jim Curtin’s 4-2-3-1 formation, but Davies should provide a nice change of pace. Which, not coincidentally, is just what the Union needs as a whole.
Davies made his club debut in a 2-2 draw vs. D.C. United, while Bedoya's debut is in the offing. Philadelphia is ready to make a playoff push its fans have been eager to see.
Offensive player of the week: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
I said last week that I couldn’t bring myself to give this award to Giovinco because he had been awarded it earlier in the season. I’m throwing that totally arbitrary restriction out the window this week, in light of the two unreal goals the reigning MVP laid on the Revolution at BMO Field on Saturday.
First, he kept it low, firing in a first-time shot into the back of the net despite the tough angle:
And then, almost as if it was a dare to himself to find a tighter angle than before, launched this high, looping beauty just under the crossbar:
Giovinco has been in the league for a season and a half now, so it seems like we should be getting used to these rapid-fire, world-beating displays. I’m not.
Defensive player of the week: Vytautas Andriuskevicius, Portland Timbers
The Timbers were put in a tough spot having to play a man down after just 13 minutes in their match against Sporting Kansas City, but the Portland back four performed well as a whole in limiting Sporting KC’s frantic attack not just while they were shorthanded, but also after their opponents got a red card of their own.
The Lithuanian known simply as “Vytas” was a big part of that, as his one-on-one defending helped slow down Sporting and launch a few of the Timbers’ very-effective counterattacks. His cross led to the opening goal of the 3-0 win, a fantastic strike from Diego Valeri.
The top team in the league (and in these Power Rankings) had the weekend off, and I’m certainly not going to penalize them for that. A 2-1 midweek win over Real Estelli in the CONCACAF Champions League is nice, but losing Fabian Castillo to Trabzonspor in a bizarre, protracted transfer saga isn’t.
Colorado’s test this weekend was sneakily difficult. After NYCFC ended the Rapids’ team-record 15-game unbeaten run last week, this week’s 2-0 win over Vancouver said quite a bit about the mental toughness of this team. One result doesn’t get them down, and neither does playing without midfielders Michael Azira and Jermaine Jones.
The Galaxy found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being down multiple goals at home, but rallied well to force a 2-2 draw. Ashley Cole, who hadn’t scored a goal in nearly four years as a professional, netted the tying goal. The Galaxy could easily have lost this game, but as it is they’ll be happy to extend their unbeaten run to eight games.
Toronto FC has now won four consecutive games, with the latest being Saturday’s 4-1 demolition of the New England Revolution. After a season spent trapped in mediocrity, Greg Vanney’s side has been inching up the MLS standings, now sitting within easy striking distance of top spot in the East–just where you might have expected them to be.
The Red Bulls jumped out to an impressive 2-0 lead at the LA Galaxy, but then a number of things went wrong. Between injuries (The club lost Connor Lade, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Damien Perrinelle), controversial calls (the club was denied two penalty kicks in the closing minutes), and a couple defensive breakdowns, the team had to settle for a 2-2 draw. Still, the team is on a six-game unbeaten run, and Sacha Kljestan continued his great season with his league-leading 13th assist.
You never quite know what you’re going to get with NYCFC this season, so after last week’s 5-1 win over a very good Colorado team I suppose this week’s scoreless draw at San Jose makes sense. NYCFC didn’t play their best in the game, and would have lost had it not been for some key saves from Josh Saunders. A point on the road is good, but the great form of teams around them means they drop in these rankings.
The Impact were missing Didier Drogba thanks to last week’s ridiculous red card, but the team didn’t need him as it edged Houston 1-0. New addition Matteo Mancosu looks like a worthy backup plan to Drogba, though; his fantastic bit of skill gave Montreal the lead and goalkeeper Evan Bush made a handful of big saves to secure the three points.
Portland shut down Kansas City despite being a man down after a 13th-minute Diego Chara red card, then shifted into overdrive once KC got a red card of its own. The Timbers won 3-0 with a peach of a goal from Diego Valeri, a Jack Jewsbury strike set up by Darlington Nagbe, and late insurance goal from Fanendo Adi.
Congratulations are in order to Nick Rimando, who is now in sole possession of the record for most wins in MLS history (181) after Real Salt Lake’s 3-1 win over Chicago. This was a vintage RSL performance, from Rimando’s two big saves at the end of the game to Javier Morales’ production at the other end. The Argentine assisted on one goal and scored two others as RSL continues to fight for a spot among the Western elite.
Whatever momentum the Union gained from their big midseason additions, the deflating nature of Saturday’s 2-2 draw against D.C. United probably took away at least some of it. The Union were on the edge of a much-needed win, but a late, preventable goal will leave them stewing. The Union haven’t put together three positive results in a row in over two months.
SKC was handed an early advantage when Chara was red carded just 13 minutes in, but couldn’t generate any kind of danger when they had the advantage. Then Soni Mustivar got a red card of his own, and the team crumbled after a superb goal from Valeri. SKC still looks like it’ll be a playoff team in the West ... but only barely.
D.C. United has transformed itself perhaps more than any other team before the midseason trade deadline, as Kennedy Igboananike, Lloyd Sam, and Patrick Mullins all played in the team’s 2-2 draw against Philadelphia. Steve Birnbaum’s last-gasp goal could be a momentum boost for a side currently just outside the playoff picture in the East.
I hold a fair amount of sympathy for any team that runs into the one-man buzz saw that Giovinco has been for Toronto FC lately, but even so a 4-1 loss isn’t a good look for the Revolution. I keep waiting for this team to evolve from the squad that was runner up in MLS Cup two seasons ago, and it has yet to happen.
Things couldn’t have seemed much worse for the Sounders a couple weeks ago, but the addition of Nicolas Lodeiro seems to have completely changed the mood around the club. Seattle looked magnitudes better in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Orlando City than they have in previous week, with Clint Dempsey netting a hat trick and Lodeiro dangerous throughout.
Against a defense as vulnerable as NYCFC’s has been this season, a 0-0 draw at home is a disappointing result for the Earthquakes. However, it’s not as if they didn’t generate chances; Chris Wondolowski alone had six shots and could easily have scored on at least one of them on a different day. San Jose is on a four-game unbeaten run, but three of those have been draws.
It feels like I’ve been writing the same thing about the Whitecaps for the last few weeks, but fact of the matter is the same problems keep popping up. In Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Colorado, the defense again allowed a huge number of shots (23), and the attack looked stiff and uncreative. New addition Giles Barnes, acquired in a trade with the Houston Dynamo, might need some time to get settled, but he also might not have that luxury.
Orlando City had a golden opportunity to take sole possession of a playoff spot against a reeling Sounders team visiting on Sunday. Instead, Orlando took an early lead then collapsed time and time again as the Sounders romped to a 3-1 win. Jason Kreis clearly still has work to do if he hopes to mold Orlando into a contender.
The Dynamo lost 1-0 to Montreal, but the Dynamo should take solace in the fact that overall they played much, much better than they have over the course of this season. Will Bruin in particular had several chances to end his goal drought, in which he's scored one goal since March. Who knows who Houston will hire as its next head coach, but interim boss Wade Barrett is proving he deserves consideration.
With Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal on the horizon, Chicago has a chance to salvage something from this disaster of a season. So it’s interesting that Veljko Paunovic elected to play Michael De Leeuw, David Accam and first-team regulars against RSL on Saturday. They didn’t help. The Fire lost 4-1, and Accam and De Leeuw came off at halftime.
Crew SC had the week off from all competitions, which may be a good opportunity to go back to the drawing board and fix some of the problems that dropped them to the bottom of these rankings and second-to-last in the league standings after last season's run to the MLS Cup final.