- The hunt for the Supporters' Shield is down to four teams as the MLS season hits its home stretch and final two months.
The kids are heading back to school, the weather is getting (a little bit) cooler, and soon enough the grounds crews in Seattle and New England will be working overtime to remove football lines from their respective fields. All of that means that the close of the MLS regular season is fast approaching, with every team now with at most nine games remaining to play.
This stretch run will be important not just for the teams near the middle of the MLS standings, which will be looking to firm up a spot in the playoffs or improve their seeding as much as possible. It will also be the defining stretch of the season in determining the winner of this year’s Supporters’ Shield.
FC Dallas currently leads the league by five points over Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, and the Colorado Rapids, but make no mistake: An awful lot can happen in the time we have left. Toronto FC announced that talismanic forward Sebastian Giovinco will miss four weeks with quad and adductor strains, and losing the reigning MVP just as he was hitting his top form will hurt Toronto’s chances, and potentially open the door even wider for the Colorado Rapids to give FC Dallas a challenge as the season draws to a close.
The Rapids have been the most consistent team in the league this season, rarely dropping points against teams they should beat. That bodes well, as Pablo Mastroeni’s team could scarcely ask for an easier schedule in the stretch run: The team plays Houston twice, San Jose twice, plus away trips to the struggling New England Revolution and Vancouver Whitecaps. That’s two-thirds of the Rapids’ remaining schedule, and none of those teams are currently in playoff position. Crucially, the Rapids also have two games in hand on FC Dallas, meaning that five-point gap isn’t nearly as much of a hurdle as it is for the other teams in contention. Also crucial: The Rapids travel to FC Dallas on Sept. 10 in what may be the most important single regular-season game of the year. Mark your calendars.
But even with Colorado’s big chance and the loss of Giovinco, Toronto FC is still in a good position to challenge for the Shield. Thanks to renovations to BMO Field earlier in the season that caused the team to open with a lengthy road trip, Toronto is reaping the rewards at the end of the season; the team ends with five of its seven games at home. However, the first four of those games are all against quality sides: The Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United, and Orlando City are all in playoff contention and will provide stern tests for Greg Vanney’s side. And it’s not as if Toronto is unbeatable at home; in fact, they’re the only team in MLS’s top four to have lost at home this season (which they’ve done twice).
The wild card in all of this? Real Salt Lake. The perennial contenders have been in confounding form this season, never going more than three games in a row without a loss since a season-opening six-game unbeaten streak but just winning consecutive games for the first time since mid-April with triumphs over Shield foes FC Dallas and Colorado (the latter of which brought the Rocky Mountain Cup back to Rio Tinto). That said, the team has picked up enough wins along the way, often against very good teams, to put them somewhat surprisingly among the league leaders.
For as hard as this team has been to figure out this season, the upcoming schedule offers no clues as to whether it might make a push for the Shield–it features roughly equal helpings of home games and away games, against teams at the top (at FC Dallas on Sept. 24), the bottom (vs. Houston on Sept. 17), and in the middle (lots, including a penultimate-week home clash vs. budding rival Sporting KC). It could be too big a task for RSL to make up a five-point gap with that kind of schedule, but this is a team that’s made a habit out of surprising us all.
Offensive player of the week: Michael Barrios, FC Dallas
Good luck finding a better twosome of one-touch goals in a single game from one player this season in MLS (or anywhere, really). Barrios’ two first-time strikes in Saturday’s win over Houston were superb for different reasons, with the first coming from a clever finish from a beautiful counterattacking ball over the top of the defense by Maynor Figueroa:
The second also came on a counterattack, but this time Barrios lofted a perfectly-placed curler just beyond the reach of Joe Willis:
WIth the goals, Barrios is now FC Dallas’ leading scorer, with eight strikes on the season.
Defensive player of the week: Hassoun Camara, Montreal Impact
Camara did it all this week. He began by burying a nice header against D.C. United to earn his side a point with a 1-1 draw:
He then put forth a defensive masterclass under pressure (along with the rest of the Montreal backline) in holding Toronto FC scoreless despite playing with a one-man advantage. Camara’s versatility has been a big asset for Montreal for some time now, but he’s rarely made as much individual impact as he did this past week.