- Things weren't looking great for United and the Sounders a couple of months ago, but summer streaks have the clubs closing in on the postseason.
On July 28, 2016, MLS paused as its All-Stars took on Arsenal in San Jose. The regular season was 21 weeks old, and at the top, the standings looked pretty much the same as they do today; Dallas and Colorado as the top teams in the West, while New York rivals NYCFC and Red Bulls shared the top two places in the East. Look a little farther down the standings, though, and July 28 seems like a different world.
A lot has happened in the days since then, but Week 30 in MLS should be remembered as the moment where two clubs–D.C. United and Seattle Sounders–completed the flipping of scripts. With two wins apiece in the past seven days, both clubs rocketed up the standings into solid playoff positions. But back in late July, both teams could fairly have been considered to be in big trouble.
Seattle went into the All-Star break on the back of an embarrassing 3–0 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which it had registered a single shot. Seattle performed so badly in that game (and in the previous few before it) that Sigi Schmid was relieved of his duties as manager. The Sounders had 20 points from 20 games, the second-worst goal difference in the league (-7) and sat a full 10 points out of the final playoff spot, held by the Vancouver Whitecaps.
On the other coast, D.C. United sat in a similar spot. It had just lost 4–1 to Toronto FC, making it four games without a win. It had 22 points from 20 games, had scored the second-fewest goals in the league, and had already lost four games at home (at the time, second-most in MLS behind–you guessed it–the Seattle Sounders). D.C. sat eighth in the East, four points outside of a playoff spot.
An ugly picture, to be sure. Keep it there, while we fast forward to the present day.
Seattle is going into the last weeks of the regular season with two big wins against Chicago and at Vancouver. Brian Schmetzer, Sigi Schmid’s top assistant-turned interim head coach, has the team playing with commitment and energy, all of which was severely lacking in that 3–0 loss to Kansas City all those weeks ago. The Sounders have 44 points from 31 games, the eighth-best goal difference in the league, and now sit three points clear in the playoff places.
On the other coast, D.C. United sits in a similar spot. It has just won 3–0 against Columbus at 2–1 at Toronto FC, making it three straight victories. It has 43 points from 32 games, is tied for sixth-most goals in the league, and hasn’t lost a game at home since the All-Star break. It sits fifth in the East, four points clear of the non-playoff places.
Notice a difference? Once maligned, both teams are in a strong position not just to make the playoffs, but to make some noise once they get there. But while Seattle and D.C.’s parallel rises into playoff positions are similar in scale, the club’s journeys could hardly be more different.
For D.C., it was simply a matter of staying the course, and allowing newly acquired played to grow comfortable with each other and, in some cases, with the league itself. Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam were signed from NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls respectively just before the All-Star break. They now have 10 goals and five assists between them in less than half a season with the club. Talented Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta has found his footing after signing this summer, notching six of his team-leading 10 assists and two of his three goals on the year since the All-Star break.
While D.C.’s run was built on the addition of experience, Seattle’s remarkable run to a playoff spot can best be described as a grind through big subtractions. The club didn’t just rid itself of Schmid, its manager since the Sounders’ inaugural MLS season in 2009. It also lost the services of star forward Clint Dempsey due to a heart condition. With that, Jordan Morris became the focal point of the Seattle attack, and while he has responded with a couple good individual performances, others have stepped in to carry the load. Seattle’s three goals this week were scored by defender Chad Marshall, defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, and midfielder/utility man Brad Evans.
Other teams are paying the price. The MLS regular season is often criticized (fairly) for being too forgiving. But in 2016, Seattle and D.C.’s runs have actively punished teams that haven’t done enough earlier in the season.
In the East, Orlando City might have been able to recover from its recent struggles were it not for D.C. suddenly hogging the precious space in the standings above it. The New England Revolution’s 4-1-0 run in their last five might have been enough to push it into a playoff spot in previous seasons. D.C.’s sustained rise has kept them just outside the party.
Out West, Seattle’s run hasn’t just pushed out Portland (as covered in last week’s rankings). It has also applied considerable pressure to Sporting Kansas City, which has had its own struggles solidifying a position in the West.
Given all of that, it’s amazing to think of the payoff: A season extended by a single game. All of United’s work at integrating its newcomers, and all of Seattle’s grit and grind...it could all be for just 90 minutes more of soccer. Just like late July, the playoffs are a different world in MLS.
Offensive player of the week: Dominic Oduro, Montreal Impact
If it weren’t for the rise of D.C. and Seattle, the Impact would be the story of the week. Oduro is a big reason why, as his two goals and relentless energy brought new life to a team that seems to have stagnated over the last several games. Oduro scored an alert opener against San Jose midweek:
Then scored the only goal with a cool finish in Montreal’s all-important 1–0 win away at Orlando on Sunday:
Oduro is no stranger to this league, but it seems he always finds a way to make an impact for whichever team he happens to find himself on around this time of year.
Defensive player of the week: Evan Bush, Montreal Impact
That’s right, it’s a sweep for the Impact at the awards section of the Power Rankings, but not without reason. Bush can be a bit erratic, but the netminder made multiple huge saves in Montreal’s wins, including this 87th-minute PK stop against San Jose when the Impact were up 2–1.
He also preserved the shutout in Orlando thanks to saves like this: