Power Rankings: Red Bulls still winning; Toronto rebuilding again

Monday September 23rd, 2013

31-year-old Tim Bezbatchenko has been hired to be Toronto FC's new general manager.
Jesse Johnston/The Canadian Press/AP

The Red Bulls have things go their way, Toronto FC starts from scratch again and the headliners missed the Seattle-LA heavyweight bout in MLS Week 30:

1. Bizarro Red Bulls: With the way Mike Petke and his coaching staff celebrated Sunday evening following the final whistle, onlookers would have thought that they just watched their players turn in a virtuoso performance.

Instead, the Red Bulls simply clawed their way to three points at home via an own goal and managed to avoid a catastrophic injury when it looked like the worst fears would be realized. Given that Petke has long been part of the Red Bulls/MetroStars franchise and seen what the club has had to endure, especially come crunch time, the outpouring of postgame emotion, then, is quite understandable.

The other shoe never dropped as has come to be expected for the Red Bulls Sunday night in a 1-0 triumph over FC Dallas, in which quality chances were squandered and center back rock Jamison Olave shook off an apparent knee injury right before halftime to help close out an important victory. Now winners of four in a row for the second time this season, the Red Bulls lead the Eastern Conference and are in first place in the race for the Supporters' Shield (a point clear of Seattle, which has two games in hand).

Yes, the same Red Bulls who have become synonymous with collapsing or being struck with misfortune at the worst possible time, had things go their way in a game that in most other seasons would have gone in a crippling direction. Is there a changing of the guard at Red Bull Arena? Or is it simply another tease for a tortured fanbase? On the surface, it appears that this Red Bulls team, while not without flaws, has the chemistry and camaraderie of a successful side, with complementary parts working in conjunction with the stars no matter how unpretty it may appear at times. As the season heads toward the home stretch, Olave avoided injury, Tim Cahill returned from injury and Thierry Henry appears fresh and motivated. The collective sense of team belief appears to be increasing at the right juncture.

This coming Sunday's nationally televised Sounders-Red Bulls clash (which is going up directly against the Breaking Bad series finale -- unintentional scheduling fail) has suddenly become a lot more intriguing, especially given that potential MLS Cup hosting rights could be on the line. No long-suffering Red Bulls fan will let himself or herself look that far down the road, but given how recent events have played out, there is more reason than usual to believe in the hard-luck side.

2. Toronto FC reboots, again. Fans in New York may be sick of being gutted come the fall, but fans in Toronto are sick of the "R" word: Rebuilding.

The perpetually rebuilding Reds are essentially starting over again, with the club hiring first-time general manager Tim Bezbatchenko to fill the void left behind by the ousted Kevin Payne. Bezbatchenko comes highly regarded from the MLS league office, and with so many of his predecessors in Toronto having difficulty in making shrewd player acquisitions when it comes to navigating through MLS' arcane rule and salary structure, Bezbatchenko is essentially as well-qualified as it gets in that regard. Forgive TFC fans if they meet the hire with skepticism, though.

In an era of mass parity and fluctuation, Toronto has never sniffed the upper half of the Eastern Conference table and has remained rooted outside of the playoff picture for its entire existence. New regime after new regime has come through the BMO Field offices only to leave with the same losing legacy. With LA Galaxy architect Tim Leiweke overlooking the new project and Bezbatchenko an MLS-friendly hire and not just a big name for big name's sake, TFC simply has to get it right this time, as the margin for error is nil. Going from worst (or this season, second-worst) to first in short order is not the baseline requirement, but showing a true sign of upward mobility and making the most of the young talent and bountiful resources available to Leiweke and Bezbatchenko most certainly is.

3. Milestone watch: As the season winds down, the MLS record book is getting a bit of a facelift.

Brad Davis' assist to Giles Barnes off a corner kick Saturday night marked the 100th assist in the left-footed marksman's illustrious MLS career. He became just the seventh player in MLS history to reach that milestone, and he could leapfrog Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry to climb as high as fifth all-time if he can come up with three more helpers in Houston's final five games. If Davis tallies two more to tie Moreno at 102, it would mark his fifth straight season in notching double-digit assists.

Colorado forward Edson Buddle is two goals shy of the 100-goal plateau with four games to go. With Colorado acquiring attacking talent like Gabriel Torres and Vicente Sanchez, some might think that Buddle's chances of scoring another pair of goals this season may be slim with there needing to be playing time to go around. Three of Buddle's five tallies this season have come off the bench, though, so even if he loses his starting role, the milestone is still well within reach. Should Buddle cross the 100-goal barrier, he would be just the eighth player in league history to do so and only the third member of that club to still be active.

One of those is Landon Donovan (the other being Dwayne De Rosario), and all eyes remain fixed on the L.A. Galaxy star, who is two goals shy of tying Jeff Cunningham's all-time MLS record of 134 goals. LA has five games remaining this campaign, and Donovan, who, like Clint Dempsey, sat out Saturday night's high-profile clash against Seattle with an injury, could add yet another jewel to his crown by becoming the league's all-time scoring king. What symmetry it would be for Donovan if he is able to tie or break the record four games down the line, when the Galaxy host his first team, the San Jose Earthquakes.

4. Revs field woes: The New England Revolution took care of business Saturday night, topping the worst team in the league, D.C. United, in a must-have game for their playoff aspirations. The Revs benefited from some favorable calls (after consecutive weeks of being on the wrong side of controversy), and appear ready to fight for their postseason lives with a vibrant squad that boasts rising talent.

Putting all of that aside, the club's stadium situation truly is a disaster, and that came to the forefront over the weekend. With the NFL's New England Patriots slated to play on the Gillette Stadium turf Sunday afternoon, the Revs were forced to take to a field covered with football lines and logos. The soccer markings were virtually indiscernible to the observer. It was MLS 1.0 at its finest.

The field conditions -- not to mention the officiating -- made for a complete eyesore for anybody watching or playing in the game, and when contrasted with the likes of what transpires regularly in places like Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, it's hard to believe it's the same league. Logistically, there has to be a better way to deal with the issue before (and if) a new stadium is constructed. The most simple route would mean working the schedule so that the Patriots and Revolution are never sharing a field on the same weekend. Fortunately, that won't happen again this season, but one time is one too many.

5. Team of the Week:

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Defenders: John Kennedy Hurtado (Seattle Sounders), Jamison Olave (New York Red Bulls), Carlyle Mitchell (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Midfielders: Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers), Nigel Reo Coker (Vancouver Whitecaps), Tony Tchani (Columbus Crew), Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo)

Forwards: Steven Lenhart (San Jose Earthquakes), C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City), Giles Barnes (Houston Dynamo)

Week 30 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Old Rank Team
1 1 Seattle Sounders (15-8-5)
Minus Clint Dempsey, Seattle went into the StubHub Center and walked away with a hard-fought draw, with Eddie Johnson adding more evidence to his case that he should be among the highest paid players in the league with another goal off a well-executed header. The Sounders' five-game win streak is over, but the club remains 8-1-1 in its last 10 games heading into a showdown with East-leading New York.
2 4 New York Red Bulls (15-9-6)
The Red Bulls won't win style points for their 1-0 win over FC Dallas (in fact, they might have some deducted for their lack of proficiency in the attack), but that's all very secondary to collecting the three points that vaults them to the top of the Eastern Conference and Supporters' Shield standings. The hope is that the injury that forced Bradley Wright-Phillips off Sunday night is not a long-term issue, considering his value to the front line.
3 2 Real Salt Lake (14-10-6)
RSL finds itself in a mini funk, dropping consecutive games for just the second time this season. The manner in which it conceded a pair of goals to Steven Lenhart in rapid succession, after Javier Morales had supplied an equalizer no less, will be cause for frustration, as the club's place in the Supporters' Shield race dwindles. With the trailing teams in the playoff places within three points, RSL needs to bounce back just to avoid dropping into the wildcard round.
4 5 Sporting Kansas City (14-9-6)
Sporting KC claimed a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC to win for the third straight outing. Perhaps more important was C.J. Sapong following up his goal against Columbus by breaking out with two goals, as the club continues to march forward in the post-Kei Kamara era. Fortune was on Sporting KC's side too, as Aurelien Collin could have easily been sent off, and a late penalty shout for TFC went unheard.
5 6 LA Galaxy (13-10-6)
Without Landon Donovan, the Galaxy held it together and battled back for a 1-1 draw with first-place Seattle in an anticipated meeting that was missing its headliners. Juninho's sublime free kick supplied the equalizing goal, but the Galaxy, winless in three matches, likely needed to take all three points to have a realistic chance at winning the Supporters' Shield.
6 3 Montreal Impact (13-9-6)
Consecutive home losses have the Impact trending downward at an inopportune time. Saturday's 3-0 loss to Canadian foe Vancouver was set in motion with an early penalty concession, and the Impact no longer completely control their Eastern Conference destiny. With its CONCACAF Champions League hopes also essentially dead, Montreal trails first-place New York by six points with two games in hand prior to a crunch clash with Chicago.
7 8 Portland Timbers (11-5-13)
The Timbers took an important 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids to gain valuable separation from sixth place in the hunt for the first playoff berth in franchise history. Diego Valeri supplied the touch of class with his chip over Clint Irwin to keep his name in the MVP race, as the Timbers won for just the third time since July 14.
8 9 Houston Dynamo (12-10-7)
Houston appears to have righted the ship, with vital components Oscar Boniek Garcia and Will Bruin coming alive in a 5-1 victory over Chivas USA. Giles Barnes sparked the rout with a pair of goals, and his attacking was infectious, with Garcia coming through with his first two goals of the season and Bruin snapping his drought. The latter is the most vital, as Houston is 6-0-0 when Bruin scores this season.
9 7 Colorado Rapids (12-9-9)
The Rapids' 1-0 loss in Portland set the club back in its quest to return to the playoffs, with an early defensive gaffe paving the way for Portland's goal. The Rapids will have two weeks to stew on the result, as they don't return to action until an Oct. 5 clash against first-place Seattle. That game precedes three final games that amount to play-in clashes: One against San Jose, and consecutive matches against Vancouver, the two teams on the cusp of the playoff spots.
10 14 Vancouver Whitecaps (11-10-8)
Plenty can (and did) argue about Martin Rennie's lineup selection for a game the Whitecaps just had to have, but it paid off, as leading scorer Camilo came off the bench for 30 superb minutes that included two goals to put Vancouver's 3-0 win over Montreal on ice. With Camilo supplying the fireworks, Nigel Reo Coker adding the industry and David Ousted coming up big in goal, Rennie's recipe for success came through.
11 13 New England Revolution (11-11-7)
The Revs finally had some fortune go their way, as they were the beneficiary of a few calls that paved the way for a come-from-behind victory over last-place D.C. United. Lee Nguyen showed some intestinal fortitude to step up after having a penalty kick saved and not just take the ensuing spot kick but chip it home, no less. New England is back in the playoff places but has a grueling slate to close out the season, kicking off the five-game home stretch against Houston.
12 10 Philadelphia Union (10-10-9)
The Union sat out the weekend on bye, watching the New England Revolution leapfrog them in the playoff hunt while Columbus crept within a point in a jumbled mess of a four-team race for the fifth spot in the East. The pressure is on Philadelphia, which is winless in five matches and has no choice but to turn things around in a hurry in order to return to the playoffs after a one-season hiatus.
13 15 San Jose Earthquakes(11-11-8)
The Earthquakes stayed alive in the Western Conference after a 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake. Steven Lenhart's rapid-fire goals gave the Quakes the lead on both occasions, and the club defended admirably from that point on to polish off the win. All eyes will be on the injury suffered by Clarence Goodson, as the USA center back would be sorely missed for the home stretch if he has to miss an extended period of time.
14 16 Columbus Crew (11-14-5)
The Crew had everything working Saturday night, with Tony Tchani commanding the center of the park and attacking muscle Dominic Oduro, Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain combining to overwhelm 10-man Chicago in a 3-0 rout. Just when it appeared that the Crew were dead, with manager Robert Warzycha getting axed, the club has now won consecutive games for the second time this season and heads into a must-win bout for both sides against FC Dallas on Sunday.
15 11 FC Dallas (10-9-10)
FC Dallas' brief resurgence has been followed up by two consecutive, crippling losses that have the club's postseason hopes on life support. For a team that dominated the top of the standings for so long at the beginning of the season only to fall flat is a chief reminder of how vital it is to keep building and maintain form as opposed to firing right out of the gate. The playoffs aren't out of reach yet, but Schellas Hyndman's side is not making life easy for itself.
16 12 Chicago Fire (11-12-6)
The Fire were destined to drop points after Bakary Soumare's early red card put the club in a 10-man hole en route to a 3-0 loss at Columbus. Chicago has a manageable schedule the rest of the way, and is one of four teams with a legitimate chance of snatching a wildcard berth, but a team with that much on the line should not be coming out that flat at this juncture in the season.
17 17 Chivas USA (6-16-8)
Chivas USA took a break from playing spoiler to roll over in Houston to the tune of a 5-1 shellacking at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Goats briefly had Houston worried after leveling the score, but the club's high line was torched and broken down repeatedly, allowing the Dynamo to coast while snapping Chivas' two-game unbeaten run.
18 18 Toronto FC (4-15-11)
TFC made a major change in the front office by bringing Tim Bezbatchenko aboard as its new general manager, but he could not have been thrilled with what he saw in the Reds' 2-1 home loss to Sporting Kansas City. Things unraveled in the second half as SKC went ahead, Steven Caldwell was sent off and manager Ryan Nelsen and assist Fran O'Leary were sent off as a late could-be penalty call did not go Toronto's way.
19 19 D.C. United (3-20-6)
D.C. is playing hard, and there's something to be said for that, but 20 losses is an astounding number and matches the club's franchise low (set in 2010). Officiating did not go D.C.'s way in New England, but when a team is down on its luck like D.C., that is bound to happen, isn't it? The club's next chance at ensuring it doesn't finish with the fewest wins in league history is probably it's best chance, as it faces a shorthanded Toronto FC side.

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