With the Women’s World Cup and Copa América going on at the same time and the Gold Cup coming up, Major League Soccer needed something compelling to ensure it wouldn’t be buried on the virtual news stacks.
Rivalry Week delivered a couple of matches the league could be proud of at least in terms of buzz and atmosphere, most notably on Sunday in New York and Portland. Raucous crowds packed Yankee Stadium and Providence Park, and the Timbers Army treated the national television audience to another stunning tifo display ahead of a big win for the home team.
A couple lopsided results besides the Portland Timbers’ 4-1 win over the Seattle Sounders stand out from the scoreboard: the LA Galaxy dismantled Portland 5-0 just four days before it bounced back, with the Galaxy then getting bounced by the San Jose Earthquakes, 3-1.
Here are a few reflections on the past week in MLS play:
Rivalry Week still growing
While it’s a great marketing tool, and some of the matchups do fall into the category without a second look, MLS’s rivalries are clearly still developing. The fans seem to be into it, packing venues such as Stanford Stadium for San Jose’s win over LA, but the feeling isn’t quite there on the field yet.
Real rivalries grow organically, fed by time and history, and two decades of MLS franchise existence in the longest cases just isn’t enough; think of the great English derbies that have been around since the earliest days of the game.
The most obvious exception to this argument is in the Pacific Northwest, where the triangle among Portland, Seattle and the Vancouver Whitecaps was nurtured in the lower divisions and previous American leagues for decades. When the franchises were granted access to MLS, it brought those feelings back, but those three cities have been playing each other under the same names for twice as long as MLS has existed.
Nagbe shows signs of life in big Cascadia win
Darlington Nagbe gave Portland an early lead against short-handed Seattle with his net-ripping strike from distance, adding an assist later to secure a 4-1 win. The game was an important reminder that Nagbe can still be a difference maker, and when he delivers, his team tends to do well.
He’s never been primarily a goalscoring forward, but it was just the second goal in 53 league appearances for a guy who used to dazzle on a weekly basis with his ability in the final third. Those moments don't come as often as they used to, but the Timbers could really use more of them with Diego Valeri still trying to shake off an ACL tear at age 29.
More than giving Portland one-off wins, when Nagbe plays to his highest level, it usually coincides with the Timbers playing the style coach Caleb Porter instilled two years ago. The league needs more of that kind of attacking football, which Porter's newfound practicality doesn't always deliver.
Galaxy come back to Earth–for now
LA manager Bruce Arena doesn’t typically sugarcoat things for the media. His comments are a 3-1 loss to the Earthquakes remained true to that pattern.
“You can use all your theories that you want,” he told reporters after the game. “We just couldn’t do anything simple and right, [starting] from giving away the ball leading to their first goal. From that point on, we were no good.”
Arena’s frustrations with his team are understandable, as it hasn’t really sustained a high level of performance despite sitting fifth in the overall league table and smashing Portland, 5-0, on Wednesday. LA hasn’t won more than twice in a row this season yet, but its season-long five-game streak came well into the second half of 2014, so Arena’s men are still ahead of their usual schedule for peaking.
Might Pirlo have any second thoughts?
After being spotted at Yankee Stadium with Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo seems to be closer than ever to signing with New York City FC. It would be interesting to know their true feelings after watching their future team (or potential future team still, in Pirlo’s case) lose 3-1 to the New York Red Bulls in person, though.
Coach Jason Kreis questioned his team’s work rate after the game, but the structure has been even more questionable so far this year. Besides David Villa and goalkeeper Josh Saunders, it seems like most of the players are still trying to figure out what their best position is and how that fits into what Kreis wants from the group despite the club hitting its best run of league form entering Sunday's rivalry clash.
NYCFC mathematically reached the halfway point of their league season on Sunday, but the third time the Red Bulls and NYCFC meet on Aug. 9, Pirlo and Lampard could both be in the lineup with Villa. That game could provide a good measuring stick of how far the team has come since its typical expansion struggles.
Week 17 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: David Ousted (Vancouver Whitecaps)
DEFENDERS: Fabinho (Philadelphia Union), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls)
MIDFIELDERS: Matías Pérez García (San Jose Earthquakes), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Kaká (Orlando City SC), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Fanendo Adi (Portland Timbers), Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew)
1. Vancouver Whitecaps
RECORD: 10-6-2 | This week 2-1 at New England
The Whitecaps scored twice early, were helped by a controversial red card and didn’t give up the lead to win their third game in a row on Saturday.
2. D.C. United
RECORD: 10-5-5 | This week 1-0 at Chicago, 0-0 at Toronto
East-leading D.C. still hasn’t managed to win more than twice in a row this season, but it did finish a tough road swing with four points this week, helped by goalkeeper Bill Hamid's efforts in a pair of shutouts.
3. Sporting Kansas City
RECORD: 7-3-6 | This week 2-0 vs. Colorado
Krisztian Nemeth became the second player in league history after Chivas USA’s Claudio Suárez to score on his first seven shots on goal in MLS, tallying again in a comfortable win over the Rapids.
4. Los Angeles Galaxy
RECORD: 7-6-7 | This week 5-0 vs. Portland, 1-3 at San Jose
Still looking for the consistently high level of performance they show every year, the Galaxy had an up-and-down week with a huge win and a big California Clasico loss.
5. Portland Timbers
RECORD: 8-6-4 | This week 0-5 at LA, 4-1 vs. Seattle
Portland was the only team with a crazier week than LA, losing massively to the Galaxy before dominating Seattle in a Cascadia Cup matchup.
6. Seattle Sounders
RECORD: 9-7-2 | This week 0-1 at Philadelphia, 1-4 at Portland
Seattle limped through two tough matches without its attacking DPs, even signing Andy Craven from its USL team for the weekend in an unsuccessful attempt to plug the gap. Clint Dempsey's MLS suspension is now over, but the club will lose him to the U.S. men's national team for the Gold Cup for another few weeks.
7. Toronto FC
RECORD: 7-6-2 | This week 3-1 vs. Montreal, 0-0 vs. D.C.
It seems like a long time ago that TFC lost four in a row in the midst of a continued existential crisis; the team just creeped back into the top half of the table with a four-point week.
8. New York Red Bulls
RECORD: 6-5-5 | This week 1-0 vs. REAL Salt Lake, 3-1 at NYCFC
The Red Bulls are 2-for-2 in the nascent rivalry against NYCFC, winning comprehensively again on Sunday—this time at Yankee Stadium with three unanswered goals in the second half.
9. San Jose Earthquakes
RECORD: 7-5-4 | This week 3-1 vs. LA
The Earthquakes have lost just once since mid-April, and only two of their losses have come against Western Conference opponents. Chris Wondolowski celebrated his Gold Cup call-up with another goal, his ninth on the season.
10. Orlando City SC
RECORD: 6-6-5 | This week 2-0 vs. Colorado
The Lions are back up to .500 and sit just one point behind second-placed New England in the Eastern Conference standings after a comfortable home win over the struggling Rapids.
11. Montreal Impact
RECORD: 5-6-3 | This week 1-3 at Toronto, 2-2 at Philadelphia
This week was a sizable setback for a Montreal team that looked to be on the rise in terms of its league form, but it has a good chance to right the ship against NYCFC next weekend.
12. New York City FC
RECORD: 4-8-5 | This week 1-3 vs. Red Bulls
It’s hard to tell exactly what NYCFC’s identity is already, and that won’t likely become clear for a while as Jason Kreis tries to figure out how to incorporate new players this summer.
13. FC Dallas
RECORD: 7-5-5 | This week 2-0 vs. Houston
Dallas finally got out of its six-game winless streak in an all-Texas affair, winning the 18th-century cannon known as El Capitán as a trinket for another season.
14. Columbus Crew
RECORD: 5-6-6 | This week 2-1 vs. New England, 2-2 at Real Salt Lake
It doesn’t feel like Federico Higuaín has hit full stride yet, but Kei Kamara certainly has, scoring both goals in a midweek win before assisting the tying goal on the weekend.
15. Real Salt Lake
RECORD: 5-6-7 | This week 0-1 at Red Bulls, 2-2 vs. Columbus
RSL doubled its red-card count in two matches this week, moving to six on the season to give them the league’s highest mark and making it increasingly difficult to earn points in the standings.
16. New England Revolution
RECORD: 6-7-6 | This week 1-2 at Columbus, 1-2 vs. Vancouver
The Revs lost twice over the past week, but the second definitely felt referee-aided after a soft red card led to a penalty and Vancouver’s second goal a half-hour after kickoff.
17. Philadelphia Union
RECORD: 5-10-4 | This week 1-0 vs. Seattle, 2-2 vs. Montreal
This week was just the third two-game set of the season that didn’t include a loss for the Union, including an opportunistic if still surprising win over a Sounders team missing six starters.
18. Houston Dynamo
RECORD: 5-7-5 | This week 0-2 at Dallas
Jermaine Taylor’s bizarre own goal against Dallas personified what has been a frustrating season for Houston so far, in which the Dynamo haven’t had much go their way.
19. Colorado Rapids
RECORD: 2-6-9 | This week 0-2 at Orlando, 0-2 at Kansas City
Twin 2-0 road losses extend Colorado’s winless skid to six, four of which have been losses, although it has beaten its next opponent (Vancouver).
20. Chicago Fire
RECORD: 4-9-2 | This week 0-1 vs. D.C.
Last time Chicago lost three in a row, it immediately reversed course with a three-game winning streak; this time, the Fire couldn’t keep the streak from going to four.