The situation in the Eastern Conference of parity-driven Major League Soccer has been particularly interesting over the last couple weeks. Despite slumps from the New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls, they’re both still above the red line in a group where second and sixth place are separated by one point.
D.C. United also lost this week but continues to lead the conference by 11 points, also maintaining its spot at the top of the Supporters' Shield standings. The next seven teams behind D.C. are in the West, though, and Ben Olsen’s team has played the most games in the league along with the LA Galaxy.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Open Cup also resumed last week, with six all-MLS matchups as an extension of the league calendar. The two teams playing opponents from outside the league ensured that the quarterfinals would feature exclusively MLS teams, as the New York Red Bulls defeated area rival New York Cosmos, 4-1, and the Chicago Fire beat the USL’s Charlotte Independence, 3-1.
Here are a few thoughts on MLS play as the league enters the second half of its season:
Galaxy show last loss was just a blip
LA manager Bruce Arena was not a happy man after a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes last week, but after another stellar showing against Toronto FC on Saturday, that looks more like an outlier than an incipient problem. The Galaxy smacked TFC, 4-0, and Robbie Keane scored a hat trick to provide some July 4 fireworks and finally put that nagging groin injury behind him.
That second-half-of-the-season push that Arena orchestrates every year seems to be arriving right on schedule, as that San Jose result came in the midst of three wins in which LA outscored opponents 14-1. It’s almost as if Arena walked into training a couple weeks ago, snapped his fingers and said, “All right—the season starts today.”
A team on the rise gets another boost with Steven Gerrard’s impending introduction to the team. It’ll help his acclimation that the longest road trip remaining in league play will be to Kansas City on the final day of the season, but he’ll get a chance to impact other important matches as well, including two against Seattle and FC Dallas each.
Kamara making MVP push with Columbus
Returning to MLS after a year in England, Kei Kamara looks like much the same player he was before he left except for a ruthless tweak in his mentality.
He’s already surpassed his career-high goals total for a single season with 12 and is among the top of the league in assists (five), dragging Columbus Crew SC to second place in the East.
Kamara has had a hand in multiple goals in a third of his 18 appearances so far, including assisting both in a 2-1 win over the Red Bulls on Saturday. Not only is he playing well, but he’s more consistent, making good on the potential he showed before moving to England's League Championship.
Europe obviously served him well in terms of learning how to play to his highest level on a daily basis. Columbus is still a dark-horse candidate to win MLS Cup, and it’ll be Kamara’s ability that carries the team as far as it can go.
Conference leaders clash in Seattle
The teams at the top of the table met in the Emerald City last Friday, with the Seattle Sounders narrowly defeating D.C., 1-0, on an 88th-minute Tyrone Mears rocket. (The Vancouver Whitecaps could have surpassed Seattle in the West but lost a day later.) After Fabián Espíndola’s first-half red card, Seattle could have easily run away with it.
When Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey haven’t played, the Sounders’ attack has struggled this season. And it took Mears’s golazo from the right side of the penalty area with the outside of his left foot to break Seattle’s three-game losing streak. The team will need to find some consistency without its two over-30 Designated Players, at least until Martins returns from injury and Dempsey returns from Gold Cup duty.
For D.C., it was another case of not playing spectacularly but still being incredibly hard to beat. Seattle doesn’t deserve to be completely panned for its performance, because it seems as if United just has a way of making any team it plays miserable, which is probably why Olsen’s men are in the position they are.
Red Bulls’ recent wins can’t hide larger trend
Besides two wins over Real Salt Lake and New York City FC, both lower in the standings and in poorer form this season, the Red Bulls might be running into a bit of a midseason wall. The team is teetering on the edge of the Eastern Conference's playoff places, although nothing has really changed in terms of its system of play.
New York's Pro Soccer War: Red Bulls, NYCFC, Cosmos
The New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos walk out to line up ahead of their 2014 U.S. Open Cup clash at Hofstra University's Shuart Stadium.
New York Red Bulls' Chris Duvall (25) takes on the Cosmos' Hagop Chirishian in their 2014 U.S. Open Cup clash.
Tempers flare in the New York Red Bulls' 2014 U.S. Open Cup match against the New York Cosmos, which was won by the NASL team 3-0.
Ambroise Oyongo goes airborn in the New York Red Bulls' 2014 U.S. Open Cup match against the New York Cosmos.
Mads Stokkelien celebrates one of his two goals in the New York Cosmos' 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup.
Mads Stokkelien scored twice in leading the New York Cosmos over the New York Red Bulls 3-0 in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup fourth round.
David Villa signs an autograph for a young NYCFC fan at Red Bull Arena in the club's first match against the New York Red Bulls.
Red Bulls fans celebrate a goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips in the club's first match against NYCFC.
NYCFC captain David Villa, right, takes exception with Red Bulls midfielders Felipe, Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan in a heated moment in NYCFC's first match against the Red Bulls.
NYCFC's Pablo Alvarez tries to get by a throng of Red Bulls defenders in a 2-1 loss for the MLS expansion club at Red Bull Arena on May 10, 2015.
NYCFC goalkeeper Josh Saunders makes a save on Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips in the inaugural match between the two clubs, won by the Red Bulls 2-1.
Red Bulls defenders Karl Ouimette, right, and Damien Perrinelle congratulate each other while NYCFC's Patrick Mullins looks on after a 2-1 Red Bulls victory.
The scoreboard tells all, as the Red Bulls win the inaugural MLS match against expansion club NYCFC on May 10, 2015 at Red Bull Arena.
The starting XI for NYCFC and the New York Cosmos team take the field, preparing to kick off their U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match
The New York Cosmos supporters' section helps set the atmosphere for their fourth-round U.S. Open Cup match against NYCFC. The game, dubbed the East River Derby, was the first match between the two sides.
The New York Cosmos supporters look on with focused apprehension as they watch their Cosmos fight to come from behind against NYCFC in the second half of their U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match.
Over 1,000 New York City FC supporters made the trip to Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium, the home of the New York Cosmos, to witness the inaugural match between the two sides.
NYCFC defender R.J. Allen pushes the ball across midfield surrounded by a trio of teammates and two Cosmos defenders during the first half of their U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match
New York Cosmos defender Hunter Gorskie (3) and midfielder Sebastian Ignacio Guenzatti Varela (13) chase after NYCFC midfielder Kwadwo Poku (88) as he runs toward goal.
New York Cosmos defender Hunter Gorskie (3) and midfielder Hunter Restrepo (20) get into a physical midfield battle with NYCFC midfielder Pablo Alvarez (22) and forward Patrick Mullins (14).
In the 24th minute, NYCFC midfielder Kwadwo Poku (88) successfully executes a bicycle kick, beating Cosmos defender Ayoze Garcia Perez (17) and goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (1) for the first goal in the teams' first matchup.
NYCFC midfielder Kwadwo Poku (88) and forward Patrick Mullins (14) run toward the away supporters section to celebrate Poku’s goal in front of their fans.
NYCFC midfielder Mix Diskerud (10) and the NYCFC supporters join forward Patrick Mullins (14) in celebrating Kwadwo Poku’s (88) opening goal against the New York Cosmos.
In the 57th minute of their U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match, Cosmos star attacker Raul (7) moves the ball into the attacking third, slipping it past midfielder Kwadwo Poku (88), NYCFC’s man of the match.
In the second half of their U.S. Open Cup fourth-round match, NYCFC midfielder Kwadwo Poku (88) fires a shot toward Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (1). Maurer was unable to save it, giving Poku his second goal of the game
The New York Cosmos supporters section reacts to Lucky Mkosana’s (77) equalizing goal in the 91st minute, which sent the game to extra time. The Cosmos would go on to beat NYCFC in penalties, 4-3, to set up a round-of-16 clash vs. the Red Bulls.
New York Cosmos' Hunter Gorskie celebrates after scoring the decisive penalty kick to send the NASL side by NYCFC in the U.S. Open Cup.
New York City FC home fans celebrate midfielder Tommy McNamara’s goal in the sixth minute of the team’s match against the New York Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium, ultimately won by the Red Bulls 3-1.
NYCFC striker and captain David Villa sends a free kick into traffic near the New York Red Bulls’ goal in the first half of their clash at Yankee Stadium on June 28.
New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) beats NYCFC defender R.J. Allen (27) and puts a strike on goal during the second half of their June 28 match at Yankee Stadium.
New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles (right) reacts to receiving a yellow card for a foul on NYCFC striker David Villa (far right).
New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) gets technical with the ball, controlling it while under pressure from NYCFC defender Jason Hernandez (21) and midfielder Javier Calle (30).
New York Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle (55) shakes off Kwadwo Poku (88) and Mix Diskerud (10) during the second half of the season’s second Red Bulls-NYCFC clash.
New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (left) celebrates with fellow striker Mike Grella (middle) and midfielder Felipe (right) after scoring the Red Bulls' first goal of the match, which tied the game less than two minutes into the second half.
NYCFC striker David Villa (7) takes a free kick in the second half of the home match against New York Red Bulls. Defenders Damien Perrinelle (55) and Matt Miazga (20), midfielder Sacha Kljestan (16) and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) make up the defensive wall.
The New York Red Bulls run over to their bench to celebrate defender Chris Duvall’s (25) first goal in Major League Soccer. Strikers Mike Grella (13) and Anatole Abang (9) and defender Matt Miazga (20) join coach Jesse Marsch in the post goal embrace.
The traveling fans sitting in the New York Red Bulls’ supporters section at Yankee Stadium react to the third and final Red Bulls goal of the match, scored by defender Matt Miazga (20) in the 73rd minute of a 3-1 road win over NYCFC.
After a 3-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls, NYCFC midfielder Mix Diskerud (10) throws a ball into the home supporters section. The gesture earned Diskerud one final cheer from his fans despite the result.
The New York Cosmos (Blue) and the New York Red Bulls (White) shake hands before the beginning of their U.S. Open Cup fifth-round match at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
New York Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle (55) and New York Cosmos midfielder Walter Restrepo (20) collide while vying for the ball in the first half of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup fifth-round match at Red Bull Arena.
New York Red Bulls midfielder Sam Zizzo (15), already with a goal to his name in the match, fires a header toward Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (1).
New York Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty (right) and Cosmos midfielder Andrés Alexander Flores Mejía (center) meet each other at the ball mid-flight in the first half of their U.S. Open Cup fifth-round match.
New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan (16) takes and makes the penalty kick, giving his side a 3-1 advantage over the Cosmos in the 54th minute of their 2015 U.S. Open Cup fifth-round match.
New York Red Bulls striker Anatole Abang (9) goes 1-on-1 against New York Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (1) in the first half of their U.S. Open Cup fifth-round match.
New York Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle (55) and the Red Bulls’ supporters section call for a penalty after Cosmos defender Hunter Gorskie (3) fouled Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall (25) inside of the penalty box. Duvall broke his leg on the play.
New York Red Bulls striker Mike Grella (13) celebrates his goal, the Red Bulls’ seventh in a week against the two other New York teams. The 4-1 result against the Cosmos was preceded four days prior by a 3-1 victory over NYCFC.
Red Bulls striker Anatole Abang (far right), captain Dax McCarty (middle), defender Anthony Wallace (left) and midfielder Dane Richards (far left) make their celebratory lap around Red Bull Arena with the blue jerseys they exchanged with members of the New York Cosmos. Defender Matt Miazga (20) and striker Bradley Wright-Phillips (99) are also pictured.
Red Bulls fans take a shot at NYCFC's two summer arrivals, 37-year-old Frank Lampard and 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, ahead of their third MLS meeting of 2015.
Bradley Wright-Phillips celebrates his goal that gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead over NYCFC in their third meeting of the 2015 season.
Frank Lampard and Dax McCarty battle for the ball at midfield. McCarty's Red Bulls came out on top again, completing the season sweep with an Aug. 9 2-0 win.
Red Bulls midfielder Felipe leaves his feet trying to stop NYCFC's David Villa. The former iced the 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena with a goal.
Jesse Marsch instilled a high-energy, high-pressure defensive block to great effect early, but it’s hard to sustain that kind of energy in MLS for 34 weeks.
The squads aren’t deep enough to rotate without at least some drop-off, and the league plays through the hottest weather of the year, making it difficult for players to expect to cover six miles a game.
Losing fullback Chris Duvall to a broken leg, suffered in the Open Cup triumph over the Cosmos, and then being further depleted by the Gold Cup won't help matters. As they begin to see more opponents for the second and third time this year, the opposition will know what to expect, so the Red Bulls will have to find another level in attack to match its defensive zest and reclaim its place near the top of the East.
Week 18 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Josh Saunders (New York City FC)
DEFENDERS: Víctor Cabrera (Montreal Impact), Eric Gehrig (Chicago Fire), Seb Hines (Orlando City SC)
MIDFIELDERS: Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Juninho (LA Galaxy), Mauro Díaz (FC Dallas), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Kei Kamara (Columbus Crew), David Villa (New York City FC)
1. Sporting Kansas City
RECORD: 7-3-6 | This week Off
SKC didn’t have to worry about playing a game on the weekend when it picked its Open Cup lineup in midweek, trouncing FC Dallas at home, 6-2. By virtue of the teams ahead of SKC losing and the club's league-low three losses, Dom Dwyer & Co. get the bump up.
2. Los Angeles Galaxy
RECORD: 8-6-7 | This week 4-0 vs. Toronto
Robbie Keane put away a hat trick, perhaps finally marking his full return from a nagging groin injury, as LA dismantled Toronto in front of Steven Gerrard at the StubHub Center. Gerrard is eligible to join the defending MLS champs on the field this weekend.
3. Portland Timbers
RECORD: 9-6-4 | This week 1-0 vs. San Jose
The Timbers left it late but won their fifth consecutive home match with Jack Jewsbury’s goal in stoppage time on Sunday to make it a Cascadian trifecta at the top of the West.
4. Vancouver Whitecaps
RECORD: 10-7-2 | This week 1-2 at Colorado
Despite losing to Colorado on the road, the Whitecaps have still won four of their last six and sit tied for first in the West on points.
5. Seattle Sounders
RECORD: 10-7-2 | This week 1-0 at D.C.
Seattle needed a last-gasp goal from Tyrone Mears to defeat 10-man D.C. at home, continuing the team’s attacking struggles without Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in the lineup.
6. D.C. United
RECORD: 10-6-5 | This week 0-1 vs. Seattle
United nearly held out for a draw despite losing Fabián Espíndola to a straight red card very early against the Sounders, but Seattle managed to get a goal in the face of D.C.’s usual stifling play.
7. FC Dallas
RECORD: 8-5-5 | This week 3-0 vs. New England
With a big win off Mauro Díaz’s playmaking ability, Dallas extended its home record to 6-1-2 entering the most difficult part of the year to play in Texas.
8. Columbus Crew
RECORD: 6-6-6 | This week 2-1 vs. Red Bulls
Columbus conceded the first goal of the game for the sixth straight match, but Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay combined once in each half to reverse the deficit and extend Columbus’ unbeaten streak to four.
9. Toronto FC
RECORD: 7-7-2 | This week 0-4 at LA
TFC played shorthanded on the road against LA and got the kind of result you might expect from a weakened team against one of the league’s most consistent over the years.
10. New York City FC
RECORD: 5-8-5 | This week 2-1 at Montreal
After an abysmal start, Jason Kreis’s team is picking up a bit of steam having won four of its last five matches to give it the best record in the last five games in the league, tied with Portland. With Frank Lampard set to debut this weekend and Andrea Pirlo officially in the fold as well, things are looking up for the expansion side.
11. Orlando City SC
RECORD: 6-6-6 | This week 1-1 at Salt Lake
A point might have seemed acceptable after losing Kaká to a bizarre red card just before halftime, but the Lions controlled most of the second half even down a man and easily could have won.
12. San Jose Earthquakes
RECORD: 7-6-4 | This week 0-1 at Portland
The Earthquakes have only lost twice since the start of May but still find themselves just outside the playoff places in a tough Western Conference.
13. New York Red Bulls
RECORD: 6-6-5 | This week 1-2 at Columbus
Even with wins in both matches directly preceding a disappointing loss in Columbus, the Red Bulls are undoubtedly playing worse than when they jumped out to an early lead in the standings; are other teams starting to figure them out?
14. Montreal Impact
RECORD: 5-7-3 | This week 1-2 vs. NYCFC
Montreal hasn’t been able to figure out NYCFC, losing both matches against the expansion side this year on three total goals from David Villa
15. Real Salt Lake
RECORD: 5-6-8 | This week 1-1 vs. Orlando
More than halfway into the season, RSL’s tenure as the team with the longest active playoff streak in the league is on thin ice in a tough Western Conference.
16. New England Revolution
RECORD: 6-8-6 | This week 0-3 at Dallas
The Revs are on a four-game losing streak and have dropped five of the last six, winning just once since May 2.
17. Philadelphia Union
RECORD: 5-10-4 | This week Off
The Union’s league travel schedule in July is very kind despite playing two of three on the road; the farthest they will venture is to Toronto on July 18.
18. Colorado Rapids
RECORD: 3-6-9 | This week 2-1 vs. Vancouver
In his seventh appearance and first full, 90-minute game, Kevin Doyle opened his MLS goalscoring account with a game-winning header early in the second half on Saturday.
19. Houston Dynamo
RECORD: 5-7-6 | This week 1-1 vs. Chicago
Houston gave up what coach Owen Coyle characterized as an easy goal on “a catalog of errors” to relinquish a late 1-0 lead against Chicago.
20. Chicago Fire
RECORD: 4-9-3 | This week 1-1 at Houston
Manager Frank Yallop has come under heavy criticism for Chicago’s results this year, and rumors of him being replaced have begun to circulate, although the club vociferously disputes reports that it is looking to replace him.