Between the comeback of the season in Kansas City, an extremely late win in Utah and Sean Johnson's heroics in Philadelphia, the 24th week of Major League Soccer season wasn’t short on drama. After the dust settled, just six points separated the top seven teams in the chase for the Supporters’ Shield.
The week started with a surprise 3-1 victory for New York City FC over Eastern Conference-leading D.C. United. Across the river in New Jersey, the New York Red Bulls have lost just once in nine games, and they dominated Toronto FC for a 3-0 win on Saturday.
D.C. didn’t lose its place atop the Supporters' Shield standings despite its result, a late Vancouver Whitecaps collapse at Sporting Kansas City on Saturday killing the Canadians’ chances to overtake United in the overall table. Not to be outdone in testing fans’ stress levels, Nat Borchers scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time in his return to Rio Tinto Stadium to lift the Portland Timbers to their own late win.
Here are a few thoughts on the latest set of Major League Soccer games:
Sporting KC's comeback of the year
Saturday’s match between Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver started as the Whitecaps have begun many recent games: early domination and a 2-0 lead at halftime. Even when Kevin Ellis pulled one back early in the second, Pedro Morales seemingly sealed it with another sublime free kick with a quarter-hour left.
But that’s when Sporting KC started to get serious. Three goals in the last 10 minutes of play, including the winning goal from Paulo Nagamura deep into stoppage time (his second late tally of the game, which equaled his full output from last season–he's only scored more than two goals in a season in one other year), completed the most impressive comeback of the 2015 season.
Sporting KC has lost just four times all year, and with the mental strength it showed in that epic late revival at home, the team doesn’t seem to be slowing down. SKC, which will be favored to top the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup final, has multiple games in hand on every team ahead of it in the league table and very little ground to make up to win its second Supporters’ Shield title—an event that is looking quite likely.
Coincidence? Martins returns, Sounders roll
Exactly two months after he last played, Obafemi Martins jumped straight into the starting lineup for the Seattle Sounders in a 4-0 win over Orlando. He scored a dazzling goal in the 17th minute, missed a penalty in the 30th and scored again with a little chip-pass to himself over the goalkeeper before departing in the second half.
Besides Martins’ return, the Sounders also started newcomers Nelson Valdez as his forward partner and Román Torres at center back, with both looking comfortable right away in rave green. Valdez’s interplay with Martins caused multiple problems for Orlando’s back line, and he bagged a goal of his own in the second half of his debut with a difficult header.
All in all, the Sounders looked closer to their early season form than they have since embarking on their slide down the standings in late June. Add in Clint Dempsey when he returns from his latest injury, and Seattle’s attack once again becomes one of the formidable in the league if it can maintain this newly created momentum—and if coach Sigi Schmid can sort out his latest selection headache.
“Welcome to the last 10 games of the season,” Schmid said in his opening comments after the match. “Hopefully, it will be more like the first 10 games of the season.”
Seattle went 6-3-1 in that stretch but had been 4-9-1 until Sunday's rout.
Erratic NYCFC still alive and kicking
Despite winning just once in its first 13 matches, NYCFC pulled within one point of the playoff places with its 3-1 win over D.C. United on Thursday. It was the first time NYCFC reversed a halftime deficit to win in 12 attempts and a match that coach Jason Kreis rightly said could be a “season-changer.”
The result, as well as NYCFC’s newfound hope, reinforced the forgiving nature of MLS’s schedule and the importance of simply remaining within range of the magical red line separating the top six in the standings from the rest.
Now, Kreis’ team has 10 games remaining to close the gap on Orlando City SC and the Montreal Impact directly in front. The two expansion teams have similar records despite their different fortunes at the start of the year, and they’ll meet in the penultimate match of the season, Oct. 16 in Florida, to potentially decide that final postseason participant in the Eastern Conference.
Red Bulls continue impressive transformation
That Red Bulls town hall meeting in the offseason feels like a long time ago. Since being appointed manager in tumultuous circumstances, Jesse Marsch has transformed the team into one of the most astute sides in the league.
Between a high-pressure defensive system and ruthless finishing from Bradley Wright-Phillips in attack, the Red Bulls have never looked more dangerous in the past few seasons, including when they won the Supporters’ Shield in 2013.
This incarnation of the team is much more well-rounded and dangerous, and credit has to go to Ali Curtis’ vision, with an assist to Red Bull itself.
The MLS version of the team plays like a watered-down version of its Salzburg and Leipzig counterparts in Europe, both of which are under far fewer restrictions in terms of league roster rules on player movement. It’s not that the franchise wasn’t an effective MLS competitor before, but it has gone to another level since shifting gears and favoring younger talent to the high-priced, over-the-hill players of years past.
Week 24 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS: Nat Borchers (Portland Timbers), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Omar González (LA Galaxy)
MIDFIELDERS: Kekuta Manneh (Vancouver Whitecaps), Paulo Nagamura (Sporting Kansas City), Kwadwo Poku (New York City FC), Cristian Maidana (Philadelphia Union)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Kennedy Igboananike (Chicago Fire), Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)
1. Los Angeles Galaxy
RECORD: 12-7-7 | This week 2-1 at Dallas
Two Robbie Keane goals in a five-minute span reversed a 1-0 deficit and shot the Galaxy to shoot to the top of the Western Conference and within a point of the league lead.
2. Sporting Kansas City
RECORD: 11-4-7 | This week 4-3 vs. Vancouver
Paulo Nagamura scored twice, and Sporting Kansas City put away three in the last 10 minutes to pull back a victory with an epic comeback after being down 2-0 and 3-1 at home against the Whitecaps.
3. Vancouver Whitecaps
RECORD: 13-9-3 | This week 3-4 at Kansas City
Despite coach Carl Robinson’s complaints about the officiating, it’s hard to blame anybody but the Whitecaps for relinquishing two two-goal leads against SKC on Saturday.
4. D.C. United
RECORD: 13-8-5 | This week 1-3 at NYCFC
United’s three-game winning streak surprisingly ended with a visit to Yankee Stadium, where D.C. couldn’t hold onto a first-half lead and conceded twice in the last 10 minutes. Making matters worse, fullback Chris Korb is done for the season with a torn ACL.
5. Portland Timbers
RECORD: 11-8-6 | This week 1-0 at Real Salt Lake
The Timbers probably wouldn’t have complained about a point on the road, especially after being thoroughly outplayed, but they got all three when Nat Borchers put in a header against his old team in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
6. New York Red Bulls
RECORD: 11-6-6 | This week 3-0 vs. Toronto
The Red Bulls turned in a dominant performance against TFC, controlling every aspect of play for 90 minutes with its defensive pressure and effectiveness in possession.
7. FC Dallas
RECORD: 11-7-5 | This week 1-2 vs. LA
Michael Barrios scored his fourth goal in the last six games, but Dallas couldn’t hold onto a 1-0 lead and ended up conceding twice in the second half against LA.
8. New England Revolution
RECORD: 9-9-7 | This week 2-0 vs. Houston
It took almost four and a half hours after kickoff, thanks to a lengthy lightning delay, but the Revs scored the winning goal on José Gonçalves’ strike against Houston right around midnight Saturday night. Juan Agudelo finished off a superb effort from Lee Nguyen to cap the scoring.
9. Columbus Crew
RECORD: 9-8-7 | This week Off
When Columbus returns to league play, it will take on NYCFC twice in 10 days in a great chance to earn some vital points with a tougher match against Kansas City sandwiched in between.
10. Montreal Impact
RECORD: 8-9-4 | This week Off
The Impact hosted Vancouver in a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the Canadian Championship in midweek before taking the weekend off from league play. Might Didier Drogba make his MLS debut vs. Philadelphia this weekend?
11. Toronto FC
RECORD: 9-10-4 | This week 0-3 at Red Bulls
None of Toronto’s big names made a major impact against the Red Bulls, exposing a defense that relies on those ahead of it to play well to have a chance at victory.
12. New York City FC
RECORD: 7-11-6 | This week 3-1 vs. D.C.
Twelve times NYCFC has gone into halftime behind a goal or more, and finally, the team showed the mental fortitude to pull out a win and potentially kickstart a run to the playoffs.
13. Seattle Sounders
RECORD: 11-12-2 | This week 4-0 vs. Orlando City
Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez combined for all but one of their team’s four goals in their first outing together, and Román Torres helped the Sounders to a shutout in his debut as well, leaving Seattle once again optimistic.
14. Orlando City SC
RECORD: 7-11-7 | This week 0-4 at Seattle
Second-year pro Tyler Turner, 19, looked out of depth on Sunday in Seattle, picking up two silly yellow cards in the first half and dooming the Lions to a heavy loss to the Sounders.
15. Houston Dynamo
RECORD: 8-9-7 | This week 0-2 at New England
From the start in New England, the Dynamo seemed more interested in kicking opposing players than scoring goals, finishing with 16 fouls but just one shot on target in a 2-0 loss.
16. San Jose Earthquakes
RECORD: 8-10-5 | This week 1-0 vs. Colorado
For the first time in seven games, San Jose came out a winner after a Clarence Goodson goal in a dour game between two playoff outsiders against the Rapids.
17. Real Salt Lake
RECORD: 7-10-8 | This week 0-1 vs. Portland
RSL hardly seems able to win in any circumstance this season, even after dominant performances such as they put in against Portland on Saturday before losing on a header by a former teammate.
18. Colorado Rapids
RECORD: 5-9-9 | This week 0-1 at San Jose
With three losses in a row, the three-game winning streak Colorado enjoyed in July is immediately eradicated, and the situation in Denver—still at the foot of the conference table—looks as dire as ever.
19. Philadelphia Union
RECORD: 6-13-6 | This week 3-3 vs. Chicago
The Union defeated Chicago in midweek in the Open Cup but couldn’t repeat the feat at home again, conceding an equalizer in stoppage time after scoring what looked like the winner in the 90th minute.
20. Chicago Fire
RECORD: 6-12-5 | This week 3-3 at Philadelphia
Chicago hasn’t won on the road in over a year after a 3-3 draw in Philadelphia on Sunday, going to 0-16-5 since a 1-0 victory in New England last July. Sean Johnson's eight saves–most of them spectacular–helped ensure a draw at the very least.