Much earlier this season, I wrote in this space about how MLS scheduling does the league a tremendous disservice every time an international weekend comes around. All around the world, teams are allowed to take a rest while their best players travel for international games. In MLS, not so. This creates an uncomfortable paradox for the league: On international weekends, the teams with the best players are punished for having those same players the league pushes so hard for the teams to get or develop in the first place.
Week 26 in MLS should be remembered as a particularly good example of this problem. Yes, international absences robbed some teams of their best players. But in addition to that, some teams weren’t affected at all by the international break because they, by a quirk of scheduling, had the weekend off.
In all, only 12 of the league’s 20 teams were in action in Week 26, meaning that some (like, for example, Toronto FC) were able to deal with the international break in the same way that clubs around the world do: By not playing, resting up, and hoping their internationals don’t come back with a case of the FIFA flu.
For the other clubs, this week showed a multitude of ways how big absences can affect a performance. Or, in some cases, how it might not affect the performance at all.
New York City FC’s play in a comeback win over D.C. United was a good example of the latter. So many MLS teams seek Designated Player signings that sit right in the “sweet spot” between prime age (under 30), quality play, and a lack of an international future/conflict (Portland’s Diego Valeri is a good example). NYCFC’s own recruitment policy isn’t so different–it has just removed the age requirement. The result is three older DPs in David Villa (34), Andrea Pirlo (37), and Frank Lampard (38) that were all around to help the club get a comeback win over D.C. United, which replaced U.S. international center back Steve Birnbaum with the untested 20-year-old Jalen Robinson to mixed results.
In New England, Kei Kamara’s absence for Sierra Leone duty removed a big piece of the Revs’ regular lineup, but instead of letting that get them down the team used that as an opportunity to try something a little different. Playing with two up top (one of which was regular midfielder Lee Nguyen), the reeling Revs looked better than they have in a while in a 2-0 win over Colorado, which missed goalkeeper–and Tuesday's U.S. starter–Tim Howard.
The Union, playing without two vital parts of their spine (goalkeeper Andre Blake and central midfielder Alejandro Bedoya), looked spineless in a 3-0 loss to Chicago. Reigning MLS Cup champion Portland played without its reliable force in central midfield (Darlington Nagbe), and looked disjointed in a loss to Dallas.
And as for FC Dallas...well, it proved immune to the international break challenge. Despite missing five players (including four that could be considered regular contributors), the league leader looked every bit the team it has been all season, extending its lead in the race for the Supporters' Shield.
Offensive player of the week: Frank Lampard, NYCFC
Good luck finding anybody willing to argue that Frank Lampard is MLS’ worst-ever signing now. The Englishman scored on both of his efforts on goal, and they came in classic Lampardian fashion: scrappy, well-timed, and finished with deft technique. The fact that Lampard scored both goals, including this stoppage-time winner on “Frank Lampard Day” will only increase his legend at Yankee Stadium.
Luckily for Lampard he didn’t punctuate it with a painful slip during the celebration.
Honorable mention: The LA Galaxy’s Baggio Husidic, just for this ridiculous goal against Columbus:
Defensive player of the week: Walker Zimmerman, FC Dallas
Zimmerman was a rock in the back next to the perpetually underrated Matt Hedges, and he punctuated his performance with a towering header off a set piece in the club's win over Portland
Yes, this was a Timbers team missing Nagbe, but they still had Valeri, Fanendo Adi, and Lucas Melano on the field. It's not an easy team to play, and Zimmerman was constantly in the right place at the right time to frustrate the visitors and maintain Dallas’ unbeaten home record.
1. FC Dallas
FC Dallas’s strength has always been its incredible depth, and that was on full display with yet another sterling performance. Dallas was missing five players to international duty on Saturday but didn’t look even remotely affected as it dominated the defending champion Portland 3-1, a win that gives the club a tremendous edge in the Supporters' Shield chase.
2. New York Red Bulls
Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls’ all-time leading goal scorer, added another tally to his total in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The win is only the Red Bulls' second on the road this season, and it extends the team’s unbeaten run to 10, doing so without U.S. call-up Sacha Kljestan. Dax McCarty made his first start since missing all of August with an injury, and he’s returning to a team that’s firing on all cylinders.
3. Toronto FC
Toronto didn’t have to worry about Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley being away for international duty (or Sebastian Giovinco's injury) this week, as it had a bye. Greg Vanney’s side returns to action on Saturday when it travels to face the Chicago Fire. TFC drops a spot in these rankings thanks to the Red Bulls’ scorching form.
4. New York City FC
NYCFC had trouble holding on to leads late earlier this season, and it looked like that problem had come up again when D.C. United netted a stoppage time equalizer on Thursday. However, this NYCFC team has an in-form Frank Lampard, and his winner at the death may be his single best moment in an NYCFC shirt so far.
5. LA Galaxy
The Galaxy didn’t play their best soccer, but Bruce Arena won’t care too much as his side stopped a six-game winless slide to deliver him his 200th victory in his legendary MLS coaching career. Baggio Husidic’s ridiculous strike from outside sealed a 2-1 win over Columbus, solidifying LA’s playoff position.
6. Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake was off, so it'll have to wait for Wednesday’s big game against the Galaxy to see if it can build a three-match winning streak.
7. Colorado Rapids
Playing without U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, the Rapids lost much of the defensive solidity that made them one of the league’s best teams in a 2-0 loss at New England. The Rapids have now lost consecutive games for the first time all season, which could be a sign that the team peaked too early in the season. Colorado hasn’t won in four games and hasn’t been connecting on the attacking end, a longstanding issue that is beginning to become relevant.
8. Philadelphia Union
Missing Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya meant that the Union had to play in Chicago without two of its leaders, and it showed in a 3-0 loss at the Chicago Fire. John McCarthy played reasonably well in Blake’s stead, but Bedoya’s influence was clearly missed in the center of the park as the Union never really had a grip on the game.
9. Seattle Sounders
Newly signed sensation Nicolas Lodeiro couldn’t help Uruguay in a loss to Argentina, but at least he won’t miss a Sounders match for his troubles. Seattle was off this weekend, and Lodeiro should be back for the team’s Saturday match at San Jose.
10. D.C. United
D.C. had its six-game unbeaten run snapped in heartbreaking fashion as Lampard canceled out Lamar Neagle’s stoppage-time equalizer to hand United a 3-2 loss. This one will sting, especially since one of NYCFC’s goals came thanks to a bad, easily preventable back pass from Luke Mishu that allowed David Villa to score easily.
11. Montreal Impact
Montreal had a bye this week, but jumps right back into action on Wednesday when it hosts Orlando City. The team should get Ambroise Oyongo, away with Cameroon this weekend, back for the contest, but Costa Rican Johan Venegas will likely miss the match with his national team playing on Tuesday.
12. Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC had played more games than anyone else in the league going into this weekend, so it makes sense that it was due for a bye. This week it'll face the Houston Dynamo on Friday night in a game where Matt Besler and Graham Zusi may not be fully available, depending on their status following the U.S.’s game on Tuesday (and Besler's return home to be with his wife after the birth of their first child).
13. Portland Timbers
Portland struggled mightily with no Darlington Nagbe to spearhead the attack, and fell to a 3-1 loss at FC Dallas. This is the latest bad result in what can only be considered a disappointing and inconsistent season for the defending champs so far. The Timbers have now gone through all of August and half of July without stringing two positive results together consecutively.
14. Orlando City SC
Orlando had off this weekend but get right back to business on Wednesday when the Lions travel to Montreal to take on the Impact. They then travel to Los Angeles for the first time on Sunday to play the Galaxy.
15. San Jose Earthquakes
A team stocked with all sorts of CONCACAF talent would have been without all of it had they played this weekend...but it didn’t. Instead, the Quakes will welcome back a whopping seven players (all from CONCACAF nations) for their game this Saturday against Seattle.
16. Chicago Fire
The Fire’s trade for Luis Solignac was an under-the-radar move in early August that is starting to pay off in a big way. The Argentine may not have scored in the Fire’s 3-0 win over Philadelphia, but his style clearly fit perfectly alongside Dutch midseason addition Michael De Leeuw. The Fire’s playoff chances are still fairly slim, but the team is showing real improvement in the closing stages of the season.
17. Columbus Crew SC
Columbus controlled much of its game against the Galaxy but couldn’t make its chances count in a 2-1 loss. It’s a disappointing result for a team that has been playing better recently but desperately needs points to force its way into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
18. Houston Dynamo
Houston had this weekend off, but even if it had played and won it'd still be at the bottom of the Western Conference. The playoffs are almost certainly out of the question for Houston now, so the focus will be on improving performances. This week, that test will come on Friday at Sporting Kansas City.
19. New England Revolution
With Kei Kamara away on international duty with Sierra Leone, the Revs tweaked their lineup and reaped dividends with a 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids. Juan Agudelo scored the opener, Chris Tierney added a second, and Lee Nguyen was clever and dangerous all evening playing next to Agudelo up top. Job well done, but the Revs need more performances like this to get back in the playoff hunt.
20. Vancouver Whitecaps
Erik Hurtado had plenty of chances to be the goalscorer the Whitecaps have so desperately craved this season, but he missed every single one of them as Vancouver fell 1-0 to the Red Bulls at home. The Whitecaps put zero shots on target in this contest, the latest in a string of disappointing outings. Vancouver hasn’t won since July 13th. That’s a long time.