On July 28, 2016, MLS paused as its All-Stars took on Arsenal in San Jose. The regular season was 21 weeks old, and at the top, the standings looked pretty much the same as they do today; Dallas and Colorado as the top teams in the West, while New York rivals NYCFC and Red Bulls shared the top two places in the East. Look a little farther down the standings, though, and July 28 seems like a different world.
A lot has happened in the days since then, but Week 30 in MLS should be remembered as the moment where two clubs–D.C. United and Seattle Sounders–completed the flipping of scripts. With two wins apiece in the past seven days, both clubs rocketed up the standings into solid playoff positions. But back in late July, both teams could fairly have been considered to be in big trouble.
Seattle went into the All-Star break on the back of an embarrassing 3–0 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which it had registered a single shot. Seattle performed so badly in that game (and in the previous few before it) that Sigi Schmid was relieved of his duties as manager. The Sounders had 20 points from 20 games, the second-worst goal difference in the league (-7) and sat a full 10 points out of the final playoff spot, held by the Vancouver Whitecaps.
On the other coast, D.C. United sat in a similar spot. It had just lost 4–1 to Toronto FC, making it four games without a win. It had 22 points from 20 games, had scored the second-fewest goals in the league, and had already lost four games at home (at the time, second-most in MLS behind–you guessed it–the Seattle Sounders). D.C. sat eighth in the East, four points outside of a playoff spot.
An ugly picture, to be sure. Keep it there, while we fast forward to the present day.
Seattle is going into the last weeks of the regular season with two big wins against Chicago and at Vancouver. Brian Schmetzer, Sigi Schmid’s top assistant-turned interim head coach, has the team playing with commitment and energy, all of which was severely lacking in that 3–0 loss to Kansas City all those weeks ago. The Sounders have 44 points from 31 games, the eighth-best goal difference in the league, and now sit three points clear in the playoff places.
On the other coast, D.C. United sits in a similar spot. It has just won 3–0 against Columbus at 2–1 at Toronto FC, making it three straight victories. It has 43 points from 32 games, is tied for sixth-most goals in the league, and hasn’t lost a game at home since the All-Star break. It sits fifth in the East, four points clear of the non-playoff places.
Notice a difference? Once maligned, both teams are in a strong position not just to make the playoffs, but to make some noise once they get there. But while Seattle and D.C.’s parallel rises into playoff positions are similar in scale, the club’s journeys could hardly be more different.
For D.C., it was simply a matter of staying the course, and allowing newly acquired played to grow comfortable with each other and, in some cases, with the league itself. Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam were signed from NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls respectively just before the All-Star break. They now have 10 goals and five assists between them in less than half a season with the club. Talented Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta has found his footing after signing this summer, notching six of his team-leading 10 assists and two of his three goals on the year since the All-Star break.
While D.C.’s run was built on the addition of experience, Seattle’s remarkable run to a playoff spot can best be described as a grind through big subtractions. The club didn’t just rid itself of Schmid, its manager since the Sounders’ inaugural MLS season in 2009. It also lost the services of star forward Clint Dempsey due to a heart condition. With that, Jordan Morris became the focal point of the Seattle attack, and while he has responded with a couple good individual performances, others have stepped in to carry the load. Seattle’s three goals this week were scored by defender Chad Marshall, defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, and midfielder/utility man Brad Evans.
Other teams are paying the price. The MLS regular season is often criticized (fairly) for being too forgiving. But in 2016, Seattle and D.C.’s runs have actively punished teams that haven’t done enough earlier in the season.
In the East, Orlando City might have been able to recover from its recent struggles were it not for D.C. suddenly hogging the precious space in the standings above it. The New England Revolution’s 4-1-0 run in their last five might have been enough to push it into a playoff spot in previous seasons. D.C.’s sustained rise has kept them just outside the party.
Out West, Seattle’s run hasn’t just pushed out Portland (as covered in last week’s rankings). It has also applied considerable pressure to Sporting Kansas City, which has had its own struggles solidifying a position in the West.
Given all of that, it’s amazing to think of the payoff: A season extended by a single game. All of United’s work at integrating its newcomers, and all of Seattle’s grit and grind...it could all be for just 90 minutes more of soccer. Just like late July, the playoffs are a different world in MLS.
Offensive player of the week: Dominic Oduro, Montreal Impact
If it weren’t for the rise of D.C. and Seattle, the Impact would be the story of the week. Oduro is a big reason why, as his two goals and relentless energy brought new life to a team that seems to have stagnated over the last several games. Oduro scored an alert opener against San Jose midweek:
Then scored the only goal with a cool finish in Montreal’s all-important 1–0 win away at Orlando on Sunday:
Oduro is no stranger to this league, but it seems he always finds a way to make an impact for whichever team he happens to find himself on around this time of year.
Defensive player of the week: Evan Bush, Montreal Impact
That’s right, it’s a sweep for the Impact at the awards section of the Power Rankings, but not without reason. Bush can be a bit erratic, but the netminder made multiple huge saves in Montreal’s wins, including this 87th-minute PK stop against San Jose when the Impact were up 2–1.
He also preserved the shutout in Orlando thanks to saves like this:
1. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls blew a lead again. Then they got it back, and kept it. In the most exciting game of the weekend (and perhaps the regular season), the Red Bulls got a 3–2 win over the Philadelphia Union and now sit tied with rival NYCFC for first place in the East. The Red Bulls’ club-record unbeaten streak is now at 14 games. One more win or draw and the club will tie Colorado for the longest such streak of the season.
2. FC Dallas
Going three games without a win counts as a slump for this year’s Dallas team, which broke that run with a 1–0 win over the Galaxy on Saturday. Walker Zimmerman headed in the only goal off a set piece, proving again that Dallas can win with more than the fast-paced, stylish play they are known for.
3. Toronto FC
After a couple forgivable draws in a row, Toronto had a big chance this week to solidify a top-two spot in the East with two home games. Instead, the Reds fell flat on their face. Greg Vanney’s side failed to convert numerous chances in a 0–0 draw against Orlando on Wednesday, then repeated that and combined it with defensive lapses in a 2–1 loss to D.C. United. Once an outside threat for the Supporters’ Shield, Toronto is now set to miss out on a first-round playoff bye.
4. New York City FC
For the second consecutive week, NYCFC soundly defeated an opponent it would expect to beat. This week it was Houston, which has made a recent habit out of surprising playoff teams. David Villa was brilliant in Friday’s 2–0 win.
5. Colorado Rapids
The Rapids secured their spot in the playoffs, extended their latest unbeaten run for four games and maintained their unbeaten home record with a 1–0 win over Portland on Saturday. As always, Colorado didn’t wow anybody but was just effective enough to ground out a result. Because of that, games in hand and a forgiving schedule, the Rapids remain the team most likely to steal the Supporters’ Shield from league-leading FC Dallas.
6. Seattle Sounders
Two wins–one over Chicago on Wednesday and another on Sunday evening at Vancouver–gave the Sounders six points that may be as important as any other in the history of the club since it joined MLS in 2009. Bottom of the league at the All-Star break, the Sounders are surely heading to the playoffs now, and it looks like they’ll be a factor once they’re there.
7. D.C. United
All of a sudden, D.C. might be the most in-form team in the league. A midweek 3–0 demolition of Columbus was followed by a massive 2–1 win at Toronto FC, giving Ben Olsen’s side three straight wins and extending its unbeaten run to five games. Once battling for a playoff spot, United is now four points clear of the cutoff and looking like they’re rounding into form at exactly the right time.
8. LA Galaxy
Two weeks ago, the Galaxy had only lost four games all season. Now they’ve lost two in those two weeks, recording consecutive defeats for the first time all year. Thankfully for LA, Saturday’s 1–0 loss at FC Dallas doesn’t change much about the playoff situation thanks to Real Salt Lake’s loss to San Jose. But Bruce Arena will be wanting better form from his team so close to the postseason.
9. New England Revolution
Kelyn Rowe made his return to the Revolution lineup after last week’s absence due to illness, and put forth a solid effort in the Revs’ 3–1 home win over Sporting Kansas City. D.C. United’s recent run means that the Revs’ own late surge is slightly blunted, but going 4–1–0 in five games is still more than respectable. If they keep it up, they may have enough to catch up to D.C., or knock Philly out of that final spot.
10. Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake missed a chance to secure a playoff spot with its 2–1 loss at San Jose. With two games still to go, that may not seem like such a big deal. But look at who those two games are against: Sporting Kansas City and Seattle, both in the thick of a crowded Western Conference playoff race. RSL will likely still make it in, but it won’t be as comfortable as it should have been.
11. Philadelphia Union
Just a few weeks ago, the Union’s primary goal was securing a top-four spot in the East. Now one slip up in the season’s final weeks could see Philadelphia miss the playoffs entirely. Saturday’s 3–2 loss at the New York Red Bulls makes it five games without a win for the Union, which now occupy the East’s final playoff spot and have just a three-point cushion in that position. Philly’s had a better-than-expected season, but the season’s final months could undo all of that good work.
12. Montreal Impact
What, exactly are we supposed to make of Montreal? The Impact were thisclose to going all of September without a win, but the insertion of Dominic Oduro into the starting lineup (and associated removal of Didier Drogba) paid dividends. Oduro scored in the Impact’s midweek 3–1 win over San Jose, and got the only goal in another win, 1–0 at Orlando.
13. Portland Timbers
The Timbers now have one final chance to get a win away from home in MLS this season, as the team fell 1–0 to the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. What makes this away loss more confounding than most is that the Timbers won away earlier in the week, getting a 2–1 decision over Salvadorian side CD Dragón in the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday. The defending MLS champs will most likely need to win both of their remaining two games in order to have a shot at a playoff spot.
14. Sporting Kansas City
Manager Peter Vermes altered his usual 4–3–3 system dramatically on Saturday, but the adjustments ended up hurting his team as the New England Revolution got a 3–1 win at home. SKC looked disjointed on both sides of the ball for much of the match. Now SKC joins Portland and Seattle in the fight for the final playoff spot out West.
15. Columbus Crew SC
If nothing else, Crew SC struck a balance this week. The club lost 3–0 to D.C. United on Wednesday, but followed that up with a 3–0 win against Chicago on Saturday. That Columbus won without needing a goal from red-hot Ola Kamara is a positive, but the team is still on the outside looking in on the East playoff race thanks to D.C.’s rise.
16. San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes extended their winless run to seven games with a 3–1 loss to Montreal midweek, then brought that streak to an end with a surprising 2–1 victory over Real Salt Lake. The Earthquakes aren’t mathematically out of the playoff race yet, but they’re certainly not far off.
17. Houston Dynamo
The Dynamo’s recent good run came to a close with a 2–0 loss to NYCFC on Friday night. With no chance at the playoffs, the Dynamo players will now have four games against tough teams (Colorado twice, Seattle, and Los Angeles) to prove that they belong on next year’s roster.
18. Chicago Fire
Chicago lost twice this week, but Wednesday’s 1–0 result at Seattle gave boss Veljko Paunovic more positive signs than Saturday’s 3–0 capitulation to Columbus. The Fire have been in “wait 'til next year” mode for some time now (something which could be said about any of their most recent seasons, really).
19. Vancouver Whitecaps
A hugely disappointing season was confirmed as such for the Whitecaps on Sunday, as a 2–1 loss to Seattle confirmed that the club will miss out on the playoffs this year. A lack of goals doomed the Whitecaps on Sunday as it has all season, with Pedro Morales scoring on a PK and then promptly getting sent off for a silly elbow to the face of Cristian Roldan.
20. Orlando City SC
The Lions’ 4–1 win over Montreal gave them playoff hope five games ago, but a 1–0 home loss to the Impact on Sunday officially brought those hopes to an end. This was another confounding week for Orlando, which showed no urgency whatsoever in a 0–0 draw at Toronto on Wednesday, then couldn’t finish numerous chances at the weekend. Jason Kreis will have a lot of work to do this offseason.