MLS Week 14/15: Real Judgments at a Fake Break

Photo Credit: Stephanie Romero

As any breathing, thinking fan of Major League Soccer knows, the league is taking a break until June 22nd – U.S. Open Cup action excepted, something that matters more to some teams than, um, others (a-hem, FC Cincinnati). With those two weeks off and 15 games behind every team in MLS except the Houston Dynamo, New York City FC, and my Portland Timbers, this seems like as good a time as any to step back and assess where every team in the league stands going into the brief hiatus.

I started the process over on my home site, Conifers & Citrus, with the latest Form Guide ULTRA. Related thereto, I’ve added “strength of schedule” data to the mix, something that proved enlightening for teams like the Chicago Fire, Minnesota United FC, Real Salt Lake, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Colorado Rapids and the New England Revolution. To get right into it, there’s a curious/fun divide between all those teams – and it’s one that gets to why I obsess about results so much. As much as both Colorado and the Revs deserve credit for turning around, frankly, abysmal seasons, both teams benefitted by playing against teams going through their own sh*t – and that applies to Colorado more than it does New England (see their last game, especially). As for the other four teams, they’ve all struggled recently, and mightily. They’ve also run through a gauntlet of tough games, something that could 1) explain their mid-season woes while also, 2) providing some context for seemingly inexplicable surges later in the 2019 season.

Before moving on to the general, and to make anyone who needs to feel better, FC Cincinnati has played a tough schedule recently – by my count, they’ve played five of their last 10 games against teams that I rated as “contenders” in the Form Guide ULTRA. In other words, while it’s both easy and reasonable to feel down about FC Cincy’s chances this season, there’s a plausible case to be made that they went through the worst of it over these past 10 weeks. Having just looked ahead, that could actually hold up. “Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face…” (Sing along if you know the words!)

That’s enough for local interests; how’s everyone else doing? With the hurly-burly of regular results going quiet for a while, let’s take a look – something I’m doing by staring at the standings and all the work that went into the Form Guide ULTRA.

The first thing that stands out is the distinct possibility that the teams now in positions 2 & 3 in the East, and the teams between 2-7 in the West might not be in those same spots when the playoffs start. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Toronto FC slide deeper into oblivion based on current form, and major questions loom over teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders, Houston, Sporting Kansas City and, yes, the Timbers. Overall, I’d call only the top of the Western Conference and the bottom of the Eastern Conference the known quantities in the MLS right now. Everything else feels like a million moving parts, and with even more variables in play. Mind you, that’s not the same thing as saying it’s all random, because it’s not. There are very real trends in play surrounding every single team listed above, as well as all the rest, and I’m going to spend the rest of this post teasing out the 10 biggest stories from around MLS, as I see them.

1) LAFC and Atlanta Are On a Collision Course, Yes?
If there’s one undisputed reality in MLS this season, it’s that LAFC is running away with the league and rushing toward one or more titles. They’ve developed a system that pins even the best teams in the league against the ropes and pummels them into giving up one or more goals (with some exceptions). Underneath all of LAFC’s noise, Atlanta United FC has managed to tie them on points (21, all ‘round, along with Philly) over the past 10 games. The trick is that Atlanta has built their success around the league’s stingiest defense – just 11 goals allowed over just 15 games. (I say just twice because 15 teams of the 24 in the league have now played 16 games). While it’s impossible to argue (as I did in the Form Guide ULTRA) that Atlanta’s attack has “come online,” there’s something appealing about the best attack in the MLS squaring off against its best defense. Fortunately, we’ll get a preview on July 26. Here’s to hoping that’s not the only time they meet this season…unless the Timbers get a shot at it, because I’m totally down with that. Speaking of…

2) False Signals Dialed to Eleven
The Dynamo sit at fourth place in the West, just four points off the Galaxy in the pack that LAFC continues to leave behind. The Timbers, meanwhile, sit stalled at the bottom of the conference, four points below the playoff line and, to note it, 10 points behind Houston. The most obvious difference between them comes with the number of games played at home – nine out of 13 for Houston versus 12 on the road for Portland, plus one bear of a game (against LAFC) at home. No one knows what happens with either team going forward, but Houston’s 1-3-0 road record seems every bit as suggestive as the 13 points from 18 available that Portland picked up over the last six games of its road trip. On a deeper level, the Timbers splurged on a striker who certainly looks real (Brian Fernandez) and, until LAFC kicked their asses, they had a solidly functioning defensive scheme. This is just one signal as to why the West feels more open than the East. Of further note, both Houston and Portland play three games between June 22 and the end of the same month (just…why?), and with travel involved in both cases – more for Houston than Portland, for the record. And that’s something else to watch.

3) The Post-Chad Marshall Era
Related, the Sounders currently occupy third place in the West, but recent results (2-4-4 in their last 10 games) makes it seem really unlikely that they’ll stay there. Seattle has been reliably terrifying since joining MLS, and they’ve had this habit of starting slow before grinding down all comers on their way to MLS Cup – or at least that’s what happened in 2016 and 2017, when Seattle reached the MLS Cup and won it once. If you look at the standings for every season between 2015 and now, you’ll see a team that never scored a ton of goals, and that’s kind of the point. Seattle’s success came from keeping other teams to zero goals scored and knocking in one or two of their own. When they can’t do that – see their last three games – they’re pretty damn helpless. They signed a guy – Xavier Arreaga – and he’s going to go a long way to determining how far they go this season. That said, the Chad Marshall Effect died this season. And that’s a big deal.

4) Average in Every Way
FC Dallas went into the break with a 6-6-4 record, 22 goals scored and 22 allowed. If that doesn’t make them the most average team in MLS, that’s awfully damn close. Once you get into the details, you see a team that is neither great at home (4-1-3) nor useful on the road (2-5-1), and that makes them something of a litmus test for the league at large. They are the Kung Pao Chicken of MLS, the team you measure against as a mean – e.g., solid, but capable of neither absolute failure nor greatness. If I had to name an Eastern Conference equivalent – and this is a stretch – I’d go with the Chicago Fire. Speaking of…

5) The Struggle Is Real…
As with Cincinnati, it only became apparent that Chicago, Vancouver and RSL played through tough schedules when I went through the whole business of sorting out strength of schedule. RSL definitely had it easier than the other two – both of whom faced four teams I ranked as Contenders four times over their past 10 games, while RSL picked up only three. That gets to the curious telling thing about all this: Chicago picked up two points from 12 while Vancouver got five points from 12. That feels like a pretty sound barometer in the here and now with all three teams. There’s another level too…

6) Olde Tyme Wrassling
Around the turn of the century, really winning a fight meant taking an eye out of the other guy’s head. I think RSL falls into that camp, right alongside Orlando City SC and the San Jose Earthquakes. I don’t think any of those three teams will challenge for the title this year or the next (or, frankly, the one after that), but all three of them have players that will fight you whistle to whistle. Better still, each of them have something – whether it’s Chris Wondolowski, Nani (anywhere but the penalty spot), or Jefferson Savarino – that can turn a game on a dime. They’re also good enough – all of them – to straddle the playoff line all season long, and that means the path to the Promised Land goes through them. You do, in fact, have to be better than they are to make it.

7) A Dark Horse
When you look at New York City FC, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed; after all, they have more draws than wins and losses combined, and with two games to burn. And that has to matter at some point…right? They’re also kind of a weird team because they’re doing fine. I mean, they just picked up 8 points of 12 from a four-game road-trip, and things only look better when you expand the sample size to their last eight games. I had the opportunity to watch them absolutely dissect the worst team in MLS last weekend (Cincinnati), and that’s kind of the point: a good team that knows what it’s doing does that kind of thing, they go on this type of run. Watch NYCFC.

8) Even a Horse Needs a Spine
I count Sporting Kansas City’s bout of turning sickness as one of the biggest shocks of the 2019 season. By the few accounts I read, the assumption was they had talent and depth to spare. As it happens, they are bad – as in they have as many wins as FC Cincy, which should drive the point home nicely. SKC got worse when they lost Roger Espinoza, but they only became hopeless when Matt Besler went down. At the same time, that’s the deeper story of this team: neither of those players will be around forever, so what’s next? Outside of that, SKC has so much talent (Johnny Russell) and promise (Gianluco Busio) to make things feel good, but, barring a major turn-around this looks like a lost season for, frankly, an amazing set of players.

9) A Normal Man Sleeping
The lowliest category I have for any team in MLS in the Form Guide ULTRA is road-kill. Toronto FC have played themselves into the outhouse by the simple act of going 2-5-3 over their past 10 games. In other words, this team has to grow a litle before I call it a sleeping giant. And, as a reminder, all this happened with a pretty slick DP coming into the team (Alejandro Pozuelo), and with most of TFC’s key players on the field. Given their last…seven results (0-4-3), and given that they’ve played…really average teams over their last five games – vs DC, @ RSL, vs SJ, @ VAN, vs SKC – and to get only three points out of that run? You’re no longer a contender.

10) A Touchy Subject
It took some serious investigation to get the full measure of Colorado’s and New England’s turn-around since they fired Anthony Hudson (right?) and Brad Freidel, respectively. While I down-graded both teams from an “M+” to an “M-“ in the Form Guide ULTRA, I’d argue that Colorado picked up the easier points over the past five-six weeks. At the same time, both of those teams chucked their coaches around the same time FC Cincinnati and, factually, both of those teams have done wildly better since then, while FC Cincy has…done something different. And that should make you think, FC Cincy fans. Not in the sense of what could have been stopped in the here and now, but in terms of what to watch for as a “Danger, Will Robinson” moment in the future. All the same, I have never seen a coaching/team mismatch quite a manifest as Friedel’s meltdown with New England. I wouldn’t hire that guy to coach my kid’s team, and she doesn’t even play soccer.

And that’s it. I mean, that’s literally it. This will be the last MLS Weekly for Orange & Blue Press, unless they get someone else to do it – and I hope they do. I wish I could keep posting here, but, god’s honest truth, I only want to spend so much time on soccer every week, and this added too much weight. If you want to write for them and they let you, they’re good people to work with.

After that, I wish FC Cincinnati and their fans all the best. If I had to guess, the next few seasons will be…well, fucking miserable. I mean, like Minnesota and Orlando, but also maybe worse, so brace yourselves. As for me, I’m going to follow and love the team all the same. If it’s any consolation, I think every team should suck for a while, aka, they should put their fans through seasons of dismay and torment (for those who choose the latter), if only to make the sun shine brighter when it does. It makes the ultimate victory, whatever form it takes– MLS Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, or (yes, The Holy Grail) The Supporters’ Shield – feel better, and more real and earned. Goddammit.

And, to wrap this up fully, thank you to Michael Walker, Geoff Tebbetts, Stephen Buckeridge, and Connor Paquette, and I wish I had more time with some others. It was fun posting here, but I also have one hell of a time saying no to things. Cheers.

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