Major League Soccer – Early Season Review
Wayne Rooney has had a long storied career joining the Everton youth club at the age of nine and making his professional debut with them in 2002 at the age of 16. He played for two seasons before moving to Manchester United where he had a long and heralded career before returning to Everton for this season. Along the way he became the youngest player to ever play for the full English National Team (a record since broken) but he still is the youngest player to ever score a goal for the England side. Wait, say what? I thought this was an article about the MLS?
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Well it is. With a couple of teams having played 11 matches already this season (seems like it just started last week) the regular season is almost one third over. So plenty has transpired to be able to make some observations of what’s happening around the league. And there is no place better to start than with DC United. Stories have been surfacing the last couple of days that Wayne Rooney may be leaving the EPL at the end of the season (this Sunday) and cross the pond to play in the MLS. By most accounts it appears that Rooney has asked Everton for his release and his agent has already been working with DC United and a framework agreement has been reached. Still could fall apart but it seems like its going to happen. Everton is making a strong youth push and Rooney doesn’t figure to be part of that. And DC United finds itself at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and is having trouble scoring goals. While Rooney may be 32 he still was Everton’s leading goal scorer.
If this happens Rooney would join a pretty good list of well known international players who have moved to the MLS over the last several years. Critics may say that they are players who no longer competitive at the international level or for playing in the top European Leagues. And my response is so what! They are still highly capable and entertaining players and who wouldn’t like to have a Rooney, Ashley Cole, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Gio dos Santos, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing on their favorite club.
So lets take a look around the league and see how the early season has transpired. Back in February I looked over the results from last season and the moves each club made over the winter and made some general predictions on how things looked for 2018.
Atlanta United FC – Coming off a season where they made the playoffs in their first year and led the league in attendance, the bar is set pretty high for 2018. And they continue to roll. In fact at this juncture they find themselves atop the Eastern Conference and tied for the league lead in goal differential. So far the Five Stripes have been garnering over a half point more per match than they did last season. That bodes well for their 2018 campaign. And their fans are liking it. They have averaged just over 50,000 fans per home match. As a comparison that is almost 4,000 fans more than the highest ML team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Chicago Fire – Back in February I believed that “Chicago should be on the cut line for making the playoffs or not.” And that is currently right where they sit. The find themselves in seventh place (the top six make the playoffs) three points behind the New England Revolution. And as expected with a middle of the pack team their goal differential sits at minus one. Still plenty of room for improvement to slide into the playoffs. From the looks of things I suspect them to sit right around the cusp all season. On the bright side, the Fire defeated the Montreal Impact on Wednesday shutting them out. To date the Impact are tied for the league lead in goals scored with 23 of which 14 of those have been scored or assisted by Nacho Piatti. Prior to the match Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic assigned rookie midfielder Mo Adams the sole duty of man marking Piatti. Its very rare in soccer anymore to see a player given a singular man marking assignment but it worked like magic on this night. Adams is a player to keep an eye on.
Colorado Rapids – Back in February the prediction was to “expect a finish near the bottom of the Western Conference.” Well they currently sit tied for next to last place. However, their are only five points separating third and eleventh place so there is room to make a move. And their minus one goal differential is not bad for a team so far down the table. Their biggest issue is playing on the road where they are woeful having only managed a single draw in four matches. If they can improve on the road and maintain their home toughness they could creep up the standings.
Columbus Crew SC – The story line heading into the season was that “Columbus will likely be relying on an intact defense and Zack Steffen in the nets. Steffen was a human highlight during the playoffs and more of that will take the Crew further than they might otherwise go.” Well so far thats what we are seeing. The Crew currently sit in fourth place although they have played more games than any other team. But they have been very good defensively having the second best goals allowed per game average in the league. And yes Steffen is once again doing his thing in the nets. This shows his incredible positioning and anticipation.
D.C. United – “The best news for United fans for 2018 could be that they will be playing in their new stadium”. That pretty well sums it up so far. The sit in last place in the conference having earned a mere five points in seven matches. Now to be fair, they were handed a really lousy schedule. They have only had two home matches so far so where they gained a win and a draw. And as in the start of the article they may have a true soccer icon joining them soon. I don’t think Rooney would be enough to get the team playoff bound but he will bring in fans and enthusiasm so who knows how far that will carry the team? In any event they need something to boos their attendance which has dropped 50% from last season.
FC Dallas – From the preseason “the good news is that they have too much talent to falter like that again. Expect them to make the playoffs.” They find themselves comfortably tied for third in the Western Conference with a strong defense and enough offense to get the job done. Tied for the team lead in goals, if Maxi Urruti can score more of these then they will move up the standings.
Houston Dynamo – “This team could swing anywhere from Cup contenders to falling short of the playoffs.” So far this looks to be the case. The sit tied with Portland for 6th and the bottom playoff spot. But there goal differential of plus five is a positive sign. They are scoring goals at a regular clip having found the back of the net 18 times in their eight games. A very strong showing. The flip side is that they have also allowed 13 scores. That’s not so good. Time will tell how this team fares. And like last seasonk their weakness is playing on the road. While a good 3-2-0 at home they are only a fair 0-1-2 on the road. Tighten up a bit at home and press a bit more on the road will lead to better things for the Dynamo.
Los Angeles Football Club – “Look for LAFC to have a respectable first season and if things fall right they may sneak into the first round of the playoffs.” Well I missed on this one and that’s good for LAFC fans. They sit comfortably in second place in the Conference and their plus six goal differential and 4-2-0 road record show that its no fluke. And they have sold out both their home matches. I suspect they will fade a bit down the stretch this summer as their roster isn’t very deep. But if they avoid injuries and keep fit things could look rosy for them come the playoffs.
Los Angeles Galaxy – From the preview, “I believe they will right the ship. Not strong enough to challenge for the Cup but they should be in the playoffs.” Well not so fast. They still suck and sit in eighth place in the conference but they are only two points out of a playoff spot. Their biggest issues are that they allow too many goals (16 in only 9 games) and they are not very good at home (2-3-0). In sport where away points are difficult you better be good at home. Simply put they are not right now and that has to change for them to have a shot.
Minnesota United FC – “Eh, don’tcha know that you will be watching the playoffs from the sidelines again this year.” Well they currently sit in fifth place in the Conference which would be good enough for the playoffs. But they are only two points ahead of ninth place and they have played one if not two more games than all the teams sitting just below them. They play well at home having gone a strong 3-1-0 but have been abysmal on the road, 1-5-0. And they are allowing the opposition to find the net way too often resulting in a minus six goal differential. Pretty hard to do well in any sport when the opposition scores 50% more than you do. I gave myself a neutral grade here but still think they are going to fall short of the playoffs.
Montreal Impact – “They made a lot of moves this winter to get younger. And in a long season fresher legs can yield better results. But it doesn’t look like the moves they made were enough to swing the needle very far. Expect them to miss out on the playoffs again this year.” Well I guess give them some credit for making some moves and trying to get better. The good news for Impact fans is that their schedule has been heavily laden with away matches so far (seven of their ten) so they can pick up some points as the schedule balances out. The bad news is that they have the worst goal differential in the league. Now some of that will improve by playing more at home but the bottom line is they give up too many goals. You don’t make the playoffs doing that.
New England Revolution – “Don’t think they have the horsepower to make the playoffs.” The are sitting in sixth place at the moment and actually have a full three points over the seventh place Fire. So they are on track. Certainly improved over last season but will it be enough? As I mentioned this winter, long time forward Lee Nguyen was causing some distractions by holding out. That left him on the outs with the Revs. Not sure his play had warranted his desire for increased salary and neither were the Revs. So they eventually traded him to LAFC. They haven’t seemed to miss him and perhaps having the distraction gone has improved the club? In any event they are playing a bit better than expected.
New York City FC – “They finished second in the Eastern Conference last season and look to be strong once again this year.” Guess where they sit after a third of the season? Yep, second place in the Conference. And they are playing right according to the soccer expectations of win at home and draw on the road. They are a perfect 4-0-0 at home and 2-2-2 on the road. And they are sixth in the league in scoring. They are a deep team, in fact they had a stretch where they went 3-0-1 with David Villa out of the lineup. They will contend all year.
New York Red Bulls – “They look to be a middle of the pack team this year but if Kaku gels with his teammates and young American star Tyler Adams takes another big step they could make some noise come the playoffs.” They are in fact making some noise and are one of the most improved teams this season. Kaku has flourished in his role with the Red Bulls scoring three times and earning a league best six assists.Clearly replacing the playmaking of Sacha Klejstan who moved on to Orlando City FC. And Bradley Wright-Phillips is loving playing with Kaku and is having his best start ever already finding the net six times. Think Kaku makes a difference. Check out this highlight video from their recent match against their cross town rivals! Don’t hit the fridge for a cold one or you’ll miss it!
Orlando City SC – The preseason look said “The Lions have had one of the most significant offseason in league history bringing in a cadre of great players. Will it be enough to get them over the hump and inot the playoffs? Something they haven’t done in the history of the club. Its up to coach Jason Kreis. If he can mold his talent into a cohesive team then they will make the playoffs. I think it happens.” Well so far so good and in spades. They are playing some superb soccer and sit in third place in the conference. Doing so with well balanced play. They score plenty and are solid on defense and they are strong at home AND on the road. 2018 looks to be a good year for the Lions. In fact to this point they are probably the most improved team in the league.
Philadelphia Union – The preview started with “another club who did well enough at home but so poorly on the road as to miss out on the playoffs” and finished with “I don’t think they have done near enough to make a strong playoff push, in fact I think they end up nearer the bottom of the Conference than to the playoffs.” Union fans probably hate me but hey its not my fault. They are an ok 2-1-2 at home but a garbage 0-4-0 on the road. In their four road matches they have given up nine goals. Certainly not good but not grossly terrible either. But they have tallied a big fat zero. Sorry Union fans but that isn’t cutting it. But apparently their fans aren’t buying it either as their attendance has dropped about 1,000 fans per home game. Not awful but might continue to drop if they don’t improve.They want to see some “brotherly love” out there.
Portland Timbers – “I suspect 2018 to be a very tightly contested Conference once again.” Man was that spot on. The Timbers find themselves well down the table outside the playoffs in spot #7. However, don’t lose heart Timber fans as things are not as bleak as they may seem. Only three points separate third and ninth place. The good news for the green and black hopeful along the Columbia River is two fold. While down the table, they actually have played fewer games than several of the other teams around them and the weird MLS schedule is also working in their favor. To date, only two of their eight matches have been at home. And playing at home in front of 21,144 of the loudest fans in the league will get them amped up. Look for Portland to start working their way up in the standings.
Real Salt Lake – “They are one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch play and that will continue in 2018. Expect them to make a big jump this season to join the teams in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.” Well they are still playing a fast paced exciting game. Unfortunately, they have started like they did last season. Good play hasn’t translated into results especially on the road where they are a bad 0-4-1. They host DC United tomorrow night in their only home match between April 27 and May 26. That’s an entire month of on the road soccer. That’s tough for anybody. But there is plenty to watch for especially tomorrow night. Long time Real goalkeeper, Nick Romando will be in the nets as he goes for his 200th MLS win. Rimando has two great nicknames for a little trivia. GOAT (Greatest of all time as he owns most every MLS goalkeeping record) and Wall of the Wasatch (Salt Lake City sits at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains). This one means a lot to us Real fans and I’ll be pulling for Nick to get the W.
San Jose Earthquakes – Back in February it was noted that “They must improve on their -21 if they want to make it back in this year. I don’t see it unless Eriksson finds the net a bunch and somehow aged Chris Wondolowski still has the knack for punching in plenty of banger goals. Tough to do but somehow at age 34 he still managed to score 13 times last year.” Well they sit in last place in the Western Conference due in no small part to their one again negative goal differential. Sadly for Quakes fans, they are tied with DC United for the fewest points in the league and they have played one more game than DC. Danny Hoesen, Magnus Eriksson, and Chris Wondolowski (is he going to play forever?) have combined for six goals in their eight matches. That’s not going to cut it. If you don’t know the way to San Jose don’t bother.
Seattle Sounders – “They have enough talent and depth to remain in the hunt and should make the playoffs. But another key injury could be very problematic.” Well they have not started well sitting in next to last place in the Western Conference. And they have some injury bugs hitting them including Clint Dempsey, Ozzie Alonso, and Nicolas Lodeiro. But not all is bad news in the Pacific Northwest. They are only three points out of a playoff position and have a game in hand over several teams above them. Even more positive is the result in their latest match. Travelling to Toronto to face the defending MLS Cup Champions on the road looked to be a very tall task, especially given the missing players. But they went with a new formation and it worked terrifically. Home grown midfielder Handwalla Bwana scored his first ever MLS goal. And for the 18-year old it was also the game winner. Keep and eye on this kid. Sounder players are calling him “special.” He’s young and time will tell but so far he looks to be a very good player.
Sporting KC – The thinking back in February was that head coach “Peter Vermes continues to produce results that seem to be above what the roster makeup should achieve and with such stout defense 2018 should follow suit. One of these years things may come together to push the team over the top for a title. They’ll make the playoffs. Be a tough out. But in the end you still have to find a way to score a goal to win”. Well this team sits in first place in the Western Division and has played exceptionally well both at home and on the road. The defense continues to be outstanding but they have found a way to score goals this season. Last year they only tallied 40 goals in their 34 matches. Well they have already netted 23 in their 11 games on pace for almost 70 goals for the season. If they stay healthy and continue near this form they will be a force to recon with come the playoffs. Maybe this will be the year the team takes it to the next level and wins a Cup.
Toronto FC – Giant fail on this one. Here is the entire preseason look “Lets cut to the chase. They were the best team in the league in 2017. They won the MLS Cup. And they return pretty much everybody from a season that saw them win three trophies. And they have started out very well in the CONCACAF Champions League. Four trophies in 2018? I doubt it but its certainly possible. Many have suggested that head coach Greg Vanney should be a candidate for the USMNT position. His clever use of his entire roster over a long season to keep players fresh yet still winning has raised his stock considerably. He played ten seasons in the MLS, three in the French Ligue 1, and earned 36 caps for the USMNT. For now he is still conducting the orchestra in Toronto and Reds fans hope that continues. Keep and eye on this over the summer. Now that the USSF election has occurred they will start to look at coaching options. If Toronto has another outstanding MLS season Vanney’s will get a lot of looks. I think Toronto is a lock to make the playoffs and a deep run once they get there. The one hiccup could be if they have to deal with a coaching change this summer”. Greg Vanney is still there but this team is sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and a full seven points out of the playoffs. This team has plenty of talent and time to turn it around but they have faltered badly so far this season.
Vancouver Whitecaps – The prognosis was “2018 looks to be more of the same for the Caps. They should be strong enough to make the playoffs but if they have any regression on defense or they don’t find a way to keep getting their heads on balls in the box they could falter.” Not sure what to make of this team. They are an odd squad. The sit tied for third place in the Conference yet they have an awful minus eight goal differential. As mentioned several times already the Western Conference is so tight that there isn’t much gap between most all the teams in the middle. Even though they sit in third they are only three points ahead of ninth place. They have allowed the third most goals in the league so far. If that doesn’t get corrected they will be in trouble.
Overall the Eastern Conference is looking much stronger than the Western side with a half dozen really good sides. Its almost a shame that some decent teams won’t make the playoffs that are clearly better than some on the other side that will. Such is the life of sports where Conferences or Divisions are in play. At the end of the day its hard not to pull for Atlanta FC. How cool would it be to see a team in only its second season raise the MLS Cup in front of 70,000 fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium!
For the Western Conference clearly Sporting KC and LAFC are the class sides at the moment. Have to watch the rest of the season to see which of the numerous teams packed tightly in the middle step up and seize the opportunity to make the playoffs with only San Jose appearing to be out of it and even that could change.
So while its still relatively early in the season plenty of matches have been played to give a pretty good indication of how things will go. Should be an interesting summer.