MLS Focus: State of the Teams, Part II

Most MLS teams are about one-quarter of the way through their 34-game schedules, and with the exodus of World Cup-bound players about to begin, they are being evaluated as to current status regardless of where they are in the standings.

In Part I released on Wednesday, the 10 teams competing that day were assessed. In Part II, the remaining 13 teams are analyzed and at the end of the story each team is categorized as per its chances to reach the playoffs and lift the MLS Cup trophy.
 
THE SAGA OUT WEST. The weekend schedule starts Friday in Vancouver, where the host team plays Houston in a match up of last seasons No. 3 and No. 4 finishers, respectively, in the Western Conference.

The ‘Caps are currently in the playoff tier and the Dynamo is not, yet both are dealing with inconsistency. Vancouver epitomized its 2018 struggles when it failed to score and conceded the only goal of the game during a 40-minute advantage last weekend in a 1-0 loss to Minnesota United.

Though it is in the playoff sector, Vancouver has lost more games (five) than it has won (four). It started the season well enough but is 1-4-0 in the last five games.
One of the players expected to bolster the attack, Kei Kamara, has been sidelined by a groin injury. He came off the bench against MNUFC after missing three games with an adductor injury. Kamara and Brek Shea lead the team with three goals apiece, so the ‘Caps should avoid being shut out, as they have been in three of the last four games. Venezuelan Anthony Blondell has been spectacular at times and if he can start connection with Kamara and Yordy Reyna, the ‘Caps shouldn’t lack for scoring chances. Yet they rank near the bottom with just 10 goals scored in as many games.

Houston started the season by blasting Atlanta United, 4-0, then labored winless through four games that included a 2-1 home loss to the Whitecaps. It drilled the Toronto FC backups, 5-1, at home, lost at Minnesota United, 2-1, then last weekend stunned the Galaxy, 3-2, with a goal in the 90th minute.

Romell Quioto led the way past L.A. with a goal and an assist; he’s started the last four games, and in those games the Dynamo has scored 11 goals. He also leads the league in successful crosses with 17. The ‘Caps are leaky defensively -- only two teams have conceded more than their 18 goals -- and Houston's swift, incisive counterattacks are among the most potent in the league. 
 
Two other Western teams – Minnesota United and San Jose – also meet for the second time this season, and are heading in opposite directions. The Loons’ victory was their second in a row and fourth of the season. San Jose beat MNUFC, 3-2, at home in the season opener and is winless in seven games since.

MNUFC’s addition of Darwin Quintero so far looks like a good move, the kind of upgrade Quakes’ fans had expected upon the hiring of Mikael Stahre as head coach and apparently filled by midfielder Magnus Eriksson. He has been among the team’s top performers so far this season, which indirectly has been one of the team’s problems. Breakdowns and mixups are deducting valuable points, particularly at home, where it has lost to NYCFC and Portland, and tied Columbus.

Last weekend the Quakes were beaten, 1-0, at home by a Diego Valeri free kick in the final minutes. While they didn’t necessarily do enough to win – or lose -- they have looked decidedly average in most of their games so far this season. More time to jell should help and maybe Eriksson or Vako or somebody else steps up in big moments, but right now the go-to guy in crunch time is The Invisible Man. Gone are the days of reliance on Chris Wondolowski, or going way back, Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon.
 
The list of Western Conference enigmas includes FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy, which square off at Toyota Stadium. Both missed the playoffs last year and while FCD appears a less spectacular yet more reliable version of its shattered self, the Galaxy is locked in a losing skid entirely of its own making.

FCD is not settling opposing defenses alight as it has for the past few seasons. It is scoring 1.4 goals per game and conceding 0.9, which are far from sexy numbers. It defended well and looked to counter last weekend in a 1-1 tie at LAFC, thus following standard procedure for most MLS teams on the road. It is a deviation from FCD’s normal persona.

A home game against a creaky Galaxy defense will encourage head coach Oscar Pareja to open up and perhaps start playmaker Mauro Diaz, who has been coming off the bench or not playing at all recently. Pareja also has Kellyn Acosta back from injury; he may get the start so FCD can press harder in midfield and cause the turnovers that have beset the Galaxy often this season.

In five of its nine games, the Galaxy has conceded at least two goals and it has shipped eight goals while losing the last three games. It does not defend the flanks well, is soft in the middle, and the back line is sluggish on balls played diagonally in the defensive third. L.A. greatly misses the presence of Jonathan dos Santos in central midfield when he is absent and the goalkeeping of David Bingham has not been good enough.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a boost to the attack. He club career is one of sustained success. If the woes continue, can head coach Sigi Schmidkeep him on track, and keep his job?

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Seattle’s 2-1 defeat of Toronto FC Wednesday at BMO Field adds luster to the 100th meeting with all-time rival Portland at Providence Park on Sunday. In Part I, we listed the struggling Sounders among the elite teams and their gutty defeat of the defending champion with a weakened lineup explains why.

Portland has won three in a row to straighten out a rocky start to the season. New head coach Giovanni Savarese is slowly getting his ideas implemented and restoring the players’ faith in each other. They rode out a few tough moments in San Jose and snatched all three points thanks to Valeri.

With some more seasoning they should be squarely in the hunt for a top three spot come August, assuming Savarese can dole out minutes throughout the squad and incorporate the offseason acquisitions, of which Cristhian Parades has looked particularly good.
 
TALES OF NEW YORK AND THE DEEP SOUTH. A 4-0 rout of NYCFC last weekend uplifted the Red Bulls and turned the bright lights back to the red side of the Hudson River rivalry. That result also tainted NYCFC’s reputation for road success; after picking up eight points in its first four away games -- wins at Sporting Kansas City and San Jose, ties in New England and Atlanta – it has lost at Portland, 3-0, and been humiliated at Red Bull Arena.

Still, the depth and quality of the squad coached by Patrick Vieira is hard to match in MLS. Even a very good team will throw in the occasional clunker, yet seldom do so many players falter in the same game. NYCFC gets another stiff road test this weekend against Los Angeles FC, which is already regarded as a solid threat to win the conference just eight games into its existence.



The Atlanta-Sporting Kansas City game Wednesday was billed as a possible MLS Cup preview; it’s not a stretch to project NYCFC as a viable candidate to represent the Eastern Conference. A long jaunt to face LAFC offers a chance to atone for a dismal performance but is also a challenge against a team that is anxious to bust loose after opening its new stadium with three goals in the first two games. (LAFC beat Minnesota, 2-0, on Wednesday, and was evaluated in Part I.)
 
The Red Bulls are assuming a different identity, one no longer radiating around Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan. If its status as an elite team is questioned, it should be noted Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the top forwards in MLS and Luis Robles is annually a candidate for Goalkeeper of the Year. Kaku (three goals, six assists) looks to be an ideal DP signing, centerback Tim Parker is on the improve, and the young brigade led by Sean Davis and Tyler Adams ranks among the league’s best. The Red Bulls should improve steadily as the season unfolds.

This weekend the Red Bulls play at Colorado. New head coach Anthony Hudson is finding his way in the league. The Rapids have lost three in a row and in four games against conference foes they have failed to win and been outscored, 7-3. They also play at NYCFC next week, and have already played SKC twice, so the early-season schedule has not been kind.

Unleashing Dominique Badji has produced results -- he leads the team with five goals in eight games –--and that is as many goals as the rest of the team combined. One of the offseason additions, midfielder Jack Price, is solid enough. As for the long-term prognosis, it’s too soon to tell.
 
Fresh off its 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City, in which Atlanta United lost keeper Brad Guzan to a red card in the 34th minute yet held out at 0-0 until midway through the second half, the Five Stripes head into the Lions’ den at Orlando City shorthanded and on short rest. And make no mistake, this is a prime opportunity for head coach Jason Kreis to steal some Southern thunder from the 2017 expansion sensation.

Six wins in a row have shot OCSC up the standings and given everyone an answer to a question raised often the past few years: How good could Orlando City be with an able cast to support heroic keeper Joe Bendik? Kreis used money and players and draft picks to sign league veterans Dom Dwyer, Justin Meram, Chris Schuler and Kljestan, and added a few productive international players to build an impressive roster. Uri Rosell, formerly of SKC, will add his experience and expertise upon recovery from a knee injury that has limited him to 38 minutes in the last three games as a sub.

Hot teams inevitably cool down -- see Atlanta United and NYCFC -- yet the Lions appear to be deep enough and hungry enough to ride out the inevitable rough patches.
 
REVS ON THE RISE IN THE EAST. Gregg Berhalter and Brad Friedel played together on the U.S. national team; now they are head coaches of Eastern Conference rivals.

Crew SC is roiled by machinations of a possible move to Austin, the Revs are in revival mode. Columbus hosts Midwest rival Chicago (both teams played midweek and are evaluated in Part I); New England plays defending champ Toronto FC.
The setup for the Revs’ is ideal, at least in terms of logistics. TFC lost to Seattle, 2-1, while the Revs rested. In their last game a week ago Saturday the Revs were pasted, 4-2, in Montreal and didn’t get on the board -- newcomer Wilfried Zahibo netted both goals late -- until the deficit was 4-0.

Zahibo and Cristian Penilla are the most prominent of several foreign signings currently regarded as shrewd moves. Both of them have four assists. Zahibo has scored three goals, Penilla two. They and Teal Bunbury (four goals) and Diego Fagundez (three goals) are still getting to know each other but the attacking overload that occasionally stilted the Revs in seasons past appears eradicated.

Friedel put down the hammer when Lee Nguyen held out; he didn’t play a competitive minute and was shipped out for a big wad of allocation bucks right before the transfer window closed.

That money and the team’s fast start raise hopes that as a rookie head coach with vast experience as a player in MLS and Europe Friedel’s growing pains won’t be severe.

The former U.S. teammates square off next weekend when Crew SC visits Gillette Stadium. By playing well in back-to-back games following the debacle in Montreal New England can solidify its persona under Friedel.
 
SHOWDOWN OF STRAGGLERS. The runt game of the week matches Real Salt Lake against D.C. United at Rio Tinto Stadium. Both teams are far below the playoff line on merit.

RSL seems incapable of transforming last season’s encouraging finish into 2018 points despite an attack that features Jefferson Savarino, Albert Rusnak, and Joao Plata, and a defense backstopped by Nick Rimando. In its five losses it has been outscored, 17-3, and is 0-4-1 on the road. Last weekend it took a 12th minute lead in Orlando on a superb goal by Homegrown product Corey Baird, and lost, 3-1, after conceding three goals in 18 minutes.

There’s a severe disconnect in transition and many players are contributing only occasionally. Centerbacks Justen Glad and Nick Besler are being exposed far too often. This is a big fix for head coach Mike Petke and his coaching staff. RSL has unveiled its shiny new training center; will it spend money during the summer transfer window?

United’s pursuit of Wayne Rooney is well-timed with the opening of Audi Field slightly more than two months away, by which time a playoff spot could be nothing more than a dream. Yamil Asad, acquired from Atlanta United, has done all right (two goals, two assists), but when Darren Mattocks (three goals) is your leading scorer, you got problems. 
 
Two months into the season, here’s how the teams stack up, by category:

Elite -- 1. Atlanta.  2. Toronto FC. 3. New York City FC. 4. Sporting Kansas City. 5. New York Red Bulls. 6. Seattle. These teams are the most likely to reach the MLS Cup final.

Dark horses -- 7. Orlando City. 8. Los Angeles FC. 9. FC Dallas. Surprises but not shocks to line up in the final game of the season.

Contenders -- 10. Portland. 11. Columbus. 12. New England. 13. Chicago. Certainly of playoff-caliber, not likely to reach the last hurdle.

Bubble teams -- 14. Vancouver. 15. Houston. 16. Montreal. 17. LA Galaxy. Plagued by question marks and shortcomings, they need improvement to finish in the top six.

Longshots -- 18. Minnesota United. 19. Philadelphia. 20. Real Salt Lake. 21. Colorado. 22. San Jose. 23. D.C. United. The Loons appear to be on the right path. The Rapids and Quakes look iffy. Philly and RSL are adrift, United is homeless until July 14.

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