MLS's best since play resumed after Leagues Cup break

The Portland Timbers have had a lot to celebrate recently. Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire

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Major League Soccer took the unprecedented step of halting league play in the middle of the season to hold a second competition, the Leagues Cup, in which the league's 29 teams played with the 18 Liga MX teams.

It's been five weeks since MLS play has resumed. Most notably the first five weeks of MLS's Lionel Messi era. And the first five weeks of league play since the summer transfer window closed.

Six teams have stood out — one of the them Messi's Inter Miami — each averaging 2.0 points per game ...

1. Portland (5-2-1). Position: 12th in Western Conference at break, now 6th (+6 places).

The Timbers lost their first game back, 5-0 to Houston, fired Giovanni Savarese, lost their next game, interim coach Miles Joseph's first game in charge, 3-2 at home to Vancouver. Since then? Portland is almost perfect with five wins and one tie, giving it the longest active win streak (4 games) and unbeaten streak (6 games in MLS).

“I think we show more character than before,” Portland defender Dario Zuparic told the Portland Tribune after Saturday's 3-2 win over Colorado. “Every time when a team changes the coach, something happens. We’re the same team. Same group. But I think we’ve changed mentality.”

2. Houston (4-1-2). Position: 9th in Western Conference at break, now 4th (+5 places).

Since MLS resumed league play on Aug. 20, the Dynamo has had the best record when you throw in a 3-1 overtime win over Real Salt Lake in the Open Cup semifinals. The biggest reason for the Dynamo's turnaround in 2023 has been the play of Mexican international Hector Herrera.

“We go as Hector goes," said head coach Ben Olsen after last week's 4-1 win over Vancouver. "We've said that from the start. His ability to dig and pull the strings and create for us, but also lead us in the right direction has been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun to work with him.

3. Orlando City (4-1-2). Position: 5th in Eastern Conference at break, now 2nd (+3 places).

The Lions clinched their fourth consecutive playoff berth under Oscar Pareja last week, though he said he had "mixed feelings." It followed a 2-0 loss at New York City, Orlando's first loss in league play since July 8.

After Sunday's 1-1 draw with Inter Miami, Pareja looked at the performance in contrasting ways: "We have to be cleaner in these types of games, where there’s not many options, the gaps are closed, and we had our moments to finish. But we take the point, we have 51 points and we are second. The boys deserve a lot, and this is the taste of what is coming from us."

4. Atlanta United (4-1-2). Position: 7th in Eastern Conference at break, now 5th (+2 places).

The Five Stripes have been MLS's highest-scoring team since league play resumed with 19 goals in seven games. Giorgos Giakoumakis is tied for the MLS lead with 15 goals and Thiago Almada leads the league with 16 assists. But Atlanta's recent jump has followed the summer moves to add three players: Tristan Muyumba and Xande Silva, both picked up in France's Ligue 2, and Georgian winger Saba Lobzhanidze, acquired from Turkey's Hatayspor.

"Xande had a very, very good game with a goal and an assist," Atlanta coach Gonzalo Pinedasaid after Saturday's 4-1 win over CF Montreal, "but he could have maybe had three or four assists in the first half. Then, Saba, I think he had one direct assist from [Giakoumakis] on the first goal that came from Xande, but he could have had more."

5. Inter Miami (4-1-2). Position: 15th in Eastern Conference at break, now 14th (+1 place).

The Herons are back in 14th place after Sunday's 1-1 tie at Orlando City, only one place higher than where they were when they began their push with Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba — last in the Eastern Conference and last out of all 29 MLS teams — but that doesn't tell the full story. They were 12 points below the playoff line with two games in hand in July. They are now only five points below ninth-place NYCFC with the two games still in hand.

“I’m satisfied because we put in a massive effort,” said Martino, who rested Messi, Busquets and Alba against Orlando. “The only thing I asked the boys was to think about getting that playoff spot against Orlando. It was a massive game for us in that regard.”

6. Sporting KC (4-2-0). Position: 11th in Western Conference at break, now 10th (+1 place).

If Sporting KC makes the playoffs, it will be quite an accomplishment. It started out 0-7-3 and was eight points below the playoff line at the end of April. After Saturday's 2-1 win over Houston, that deficit has been reduced to only one point, though Sporting KC has played two more games than ninth-place FC Dallas. Sporting KC did it against the Dynamo despite losing Johnny Russell to a red card in the 39th minute.

"Being a man down, you have to defend," said Coach Peter Vermes, "but you also have to really keep your concentration because that's where the game can go awry."

You were wondering ...

The worst teams since MLS play resumed on Aug. 20?

Both Chicago (0-5-2) and Austin FC (0-4-3) are still winless, the latter after taking a 3-1 lead over the LA Galaxy into the 89th minute and having to settle for a 3-3 tie in a match that ended after 1:30 a.m. local time on Monday morning due to a three-hour weather delay.

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