Even for a league with as much instability as MLS, it’s amazing to look at the Eastern Conference table this week and realize that, yes, the Chicago Fire may actually be a relevant team as the season rolls into its final stage.
The struggles of Vejlko Paunovic’s side were apparent through most of the season, as the team labored to get results of any kind while sinking to the foot of MLS’s overall standings. Then, in true MLS fashion, everything seemed to change in an instant. The Fire looked completely dominant on Saturday, getting a 3-0 win at Montreal with goals from new addition Luis Solignac, a goal-line redirection from David Accam (via Arturo Alvarez), and a capper from defender Matt Polster.
The result in the context of this season alone is surprising and worthy of conversation. But even from a much wider angle, this was a notable victory—it’s the first away win for Chicago since it beat the New England Revolution 1-0 on July 12, 2014. That’s right, the Fire hadn’t won an away match in over two years.
Looking at the rosters from that match at Gillette Stadium 772 days ago, it becomes clear not just why the Fire have struggled and are only just now starting to show signs of life, but also why the New England Revolution have sunk farther and farther into the bottom half of MLS since their run to the MLS Cup final later that same year.
Of the 18 players on Chicago’s gameday roster for that 2014 win, only one (!) made a repeat appearance on Saturday, and that is goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Even in a league with as much fluctuation as MLS, having that much roster turnover makes it that much harder for the team to build an identity, or a style of play on which to fall back when trying to grind out results in uncomfortable situations. Paunovic has had his struggles so far in his first year as an MLS coach, but it does seem like the Fire are at least trying to build something now.
For the Revolution, the problem is almost entirely the opposite. Twelve of the Revolution’s 18-player gameday squad remain on the team as of this week’s 2-0 loss to the Columbus crew, including five of the starting 11. And that’s not counting Lee Nguyen, who was a key piece on the 2014 Revs but didn’t play in the Fire’s win back then.
While the Fire have rebuilt from scratch, the Revolution have hardly changed at all, instead opting for targeted fixes at specific positions instead of a natural, team-wise evolution. The team won Jermaine Jones (Ironically enough, over the Fire) in a blind draw, and he helped them salvage the team’s disappointing 2015 campaign. After 2016 got off to a rocky start, the Revs traded a heap of assets for Columbus’ DP striker Kei Kamara–an acquisition that hasn’t worked out nearly as well so far.
This difference, between building and standing pat, is a big reason why it’s easy to be far more confident in the Fire than the Revolution at this point in the season. Despite all their struggles, the Fire are only six points out of a playoff spot in the East with at least one game in hand over everybody around them. They have an interesting mix of young players and imports that are finally beginning to learn what it takes to get results in MLS. They have a young coach willing to challenge them in ways they haven’t been challenged over the previous two years.
The Revs, meanwhile, are wearing the year before last’s style to this year’s ball. They’ve been figured out, and after four straight losses it seems like they’re all out of ideas on how to figure out things for themselves.
Offensive player of the week: Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
Roldan came to Seattle with big expectations, and the second-year midfielder is finally starting to fulfill them. Roldan was brilliant in Seattle’s 3-1 Cascadia Cup win over the Portland Timbers on Sunday, putting Clint Dempsey in a great position to double the Sounders’ lead in the second half:
Then scoring this sharp, opportunistic header to put the result beyond doubt:
Defensive player of the week: Ronald Matarrita, NYCFC
New York City FC continued its second-half surge with an impressive win over the LA Galaxy on Saturday, and Matarrita’s relentless energy on the left side of defense was a big reason why. Matarrita made an impact early, playing an integral part in David Villa’s opening goal, then shut down the right side of the Galaxy attack for the remainder of NYCFC’s 1-0 win.
1. Toronto FC
Watch out, MLS. With wins in five of its last six games, TFC seems to have found its footing at the right time. Saturday’s 3-1 away win against the Philadelphia Union displayed all the ways Toronto can hurt you: Sebastian Giovinco magic, set piece efficiency (Drew Moor scored on a header), and an in-form Jozy Altidore’s combo of power and precision.
2. FC Dallas
Rio Tinto Stadium is a tough place to play, but Dallas will still be coming home feeling like it missed an opportunity to get a point after a 1-0 loss on Saturday. This is the type of game where it actually hurts FCD to have such a multi-faceted attack, as it seemed there was no “go-to” option when the going got tough. Still, Dallas remains top of the league–and an MLS Cup favorite.
3. Colorado Rapids
This year’s Colorado side has never made any illusions about being a dynamic, exciting team, and that showed on Saturday as the Rapids fought to a 0-0 draw against Orlando City. On the plus side, the Rapids’ continually-impressive defense kept dangerous striker Cyle Larin off the scoresheet, no small task considering he entered the game having scored four goals in his last five outings.
4. LA Galaxy
Two games does not equal a trend, but this is now the second straight game in which the Galaxy have thrown away the chance to get a positive result thanks to subpar finishing. The Galaxy don’t often generate more scoring chances than their opponents, but are usually better than they have been at finishing them. It’s now been four games since their last win.
5. New York City FC
NYCFC got a bit of a gift when David Villa’s early goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy stood (the striker was offside). However, it’s no small feat that a side which struggled to hold on to leads earlier this season managed to hang on against one of the league’s elite teams for a 1-0 victory.
6. New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls had plenty to celebrate after 65 minutes against D.C. United on Sunday. The team led 2-0, Bradley Wright-Phillips added to his all-time club goal record, and Sacha Kjlestan set a new club record for assists in a single season with 15. Unfortunately, the game is 90 minutes long. The Red Bulls’ defense folded late against their Atlantic Cup rivals, allowing D.C. to even the score and losing a valuable two points in the process–even if the club extended its unbeaten run to eight matches.
7. Seattle Sounders
Remember just a couple of weeks ago, when the Sounders were seriously, seriously bad? They don’t appear to! Clint Dempsey looks like a player reborn, Cristian Roldan is coming into his own and Seattle is playing its best soccer of the season. All of it was on display in Seattle’s huge 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers.
8. Sporting Kansas City
Over the course of this season, Jacob Peterson has gone from bench warmer to late-game substitute, and now to one of the most important, productive players in the SKC attack. Peterson’s goal in SKC’s 2-0 win over Vancouver was his third in the last five games. What’s more, all three of the games in which Peterson scored during that span have been wins.
9. Philadelphia Union
The Union faced a big test with an in-form Toronto FC visiting their Talen Energy Stadium this weekend, but instead of stepping up the Union were dealt a blow in a 3-1 loss. Philadelphia, which built so much of its early-season success around its defense, is now struggling to keep good opponents off the scoresheet.
10. D.C. United
D.C. United isn’t always the prettiest side to watch, but you have to respect their fight. It was on full display on Sunday, as the team fought back from 2-0 down in soggy conditions to earn a 2-2 draw against their rival New York Red Bulls. The acquisition of Patrick Mullins from NYCFC seems to be paying off for DC–he scored the game-tying goal, his second since arriving on the team five games ago.
11. Montreal Impact
Just a couple weeks ago, the Impact made a statement around the league when they smashed the Union 5-1. Since then, things haven’t been quite as pretty for Didier Drogba and Co. A 3-0 loss at home to one of the league’s worst teams shouldn’t happen to a squad with as much talent as Montreal possesses.
12. Real Salt Lake
It seems like every week in this space I write something about how inconsistent Real Salt Lake’s play has been, and the last five weeks are the perfect example. A win, and then a loss, and then a win, and then a loss, and then this week’s 1-0 win over MLS point leaders FC Dallas. Central defender Jamison Olave slammed home the winner this week, Nick Rimando made some nice saves, and RSL was able to shut down Dallas’s dangerous attack. Let’s see what next week brings.
13. Houston Dynamo
The Dynamo got a much-needed win away at San Jose in MLS’s Friday night fixture, and they did it goals from central defender David Horst and defensive midfielder Ricardo Clark. How weird has this Dynamo season been? On a team that started the season with Cubo Torres, Giles Barnes, and Will Bruin among their attacking options, Clark now leads the team in goals with four (alongside the Bruin, the now-Whitecap Barnes, and Andrew Wenger). Horst is tied for second with three goals.
14. Portland Timbers
The Timbers are losing ground fast in the Western Conference playoff race, having dropped four of their last five games including Sunday’s 3-1 loss at their rival Seattle. Luckily for Portland, the chance for revenge will come quickly, with Seattle visiting what is sure to be a raucous and expectant crowd at Providence Park on Sunday.
15. Orlando City SC
A point away from home at Colorado is a good one for Orlando City, which is still in the midst of adapting to new head coach Jason Kreis. The fact that the point came at altitude against one of the league’s best teams makes it a little more valuable than usual.
16. San Jose Earthquakes
Friday night’s loss to the Dynamo will hurt not just because it’s at home, but also because the Quakes badly needed those three points to stay on the right side of the Western Conference playoff race. The Earthquakes still showed plenty of fight in the loss, though, so there isn’t too much reason for playoff pessimism yet.
17. Chicago Fire
Where did that come from? After week upon week of lackluster performances, the Fire pulled out a complete, dominant one in a 3-0 win at Montreal. The Fire got goals from new acquisition Luis Solignac and DP David Accam, but the best goal of the night might be the one scored by young defender Matt Polster.
18. Columbus Crew SC
Ethan Finlay got on the scoresheet for the second consecutive game, Federico Higuain pulled the strings and got a goal of his own, and some key defensive plays at the other end helped Columbus to its first win since late May.
19. New England Revolution
The Revolution were treated to a chorus of boos at the end of their 2-0 loss to Columbus on Saturday, and with good reason. The team has been shutout in two straight losses at home, and have lost four straight games overall. The team had chances against Columbus, but atrocious finishing and lax defense did them in once again.
20. Vancouver Whitecaps
Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City brings the Whitecaps’ losing streak to four games, their longest of the season, and it’s hard to find too many reasons for positivity as a result. The club is only two points out of a playoff spot, but they’ve also played more games than every other club around them in the standings.