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MLS Power Rankings Week 23: Altidore rounds into form for Toronto FC

Jozy Altidore scored a third goal in his last four games as he returns from injury; Elsewhere, Nicolas Lodeiro is inspiring a resurgence in Seattle.

Ask any of Jozy Altidore’s teammates, past or present, about his play, and sooner or later you’ll hear a variation on the same theme: He helps the team in all sorts of ways other than scoring goals. This is the default defense of Altidore when he’s in the midst of one of his numerous scoring droughts, or when he’s named an automatic starter for the U.S. national team despite struggling at club level in Europe, or when either his club or national team struggles in his absence. 

This assessment of Altidore is, in fact, true. When locked in, his hold-up play and work rate off the ball does so much to help a team, and if you watch enough of his games closely you’ll understand why his teammates like playing with him. But in recent weeks, Altidore hasn’t had to rely on his other qualities to make a difference. Since returning from a hamstring injury, he’s been one of the most in-form strikers in MLS. 

Altidore netted his third goal in four games in a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, a powerful shot from inside the box off a designed corner kick, which left Houston goalkeeper Joe Willis with no chance whatsoever at a save: 

As if that wasn’t enough, Altidore did work at the other end as well, blocking a shot off the goal line in the 33rd minute: 

And he very nearly scored a would-be winner in the second half as well, only to be robbed by the post:

Not too bad for a player still looking to get into the rhythm of a season after a long layoff. The game against Houston was Altidore’s first start after a handful of substitute appearances that nonetheless proved to be quite productive–Toronto won all four of those, then earned the draw on Sunday.

Timbers' humble superstar Diego Valeri and Portland enjoy mutual admiration

The timing of Altidore’s surge could hardly be better. Once stuck in a mediocre season, Toronto has now rocketed to near the top of the MLS Eastern Conference. The Canadian side now owns the best points per game in that conference, and its stellar form at home means that any home field advantage the team can get in the playoffs would set it up well to advance as far as possible. 

Altidore’s form is coming at the right time internationally as well. The U.S. national team has two World Cup qualifiers right around the corner, with a visit to St. Vincent and The Grenadines and a home date against Trinidad and Tobago coming up on Sept. 2 and 6, respectively. If healthy and in form that even somewhat resembles what he’s currently producing, Altidore could once again be a key player in American soccer after missing out on another major tournament due to an injury. 

Offensive player of the week: Nicolas Lodeiro, Seattle Sounders

I wrote just a few weeks ago about how bad the Sounders had been playing under Sigi Schmid, and already that column seems to be written from some bizarre, alternate universe. Yes, things change quickly in MLS, but the catalyst for Seattle’s uptick in form is undoubtedly Lodeiro, who arrived with fanfare and has been key in each of Seattle's last two games, both of them wins. Lodeiro scored his first goal for the club on Sunday,

And he capped it all off with a most-excellent shoe phone celebration (which he explained is a tribute to his father): 

After quirky MLS transfer process, USA's Bedoya settles in for Union challenge

Defensive player of the week: Steve Birnbaum, D.C. United

D.C. United needed an early goal to make things hard for Portland on a hot, hot Saturday night in Washington, and that’s exactly what Birnbaum provided. What’s more, he used his feet for this one, looking like a seasoned forward instead of a steely center back.

The University of California product then helped secure the result with the type of defensive effort that got him in the U.S. national team picture of the last year-plus. He made timely interceptions, never lost a tackle, and cleared away whatever danger Portland could conjure in United’s 2-0 win. 

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1. FC Dallas


RECORD: 13-6-6

Dallas needed a comeback to earn a 2-2 draw against Sporting Kansas City, which isn’t the ideal result at home. That said, it extends the club’s unbeaten run to four games, and showed that the team can still get positive results after losing Fabian Castillo via transfer. Throw in the fact that the club made the U.S. Open Cup final with a dramatic Wednesday win over the LA Galaxy, and it’s been a good week for Oscar Pareja’s side.

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2. Colorado Rapids


RECORD: 11-3-9

The Rapids just keep on rolling. A 1-1 draw at the Galaxy is yet another good result for a team that remains incredibly hard to break down, thanks in no small part to the heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard. On the other end, Shkëlzen Gashi’s goal was a perfect example of technique. With two games in hand, the Rapids are just three points off top spot in the Supporters' Shield standings.

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3. LA Galaxy


RECORD: 9-3-11

The Galaxy faced bitter disappointment midweek as FC Dallas scored two goals at the end of extra time in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal, and they couldn’t rebound with a win in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against the Rapids. This was a game the Galaxy could have won with better finishing, but the team is still riding a healthy unbeaten streak (nine games) in league play.

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4. Toronto FC


RECORD: 10-7-7

Toronto is playing as well if not better than almost any team in the league, but it continues to have strange struggles while playing up a man. The Canadian side played a full half with an extra man against the Houston Dynamo, but couldn’t turn that into three points. All that said, a 1-1 draw extends Toronto’s unbeaten streak to five games, and the club has lost just once in its last nine games.  

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5. New York Red Bulls


RECORD: 10-9-6

Losing Dax McCarty to a tibia fracture was supposed to put the Red Bulls in trouble, but the team’s great play kept on going with Saturday’s 3-1 win over Montreal. Midfielder Sean Davis has been outstanding in the club captain’s absence, evidenced by goal and two assists for club record goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips this weekend. Sacha Kljestan added another assist, his league-leading 14th.

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6. New York City FC

For all of NYCFC’s success this season, especially away from home, the team has struggled against lowly Columbus. Saturday’s 3-3 draw may have been exciting, but it saw a return of NYCFC’s early-season tendency for late-game defensive collapses. Patrick Vieira will hope his side cuts that part out of its game sometime soon.

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7. Philadelphia Union


RECORD: 9-8-7

I wrote last week that the signing of Alejandro Bedoya could be just the boost the struggling Union needed, and that appeared to be the case as Philadelphia stomped the New England Revolution 4-0. Bedoya may not have appeared on the scoresheet, but his influence in central midfield was obvious.

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8. Montreal Impact


RECORD: 8-6-9

The Impact have been very good after the international break, but the team’s form gave way to a confident New York Red Bulls side in a 3-1 loss on Saturday. Midseason addition Matteo Moncosu first filled in for Didier Drogba, but the two finally played together up top with mixed results.

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9. Portland Timbers


RECORD: 8-9-8

The Timbers have followed a nine-game unbeaten run by going 1-3-0 in their last four games, including Saturday’s 2-0 loss at D.C. United. Diego Valeri is still in great form, but the pieces around him don’t always work together like they should. The Timbers are the only team currently in playoff position that has yet to win away from home this season.

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10. D.C. United


RECORD: 6-8-9

Luciano Acosta hasn’t always been the transformative playmaker D.C. United hoped for when the team signed him on loan from Boca Juniors, but his performance in a 2-0 win against Portland on Saturday was still encouraging to see. This was a much-needed win for DCU, which hadn’t tasted victory since late June.

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11. Sporting Kansas City


RECORD: 10-11-5

Sporting Kansas City has the second-fewest draws in the league and is tied for the second-most losses, which suggests that the team struggles to hold on to results in difficult situations. With that in mind, a draw away from home against the league leaders FC Dallas is a very positive result, especially as group play starts this week in the CONCACAF Champions League.

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12. Seattle Sounders


RECORD: 8-12-3

Add Nicolas Lodeiro to the mix and all of a sudden the Sounders are looking like one of the top teams in the league again. The Uruguayan playmaker has completely changed the look of the Cascadia side in the wake of Sigi Schmid’s departure, and it showed in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake in which he grabbed his first goal and third assist in three games as a Sounder. He's had a profound effect on Jordan Morris as well, with the rookie scoring his eighth goal of the season.

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13. Real Salt Lake


RECORD: 10-8-7

RSL had a tough assignment this week, visiting CenturyLink field to take on a Seattle Sounders team desperate for points and boasting a new designated player. But the way RSL played in this game adds to their already-maddening inconsistency. Props to Joao Plata, though, for this bit of opportunistic play off a Stefan Frei mistake.

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14. San Jose Earthquakes


RECORD: 7-6-10

At long last, the San Jose Earthquakes got their first away win of the season with a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. Designated Player Simon Dawkins got on the scoresheet with the type of goal one would think would be more common from him, and just like that the Earthquakes are back in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

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15. Orlando City SC


RECORD: 5-6-12

Cyle Larin continues to prove week in-week out that he is among the top strikers in MLS, and his performance against Chicago proved that again as he picked up a goal and inadvertently created the opportunity for Kaka to finish to give Orlando the lead. The problem continues to be in defense, which allowed two soft goals against a bad Chicago team and left Orlando with one point when it should have had all three.

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16. Houston Dynamo


RECORD: 4-10-9

It’s been a tough season for the Houston Dynamo, and it could have included another bad result when Abdoulie Mansally was issued a deserved red card for taking down Sebastian Giovinco on a breakaway at the end of the first half. Instead, the Dynamo stayed compact and, thanks to a little bit of luck, held Toronto FC to a 1-1 draw.  

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17. Chicago Fire


RECORD: 4-11-7

With rumors swirling that the team is up for sale, Chicago managed to do something it has only rarely done all season: grind out a positive result. For any other team a home draw against Orlando might not be something to cheer about, but in Chicago, any kind of fightback in a lost season is reason for applause.   

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18. Columbus Crew SC


RECORD: 3-8-11

On the downside, a 3-3 draw at home isn’t what the Crew need. On the plus side, both Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay scored in the tie against NYCFC, the first time both wingers have appeared on the scoresheet together since April 16th–the sixth game of the season.

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19. New England Revolution


RECORD: 6-10-8

A season full of indifferent results is starting to turn sour, and Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union is just the latest example. The Revs have lost three in a row, and have allowed an astonishing 11 goals over the course of those games.

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20. Vancouver Whitecaps


RECORD: 8-11-6

Things are so bad in Vancouver that even goalkeeper David Ousted, usually seen saving the Whitecaps numerous defensive blushes, made a huge mistake of his own in allowing the Earthquake’s first goal in a 2-1 home loss. The Whitecaps needed a win after being shut out in their previous three games, but instead they looked like a group in freefall.