The kids are heading back to school, the weather is getting (a little bit) cooler, and soon enough the grounds crews in Seattle and New England will be working overtime to remove football lines from their respective fields. All of that means that the close of the MLS regular season is fast approaching, with every team now with at most nine games remaining to play.
This stretch run will be important not just for the teams near the middle of the MLS standings, which will be looking to firm up a spot in the playoffs or improve their seeding as much as possible. It will also be the defining stretch of the season in determining the winner of this year’s Supporters’ Shield.
FC Dallas currently leads the league by five points over Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, and the Colorado Rapids, but make no mistake: An awful lot can happen in the time we have left. Toronto FC announced that talismanic forward Sebastian Giovinco will miss four weeks with quad and adductor strains, and losing the reigning MVP just as he was hitting his top form will hurt Toronto’s chances, and potentially open the door even wider for the Colorado Rapids to give FC Dallas a challenge as the season draws to a close.
The Rapids have been the most consistent team in the league this season, rarely dropping points against teams they should beat. That bodes well, as Pablo Mastroeni’s team could scarcely ask for an easier schedule in the stretch run: The team plays Houston twice, San Jose twice, plus away trips to the struggling New England Revolution and Vancouver Whitecaps. That’s two-thirds of the Rapids’ remaining schedule, and none of those teams are currently in playoff position. Crucially, the Rapids also have two games in hand on FC Dallas, meaning that five-point gap isn’t nearly as much of a hurdle as it is for the other teams in contention. Also crucial: The Rapids travel to FC Dallas on Sept. 10 in what may be the most important single regular-season game of the year. Mark your calendars.
But even with Colorado’s big chance and the loss of Giovinco, Toronto FC is still in a good position to challenge for the Shield. Thanks to renovations to BMO Field earlier in the season that caused the team to open with a lengthy road trip, Toronto is reaping the rewards at the end of the season; the team ends with five of its seven games at home. However, the first four of those games are all against quality sides: The Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United, and Orlando City are all in playoff contention and will provide stern tests for Greg Vanney’s side. And it’s not as if Toronto is unbeatable at home; in fact, they’re the only team in MLS’s top four to have lost at home this season (which they’ve done twice).
The wild card in all of this? Real Salt Lake. The perennial contenders have been in confounding form this season, never going more than three games in a row without a loss since a season-opening six-game unbeaten streak but just winning consecutive games for the first time since mid-April with triumphs over Shield foes FC Dallas and Colorado (the latter of which brought the Rocky Mountain Cup back to Rio Tinto). That said, the team has picked up enough wins along the way, often against very good teams, to put them somewhat surprisingly among the league leaders.
For as hard as this team has been to figure out this season, the upcoming schedule offers no clues as to whether it might make a push for the Shield–it features roughly equal helpings of home games and away games, against teams at the top (at FC Dallas on Sept. 24), the bottom (vs. Houston on Sept. 17), and in the middle (lots, including a penultimate-week home clash vs. budding rival Sporting KC). It could be too big a task for RSL to make up a five-point gap with that kind of schedule, but this is a team that’s made a habit out of surprising us all.
Offensive player of the week: Michael Barrios, FC Dallas
Good luck finding a better twosome of one-touch goals in a single game from one player this season in MLS (or anywhere, really). Barrios’ two first-time strikes in Saturday’s win over Houston were superb for different reasons, with the first coming from a clever finish from a beautiful counterattacking ball over the top of the defense by Maynor Figueroa:
The second also came on a counterattack, but this time Barrios lofted a perfectly-placed curler just beyond the reach of Joe Willis:
WIth the goals, Barrios is now FC Dallas’ leading scorer, with eight strikes on the season.
Defensive player of the week: Hassoun Camara, Montreal Impact
Camara did it all this week. He began by burying a nice header against D.C. United to earn his side a point with a 1-1 draw:
He then put forth a defensive masterclass under pressure (along with the rest of the Montreal backline) in holding Toronto FC scoreless despite playing with a one-man advantage. Camara’s versatility has been a big asset for Montreal for some time now, but he’s rarely made as much individual impact as he did this past week.
1. FC Dallas
It’s never easy to have an away game in the Champions League midweek then a league game the next Saturday, but Dallas got a good draw away from home in the first then won the second 3-1 over Houston with a second-half flurry of goals. Michael Barrios was superb on Saturday, scoring two beauties. There aren’t many teams in the league that could lose a player like Fabian Castillo and just keep on chugging along. Dallas is one of them.
2. Toronto FC
Head coach Greg Vanney didn’t mince words following Toronto’s 1-0 home loss to 10-man Montreal on Saturday, calling it “embarrassing” and “unacceptable.” That may be, but the team’s recent 6-0-1 stretch (including Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Orlando) still has it in prime position heading into the last third of the season, and if this is the type of game that keeps Toronto’s players on their toes, all the better for them.
3. New York Red Bulls
Bradley Wright-Phillips scored his league-leading 16th goal of the season and the Red Bulls maintained their unbeaten record at home as they got a solid 1-0 win over the New England Revolution on Sunday. The win stretches the Red Bulls’ unbeaten run to nine straight games, putting the team in great position for the stretch run of the season.
4. Colorado Rapids
Are cracks starting to show in the Rapids’ foundation? One month after a 5-1 loss to NYCFC the Rapids fell to Real Salt Lake by a 2-1 scoreline that could have been much, much worse (especially without Tim Howard's PK-saving heroics). The Rapids took an early lead but struggled build anything positive once RSL leveled the score and then took a lead. The defense-first Rapids aren’t super-well equipped to storm back when behind.
5. LA Galaxy
After looking so strong just after the international break, Bruce Arena’s Galaxy are in the midst of a six-game winless streak, extended this week with draws against Chicago and Vancouver–both sides they would expect to beat. Robbie Keane hasn’t been at his best this year and the rest of the Galaxy’s stars haven’t stepped up to fill that goalscoring void.
6. New York City FC
NYCFC played well enough in a 2-1 loss at Orlando, but a second-half penalty kick buried by Kaka caused the team to miss its chance to leapfrog Toronto at the top of the Eastern Conference. It’s not easy to lose to your former coach, but NYCFC still showed more of a solid identity in this loss than it ever did under Kreis last year.
7. Philadelphia Union
The Union made some big strides with a 2-1 victory over Eastern rival Columbus Crew on Sunday and then a 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. The wins saw encouraging contributions from the Union’s excellent rookie class (Fabian Herbers and Keegan Rosenberry scored on Wednesday), as well as the team’s key foreign signings (Roland Alberg and Tranquilo Barnetta scored on Saturday).
8. Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake is beginning to show off some of the solidity that has become the team’s trademark, as it followed up last week’s win over league-leading FC Dallas with a 2-1 win over Colorado on Friday. The downside: The team missed two PKs in that win, and could have scored more even aside from those. But it’s hard to argue with three points, especially when it puts RSL in second in the West.
9. D.C. United
D.C. United needed to start picking up points in bunches to remain in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, and that is exactly what they did this week with a 6-2 win over Chicago on Saturday and a 1-1 draw at Montreal on Wednesday. Quietly, the team is riding a six-game unbeaten run, though only two of those results have been wins.
10. Seattle Sounders
Brian Schmetzer is facing his most challenging moment since being named interim coach after the departure of Sigi Schmid, having discovered that striker Clint Dempsey will be out indefinitely following a diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat. Against that backdrop, Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Portland and Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Houston seem less significant.
11. Montreal Impact
Montreal entered this week on a bad run, but now the team looks like it’s recaptured some of the persistence that made them so effective early on in the season. Wednesday’s 1-1 draw vs. D.C. United (with a late Hassoun Camara equalizer) and Saturday’s shorthanded 1-0 win at Toronto (featuring another bit of magic from Ignacio Piatti) showed a fight and belief that will serve this team well moving forward.
12. Portland Timbers
Now that is a response. The Timbers wasted no time making up for their poor performance in last week’s matchup with Seattle, blitzing the Sounders with four goals in the opening half en route to a 4-2 win. The result pulls the Timbers back into playoff position, and more importantly allows them to move on from a bad loss last week.
13. Sporting Kansas City
It was a rough week for Sporting Kansas City, which started with a 3-0 loss to Vancouver in the CONCACAF Champions League and ended with a 2-0 loss at the Philadelphia Union in which both defender Jimmy Medranda and midfield linchpin Roger Espinoza got red cards. The team has played more games than any other side in the Western Conference but sits only in fifth place.
14. Orlando City SC
A late Jozy Altidore goal doomed Orlando to a loss on Wednesday, but the the team kept itself in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and new head coach Jason Kreis got a bit of revenge on his old employer as the Lions defeated NYCFC 2-1 at home on Sunday. Kaka hasn’t been the franchise-altering force many thought he might be, but the Brazilian’s two goals on Sunday show he can still come up in big moments for the Lions.
15. Columbus Crew SC
With two games at home this week, the Crew had an excellent chance to gain some ground in their chase for a playoff spot. They only took half advantage, as the team fell 2-1 to the Union midweek before putting in a solid performance in Saturday’s 2-0 win over San Jose. The Crew are getting production out of forwards Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay, but they’ll need to rack up more wins to have a chance at the playoffs.
16. San Jose Earthquakes
Earlier this season the Earthquakes looked like a side that would find ways to grind out tough results, but lately they’ve been looking like anything but. The Quakes could only manage a scoreless draw at home against a struggling New England team before falling 2-0 at the Columbus Crew on Saturday.
17. Houston Dynamo
Hey, at least the Dynamo are consistent. Houston’s problem earlier in the season was that they simply couldn’t stop giving up leads. Now, one coach, a few trades, and a whole lot of games later, that’s still the case. The Dynamo had 1-0 leads against Seattle on Wednesday and Dallas on Saturday, but ended up drawing the first 1-1 and losing the second 3-1.
18. Chicago Fire
“Where did that come from?” was the phrase I used to start the Fire’s blurb in last week’s rankings, and it applies just as much this week...but in a different context. The Fire’s 6-2 loss to D.C. United is certainly bad, but part of the reason for it was Khaly Thiam’s inexcusable red card, which he earned by throwing a ball in the face of Patrick Nyarko while he was lying on the ground injured. It is among the most obvious ejections I’ve seen this season.
19. Vancouver Whitecaps
Any kind of win or draw would have been a great result for a Whitecaps team that entered the week on a four-game losing streak. The fact that the ‘Caps got both via shutout in one week is almost cause for celebration. The Whitecaps started with a dominant 3-0 Champions League win over Kansas City on Tuesday, then fought the LA Galaxy to a scoreless draw on Saturday.
20. New England Revolution
This is the time of year when the Revolution should be coming together as a unit, grinding out results, and finding a way to sneak into the playoffs after a sub-par season. That’s still possible, but based on this week’s results, the Revs are floundering. A tame 0-0 draw with San Jose at midweek followed by a 1-0 loss to the Red Bulls has this team in trouble, and the disjointed nature of their play in these games doesn’t offer much reason for hope, either.