When they took the field for Sunday night’s Week 23 finale, the New England Revolution and Toronto FC must have felt a little like a supporting act asked to close the show after the headliner had already raised the roof.
While the match at Gillette Stadium was certainly important to the two teams – especially to the Revolution and their playoff hopes – it was a bit of an afterthought in one of the more monumental weeks in Major League Soccer history.
Leading the way – as you may have heard by now – was Seattle’s stunning acquisition of US international and former Tottenham attacker Clint Dempsey. But Deuce’s bolt-from-the-blue signing was by no means the only intriguing development in Week 23.
Off the field, there was the sale of the Columbus Crew to a new owner promising “thoughtful, thorough” changes for the charter MLS franchise. There was a new, multi-year sponsorship deal struck between the league and financial services firm Wells Fargo, and there was an announcement by the Commissioner that MLS expects to expand to 24 teams by 2020.
Rounding out the off-field headlines was the obligatory, annual, Didier Drogba-to-MLS rumor. No transfer window would be complete without it.
On the field, the MLS All Stars lost to a motivated AS Roma side before the regular-season slate kicked in again with a rip-roaring round of nine games on Saturday and Sunday.
The New York Red Bulls got a surprising, and somewhat lucky, 3-2 road win vs.. Sporting Kansas City to go top of the Eastern Conference table.
At the other end of the standings, cellar dwellers D.C. United and Toronto FC tuned up for their potential spoiler roles down the stretch by knocking off a pair of Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.
There was a high-flying game in Houston, where the Dynamo downed Columbus 3-1, fending off several good chances from the visitors. There was a two-goal performance from last year’s Golden Boot winner, Chris Wondolowski, as well as a clutch, game-winning goal from this year’s Golden Boot leader, Mike Magee.
In Colorado, lightning, high winds and heavy rain delayed the Rocky Mountain Cup decider between the Rapids and Real Salt Lake for more than an hour – starting at the precise moment a penalty was to be taken, leaving the spot kick in limbo for 62 minutes.
It was just that kind of week.
And while there’s been no shortage of stories about the Sounders’ newest Designated Player – who watched from the owner’s box while Seattle dismantled a rudderless FC Dallas 3-0 – there’s one element of his acquisition that remains relatively unexplored: the club’s remaining schedule, and what lies ahead in the suddenly even-more-intense playoff race in the Western Conference.
Let’s take a look:
The Fearsome, Crowded West
The Sounders currently sit in seventh place (out of nine) in the conference, but they’re only two points shy of the fifth and final playoff spot, and they have at least two games in hand on every team ahead of them – and three and four in hand, respectively, on leaders Real Salt Lake and second-place Colorado.
Of their 14 remaining games, seven are at home and seven are away, and nine are against Western Conference opponents – all but one of whom are currently ahead of them in the standings.
They’ll have to get the results, of course, but the schedule – and Seattle’s new-look roster – presents a prime opportunity for the Sounders to surge up the ranks in the West.
There are some juicy matchups in Seattle’s near future – games that would have been exciting prospects without the US captain in the fold, and are now appointment viewing:
• Aug 17, Houston vs. Seattle (9 pm ET, MLS Live). The kid from Nacogdoches returns to his home state to take on the team at least one source said was his original, intended destination in MLS. In any event, it’ll be a fascinating pairing between two talented teams – both hopefully at full strength – battling for their playoff lives.
• August 25, Seattle vs. Portland (10 pm ET, ESPN2) Dempsey’s home debut could hardly be a bigger occasion as Seattle take on archrivals Portland in front of what’s sure to be a sold-out, delirious CenturyLink Field crowd.
September to Remember
The penultimate month of the MLS regular season could be a make-or-break stretch for the Sounders, as they have five games, four of them at home, and four against teams with legitimate postseason aspirations.
• Sept. 7, Seattle vs. Chicago (10 pm ET, NBCSN). After hosting Chivas USA on Sept 4, Seattle will have a quick turnaround to welcome Mike Magee, Chris Rolfe and the steadily improving Chicago Fire to CenturyLink.
• Sept. 13, Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake (10 pm ET, NBCSN) Friday the 13th could be unlucky for one of these teams, as Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Álvaro Saborío come to CenturyLink with memories of last year’s postseason loss to Seattle still in their minds.
• Sept. 21, LA Galaxy vs. Seattle (10:30 pm ET, NBCSN) Deuce and his new teammates travel to Carson, Calif., to square off with Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and the defending champions – Seattle’s playoff nemesis in two out of the last three seasons.
• Sept. 29, Seattle vs. New York (9 pm ET, ESPN) After you mark the calendar for LA-Seattle on the 21st, keep the sharpie handy for this one: Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill. Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson.
How happy are NBC and ESPN about the Dempsey signing? They could make one of those insurance commercials about it.
By the time the curtain drops on September, Seattle will know what kind of yield they’ve gotten from their new investment.
Then it’ll be on to the home stretch, when the Sounders have rugged away games against Colorado, Portland and FC Dallas. They’ll also host Vancouver that month (on Oct. 9) before the season finale against LA at CenturyLink on Oct. 27.
Right now, eight of the West’s nine teams are still in the playoff hunt. Three of them will have to go, and all of them except San Jose will have to take on Dempsey and the Sounders at least once.
What was already shaping up to be an exciting stretch run in the West has, with the addition of just one player, taken on an entirely new dimension.