It was another eventful week in MLS in Week 17, with positioning for the playoffs and the Supporters' Shield all continuing to take shape as the season hits its stretch run. Here is a takeaway for each team as we look ahead:
There hasn’t been much to smile about in Atlanta this season, but Marcelino Moreno’s debut should have filled the fans with some hope. Getting fit as quickly as possible will be key for him but he seems to possess a skill-set that will bring out the best in his teammates. However, he will need the rest of his teammates to raise their level as well if this team is to finish the season strong, because right now they have too many players — especially in the final third — playing far below their true potential.
Chicago Fire FC
Home form is the reason Chicago are still in the playoff picture. Four of their five wins this season have come in the safe confines of Soldier Field. With three of their remaining six games at home, they should feel optimistic about cementing their playoff destiny.
Colorado haven’t played since late September but they are still in a playoff spot and now have up to four games in hand on some teams chasing them. Should they be given the chance to play those games, their playoff hopes will depend solely on how much or how little this unexpected layoff affects their match sharpness. It won’t be easy to pick up where they left off when we last saw them.
Columbus Crew SC
A weekend off may have been just what Columbus needed. They’ve looked shaky recently as they’ve uncharacteristically allowed eight goals in their past four games and have seen Toronto, Philadelphia and Orlando threaten to take them out of the top three. If they still harbor hopes of winning the Supporters' Shield, they will need to regain the stellar defensive form that made them the clear favorites for much of the season.
Barring a miracle, D.C. won’t see the postseason. With that in mind, the club must start thinking of 2021, and that means every single player needs to be playing for their future. That’s the only message the hierarchy need to communicate: these next six games will determine who will and won’t be here next season. That should be all the motivation guys need to up their performance levels.
They’ve now gone five games without a goal and just when it looked like FC Cincinnati were going to get a chance to end that drought from the penalty spot, the intervened. It’s been that kind of season for Jaap Stam’s men. The lone bright spot was the performance of 20-year-old Alvaro Barreal who, despite clearly not being fit enough to go 90 minutes, looked very lively in his first start.
Since their impressive win at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 19, they’ve failed to win any of the last four. This week they get another crack at Peter Vermes' men and this game will go a long way to determining if this young Dallas team can put a together a run to close out the season and ensure they get the highest seed possible, or if their inconsistent form will allow those chasing them to overtake them.
When this team is at its best, it’s usually because multiple members of the attacking group are playing well. In recent weeks that hasn’t been the case for Houston. Darwin Quintero, for the most part, has maintained his high level but the rest of the supporting cast haven’t been consistent enough. They’ll need more from Ariel Lassiter, Christian Ramirez, Niko Hansen, Memo Rodriguez and Mauro Manotas in the home stretch.
Inter Miami CF
Miami are slowly figuring it out offensively — they were very good in the first 45 against Houston. Diego Alonso should have been just as pleased with the clean sheet, their first in seven games. They limited Houston to just two shots on target and that was in large part to the protection their holding midfielders — Blaise Matuidi and Wil Trapp — offered the backline. A few more defensive outings like that and they will give themselves every chance of being involved in an Eastern Conference play-in game.
It’ll be easy to pinpoint the Galaxy's struggles on Chicharito’s lack of production when he has played but they have bigger concerns on the defensive side. It’s been five games since they’ve kept a clean sheet, and they’ve conceded 15 goals in that time — an average of three per game. Even an in-form Chicharito couldn’t score enough to stay ahead of the amount of goals they’re leaking.
- The amount of goals they score is as much about their system of play as it is about the talent they have. No Diego Rossi, Brian Rodriguez or Carlos Vela and still they found three goals against a good defensive team.
- Their most important player is Eduard Atuesta. With their backs already against the wall coming into the game, they then suffered two early injuries and were down about five or six starters, but Atuesta still shone brightly. He passed the ball as brilliantly as usual, and he was also solid defensively with a few key interceptions and ball recoveries.
Three of Minnesota's next four games are at home and they should view them as an opportunity to stay in touch with with the top two seeds. They’ve won three of the last four at Allianz Field, outscoring opponents 9-2. If they can tap into that type of form regularly, beginning with Chicago in midweek, they will be a team that everyone tries to avoid in the postseason.
Their Achilles heel has been inconsistency. Montreal are yet to record consecutive wins this season, and while winning away at Philadelphia is a tall order for anyone, they’d have loved to carry over the momentum the win at Columbus should have given them. When Romell Quioto doesn’t start, they lack the threat of getting in behind teams and a lot of their play becomes predictable.
Defensively they have been exceptional this season, especially for an expansion team, but as soon as they concede a second goal, you know it’s game over. Only once have they managed to score more than one goal in a game this season and that is the only reason they aren’t a lock for the playoffs. Any team that has kept seven clean sheets should be comfortably preparing for the postseason, and that’s what Nashville would be doing if they weren’t averaging just .75 goals a game.
New England Revolution
Lee Nguyen has been given the task of being the playmaker for this team. There had been glimpses in recent games that he could be the creative force Bruce Arena needs, and against NYCFC those glimpses manifested into an impressive performance. One thing he had going for him was that Teal Bunbury, and not Gustavo Bou, was playing up top. Bunbury makes great runs in behind and that is what Nguyen needs — someone to spring into the space. They connected brilliantly on New England’s opening goal (above).
New York City FC
Overall NYCFC are in good form, but there is one thing that should slightly concern them: yes, they’ve won four of the last seven but those wins have been against FC Cincinnati (twice), D.C. United and Inter Miami — teams they should be beating. The games they’ve failed to win in that span are against Toronto and New England (twice) — the type of teams they will need to beat in the postseason. Are they capable of beating the teams above or alongside them in the standings? The midweek game against Orlando should offer some answers.
New York Red Bulls
Caden Clark is the talk of the town right now, as he should be. He scored a fantastic game winner on his debut. But we mustn’t lose sight of something else the Red Bulls were able to do against Atlanta United, and that was to keep a first clean sheet in five games. With games against high-flying Toronto and Orlando on the horizon, being defensively sound — since they can’t outgun either team — is their only hope of getting something from either game.
Orlando City SC
Oscar Pareja should be the Coach of the Year barring an epic collapse from his Orlando team. The question they need to ask themselves is, ‘How great of a season can we have?’ Will they be satisfied with the incredible turnaround from last season or do they want to go push Toronto all the way in the fight for the Shield and likely an MLS Cup spot? They have all the tools to win it all this year, but the only worry will be that they haven’t been tested against Toronto or Columbus, and have only played Philadelphia once, way back in July.
This past week saw the Union score five goals and only concede one. It was the perfect way to bounce back from the defeat to Toronto nine days ago. Most impressive was that they had five different scorers. This is a team with so many weapons, and so they are hardly affected when one key player has an off day because another one is always ready to step up.
The Timbers are the real deal. The only remaining question mark I had was concerning their defense but with three clean sheets in their last four games, they seem to have found the solution to those problems. Felipe Mora has come to life with four goals in his last three games, while at the other end, Dario Zuparic has been a big reason for the improved defensive record.
Real Salt Lake
First, the good: approach play, team shape and good organization. Unfortunately, none of those can overcome the bad: too many out of form attacking players. They just need one of Douglas Martinez (no goals in nine), Corey Baird (no goals in nine), Sam Johnson (no goals in eight) or Justin Meram (no goals in five) to hit form.
San Jose Earthquakes
Away to Portland was always going to be tough, but in winning their previous three games, they bought themselves the ability to lose and not be too badly affected. If they are to make the postseason, it’s not what they do against the Seattles, Portlands or Sportings of the world that will matter, but what they do against the teams below them — starting with the Galaxy in midweek. Three of their next four are against teams chasing them — true six-pointers — and should they get the necessary results, they will almost guarantee a playoff spot.
The defeat to LAFC is the first time the Sounders have lost this season while playing well for 90 minutes. It’s not the kind of loss that calls for major adjustments, because the chances to win the game comfortably were there. What should be of concern to Brian Schmetzer is that they have now kept only one clean sheet in the last ten games. When you have Stefan Frei in goal, and a back four with a very in-form Yeimar Gomez Andrade, you’d expect to have had at least three or four clean sheets during that time.
Three wins in a row have pushed them right back in the race for the number one seed. Four of the next five are away from home and usually that would be a worry, but they’ve actually been pretty good away from home — three wins in five games. In two of those wins they were badly out-possessed, and in the other one possession was essentially equal. At home they tend to want to dominate the ball, away from home they’ve shown they can be dangerous on the counter. That style unleashes the best of Johnny Russell, who thrives on having space in which to work his magic.
They’ve clinched a playoff spot, lead the race for the Shield and have five straight wins. I’m not sure Greg Vanney and his staff get enough credit for just how good Toronto have been for several years now. This year may even be the most impressive of all their regular seasons because they’ve won six away games while collecting 20 away points — both league leading marks — and have only played three true home games. The Shield was the Crew’s to lose, but Toronto have now raised the bar.
After the last time they won, they went on a four game losing streak, conceding 13 goals along the way. I have faith that the attack led by Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero will keep getting better but it’s Vancouver's inability to stop conceding that may cost them a playoff spot. The -18 goal differential is a serious cause for concern.