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This past weekend marked the start of the home stretch for the 2017 MLS season, as most of the teams in the league will first hit and then pass the three-quarters mark of their year. There's really no more "potentially, they can be X..." or "if things go right, they can be Y..." type of discussion to have – you are, by and large, what your record says you are.
Take the Revs, for example. For the vast majority of this year they were the one team everybody could point to and say "they're underperforming relative to their advanced numbers." New England, in other words, create a bunch of good looks, and they actually don't give up an extraordinary amount of bad looks, and usually that's a good recipe for winning more than you lose.
Except these Revs are a team that always finds a way to lose. Defend too deep? Check. Miss an open header? Check. Costly midfield turnover? Check. Fail to mark a guy on a set piece? Check.
New England are too talented to get utterly played off the field on the regular, but at the same time they have been utterly incapable of locking in mentally and locking down results against quality teams. They don't often lose across a full 90 minutes; rather, they lose in the individual moments they don't seem mature or cohesive enough to win. No matter how well they're playing, they're always just on the brink of disaster.
"Last year's Rapids were a good bad soccer team," a Very Smart Soccer Friend™ of mine offered last week. "This year's Revs are a bad good soccer team, and they know it. And they play like they know it."
So with 20 minutes left in Sunday's game at NYCFC and New England winning 1-0, this is the message I sent in the editorial chat:
Scott Caldwell and Gershon Koffie lost a scrum in the box. Kei Kamara missed an open header. Juan Agudelo didn't close down David Villa. Jonathan Lewis was left all by himself at the back post four minutes into stoppage.
And thus the Revs did, indeed, lose 2-1, just like a bad good soccer team should. The gameplan had been right – Sunday was mostly a masterclass in limiting NYCFC's looks, and they had more than enough chances to turn the 1-0 lead Teal Bunbury had given them, and which they'd been nursing for most of the second half, into 2-0 or better. And they definitely had some bad luck along the way, with injuries to Xavier Kouassi, Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe.
But the Revs, in the end, were the exact team that their record says they are. In a game they needed to win, they found a painfully predictable way to lose. We know that about them.
We know a lot about the other 21 teams in MLS as well. And so in lieu of my usual Sunday night column – and because I'm going on vacation for a week and won't be offering any big-picture insights during this crucial week (which is poor planning on my part) – let's revisit the Tiers of MLS, v.2017.
TIER I: FAVORITES
On Saturday I wrote a bunch about how TFC have not just some 2017 milestones in their sights, but some all-time marks. The chance to claim the title of "best regular-season team in league history" is staring them in the face, and at this point I'd be a little surprised if they didn't take it.
FiveThirtyEight has them at an 80 percent chance to win the Shield. They're at that lofty height not just because they have the most productive trio of DPs in the league, but because they get contributions from guys like Delgado, and Drew Moor and Nicolas Hasler, etc.
If they play as well over their final nine games as they have over the previous 20 or so, they'll hoist the Shield.
TIER II: APEX PREDATORS
New York City FC
Sunday's win over the Revs was yet another example of NYCFC figuring out a way to get a result when they're not at their best, which is a very useful skill. Also useful is the ability to dominate games, which the Cityzens have done quite a bit of this season – they have by far the best expected goals differential in the league, which matches both the eye test and their record.
But there's also little question that TFC have opened some daylight on their southern neighbors. The two teams met twice in July, with the Reds taking a 2-2 draw out of Yankee Stadium (with a much-less-than-100% roster) and then hammering NYCFC 4-0 at BMO Field 11 days later.
NYCFC can still beat anybody in the league on their day, but they haven't been built to compete across multiple competitions for multiple months the way TFC are.
Seattle Sounders FC
Seattle didn't impress anybody in their 2-1 win over Minnesota United on Sunday night, but they've now won six of seven and sit atop the Western Conference. The goal they conceded was the first they've shipped in more than a month.
So yeah, the Sounders are right where most thought they'd be, and a home-heavy schedule the rest of the way means they're the odds-on favorites to win the West. With the defense play the way it has been, and Clint Dempsey figuring out how to poach goals every week, and Ozzie Alonso back healthy, they're in good shape to ride out indifferent finishing from their center forwards and less-than-stellar form from Nicolas Lodeiro (he's not been bad, mind you – just not the irresistible force he was last year).
GOAL: Diego Rubio smashes home a corner
Nonetheless, the 'Caps either aren't as explosive in attack or aren't as solid in defense as the teams in the tier above them. Maybe Reyna and Ghazal can change that, but it really is too late in the year to be playing with maybes().
() I'm fully aware that this could end up looking hella dumb if they run the table at home over the next seven weeks. The 'Caps truly could end up moving up a rung or two if they take care of business at BC Place.
The Dynamo have been a lot of fun. Wilmer Cabrera's done great work protecting homefield and putting together a rotation that's kept most of his most important players well-rested and fully functional. They've also added a bit of creativity in Tomas Martinez, who should be able to go 90 minutes sometime in the next week or two. If he can, and he answers their needs re: central midfield creativity (no knock on Alex, who's been superb this year), then maybe the Dynamo can just go get into a few shootouts, a few track meets, and take some scalps.
But there's no reason to think they're capable of doing anything meaningful on the road, where they're just 1-8-4 with 10 goals scored and 23 allowed. At some point you have to do something away, especially since homefield advantage in Houston isn't as pronounced in autumn as it is in spring and summer.
There also remain concerns about the defense. Houston have held together so far, but feel free to add "just barely" as a useful qualifier.
Either way, this team is going to make the playoffs – undeniable progress – and you can see the attacking core that they have for the years to come. Houston are on the upswing for sure, but are a year away from climbing the tiers.
Portland are also going to make the playoffs despite giving the fans a scare/filling all of Oregon with heartburn throughout summer. They're now 3-1-1 in their last five, a string of results that includes a really useful win at Vancouver and a very nice draw at Houston. What felt like a nosedive in July has evened out significantly in August.
But they haven't been convincing either in possession or defensively, and sooner or later the spectacular saves they've been relying upon will dry up. Maybe it's not Sal Zizzo on the doorstep next time; maybe, instead, it's Clint Dempsey. The Timbers have played that tune before, and lost points because of it.
They have what should be a gimme at home against Colorado on Wednesday before going on the road for four of five. Three points against the Rapids are essential, or the statewide heartburn outbreak will return.
Columbus Crew SC
Like the Timbers, this is a talented attacking team that hasn't been anywhere near convincing enough either in possession or defensively. They can still be pressed and turned over in devastatingly bad spots, as shown in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Orlando City:
Unlike the Timbers, Crew SC play in the Eastern Conference, which means they're in trouble. Toronto, NYCFC, Atlanta, Chicago and RBNY aren't going to disappear. Montreal's smashed all comers in recent weeks, and are healthy again. Count 'em up and you get to six, and there are six playoff spots, and I don't think Columbus will be in one of them.
Of course, they do have five of their next six at home. If they hold serve they'll give themselves a shot heading into the season's final two weeks, but this team has been too prone to coughing up points when it really matters.
TIER V: YOU ARE YOUR RECORD
Real Salt Lake
Yeah they got rolled by Montreal, but sign me up for this rebuilding process that RSL have undergone, especially now that Joao Plata has clearly bought in. If they could get the same out of Yura Movsisyan – I remain stunned that he's not a 14g/7a type of guy, given his talent and past accomplishments in good leagues – they'd be my darkhorse 2018 pick.
But they haven't gotten that out of Yura, so center forward is and will remain a question, and there need to be two additions in central midfield as well. They do have young, match-winning answers in central defense, at fullback and on the wings, and they have useful trade chips, and they've shown an ability to identify, acquire and integrate under-the-radar imports like Jeferson Savarino. They've also played .500 ball, going 6-6-3, since the middle of May as Mike Petke has been able to instill some discipline and professionalism.
So there's lots to like, and they have four of the next five at home to keep building on that and maybe ruin somebody's day in the process. It almost certainly won't be enough for them to climb back into the playoff picture, but you don't have to look hard to find a bright future for this group.
San Jose Earthquakes
Saturday night's 2-2 home draw against Philadelphia was probably the end of the season for San Jose, who have been a hell of a lot of fun under Chris Leitch but who haven't been able to get the defense quite right. They're fragile on set pieces, and when they push numbers forward because of game states they leave themselves open on the counter, and they're not quite slick enough in possession to make up for it.
Still, there are some very nice, young pieces this team can work with for next year and the years to come. Tommy Thompson has looked like a centerpiece as a two-way central midfielder, and Vako has both the skill and the attitude of a DP forward, and Nick Lima and Jackson Yueill are promising rookies, and the center backs they imported this year should both be around for a while.
Needs remain, though. They have to convince Vako he's allowed to pass the ball once in a while, and they have to get more defensive awareness pounded into Yueill's head, and they need to figure out if Wondo has one more year left. But I like the pieces they have.
New England Revolution
Not much more left to say about the Revs. I expect some serious turnover this offseason, though given how untargeted their acquisitions have been in 2017 it's tough to figure out what shape 2018 will take.
Another chance for me to beat the "Philly need a No. 10" drum, but it's also a chance to point out that there's been a worrying lack of development among some of their core youngsters. Josh Yaro has been woeful in his 317 minutes this season, which includes a back-breaker of a late penalty concession on Saturday night. Union fans are heated:
Keegan Rosenberry dropped off the face of the earth this year, and so did Richie Marquez. Philly have mostly made due with veteran Oguchi Onyewu and rookie Jack Elliott, but 1) Gooch is 35, and 2) who's confident in Elliott's improvement curve after what happened to Yaro, Rosenberry and Marquez?
Also: C.J. Sapong is having a career year that's probably papering over some cracks. What if he can't replicate that down the stretch, let alone in 2018?
So as they're constructed, Philly have been good enough to mostly beat the teams they should beat. But they haven't been good enough to really trouble the top 10 (or so) teams in the league on anything approaching a regular basis, which means they need to use this stretch run to re-introduce their youngsters to meaningful minutes, and to try to address their lack of midfield creativity.
TIER VI: TEAR IT DOWN, BUILD IT UP
This is maybe a bit optimistic for D.C., who have the league's worst PPG and worst goal differential (-24), but I'm rolling with it here. I like the Paul Arriola acquisition quite a bit, I think getting Steve Clark was a savvy buy in case Bill Hamid leaves, and Russell Canouse had a promising first outing in Black-and-Red. Zoltain Stieber should be a nice fit on that left wing as well, and now Ben Olsen gets to see how they all fit together for nine games before the season ends and more 2018 plans are drawn up.
There is hope – young and flexible hope – for D.C. now, and some of it was on display in Saturday's 1-0 win at Colorado. There still need to be upgrades at various spots, and Patrick Mullins needs to prove he can be a starting center forward for more than half a year, but the cupboard isn't bare, and they should be fun to watch down the stretch here.
The Galaxy have gone 0-7-1 in their last eight, which is doubleplus ungood. They have too many players for the same spots (box-to-box midfielder or winger) and not enough players at other, arguably more crucial spots (defensive midfielder and center forward). Their central defense is questionable at best, as are their fullbacks, as is goalkeeper.
But in the dosSantos brothers, Sebastian Lletget and Romain Alessandrini, they have four elite talents to build around for the rest of this year and into 2018. LA aren't going to make the playoffs in 2017, so this autumn would best be spent identifying 1) how to fit those four core pieces together, and 2) which other pieces can fit around them.
The Purple Lions are in a weird sort of holding pattern on a necessary rebuild because they haven't sold Cyle Larin yet, and they haven't decided if Kaká is going to be back yet, and they're still trying to work through what formation they should play, and young players like Carlos Rivas, Cristian Higuita and Tommy Redding haven't improved enough to stake a claim as definitively part of the core going forward, but they haven't been bad enough to say "yeah we've got to move on from these guys."
About the only guys I'm sure will be back in 2018 are Joe Bendik, Jonathan Spector, Will Johnson, Yoshi Yotun and Dom Dwyer. Those are solid dudes who've all won some games, but they're all mostly piano carriers, not piano players, and adding Kaká to this particular mix has not been profitable.
OCSC are just five points back of the final playoff spot in the East, but they've won just twice in their last 18 games and it's not an accident – they really have been that bad. The door to the postseason is closed.
In theory, a front three of (left-to-right) Kevin Molino - Christian Ramirez - Ethan Finlay could be pretty damn nice, but who knows if we'll ever get to see that? Adrian Heath has preferred to use Molino inside as a central playmaker over the last couple of months, and he's picked up a bunch of other wingers who has probably going to want to put on the field, and Abu Danladi somehow has to fit into the equation, and I'm not sure anyone can honestly say they know what to expect from the Loons.
That's just one line on the field. Does anybody know what the central midfield will look like down the stretch, or next season? Or central defense? Or left back? There's been a lot of chopping and changing, and no real plan. It's let to some bad times, man:
MNUFC will have some assets to wheel and deal with in the offseason, and they have those three open DP slots they can still use. All's not lost for the future of this team, but I'd be lying if I told you I saw a clear plan.
I liked some of the intent I saw out of Colorado in the first game of the post-Mastroeni era, despite that scoreline. And let's not beat around the bush: Losing 1-0 at home to the worst team in the league means that you're now the worst team in the league.
But still... Marlon Hairston at right back should be fun. Shkelzen Gashi in a position where he can actually go toward goal should be fun. Bismark Boateng in a position where he can get on the ball should be fun.
That's about it, though. It's difficult to look at this roster and identify any real silver linings for either the rest of the year or going forward, especially if Tim Howard suddenly loses his battle against Father Time.