Travel back in time to January of this year, and in space to the distant planet of Baltimore, Maryland. Come the third week of that month you'll find yourself smack in the middle of the annual MLS SuperDraft.
This year's version of the event was marked by the wheeling and dealing of one particular team: The Chicago Fire. They had a new head coach, entered with the need for as many parts to build a (nearly entirely) new roster, and were armed with new GM Nelson Rodriguez's encyclopedic knowledge of the MLS rulebook. They were poised to make it work, and to restore one of the best MLS franchises from the league's earliest days back to their former glory.
Chicago absolutely did the right thing with each of their deals. Rodriguez's maneuvering left them with a boatload of both General Allocation Money (GAM) and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), as well as the fourth and 12th picks in the first round. With those picks they chose left back Brandon Vincent and center back Jonathan Campbell, and those two guys should/will be the core of the Fire defense for the next decade. They used part of the TAM to sign Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw, and when Vincent assisted de Leeuw on the only goal in Wednesday's 1-0 win over Sporting KC, it was a benchmark hit by the whole squad -- but most importantly by the guys who'd put the blueprint together.
Their plan has worked at least a little bit, and de Leeuw's tap-in drove the point home to an unmissable extent.
I understand that Fire fans are beat down by a half-decade of losing, and don't blame them for it. Yet I see reason for some hope in Bridgeview because Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic drafted incredibly well this winter, because they're still sitting on a boatload of cash, because they have an unused DP slot, and because in Cam Lindley have one of the country's best & most creative midfielders germinating in their academy. Chicago have the pieces to build incrementally through the rest of 2016, and then rapidly once the transfer window opens next January. There will be more days like Saturday's 3-1 loss to FC Dallas ahead over the next three-and-a-half months, but the whole project has started to rumble forward ever so slightly, and if the exact path isn't clear, at least the direction is.
And with all that said: Fire fans may have ended the weekend thinking about the guy they passed on with their No. 1 pick back in January, rather than the raft of starters they added via their willingness to deal with it. Jack Harrison has been that good.
Let's head to Montreal...
"As a winger, you won't always have the best game," Frank Lampard said after Sunday's 3-1 win at Montreal. "Sometimes the ball doesn't get to you enough or you can't get involved as much as you want, but when it does come you need to be a bit special and he's been a revelation for us in turning the corner and winning these last five out of six games because he's given us a real outlet of speed and ability on the ball."
Lampard's been great since getting healthy, and Tommy McNamara is third in the league with his eight assists. David Villa is my pick for league MVP, and Andrea Pirlo is still mostly the good version of Andrea Pirlo on both sides of the ball.
It's Harrison who's most changed the team, however, because of his ability to get out on the break and turn those fleeting moments when he gets on the ball into devastating, game-ending displays of ruthlessness. He put Ambroise Oyongo in the blender this weekend, and the Cameroon international's not getting out:
Again: Oyongo is a full Cameroon international in the prime of his career at age 25, and Harrison just ruined him.
Obviously it's hard to ignore the 19-year-old Englishman's quick feet and great balance, as well as his soft first touch. More telling, though, is that second touch -- he takes it directly forward and puts Oyongo back on his heels as soon as possible, dictating where the encounter would take place.
Young players (and some veterans, as Dom Oduro showed repeatedly) often have to slow the game down for a moment or three before making their decisions. Harrison doesn't do that because he knows that those first moments are where you can turn a 3% advantage into a 30% advantage, and bending odds like that is how you win the game in the long run.
Beyond that individual bit, there is this: NYCFC are holding the ball much deeper in the past two months since he arrived. Back at the start of the season they were guilty of trying to drive the ball into the final third and keep it there for the duration of every possession. Now with Lampard and Harrison available, they're more more likely to try to get out into the open field and kill teams on the counter or in transition. They're rocketized, by way of England, and with Pirlo pulling the strings that's a deadly plan.
So, to bring it back to the intro about the Fire: It's understandable if, for this week anyway, Chicago fans dwell upon what might have been. Harrison helped turn City into the top team in the Eastern Conference seemingly all at once, and that kind of savior is what Section 8 have been hoping for for a long time.
That guy hasn't arrived yet. As of now, they'll have to be happy with a good plan and some progress.
Kekuta Manneh limped off just before halftime of Vancouver's 2-2 draw vs. Colorado a week ago, leaving the Whitecaps without their most dynamic 1-v-1 attacker and -- this year at least -- their best goal-scorer. It was easy to look at everything Manneh does with the ball and make a concrete list of what the 'Caps would be without.
Then they played 180 minutes this week and took four points, thanks to a 2-0 win over RSL on Wednesday followed by an ultimately disappointing 2-2 draw vs. Orlando City on Saturday night (both games were at BC Place). All-in-all not a bad week considering their ongoing defensive issues and questions about putting the ball into the net.
See, however, if you can spot where Manneh would have been lined up based upon the Opta chalkboard data from the two games.
First is RSL, with yellow arrows indicating a key pass (a pass that leads to a shot) and blue an assist:
Second is the draw vs. Orlando City:
We'll also throw in the second half of last weekend's draw vs. the Rapids:
You see it, right? In case you don't: In 225 minutes since Manneh went down injured, Vancouver have yet to create a scoring chance originating from the left side of the field. They've compensated a bit by overloading the right, but even so they managed to take only five of nine home points on offer -- the kind of haul that probably extinguishes their hopes for home field advantage come November, and may even be enough to doom them to life below the red line (right now they're a point above Sporting and have a game in hand).
Injuries are part of the game and there are exactly zero teams in MLS that can just lose their best attacker and continue on as if it's no big deal. Vancouver's one-sidedness is then at least a little bit predictable.
It's also something that teams will be happy to scout and take advantage of in the weeks to come.
The Red Bulls' week got off to a good start with Wednesday's 2-0 home win over Orlando City SC, which was followed by a dominant first half en route to a 2-0 lead at the break in Philadelphia on Sunday. Then the Union came out and were the Union in the second half, and for the second time this year they rallied for a deficit and got a result against RBNY -- this one a 2-2 draw.
The previous instance was in the US Open Cup meeting between the two teams a few weeks back that Philly won despite getting stomped for 45 minutes. New York took a 1-0 lead into the half that time, then fell apart behind the relentlessness of Chris Pontius and some prescient passing from deep in the Union midfield:
Castillo has two goals and two assists in his last four starts, and has finally cut through a sort of haze that had muted his game through the first week of summer.
That haze has been banished, and -- occasional 5-0 loss by the reserves aside -- Dallas are steadily rising.