ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: You probably know Jorge Villafaña's story, but have you heard it from the man himself? The guys go 1v1 with the USMNT left back ahead of what might just be the biggest week of his career, then break down Bruce Arena's preliminary Gold Cup roster and take a closer look at the MLS weekend. Subscribe now so you never miss a show! Download the show!
We’re three months into the 2017 Major League Soccer season, and there’s plenty that we know.
The Houston Dynamo are fun to watch at home. Christian Ramirez absolutely belongs at this level. The Red Bulls miss Dax McCarty, and the Fire have been transformed, in part, by his presence. Atlanta United have fans – lots of them. Toronto FC are a legit treble threat. Real Salt Lake are perched on the edge of a lost season. Every Pablo Mastroeni press conference is liable to go viral.
We know all that, but there’s plenty more we don’t know. Here are four big questions whose answers will change the course of the season.
Whose home form is unsustainable?
Home is where the heart is this year in MLS. More importantly, home is where the points are, more so than ever before. If you haven’t read Matt Doyle’s Monday column yet – an MLS must-read if there ever was one – he’s got the year-by-year breakdown there for reference. The standings, unsurprisingly, directly reflect the glaring disparity between home and away form
That’s why you see Toronto FC, Chicago Fire, Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo atop their respective conferences. Combined, those four teams haven’t lost at home, grabbing 24 wins and five draws and 77 of 87 possible points. On the road, they’re 5-15-10 with 25 of 90 possible points earned, and Toronto took 12 of those points and three of the five wins.
Orlando City, New York Red Bulls, New England and Seattle have similar splits. All but the Revs are currently above the playoff line. If you go back and look at recent MLS history, the single biggest indicator of playoff status is home record, which should surprise exactly nobody.
So whose home form will hold and whose will fade as summer and fall separate the pretenders from the contenders? The answer to that question will, in large part, determine the playoff field and seeding, and by extension which teams chalk up 2017 as a success and which confront failure.
Who will take advantage of their games in hand?
Do yourself a favor. For the time being, sort the MLS standings by points per game. You’ll notice in the tables below that sorting by PPG rearranges the current playoff order significantly.
It doesn’t take a data scientist to figure out that the discrepancy in games played from team to team makes it foolish to take the standings at face value week to week. It also goes without saying that games in hand doesn’t equal points in hand. Still, someone will make up ground (or drop out of the running) thanks to those extra opportunities to bank points.
Maybe it will be the Impact, who have played the fewest games in the league (12) and are barely below the playoff line based on PPG. Or perhaps Atlanta United will climb the table a run of results when their back-loaded schedule hits. The LA Galaxy are already turning things around, and they’ve got two games to catch up with five of six Western Conference playoff teams.
Point being, there’s more to the table than points. Games played or not played will shuffle the deck in the coming months, and the potential playoff field should be viewed through that lens.
Who will make a summer move that changes their team and the league?
There’s a game-changer coming this summer. We don’t know who it is and which team they’ll transform, but the groundwork is being laid as you read this piece. You should be seeing visions of Nico Lodeiro and Seattle lifting MLS Cup right about now.
Just don’t assume that signing will be a Designated Player. In the age of Targeted Allocation Money, difference makers come in all shapes, sizes and roster designations. That’s a good thing for MLS front office folks scouring the world for the next Lodeiro, Fanendo Adi, Jermaine Jones, Dom Dwyer or Robbie Keane in hopes of taking their team from good to great.
What do those five players have in common? All arrived in the summer – Dwyer returned from a prolific loan spell with Orlando in USL – and helped fuel their team’s run to MLS Cup in either their first or second seasons. All but Jones lifted the Cup.
Some enterprising general manager or sporting director will wow us in the summer window this season. It might even be the Sounders' Garth Lagerwey (again). Whoever does will set their team up to make history, either this year or down the line.
Which underperforming star will awaken?
Not every team will sign a big name this summer. Not every team needs to make that splash. Some just need their current stars find a rich vein of form.
How scary would the Timbers be if Sebastian Blanco were averaging better than a goal or an assist every four games? What if Kaká’s body cooperates through the summer and fall and his form follows suit? Imagine if Shkelzen Gashi harkened back to his Swiss Golden Boot days? Where would Real Salt Lake be if Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata started firing on all cylinders? What sort of chain reaction would a few Gyasi Zardes goals have on the Galaxy?
Each of those players could change the complexion of their team – and by extension the league. Will they? The answer to that question will help write the story of the 2017 MLS season.
After three months of MLS, what questions have yet to be answered? Drop your questions and general musings in the comment section below.