Here we stand, Memorial Day upon us (in the United States) and June just hours away. This is "mid-season", not "early season" anymore. You are what your record and what your goal differential say you are.
And in the MLS Eastern Conference, three of the six teams above the red line sport a negative goal differential. Only one of the five teams below the line in the East can say the same.
This is wild and inexplicable and very much a feature of MLS, not a bug. Parity has always been and still is the defining trait of this league, and the occasional 4-0 drubbing can/does/will have an outsize effect on any team's goal differential, especially when compared to other leagues around the world.
It's not as pronounced in the Western Conference, where just one playoff team has a negative goal differential. At the same time, though, with over a third of the season gone nobody out West nobody has a positive goal differential greater than +6. So nobody on the left of the Mississippi is running away from the pack or is in danger of breaking new ground for margin of victory.
This is not unprecedented. Back in 2010 nobody in the East went better than +9 for the season, and in 2004 literally nobody in the entire league was better than +8. New England won the East with a dead even goal differential in 2002. Even the great, double-winning Columbus Crew SC team of 2008 was only +10.
What might become unprecedented, though, is what Toronto FC are doing. Through 14 games they are +14, and I'll leave you to figure out what that puts them on track for across the full, 34-game regular season (math is hard but I'll bet you can do it). And I'll point out that the single season +/- record is +41 by the 1998 LA Galaxy. In the post-shootout era, the record is +32 by the 2014 Galaxy.
Onto the week that was:
The best part of the New York Red Bulls' 2-1 win over the visiting New England Revolution wasn't the scoreline. It wasn't that they came back from a deficit with a sterling second half, and it wasn't that they got another highlight-reel finish from Bradley Wright-Phillips (who can only score when he's facing away from goal now). It wasn't Daniel Royer's tap-in.
It was the play of Sean Davis, who had his finest game of the year both as an individual, but also in terms of how he moved the ball and was an effective cog in the previously sputtering RBNY system.
Davis had struggled this year – there's a reason he came into the season as a starter but has spent most of the spring eating DNP-CDs. And the shocking thing about his struggles was that, at their core, they were about his inability to complete the quick, incisive, meaningful passes he'd excelled at in 2016.
That changed against the Revs (volume up for analysis):
Davis wasn't perfect, and he wasn't the Man of the Match. There's a "take it with a grain of salt" aspect to this performance given that it came against a New England team that has, at times, struggled to get pressure to opposing deep-lying midfielders.
But it felt like a significant and meaningful step in the right direction for the Homegrown, who at 24 is definitely no longer a "youngster."
"It's not been easy for him," is what Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said after the game. "Let's all be straight. He had a lot of pressure on him. We made the decision to make a switch and go with Tyler [Adams]. The whole time I was trying to keep him motivated and engaged in the right ways. He was really in training putting a lot into it every day to show when he got his next opportunity that he was going to take it and not look back.
"In that sense, he's started to look more and more like the player that we know he is."
And in that sense, the Red Bulls have started to look more like the team that they've recently been. The journey's not anywhere near done, but after an awful beginning to May, they at least ended the month on a high note.
On a Plain
First FC Dallas plateaued, and now they're starting to nosedive a little bit. They're winless in their last four overall and they're winless in their last four at home following Sunday's grim scoreless draw against visiting Houston. They've scored just twice in their last 360 minutes, and their previously impregnable defense is still very good, but not "so good it's like they don't even have to worry about going on the attack" as it was in March and most of April. And it might get more than just a little bit more fragile after Walker Zimmerman had to leave Sunday's match early with a knock.
Digging into all of this, the simple truth is that Dallas's offseason signings have not been able to elevate this team. Right back Hernan Grana has probably been the best of the additions, but he's vulnerable against any elusive 1v1 attacker – Vicente Sanchez just about buried him on Sunday, and we all remember what Chucky Lozano did in the CCL semifinals, right?
Anibal Chala has already returned to Ecuador for a year-long loan. Carlos Cermeno looked lost in his 64 minutes in Chicago on Thursday, and usually doesn't make the gameday squad. Cristian Colman, the center forward who was supposed to be The Man™, has failed to score in over eight hours of MLS play and has started three games in two months. Dallas fans have been heard using the name "David Texeira" when describing his play, which was not the goal of this particular signing.
Perhaps the most frustrating newcomer, though, has been winger Roland Lamah. Unlike Colman he's been a fulltime starter, and he did pick up his first goal this week in the 2-1 loss to Chicago. But he's not adding the things he was brought in to add:
2015 Castillo: .63 G+A/90, 9.32 dribbles/90, 43% dribble success rate— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 29, 2017
2017 Lamah: .22 G+A/90, 4.35 dribbles/90, 26% dribble success rate
Lamah doesn't have to be Fabian Castillo. Obviously it wouldn't hurt, but replacing Castillo's relentless and gravity-altering 1v1 ability is a big ask. It's understandable that he's not hitting those heights.
However of high-volume dribblers in MLS (4+ attempts per 90) Lamah has the lowest success rate of any winger in the league and the second-lowest overall (behind only Johan Venegas, who's operated more as a second forward than a winger). "Get the ball to the wings to let them go at pace against a backpedaling defense" has been Dallas's M.O. over the last few years when Mauro Diaz has been unavailable, and even though it's not the prettiest soccer out there it's been effective.
Not so when in 2017, because getting the ball onto Lamah's foot in those spots is just a turnover about to happen. Lamah has not only not been Castillo, but you could argue that he's made it more difficult to execute their default gameplan as he is unsuited to the type of wing play Oscar Pareja prefers.
But fear not, North Texas, because the Magic Little Unicorn did, in fact, return to action this weekend. Diaz got a late-game cameo against Houston and while he wasn't sharp, he wasn't limping, either. This is a much quicker return than I'd expected, and Diaz on the pitch means a different FC Dallas on the pitch. They're a much more possession-oriented team with him out there rather than one that absorbs, counters, and hopes the wingers can make the game-changing play.
So Dallas survived their long winter without their best player. Yes, they're struggling at the moment, but they're still first in the West in PPG and third overall. The winter signings may not have made them better, but this springtime of good health surely will.
A few more things to ponder...
9. Toronto FC's 5-0 Friday night win over visiting Columbus obviously fuels that gaudy goal differential they've got. That they accomplished it with Sebastian Giovinco hurt and Jozy Altidore suspended... no team in MLS history has ever had anything like this kind of depth.
That said, understand neither Gregg Berhalter's decision to go with a 4-1-4-1 to start, nor his decision to sub off his best player, Justin Meram, when he finally decided to make a switch to a 4-2-3-1. It's also probably past time to ask some serious questions about the central defensive pair of Jonathan Mensah and Nicolai Naess.
Armchair Analyst: Tommy Thompson's more purposeful in how he applies his considerable technical skill these days, and it's paying off pic.twitter.com/ps3YSReiun— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 28, 2017
That said, the Galaxy are absolutely flying. They beat the Quakes 4-2 in the South Bay, have now won three straight (all on the road), are unbeaten in five, and have outscored all comers 11-4 in the last three-and-a-half games since restructuring their central midfield. Nobody in the league is playing better ball than Gio dos Santos (which I examined in video form last week), except maybe for Romain Alessandrini.
6. Bill Hamid did not make the USMNT roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, and I am ok with that given how inconsistent he's been to start the year. But over the last 180 minutes he's been lights out, and on Saturday he almost single-handedly stole three points for D.C. in their 1-0 win at Vancouver.
5. Tony Beltran came back! The longest-tenured single-club man in MLS finally got back into the lineup after two months injured. That was Good Thing No. 1 for RSL in their 1-0 win over visiting Philly, and Good Thing No. 2 is that the central defensive tandem of Chris Schuler and Aaron Maund once again looked solid. RSL have conceded just twice in the 360 minutes those two have played together.
The Union's four-game winning streak and six-game unbeaten run got snapped in this one. It was Philly's first loss since April 14.
Chicago color commentator Frank Klopas does a good job of painting the scene, and illustrating what Chicago have done so well in their current four-game winning streak: Throwing the fullbacks forward with almost Crew SC-like abandon. With Matt Polster bombing up the right and Vincent on the left, A) Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty have more targets, and B) opposing teams have to defend wider, which means more room in the box for Nemanja Nikolic.
3. Christian Ramirez will not stop scoring. He got his eighth – and second game-winner – in Minnesota United's 1-0 win over slumping Orlando City on Saturday. Only Nikolic has more non-PK goals this year.
2. Rapids Homegrown defender Kortne Ford – who's quietly and without much fanfare been quite good – got the only goal in Colorado's 1-0 win over slumping Sporting KC. SKC have been shut out twice in a row and three times in their last five, and have won just once in their last five.
They're still first in the West in total points and second in points per game, so nobody's gonna panic. They also have four of their next six at home, where they're 5-0-1, so they can climb back toward 2 ppg real fast if they maintain that form. But all those questions about balanced scoring and non-Dom Dwyer attacking difference-makers still stand unanswered.
Almiron really took his time coming off the pitch. Villa took issue. pic.twitter.com/Lljdca3EJr— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 28, 2017
This was the second meeting of the year between these two teams, and both were played at something approaching playoff-caliber intensity.