Any dedicated MLS observer knows each season brings a steady supply of happenings that play out a lot differently than they expected.
Just like a box of chocolates, you just never know what you're going to get when Major League Soccer clubs kick the ball. That level of surprise is one of the things that makes the league so entertaining, and it's precisely what we're here to celebrate today.
It's never easy choosing the biggest surprises from a given season, and I've compiled what is roughly a midseason top five in that spirit. Somebody waking from a coma or just back from a Tibetan monastery sabbatical might find certain things about how 2020 has unfurled thus far particularly shocking, but they look a lot less surprising when put in day-to-day context.
For example, LAFC's 4-5-3 start makes a lot more sense when you factor in some major defensive struggles brought on by the lineup shuffling necessitated by the offseason trade of Walker Zimmerman and Eduard Atuesta's injury layoff. Some folks are probably taken aback at Columbus Crew SC's mechanical excellence, but (not to toot my own horn) I actually kind of called that one before the season started so my own personal surprise at it is minimal. Atlanta United's miserable summer can quite easily be explained by the combination of Josef Martinez's season-ending injury in Week 2 and no less than seven key departures since last season ended. There's also a stacked FC Dallas side taking its sweet time to heat up (Hello, COVID-19).
You get the idea. Not all eye-openers are created equal. As for what made the list, there will be some that most anyone would pick and then other admittedly subjective choices you probably didn't see coming. But then, isn't that what surprises are all about?
This one may have slipped by plenty of folks, but something very strange is going on with the Rapids offense. That's not to say it's the only issue with a team that was sinking fast on a 1-4-4 run before Saturday's defeat of the Galaxy, far from it. It probably isn't even the primary issue, considering their defense has regressed from the one that looked to be on the right track down the stretch last year. But it is an unexpected issue costing a club that stands second in shots per game and is scoring nearly as much in 2020 (1.67 goals per game) as it did in 2019 (1.71).
Despite improvements in their run-of-play offense, Colorado have left a bushel of points on the table because the seemingly reliable parts of their attack have been misfiring. Up until last Saturday, Diego Rubio and Andre Shinyashiki (who combined for 18 tallies last season) had yet to score a league goal between them. Set-up ace Jonathan Lewis is still chasing his first helper of the year. Even Colorado's typically fearsome set piece game went basically toothless between Week 2 and last weekend's rout of Real Salt Lake. Add in a host of hit posts and "Ugh!"-worthy near misses, and there's a lot of head-scratching to go around in a side that has actually played a fair bit better than its record.
D.C. UnitedOne might chalk the capital crew's highly disappointing 2-5-5 record to a fair amount of roster turnover over the past year, but that view doesn't actually hold much water. There are teams with more squad changes that are faring much better, and it's not like head coach Ben Olsen overwhelms his team with tactical nuances. In addition, D.C. United's defense and midfield are mostly the same as last season. Despite the latter fact (and a whole lot of fine saves from Bill Hamid), the Black-and-Red are conceding about a quarter-goal more than in 2019.
Meanwhile, an offense that added Edison Flores, Julian Gressel and the sparingly-used Federico Higuain is arguably creating fewer solid chances than any team in the league. That goes a long way toward explaining how only FC Cincinnati, Nashville SC and the two New York clubs are scoring fewer goals per game this season. Long story short: I doubt anyone expected this team to be at the top of the East table, but color me rather surprised they're floundering near the bottom of it.
LA Galaxy bounce-back
My oh my, did this team look dead in the water after that harsh 6-2 MLS Is Back derby drubbing administered by LAFC. After that tournament ended with the Galaxy pocketing just one point to earn a quick exit, I wrote that this side certainly had enough in its locker to rally at some point, but also figured it was going to take some time. Silly me. Since leaving the Orlando bubble, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his charges have made an impressively fast U-turn.
Even more shocking is the fact they've largely done it without Javier Hernandez and Jonathan dos Santos. Perhaps even more shocking than that is how the previously flighty Galaxy defense is at least as responsible for their resurrection as their attack. Before Saturday's loss, the Carson crew had posted three shutouts in sparking a 4-0-1 roll, and one of the four goals they did leak during that span was mere garbage time consolation. They're suddenly above the West playoff line, with a game in hand on five teams above them. If/when Chicharito starts ringing bells, look out.
NYCFC's offense outagesAfter a dreary start to 2020, the Bronx bunch seem to have turned the corner. They still don't quite look themselves, but a 4-0-2 run has pulled NYCFC to break even for the first time this season. One might pin the blame on some curious tactical and positional choices made by new coach Ronny Delia, but that certainly hasn't affected the defense. New York City FC are the second stingiest team in the league, conceding a hair shy of a half-goal per game less than they did last year. Their attack? Well, that's entirely another question.
Only LAFC scored more goals than the Cityzens in 2019, but they have struggled mightily to light the lamp so far this term. Even with three multiple-goal outings from their last five games, NYCFC have managed just 10 in 12 games. They've already been shut out six times in league play, which is already one more than all of last year. It would be easy to chalk that up to Maxi Moralez's injury troubles, but they've only been slightly more potent with him on the field. And there's no mistaking how bad things have gone in the final third when Anton Tinnerholm has more goals (2) than the combined total put up by Heber, Valentin Castellanos and Alexandru Mitrita (who united to bag 38 last season).
Orlando City SC
Thanks to the wonders of alphabetical listing, we've saved perhaps the best and most obvious surprise for last. After five seasons mainly consisting of frustration heaps sprinkled with stray magic moments, the Lions are roaring at the rest of the league. With a shrewd new boss in Oscar Pareja and a fresh new attitude, the MLS Is Back runners-up are 6-2-4 and tied for fourth in the league in points per game. Heck, if not for annoying last-minute leaks against Colorado and Atlanta United, they'd be just two points off the Supporters Shield lead of thus-far dominant Columbus. This is definitely not your younger brother's Orlando City.
And as stunning as that may be, the comprehensive manner in which they've done it is even more astounding. A defense heretofore known for great generosity is hardly allowing chances (and the ones they do concede generally get snuffed out by Pedro Gallese). The under-heralded midfield suddenly began controlling play in the second game of their MLS Is Back run and hasn't stopped. Rookie striker Daryl Dike is proving to be one of the revelations of the season (despite only entering the lineup less than a month ago) and running mate Benji Michel is starting to shine regularly, as well. It's all a rich tapestry of "Well, whaddya know about that?!" down in O-Town, and even as a neutral observer, I'm loving it.