There's a new team at the top of the MLS standings, the battle for playoff places is heating up in the East and the West and there's just a couple of weeks of the regular season remaining. There's plenty to discuss from Week 20. Let's get into it.
Securing a playoff spot may be the only thing that can somewhat rescue this subpar season and I have a feeling that they’ll need to win two of their last three games to make that happen. The problem is they haven’t shown anything lately that suggests they can win away at either Columbus or Orlando — they’ve only won twice away from home all season and have only scored two goals in the last five games since scoring four against D.C. United to start the month.
Chicago Fire FC
All year long I’ve felt they had the players to get them into the playoffs but they are now on the outside looking in and their final fixtures are on the tougher side. Three of the final four games are away from home and they’ve yet to win a single true away game (outside of MLS is Back) all season. Can they win at high flying Philadelphia? Or at Nashville who barely concede? Or at Minnesota who are still fighting for playoff positioning? The recent run of one win in five may prove costly.
The manner of their controversial defeat to Minnesota is going to sting for a few days but they’ll have to pick themselves up and focus on the slim hopes they have to prolong their season. Alvaro Barreal and Joe Gyau, despite not impacting the stat sheet continue to be the two most dangerous players every time FC Cincinnati attacks. Gyau, in particular, looks like the one guy who can really unbalance backlines with his dribbling and directness and create space for his teammates.
They finally got back on the field and in all fairness, they looked like a team that hadn’t played in a month. It’s tough to see them being able to find the form they’ll need to have a strong finish to the season, but one thing that will help is if Cole Bassett and Kellyn Acosta rediscover the performances they were putting in before the enforced break. Both were leading figures in Robin Fraser’s youth movement and were key cogs in the team that scored 13 goals in just four games before their games started getting postponed.
Columbus Crew SC
Both Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan returned to the pitch and the focus should now be on rebuilding the team's early season chemistry and flow. With games against direct rivals Philadelphia and Orlando coming up, the motivation should be high to get the highest seed possible in the East. I’ve been high on this team all year but there is a very big blemish on their season — they have failed to win an away game. That needs to change on Wednesday night at D.C. United because they are far too talented to not have a single road win, and because it’s looking like they will have to win away from home at least once, maybe twice depending on seeding, to get to MLS Cup.
There’s still hope. D.C. United can make the playoffs and it’s all because of their recent mini-revival. Two wins and a draw, six goals for and five different goal scorers in the last three games have left them just three points outside the 10th and final spot for a postseason berth. What has been the secret to this late-season turnaround? Efficiency. They have managed just 11 shots on goal in the past three games combined but still scored six times and picked up seven points. That’s a tremendous ratio.
A few weeks ago Dallas seemed a lock to be in the playoffs but with just one win in their last seven games, they have given the chasing pack some hope. This poor collective run has coincided with the poor individual run that Franco Jara is experiencing and he now has no goals in his last seven games after scoring five in the previous five. He needs to get going if FC Dallas are to get over the finish line and regain their form.
Against Columbus, Houston looked like the team we saw earlier in the season. They managed 24 shots against a team that doesn’t concede too many and defensively they contained the Crew better than most teams have in 2020. It was an improved performance but they are in need of a win even if it’s just to boost confidence and belief. Despite a good performance at the weekend, one win in 11 is a worrying trend.
Inter Miami CF
This win felt like more than three points. First, they won without Gonzalo Higuain which shows that they have some depth. Second, it was a derby win and tied the season series with Orlando. But most importantly it showed that they are a team who are finding their groove at the right time — three wins in five. To come from behind to win against one of the strongest teams in the league and dominate the game with a 20-8 advantage in shots, and have double the shots on goal of their opponent, Inter Miami are looking more and more like the team many of us hoped they would be.
You know things are bad when you can’t even get up for El Trafico. This is a fixture that the Galaxy have usually played well in regardless of recent form or off the field issues. That wasn’t the case in the latest edition. Yes, the red card didn’t help but they were way off the pace before that and struggled to create anything meaningful all game. The same defensive issues remained as LAFC attackers — especially Bradley Wright-Phillips when he came on — found too much space with simple in behind runs that should at the very least be tracked, if not prevented. It was another subpar performance in a long list of them for the Galaxy and the only difference between this one and some of the other recent ones was that you can’t blame Chicharito.
It has been a down year but we have to qualify what we mean by that. It has been a down year based on the absurd standards they set last year. If you take this season as a stand-alone, there have been many positives. They are the highest-scoring team, despite having to play without Carlos Vela, BWP has settled in exceptionally well and in Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez they possess two of the most dynamic wingers that any team can call on. The defensive issues are the weakness but as they get fitter, and Vela gets even more game time, there is not a single team that will look forward to facing them in the playoffs.
They don’t score a crazy amount of goals but that hasn’t been too big of an issue because they also don’t concede very many. Credit must be given to Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy who have helped the team to an incredible four clean sheets in the last five outings. The return of Ozzie Alonso also can’t be understated because he still offers great protection in front of the back four with his ability to lock in on dangerous playmakers.
In their last five games, whenever they’ve scored first they’ve won. When they haven’t, they’ve lost. Therefore, a big focus for this team should be on making a fast start and then trying to protect that lead. Earlier in the season, I felt Victor Wanyama was doing an exceptional job at shielding the back four. In recent weeks, though, there has been a slight drop off for the ex-Tottenham man and so he’ll need to get back to his previous levels to not only help his team keep their leads, but to help them keep a clean sheet — something they last did 13 games ago.
With only two defeats in the last 12, and only 18 goals conceded all season, there is a lot to feel good about if you’re a Nashville fan. And now that the team is consistently scoring goals — they've found the net in the past four games — there is every reason to be quietly optimistic about what can yet be accomplished. Any team that concedes less than a goal a game gives themselves a chance to do special things, and with each passing game, the Walker Zimmerman trade looks like the steal of the season.
New England Revolution
I’m a big Lee Nguyen fan and I’m not someone who judges players solely by their stats. With that said, with only one goal and one assist — both came in the same game — since rejoining the Revolution, I’d like to see a bit more of an impact from a player as talented as he is. There have been flashes, lots of them, but when you are entrusted to be the main playmaker, you have to find ways to impact the scoreline consistently. Especially when you’re one of the guys filling in for the very impactful Carles Gil. Speaking of Gil, it was great to see him get some minutes and if he gets anywhere near full fitness, New England’s chances in the postseason will become significantly higher.
New York City FC
NYCFC have been beating every team below them and losing to the ones above them and so it was no surprise to see them dispatch Montreal. The true test of how playoff-ready they are will come against Toronto. They’ll face a Toronto team in need of a big bounce-back game and so we'll learn a lot about where they stack up against the very best. At his best, Maxi Moralez is among the league's elite playmakers but injuries have slowed him down this season. If he’s not able to get back to his top level, I just don’t see this team being able to compete against the very best teams in the East.
New York Red Bulls
For the second week in a row, Brian White was the hero with a late stoppage-time goal to earn his team a point. They are doing just about enough not to lose right now — three straight draws will attest to that — but they have to find a way to turn some of these draws into three points. A good starting point may be settling on one formation. They continue to rotate between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1, and while this normally isn’t an issue — flexibility is good — I feel that for a team needing wins and improved performances, simplicity and predictability will work better for the players.
Orlando City SC
The good news is that Daryl Dike rediscovered his scoring touch. The rookie had been playing well but strikers are ultimately there to score and so it was crucial that he got back among the goals. The bad news is that their level has dropped at just the wrong time. It’s now four games without a win and they even need to look over their shoulders because NYCFC and New England have closed the gap on them for a coveted top-four spot. They should hang on and a top three seed is still within reach but that will require a return to winning ways ASAP.
They got the statement win they needed and they did it emphatically. Each week they seem to get a different hero and that’s one of their strengths. At times it’s been Brenden Aaronson, lately it was Anthony Fontana and at the weekend it was Sergio Santos with an impressive hat trick. With two or three games at home, they are in pole position for that coveted top seed.
Disappointment from conceding a late goal aside, the Timbers continue to impress when they double down on their sit back and counter attack style. It works wonders against the Sounders and also gets the best out of Diego Valeri. The veteran playmaker is at his best when he has several runners to choose from on the break and he always seems to pick the right pass. Having played with him a few years ago and seeing how brilliant he was, I’m still shocked that he’s still so good and that’s why, for me, he holds the key to their hopes. If he stays fit and in good form, he unlocks everything this offense wants to do well.
Real Salt Lake
It’s a massive week for RSL as they go head to head with San Jose, a team they can leapfrog for the final playoff spot with a win. To do so, they need something — anything — from one of their strikers. The lack of production from that attacking group would be the reason they miss the playoffs if that’s how things play out.
San Jose Earthquakes
A win against RSL would go a very long way toward securing a playoff berth. They’ve been defending better and keeping possession well, but I think they can improve their crossing accuracy and frequency especially when Chris Wondolowski plays. His movement is unmatched and he still knows where the goal is, but he needs frequent service.
The Sounders have enough weapons to answer most questions that teams throw at them. In Nicolas Lodeiro, they have arguably the best number 10 in the league, but even he has struggled against deep-lying teams. You have to think more teams will employ the tactic of sitting deep and trying to counter as that seems to be the most effective way of slowing down this offense. But with the talent and coaching they have, I expect them to figure it out really soon, especially once they have Raul Ruidiaz back.
When Alan Pulido is on, as he was at the weekend, they tap into another gear. It’s more than goals. It’s the link up and little layoffs, it’s the finding space in between the lines before bringing teammates into the game and it’s the ability to retain possession in tight spaces. He’s the type of player that does more than will ever show up on the stat sheet, but can still impact the stat sheet as he did against the Rapids.
The thrashing at the hands of Philadelphia may actually be a blessing in disguise. Sometimes when things are going too well you need a good humbling. They’ve been winning, enjoying the play of the MVP favorite in my book in Alejandro Pozuelo, absorbing injuries to key guys with no problem and marching their way toward the top seed. A little reminder that it can get taken away very quickly is never a bad thing and, as far as Greg Vanney will be concerned, better now than in the playoffs.
The season hinges on the next two games — Seattle and Portland. They are derby games and essentially must win games to ensure postseason play, so motivation should not be an issue. Despite some improved offensive play recently, they still have issues at the back that the top teams can expose. With just two clean sheets all year and none since returning from the Orlando bubble, coach Marc Dos Santos has to find a way to up their level at the back ahead of Seattle’s visit on Tuesday.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.