Five thoughts on MLS entering the stretch run

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By RYAN BRISTER
MLS Writer

Major League Soccer’s regular season has just ten weeks remaining. There is a lot still to be decided on the field, but I tried to make sense of what has happened over the first two-thirds of the season.

The Wright Stuff

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Bradley Wright-Phillips has shown himself to be far more than the lucky teammate of Thierry Henry. That was an all-too common refrain last year and in the offseason after Henry’s retirement. After a record-tying 27 goals last season, BWP has 11 goals in 22 games in 2015. That’s a drop off, yes, but it’s not particularly outlandish. No player in MLS history has scored 20 goals in two straight seasons. After Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski had their 27-goal years, they scored 10 and 11 goals in the following seasons, respectively.

Wright-Phillips has become a more complete player for the Red Bulls under Jesse Marsch. He has six assists so far this season, compared to just two in all of 2014. Marsch has brought in and integrated players like Mike Grella, Sacha Kljestan, and Anatole Abang to shoulder some of the goal-scoring burden that fell disproportionately onto BWP last season. The Red Bulls are a more fluid team as a result.

I didn’t think RBNY could be this good without splashing cash in the summer, and they have proven me wrong. The midseason additions of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron are not the big names the club was once known for, but early signs suggest they make one of the league’s highest-scoring teams more dangerous. If the defense can get and stay healthy, Marsch’s side has a shot at doing what  Mike Petke managed in his first season: win the Supporters’ Shield.

Supporters’ Shield Race

SS

Make sense of that. I can’t. With ten weeks to go, there are seven teams within six points of the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race, and the fact that they’ve played different numbers of games only further complicates the matter. DC sits atop with more games than anyone, but were shown to be vincible at NYCFC this weekend and just lost Chris Korb to an ACL injury.

If I had to pick a favorite in this race, it would be Sporting Kansas City. They showed something special in the way they came back to defeat Vancouver over the weekend. Multiple games in hand give them a leg up on the teams ahead of them, who all have CONCACAF Champions League games to deal with. In addition their hopes of lifting the shield, SKC has to be the favorites in the U.S. Open Cup Final against Philadelphia.

There’s a real chance that Sporting could be carrying two trophies into the playoffs with them, much like Seattle did last year. Speaking of last year’s Seattle team, SKC’s final game of the season is at home against the Galaxy. That could be important.

Seattle’s Bench Exposed

IMAGE, MLSSOCCER.COM

IMAGE, MLSSOCCER.COM

I wrote in my look at the first third of the MLS season that depth would be important, but I didn’t think that fact would be so plainly evident as it has been in Seattle. Entering Sunday’s win against Orlando, the Sounders had lost five games in a row, and eight of their last nine. This slump coincided with the lengthy absences of Clint Dempsey (due to a suspension and the Gold Cup) and Obafemi Martins (due to a groin injury).

Without Dempsey and Martins, the Sounders were a bad soccer team. They scored just three goals in their nine-game doldrums. Seattle saw five teams pass them in the Western Conference standings, and some non-playoff teams were beginning to lick their lips.

In fairness to Seattle, I imagine that most MLS teams would be similarly awful without their two highest-paid players. And when healthy, the Sounders are as talented as any team in the league. But their lack of depth has cost them any realistic shot at the Supporters Shield, and might make their playoff run more difficult than they’d like.

Giovinco is the MVP, But…

It’s a nearly-unanimous opinion: Sebastian Giovinco has been the league’s best player in his first year with Toronto. The 28-year-old Italian midfielder has 16 goals, behind only Kei Kamara, and 11 assists, fourth-most in the league. In signing Giovinco, TFC has set a new high bar for the level of talent MLS is capable of attracting.

But. There’s always a but with Toronto. Giovinco’s many talents have not been able to create consistent success for long-suffering Toronto. They’ve lost more games than they have won and despite spending so much money on Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, currently sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. In the last two weeks, Kansas City and the Red Bulls have both convincingly beaten the Reds.

Heads would surely have to roll if Toronto were to miss the playoffs for a ninth straight season. I’m not convinced they will, but the better teams are beginning to figure out how to limit Giovinco, and that’s bad news for a team with the league’s worst defense.

Money isn’t Everything

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

Toronto’s spending spree has not propelled them towards the top of the standings. Free-spending newcomers NYCFC are looking up at the red playoff line. Seattle has had injuries sideline a lot of salary. Even as MLS further greased the spending wheels with the introduction of targeted allocation money, the league has not yet become the dystopia of haves and have nots that many fans fear. 

Look up at those Supporters’ Shield standings. Yes, the Galaxy are in the thick of things. But so too are DC, Dallas, and the suddenly-frugal Red Bulls. The top of the league is a testament to the ability of some teams to have success on a limited budget, making use of homegrown players, rising (often South American) stars, and undervalued domestic talent.

There are, it should be noted, some teams whose low-spending and poor results appear intertwined. Toxic environments are emerging in places like Chicago, Colorado, and Philly, where a lack of spending is combined with shoddy, often incompetent management. Supporters and ownership are already at odds in all three of those markets, and no quick fix appears to be on the way.

  • Darwin

    Great read Mr Brister. Can you do a weekly MLS roundup in the future?

  • storms

    SKC are the overwhelming favourite for the SS since they have 12 points in hand and have been the best team all season

  • OpenCupFan

    Five thoughts on mls at the 20 year mark
    .
    1- mls still stinks
    .
    2 – mls is a pyramid scheme
    .
    3 – mls steals lunch money from kids’ soccer academies
    .
    4 – mls hates the existence of the Cosmos (the U.S.’s greatest soccer club)
    .
    and (most interesting thing about mls)
    .
    5 – Sasha Klejstan looks like Little Finger (and Herc sometimes looks like Adam Carolla) {oh yeah, Herc is back in mls only b/c of Cosmos}
    .
    Notable mentions, trading Landon Donovan for zero, sprinklers during games, “place crest here,” plastic franchises….actually this maybe should be in the top five -> mls as minor league for Chivas, ManCity, and Red Bull.
    .
    So hard to pick just five “top” things mls does well. So hard – oh wait, teammates fighting on the pitch too?

    • slowleftarm

      Tears of unfathomable sadness.