MLS at the Third: Where We Are Now

Naturally, individual results provide the pieces necessary to building the Big Picture in any sports league - but I've already covered first impressions of those in earlier posts (LINK, LINK, LINK). But with the 2007 season of Major League Soccer (MLS) officially one third completed, the time seems ripe to take a wide-angle view of the state of the league’s 13 teams - which teams are up, which are down, and which are merely holding steady...and which are wallowing in the muck.

It’s well worth noting that not all MLS teams have played 10 games at this point; for instance, FC Dallas has 12 games under their belt while the Los Angeles Galaxy has played a league-low 9 games. Details like that will be noted for each team along with their record and the total number of points so far. With the Eastern Conference being the stronger of the two thus far, starting in the East seems appropriate.

Here goes....(and, for the record, I'm most proud of the stuff on Kansas City, Chivas USA, and New England...maybe DC United and RSL)...

Red Bull New York, 6-3-2; 20 pts. (11 games)
If you told anyone - Red Bull fan or otherwise - that their team would lead MLS at Week 10, the response would have been a poorly-contained laugh or a pitying shake of the head. Credit Colombian forward Juan Pablo Angel - who has kicked his name onto the score-sheet in every game he’s played so far - for sharpening the Red Bull attack. Given that Red Bull defense started so strongly - they kept a collective clean-sheet for all of April; they weren’t too shabby in May either - it’s a little surprising that defense now looms as the biggest threat to their league-leading record. Blame injuries and midfielders playing as defenders for that. Once their back-line recovers, Red Bull should build on a solid start.
Rating: HOLDING a good place (e.g. #1).

Kansas City Wizards, 6-2-1; 19 pts. (9 games)
After sputtering out of the gate, the Wizards now see-saw between first and second in the East with Red Bull. Even as one can’t seriously talk around the standings, there’s something suspect about the Wizards rise to contender status. There is, undoubtedly, much to love about forward Eddie Johnson, who registered back-to-back hat tricks in Week 8 and 9; against that, though, the Wizards conceded five goals in those same games. But questions have hovered over KC from the beginning: their 4-0-2 (W-T-L) start didn’t impress due to two wins coming against an expansion Toronto FC still finding its feet and another to the Columbus Crew. Time will tell whether the offense - and Johnson - can keep banging in the goals and/or whether the KC defense will take away some pressure by keeping them out. Whatever happens, KC is playing some of the prettiest soccer in MLS right now. I'm serious. They've gone from being a team I wouldn't watch if I were in a coma to one whose name I look for on the schedule.
Rating: UP

New England Revolution, 5-2-3; 18 pts. (10 games)
As you read this, please keep in mind that I’m a Revolution fan - and a hard-to-please one at that. That said, the hard reality is that New England has been more lucky than good so far. A 4-3 home loss to the Wizards - in which New England only held their own on the back of fluky goals - suggested it, but a home draw to Real Salt Lake, who are widely regarded as the league’s worst team, confirmed it. New England has the pieces to compete in the correct, if uninspiring, proportions: a defense good enough to keep them in any game balanced with forwards capable of turning half-chances into goals. Too often this season, however, they have struggled not only to impose their game, but with something as fundamental as possession. What amounts to a rope-a-dope approach has worked so far, but it sure looks like a low-percentage game.
Rating: HOLDING STEADY...but flirting with the edge.

DC United, 4-3-2; 14 pts. (9 games)
DC didn’t win at all in April and, when the wins did come, it still took some convincing for even the truest of believers to hope for more than a dreaded “transition year.” But now, with a lone goalless draw (against the LA Galaxy in Week 9) planting a hiccup between three straight 2-1 wins and Week 10’s emphatic and dramatic win over Red Bull (noted above), the April funk seems to have evaporated. What has improved? It’s not like Ben Olsen’s hat trick will translate automatically to great things on offense; after all, this past weekend’s hat trick was Olsen’s first-ever and he’s an 8th-year pro. Still, they have clearly figured out something; the question is what and to what extent. No matter what it is, you can bet that every other team in the East is keeping close tabs on DC’s slow rise.
Rating: question, up.

Chicago Fire, 4-5-2; 14 pts. (11 games)
Like Red Bull, the Fire started with a 3-0-1 record. Basic math tells the tale that follows: 1 win, 5 losses, and 1 draw. Chicago is falling apart damned quickly and on both sides of the ball. This team’s persistent issue surrounds scoring, but that shortcoming ballooned into imminent doom during May when the Fire bled goals at a three-a-game clip. Chicago’s greatest hope comes in the person of Cuauthemoc Blanco, a Mexican midfield legend who will join the team after the ongoing Gold Cup. If he can’t turn around the offense, the Fire will again rely on Justin Mapp and Chris Rolfe - who are both quality players - to carry the load as they did to start the season; and thus the great hope reveals itself as a thin one. Rumors mention a Chilean star - Marcelo Salas, and it’s tempting to dub him a “former star” - joining the Mexican legend, but faith is in short supply.
Rating: DOWN...and nearing the muck.

Toronto FC, 3-6-1; 10 pts. (10 games)
When Toronto took the field for a May 12 contest versus Chicago one question stood out: when would TFC score their first-ever goal? Winning wasn’t part of the discussion back then. But something special started the 3-1 win that followed: Toronto’s irrepressible fans shouted on an improving and tough-as-nails team thereby making an away game at BMO Field an anxious occasion for visitors. Even after going 3-2-1 to turn around an 0-4-0 start, TFC still has quite a ways to go. The encouraging thing, however, is that they have started. When head coach Mo Johnston thinks he needs players, just goes and gets them: thus Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham joined the offense, while Marvell Wynne and Kevin Goldthwaite improved the defense. With the changes seeming to take, virtually no one thinks TFC will match the low-water mark set by Chivas USA’s in 2005.
Rating: UP...and they're the league bandwagon to boot.

Columbus Crew, 1-4-5; 8 pts. (10 games)
The unknown Crew player who kicked the corner flag out of the ground following his team’s 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo, said it all. Columbus’ chief accomplishment for the season so far amounts to alienating their fans and driving their coach mad. They can play well, even beautifully, all over the field...until the attacking third. At that point, well, no one can say what happens, but all agree it’s hard to watch. Nothing - neither trades, nor the acquisition of an Argetine legend (Guillermo Schelotto; MLS is big on legends this season) - seems up to fixing the problem and, to make matters worse, the once-mighty Crew defense is slipping as well. The standings say the Crew isn’t the worst in MLS, but, when you’re in the basement with the lights out, questions about how dark things are get academic pretty fast.

Moving now, to the Western Conference...

FC Dallas, 6-5-1; 19 pts. (12 games)
FC Dallas has mastered only one thing: book-ending confidence-building streaks with crushing losses. This habit plays havoc with perceptions; in spite of going 4-2-0 since the start of May and leading the West, a select sample of the punditry pegs them as the sixth-best team in MLS. Perhaps nothing better explains Dallas’ wayward path to the top of the West as the perfect balance they achieved in goals for and goals against: 17 on each side of the ledger, making them fourth in the league for goals for and second for goals against. Dallas’ young defense hurts them, which makes signs of offensive woes ahead - e.g. star forward Carlos Ruiz’s somewhat indifferent season so far, as well as the brutal and unfortunate injury to his partner Kenny Cooper - more ominous.
Rating: HOLDING STEADY...but definitely shaky.

Houston Dynamo, 5-5-1; 16 pts. (11 games)
What has happened to Houston so far shows that being last year’s champions only places extra emphasis on the phrase “last year’s” - as in, what have they done for Houston fans lately? By way of good news, Houston has (partially) atoned for a wretched early season by rattling off three straight wins; sadly, those had to compensate for the 2-5-1 record, as well as the long, long scoreless stretch, that came before. But the weirdest thing about all this is the fact that Houston picked up two of those wins absent notable starters like Ricardo Clark and perennial MVP candidate Dwayne DeRosario. Who needs star-power when you’ve got Joseph Ngwenya?
Rating: UP...but they had nowhere else to go.

Colorado Rapids, 4-4-3; 15 pts. (11 games)
Who knew “Colorado Rapids” was a synonym for “erratic?” To further complicate matters, the Rapids have ditched last year’s good-at-home, lousy-on-the-road formula; only three points separate their home 2-1-3 record from their away 2-3-0. Even the quality of the opposition doesn’t seem relevant: they’ll draw Real Salt Lake at home the week before beating Red Bull on the road. Baffling as they are, the Rapids have interesting players and a coach with an unbelievable eye for talent - which, unfortunately, doesn’t translate to getting that talent to perform on game day. The one consistent truth about Colorado is that they’ll likely remain inconsistent.
Rating: HOLDING STEADY...on a roller coaster.

Chivas USA, 4-3-2; 14 pts. (9 games)
Chivas’ fourth-place position looks bad till you realize they sit only five points behind West-leading FC Dallas with two games in hand. They hit some of the weaker teams early (Real Salt Lake, Columbus, Los Angeles Galaxy) and hitt good teams in moments of weakness (DC United in early May - and they still lost), but look at the standings and you’ll see they’ve got the most respectable goal differential in the West: +5 where the next best team is rocking a +1. No, they’re not burning up the league in goals, but get this: they have the best goals-against average in MLS. Things will definitely get harder - though Chivas adjusted for this by adding a bit of defensive toughness in Paolo Nagamura and Shavar Thomas. And they could really use offensive support to help first-year revelation Maykel Galindo. But, all in all, Chivas has kind of snuck into the pack - and those two games in hand look an awful lot like an ambush.
Rating: UP...thanks to situational dynamics.

Los Angeles Galaxy, 1-4-3; 6 pts. (8 games)
Small wonder talk about David Beckham bailing on his MLS contract are flying: no one in their right mind would want to join the Galaxy at this point. They enjoy the same goal-a-game attack as Chicago and, with injuries stacking up fast their defense no longer appears up to keeping them in games. With Landon Donovan out of the line-up (Gold Cup - and possibly Copa America) LA goes from a team bitten by a misfiring bug to a downright average outfit. If you’re looking for a silver lining, here’s the best possible: their next three games are against Columbus, Chicago, and Real Salt Lake - and all of them are at home.

Real Salt Lake, 0-3-6; 6 pts. (9 games)
At least RSL is won one competition this season: they fired and replaced their coach before any other MLS team. They also beat the Chinese National Team - but that doesn’t help them in the league. What is there to say about the only team in the league still without a win? Nothing much more than, it can only get better...maybe...then again, all those draws could become losses. Unbelievably, RSL has enjoyed a mini-renaissance under rookie-coach (and MLS legend) Jason Kreis; he has taught them the art of tying, replacing the four-goal losses from the season’s early days with goalless draws. On the other hand, that’s just not enough. Barring a major, possibly even implausible, turnaround RSL looks likely to maintain its perfect, post-season-free record.

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