MLS Week 14: Power Rankings and Progress Report

Week 14 was a hell of a thing, wasn’t it? Considering the crush of games between last Wednesday and yesterday afternoon en masse seems like trying to eat a Big Mac in one bite, something the Surgeon General would recommend against, no doubt. The weight of those games feels almost like a pivot point, a time to take stock of what came before and to study the prospects for the future.

As such, an expanded, context-free edition of this site’s power rankings seems in order. Rather than look back at past week’s rating, what comes below takes a step back for a shot at The Big Picture: impressions from the season’s frenetic, surprising opening games to the wilting pace of the recent, hot weeks, as well as signs of things to come will determine who goes where in this table; expect some personal blind-spots to misshape these standings as well (see: Galaxy, Los Angeles). Moreover, the rankings will bow to the playoff format: the top two teams from each conference will make up the top four, while the four teams that follow from there are the teams I expect to make the post-season.

In other words, an attempt will be made here to be both current and predictive...with the expectation that the distance between my estimation of things and reality should be amusingly vast.

Here goes...

1) Houston Dynamo
The Dynamo is, without question, the best team in Major League Soccer (MLS) right now. With them firing on all cylinders - and on both sides of the ball - I’m to a point where I’ll accept the vilest of food dares about this team making the playoffs (I’m open to drinking dares on them winning the West). Brad Davis’ injury upset the offensive balance a little, but Brian Ching/Joseph Ngwenya looks surprisingly effective and Stuart Holden looks like sufficient cover for DeRosario’s so-far sub-par 2007. With MLS’s (by far) sturdiest defense behind them, the Canadian Wonder only needs to wake up (or stops thinking about what tight bastards league honchos are midway through a dribble), for these guys will romp to a repeat.
What Might Kill ‘Em: Their brick-shithouse defense will carry them to the post-season, but they’ll need their offense to get them out of it smiling. A return of the early-season goals drought seems the likeliest pitfall. This matters because, among the rarefied breed of actual contenders, the question isn’t making the playoffs, but winning the league.

2) New England Revolution
When some people look at New England, they see a glass half-full; when I look at them, I see a glass three-quarters empty. Why am I hardest on the ones I love? That’s a big question with a tough love answer: the Revolution will grab the top spot in the East because they’re one of the rare teams in MLS without significant holes somewhere on the field - e.g. they’ll make it by default. Solid and unspectacular, they’re hard to beat and possess the firepower to punish most teams. New England takes the field with two missions, the second subordinate to the first: Mission 1: Stop the other team from scoring; Mission 2: score as many goals as possible without in any way compromising Mission 1. For what it’s worth, those adjectives - “solid and unspectacular” - get at why they make the finals, but don’t win them. The only question left is, why do I like this team?
What Might Kill ‘Em: Given the thin (certainly cheap, possibly cynical) calculus on which this team operates, they seem one prolonged slip in attentiveness or confidence away from contender, or even meaningful, post-season, status. It’s possible this is happening now, but I’ve waited a while for this slip to come, Steve Nicol to get fired, etc. Even through several series of rookie classes, it never has. What can I say? The man has a system and it works - even if it’s too often uninspiring.

3) DC United
In all honesty, DC is the only team in this mix I can see failing to make the playoffs. But I’ll also admit upfront I don’t know how they do what they do, but the fact remains that they do (got that? Good). Judging by form and appearances, Coach Tom Soehn has figured out how to make the pieces of his mysteriously effective machine work. Christian Gomez doesn’t seem the threat he was in 2006 and both their big-shit new signings still seem to be finding their feet....and, yet, the team from DC keeps making progress; maybe Troy Perkins rediscovering confidence played the key role there. Their middling scores in the significant statistical categories (goals for/against) come from their early season nightmare; the fact they’ve attained respectability speaks up the team’s recovery.
What Might Kill ‘Em: Placing DC so high relies on two suppositions: first, that there’s no shame to losing to Houston on the road and, second, dubbing the loss to Real Salt Lake an anomalous hiccup. The long and the short is that, because DC is a model organization - good fans, plugged-in front office - signs of progress seem reliable. Says here, they’ll make the playoffs.

4) FC Dallas
Call me crazy (cue chorus: “You’re crazy!”), but Dallas’ recent defensive solidity - along with the introduction of some leadership in Adrian Serioux - has me viewing them as 2007’s dark-horse contender; I give tons of credit for that turn-around to Dario Sala, but the rest of the pieces are shaping up as well. Add a return to health for Kenny Cooper into the mix, the likelihood of Carlos Ruiz, at last, slimming down to fighting weight, a great pair of recent additions in Juan Toja and Pablo Ricchetti, and - gasp - useful threats like Arturo Alvarez and Ramon Nunez lurking in the wings, and Dallas looks like a decent candidate for making some noise. There was something curiously inspiring - at least from the point of view of Dallas fans - to that draw with Houston a couple weeks back, ugly as it was. The knock on Dallas has always been fragility, so the sight of them kicking and scrapping walks that one back a bit.
What Might Kill ‘Em: When you’re cursed, you’re cursed. Dallas has to exercise their demons, establish a sense of belief they can win the big ones...whoops, the verb ought to be “exorcise.” It’s Ruiz they need to exercise...

5) Kansas City Wizards
This team can score; assuming Eddie Johnson doesn’t bring his Copa America form home with him, they should score even more. Wayward finishing has hurt them lately, but the chances are coming by, literally, the score. The Wizards are fast, pretty, and fun to watch. The fruits they derive from pressuring teams all over the field showed as recently as this past weekend against LA. The highly relevant question is whether that same pressuring game is what leaves them so vulnerable at the back. If you accept that statement that Dallas sets a Gold Standard (of sorts) for Dodgy Defending, what does the fact that KC has allowed one more goal in the season so far say? (And, it should be noted, in two fewer games.) The hard reality is that KC’s defensive performance ranks with Chicago’s and RSL’s - not good company. Sort out the defense and KC suddenly becomes a contender; but will sorting out the defense take away from the flash offense? That’s the question of KC’s season.
What Might Kill ‘Em: The defense, without question; teams that can shut up shop against these guys will find a way past them eventually.

6) Chivas USA
This constitutes one of my “wacky” pick (OK, the third, perhaps fourth), but I think I’ve got the general picture right, even if I louse up the details: i.e. the post-season will feature a 5-3 split, favoring the Eastern Conference. I’m feel comfortable, though not quite confident, about that call. Where I don’t feel so good is picking Chivas as that team. There’s enough to like about them - beginning with that c-rrazzzy home record (5-0-1, 1 goal conceded) - and, in general, they strike me as a team built essentially right for MLS: solid in terms of shape and equipped with enough lethality to win close ones. On the downside, their 8th in the league for scoring and, at times, it seems like Maykel Galindo is the all the offense they have. Then there’s that road form issue: 1-5-2...ouch. Still, a win or two - or as many ties as possible - in their seven remaining road games and the Goats control their destiny. Not too shabby.
What Might Kill ‘Em: So many different threats: a resurgence from LA; Colorado waking up and realizing they can win, etc. Combine any of these with Chivas’ struggles on the road and they’re one of the three Western Conference teams hitting the links early. For what it’s worth, I count LA getting their shit together the biggest threat.

7) Columbus Crew
I don’t view this as wacky; Columbus, making the playoffs, that is; placing them over New York? Maybe. The thing is, Columbus has as much depth as any team in the league - not quality of depth, but simple depth in the sense of players familiar with and available for familiar with positions. That amounts to guys playing where they’re comfortable, which should spare them the Personnel Hell Red Bull has endured. The Crew’s offense started showing signs of life with the deal that brought in Alejandro Moreno; Guillermo Schelotto has taken care of the running the show. The offense’s stir coincided with another happy event: the up-and-down defense hitting an up in the form of three consecutive clean-sheets and only six goals allowed in their last six games; mixed in all that were seven points of nine against higher-placed Eastern Conference rivals. In general, the trends are good; so long as the Crew keeps guys like Chad Marshall and Schelotto fit and productive they’re a plausible playoff team.
What Might Kill ‘Em: Injuries...or the possibility they'll wake up and remember they're Columbus. I kid, I kid. They’ve got great depth - in midfield in particular, even if it’s a bit green - but not a defense or forward. Take a hit there and this call goes pear-shaped fast.

8) Red Bull New York
Week 4 - y’know, back when no one could score on Red Bull and Dane Richards and Clint Mathis looked like God out there - well, that seems like ten seasons ago with the way Red Bull looks lately. A funny thing about that: it’s not so much that Red Bull simply sucks, but it appears they may just suck on the road - against competent teams, at least. The stretch of June and July games, in which Red Bull allowed 16 and scored only 10, featured six road games out of seven; the two wins they managed came against Colorado and a lucky one against Toronto. Seeing as they stay at home till the middle of August, we should all know a little more about New York by then. In the here and now, the injury-plagued defense draws a lot of commentary - and that is a problem - but there’s plenty more wrong with the Red Bulls, some related to aging Europeans fizzling on the wings. For all that, I get the sense that what’s becoming an annual struggle between Kansas City and New York will recur in 2007, only with a bigger potential prize: whichever team that gets things right soonest could easily bump New England or DC.
What Might Kill ‘Em: The comphrensive funk they’re now in could prove lethal. A lack of depth in defense is the chief structural problem, but they haven’t looked good much of anywhere. Could this be Arena’s first outright, no-safety failure? Will the New York market destroy another reputation? I'd pay to see that (because I'm a horrible, little man).

OK, since I don’t think the rest of these cats will make it, I’ll write shorter pieces for them. And do note the subtle difference in language: it’s no longer “what might kill ‘em,” but “What Might Let ‘Em In.”

9) Los Angeles Galaxy
If there's a fly in the ointment, it lives in LA. I thought they looked pretty good against KC - though that could be down to the Wizards approach buying them crazy amounts of space. Still, the difference between this game and how appallingly horrible they looked in losses to Colorado, Dallas, and the Crew recommends keeping an eye on this bunch. Unlike a number of teams below, LA has made trades to improve - or attempt to improve, anyway. They’re schedule might kill them in the end, but at least the cavalry has arrived.
What Might Let ‘Em In: It won’t take more than “good enough” form, a slip by Chivas, and continued horrible play from Colorado. Way stranger things have happened.

10) Toronto FC
I start the no-hopers list with the team most likely to defy the label. At least Toronto meets losses with determination, even anger; the rest of the remaining teams look flustered and harried. They’ve got the fight, but need to learn to win on the road. And, just to pass on a bit of advice: I don’t think playing both Colin Samuel and Danny Dichio is the answer.
What Might Let ‘Em In: A couple road wins would probably do it - especially if they come against the more vulnerable Eastern teams. Translation: they really needed to beat Chicago this past weekend.

11) Colorado Rapids...
....are in free-fall. Fire Fernando, dudes, your team hasn’t won since May. (Where’s Real Salt Lake when you need them?) On the upside, the main problem looks like offense: the wait for their last two-goal game goes back further still to April. At this point, it’s almost not a question that Clavijo is to blame: the man who excels at getting the most out of human reclamation projects has now built a team of them - and it shows.
What Might Let ‘Em In: The return of that mysterious Rapids/Raiders swagger. When they get in that “us-versus-them” mode, Colorado starts winning - ugly, yes, but winning all the same.

12) Chicago Fire
I don’t know anything about the Fire’s new coach, but I believe one thing to be true: Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t make winners of this bunch. I kid, I kid. In truth, last weekend’s game against Toronto showed a lot about this Fire team: individual players found ways around the TFC defense, they played in beautiful balls one. In one particular memorable (and sad) moment, Chris Armas capped a promising Fire move with a nearly perfect run into the area, but no one followed him, and no one was there to knock in an enticing, yet blind, cross. The thing is, that game was theirs for the taking.
What Might Let ‘Em In: Armas’ run wasn’t the only instance of good play going nowhere. Maybe Osorio will get the Fire’s attackers on the same page. There are useful players, but they’re misfiring to a degree where I want to hide the children.

13) Real Salt Lake
The odds would have to be biblical to make a bet on these guys to make the playoffs worth taking. The smarter bet might be on them beating Chivas’ worst-ever season. Bad, and unlikely to get better.
What Might Let ‘Em In: The Earth opening up and swallowing three teams from each conference. Points deduction for match-fixing among the teams above them. Perhaps a massive bribe to bring Jack Warner into the picture. In other words, it ain’t gonna happen.

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