MLS World Cup break ends; where do Eastern Conference teams stand?
On Saturday, Major League Soccer’s brief nod of respect towards the World Cup concludes. The league went on hiatus on June 13th. In previous World Cup years, MLS has suspended play for the entire group stage. Not this year.
When you consider the two critical factors, the decision makes sense.
First, the World Cup is in Russia, which is 7-10 hours ahead of the United States. During the tournament, the earliest scheduled weekend games in MLS are set for 4:30 EDT. That is 11:30 pm in Russia. Late World Cup games will just be concluding when the matches stateside kick off. MLS can pick up viewers who have just watched an international match and have an appetite for more.
Second, the United States did not qualify for the World Cup. With the Americans not participating, only 19 MLS players from 11 franchises were summoned for World Cup duty. Given there are 23 teams in the league, less than half are shorthanded during the competition. The numbers can change if any of the five players on call for their countries are needed, but at worst it would be a minimal increase.
Thus, most teams [should] have been using the 11-day break to heal various knocks, work on their shape and make any tactical adjustments coaches might deem necessary to rescue a spiralling season.
Here’s what’s on the minds of Eastern Conference sides.
1st place -- 33 points
A healthy Josef Martinez is on 14 goals in 16 games. Miguel Almiron is on seven assists. Both lead MLS in their respective categories. Their partnership explains why the Five Stripes are running away with the Supporters Shield in a similar fashion to Toronto FC last season.
Manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martinez is enjoying life in his second MLS campaign. The former Barcelona and Argentina boss doesn’t want to push his squad to hard during this layover. His biggest concern is keeping everyone healthy and on track for the season’s second half. His biggest worry is left back Greg Garza’s extended absence. Almiron has a minor shoulder issue, Martinez may have broken his nose in an aerial duel. Neither is expected to miss time. Defender Chris McCann is recovering from a leg injury.
2nd place -- 28 points
When Arsene Wenger announced his resignation, Patrick Vieira rated as a possible replacement, despite having yet to win anything as NYCFC’s manager. He quickly ruled himself out for the Arsenal post, claiming that, although he felt ready to work in Europe, he was happy in the Bronx. Shortly thereafter, he accepted the job at Nice.
Domenec Torrent took over the reigns. City’s form has dipped slightly, understandable after losing a popular coach. They are five points off Atlanta’s pace but have proven they are on the same level with home and away draws in their two encounters this season.
Torrent has lost two players to the World Cup. Ronald Matarrita and Rodney Wallace are both with Costa Rica. Neither has featured full time with the Sky Blues. Wallace started early but was the odd man out in the shuffle after David Villa’s return from injury. He had one assist in 419 minutes over eight games. Matarrita was a time-killing substitute late in matches under Vieira but had begun to feature regularly for the new man. He has one goal in 341 minutes over nine appearances. A bigger problem is holding mid Yangel Herrera’s loss for the entire campaign following a severe ankle injury.
The break is a perfect opportunity for Torrent and the squad to adapt to one another. It’s important City keep United in sight in the second half.
3rd place -- 27 points
You often hear how someone’s picture should be next to a word in the dictionary. The Columbus Crew have dibs on unflappable. Despite losing key attacking players Ola Kamara [LA Galaxy] and Justin Meram [Orlando City], their owner unveiling further plans for a move to Austin, Texas and the State of Ohio suing said owner, Anthony Precourt, using the untested ‘Modell Law’ to prevent the franchise from leaving, the squad remains where it always is: right in the Eastern Conference playoff mix.
Gyasi Zardes came the opposite way in the Kamara deal and has worked out well. The US international has 10 goals and two assists in 17 matches. Coach Gregg Berhalter just keeps his well-oiled Crew ticking over like a powerful engine. With the squad in full health, he’ll be preparing to make a run at NYCFC to claim the Eastern Conference’s second automatic playoff spot.
4th place -- 26 points
The Red Bull’s are hot on City’s trail, as well. In fact, they’ve owned the Hudson River Derby this season, shellacking their rivals 4-0 in league play on May 5th, then applying an equally thick second coat on June 6th in the US Open Cup’s 4th Round.
Manager Jesse Marsch took some stick for zipping off to Europe to complete a UEFA license, thereby missing an early-season game, but he has proven more loyal [or less desired] than former rival Vieira. Marsch will not have Panamanian defenders Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar in his rearguard for at least the group phase of the World Cup. French attacking mid Vincent Bezecourt is out two months with an ACL sprain. The Red Bulls are comfortably in the playoff frame but won’t want to give too much ground when league play resumes.
5th place -- 24 points
Two storylines dominate the Revs' season.
First, Brad Friedel has taken to managing like high-gloss polish to his scalp. The follicly-challenged former Premier League goalkeeper has his team in a playoff position despite a prolonged contract dispute that sidelined the team’s talented no.10.
Second, said no.10, Lee Nguyen, was finally sold to LAFC at the league’s Primary Transfer Deadline for $750,000 with another $200,000 in add-ons pending. Nguyen had been in a similar position to Riyad Mahrez at Leicester, refusing to play after the Revolution refused to renegotiate his contract to a wage commensurate with his ability. Unlike Leicester City, however, the New England hierarchy decided it didn’t want Nguyen in their clubhouse again. Nor were they willing to put him on the market until the last minute.
After months in limbo, Nguyen is as almost as far away from Gillette Stadium as possible while remaining an MLS player. Friedel has no distractions heading into the season’s second half, other than finding a solid replacement for defender Chris Tierney, who is lost for the season. Moving forward, it will be all about retaining their playoff position through until November.
6th place -- 19 points
If Jason Kreis can do this with an entirely new attack still trying to settle, look out in the run-in and coming campaigns. The Lions are holding onto the final Eastern Conference playoff spot on goal difference over the Chicago Fire. Newcomers Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, and Will Johnson are already a dangerous quartet in the final third. Add in burgeoning young star Christopher Mueller’s three goals and three assists and opponents can’t switch off for an instant.
The problem is the defence ships goals out faster than this group can score them. No doubt Kreis has spent the 11-day break trying to shore up the rearguard. He must if Orlando is to hold their place for a postseason berth. Don’t be surprised if the board look to bring in a centre-back or defensive-mid during the summer window. Lamine Sane, Jonathan Spector and Christian Higuita are among the Lions highest-paid non-designated players, which won’t make it easy, but the current setup is failing miserably.
7th place -- 19 points
The Fire have their own defensive woes, though not as blatant as Orlando’s. They’re fine in attack. Nemanja Nikolic is on eight goals. It’s not nearly the pace Josef Martinez is setting, but the Hungarian international is receiving help from both Aleksandar Katai and Alan Gordon. Katai has put in five, Gordon another four. Bastian Schweinsteiger is pulling the strings from midfield, with four assists and two strikes of his own.
If Veljko Paunovic can stabilise the rearguard, Chicago can push Orlando for the final playoff spot. If not, they’ll be looking over their shoulders at teams coming up from behind.
8th place -- 18 points
The Union are already in Chicago’s rearview, just a point back. Jim Curtin’s issue is the opposite of the team’s he’s chasing. His side plays solid defence but is starving for goals. Sixteen in 15 games isn’t going to bring many wins.
The squad is healthy except for defender Richie Marquez, who has been coping with a sports hernia. Curtin needs to find a focal point in attack. Forward Cory Burke and midfielders Ilsinho and Borek Dockal share the team lead in goals with three each. The Union are difficult to play, especially at home where the Sons of Ben rain abuse on opponents from the stands, but unless they find a legitimate goal threat, Philly and Curtin will develop a reputation as the Burnley and Sean Dyche of Major League Soccer.
9th place -- 15 points
Ignacio Piatti knows how Mo Salah feels at the World Cup even though the veteran Argentine is nowhere near Russia for the tournament. His quality is the lone bright light in the Impact squad. Operating from the left flank, the 33-year-old leads the team with seven goals and five assists. Chilean Jeisson Vargas’ return from loan with Universidad gave him someone to work with, but the 20-year-old has only found the back of the net four times.
Of course, the biggest problem is behind them. Laurent Ciman’s departure to Los Angeles has left a rather large hole in the defence. Montreal has shipped 31 goals, joint-worst in MLS with Orlando and San Jose. Lyon legend Remi Garde may regret taking a job in the only French-speaking city in the league if he can’t right the ship. He’ll understand every insult hurled from the seats in Stade Saputo as the playoff places pull away.
At least he can point to the medical chart. Three defenders are shelved and two midfielders. To make matters worse, Vargas picked up a knock heading into the break.
Even the slightest improvement would help. The Impact are the only side in the league without a draw. If they could rescue a few losses in the second half, they might find some momentum.
10th place -- 15 points
The MLS Cup holders faced two problems to begin the campaign. First, they were chasing the CONCACAF Champions League title. Second, attacking mid Victor Vazquez was still recovering from injury and wouldn’t be available for the season's first month or so. Manager Greg Vanney went all-in on the Champions League, rotating his top players out for MLS matches, in for the continental competition, but came up craps on the last roll, losing to Chivas de Guadalajara in the two-legged final. Then, as he turned his attention to a league title defence, striker Jozy Altidore came up lame.
It took a while for Toronto to get it going. Altidore and his five goals should be back in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Vazquez is back on form, and Jonathan Osorio is filling in admirably. Osorio is edging out Sebastian Giovinco for the team scoring lead, 9:7, and Vazquez has added four. It’s almost a given Toronto will overtake Orlando in sixth. The question is whether they can cover the wider gap to join the top five, possibly earning home advantage in the one-off play-in round that starts the MLS postseason?
11th place -- 10 points
Ben Olsen wouldn’t mind seeing Wayne Rooney walk through the clubhouse door. The Times reported on June 4th that the inaugural MLS champions had agreed terms with Everton for the England all-time scorer. Agreeing personal terms has proved difficult.
Coming to a last-place team may not be that appealing and Rooney has heard enough from the boo-birds in the last few seasons. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the least popular person in the national capital and might be enough to turn the season around.
Rooney operating the attack might take some pressure off the defensive corps, which has been conceding two goals per game on average. That’s partially due to injury. DC is another side with a handful of defenders and midfielders shelved, a half-dozen in their case. As those players come back into the squad, Rooney’s late-career penchant for a playmaking role might suit. Respecting his presence, opponents might commit fewer numbers forward.
Because they were waiting for their new ground to open, the Black-and-Red have played far fewer games than other MLS teams. With anywhere from two to five games in hand on the rest of the Eastern Conference, Olsen’s squad has the opportunity to make up ground. Before you write them off, remember they were a playoff side in the three seasons before last year’s collapse, finishing top in the division in 2014.