MLS World Cup break ends; where do Western Conference teams stand?
Major League Soccer’s brief nod of respect towards the World Cup concludes today. 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 11:30pm 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 Western Conference sides.
1st place -- 29 points
After a hot start to the season, Scottish forward Johnny Russell has cooled. Meanwhile, Hungarian Daniel Salloi has picked up the pace. Peter Vermes has developed a balanced squad, solid defensively and capable of scoring from many positions. The defence is joint-best in the league.
The ball is primarily worked through Roger Espinosa in the middle. The Honduran has five assists on the campaign. Yohan Croizet and Roger Medranda are integral to the attack, as well. Defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez jumps into the attack frequently. The Spaniard has found the net twice and set up teammates on three occasions.
The one disappointment has been veteran right-back Graham Zusi who has two goals but hasn’t created. Of course, the team has evolved since Dom Dwyer’s midseason trade to Orlando last summer. Without a central target man, SKC doesn’t cross into the box very much anymore. Although he is a crowd favourite at Children’s Mercy Park, Vermes might consider moving the 31-year-old to clear up salary and let him have another opportunity with a team more suited to his talents.
2nd place -- 29 points
The Toros are the Western Conference version of their possibly soon-to-be neighbours, Columbus. They are in the mix almost every season but have never quite reached the brass ring. Last season was an anomaly. FCD missed the playoffs during a heavy roster turnover. This season, Oscar Pareja has them challenging for the Supporters Shield again.
That and a US Open Cup are the only trophies he’s won, ruining any comparison to Mauricio Pochettino. Their work is similar, however, both building tactically adept young squads with plenty of promise. While Pareja has two trophies, he doesn’t and hasn’t ever had a Harry Kane type talisman to spearhead his attack.
His defence, always sound, has conceded the fewest goals this campaign, on just 14 along with SKC. There are a few injuries, the most severe being Anton Nedyalkov broken collarbone. The Toros have the depth to cope, though. Expect them to stay near or at the top of the West for the regular season’s duration. It’s the playoffs where they’ll have to show they’ve improved.
3rd place -- 24 pts
Given a little more time and much more support, Bob Bradley has done at the first asking what he couldn’t at Swansea. In its debut season on the planet, Los Angeles FC is proving skilled, entertaining, well-balanced, and most importantly, a winning side. Swans fans may sneer, dismissing the MLS in comparison to the Premier League’s pedigree, but it’s unlikely the club could have attracted a top scorer like Carlos Vela. The Wings have him and more.
Vela will be missed during the World Cup. Mexico are well-poised though not yet guaranteed progression to the Round of 16. Happily [sorry fellas, I mean sadly], Egypt’s Omar Gaber and Costa Rica’s Marco Urena will soon be back from the Steppes, their countries eliminated in the group stage. Bradley has been fortunate the injury bug has stayed away from the Banc of California Stadium, with only reserve keeper Luis Lopez out long-term.
When play resumes, young Uruguayan sensation Diego Rossi’s maturity will be tested without mentor Vela around. Urena seems a likely stand-in for the interim. His five assists on the campaign have played a part in pushing the youngster, who has six himself, to the seven-goal mark.
The Wings are five points below the two first-round bye places and only three above seventh. They’ll have to prove they can hold the fort until Vela’s seven goals return. Otherwise, it will be their first opportunity to use the “young team” excuse.
4th place -- 23 points
Like the team just above them, it’s amazing to see the ‘Caps this high in the table. They’re not a new team, in fact well established, but they are not playing anywhere near their usual standard. The club has stood by notoriously defensive-minded manager Carl Robinson despite the team shipping 30 goals in 16 matches. The attack has kept them in the playoff places, but Vancouver is nonetheless the highest-placed team with a negative goal difference, one of just occupying a playoff position.
There are no injuries to report. Hulking defender Kendall Waston will be returning from World Cup duty with Costa Rica.
That said, it’s difficult to see the Whitecaps holding onto their place. Their attack has produced 26 goals, all through their forwards. The midfield has not chipped in, the defence has managed two. Worse those two groups have provided only five assists between them, with left back Marcel de Jong’s serving up two. The attack is predictable and there is little to their build-up.
It may be advisable to identify a replacement for Robinson before the season is lost.
5th place -- 22 points
Mike Petke’s rebuild is beginning to take shape. After a woeful start that is still reflected in the 29 goals the normally stalwart Claret and Cobalt have surrendered, Petke has strung some results together. He has a veteran team with 12 players at least 28-years-old.
While the World Cup hasn’t siphoned players from his roster, injury has. Defender Tony Beltran is out long-term following knee surgery. Luke Mulholland and Joao Plata both have back issues.
The former Red Bull boss’ biggest need is a finisher like Bradley Wright-Phillips. Corey Baird’s four goals lead RSL.
6th place -- 22 points
There was a lot to sort through when the season began in the Rose City and the club had to be elsewhere while doing so. Stadium renovations at Providence Park.were not completed until nearly two months into the campaign. The roster also had to adjust to new boss Gio Savarese after Caleb Porter’s abrupt resignation, and winger Darlington Nagbe’s departure for Atlanta.
They’re coping well. After going winless on the road to begin the season, the Timbers came home and dispatched NYCFC, among others. With Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco coordinating the attack, they’re now in the playoff picture, looking up at Vancouver and RSL’s negative goal differences with optimism.
7th place -- 21 points
Wilmer Cabrera is Jose Mourinho without the flip attitude and full trophy cabinet. Is there a connection there? Possibly, but it’s a story for elsewhere. The Colombian polarises opinion. Many love him. Many more despise him. There are few in the middle.
Team chemistry seems to be an issue at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Dynamo get goals from several players, including Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas. The defence is reliable, if not stellar. Yet, they have slipped out of the playoff spots after a decent start. Cabrera has had to deal with injuries, AJ de la Garza and Andrew Wenger most notably. Adolfo Machado will be back from Russia soon, if Panama’s 3-0 loss to Belgium is indicative.
Even so, Houston should be higher in the table. Every club goes through a rough patch every season [even Manchester City and Barcelona]. The Dynamo have used up theirs.
8th place -- 20 points
The Galaxy are Zlatan Ibrahimovic's team now. The Swedish legend arrived with an impact, scoring the equaliser and winner in his first match, against El Trafico rivals LAFC. Since, Ibra has found it difficult to transfer his winning attitude to his new squad. The Galaxy are losing games they should win and play poorly on defence. Worse, Ibra has been struggling for goals recently. Maybe the break was exactly what he needed to recharge. With the brothers Dos Santos with Mexico for the World Cup and midfielder Sebastian Lletget injured again, it's been a trial pulling the team together. At least strike partner Ola Kamara has chipped in with six goals to his seven.
Given Zlatan's impressive winners medal collection, you have to bet on him at least getting this talented squad to the playoffs. The Galaxy are only two points from the final spot with half the season to go. What am I worried about?
[Looks around nervously]
9th place -- 16 points
The Loons are in their second MLS campaign. The franchise has elected to go the austerity route, not signing any big names, trying to develop a solid foundation. Under Adrian Heath, they are accomplishing that.
The team plays with grit but could use more flair. It’s goal by committee in St Paul. Christian Martinez and Darwin Quintero lead the way with three each. Seventeen goals in 14 matches are subpar, however, especially when you’ve allowed 26.
Costa Rica’s Francisco Calvo is due to return from World Cup duty, but the Loons are spread thin in midfield with Sean Cronin, Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay all in the physio’s room, playing pinochle with defender Marc Burch.
The club needs to open the purse strings during the summer window to improve the squad.
10th place -- 11 points
Some would argue that Seattle and Toronto’s presence near the bottom of their respective conference tables after contesting consecutive MLS Cup finals illustrates the difficulties of maintaining a squad in a salary-capped league. Sure, there’s that, but also the possibility that new boss and Kelsey Grammer look-alike Brian Schmetzer was riding ousted manager Sigi Schmid’s coattails rather than building on his success.
It’s not all Schmetzer’s fault. Contracts bind him to ageing players like Ossie Alonso [32, coming back from injury], Will Bruin [28, four goals] and Clint Dempsey [35 and one]. The player the team intended to build its future around, Jordan Morris, is injured again. He looks a bit like Wayne Rooney but his medical chart could pass for Jack Wilshere. Then there is Nicolas Lodeiro, who is apparently wearing out his welcome yet again.
Toronto looks like they’re back on track. Seattle seems a lost cause. Dynamite, anyone?
11th place -- 10 points
Welcome to the joint-worst defence in MLS. On the other hand, San Jose has fight and will put it in your net, given half a chance. The good news is the squad is young. Twenty-seven-year-old Danny Hoesen’s nine goals have taken the baton from 35-year-old Chris Wondolowski’s four.
Mikael Stahre has material with which to work. The question is whether he’ll be given time.
Even with Harold Cummings and Anibal Godoy returning from the Panama squad, and an almost fully healthy squad, it’s time for the Quakes to prepare for next season.
12th place -- 9 points
Dead last is not what keeper Tim Howard was envisioning when he made his return to MLS from Everton. The situation doesn’t look like changing, however. Up front, Dominique Badji and his half-dozen goals are the lone bright spot. Albanian left wing Shkelzen Gashi has alternatively been injured and not preferred by new boss Anthony Hudson, even though he has had an impact in an attacking midfield role in the past. If Seattle need some dynamite to blow up the squad, the Rapids may wish to consider the nuclear option.