We're through 11 weeks of Major League Soccer. No team has emerged as the clear favorite at this juncture, but maybe one will emerge soon. We'll see.
Clash of the Titans
Two of the best teams in MLS went head to head on Saturday, and the result was back-and-forth, end-to-end action that culminated in a 1-1 draw between the Montreal Impact and the Philadelphia Union.
The Eastern Conference is weak and mediocre this season, despite the fact that three of the league's best teams play on, or close to, the Atlantic coast. The top three clubs in the East—Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto FC—would not be in the playoffs in the Western Conference, and the disparity between the average number of points in each conference (17.4 to 12.2) is staggering. But, as displayed in the Stade Saputo encounter mentioned above, the Impact and Union are quickly debunking the myth that every Eastern Conference club is lackluster.
For one, the Impact are officially the best team in the conference and, arguably, the most likely team to challenge Toronto for the top spot. Ignacio Piatti is performing at an incredible rate right now—he's played the best of anyone in MLS this season outside of The Italian Who Shall Not Be Named—and Didier Drogba will continue to do Drogba things as long as his knee or hip or hamstring doesn't explode in the next few weeks. However, it's the support that those two players have that makes Montreal as good as they are.
Chance creation in the central areas has been IMFC's biggest weapon this year, and it couldn't happen without the help of multiple other players. Harry Shipp is at his best as a number-ten, and when defenders inevitably quadruple-team Drogba, he finds room outside the box to pick out a pass. Marco Donadel—when healthy—plays from deep and has the ability to hit impossible long balls that somehow find the feet, head or chest of someone in blue. With speedy wingers like Dominic Oduro, Johan Venegas, Lucas Ontivero, and, eventually, Andres Romero, running all over the place with video game-like quickness, those underrated chance creators have targets outside of Piatti and Drogba.
Of course, the superstar attacking duo the Impact possess do their own bit of playmaking, even if it's in a slightly different way. Piatti, for his part, is one of the most skillful dribblers in MLS right now, and is amazing when given the opportunity to run at the opposing defense and do productive things. He is capable of hitting the final ball, and can do things like this at any given moment:
The Argentine can create on the wing or centrally, wherever there is more space to work.
Drogba can make things happen simply by existing at this point. He drags defenders around the field and opens up holes for other players, often holding up the ball and using his exceptional strength to find a pass to a runner. Also, he is an expert finisher, very good at pressing players into turnovers, an aerial threat, and deceivingly good at making incisive passes.
Basically, he's what I imagine Zlatan will be like if and when he comes to MLS.
The Impact are a really tough team to stop. Teams only succeed against Montreal's deadly attack if they play compact, organized defense and are able defend 1v1 and condense the central channels. Columbus failed to do any of this last week, and allowed four goals. The Union did it on Saturday, holding them to only a goal in Montreal.
That's one of the reasons why Philly—who finished 19th in the league last year—is right up there with IMFC in the Eastern Conference. They have improved exponentially on defense, with Andre Blake an early favorite for Goalkeeper of the Year and their multitude of young, talented defenders getting off to a good start on the professional level. Keegan Rosenberry, a third overall pick in the 2016 SuperDraft, is playing impressively well at right-back, and the rest of the backline—which includes Rosenberry's fellow rookie and college teammate Joshua Yaro—is stout in front of Blake, who is likely to start for Jamaica at the Copa America.
The defense is far from the only reason why the Union have gotten to this point, however. C.J. Sapong has been huge at the striker position, the midfield is doing well in Maurice Edu's absence, and players like Tranquillo Barnetta and Sebastien Le Toux have been very active in attack; this is a talented team, and one that shouldn't be overlooked as the season wares on.
The same can be said about Montreal. Both of these clubs are not to be underrated, and have told the American soccer community as much over the past few weeks.
Kamara's new colors
Winning 2-0 at home against the worst team in MLS while just barely clinging to a playoff spot in a bad conference will not make you the newest Supporters' Shield contenders. But you know what will? Acquiring the league's best number-nine to go along with the league's second-best playmaker in an attack that already includes a plethora of "why haven't they been called-up?" skill players.
Now, this is not to say I think the Revs will win the Supporters' Shield—because they won't—but I will maintain that this looks like a good squad, at least up front.
After performing highway robbery on last year's Cup finalists, Jay Heaps has New England looking like the newest "wow, they're really good" team. Kei Kamara arrived from sinking Columbus for his salary and a package of draft picks that would matter if this were the NFL, joining Lee Nguyen, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, Kellyn Rowe, Teal Bunbury and Charlie Davies in the Revs' übertalented attack.
It's as hard to face this team as ever now with Kamara in the lineup, because he's just another star with a unique skill-set to deal with. He makes them a lot better, and there's a case to be made that they are now the team to beat. Of course, New England are not without problems.
The backline has been subpar recently. Andrew Farrell has struggled at center-back, and they have had to deal with multiple injuries on defense. The defensive midfield pairing of Scott Caldwell and Gershon Koffie has mostly been good, but Koffie has a disturbing tendency to take pointless yellow cards every single game. They're still just sixth in the East, and will be right in the middle of a tight playoff battle for the rest of the season.
All in all, though, this team has gotten considerably better with the acquisition of Kamara, and they proved it with a persistant attacking display against the Fire, constantly putting pressure and creating opportunities against the hard-to-break down defense of Chicago. Now we see if they can sustain it.
1. I wish MLS would find a better television partner than Unimas. The Hispanic network showed a split-screen of MLS and Liga MX for a third of the D.C. United-New York Red Bulls game it televised on Friday—proving it really doesn't care about MLS—and the play-by-play commentator is horrible to listen to (and it's not just the ridiculous goooooooaaal calls). Also, many people, me included, don't even have the channel.
It's great that the league is getting exposure, but I think they would be better off getting a contract somewhere else to go along with ESPN and Fox Sports. I just can't listen to Ramses Sandoval anymore.
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is rumored to be joining the Galaxy next season. Not sure how that would work with MLS's, say, unique roster rules, but the arrival of Zlatan would be great for the league. Hopefully he does come to the US.
If he ends up in LA, Bruce Arena will have the tactical decision of the century on his hands: How to you put Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Gyasi Zardes and Zlatan on the field at the same time?
3. The Red Bulls played a 4-2-2-2 formation against D.C. United, and saw the offense sputter on the road at RFK. Gonzalo Veron looked promising in his second start of the season, but aside from him, RBNY looked flat throughout the lineup as D.C. put considerable pressure on the central midfield. Jesse Marsch would be better off sticking with the 4-2-3-1 that helped them win so much last year.
Lloyd Sam is better on the wing rather than in a central role, and with two strikers up top, the Red Bulls will lose the midfield battle more often than not. Overall, it was a lackluster performance. Stick with what works.
4. Columbus Crew SC didn't look that bad without Kei Kamara in the lineup. Granted, the other Kamara (Ola, no relation) didn't look great in his first MLS start, but with the other weapons the Crew possess (Cedric Mabwati is more than just a super sub), they could survive without their star.
Federico Higuain is still spraying balls to the wing, Ethan Finlay is still there receiving those balls, and Harrison Afful is still pushing all the way into the box from his full-back spot. They're a diminished team, but they're not a dead team.
5. The Portland Timbers continue to suffer the post-championship blues. Speaking of blues, the New York City Blues defeated the Timbers on Sunday by a score of 2-1 with their newly trademarked possession-based style and another world-class blast from Tommy Mac. Maybe Patrick Viera has NYCFC starting to figure things out.
6. Real Salt Lake started well, but have fallen hard recently. They've lost three of their past four after beginning the season on a tear, and are currently searching for answers.
The most recent loss was to the lowly Houston Dynamo—currently last in the Western Conference. Jeff Cassar's got a lot of work to do.
7. FC Dallas got a win over the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, while Sporting Kansas City topped Orlando City on Sunday. Both good wins for some good teams in a really, really tough conference.