The first Heineken Rivalry Week sponsored by Audi and brought to you by Chipotle has arrived!
There are some real, solid rivalries, like LA vs. San Jose and Portland vs. Vancouver, there's some that are sort of rivalries, like DC vs. Philly and Sporting KC vs. RSL, and, of course, there's the New York Derby, which really isn't much of a rivalry despite what Alexi Lalas thinks.
Pretty much every other game can't really be classified as a rivalry, so disregard MLS's advertising campaigns that say otherwise. Just focus on what's happening on the field:
The Portland Timbers put themselves together near the end of 2015, charging into the playoffs as a dark-horse Cup contender before wrecking the Western Conference en route to a narrow 2-1 victory in the MLS Cup Final, winning them their first trophy since arriving in top-tier soccer in 2011. They rode the momentum of the moment and Caleb Porter's coaching decisions to success.
This season, they've dropped to ninth-place in the West and have lost three of their last five games. It's curious, because they've only seen two or three significant injuries this year and only a couple of the major components of last season's championship-winning roster depart in the winter. The Timbers have struggled to replace the two that did, though.
Rodney Wallace, a starting winger last year, left after last season and has since bounced around the globe a few times. The loss of the Costa Rican shouldn't have hurt them all that much, considering their wealth of talent at the position, but it definitely has. Former starting left-back Jorge Villafaña bolted for Mexico, and after his breakout 2015 season, he was projected to affect them slightly more. Not by all that much, because left-backs don't matter (kidding, kind of), but still, a little.
Neither of these players was irreplaceable. If they had lost someone like Fanendo Adi or Diego Chara, this would be a different discussion. With the personnel they have—Lucas Melano should have been an upgrade from Wallace, while Chris Klute is a solid, veteran full-back who should have been able to fill in well for Villafaña—and with the current make-up of the roster, Portland should not be in this position.
But they are. And it's not necessarily a product of a sudden drop in quality from the stars, or because Porter hasn't done as well as coach, or even because they've faced a bunch of good teams. Instead, their slow start can be attributed to the dreaded "championship hangover." It happens to many people, teams, clubs or otherwise after succeeding in something.
It happened to the United States after they won the American Revolution. George Washington didn't just step in and immediately make our great nation a national power; they had some trouble in the early goings after the war.
The NFL is another good example. How many NFL teams other than the Patriots have done well the season after winning the Super Bowl? The Seahawks recently, the Steelers in the '70s, and not many other teams. Only two players have won the Masters two years in a row—the tournament started in 1934—and many champions of the NHL, the NBA and MLB have had trouble the season after.
Not everybody history or sports have experienced this difficulty, but many have, and the latest example is the Timbers. There are multiple reasons for their struggles—not the least of which is that teams are beginning to decipher them—and Porter is going to have to deal with them before they can climb back into the playoff race.
To be completely honest, I think they'll figure them out fairly soon. They have too much talent to not be right in the middle of MLS Cup contention.
With Fanendo Adi scoring goals willy-nilly—he has eight this season, tied with Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa for the most in the league—and Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Chara running the midfield, they'll be just fine. But for now, they will try to counter the "championship hangover."
Red or blue?
The New York Derby mentioned above may not be much of a rivalry, but it appears to be drawing enough attention that it will be the first MLS game broadcast on the main Fox network. The contrast between the two teams will be something to keep an eye on.
The New York Red Bulls have not been particularly good this season despite their Supporters' Shield-winning roster—an argument can be made that they fall into the same boat as the Timbers—but New York City FC seems to have figured themselves out, taking 11 points from five games. That, of course, is pre-Lampard, and we have no idea what will happen once their DP disappointment returns from his eternal calf injury.
But we do know that these two New York rivals are in very different places right now, even though the Red Bulls managed to beat the Fire on Wednesday (not that big an accomplishment, it must be mentioned). NYCFC are trending up, and they're doing it with something rarely seen these days in MLS: Possession-based soccer.
Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's not. It usually works, even though they occasionally have games like this:
Mix Diskerud (10) had six unsuccessful dribbles on Wednesday against Toronto FC. I'm not sure whether they are adequate indicators of what I'm trying to say because I'm not an analytical kind of guy, but the point is, NYC weren't as, say, eloquent in their possession against TFC.
That didn't matter, because they played fairly good defense and didn't make any major mistakes. When it does work, it gets them three points and entertains everybody in attendance. It usually does when they are playing with a roster that somewhat resembles their starting XI.
NYCFC concluded their crash course to the top of the Eastern Conference standings when they officially landed first place this week, and with more results like the one they earned in Toronto, they'll start a crash course to the top of the MLS standings.
1-1 was the final score up in Canada on Wednesday. An away result against their main Eastern Conference challenger in a mid-week game while playing a severely weakened starting XI is pretty impressive. Patrick Viera is doing his part to deflate the stereotype that European managers always struggle in MLS.
So that's what the Red Bulls will be contending with on Saturday. Will New York be turned red or blue?
Fire and the flood
The Chicago Fire have the chance-creation and goal-scoring ability of a U-7 rec soccer team. Other than David Accam, they don't have anybody who can be an attacking difference-maker, and even with the speedy Ghanaian, the team as a whole doesn't produce any sort of offense. They only have eight goals this season—the only club still in the single digits—and while you can make the argument that it's because they've only played 10 games, tied for the least in the league, the LA Galaxy, who have played the same amount of games, have three times as many goals.
Okay, it's hard to accurately compare a team like the Fire with a team like the Galaxy, but still, it's a pretty mind-blowing statistic. Chicago hasn't done anything in terms of goal-scoring.
Part of that is because of the system—which prioritizes defense and counter-attacking—and part of that is just a lack of ability. Accam has been injured for most of this season, and will be suspended this weekend, and they just don't have anybody else to go along with him. Veljko Paunovic doesn't seem to want to push people forward, and as a result, they don't get any sort of offensive production.
The 5-3-2 they have played at times this season shows that, as does their low-block 4-5-1. The Fire need to make some significant adjustments, or players like Accam and Kennedy Igboananike and Gilberto will continue to receive zero service.
Paunovic, the other new-to-MLS European coach, has been the opposite of Viera. He'll get a chance to get back on track at home against the last-place Houston Dynamo, a game that they need to win if they're going to get back in the playoff race.