By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (Sep 30, 2014) US Soccer Players – We’re 30 games into the 2014 MLS season for most teams. Between the last four games of the season and the international break, the 12 to 14 teams that are still in MLS playoff contention will have plenty written about them. While Frank Yallop or Dominic Kinnear or Mark Watson or Pablo Mastroeni can’t come out and say it, for good reason, their teams join Montreal in being done for the 2014 MLS season, even if they aren’t mathematically eliminated.
Of all the teams that made midseason signings, the Houston Dynamo initially looked poised to make their usual late season run. The rest of MLS might’ve caught up with Houston in 2014. MLS overall has improved, even if the Eastern Conference hasn’t advanced as quickly as all of us wanted. Houston this season, and oddly for a Kinnear coached team, is less than the sum of their parts. Houston’s in the classic position of being not-quite-good-enough this season, but maybe not bad enough to justify a whole reboot.
Now Kinnear’s ‘old’ club, the San Jose Earthquakes, are in an entirely different situation. Their off-season signings, for the most part, have been disappointing or injured. The team never found a footing in the Western Conference.
The optimist’s point of view is that an attacking foursome of Chris Wondolowski, Tommy Thompson, Mattias Perez-Garcia, and Yannick Djalo is good enough for the upper reaches of MLS. The other point of view is that San Jose is no closer to answers to a few questions.
- Who will partner with Sam Cronin in the midfield?
- Who will partner with Clarence Goodson in central defense?
- Who will play fullback after ill-conceived trades sending fullbacks Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow away are still hurting the team?
There’s also the little matter of needing to sell almost twice as many tickets next season as compared with this season.
Are the Colorado Rapids the best choice to go from mediocrity to ascension next season? More than any other team, the Rapids paid for mistakes from inexperience this season. Pablo Mastroeni has a number of young, skillful players who seem likely to have learned from this season. The same is true of Mastroeni, who is a thoughtful and committed coach. It’s not going out on a limb to suggest the Rapids need to figure out their central defense and goalkeeping situations. Still, if any team is likely to be next season’s Dallas or DC United, it’s Colorado.
The situation in Commerce City, however, might require more than just patient growth. San Jose, playing in a tiny stadium, outdrew the Rapids at home.
No team might be in a better position to benefit from expansion than the Chicago Fire next season. Unfortunately, Chicago is probably also the team most likely to have the bottom drop out.
The Fire aren’t in the top 10 in MLS in any meaningful offensive category (15th in goals scored, 14th in shots, 11th in corner kicks, for example) this season. Their tendency to draw games, especially at home, suggests there is a systemic weakness in the team Frank Yallop has put together. The other way of looking at it is Yallop inherited a problem team with a lot of work to do.
However, one criticism of Yallop during his last years in San Jose is that he seemed to have lost his touch of making players better (with Chris Wondolowski a notable exception). One season isn’t enough to say that has continued in Chicago, but let’s look at this another way. Going into the off-season, which Eastern Conference playoff team is Chicago going to replace next season?
So where does this leave these teams? All of them have legitimate, specific players and strengths that you can pin a season-ticket campaign on. Colorado’s young midfielders and attackers are often worth the price of admission. The 2015 Rapids gel early and pushes the Western Conference leaders. San Jose finds some health and distribution from the back, and their attacking talent is a handful. The Earthquakes might also get a new stadium bump, which could add another great home atmosphere to the West Coast. Theoretically, Houston won’t be repeating their -17 goal difference next season and the Fire will turn at least some of those draws into three-points.
What we know about MLS is that while one-season turnarounds are still possible, they usually involve re-doing the roster and spending some money. There’s not been a lot to suggest lately that any of these teams are willing to take that step. Even the Rapids, who seem most likely to break out of this group next season, have to remind themselves that player development isn’t a linear process.
Tony Edwards is a soccer writer from the Bay Area.