By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Sep 9, 2020) US Soccer Players - MLS is Back was quite a bit of fun, more perhaps than many expected. Still, the tournament might have been just that, a fun one-off event. What happened in Orlando did not necessarily reveal much of what was to follow in late August and into September.
The champions have stumbled on their return to league play while some other tournament surprises have gone back to their losing ways. Other teams that looked like they were in for a long 2020 have looked amazing. Then there are the two clubs just happy to be part of the league once more.
Consequently, there has been quite a bit of movement in the rankings as the league settles back into a rhythm.
1. Columbus Crew (9)
Columbus has been the class of MLS since July. The Crew has dropped two matches in that span. One was a loss to Minnesota in penalty kicks at the MLS is Back tournament while the other was a scrappy battle with NYCFC, also an Eastern contender. Columbus is most impressive on defense, outscoring its rivals 7-1 in the five games since the end of the tournament. That's made them firm favorites.
2. Philadelphia Union (4)
Although NYCFC might object, Philadelphia and Columbus have risen to become the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia has been almost unstoppable since the end of the tournament. That caveat, is a loss to Columbus, the difference in the rankings. Now wins over New York Red Bulls and DC United may not seem impressive, but the Union is beating teams that it should. That's one sign of a top team. Perhaps a match or two against NYCFC in the next phase would help clear up the picture atop the league rankings. So hopefully, there are more wrinkles to the schedule once the next phase of matches comes out.
3. Portland Timbers (5)
MLS is Back champions Portland returned to play without seeing many of those direct benefits. Losses and a come-from-ahead draw marred the team's return to the somewhat regular season. The Timbers dispatched rivals Seattle by 2-1 on Sunday but paid a heavy price as star midfielder Sebastian Blanco suffered a season-ending knee injury. That is a shame given his play in Orlando and his value to the club and league. The Timbers will need to pull out some magic from somewhere to overcome his loss.
4. Seattle Sounders (7)
Seattle has been all over the place since the start of the MLS is Back tournament. The club looked poor in Florida, then strong, then poor again before returning home. Seattle got strong wins against Portland and LAFC before a draw to RSL and loss to Portland. What Seattle needs is a bit more consistency. They'll likely get it once play continues beyond this first phase.
5. Orlando City SC (8)
MLS is Back was not a fluke. Orlando reached the final of the tournament before falling to Portland. Despite a loss over Inter Miami in the first match back, Orlando has looked as impressive since the tournament as it did during it. Orlando has two wins and two draws as the team moves onto a potential playoff run. If Orlando can maintain its consistency, this team should accomplish that and make the postseason for the first time in its history.
6. New York City FC (10)
NYCFC is certainly a strong club and would be higher in the table were it not for a troubling loss to the Red Bulls. In its last eight matches, NYCFC is 5-2-1 and is firing on all cylinders. This team will probably beat up on FC Cincinnati to close out the first phase of matches. That puts them in a great position to contend for the Eastern Conference title.
7. LA Galaxy (19)
The Galaxy is threatening to become relevant once more. The team has shaken off whatever ills it had in Florida and has reeled off four consecutive victories. Instead of whispers about a possible coaching change, supporters are now hailing the return of the king. While it may not be quite at that level yet, the Galaxy looks poised to make a thunderous charge down the stretch.
8. LAFC (1)
The mighty have fallen. LAFC has looked rather pedestrian in its last several matches. Including the loss to Orlando in the MLS is Back tournament, LAFC is a disappointing 1-4 and has scored seven goals over that stretch. Five of those goals came in a win over San Jose. LAFC miss Carlos Vela and Eduard Atuesta as the depth on this team is not what it was a year ago. They need bench players to fill those roles as it is unlikely the team can bring in difference-makers to help down the stretch. Whatever the case, the luster is off Los Angeles Football Club.
9. San Jose Earthquakes (3)
The magic San Jose showed in Orlando disappeared on the way back home. San Jose has played just three matches since the tournament, including a rough 3-2 loss to rivals LA Galaxy and an even worse 5-1 loss to LAFC. Those three matches have not provided enough time to get a run going. The club now has an eight-day stretch that will see San Jose play three times. Unless they can find some of that Florida magic, the run against Seattle, the Galaxy, and Portland will sink this team further in the Western Conference table.
10. Houston Dynamo (20)
Much like the LA Galaxy, Houston came out of the MLS is Back tournament with a full head of steam. They finished scoreless against FC Dallas before reeling off three consecutive victories. Tab Ramos is showing that he has transitioned well from coaching youth players to pros. If the club can continue its momentum, a return to the playoffs is imminent.
11. Sporting KC (2)
Sporting KC's post-tournament return to play started off well, with a 2-1 win at Minnesota. Since then, not much has gone right. They dropped two matches to Houston by 5-2 and 2-1 before drawing 1-1 against Colorado and FC Dallas. The team's defending problems from 2019 have returned despite positive signs in Orlando. The club is able to rest a bit with no midweek matches this week for the first time since returning to play. Sporting KC ran through five games in a 16-day span, an easy enough excuse for their situation.
12. New England Revolution (11)
New England has been churning out results since the MLS is Back tournament ended. The Revs' 2-1-2 mark has made for a solid return to play. Only one of those five matches ended in a clean sheet for New England. Head coach Bruce Arena would likely want for his defense to play stronger defensively. The club added veteran midfielder Lee Nguyen from Miami this week with Arena hoping the former Rev player can add some punch to the midfield.
13. Minnesota United (6)
Minnesota stopped the bleeding in a big way, beating Real Salt Lake by 4-0 on Sunday. The win was the club's first in four post-MLS is Back matches. The other three were all losses - 2-1 to Sporting KC, 3-1 to FC Dallas and 3-0 to Houston. The team has been a bit depleted due to injury and fatigue but head coach Adrian Heath has been trying to find the right solution to the club's problems. He made five changes from the squad that lost to the Dynamo. That seemed to work against RSL.
14. Toronto FC (13)
Toronto FC's Canadian rivals have figured out the Reds' secrets. Toronto beat Vancouver twice and Montreal once before dropping games against each side as MLS Canada rolls on. That Canada-only return to play was due to border restrictions. With one match left against both Vancouver and Montreal, Toronto needs to alter its strategy.
15. Real Salt Lake (12)
The front office disaster has been the talk of the league and has stained the club, at least in the short term. The team is trying to better its image off the field with owner Dell Loy Hansen on his way out. The on-field product might have finally shown that the ownership situation is indeed having an effect. RSL had some dramatic draws against Portland and Seattle, but the club had nothing to give in a 4-0 loss at Minnesota.
16. Montreal Impact (16)
Montreal went from one bubble to another as its return from the MLS is Back tournament has featured games against Toronto FC and Vancouver only. The club has split matches against Toronto while beating Vancouver once. They've got two games against the Whitecaps and another date with Toronto before the end of the first phase of play. What happens after is anyone's guess, but more games against Canadian rivals is not ideal.
17. Nashville SC (26)
Nashville missed out on the MLS is Back experience, but the team has looked respectable since play resumed. They beat both FC Dallas and Inter Miami along with three draws. The team has not been playing the most attractive soccer as goals have been at a premium. However, strong defending and positive results are more important for the expansion side.
18. Atlanta United (17)
Atlanta's MLS is Back failure has carried over the resumption of play, but the team did manage to cut its losses short. Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez is gone after Atlanta transferred him to Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr for a reported fee of around $18 million. That would be the second-highest transfer fee in league history after the $26 million transfer fee that sent Miguel Almiron from Atlanta to Newcastle in 2019. Martinez's exit opens up a Designated Player slot. Along with Josef Martinez's eventual return from injury, the club is setting up for a positive 2021. This year seems like a lost cause unless the club figures out how to score goals.
19. FC Dallas (25)
FC Dallas could be on a downward slide. The club lost three players due to injury last time out against Sporting KC and Reggie Cannon is now a member of Portuguese side FC Boavista. The club will feel his loss at right back. Cannon played 67 matches for the club since debuting in 2017. FC Dallas has looked respectable since returning to play, although the loss to Nashville on August 12 was not good. Still, how the team's depth handles the current situation will reveal a lot about this side.
20. Vancouver Whitecaps (14)
On the one hand, Vancouver finally showed some positive gains in its 3-2 win over Toronto FC. On the other hand, perhaps it has more to do with finally figuring out a rival than a show of its true worth. Vancouver has played Toronto FC three times since August 18 due to the Canadian restart situation. They've got two matches remaining against Montreal before the first phase is done. What happens after that is anyone's guess.
21. FC Cincinnati (15)
FC Cincinnati is not any lower because of what it showed in the MLS is Back tournament. Not only has FC Cincinnati not won a match since resuming play, but the club has not scored a goal in any of those five games. FC Cincinnati won two games in Orlando and took Portland to penalty kicks, but that momentum is now long gone. The club needs better results, or the bottom of this table awaits.
22. DC United (18)
DC United's disappointments comntinue this season. Their lone post-tournament win came against lowly New York. The latest result was a scoreless draw against NYCFC. That dull affair showed that the team can play defense. It's certainly not an approach that will satisfy supporters and help United a playoff push.
23. Colorado Rapids (21)
So much for being a dark horse. The results in the Rapids' return to play have not been awful, but they haven't been encouraging either. Three draws and a lopsided loss is not going to help the club climb the table. It's also not likely to build confidence that the team has changed course from its normal way of doing things.
24. Inter Miami (24)
Finally, Inter Miami has tasted victory. Inter Miami won its first match of the restart, and it was against Florida rivals Orlando City. Adding a pair of scoreless draws had Inter on the brink of respectability. All of its matches this year have been either one-goal decisions or draws, so the club is close to turning things around.
25. Chicago Fire (23)
Chicago returned to Soldier Field without fans, seeing off Cincinnati 3-0. Aside from that, not much has gone right for this team. Chicago showed some promise in beating Seattle on July 14, but that seems more like a fluke now than anything.
26. New York Red Bulls (22)
Does anyone at Red Bull corporate care about this club? The roster is barren of talent, particularly the top-level kind. Chris Armas paid the price for the club's ineptitude, but the problems run much deeper than the head coach. Armas could only do so much without having a deep roster with the maximum amount of Designated Players. If nothing changes, nothing changes. That's the situation for a team that now has a tenant playing the better soccer.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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