By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 14, 2020) US Soccer Players – MLS is heading full steam toward the finish line, but the realities of life still affect the league. Several matches have been postponed due to Covid-19 outbreaks, with Colorado the hardest hit. Empty stadiums are the norm, with a scant few games featuring fans.
Through it all, the teams are starting to separate themselves. The Eastern Conference appears stronger this season. The East’s 4th-place team would be in a tie for 1st-place in the Western Conference on 30 points.
Again, it’s the bigger picture. It’s still getting to the finish line during a pandemic. All teams finishing their schedules is a win. If the league can get through the postseason with that as the highlight, then it will have been a somewhat successful season.
1. Portland Timbers (3 in September)
Sebastian Blanco was a key member of this club until an injury cost him his season. Instead of sinking along with him, Portland has come together and figured out how to win as a team. Portland lost Blanco on September 6 in a 2-1 win at Seattle. The first outing afterward was a 4-2 loss to LAFC, but the team squashed any fears that Blanco’s loss would destroy morale. The Timbers tied San Jose 1-1 and then reeled off five consecutive wins, winning the last two by a combined 9-3. Finishing atop the Western Conference in the regular season is certainly within reach, as is a deep playoff run.
2. Toronto FC (14)
Toronto hit its stride in phase one and has not looked back. The club is 5-0-1 in its last six matches and looks poised for another MLS Cup run. They’ve got difficult games against New York City FC and Philadelphia left. Otherwise, they should beat up on the rest of the Eastern Conference to wrap up the top spot in the East.
3. Columbus Crew (1)
For the first time this season, the Crew looks rather vulnerable. Columbus lost to Montreal on October 7, their third game in a row without a win. It’s not exactly cause for concern but instead speaks to how strong Columbus’ season has been. Columbus sandwiched a 2-2 draw against FC Dallas around losses to Toronto FC and Montreal. The dropped points allowed both Toronto and Philadelphia to move ahead of the Crew in the Eastern table.
4. Philadelphia Union (2)
Toronto might be the top team in the Eastern Conference, but Philadelphia is not far behind. The two teams could eventually battle for a spot in MLS Cup, if form holds for both sides and Columbus doesn’t reassert itself. Philadelphia has a 10-3-4 record and has scored the most goals in the East. Their game against Toronto on October 24 could ultimately decide who takes the regular-season Eastern Conference title.
5. Orlando City (5)
In less than a year, Orlando has gone from a league laughingstock to one of its strongest teams. Orlando has a 10-match unbeaten run following a scoreless draw with Atlanta United. The club’s highly-anticipated match against Columbus ended up postponed after two Columbus staff members tested positive for Covid-19. Chris Mueller leads the club’s attack with seven goals while three others sit on four. Still, the club is looking to make a push in the playoffs. Orlando signed Ecuadorian international Alexander Alvarado on loan from Ecuadorian side Deportivo Aucas. Alvarado could make an impact come the postseason and help Orlando enter uncharted territory.
6. Seattle Sounders (4)
Perhaps the only troublesome aspect of the Sounders season is the gap in how dominant and how poor the team can look. For instance, Seattle dominated LAFC on September 18, winning 3-0 at home. They looked like a different team when LAFC returned the favor by beating the Sounders 3-1 on Sunday. Following the first win over LAFC, the Sounders went quietly 1-0 at Portland before bouncing back with another dominant win, 3-1 at the LA Galaxy. Seattle still figures to be one of the last two Western clubs left standing this season, one way or another.
7. LAFC (8)
Carlos Vela is still not back, and it is unclear when he will return, but the team might be coming out of its funk and rounding back closer to 2019 form. The key piece of evidence for that would be the club’s Sunday match against Seattle. Already without Vela, LAFC played minus Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, both of whom were with Uruguay for World Cup qualifying matches. Yet LAFC all but dominated a mostly full-strength Seattle side 3-1. Eduard Atuesta is the club’s MVP. A top-two Western Conference finish might be tough, but a playoff run shouldn’t be a problem.
8. New York City FC (6)
With NYCFC battling for a top-three spot in the Eastern Conference, it seemed odd timing that the club would ship one of its best players overseas. Alexandru Mitrita went on loan to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ahli until 2022. Mitritu though initiated the move due to personal reasons, which makes much more sense. Still, his departure is worrisome as Mitrita had four goals and two assists but always provided an attacking presence. With Heber done for the season due to a torn knee ligament, NYCFC will need to rely on the likes of Anton Tinnerholm and Alexander Ring to help carry the team through difficult times.
9. Sporting KC (11)
Sporting KC had been a bit shaky at the start of last month, but the club seemingly has gotten things straightened out. Three wins in a row solidified its hold on 3rd-place in the Western Conference. Johnny Russell continues to provide goals as he leads the team with six while Alan Pulido is second with five. The two give Sporting KC one of the better forward tandems in the Western Conference. Sporting KC, who has 29 goals scored on the season, will need to keep scoring goals to keep pace with Seattle, Portland, and LAFC, all of whom have scored at least 35 goals this season.
10. New England Revolution (12)
Since an early September loss to NYCFC, New England has been the third-best side in the East. The Revs lost to both Toronto and Philadelphia but has been otherwise strong. They tied NYCFC on September 19 and beat them at Yankee Stadium on October 11.
11. Minnesota United (13)
Minnesota United had a bit of a scare after two players tested positive for Covid-19. That led to the postponement of their game with FC Dallas. Minnesota is battling to stay ahead of the bottom pack of teams as the club has 23 points, just ahead of a pack of six teams separated by three points. That could all change quickly though. One loss could see other teams catch up. A win could see Minnesota vault up higher in the table.
12. Nashville SC (17)
Nashville is a difficult to play against. The club’s biggest area of concern is goal scoring. Walker Zimmerman and Daniel Rios tie for the team lead in goals with two apiece. Still, it is better for an expansion team to learn to come together as a unit than to have a decent scorer or two. Nashville is always competitive in its matches, and that is a solid accomplishment.
13. FC Dallas (19)
Former FC Dallas standout Reggie Cannon said in an interview this week that the club wanted him to apologize for speaking out against fans who booed Cannon and his teammates for taking a knee during the national anthem earlier this season. That should knock FC Dallas a few pegs down these rankings but the club is doing that with its ever-reliable streakiness. FC Dallas is on a four-game winless skid which was preceded by a three-game win streak. That came on the heels of a six-match span that saw the club win once.
14. Montreal Impact (16)
It looked like Montreal forgot how to play against American MLS teams. After playing exclusively against Canadian clubs in phase one of the restart, Montreal lost its first three matches in phase two before picking up a draw. Then the club beat Columbus Crew and showed that it still had some fight left in it. The schedule becomes a bit more favorable as the calendar moves into late October.
15. Atlanta United (18)
It’s clear this club is far off from the championship-level side it was in its first three years of existence. Atlanta is all but in a freefall mode. Since August 22, Atlanta is 2-6-3 with its only wins coming against FC Dallas and lowly DC United. Remarkably the club is still in the hunt for a spot in the league’s expanded playoffs.
16. Houston Dynamo (10)
Houston showed promise after a five-game unbeaten run when the season resumed. Since September 9, Houston is 1-4-3 and just on the outside in the Western Conference playoff picture. The club was also a seller in the transfer window, moving second-leading scorer Alberth Elis to Portugal during the transfer window. Houston did replace him with Argentine Mateo Bajamich, but Elis was a gamechanger in this league.
17. Vancouver Whitecaps (20)
The Whitecaps have fallen into a bit of a pattern. Vancouver is good against Real Salt Lake but not good against everyone else. Real Salt Lake is the only American MLS team Vancouver has beaten in the second phase of play. Remarkably Vancouver is still within reach of a playoff spot.
18. Inter Miami (24)
Miami is all Higuain now. Gonzalo joined from Juventus while older brother Federico joined via trade from DC United. The Higuain brothers are now on the same team for the first time since 2005, when both were part of Argentine giants River Plate. Gonzalo has already shown his worth, scoring on a well-taken free kick in a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls on October 7. With the Higuaín brothers in tow, Inter Miami could be in position for a late-season push and perhaps a spot in the postseason.
19. New York Red Bulls (26)
Somehow New York has turned things around this season. After a rough start to September, which saw the club lose to DC United, fire coach Chris Armas, then lose 3-0 to Philadelphia, New York has made a sudden about-face. New York is 4-3-0 in its last seven games and now has its man as former Barnsley manager Gerhard Struber will take over the reins. While he has not yet gotten in place, New York looks to continue building on what appeared to have been a lost season. The playoffs are clearly in sight.
20. Real Salt Lake (15)
September and October have not been kind to Real Salt Lake. Outside of LA-based clubs, RSL has had as rough a go of it as anybody. RSL beat LAFC when the Supporters’ Shield holders were in a bit of a tailspin and the last-place LA Galaxy. With playoff-bound clubs like Sporting KC and Portland on the schedule, RSL will need not only a quick turnaround in form and help from other teams to sneak into the top eight.
21. San Jose Earthquakes (9)
San Jose has been all over the place with its results. In the last month, San Jose lost 7-1 to Seattle, drew 0-0 with the Galaxy, lost consecutive games by 6-1 to Portland and 5-0 to Colorado, then beat LAFC and the Galaxy, each by 2-1. The club’s defense was miserable at one stretch. Some observers wondered if Mathias Almeyda would pay with his job. That should not happen. This club looks destined to ride through its ups and downs while he is in charge.
22. Colorado Rapids (23)
Covid-19 has done quite a bit of damage to Colorado, making what happens to the club on the field secondary. Five players and 13 staff members have tested positive for the virus. Consequently, the league has suspended five Rapids games. Health and safety come first. The soccer part will work itself out.
23. Chicago Fire (25)
Chicago has been poor this season but slightly better than wretched. In 2020, that could mean a playoff spot. Chicago is near the top of a five-team logjam fighting for the bottom three Eastern Conference playoff spots. To reach the postseason, Chicago just needs to be better than two of Atlanta, Nashville and Inter Miami.
24. LA Galaxy (7)
The Galaxy is not creative and back to leaking goals like the team has done for most of the previous three seasons. Following the club’s four-game winning streak, the Galaxy tied San Jose 0-0 and then has gone on to lose five consecutive games. The Galaxy sit in last place in the Western Conference. Although just four points separate them from 8th-place, it might as well be a chasm.
25. FC Cincinnati (21)
One win since the restart and no goals in five consecutive matches. To help its poor scoring options, FC Cincinnati added forward Frank Kovacevic on loan from German side Hoffenheim. Kovecevic should get on the field before the season is out. That should help, since this team has scored just eight goals this season, the worst total in the league.
26. DC United (22)
Another loss followed a coaching change, with no bounce from parting with club legend Ben Olsen. Not even Olsen though could survive a 2-10-5 season. DC will have to suffer through the rest of the season as the Eastern Conference punching bag and trying to ruin other teams’ playoff hopes.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Maciek Gudrymowicz – ISIPhotos.com