31 weeks down, just one to go. Major League Soccer’s 14th season has had its ups and downs, goalkeeping errors and bad refereeing taking the shine off a year which gave us a superb rookie class, some wonderful goals and more surprises than Portsmouth’s directors’ box. The Beckham Experiment threw the focus on David Beckham’s return from Milan and the Red Bulls…well, they sucked.
The season has been characterised by great goals, stoppage time drama and Garber-bashing, often deserved. While it would be a stretch to declare the opinion that strides have been made by MLS in 2009 to be consensual, I think credit is due and the future is bright.
The play on the field has been exciting. It’s quick and physical, but the league has enough skillful players to give games an technical edge. This is a good league, and its continued progress is encouraging. It just feels like football, perhaps the legacy of Ivan Gazidis.
It’s not perfect. FC Dallas supporters are still highly critical of its owners – the same owners who have, in Columbus, threatened the hardcore supporters with sanctions because of their bad language. But, in general, the league seems to be pulling in the right direction. 2010 and 2011 expansion can only further that effect.
When tonight’s match between Chicago Fire and Chivas USA reaches its conclusion, the Fire’s 30 games will be complete and everyone else will be staring down the barrel of their last match of the regular season. Columbus Crew’s squad depth has seen them to the top of the table and home advantage in the playoffs. Houston Dynamo have been in touch all season and join them, while a resurgent LA Galaxy have benefited from improved squad balance and a blossoming on-field partnership between Beckham and Landon Donovan.
In their debut season, Seattle Sounders FC have been inconsistent but more hit than miss, riding the abilities of Fredy Montero all the way to the post-season. Chivas USA have gone about their business quietly but efficiently and currently top the West.
Chicago can book their place this evening but have missed several opportunities to strengthen their position. With Chivas hunting home-field advantage and even the Supporters Shield, it won’t be an easy task. Colorado Rapids are also currently in a playoff position but have been too reliant on Conor Casey’s last minute penalties of late. At this stage both should make it.
But spanning the dotted line is a cluster of four teams on 39 points. Toronto FC currently sit in pole position, but along with Colorado are vulnerable to the three teams below: New England Revolution, DC United and FC Dallas. So who’s going to triumph this weekend and top The 39 Club?
TFC started the season well and coped admirably with the loss of their head coach early on to keep themselves in touch with the leaders. The inevitable plateau did arrive, but the Canadian team have plugged away and kept the positive results piling up. They go into their final game in a playoff spot, meaning their destiny is in their own hands. The same is true of Chicago and Colorado, but if you asked the Revs, DC or Dallas I’m sure they’d swap.
The supporters have said an emotional goodbye to Danny Dichio and there can be no more fitting tribute to their first ever goalscorer than to embark upon a playoff campaign.
Ordinarily, one would argue that Toronto have the easiest task of all the clubs chasing playoff spots. A trip to New York Red Bulls has promised three points for most visitors this season, but it’s always foolhardy to underestimate the power of a sense of occasion. Saturday’s tie will be the Red Bulls’ final game at Giants Stadium before the Red Bull Arena opens its doors in 2010. And who knows, maybe Thierry Henry will be the star attraction.
New England Revolution
Having written off the Revolution early in the season, I’m delighted to see them in with a shout of post-season qualification. The coaching set up at the club has been something of a double act, with head coach Steve Nicol and his right-hand man Paul Mariner steering the Revs through a much-improved second half of the 2009 season. Mariner has now departed, returning to work with Paul Sturrock as the new first team coach at Plymouth Argyle after a long stay in North America.
The long-term injury problems of Taylor Twellman have slightly taken the bite out of the Revs attack but several key players have made themselves indispensable. Shalrie Joseph is the club’s most dominant player, while Kheli Dube and Steve Ralston have contributed vital goals all season long. Kevin Alston has been particularly impressive getting up and down the right wing.
The Revs do have the advantage of playing the final game of the weekend and will know exactly what they need to do. But they have the toughest task of all the teams on 39 points, travelling to the almost impenetrable fortress of Crew Stadium to face Columbus, who – depending on Chivas USA’s results – could still need a result to win the Supporters Shield.
United are a really interesting case. Major League Soccer’s most storied club, the legends remain but their powers are on the wane. The squad is a mix of aging stars and promising youngsters, and the blend has been used badly by coach Tom Soehn in a season which promised much. That’s not to say the players haven’t let him down, but United have been undone this year by teams that have power and pace and have exposed DC’s possession-based, slower football. Ben Olsen’s best days are behind him, but Jaime Moreno has another season in him from the substitutes’ bench. The younger players, like Chris Pontius, Danny Szetela and Santino Quaranta, should have the opportunity to quicken up the side and return them to glory. Under Soehn, it seems a distant dream.
United’s ambition at the start of the season was to challenge on three fronts. Their MLS form has struggled and has not been made easier by a constant run of games through the late summer in CONCACAF Champions League action and their attempt to retain the US Open Cup. The latter reached the last obstacle but Seattle Sounders swaggered into RFK for the final and took a deserved and dramatic victory. At the time of writing, United’s CCL draw with Toluca leaves them needing a favour from San Juan Jabloteh to make the quarter finals.
United have a challenging final fixture. Travelling to Kansas City is rarely easy and the Wizards are playing with a certain freedom at the moment and dangermen like Josh Wolff, Davy Arnaud and the intriguing Zoltan Hercegfalvi have the potential to play spoiler for DC. But a win puts DC in a strong position and it’s time for the team to stand up and be counted.
In the early days of the season FC Dallas looked like one of the weakest teams in the league. But when Kenny Cooper went on Gold Cup duty with the US and sealed a move to 2.Bundesliga before his return, the team rallied. Their form in the second half of the season has been a huge improvement on the first, and while their surge into playoff contention has been carried out quietly it has been punctuated by a few spectacular, high-scoring games.
Striker Jeff Cunningham has been scoring for fun since Cooper’s departure and, with Dave van den Bergh supplying the ammunition and Dax McCarty buzzing around the midfield to allow David Ferreira to flourish, FCD have been an exciting team to watch in the last few months. They’ve put six past both Kansas City Wizards and LA Galaxy and are currently on a four-game winning streak which has included key wins over playoff rivals Real Salt Lake, New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids.
Unfortunately for FCD their final fixture couldn’t be much more difficult. They travel to Qwest Field to face Seattle Sounders, a team which will be celebrating playoff qualification at the first attempt in front of its home supporters. The fact that there will be no pressure on the boys in rave green may or may not work in the Texans’ favour, but either way they’ll need to be right on top of their game to keep alive the impossible dream.
The situation is sure to be fascinating. TFC are in the box seat and play New York, but the Revs will not be relishing a trip to Columbus. DC and FCD are both capable of winning their games. With the possibility five teams battling it out for two spots, the MLS weekend should be a real cracker.