MLS 2009 – Mid-Term Report

The All-Star game is done and dusted, the mid-season friendlies with European clubs are at an end and the business half of Major League Soccer’s 14th season is underway. So what better time to have a look at the movers and shakers and find out where the big stories will lead in the second half of the campaign?

Things are finally beginning to take shape, and Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew are starting to take control. Several teams have impressed at stages in the first half of the season before falling away. Chivas USA made all the early running, with Eduardo Lillingston scoring for fun in the first few weekends of the campaign. Seattle strolled past New York Red Bulls in the first game and continued well, though they have fallen away in recent weeks. Toronto FC and DC United have impressed in patches, as have Colorado Rapids, while LA Galaxy are in a decent run currently.

Supporters’ Shield heading for Houston?

Despite the attentions of some very capable rivals, Houston Dynamo look like a good bet to top the table at this stage. They have lost matches in surprising circumstances – a case in point being last week’s defeat at the hands of a resurgent FC Dallas – but results elsewhere have gone their way and they’ve remained strong as they hold onto top spot. The team has great character, as demonstrated by 4-3 and 3-2 wins over DC United and Chicago Fire respectively. That’s not to say there’s a lack of quality. Stuart Holden, Geoff Cameron and Brad Davis are at the top of their games, ably assisted by a frontline which is full of goals at the moment.

The teams most likely to catch the Dynamo are (arguably) LA Galaxy and (definitely) Columbus Crew. The Crew have been excellent in recent weeks despite the loss of Guillermo Barros Schelotto through injury. Steven Lenhart and Jason Garey have stepped in during the designated player’s absence and have been among the goals to help Crew take control of the East.

But the league’s form team right now is the Galaxy. While their run of form has almost coincided with the return of David Beckham, it began without him and is anything but his sole responsibility.

Donovan Ricketts has mostly been solid in goal and Gregg Berhalter is settling in nicely in a defence in which rookie Omar Gonzalez is shining. Alecko Eskandarian’s mid-season trade went a long way towards the Galaxy’s improved results – he’s already scored twice for his new club after crossing the hallway at the Home Depot Center.

And then, of course, there’s Landon Donovan. Already the Galaxy’s talisman, his scintillating performances in the Confederations Cup in South Africa seem to have given him even more confidence in his ability. He’s playing with a swagger, scoring some mouth-watering goals and performing like a captain.

Osorio stinks out the Meadowlands

Red Bull isn’t happy, and it’s all because their New York franchise is a laughing stock. RBNY has collected just ten points in 2009 from 21 matches. Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio is on borrowed time, almost certainly facing the sack at the end of the season as Red Bull looks to revive the club for a memorable first season in its new stadium. Macoumba Kandji aside, nobody in New York has made any kind of impression on the 2009 season, leaving even designated player Juan Pablo Angel unsure about whether he’ll be wanted in 2010.

A few weeks ago it looked as if the Red Bulls would at least have some company at the bottom. San Jose Earthquakes have been performing far better on occasion but failing to get results. While the points are slowly creeping in for Frank Yallop’s Quakes, there is far too much reliance on Ryan Johnson to put the ball in the net. The 24-year-old forward has top-scored for the Earthquakes with seven goals, and aside from five from Arturo Alvarez has had precious little help from his team-mates in front of goal.

Another side which seemed stranded earlier in the season is FC Dallas, but an impressive turnaround appears to be underway. A disastrous start in front of small crowds has been usurped by a string of results which is becoming less and less surprising with each one. Some commentators, probably accurately, have attributed part of that improvement to a new lease of life which has perversely coincided with the absence of striker Kenny Cooper. Cooper was away on international duty before securing a move from Texas to Germany with 1860. Since then, Jeff Cunningham has picked up the baton, helped in no small part by the growing maturity in the play of Brek Shea.

Banging in the goals

The most important thing in football, at whatever level and in whichever country, is goals. Thanks to his hat-trick at the weekend, Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey leads the race for the Golden Boot with 11 goals. The 11th, a delicious chipped penalty, combined with a delicate lob to demonstrate that there is more to Casey than the hulking target man which dominates his game. Having featured recently for the US national team, his confidence seems to be sky-high and judging by his three finishes against Chivas he’s thriving on that. He certainly seems to score in waves.

That penalty took him past Schelotto on the goalscorers list. The injured Crew forward has 10 goals for the season, but has played 17 games compared to Casey’s 14. The pair are followed by a cluster of players with nine goals for the season: Fredy Montero has faded slightly in Seattle and has scored nine in 18, and Jeff Cunningham is on fire for FCD and has also scored nine in 18, while Landon Donovan has nine in 15. Montero and Donovan have made plenty of goals for colleagues too.

Toronto’s Dwayne DeRosario, Luciano Emilio of DC United and Real Salt Lake striker Robbie Findley have bagged eight goals each for the season, followed by the Dynamo’s Brian Ching who has seven goals from just 13 matches played.

Playing out of their skins

As I’ve mentioned, Ryan Johnson and Landon Donovan are in form and among the goals. But there are a number of other players making a name for themselves in Major League Soccer this season. Dynamo midfielder Stuart Holden has been a vital cog in the Houston machine, capping some excellent performances with a few goals for good measure. Shalrie Joseph has been a rare positive for New England Revolution despite having to learn some new positions along the way, and Omar Gonzalez in the Galaxy defence has been a revelation.

Elsewhere, Seattle Sounders’ attacking foursome has proved formidable, though mostly at home. Montero has linked up beautifully with Freddie Ljungberg, Steve Zakuani and Nate Jaqua to twist the blood of defenders visiting Qwest Field. DeRo has starred in a Toronto team characterised by inconsistency, while in DC rookies Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace have begun to make less of an impact after a blistering start to the campaign. Pontius, though, is continuing to make a superb impression.

All in all, it’s shaping up to be an exciting finale in Major League Soccer. There are no foregone conclusions and fans must always expect the unexpected. The only thing we can take for granted is that whichever team lifts MLS Cup in Seattle on 22nd November will have had to earn it.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts The twofootedtackle Football Podcast.

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