Grass Is Always (Rave) Greener
The Sounders completed their rise from the dead just in time for Halloween with a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake, allowing them to clinch the fourth seed in the playoffs after looking like a lame duck in mid-summer. The major catalyst for this turnaround was the arrival of Nico Lodeiro, but this goal featured some tasty touches from Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris as well (and is one of the best team goals of the season, to boot).
Roldan also got the winning goal, poking home a rebound off a corner kick. It wasn’t his most efficient day, deployed on the wing as opposed to deeper in the center of midfield alongside Ozzie Alonso, but Roldan’s emergence this season for the Sounders has been crucial, and Lodeiro’s introduction has only emphasized this as he’s opened up more space for Roldan on the field to put work in on both sides of the ball. Seattle looks all set going into these playoffs.
FC Dallas was handed the worst possible loss last week with Mauro Diaz going down and being ruled out for the remainder of the season. That loss does not bode well for their playoff hopes, and their ability to make a run in the playoffs without their talisman (who seems like literal magic at times) is a big question mark. However, the last week of play still included a job to be done: while leading Colorado in the Supporter’s Shield race, Big D would need to go and get a result in Los Angeles against the Galaxy to ensure their second trophy of the season, whilst Colorado had the benefit of playing lowly Houston at home to make their challenge.
So what did Oscar Pareja do? Put out a classic 4-4-2 with defensively-minded midfielders Carlos Gruezo and Kellyn Acosta patrolling the middle, and rely on the center back pairing of Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman to keep on doing what they’ve done all season: get to the ball and force it away. And it worked.
That nice little nest of red arrows is the space that Hedges and Zimmerman inhabit, and the Galaxy just didn’t have that much luck getting the ball around, behind, or above them. It wasn’t a perfect performance (Mike Magee flubbed two chances while peeling off the back shoulders of Carlos Gruezo and Mayno Figueroa, respectively), but the bounces fell right for Dallas, and they have the silverware to show for it. And they did it on the backs of two American center backs.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
Another record was set on Decision Day 2016: this was the first time in MLS history that neither team in the MLS Cup final the year before made the playoffs. The writing has been on the wall for this Columbus Crew side for quite some time, and seeing them miss the playoffs was more a slow death march than shock collapse. The same cannot be said for the Timbers, who showcased some impressively putrid form on the back half of the season away from home to fall short of the playoffs. The week hurt three times as much for the Timbers: the club were bounced from the CONCACAF Champions League at the group stage for the second time in two tries under Caleb Porter, AND they lost the fan-run Cascadia Cup competition when all they needed to ensure a victory there was a loss by two goals. The Timbers lost 4-1 to Vancouver, who were effectively eliminated from the playoffs long ago.
Taking stock and rebuilding will be an interesting process to see for two young American coaches. This is the first real season of adversity for Gregg Berhalter, who had turned Columbus into a well-oiled attacking machine over the past couple seasons. For Caleb Porter, 2016 looks eerily similar to 2014, in which the Timbers failed to make the playoffs and the knockout round of the CCL after making two seperate semifinals in 2013 (MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup). Both will need to do a bit of soul-searching after crushingly disappointing seasons from teams that were extremely competitive last season. For Columbus, getting Ethan Finlay back into his form from the past couple years and sorting out their defensive woes have to be priorities. For the Timbers, one Lucas Melano will undoubtedly be packing his bags soon, and Porter has to figure out how to get consistency out of Nagbe like we saw in 2013 and the last two months of 2015. When Nagbe is the one driving the Timbers, they can compete with anyone. Unfortunately for Portland, that just didn’t happen down the stretch in 2016.