The first seven weeks of the Major League Soccer season saw three teams take turns at the top of our Power Rankings. Real Salt Lake opened at number one after a win in Carson, Calif., reclaimed the spot from Toronto with a decisive win over the Reds, and eventually gave the crown to Sporting Kansas City. Headed into the last weekend of April, that’s how we stood, with last year’s MLS Cup finalists holding down the top two spots on our list.
After Saturday’s opening game in Seattle, however, change was inevitable. Results in Foxborough, Mass., and Sandy, Utah, only confirmed the shift. Instead of last year’s finalists defending their places at the top of our order, a team that was in disarray at the end of 2013 has risen to the top. Living up to expectations cast upon them after Clint Dempsey’s arrival, Seattle has become the best team in Major League Soccer.
It’s unlikely Dempsey will maintain a pace that’s produced seven goals in four games. It’s also unlikely a periodically shaky defense won’t come back to haunt them, at some point. Right now, however, the Sounders are clearly the best team in Major League Soccer, becoming our fourth different top-ranked team this season.
Here’s how we see Major League Soccer, after eight weeks:
Seattle Sounders: After Saturday’s rout of Colorado — a group that had only lost once before its trip to CenturyLink — there’s little doubt which team deserves this spot. The defense is a slight worry, but all concerns pale next to the potency of that attack. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins are unstoppable, for now. (5-2-1)
Sporting Kansas City:Sporting’s late capitulation in New England isn’t the problem. A defender got a harsh red card, and they gave up a late goal. Rarely, those things happen. The bigger issue was Sporting’s inability to create chances before Aurélien Collin’s sending off. Given this team has, throughout its rise, occasionally had these types of performances, it’s probably not a long-term problem. Right now, however, they’re just not as good as Seattle. (3-2-2)
Real Salt Lake:As Brian Dunseth pointed out to me last night, RSL has only lost once in its last 16 games. And that was on the road, in the playoffs, to the then two-time defending champion LA Galaxy. So there’s only so much we can concern we should muster about this team. On the other hand, when push has come to shove this year, they’ve conceded goals, allowing teams to come-from-behind to draw them four times. From a distance, it seems the mental sharpness — the ability to focus and accomplish one, distinct objective — isn’t quite there. Knowing this group, however, it will come. (3-0-5)
LA Galaxy: Coming off yet another bye week. On pace to play 21 games this season. (2-1-2)
FC Dallas: When, earlier this year, FC Dallas took advantage of a 10-man Houston to post a 4-1 win at BBVA Compass, we launch them up this chart. Playing 11-on-10 tells us very little about how the team will perform going forward. On Saturday, Dallas was up 1-0 in Washington, D.C., before Zach Loyd got sent off. The team’s failures playing 10-on-11 are no more telling than its successes playing a man up. (5-2-1)
Toronto FC: Coming off yet another bye week. On pace to play 26 games this season. (3-3-0)
Columbus Crew: Though the Crew dropped points at home on Saturday, the underlying performance was consistent with what we’ve seen throughout the season. Perhaps we’re not seeing the same team that was so convincing at RFKand CenturyLink, but the underlying elements are still there. (3-1-3)
New York Red Bulls:A four-goal win over Houston and a strong performance in Ohio spark a huge jump, but this ranking might still be too low. That they performed so well in Columbus gives the Red Bulls an argument to be above the Crew, though given the swift nature of New York’s ascent, we’ll keep the Crew above them for now. Just remember: Three weeks ago, we called New York the worst team in the league. We could again be wrong about the Red Bulls. (2-2-5)
Vancouver Whitecaps: The daunting depth of the Whitecaps’ attack paid off on Saturday, with two late goals allowing them to claim a point against RSL. While there was some fortune to the result (get down for that shot, Nick Rimando), the performance still offer more context on some of their previous results. After Saturday’s games, it’s easier to argue that Vancouver doesn’t lose to Colorado at BC Place if Matías Laba isn’t sent off … (2-2-4)
Colorado Rapids: … which is why we’ve moved the Whitecaps above the Rapids. Granted, Colorado’s three-goal loss to Seattle has something to do with this, but most of that result was about the Sounders, not the Rapids. Still, the changes Pablo Mastroeni’s made to the team has made it a much less dangerous group. At CenturyLink, the Rapids were sitting ducks. (3-2-2)
New England Revolution: A fortunate sending off, a misread from Eric Kronberg, and a late handball from Uri Rosell. New England won on Saturday, but there wasn’t much in the underlying performance that says they’re an above average team. Given how the Revs started the season, that’s still progress, and an awakening from Teal Bunbury (plus getting José Gonçalves and Kelyn Rowe healthy) would make them a stronger side. For now, they lose one spot because of New York’s ascent. (3-3-2)
San Jose Earthquakes: Getting into the win column is nice, but this rise is because of other team’s failures. A 1-0 win at home over Chivas USA is holding serve. San Jose isn’t as bad as people though it was, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. (1-2-3)
Chicago Fire: Took the week off and saw other teams fall behind. If only this method worked in the actual standings. (0-1-6)
Portland Timbers: Still winless, but much like San Jose and Chicago, they move up because of other teams’ failures. They’re still a little too leaky at the back; still too ineffective going forward. While it’s easy to point to the bottom of the standings and wonder what’s going on, the team’s actually close to breaking through. Ranking them any lower than this would buy into the Timbers’ record over the actual form (and that’s what the standings are for). (0-3-5)
D.C. United: The unbeaten streak is up to five, but much like Dallas’s hot start, the final results don’t tell the whole story. On Saturday, D.C. got to play over a half up a man. That doesn’t tell us much about how the team will fare going forward, when it’s far more likely to be playing 11-on-11. (3-2-2)
Houston Dynamo: Winless since week two, having trouble converting chances from open play, and susceptible to results like last Wednesday’s in New York, Houston has quickly gone from a team that topped lists like these to one sinking toward the bottom. Brad Davis’s return should help turn things around. (2-4-2)
Philadelphia Union: I’m still a believer in what John Hackworth has in his squad, but a loss at Montréal shines a light on all the Union’s problems. Even after swapping out Jack McInerney, the team can’t convert contributions from Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu into goals. At the back, mistakes like Aaron Wheeler letting up, allowing Felipe Martins an uncontested route to a rebound, keep costing the team. They’re a few tweaks away, but right now, they’re capable of losing to anyone. (1-2-5)
Chivas USA: As they reminded us in Santa Clara, Chivas USA isn’t a bad team, but one good moment can secure full points against them. Saturday’s moment was Yannick Djaló’s first Major League Soccer goal, swaying a previously even game in San Jose’s favor. This team needs to regain its confidence, but unable to compete until doing so, the Goats are caught in a competitive paradox. (1-4-3)
Montréal Impact: Felipe’s early goal held up, giving Montréal its first win of the season. The underlying play, however, was no different from what we’ve seen from the Impact since Marco Di Vaio returned. Zac MacMath helped on Saturday, but without his spill, does Montréal break into the win column? (1-4-3)
“Last Thursday in practice, I was welling up to see the guys in Atlanta training tops with Tata coaching them,” Eales told PST earlier this month. “I’ve had over two years without any games. I hadn’t experienced the highs and lows of why we’re all in this game. Come the fifth of March, it’s going to be a quite an emotional time.”
Not just for Eales, but for an Atlanta market which has proven quite rabid for the sport. United has sold almost 30,000 season tickets, a record for an expansion team.
The excitement isn’t simply a matter of a shiny new toy for sports fans in Georgia. Eales, along with technical director Carlos Bocanegra and manager Tata Martino, have constructed what, at least on paper, could be a monster.
There’s the Designated Player trio of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba, young guys Miles Robinson and Andrew Carleton, MLS mainstays Michael Parkhurst and Tyrone Mears, and Chilean veteran Carlos Carmona.
None of those assets were there when Eales, 44, bought into owner Arthur Blank’s vision in September 2014. And that’s what gave the gig its allure.
“You talk about soccer being a global game, and it’s very rare you get a chance to start a whole new club from scratch,” Eales said. “To do it with an owner like Arthur Blank who is committed to the City of Atlanta, committed to the community, and committed to a winning team just made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Eales wasn’t a stranger to America, a former Ivy League Player of the Year from his playing days at Brown University. He later went home to England where he became a director at West Bromwich Albion en route to his executive job at White Hart Lane.
So, yes, the acumen is there. And Eales’ admiration for MLS is a lot higher than many American critics suspect.
“I dealt with MLS from the other side of the fence with Robbie Keane to LA, Jermain Defoe to Toronto, and Clint Dempsey to Seattle,” Eales said. “Fresh perspective when you come from the outside, you look at how teams have built their teams and you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
“The one thing I was clear on from the start, was I felt MLS, globally outside of America, it almost gets more respect from other countries than it does in America. I’ve seen that with players like Simon Dawkins. When I was at Tottenham, we loaned him to San Jose, he developed as a player and we were able to sell him off to Derby. It’s a global league, the standard of football is getting better all the time. I really felt the time was right where you could try to get players in their prime and sell it to them as career development, not a dead end.”
Blank contacted Eales, and convinced him that Atlanta United wasn’t a vanity play. The soccer team wasn’t going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ “little brother”, but a major part of the community.
“Building a roster, putting in the academy, building a training ground, an affiliation with the Charleston Battery, all of these things can’t happen overnight,” Eales said. “There’s been a lot of thoughts and strategy that’s gone into building the roster.”
Not to mention time zones, travel, surfaces, calendar, salary cap, the popularity of other leagues… Eales wanted to find a technical director with both positive vision and MLS wisdom. Enter Carlos Bocanegra, the USMNT captain who had started and finished his playing career in MLS before performing well overseas with Fulham, Rangers, and Rennes.
“What I didn’t want to do was come in from the Premier League and say, ‘Everything European is the way we should do it and Americans don’t know anything about soccer.’ Clearly that’s not the case and I knew that.”
Eales said Bocanegra is a good friend in addition to the perfect man for the job. He added that both men didn’t take long to embrace the city, and that the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl didn’t hurt sports fever in the Peach State.
Now Georgia will turn its attention to the red and black of Atlanta United, a team brimming with talent and experience. One of the early bets for Eales and Bocanegra was that it wouldn’t be about older big names. When asked about the successes of Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto and Nicolas Lodeiro in Seattle, Eales almost bristles at the thought that the moves inspired him. Young and fast was already entrenched in his model.
“It’s been a long time planning,” Eales said. “We were already going down this model. Lodeiro has been fantastic in Seattle and Giovinco is by far and away the best player in the league. He was that first one where someone was taken not over 30 and it showed, despite what the Italian national team manager said at the time, you could come here, play your game and get your career back on track.
“We felt we could go even further was to get those younger players. We’ve got Miguel at 22, Hector at 22, and Josef at 23. You’ll see increasingly now it will be a chance for us as a whole league to bring in top players and get bigger and better, year on year.”
While Eales has not had the fun of match day and won’t really have that experience until March 5’s visit from the Red Bulls, he’s had fun keeping an eye on his last two Premier League clubs and their top half success.
“I have to laugh because I still talk to a lot of my colleagues back at Tottenham and when they say ‘We’re doing well since you left’ I tell them it’s all about building the foundation,” Eales said.
“Chelsea have had a great season but Tottenham with the young squad they’ve got and the manager they’ve got in Mauricio Pochettino, they are going to be titlists in the near future. And West Brom, I love West Brom. It’s a great family club and it’s really exciting to see them solid in the top half of the table. It’s a testament to the guys, Tony Pulis and the team, how they built with a plan year on year to become a solid Premier League club. They have a strategy and they stuck to it.”
So, too, does Eales and United. The roster he’s assembled and his legendary manager combine to give the look of an instant playoff contender.
Yet Eales, like MLS, is going to have to see it. The difference is that United’s president already believes it. Bring on the chills.
“As a spectator it’s so nice to see them. I’m really impressed how good they are.
“Their fullbacks play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. Their strikers are fighters, Falcao, Germain, they are killers in the box. Both holding midfielders are intelligent, physical, strong. They arrive to the box.
“A complete team. The most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals. It’s a tough draw.”
Center back Vincent Kompany is out for the home tie vs. Monaco, and Guardiola has not decided who will start between the sticks.
You may remember Danny Higginbotham from his time as a defender at Sunderland, Stoke City, Derby County, and Southampton, but these days he makes his dough as an analyst.
You almost certainly remember USMNT right back and speed merchant DeAndre Yedlin, though perhaps not seeing him on your television has limited your intake on his progress since leaving Tottenham Hotspur for Newcastle United.
Yedlin’s been very decent for the Magpies, making 23 appearances while providing a goal and five assists. Higginbotham has been impressed, and devoted a good portion of his prematch notes on Newcastle-Aston Villa to the American.
Yedlin plays almost as a right winger at times. He’s the one that gives the width on that side, and he has been a standout player in recent games.
He is so quick, so he can get back with his recovery runs, but it’s what he does with the ball as well. We see him controlling the whole of the right-hand side. He has been so key for Newcastle and he gives them such an attacking threat.
Newcastle will move back atop the Championship with a win over Aston Villa on Monday, and have a five-point lead on third-place Huddersfield Town in the race for an automatic promotion place. Brighton and Hove Albion is first, two points clear of the Magpies.