The match in 100 words (or bit, it’s the playoffs): In the MLS Cup Playoffs, sometimes you gotta go to the dirty places and get a little bit of luck from your opponent: An injured Michael de Leeuw and unfit Bastian Schweinsteiger qualify as the latter for the No.3 seed Chicago Fire. The New York Red Bulls got in close to apply the former, with Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan sliding into the box to give RBNY a 2-0 lead after just 11 minutes of their first round playoff match-up at Toyota Park.
BWP also recorded an assist, and Daniel Royer and Gonzalo Veron scored late goals to salt away Chicago’s resurgence at one playoff game, ruining ex-teammate Dax McCarty’s Fire playoff debut. Now the Red Bulls earn two legs against the team with the best record in MLS history: Toronto FC.
Fewer fun things have been as agonizing as filling out a ballot for the 2017 Major League Soccer Best XI.
This goes beyond the travails of deciding whether you need your lineup to be one that can actually play functionally in a match, whether that be by using a standard formation or players out of position. Even long believers in that process — this post-writer fell in that group until, spoiler alert, this season — would be challenged by this season’s options.
Part of that is due to super teams — Who contributed the most? — while plenty more comes down to some absolutely bonkers performances from players on wildly disappointing teams (Ignacio Piatti and Romain Alessandrini, we’re looking at you. Andre Blake, you, too).
1) Super teams — Toronto FC was the best single season club in MLS history and, given the parity and strength of the league relative to previous seasons, it’s easy to argue it isn’t even close. Sebastian Giovinco is its best player but missed significant playing time. Victor Vazquez became the straw that stirred the drink. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were fantastic but missed time with international commitments. Left-sided man Justin Morrow is, spoiler alert, my defender of the year.
How many can you take from that squad, and how about the shiny new toy that is Atlanta United, which had injury absences of its own but excited on so many levels. Beyond ex-River Plate defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the Five Stripes boasted four star attackers in Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, and Yamil Asad. Consider that this was September’s Best XI according to the advanced stats people at WhoScored.com:
2) Midfield and attack problems: This is rarely easy given the magnification of star turns from players who score goals, but choosing even seven players this season was troubling given the remarkable amount of new boys and regular stars who got the job done this season.
In the midfield, there was the no doubt inclusion of Diego Valeri, who’s 21 goals and 11 assists demanded MVP attention, and the dominant seasons of Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and Montreal’s Piatti. Then there’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, Vazquez, Alessandrini, and RSL’s Albert Rusnak.
Difficult stuff, and we’re not even talking out-and-out attack. Martinez and Giovinco posted gaudy numbers despite missing significant portions of the schedule with injury. Is that enough to discount them? What absence counts for this? Miguel Almiron missed time late, while David Villa, too, had an MVP caliber season and Nemanja Nikolic only went and led his third-straight league in goals.
All that without a mention of Alex Ring, Justin Meram, Lee Nguyen, and Ola Kamara. Fortunately for the league’s voters, Blerim Dzemaili’s 22 matches mean he wasn’t around long enough to warrant a vote despite 7 goals and 10 assists in limited time.
3) Formation: So, given this and the amazing season of Morrow, how do you rightly go about picking three at the back? It’s enough to move stringent XI voters to a team that would get in trouble on a real pitch by using a 3-4-3 to maximize mids and forwards.
4) Goalkeeper: The usual suspects — Luis Robles, Bill Hamid — were good, with several others included in the MLS MVP shortlist: Bobby Shuttleworth, Tim Howard, Joe Bendik, and Stefan Frei (Robles was not included in RBNY’s bunch). However, it’s hard to imagine voters weren’t deciding between former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake of Philadelphia and the near-impeccable season of Sporting KC’s Tim Melia.
5) So what was your ballot, writer dude?
The Best XI was the only category that took me longer to sort out that the MVP debate, and that’s because I had a very difficult time reconciling Valeri’s unbelievable full season with the fact that Giovinco was the best player despite missing five different stints with injury (More on that later).
Ultimately, I hedged on that “Could this team perform on the pitch?” question. As much as it would be easy to play a four at the back by including Graham Zusi, or to feel better about a back three by having Kendall Waston get a deserved spot, I’d rather have Justin Morrow slightly out of position than have to sacrifice a midfielder or attacker.
The trio of forwards was the most difficult choice. Martinez and Giovinco were Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of potent players in the league when healthy. Martinez’s 17 goals in 19 matches allowed me to slot him in the team, while Giovinco’s 16 goals and six assists in 25 matches feel similar. Including both, however, would mean dismissing Villa, the best player in league history and the prime reason NYCFC finished second in the East, or Nikolic.
Here’s one area I will hedge: While I felt confident in submitting my XI, I’ve since felt nagged by two exclusions: Villa (!!) and Waston. If the deadline was 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, I may have removed Martinez and Matt Besler.
Andre Blake (PHI)
L. Gonzalez Pirez (ATL) — Matt Besler (SKC) — Justin Morrow (TFC)
The marquee matchup sees Vancouver and Sporting KC meet each with a chance to take charge of the Western Conference, separated by just a point at the top. Neither has a realistic shot at the Supporter’s Shield, but a #1 seed could make a world of difference in the playoff picture.
Plenty of teams are simply fighting for a playoff spot, with the New York Red Bulls with a brutal trip to Eastern Conference leaders Toronto. New York is four points clear in the final playoff spot, but with Montreal taking on basement-dwellers Colorado, they’ll want to maintain the distance. On the other end, the Houston Dynamo host Minnesota United while sitting a point back of a playoff position, trailing FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
Here’s a look at this weekend’s MLS preview:
Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
Either side has the opportunity to take control of the Western Conference as Sporting K.C. hosts current leaders Vancouver. With just one win in the last three, the Whitecaps have just a single point lead over the trio of Portland, Seattle, and KC all knotted up. Most recently, a 3-0 loss to Seattle has Whitecaps fans on edge.
On the other side, the hosts are rolling, unbeaten in four across all competitions including victory in the US Open Cup final, and with a pair of league wins in a row. They have outscored opponents 8-4 in that span, a relatively poor performance for the league’s best defense that will have to contain Fredy Montero and company.
Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
The Red Bulls are still safe for a week in a playoff position, but with a daunting task in front of them, a loss and other results elsewhere could leave them clinging to just a single point advantage.
They head to Toronto, where the home side has lost just once all season en route to a seven-point advantage in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the visitors will just want a result of some kind, currently four points above Montreal in the final playoff spot.
New York will feel they have a chance as Sebastian Giovinco will likely sit thanks to quad tightness, and Toronto has lost its last two with the Italian on the sidelines, although Jozy Altidore returns from a three-game absence of his own. He’ll look to take advantage of a recently leaky Red Bulls back line.
Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
A potential playoff preview sees NYCFC hit the road – where they’ve been vulnerable – to visit Chicago. The Fire have been just as vulnerable at home of late, with just one loss in its last four home games to go along with a pair of losses.
The Fire could see Bastian Schweinsteiger come back, having missed the last four matches with a calf problem, and his return matches that of a number of NYCFC midfield starters.
Both these teams are firmly in the playoff picture, and could meet down the road in the postseason. Now, their view is on a bye. Chicago sits in 4th with 51 points, while NYCFC is in a more advantageous spot with 55 points to put them in second.
Full MLS schedule (All Times E.T.)
Orlando City vs. FC Dallas — 4 p.m.
Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m.
New England Revolution vs. Atlanta United — 7:30 p.m.
Colombus Crew vs. D.C. United — 7:30 p.m.
Houston Dynamo vs. Minnesota United — 8:30 p.m.
Chicago Fire vs. NYCFC — 8:30 p.m.
Colorado Rapids vs. Montreal Impact — 9 p.m.
Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 9 p.m.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Portland Timbers — 10:30 p.m.
LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m.
The game in 100 words (or less): The Chicago Fire’s slide toward the mean — some might call it regression, indicating maybe, just maybe, they overachieved during the first half of the season — continued on Saturday, following a brief reprieve to begin the month. Veljko Paunovic’s side lost its seventh game in 11 outings, falling 3-1 away to the Philadelphia Union. Bastian Schweinsteiger remains sidelined with a calf injury, but the rest of Chicago’s key figures — Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, David Accam and Matt Polster remain in place. Chris Pontius did the majority of the damage on Saturday, bagging Philadelphia’s first two goals, followed by CJ Sapong for the third. Luis Solignac grabbed a consolation goal inside the final 25 minutes, but the damage had been done. The result means Chicago (48 points) remain third in the Eastern Conference, still four points back of New York City FC and just two points clear of Atlanta United, who have two games in hand.
10′ — Pontius heads the cross home for 1-0 — Keegan Rosenberry cut inside and delivered a delicate, left-footed cross into the box. Pontius got away from his man and met the ball with his head at the top of the six-yard box.
64′ — Sapong pokes it home for 3-0 — This is Sapong’s 14th of the season, tying Sebastien Le Toux’s club record (2010), and reminded me once again the Peter Vermes insisted on playing Sapong as a winger for multiple seasons before trading him.
The game in 100 words (or less): It’s been an up and down year for the New England Revolution, but Saturday night’s win could help spark a playoff push for Jay Heaps and Co. Kei Kamara recorded his first career MLS hat-trick in the 4-0 win for the Revs against Orlando City, while Lee Nguyen assisted on all four goals. The Lions have now allowed 43 goals this season, the second most in the Eastern Conference, while the team’s offense continues to struggle.
Three moments that mattered
75′ — Close your eyes, Orlando fans — Kamara looks like he’s just toying with the Lions defense tonight.
The game in 100 words (or less): Simply put, the Fire needed a win. It didn’t matter how it came or what the scoreline was. Bastian Schweinsteiger ensured that victory would come on Saturday night in Montreal when the German netted his third goal of the season for the Fire. The victory gives Veljko Paunovic’s side 44 points on the year, which is good enough for third place in the Eastern Conference, while the Impact remain in seventh place in the East.
Three two one moment that mattered
59′ — The Fire take the lead, don’t relinquish it — Matt Polster makes a great run, and Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t make any mistakes with his finish. Much needed goal for the Fire.