As the season winds toward its finish, the cream finally appears to be rising.
Caleb Porter's genius credentials: Obviously, the Portland Timbers have yet to win anything this year. But barring a total collapse, they'll make the playoffs for the first time in their three years. Based on their start to this season, that might not seem all that impressive. Go back to last year, though, and you'll get a better sense of how far Porter has taken this team.
Following their 1-0 win over the LA Galaxy, the Timbers are now on 49 points and have the fourth best points-per-game figure in MLS (1.63). They've gotten their, in part, by going 2-0-1 against the two-time defending MLS Cup champs. They've also done it by accumulating a +15 goal difference, tied for the best in the league.
This was a team that finished last season with 34 points and a -22 goal-difference, let's remember. Sure, there were some personnel upgrades. The additions of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson have turned out to be masterstrokes. But this is still a team that is mostly constructed of the same players John Spencer and interim boss Gavin Wilkinson had. Yet Porter is poised to improve this team by nearly 40 goals. I don't have the historical numbers handy, but that's definitely the biggest goal-difference change over the last several years and might be the biggest turnaround in league history.
RSL's treble chase: No MLS team has ever won three trophies in one season. Heck, only six teams have even won the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup in the same year and only the 2005 LA Galaxy have combined even one of those trophies with a U.S. Open Cup or a CONCACAF Champions League title. Real Salt Lake at least has a chance to become the first.
The first, and seemingly easiest, step comes on Tuesday when RSL hosts D.C. United in the Open Cup title. Considering United is having one of the worst MLS seasons in history and RSL should be well rested after failing to even travel many of their starters for Saturday's league game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Jason Kreis' squad is the prohibitive favorites.
Winning that game will put RSL back in Champions League, something their fanbase has embraced quite unlike any other in MLS. What could be more impressive is if they follow up their Open Cup with another piece of silverware. Remarkably, they are just one point off the race for the Shield and will have to be considered one of the favorites in the playoffs. It would be a pretty perfect cap to what has been a remarkable run for Kreis and RSL, who came into this season with many outside observers expecting them to be in rebuild mode. Instead, it could be one for the record books.
Brian Bliss' job prospects: Late-summer hot stretches aren't new to the Crew, who racked up points last August to get back in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but there were two clear reasons for last season's surge: Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta. So what can Columbus attribute their current run of form to? How about Brian Bliss.
Bliss added interim manager to his title of technical director after the club fired Robert Warzycha and has since presided over four wins in five matches. The latest win came on Sunday, when four different players scored in a 4-2 win at FC Dallas to pull the Crew to within one point of the fifth playoff spot.
The Crew's renaissance hasn't come with a change in tactics or personnel, but rather the same players doing the same jobs, just better. Maybe Bliss' appointment and their change in form is coincidental, or bound to change once the players get comfortable under him. But for now it is working and the Crew are back in the playoff race. It also boosts the chances that Bliss will manage the team next year, as each win makes it tougher and tougher for new owner Anthony Precourt to dismiss Bliss and completely overhaul a club that had, for years under Warzycha, stalled.
- Ryan Rosenblatt
Steven Lenhart's status as a soccer player and MLS's status as a league that cares about its players: If you asked anyone in MLS who would be most likely to break six bones in an opponent's face with a flying elbow, Steven Lenhart would likely be the first, second or third name out of his mouth. So, when Lenhart's elbow rearranged Steve Purdy's face, it wasn't a total shock. Now, Lenhart is facing a long ban, and presumably, MLS will give him one -- which should be tacked onto his one-game ban that he'll receive for another elbow he was carded for -- but no matter how long the league sidelines the Earthquakes striker, they shouldn't escape criticism for their handling of the player.
That Lenhart would so predictably be the man to cause damage with an elbow speaks to his reputation, and a well-earned one at that. For years, MLS has looked away when Lenhart played recklessly. His flying elbow wouldn't connect, so it wasn't worthy of a suspension, or he was just playing hard. He was suspended upon occasion, like his two-game ban earlier this season, but this is the same player who ranks in league's top 10 in yellow cards despite starting just 12 matches this season.
Lenhart will spend the foreseeable future on the sidelines and it was he who threw the elbow so he does deserve the bulk of the blame, but the league did little to curb the striker's antics. Just like Lenhart will hopefully reconsider his actions going forward, MLS needs to do the same when it comes to players -- because Lenhart is not the only one -- who make a habit of crossing the line.
- Ryan Rosenblatt
Martin Rennie's job security: What to make of the Whitecaps? A week ago, they breathed new life into their playoff hopes by beating the Montreal Impact 3-0 on the road. This week, they dropped a 1-0 decision at home despite RSL bringing mostly reserves. It wasn't just the circumstances surrounding the loss that were bad, either, it was how horribly uninspired the Whitecaps looked in doing it.
The Whitecaps were out-possessed 53-47, despite playing at home and while chasing the lead for most of the match -- usually a recipe for winning that particular statistical battle -- and only managed to put one shot on frame. There was virtually no sense of urgency in their attack the entire match and they seemed to be completely out of ideas for how to beat a team that would have been overjoyed to come out of the match with a point.
Assuming the Whitecaps miss the playoffs -- right now they are four points out with four matches left to play and all of them are against teams currently in playoff position -- there's going to be a lot of pressure to fire head coach Martin Rennie. The Scotsman received many plaudits for turning the Whitecaps into a playoff team in his first year, but despite an ownership that is willing to spend and plenty of talent, this year the team has failed to live up to expectations.
I'll add that I'm not sure that firing Rennie is the right decision. For all their uneven play, the Caps are on pace to make a not-insignificant improvement from last year despite the standings. As it is, they are nine goals better on GD and will probably improve on last season's 43 points. At the same time, it's hard to ignore that the team does not seem to be playing up to its talent level.
Peter Vermes' sanity: Speaking of hot seats, maybe there's one at Sporting Kansas City, too. How else to explain head coach Peter Vermes' latest bitch session following another frustrating loss at home, this one 1-0 to the Philadelphia Union. In a nutshell, Vermes thinks that his team's 8-5-3 home record -- more home losses than any other team in playoff position -- is due mostly to opponents time wasting, going as far as comparing the Union to CCL opponent Real Esteli.
The Union were surely guilty to a degree -- and even were even carded on one occasion -- but ... come on. The reason KC has claimed just 54 percent of the possible points at home is not due to anything your team is failing to do, but is mostly the fault of the referees' inability to force teams to play faster? I'm just not buying it. The reality is that Vermes' club just hasn't played that well at Sporting Park. Against teams in playoff positions, KC has gone a rather embarrassing 2-4-1 at home. Among those losses were two by 3-2 scorelines -- hardly the fault of time wasting.
This continues what has been a long trend for Vermes, who is always quick to criticize referees whenever his team fails to get the expected result. There's surely some merit in his complaints, but there's a lot more wrong than he's currently copping to.