New York City FC's statement win,
FC Dallas beginning to look ominous
Major League Soccer's Independence Day weekend slate of games delivered the requisite fireworks, on and off the field, both in the United States and outside of it.
Much attention focused on events in New York City, but a number of teams made statements with big, much-needed wins build on important performances by players they need to step up in the second half of the season.
In the wake of New York City FC's 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, Patrick Vieira lauded his team's performance, specifically pointing to the "homework" done to prepare for the game. The win was NYCFC's first in five tries against the team from New Jersey, and served as a bit of redemption after RBNY crushed NYCFC 7-0 earlier this season.
"We had all week to prepare for the game," Vieira said. "We were a completely new version of New York City because we had a week to prepare for the game. Mentally and physically we were prepared to play a derby game and that wasn't the case when we played the first game.
"Today I was really pleased. We worked hard. We worked well. I strongly believe that we had the best team today."
Considering the way things went the last time, it's probably fair that Vieira would point to the attitude of his team contributing to the victory. But there was much more to NYCFC's win than just a willingness to fight, including the set piece routine that led to the club's opening goal through Jack Harrison and tactical approach that mitigated the Red Bulls' famous press.
Combined with Philadelphia's loss to Houston, NYCFC's first-ever win over their Jersey rivals puts the club into first place in the Eastern Conference. Weak division or not, Vieira deserves significant credit for keeping his squad on an even keel, working through the selection issues that come with have so many high profile players, showing a willingness to turn to younger, unproven talent, and remaining committed to a playing approach that has never devolved into regressive soccer.
Signs of life
After so much promise in the offseason, nothing has gone to plan in either Chicago or Houston in 2016. Foreign coaches with big ideas and goals of playing exciting, attacking soccer have found themselves drastically changing tack in one case, and no longer on the job in the other. With half the campaign in the books and the two teams at the bottom of the standings in their respective conferences, any push towards grabbing positives out of this season will need to start now.
Wins for the Fire and Dynamo on the weekend should give their fans at least some reason to hope. There's a new boss in charge in Houston, as Wade Barrett continues to try and fix all of the problems left behind by Owen Coyle. So far, Barrett's leadership has brought an improvement in play and a small uptick in results. It may not be enough to save the season but, as Cristian Maidana's wonderful free kick to best Philadelphia 1-0 hopefully proves, there should more high points in the future.
Chicago, meanwhile, got their third win of the season -- a 1-0 home win against the Earthquakes thanks to a goal from John Goossens. The Dutch midfielder only has a handful of appearances this season after joining in February, so anything Veljko Paunovic can get out him will be a boost to the Fire's fortunes. Wins are scant enough in Bridgeview that beating San Jose by any means is cause for celebration.
Two last place teams, two wins; cause for optimism or a blip in an otherwise wasted year?
No one team in MLS in 2016 could be called "dominant" or even "favorite" as far as the MLS Cup title goes. NYCFC now leads the Eastern Conference, while Colorado's ground-and-pound style has the Rapids leading the West. Teams that play more expansive soccer haven't yet risen above the fray to stake their claim to the throne of best-in-MLS.
Not yet, anyway. FC Dallas is steaming towards the crown, and doing it with the type of reckless abandon that should put everyone else on notice. Last week, Dallas dominated RSL in a 2-0 win. On Monday, they took apart a team on the rise, Orlando City, with a 4-0 Independence Day showing.
The stats tell the story, with FCD outshooting Orlando 19-3 in total and 10-0 on goal. Orlando failed to create a countable chance, while Oscar Pareja's team could have added to the scoreline a further three times with missed opportunities. FCD held a significant possession edge, doubled up the Lions in number of corners, and just otherwise had their way with the game.
These games sometimes happen in MLS, and they sometimes don't mean much. One team finds a groove on a given day, and the other side -- even if they aren't all that deficient in terms of talent -- just can't stem the tide. One-sided contests don't always mean that one team is that much better than another.
But FC Dallas has all of the making of a club that could dominate their way to a high playoff seed. Orlando is a competent, if not overly good, MLS team, and yet FCD didn't break a sweat in the Hades-like environment of Toyota Stadium. Next up for Pareja's team is converting that dominant play to the road -- do that, and FC Dallas is the clear favorite for MLS Cup champions in 2016.
Tim Howard didn't waste any time settling in Colorado, putting up a shutout in the Rapids 0-0 draw with Portland on Monday night. The Timbers failed to test the American international, but no one at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City will be all that worried that the former Everton keeper didn't deal with much of a challenge from the visitors. Howard's presence is about more than shot-stopping.
The Rapids never found a goal, something they'll regret. A home point against the defending MLS Cup champs is hardly the worst thing, however, and considering the morphing nature of the lineup in recent months, getting anything out of the match can be viewed as a positive.
The Rapids remain in first place in the Western Conference and now have Tim Howard minding their net. That's a win, no matter the result on the field.
Don't overlook the importance of LA's win over Vancouver on Monday, with Robbie Keane back in the lineup (and on the scoresheet) and Steven Gerrard contributing in important ways.
Bruce Arena's team only needs a whiff of success to turn on the afterburners and fly their way to the playoffs, and after a seven game winless run, taking down the 'Caps on this particular weekend is just what they needed.
Team of the weekend
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.