First half of 2017 MLS season sees East rise to power, traditional giants fall
It's been an odd year in MLS circles; somewhat in keeping with the U.S. national team's state of flux, the league appears to be in a moment of turnover. Longstanding powerhouse teams are in transitional mode at best, and their notional replacements still have flaws that are all too readily apparent.
At the best of times, MLS can be difficult to get a consistent read on. Forced parity makes for eyebrow-raising results on nearly every game day -- as in this week's exhibit of LA Galaxy's 6-2 loss to Real Salt Lake -- making for a lot of visual noise when looking at trends. But this year in particular, even the broader orthodoxies of the league appear to be shifting.
Let's start with a narrative that seems to have held true for most of the past decade: The West is strong and the East is weak. There hasn't been a definite switch from that pattern just yet, but looking at the teams that top the Supporters' Shield standings going into the summer: Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and New York City FC are all there on merit, and not just because heavier in-conference play tends to favor the points totals of teams in the weaker conference.
Chicago's import of Dax McCarty, and the monotonous winning habit he and the New York Red Bulls enjoyed, has set the Fire up -- and set the Red Bulls back -- for a strong run at the Shield. Toronto has developed from a Sebastian Giovinco display case to the most balanced, deep roster in the league. And NYCFC looks to have finally mastered the alchemy of MLS league play at home and on the road.
Compare that trio to FC Dallas, Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers in the corresponding places in the West. Dallas remains the underappreciated team of our era, despite last season's U.S. Open Cup silverware. Yet the team remains frustratingly inconsistent at times, prone to the type of youthful lapses of concentration that were forgivable in their emergence as a force, less so as pretenders to dynasty status. Sporting KC has emerged as another tough Peter Vermes team but scores around a third fewer goals than this year's crop of elite rivals; and Portland, with its indifferent goal differential and road form, look to be in an elevated position somewhat by default.
Add in the first impressions of expansion teams in each conference, with Minnesota lowering its benchmark for success to "respectability" while Atlanta has swaggered, and you're left with the East at the very least setting the tone for the 2017 story, even if you're still inclined to doubt the conference is truly setting the pace.
Two significant names are missing from that list of teams that enhances the sense of novelty; after the most recent round of games, the Red Bulls and LA Galaxy find themselves below the red line. The Galaxy's embarrassing capitulation to Salt Lake on Tuesday was a terrible look for a team that had strained to prove it was turning a corner under first-year manager Curt Onalfo. And the Red Bulls recent loss of their 100 percent home record against NYCFC was only the latest setback in this season's post-McCarty deflation.
The Red Bulls look underwhelming by their own standards, but how they spend the McCarty money in this window might yet turn their season around -- as might a run in the U.S. Open Cup. The Galaxy, however, are a more vexing proposition. There's a fair and compelling argument that a policy of promoting their pipeline of young Southern Californian talent was overdue under Bruce Arena, but that's the kind of transition that requires leaps of faith from not only senior management and technical staff but also the fans being asked to be patient during the transition.
And that's where the Galaxy have stumbled badly, mainly by being the exception to the other discernible league-wide trend of the season so far: home form. Put simply, home advantage has become more pronounced in MLS this year, to the extent that teams like the Houston Dynamo find themselves in the playoff mix despite taking two points from their nine road games, compared to 23 from the corresponding home games. Clubs have averaged just 0.676 points per game on the road this season, compared to 0.879 last year and 0.961 in 2015.
The Galaxy meanwhile, would, in a normal year, look to a league best 5-3-1 road record and expect to be well clear at the top of the standings but for the fact that their StubHub Center home is a pretty ransacked-looking fortress these days. The RSL loss was the fifth home defeat in a season that's seen only one home win and which has stretched fan patience with the new regime to a breaking point. Young players are looking overwhelmed rather than inspired by the opportunity.
It doesn't help that a friendly against Manchester United is up next -- a game that serves both as a reminder of the status LA so recently enjoyed as de facto ambassadors of the league and also a litmus test for fan patience. If Jermaine Jones, for example, proves fit enough to suit up for that, after missing the RSL game, and if Romain Alessandrini makes more than the substitute appearance he did on Tuesday, expect the rumblings from fans about team priorities to get louder. That's not the fault of those players, but the troubled home form the team has shown has cut the margin for indulgence to zero.
That said, the round of Gold Cups, dog days and club friendlies could allow LA and others the chance to regroup away from the spotlight a little, as the league goes through its traditional silly season in preparation for the final stretch. At least one side is likely to peak too early between now and September, before stumbling on the run-in and losing momentum for the playoffs.
At least that will be the case if MLS history tells us anything, though for this year at least, the unexpected story so far suggests history is being rewritten.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.