MLS Review: Dominant Henry, Dempsey's back
The league's leading lights made their presence felt across MLS in Week 18.
Big names put in big performances, from Toronto and New York to Seattle and Vancouver. Cresting the halfway point and headed toward the All-Star Game, MLS is far from done but has provided enough evidence to make clear judgements about a handful of teams.
The rest, as always, remains up in the air.
Here are five items from another week of MLS action:
Henry the Magician
Every once in a while, Thierry Henry is good for one of "those" games.
Those games usually involve a Henry goal, but quite often they are more notable for his massive influence in the Red Bulls attack across the whole of the game, whether it comes in the form of scoring or setting up his appreciative teammates.
On Saturday, Henry was brilliant against the Columbus Crew in the New York Bulls' 4-1 win.
He scored. He contributed three assists, two to Bradley Wright-Phillips. He initiated dangerous attacking movements. And he led, as he sometimes does, cajoling his comrades to tighten up after a defensive letdown allowed Columbus to tie the game briefly.
Wright-Phillips leads MLS with 15 goals, and should be celebrated for his scoring exploits. But like so many other strikers of New York's recent past, Wright-Phillips owes much of his success to Henry.
Meanwhile, when Henry scores a goal like the one he casually stroked into the net against Columbus, then turns away as though even that wasn't something truly worth celebrating, we all get a reminder of how amazing he really is.
Defoe Does the Deed
Last year, MLS had zero English strikers in the running for the Golden Boot. Now it has two, with Toronto's Jermain Defoe joining Wright-Phillips at the top of the goal-scoring charts. Defoe keyed a Toronto win over Houston on Saturday, scoring two second-half goals to get his team a win.
Toronto's investment in expensive talent will have been worth it only if the Reds make the playoffs for the first time in their history. But to this point, every dollar spent is paying off, in part because Defoe's pure striker instincts makes them dangerous in every game he plays. TFC can struggle in midfield and have issues defensively, but as long as the former Spurs man is running at opposing defenders, Ryan Nelsen's team has a strong chance at victory.
Questions about Toronto usually swirled around Nelsen's ability to get the most out of the new talent. So far, the new talent is making most of those concerns moot.
- Davis: MLS Power Rankings
The Cloud of Rumor
In addition to the usual rumors about possible big-name summer signings, this particular summer brings the element of possible significant player departures. The undetermined statuses of a few of the league's brightest names might be distractions for lesser teams.
In the case of DeAndre Yedlin's Seattle Sounders and Matt Besler's Sporting Kansas City, however, organizational stability provides a platform to continue playing well no matter what rumors are swirling. Both USMNT players have suitors overseas, and conventional wisdom is that each will be moving on sooner rather than later.
Some credit goes to the players themselves. Each is saying the right things; they aren't letting their career future dictate how they're performing in the present. Besler went 90 as part of Sporting's win over Montreal on Saturday, and Yedlin started and went the distance against the Timbers on Sunday night.
The wealth of attacking talent in the stable of the New England Revolution is among the best in the league: Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez, Patrick Mullins. The Revs also have talented defenders like Andrew Farrell, Jose Goncalves, and A.J. Soares. The club's other starters, players like Teal Bunbury, Chris Tierney, Darrius Barnes et al., are strong, above-average contributors.
The strength of that group is why the Revs' losing streak, which is now at five after a home loss to the Fire on Saturday, is so amazing.
The losing streak comes immediately after a five-game winning streak. The symmetry of New England's last 10 matches is something to behold, as it illustrates both the Revs' ability to play at Supporters Shield level and struggle merely to scrape out a draw. Does Jay Heaps have a good team or a bad team? Without a few draws thrown in, it's difficult even to ponder the idea that New England is merely mediocre.
If the pattern holds, get ready for another winning streak. If only to confuse us more.
Meanwhile, in Cascadia ...
Hours after Germany lifted the World Cup trophy as champions of the tournament in Brazil, the Sounders and Timbers took to the field in Seattle with Cascadia bragging rights and MLS points on the line.
For the Sounders, the game was as much about reintegrating Clint Dempsey and Yedlin into their lineup as it was securing three points against their rivals. Dempsey spent much of the first half drifting deep to find the ball, a tactic that meant more touches but less danger.
A halftime adjustment, much of which revolved around providing the USMNT star with service in the box, provided him a chance to influence the game more directly in the second half. Dempsey finally broke through with a goal on his return in the 70th minute.
Before departing for his World Cup duties, Dempsey was the league's leading MVP candidate. While he was away, Obafemi Martins picked up the scoring slack to push Seattle into their catbird seat atop the league. Now that Dempsey is back, the Sounders are back to full strength.
For the rest of MLS, that's a scary proposition.
Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid
Defenders: Matt Besler, Tommy Meyer, Chad Marshall
Midfielders: Dillon Powers, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Mauro Rosales
Forwards: Jermain Defoe, Dom Dwyer, Thierry Henry
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.