MLS Review: Sporting KC's new DPs, Olsen for coach of the year?
It's midsummer in MLS, with playoff races heating up and teams scrambling to find some measure of consistency, but the story of the weekend wasn't on the field.
Instead, two players who signed new contracts dominated the headlines, because of what their decisions meant for their team and for the league. When the best side in MLS has the week off, perhaps it's fitting that the play itself took a back seat to events off the field.
DP Day in Kansas City
Sporting simply could not lose to LA on Saturday, not after announcing the signing of club fixtures Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to Designated Player contracts. Besler and Zusi serve as the embodiment of the team's rise to MLS power, establishing themselves as stars just as everything came together for professional soccer in Kansas City.
Signing the hometown kid Besler and his good friend Zusi to deals that will have them in MLS for the foreseeable future is a credit to Sporting and their commitment to retaining the core that pushed them to their current heights. The deals also serve as enticements for other American players who might see Europe as the always-better option.
On the field, Sporting got a brilliant goal from Benny Feilhaber and an opportunistic header from Lawrence Olum to secure the win. The star DPs stole the headlines, but it was two of Sporting's more important role players who hit the back of the net.
Portland on Life Support
If nothing else, Portland's 2-1 win over Colorado at Providence Park on Friday night keeps alive the Timbers' slim playoff chances in the competitive Western Conference.
Though Caleb Porter's team doesn't look to be out of it quite yet from a cursory glance at the standings, 50 points, the usual minimum for playoff teams, is still a long way away. Perhaps the best Portland can hope for is an uptick in the results to indicate progress, even if comes too late. Finding a way to get Darlington Nagbe back to his previous levels would be a nice silver lining to what could be a lost season.
Of course, Portland still has the CONCACAF Champions League ahead. Merritt Paulson values the competition and desperately wants his club to be the first MLS team to win it under the current format. Could the Timbers prioritize continental competition over league play? Few, if any, MLS teams have taken to that strategy.
As long as Portland can squeeze out the points necessary to stay alive for the playoffs, the Timbers aren't like to put the Champions League above MLS. A few more dropped points, however, particularly at home, and they might do something pretty unique.
The Waiting Game
'Tis the season for sitting around and waiting for the player-acquisition process to play out. With the World Cup over and MLS teams scrambling to find reinforcements for the second half, there's a sense across the league that few clubs are finished products. Summer signings can play a large role in how teams do down the stretch.
Though rumors are thin for existing teams (NYCFC and Orlando are stealing headlines), one potential arrival could have a big impact on the Eastern Conference race. Former Philadelphia Union defender Carlos Valdes appears set for a return to the club after spending the last few seasons in his native Colombia attempting (and failing) to get on Colombia national team head coach Jose Pekerman's radar.
Valdes immediately solves a selection problem for interim head coach Jim Curtin in central defense and would be an upgrade overall, but one of the players the Union have used in the position since the start of the season. His arrival would also free Maurice Edu to return to midfield, the spot in the lineup Philadelphia would undoubtedly prefer the U.S. international play.
Early Coach of the Year Chatter
It's way too early to know who will take home postseason award hardware when this MLS campaign comes to a close in late fall. But if there is a short list being formed for coach of the year, D.C. United boss Ben Olsen's name must be on it.
After a last-place finish and one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2013, United are now a real contender for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Olsen's side sits just one point back of Sporting Kansas City with one fewer game played and has the second-best points-per-game average in the league behind Seattle. They're doing all of that without much contribution from their highest-profile offseason signing, striker Eddie Johnson.
If United are doing it with smoke and mirrors, it's only fair to say that Olsen is the man positioning the mirrors and manning the smoke machine. The veteran element on the team makes his job easier, but no one could have guessed D.C. would be this high up the standings at the halfway point.
FC Dallas Rebounds
After a winless stretch of eight games that covered all of May, Oscar Pareja's FC Dallas team has quietly taken 11 of a possible 15 points over its last five games, with three wins and two draws. With Mauro Diaz back from injury and young players like Andres Escobar and Tesho Akindele improving rapidly, FC Dallas looks poised to avoid last year's second-half swoon and claw its way into the playoffs.
Fabian Castillo's suspension has hardly affected the team, as other attacking options stepped up in his place. Pareja's ability to juggle a team facing injuries and absences, proved by his success with Colorado last season, has translated well in north Texas.
FC Dallas is far from a lock to make the postseason, but the next five games -- all against Western Conference opponents -- could go a long way in determining if it gets there.
Team of the Week
Goalkeeper: Steve Clark
Defenders: Bobby Boswell, Matt Besler, Michael Parkhurst
Defensive Midfielders: Perry Kitchen, Jeff Larentowicz
Attacking Midfielders: Bernardo Anor, Diego Valeri, Benny Feilhaber
Forwards: Joao Plata, Robbie Keane
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.