MLS midseason report cards
Interim report cards in MLS can be tricky at times. The summer months often result in the league's best players being occupied by international duty, and this year's World Cup did plenty to rob teams of key players, despite the league's efforts to move to a reduced schedule. Even for teams not affected by international commitments, the summer months can sap energy and eat into a side's depth.
As such, it's possible to get some false readings. Even after the players return, the World Cup hangover can affect performances that will no doubt improve as fall approaches. That said, the games still count, the stretch run is before us, and with the All-Star Game set to take place on Wednesday in Portland, Oregon, here are how the teams grade out over the first five months of the season:
Seattle Sounders: A
Yes, the Sounders have hit a sticky patch in the past week, but the 2014 campaign has largely gone according to plan. Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have formed a fearsome partnership up top, and Chad Marshall has been everything Seattle hoped for in the back. In midfield, the two roaming coils of razor wire that are Osvaldo Alonso and Gonzalo Pineda have provided sufficient protection. Production out of the flank midfield spots has been a bit uneven, but the return of Brad Evans should provide a boost. Locker-room chemistry looks to be better as well, which should prevent a repeat of last year's late-season flameout.
D.C. United: A
The year's most impressive turnaround has been engineered by Ben Olsen & Co. In a league seemingly enamored with foreign Designated Players, United has done it by relying heavily on veteran North American performers. Forward Fabian Espindola is the only player raised outside the continent to make a significant contribution. Meanwhile, players like defender Bobby Boswell and midfielder Chris Rolfe have shown they still have plenty to offer. Can United make a deep playoff run? The CONCACAF Champions League could chew up precious energy, but given the team's experience, why not? At minimum, a club with a rich history has managed to rise once again.
Sporting Kansas City: A-
Kansas City has by no means had things go its way this season, but defending champions rarely do. SKC has been hit especially hard in the back, due to injuries and suspensions, with right-back Chance Myers out for the year and goalkeeper Eric Kronberg also missing time. Yet Kansas City has continued to thrive mostly due to its depth, as well as stellar seasons from the likes of forward Dom Dwyer and midfielder Benny Feilhaber. About the only questions going forward are whether outside backs Igor Juliao and Jacob Peterson can hold up and whether new acquisition Jorge Claros can fill the holding midfielder void created by the departure of Uri Rosell.
L.A. Galaxy: B+
The Galaxy's grade might have been higher had they not left a bunch of points on the table during the early months of the season, as they failed to turn some fine performances into victories. But Bruce Arena's decision to return to a 4-4-2 with a flat midfield has kicked things up a notch, and now L.A. is surging up the Western Conference table. The continued maturation of Gyasi Zardes has given the Galaxy the third scoring option they lacked last year after the trade of Mike Magee, and Robbie Keane continues to be one of the league's best forwards. Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho have hit a rich run of form in midfield, and the defense has been impressive. Landon Donovan is, well, Landon Donovan. The Galaxy are looking every bit like an MLS Cup contender.
Coverage from MLS All-Star 2014:
- Parker: Henry should be cherished
- McIntyre: Merits of the All-Star Game format
- Davis: 2014 MLS midseason awards
- Carlisle: MLS Power Rankings: Week 21
- McIntyre: Dempsey discusses U.S. future
- Marshall: Torres enjoying the limelight
- Carlisle: MLS midseason report cards
- Parker: Cynics wrong about All-Star Game
- McIntyre: Familiarity gives All-Stars the edge
Real Salt Lake: B
There always figured to be a drop-off following the end of the Jason Kreis era, but a look at the numbers shows that whatever regression has taken place under successor Jeff Cassar has been minimal. A year ago, RSL was averaging 1.65 points per game. This year that mark is 1.64. Given the absences of Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando to World Cup duty and the long-term injury to striker Alvaro Saborio, that's not bad at all. RSL did waste some points early in the season when it conceded late equalizers against San Jose, Philadelphia and Vancouver, and that might have left an impression that the team doesn't have the fortitude that it once did. But the fact remains that RSL is a vastly experienced outfit that will present a formidable opposition to whatever team it faces in the playoffs.
FC Dallas: B
When FCD followed a 5-1-1 start with an eight-game winless streak, an uncomfortable sense of deja vu descended over the Dallas Metroplex. Yet since then, Oscar Pareja's side has righted itself, is unbeaten in its last seven and solidified its position in the Western Conference playoff race. All of this despite losing playmaker Mauro Diaz for an extended spell and seeing defender George John and midfielder Hendry Thomas ruled out for the season with injuries. Honor is due to defender Matt Hedges for keeping things together in the back, while Fabian Castillo and Blas Perez have sparked the attack. Heretofore unknown players like Tesho Akindele and Victor Ulloa have done their bit as well.
Toronto FC: B
Barring a complete collapse, Toronto should make the playoffs. That is nothing to sniff at given the team's tortured history. For all the hype surrounding the arrivals of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, Toronto was always going to live or die by its supporting cast. To a large degree, those players have come through. Justin Morrow, rookie Nick Hagglund and Bradley Orr have shored up the back line while Luke Moore and Dominic Oduro -- who it must be said is as streaky as ever -- have provided some depth in attack. But while Gilberto began to chip in some goals, Defoe's continued injury troubles remain a huge concern and will dictate how far TFC goes this season.
Vancouver Whitecaps: B-
This mark might strike some as a bit high, but think about where Vancouver was entering the season. After failing to get Frank Yallop or Bob Bradley as manager following the dismissal of Martin Rennie, the Whitecaps settled on Carl Robinson, whose first headache was to deal with the defection of Golden Boot winner Camilo. Yet Robinson has fashioned a side that has some impressive attacking pieces in Pedro Morales, Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado. Matias Laba remains one of the better holding midfielders in a league rife with quality at that position. The margins remain wafer thin for Vancouver, however, given the upheaval that has taken place in the center of defense. In a stacked Western Conference, it just might prevent the Whitecaps from reaching the postseason.
Colorado Rapids: C+
Manager Pablo Mastroeni, appointed in the wake of Pareja's offseason defection to Dallas, has done well given the wave of injuries that have hit Colorado at times. Those kinds of circumstances can certainly lend themselves to the split personality the Rapids have shown this season. Yet Colorado isn't alone in dealing with the injury bug, and at some point, Mastroeni's side will need to rise above it. The Rapids certainly have the attacking tools in players like Dillon Powers and Vicente Sanchez but will need to find more consistency on defense to secure one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
New York Red Bulls: C-
The reigning Supporters' Shield winner is operating far from the peak it reached in 2013. The Red Bulls have the league's leading scorer in Bradley Wright-Phillips, with Thierry Henry providing the creative outlet, but the balance in midfield that was present last year has yet to be realized during the current campaign. Wright-Phillips' heroics have meant putting Tim Cahill in midfield, leaving Dax McCarty -- and Jamison Olave in the back -- with an inordinate amount of defensive work to do when the Australian inevitably gets forward. New York has lost only one of its last nine games, so the season is trending in a better direction than it was prior to the World Cup, but it's still to be determined just how imposing this side will be come playoff time.
Chivas USA: C-
This grade is largely down to exceeding expectations. Before the season, the Goats were picked to be the worst team in the league by some distance. Yes, they currently occupy last place in the Western Conference, but Wilmer Cabrera has at least made Chivas USA competitive, thanks in large part to the goal scoring of Erick "Cubo" Torres, the leadership of Carlos Bocanegra and a mishmash of spare parts. It's not always pretty, especially when set against the giant swaths of empty seats at StubHub Center, but it could be a lot worse.
Columbus Crew: C-
A three-game winning streak to start the season sparked talk of a revival in Columbus, but the ensuing months have given way to some harsh realities. Now the Crew find themselves in a street fight for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, and it took picking up seven points from their last three games to get there. Without question, the back-line additions of Michael Parkhurst and Costa Rica World Cup hero Giancarlo Gonzalez have paid off, and Wil Trapp is one of the burgeoning young talents in the league. But finishing off the chances created by Federico Higuain remains a huge concern, and unlike some of its Eastern Conference rivals, Columbus has yet to really augment its roster. The Crew's aim of reaching the postseason will likely go down to the final day.
Philadelphia Union: C-
After a dreadful 1-5-5 start, the Union have been grinding their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia has lost only once in its last eight games and sits just three points behind Columbus for the fifth and final playoff spot in the East. But this still feels like a team where the pieces don't all fit together, especially in midfield. In the back, the return of defender Carlos Valdes should help matters, as will the addition of goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi. If those changes result in a more disciplined team defensively, Philadelphia may just sneak into the playoffs.
Portland Timbers: D+
This was supposed to be a season where the Timbers built on last year's first-place finish in the Western Conference. Instead, Portland has regressed due primarily to the same defensive frailties that were its undoing last year. Liam Ridgewell has been brought in to shore things up in the back -- something offseason acquisition Norberto Paparatto was supposed to do -- but it's still too early to determine if he alone is the answer. Meanwhile, the Timbers are left trying to outscore teams, which isn't going to work come playoff time. That assumes that Portland will make the postseason. The Timbers are not out of the picture by any means, but it will take some considerable improvement in the final three months.
San Jose Earthquakes: D
The Quakes finally appear to have moved beyond the one-dimensional, long-ball tactics of 2013 with the additions of Yannick Djalo and Matias Perez Garcia. The only question now is has the switch come too late? Defensively, the team can have no complaints, as San Jose has the fourth-best GAA in the league, but goals have been scarce for much of the season, thanks in part to Djalo's inability to stay healthy. With Djalo shelved by yet another soft tissue injury -- suffering a quad strain last weekend against Seattle -- a playoff spot seems a bridge too far for this side.
Chicago Fire: D
With 13 ties already this season, the Fire are the unofficial King of Meh. But it didn't have to be this way. In preseason, Chicago dealt Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry, and in came Patrick Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to go along with Bakary Soumare. It hasn't worked, and in the past two games, nominal midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has started at center-back. One can argue that Berry hasn't been missed, given that he has struggled with injuries for much of this season in Philadelphia, but clearly Yallop's tinkering in the back hasn't paid off. A pity given how attackers like Harrison Shipp and Quincy Amarikwa have performed this season.
New England Revolution: D-
As of this writing, New England is just a point out of the fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but this is a team in free fall, having lost nine of its last 10. The Revs couldn't even manage the twin gifts of being up a goal and a man against New York last weekend. So what gives? Defensively, this side isn't as cohesive as last year, when Jose Goncalves was the MLS Defender of the Year. The loss of holding midfielder Andy Dorman to injury has cut deep as well, as there is no one to provide any kind of shield in front of the back line. And in MLS, if you can't stop anybody -- the 3-0 win over Colorado last week marked the first time the Revs had even led a match since May -- you have no shot, even if you have dynamic attackers like Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe at your disposal.
Houston Dynamo: D-
The Dynamo may yet salvage something out of this season, especially if new acquisitions DaMarcus Beasley and Luis Garrido perform up to expectations, but overall Houston has been a massive disappointment, particularly on defense. The decision to let Bobby Boswell go looks foolish in retrospect, and holdovers Jermaine Taylor and Corey Ashe haven't performed as well as in years past. Yet the bigger problems have been in midfield, where the absence of Ricardo Clark, along with World Cup participants Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek, has had a domino effect defensively and exposed the team's lack of depth.
Montreal Impact: F
Little was expected of a side that did practically nothing to bolster its roster in the offseason, but the Impact have woefully underperformed even by those forgiving standards. The defense has been a shambles, with only Houston worse defensively, while the Impact's scoring average of one goal per game ranks last. Rather than blame coach Frank Klopas, owner Joey Saputo did the right thing and axed sporting director -- and brother-in-law -- Nick De Santis. Now it's up to Klopas to rebuild a roster that is in dire need of an upgrade at every position save forward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.