Topsy-turvy Major League Soccer season continues as Galaxy go top
There might come a day when Major League Soccer is predictable.
The big-spending teams will beat the smaller-spending teams with enough regularity that there will be distinct dividing lines evident between the two. Come the closing weeks of the regular season, "favorites" and "underdogs" will have real meaning, leading to "upsets" in the traditional sense. When conventional wisdom fails, it will be a notable trend.
Today is not that day.
MLS is as unpredictable as ever, especially on the evidence of Week 30 of the 2015 season. Numerous games resulted in what might be called "surprising" results in any other context. For example, the top team in the league coming into the weekend, Vancouver, fell at home to Eastern Conference also-ran NYCFC.
The East's best team to this point, the New York Red Bulls, conceded five goals -- at home, no less -- to Orlando, one of the more inconsistent and defensively frail teams in the entire league.
An ascendant Eastern Conference team with designs on a top seed, Columbus, couldn't make a home date count against a Portland team that has struggled to score goals in recent weeks.
It's almost too much to unpack, especially because of the turmoil all of those surprises caused when it comes to the playoff places.
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The New York Red Bulls have turned Jesse Marsch's high-pressing style into a successful regular season and a chance at a top seed in the Eastern Conference. But for all the good the tactic can bring, it does carry a significant level of risk. An opponent who can break the press and find the space behind the Red Bulls' lines will find plenty of opportunity to score goals.
Such was the case on Friday night, when Orlando City walked into the cauldron of Red Bull Arena and humbled Marsch's team with a 5-2 win. Cyle Larin hit a hat trick, setting a new rookie goal-scoring record in the process. Go ahead and engrave the Canadian striker's name on the Rookie of the Year Award -- it's a guarantee he'll be winning that honor.
Orlando's big win probably comes too late to save their season, but there's plenty to be positive about in central Florida. Not making the playoffs will sting for a team with big expectations in their first MLS campaign, though there's a good argument to be made that if injuries hadn't decimated the Lions, they might be sitting about the red line in the standings.
As for the Red Bulls, we know they'll be making a postseason appearance. The ultimate fate of Marsch & Co. will turn on their ability to keep teams from victimizing them the way Orlando City did on Friday -- in other words, New York's season turns on matchups.
If we needed a reminder that the margins in the game are infinitesimally small, golden chances missed in a couple of games did the reminding. Every point is crucial with playoff berths and seeding hanging in the balance, making a sitter unconverted among the most painful moment possible.
Salt Lake's Joao Plata will have nightmares about his missed chance against the Earthquakes on Sunday. The Ecuadorian attacker, who has struggled this year with his consistency after coming back from a devastating injury last year, flat-out whiffed on a buzzing cross that simply needed a tiny touch to find the back of the net.
If he had converted, RSL might have escaped San Jose with three points, providing a big boost to their playoff chances. As it turned out, Matias Perez-Garcia's late deflected goal gave the Earthquakes a crucial win instead.
Meanwhile, Clint Dempsey failed to score on not one but two fantastic chances in Seattle's visit to Sporting Park. With the home team resting their starters ahead of the US Open Cup final on Wednesday, the Sounders were lined up to claim three points toward a surprise return to the Supporters' Shield race (that's just how tight things are at the top right now -- a team that six weeks ago was in complete free-fall is again near enough the top of the standings to have Shield dreams).
The game ended in a 1-1 draw thanks to a goal for Kansas City from substitute Dom Dwyer, leaving the Sounders content with a road draw but also wondering what might have been.
Good Galaxy, bad Galaxy
LA returned to the top of the Western Conference and Supporters' Shield standings with a 3-2 win over FC Dallas on Sunday night, but the game did little to assuage fears that the defending champs have some defensive issues to sort out if they're going to win their fourth title in five seasons.
Frank Lampard's goal for NYCFC, the first in a road win at Vancouver, was classic Lampard. The Englishman has what sometimes seems like a magical ability to lose markers on late runs in the box. It's how he set a record for goals by a midfield in the Premier League, and it doesn't seem like he's forgotten how to do it now that he's playing for NYCFC in MLS.
Drog day afternoon
More praise is due to the most impactful of MLS summer signings, Didier Drogba. With two more goals for the Impact in a 2-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday, the Ivorian now has seven goals in six games. Amazingly, Drogba's arrival has turned Montreal from questionable playoff qualifier into legitimate Eastern Conference contender. There's not a team in the East that wants to face a healthy and in-form Drogba in the playoffs.
Sebastian Giovinco is putting in one of the great MLS seasons of all time, and it might push Toronto to their first playoff berth. Giovinco did it again on Saturday, scoring and assisting in a 3-2 win over the Fire. Giovinco now has 20 goals and 15 assists, becoming the first player in league history to hit the 35-goal/assist total. The MVP Award will be heading north.
Team of the week
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.