Travel, schedule makes weekend of freak results appear more predictable
It was a weekend of strange results in MLS. Looking at the box scores alone, the league's treasured principle of forced parity looked to be veering strangely close to a lottery.
Look at the same scores alongside a map and a calendar, though, and it's a little easier to see how we got there.
Looking at individual games, Philadelphia Union's first win in 253 days stands out. It was a strange game not only for the result but for the manner of their victory; under pressure for most of the second half, the Union took the lead on a deflected C.J. Sapong shot late on, and the kindness of that bounce seemed to flip a switch on the team's flagging fortunes. Sapong quickly bundled home another at close range, before rounding out his first MLS hat trick with a penalty. From nowhere, the Union had completed a 3-0 rout of the New York Red Bulls.
The cathartic nature of a first win since last summer shouldn't be underestimated, though perhaps just as importantly it's come in time for the Union to salvage their season. In any other league, the winless streak they've started the campaign with would have left them hopelessly out of contention. In MLS we're at that strange moment in the year when for the first time there's enough data to make meaningful observations about teams, and still more than enough time for any team to still position itself for a run into the playoffs.
It's also why there was more puzzlement and irritation than despair in the Red Bulls locker room after Saturday's game. Most of the players were quickly back on the bus without a lingering inquest, though Jesse Marsch stayed to talk to ESPN FC, noting as an aside the schedule's part in the 14 goals the team has conceded in six road games this year.
"It's a worry, right? Leaking goals on the road," he said. "No real regrets about the rotation though; this was the last time this year we have to play three league games in a week."
Marsch was referring to the weakened team he sent out to a 2-0 defeat on the road to Sporting Kansas City in midweek. Sporting have eased into the season by starting to add goals to what's shaping up to be a career year for goalkeeper Tim Melia. But the team was not only shut out on Sunday in Minnesota, it also conceded two goals to a home team that is gradually turning the narrative of its debut season around after a torrid start.
Some of that was down to Sporting's own squad rotation at the back; Igor Juliao made his first start for the team since 2014, and had a rough afternoon in a defense that also saw Kevin Ellis make his first start of 2017. The team duly coughed up two goals in the first half as the newcomers tried to adapt, and with Bobby Shuttleworth playing through a broken nose to keep Minnesota United solid at the other end, it was a tough way for Sporting to end its own stretch of three games in nine days.
Like Marsch, Peter Vermes was forced into switching personnel around in a league in which depth beyond the first XI can be something of an issue, and both coaches ended up paying the price for the scheduling crunch.
On the face of it, you might also want to add in San Jose's 3-0 demolition of Portland to this weekend's surprises. The Timbers have looked a very complete team for most of the opening games of the year, but they were undone by the Earthquakes in emphatic fashion.
There wasn't much surprising about who the architect of that defeat was, however. Chris Wondolowski loves playing Portland. He scored twice and assisted on the other goal to take his personal tally to 10 goals in 13 games against the Timbers, though perhaps it's the assist that should be catching the eye. In a reconfigured Quakes attack built around the threat of Jahmir Hyka, Wondolowski's been finding more room to roam and set up teammates. He's high up the league assist charts this season, and in fact has either scored or assisted on 9 of the team's 12 goals this season.
But back to that more significant trend of teams losing on the road on short rest. Orlando City was another victim that had little time to recover from losing a tight game in Toronto in midweek, before having to rouse itself for a visit to Houston. Jason Kreis rested defensive bedrock Jonathan Spector, but not fullbacks Scott Sutter and Donny Toia, and a weary Orlando duly conceded three second-half goals to a rampant Dynamo attack that didn't look to be suffering unduly without the missing Erick Torres, as they both toyed with Orlando out wide and countered efficiently to pick the visitors off.
Goals from Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and two from Mauro Manotas did the damage, though looking at the state of the opposition and that common thread in all the "shocks" this weekend, the greatest damage was almost certainly done by the schedule. Even the notional exception, Portland, which had a week to recover from its last game, was playing a second consecutive road game.
It's not necessarily a huge factor in the ultimate outcome of a very forgiving competitive format. Racking up air miles is an occupational hazard in a domestic league played in a huge territory, and the schedule tends to resolve into more in-conference games by the end of the season. But right now, would-be contenders have to make a fair few detours en route to the top. Expect more "unexpected" results while that's the case.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.