Chicago and Houston's massive turnarounds among MLS' biggest surprises
The MLS season just passed the midway point, and to say the league has been full of surprises this season would be an understatement. Whether it be the impressive start by expansion club Atlanta United FC led by the scintillating Miguel Almiron, or the surprisingly uneven performances by league stalwarts Seattle, LA and NY Red Bulls, MLS' first half has been -- if anything -- unpredictable. Two of the biggest surprises and storylines from the season, however, involve the revival of former powers Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo.
Chicago Fire came into the 2017 season looking "good on paper". But that is a tricky concept -- if team-building were just a case of assembling a group of highly-rated individual talents and seeing how they stacked up against opponents, then the LA Galaxy would have won the 2016 Supporters Shield and MLS Cup at a canter.
The fact that LA did not emerge victorious came down in part to the roster never adding up to more than the sum of its parts (whereas the likes of Dallas, New York Red Bulls, and even more conspicuous spenders like Seattle and Toronto, exceeded theirs). LA looked awkwardly balanced more than they did formidable last season.
So when Chicago Fire started making moves during the off-season -- finally turning the stockpiles of allocation money they'd gathered over years of serial underachievement into playing assets -- there was still a degree of caution about how it would all come together.
For one thing, the Galaxy's version of alchemy came on the heels of years of sustained success under Bruce Arena. Chicago, meanwhile, had long lost its way since its expansion heyday, and the jury remained out on whether head coach Veljko Paunovic and GM Nelson Rodriguez could revive a group Rodriguez himself had previously described as looking "snakebitten". A single losing season under the two held plenty of information for "capologists" intent on observing how the foundations for a big push should be built. The club executed some smart trades designed to build depth, but did little to inspire fans when it came to results.
And even when the parts began to fall into place with the rapid-fire arrivals of Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho and Dax McCarty, followed shortly by the marquee signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger, the consensus was that a year of competing for a playoff spot would be considered a good season. Fans should be satisfied with merely contending, given the number of moving parts -- or barely moving parts, as some critics wanted to claim of Schweinsteiger.
But the mix proved effective -- not least because all the additions came with a winning mindset and a healthy attitude. The idea that Schweinsteiger might end up being the kind of awkward fit that Giovani dos Santos often was in LA has proven to be a non-issue. The former World Cup champion has been as good as his word when he said he was here to work. He and McCarty have had numerous midfield battles locked down, and ahead of them Nikolic has been plundering goals. Even the team's former star David Accam has looked revived -- his speed has stretched games in ways that benefit his teammates, while his own attacking threat has increased through not being solely responsible for goal production.
And while results fluctuated a little as the group settled, they have hit a formidable 11-game unbeaten streak, and in doing so reversed all expectations about them. Last year they would have pleaded for patience around now -- this year they're hoping they haven't peaked too soon.
If there's a team that best illustrates this year's trend of a widening disparity between home and road form, it's Houston Dynamo. In the Dynamo's case, the gap has been absurd: eight wins over 10 unbeaten games at home, zero wins on the road. The Dynamo's 0-7-2 record on their travels is the same as Minnesota's, the bottom club in the West.
That home form, though, has made Houston the surprise of the West. With regard the teams above them, it's hardly surprising that Dallas' young tyros remain strong. Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, has been threatening to put together a season predicated on this type of utilitarian effectiveness for the past couple of years.
But Houston? Since being moved back into the Western Conference along with Sporting, Houston had fallen into anonymity. Dominic Kinnear was always going to cause a succession issue after so many years with the club, but his departure seemed to coincide with a broader identity crisis that wasn't helped by Owen Coyle's ill-fitting time in the job.
So for the Dynamo to be sitting so high in a Western Conference table that currently shows the likes of LA and Seattle below the red line...that is the surprise of the Western Conference so far.
It has helped that the attacking talents of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis have hit the ground running. The Dynamo's attack looks a lot more, well, dynamic than it did when spearheaded by Will Bruin, though Bruin's virtues as a hold-up man have been missed as Houston continue to look for traction on the road.
It has also helped significantly that Erick Torres has hit 12 goals and seemingly reverted back to his robot-dancing best. A fit and scoring "Cubo" is a big asset in this league.
But credit ultimately has to go to coach Wilmer Cabrera, who more than deserves a chance to prove his worth, just as Nelson Rodriguez has had to wait his turn for a shot in Chicago. Cabrera and Rodriguez worked together, of course -- both showed a lot of grace and class in the ultimately thankless task of seeing Chivas USA through their final year of existence. Both did some shrewd things under hugely awkward working conditions, yet both may have doubted they'd get another chance.
Cabrera's way back was via the pragmatic route of taking a USL posting with the Dynamo's affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley FC. The position ultimately brought him back to MLS as a head coach, and he has immediately seized the day with Houston. The playoffs are a more than realistic target this season, but in the next couple of years we should also start to see a youthful and distinctive Houston side (built in Cabrera's ideals) challenge more consistently. Oscar Pareja may be a strong candidate to ultimately succeed Bruce Arena as the coach of the United States men's national team. Cabrera, however, seems intent on reminding Pareja that he's going to have competition in Texas for the foreseeable future, despite the latter being the best young coach in MLS.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.