A season of two halves?
A look back -- and a look ahead -- at yet another wild year in MLS
Here's the problem with trying to forecast the second half of the Major League Soccer season: There isn't really a halfway point. By the time you wrap your head around everything that happened in the "first half," you look up to see that some clubs have already played 58 percent of a 34-game schedule. A few haven't even made it through half their matches yet. The All-Star Game, which would make for a fine place to pause and reflect, doesn't happen for another 2½ weeks. Clearly, commissioner Don Garber isn't interested in your odd need for symmetrical distinctions.
But because now is as good a time as any, pull out your MLS notebooks (the one with the old Clash and Mutiny stickers on it, right next to "I Heart Marcelo Balboa" written in glitter pen) and get ready for several can't-miss half-guesses on what the "second half" of the 2012 MLS season holds. It's like getting the answers to a test with questions that change every 10 minutes.
In the first half, the San Jose Earthquakes surprised everyone by jumping out to not only the lead in the Western Conference but the overall points lead as well, with 37 points through 19 matches. Now, their ability to hold on to the top spot turns on everyone but Chris Wondolowski and his league-leading 14 goals in 17 starts; that the Quakes opened the season with just three losses in their first 14 games is largely because Wondolowski is now the most reliable goal-scorer in MLS. But it was the contributions of Alan Gordon -- who has turned late, game-winning and game-saving goals into his calling card -- that made the difference between also-ran and Supporters Shield challenger.
Don't bet against the Quakes to go the distance, either. San Jose has what we might call, for lack of a soccer-centric term, "grinders." There's the old school wisdom of Ramiro Corrales; the tenacious, some might say "dirty," play of forward Steven Lenhart, clearing traffic and drawing attention so that Wondolowski can find the small spaces in which he's most effective; the quiet effectiveness of fullback Steven Beitashour, pushing forward up the wing and maturing as a defender.
In watching San Jose, it's clear that MLS hasn't changed all that much. Flashy names and extravagant Designated Players populate more rosters than ever before and clubs are working to develop beyond the typical fast, athletic, physical style for which the league is known, but it's still possible to be a winner by doing the same basic things that won titles 10 years ago: a poacher up top, speed on the wings and a midfield that isn't afraid to scrap for every ball. Frank Yallop knows MLS. He has no egos to massage or intricate schemes to adhere to. Sure, there's a plan, but mostly, what the Quakes do is go out and play.
The chasers out west looked for a while like they might fade, not to be heard from again until the postseason. But Real Salt Lake is just one point back of the Quakes with 36 through 20 games (San Jose has played one fewer game) despite suffering a recent four-game losing streak and rarely having its first-choice lineup on the field. Yet it's difficult to imagine RSL conceding the top spot to San Jose, with all of its panache and quality. Jason Kreis' team passes the ball better than anyone else in MLS and has legitimate goal-scorers in Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola.
Seattle ended an eight-game winless run when it beat Colorado 2-1, a win that also marked the return of Steve Zakuani. The winger's reinstatement to the Seattle starting lineup could be the spark the Sounders need to charge up the table in the second half. Seattle lulled everyone in the Western Conference into a false sense that the conference was going to be a two-team race (which was surely the plan) but it won't be a surprise when the Sounders challenge for first. The duo of Mauro Rosales and Osvaldo Alonso are difficult to bet against when healthy.
All in all, the five teams currently in the Western Conference playoff positions (San Jose, RSL, Seattle, Vancouver and L.A.) will be the teams in the catbird seats come the end of the regular season. The West has (relatively) clear tiers of teams. Only the order in which the top five enter the tournament will change.
In the East, the supposed "weak sister" MLS conference in 2012 actually has more quality teams from top to bottom (minus Toronto. Sorry, TFC). In the thick of it all, D.C. United is the surprise.
Which is odd, in a way, because it was somewhat obvious that Ben Olsen was improving as a coach, that D.C. had plenty of weapons to throw at opposing defenses and that a small improvement in his team's defensive strength could vault it into the top tier. New center back Emiliano Dudar, an improving Perry Kitchen and the acquisition of Robbie Russell from Real Salt Lake: those factors have given United's attacking players -- reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario, a healthy Chris Pontius, a rejuvenated Maicon Santos and rookie phenom Nick DeLeon -- more license to go, go, go.
If it wasn't for D.C. United's revival, the first half of the season in the East might have belonged to Sporting Kansas City. Sporting's form has evened out since its unbelievable 7-0-0 start but it's been consistent enough to keep the club tied with D.C. for first in the conference. How well the legs of Roger Espinoza, Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and others hold up through the hot summer will ultimately determine where SKC finishes. Does Peter Vermes have a deep enough team to keep up the pace? There are reasons to doubt its staying power. Make a note (in tiny writing) and do it in pencil: Sporting's due for a bit of a fall.
Below the top two, the East is rich with competitive (but flawed) clubs fighting for their playoff lives. New York should be a shoe-in on paper but the turmoil that surrounds that club on a week-to-week basis makes for nervous stomachs (and no, it's not the Red Bull). A wave of injuries, coinciding with Thierry Henry's demurrals over playing on turf away from home, has left Hans Backe with little choice but to play weakened teams. On paper, a full-strength New York team is capable of going into New England and leaving with a win. In the current reality, the Red Bulls lost that game 2-0 and showed little sign of offensive life.
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Let's just put the Red Bulls down with a few question marks after the name. Make that several questions marks, both right-side-up and inverted (that would be the Rafa Marquez question, yet to be satisfactorily answered).
Chicago, Houston, New England, Columbus -- and yes, even Philadelphia and Montreal -- all have the ability to make a run for the playoffs. It will be tougher for the latter two in that list because of the holes already dug but each can point to positives that may help them make dramatic turnarounds. In Philly, John Hackworth's appointment as interim manager has sparked something in his young squad. Jack McInerney is scoring goals and Freddy Adu has new pep in his step. Piotr Nowak gave lip service to turning the Union over to the next generation of players, though it wasn't until his departure that those players rose to the occasion.
As for Montreal, the addition of the Italian duo of Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta made the Impact something of an unknown quantity. Summer acquisitions will do that, turning legitimate (and well-informed) attempts to forecast the back half of the season into something of a ridiculous endeavor (except for this one, of course). It's possible that Montreal is due to reel off a string of good results, lifting itself from the bottom half of the Eastern Conference and into playoff contention. What? It could happen.
The gap between fifth (the last playoff spot) and eighth is just four points and while the disparity in games played makes it seem less compact than it is, there's still much jockeying left to do. (The margin between fifth and eighth in the West is actually smaller, but again, the West seems more stratified.) Throw darts, pick names out of a hat, spin a homemade Wheel of Fortune-style contraption; any of them might do a better job of predicting the final order of finish than even the most expert of the experts.
If you've done this correctly, your notebook will now have several pages filled with incomprehensible scribbles, the names of a few MLS teams barely legible through the chaos. That's just the way this league is supposed to be.
Jason Davis is an independent soccer writer and podcaster. He talks American soccer twice weekly on The Best Soccer show and writes on the same around the internet. He can be found on Twitter at @davisjsn and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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