After seven weeks of MLS, the Western Conference is nosing ahead of the East, reversing a trend from last year.
LAFC and the Seattle Sounders are likely the two best teams in the league (a case can be made LAFC is certainly the best), easily outpacing eastern leaders DC United and the Columbus Crew. With an undefeated Houston Dynamo, a CCL-free Sporting KC and spry FC Dallas, the West looks like it could produce a superior group of seven playoff teams.
At the bottom, however, the difference is stark, and could be spark an East revival. The floundering New England Revolution are the only bottom-tier East team that fits the profile of a true last-place contender. Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls will surely sort themselves out enough to accelerate up the standings. Hectic, draw-happy NYCFC could rise as well.
Five East teams are out of the playoffs as it stands, with each team having played between five and seven games: the four mentioned above, plus eighth-place Chicago Fire. Let’s go over each one, and evaluate whether they can overtake the playoff teams:
The Fire are a confusing team. They theoretically have at least some attacking talent, enough to win games and challenge good teams. Nico Gaitan arrived as a new DP talent not too long ago. With CJ Sapong playing either up top or on the wing as a target scorer, Chicago have versatility.
But watching them, it’s hard to discern what they’re trying to do, or any consistency to their approach. Aleksandar Katai’s role is ambiguous. The midfield can pass, but there is little connectedness, and the front four is all over the place. They have to sort themselves out before they can maximize their ability.
New York Red Bulls
Rumors of Thierry Henry taking the managerial job notwithstanding, the Red Bulls have underperformed to start the year. They’ve managed just one win from their first six games, and now will lose Kaku for (presumably) a significant stretch of games after he went a little bonkers in Kansas City.
One of their biggest keys to getting back on track is Cristian Casseres Jr. in midfield. The Red Bulls need strength and ball-winning out of his position. Stability there could rub off on the backline.
If the Fire are difficult to figure out, NYC are doubly so. Discerning what Dome Torrent is trying to do is impossible on a game-by-game basis. With five draws from six games, this is an oddball team. No one really knows what to expect from them.
It will be interesting to see how Torrent manages the playing time of his wingers. Alexandru Mitrita, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Medina and Valentin Castellanos are competing for the same minutes, and once Heber takes the starting forward job, none of them will be able to play as a false 9. Right now, it looks like Mitrita and Lewis are the favorites to start, though Castellanos had his best game in MLS last week in Minnesota.
Atlanta’s road win over New England will inspire renewed confidence in a Five Stripes team enduring a sluggish start to the season. Winning against the Revs is far from a difficult task, but there were positive elements to take.
Most notably, Ezequiel Barco produced a breakout performance. With Hector Villalba starting on the left side, Barco had space to maneuver and generate chances. His confidence looked as high as it’s been in MLS. More performances like that would be a boon for Atlanta as they deal with complacency and Pity Martinez’s injury.
New England Revolution
The Revs are a few classes below the rest of these clubs. Outside of a 2-1 home win over Minnesota on March 30, New England have very publicly struggled. Brad Friedel, looking a lot worse now than he did in the early days of his coaching tenure, blamed MLS’s structure for his managerial deficiencies.
The attack, as ever, is marginally good enough to get the Revs into the playoffs with a strong midfield and stout defense. Those things, reader, are not happening in New England. The midfield is a revolving door, particularly when Wilfried Zahibo plays, and the backline is leaky and mistake-prone. A high-energy press will nick them points, but teams figured the Revs out a long time ago, and they aren’t organized enough at the back to keep the ball out of their net.