From Last Word on Soccer, by Joe Hojnacki
There are four defending 2016 MLS Cup Playoff teams that are crashing and burning early on. This happens every season in a league defined by parity. Both conference champions got off to slow starts and ended up missing the playoffs last year and the eventual champion Seattle Sounders were bottom feeders until a coaching change and big signing got their season back on track.
The 2017 season is no different. Four playoff teams from last year currently sit in the bottom for places of the Supporters Shield table. Colorado Rapids and Montreal Impact were one game away from playing each other in MLS Cup last year, and now they find themselves scrapping away for points any way they can. LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union didn’t have as successful runs in the post season, but they still had high hopes for this campaign, and neither look great after the first seven or eight matches.
Which of these teams has the best chance to recover and return to the playoffs in 2017?
The Union are in the worst shape of these four teams. They are winless through four games and only have four draws to their name. They have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory a couple times already this season, including blowing a two goal lead against fellow bottom feeders Montreal.
FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer predictions have them with the fourth worst attack and fourth worst defense in the league. No other team sits that low in both metrics and their simulated seasons have them sitting at the bottom of the pile with only 37 points at the end of the year. There is a lot of pressure surrounding head coach Jim Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart to turn things around. Nothing short of a marquee signing and/or a dramatic shift in philosophy is going to save them.
This is a real shame after last year looked like a real step in the right direction. They aren’t getting the same production out of several key players this time around. C.J. Sapong is currently handling attack duties all by himself. His four goals are half their total for the season. Chris Pontius doesn’t look like the comeback player of the year candidate that he was last year. Keegan Rosenberry is in a sophomore slump. Alejandro Bedoya and Roland Alberg are non-existent. All of that needs to change if they want to get back into the postseason.
The Rapids made the playoffs on the backs of some unbelieveable defense last season. They finished second in the West thanks in large part to their league low 32 goals allowed. That’s a 0.94 goals allowed per game. The defending has taken a step back in 2017 with 11 goals conceded through seven games in 2017 for a rate of 1.57 per game.
They are also scoring less. The 2016 Rapids weren’t known for offense, but their 1.15 goals a game were often enough to scrape out a 1-0 win. This year they have scored but five goals in seven matches.
I won’t entirely blame them, however. Injuries and suspensions have hit them rather hard. Last year’s leading goal scorer, Skelshan Gashi, has only played 158 minutes this year. Goalkeeper Tim Howard has missed four games thanks to suspensions and US National Team duty. Only Marlon Hairston and Michael Azira have managed to start every game so far and Dominique Badji is the only other to at least appear in every match.
If they can get healthy, and keep their players from acting a fool, it isn’t impossible to say they will turn things around and get back into the postseason.
The Galaxy have the most disappointing start of the league this year. They have a ton of talent and have put a ton of cash into their team, but are clearly suffering from the departure of long time head coach Bruce Arena. I think its still too early to truly judge Curt Onalfo, but the early returns are rather bad.
For all the knocks against Onalfo, the biggest problem the Galaxy have had isn’t tactical, or anything a coach can do. The biggest issue they’ve had is finishing their chances. The Galaxy are second in the league in shots per game with 13.6, but are second to last in total goals with eight. That’s two and a half goals below their shot based expected goals total of 10.5. The Galaxy have been nothing short of wasteful this season, and that has to change.
A team like the Galaxy won’t remain poor at finishing for the entire season. They have too much talent to be kept at bay for very long. At the moment, Romain Alessandrini is the only player with more than one goal, and you know Giovani Dos Santos won’t continue to come up empty. The Galaxy should turn it around once skill players like him, Jermaine Jones, and others get moving.
The Impact were minutes away from winning the Western Conference and qualifying for the MLS Cup final last year. They seemingly haven’t recovered from that second leg collapse. Montreal does not have a massive goal scoring problem, although they could be scoring more. Their usual suspects are producing, albeit not at the same rate as they were last season, and they find themselves in the middle of the pack as far as goals scored are concerned.
One shining light has been Anthony Jackson-Hamel. who has scored thrice in 105 minutes of substitute action. It will be hard to squeeze him into the starting XI with Dominic Oduro up top, but more Jackson-Hamel would be far from a bad ting for the Impact. Oduro hasn’t been doing all that much early in this season. but his reputation shows he should dig his way out of the slump. Ignacio Piatti is also off to a slow start, but he should rise above that before too long.
The Impact also have trouble keeping goals out of their own net. They have conceded the third most goals in the league and are second to last in FiveThirtyEight’s SPI for defense. This isn’t new to them. They had the worst goal difference of any playoff team last year and made their way to the East Final in a weak conference thanks to luck and getting hot at the right time.
They will need similar levels of luck in order to get back there. The East is much stronger this year and probably won’t allow a team with a negative goal differential to make any sort of playoff run. A midseason defensive signing along with a resurgence of their offense (that might include getting the hot Jackson-Hamel some starts up front) is the recipe for recovery for Montreal.
Which Team Recovers?
LA Galaxy have the talent and the proven ability to win more than any of the other three. Their main problem comes down to a lack of finishing ability, which isn’t all that hard to fix. I give them the best chance to get back in the game and sneak into the playoffs come October.
The second best chance goes to the Rapids. Things should look much better at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park once Skelshan Gashi is back to full time duty to provide some goals.
Montreal can get it done, but Marco Donadel needs to shake up his team selection and look for a way to stabilize his defense for that to happen. Philadelphia Union is a long shot at this point. They seem to have too many issues and too many players with breakout years in 206 not repeating the feat this time around.