Seventeen weeks have come and gone in MLS. It's safe to say that things have gone far from expected on many, many levels.
What are the biggest surprises this season? Who has disappointed or impressed this season?
When I say "surprises", I am referring to the more pleasant kind of surprise, and not the kind that ends in you scraping something off of your shoe.
FC Dallas is sitting in third place in the league, and that's after spending a large chunk of the season in first. Not a soul in MLS saw this coming. The MLSsoccer.com writers certainly didn't, your run of the mill pundits on the web didn't, and other fans didn't. If you say you envisioned FCD in first place for much of the first half of the season, you're lying.
We all dreamed, of course. A full season with a healthy David Ferreira again would do wonders, and we had high hopes that Castillo would continue improving his form from last year (about that... no). We were all excited about what Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli could do alongside Blas Perez.
But even us Dallas fans did not see this coming.
The reasons are many, and have been gone over many times enough to warrant not repeating them. Yes, there are some in the media that doubt the team. But this is reality:
Dallas is in third, and have thoroughly deserved their spot (so far).
Caleb Porter was brought in, and people hoped he would take them in the right direction. That the Timbers could make the playoffs was a realistic hope at the start of the season. Diego Valeri was signed, some trades were made, and suddenly Timbers fans had a real reason to be optimistic. Maybe making the playoffs would really happen this year.
Then the season began.
Portland have punched almost every team in the teeth and their ambitions have gone from "making the playoffs" to "winning the Supporter's Shield". Currently, the SS seems a realistic ambition from Portland.
Is this the result of Porter's coaching, the new signings, maturity from younger players, or a combination of all the above? It doesn't matter.
The Timbers are really good.
When the Impact hired Marco Schällibaum, I couldn't stop making fun of them. Here was your prototypical "Eurocoach", the kind that had never really had much success in MLS, and he was being put in charge of a team with real ambitions after their expansion season.
It seemed a terrible fit at the time, but it just goes to show I (and many others) really misjudged the situation in Quebec.
Having a locker room full of stars, a few has-beens, and several solid workers, who all hailed from different backgrounds required a man whose own nationality (Swiss) is full of mixed descent and multiculturalism.
Whatever it is he's doing, the Impact players love playing for Schällibaum and have publicly said so many times. He will go so far as to publicly back them by throwing things at officials and yelling at the other team.
It has been a great story so far this season. Watching this expansion team wow the MLS faithful week in and week out, with regular displays of skill and organization, has been pretty exciting.
You knew they were going to be on this list, right?
The Quakes have been, relative to the hopes placed on them, an abject disaster. There are a million reasons for this, but the simple one is that their awful defending from last year is finally catching up with them. Chris Wondolowski is no longer possessed by the Spirit of Soccer, while Steven Lenart and Alan Gordon can't stay unsuspended for more than a few games. This has had the effect of lowering SJ's scoring output dramatically compared to last year.
They are averaging one goal per game, and they're about to lose Wondo and Marvin Chavez. Oof.
For a team that's the two-time defending champion, they have looked mighty unimpressive for long streches of the season. They're about to lose Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan for the Gold Cup. It's hard to see this team significantly improving with both of those players out. Robbie Keane is doing his best to help, and there's the chance Robbie Rogers will regain full form as the season continues. They will make the playoffs though, and that's as far as they need to get. They know how to win in the playoffs.
I still don't quite understand why LA cut Saunders to get Cudicini.
Poor DC. There was so much hope surrounding them after last year's run to the Eastern Conference championship. Ben Olsen had his players believing in themselves, and they gave Houston a good fight in their last game of last season. But this year it all went south very quickly. They went on a horrific losing streak, and are about to start another one it seems.
The ownership has publicly backed Olsen, but if the team doesn't rally to finish the season on a strong note, I don't see how he stays. It's possible he stays though. Anything is possible if you believe in magic.
This season there has hardly a week has gone by where the officials are not in the center of some firestorm or other. Many times, the calls can legitimately be seen as incorrect, or at the very least, harsh. Yes, it's true that officials around the world deal with controversy and complaints, and maybe this is simply me judging our own league by a stricter standard than should be used for such a young organization.
Really though, it has been almost every week that there has been some sort of major controversy. It gets old to read about. Whether it's an unfair accusation or not, the refereeing is constantly being singled out, and that alone is enough to call it disappointing.
Random Thoughts at the Midway Mark
- Raise your hand if you picked Mike Magee, Marco Di Vaio and Jack McInerney to lead the race for the golden boot with 10 tallies apiece. ... Anyone? Me neither.
- Real Salt Lake refuse to die. Every preseason there are whispers of a "rebuilding year", and every year they're awesome. Jason Kreis is a very smart man.
- The Rapids are doing both better, and worse, than expected. It's odd, but they can't make up their mind as to how good a team they are. As soon as they started weathering the storm and picking up points with half their roster injured, people began to really entertain hopes for their revival. Then they lost all over the place. The potential is there though, and with those excellent young players being coach by Oscar Pareja, things are looking up.
- The Chicago Fire are slowly turning their issues around. At the very least, not all seems lost as it did a month and a half into the season. They have won four in a row across all competitions.
- Toronto FC's hope to start a brand new season with renewed vigor has fallen apart. They are bad again. There's hope to be had, but it won't be for this season. If Kevin Payne (backed by Tim Leiweke) and Ryan Nelsen can just steady the ship, perhaps there is hope for next season.
- The Seattle Sounders are a real mess in the midfield when Osvaldo Alonso is missing from their lineup. Does anyone place them amongst the top teams in the league if he were to have (God forbid) a season-ending injury? I'm not sure I would. They are by no means poor, or even middling, but without Alonso they don't land in the "best in MLS" category. They'll need someone like Montero, and bit more bite in the midfield, to go there. Dallas should sympathize though. With Ferreira out, we run a very impotent 4-4-2.
- Sporting Kansas City are no longer the powerhouse they were last season. Talks of a prolonged period of dominance seem to have been premature. SKC are a good team, no doubt about that. But they're not what people were expecting them to be. Graham Zusi signed a long term deal, but I would be really surprised if he didn't take off for a smaller European team that offered him starter minutes. That means money for SKC of course, so it's not all bad for them if he does leave. It's very good of them to reward their best player, and it shows they value him.
- Remeber when people were excited about Benny Feilhaber going to SKC? It was going to really bring them to the next level. Good times.
What are your thoughts on MLS at the midseason mark?