Needless to say, David Villa is the key to NYCFC’s success the rest of the regular season and in the MLS playoffs. (Keith Furman/FrontRowSoccer)
By Michael Lewis
Well, here we are in the stretch run for Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League, where teams can salvage underachieving seasons and or watch all their fine work during the winter, spring and summer months go down the drain over a disastrous patch.
Our three local teams are still very much alive for their postseason aspirations, though each one faces a different challenge.
Let’s look at them, from top to bottom:
New York City FC
OK, we don’t need to be reminded anymore how clawless the NYCFC attack can be without the lethal David Villa, whose absence in two home games last week made as much as a statement as to his MVP standing as his presence the rest of the season. Jack Harrison (nine goals) certainly is getting better and better, but has not shown yet he can take the team on his back.
If NYCFC wants to go deep in the MLS playoffs or even win It (yeah, I know there is a juggernaut called Toronto FC standing in its way), it will need a healthy Villa to help the team secure second place in the Eastern Conference and avoid a midweek playoff match.
If everyone is healthy, not suspended and not on international duty, this team is as good as any side in the club, outside of Toronto.
Beyond Villa, it will come down to the midfield. It always does. If Yangel Herrera (enjoy him for the remaining seven regular-season games and playoffs, because my gut feeling is that Manchester City will recall his loan after this season), hard-nosed defensive midfielder Alex Ring (watch out for yellow- and red-card suspensions) and the masterful Maxi Moralez can find ways to remain in the lineup, this team should reach the conference final.
I would rather have the steady Maxime Chanot than mistake-prone Frederic Brillant pair with Alex Callens at center back, but we’re going to have to be patient while waiting for the Luxembourg international to return from injury. The outside backs, Ethan White, Ben Sweat and RJ Allen have been adequate and sometimes rise past the occasion.
Sean Johnson has been solid, sometimes spectacular, in the net, and his inclusion on the U.S. national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup was well deserved. Some observers feel he should be included on the World Cup team, although head coach Bruce Arena will stay with his veterans, do or die.
Another win would boost City (15-8-5, 50 points) to a club-record 16th win, which could happen at the Colorado Rapids Saturday night. But anyone who thinks NYCFC can catch surging Toronto FC is just dreaming. Second place is much more realistic.
Prior to this season I talked to another veteran Red Bulls writer that I had fears that the team would start a downhill slide and my fears have been realized, especially after the Dax McCarty deal. The Red Bulls are far from same side that captured the 2015 Supporters Shield and the 2016 conference title. They are a middle-of-the-road table team that teases its supporters with a flash or two of brilliance then reverts back to mediocrity.
In other words, they have been consistently inconsistent.
The fifth-place Red Bulls (12-10-5) earned draws in their last two road games, which is a good.
The odds of catching NYCFC, which enjoys a nine-point lead and avoiding that Wednesday playoff game is a long shot, the Red Bulls have to lower the bar on their goals. One would be to finish third or fourth to secure a home game in that midweek match and that would be finishing either third or fourth. The Chicago Fire (13-9-6, 45) and Columbus Crew SC (13-12, 4, 43) are their targets. The Red Bulls have a better chance of catching Columbus as they have two games in hand over their Ohio foes.
If Bradley Wright-Phillips scores five goals in his final seven matches, he will hit 20 for the season. And if Sacha Kljestan, who has rebounded a bit after a slow start, accrues six assists in those games, he will match last year’s total and become the first MLS player to reach 20 assists in two seasons. Not bad for a down year, huh?
Midfielder-defender Tyler Adams, McCarty’s replacement, is like a Tazmanian Devil out there, but still lacks experience for consistent performances. There’s little doubt that he will improve. Sean Davis, who disappointed as Dax’s replacement, has shined in head coach Jesse Marsch’s new formation.
The central defense still can be spotty, especially without often-injured Aurelien Collin out of the lineup, though iron man goalkeeper Luis Robles keeps making key saves.
If midfielder Daniel Royer returns to form after his injury and the midfield solidifies itself, this team should secure a playoff berth and reach at least the conference semifinals. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.
Of course, Red Bulls teams have surprised us. Ones that are expected to go far in the playoffs falter and disappoint (2013 and 2015 Supporters Shield winners) and ones that struggled to clinch a berth have become Cinderella teams (the 2008 side that reached MLS Cup).
Saying all of that, securing the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup title against Sporting Kansas City next week would certainly would be a high spot in the team’s 22-year history, but like it or not, the MLS Cup is still the pro soccer’s Holy Grail in the United States.
For the first time since the team returned to competitive soccer for the 2013 fall season, there are grave concerns whether this team can reach the postseason.
While the Cosmos have acquitted themselves well on the road and have become a formidable foe to runaway leader Miami FC, the team has dropped valuable points at home in record fashion. Out of a possible 33 points to be had at MCU Park in Brooklyn, the Cosmos have earned only 14 with a 3-3-5 record.
The Cosmos sit fifth in the overall standings at a rather ordinary 7-6-10 mark and 31 points. They are seventh in the fall season at 1-2-4 and points. The top four teams out of eight reach the playoffs.
This team is searching for a consistent goal-scoring threat. Midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma leads team with six goals and three assists. Mid-season acquisition Pablo Vranjican has tallied four times in only 671 minutes over eight starts and 12 games.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer has been a stalwart in goal, but it has been the defense — team and backline — that has been among the team’s Achilles Heel, giving up goals at the most inopportune times.
The team’s wildcard is former Venezuelan international midfielder Juan Arango, the 2016 NASL MVP. If he can produce some magic and some goals when needed, the team can reach the post season.
If not, the big speculation will be which MLS team head coach Giovanni Savarese will be heading to in the offseason. The club refused to allow him to negotiate with Minnesota United after winning the 2016 Soccer Bowl.
Savarese has done a marvelous job getting the most out of his crew. It is time for him to test his coaching mettle in the big leagues. Regardless how the team finishes, three championships in five seasons is good enough for an MLS coaching spot, especially in a league that likes to recycle losing coaches.
But knowing Savarese, he isn’t thinking about 2018, only trying to find the right combination for his team to be success this year.