With week 10 of MLS approaching this weekend, now is as good of a time as any to evaluate what state the league is at in 2018.
We have seen new signings light up the league, teams tipped for MLS Cup greatness stumble hilariously, as well as the polar opposite for some teams, and of course, we saw Mike Grella return to action with the Columbus Crew and score on his debut for Gregg Berhalter’s side.
So as we approach the second third of the 2018 MLS season, let’s discuss what we know and what we don’t know so far.
What we know
NYCFC and Atlanta dominance
It’s crazy what the first few games of the season can do for confidence. During the pre-season build-up, New York City FC and Atlanta United FC were pegged for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and so far they’ve lived up to the hype.
Both teams are the early pace-setters for the Supporters Shield and look to challenge for MLS Cup. Patrick Vieira’s offseason dealings have proven to be a success for NYCFC, with new signings Ismael Tajouri and young DP Jesús Medina proving to be important players for City this season.
Atlanta United’s big winter signing Ezequiel Barco has only just returned to full fitness and is starting to make an impact in the first team, but so far the Five Stripes look like they’ve kept building on their early success last season.
It will be interesting to see if both sides can keep up this form for the remainder of the season, and it will not be a surprise to see either side challenge Toronto FC for their crown of King of the East.
LAFC are the real deal
So, LAFC are doing alright. When the newly established side kicked off their first season in MLS on the road in Seattle, nobody predicted the run they would go on in their opening seven games.
Five wins and two losses in the first seven games is a great record for any expansion side, but when you step and realise four of those wins were on the road, Bob Bradley’s side looks all the more impressive. Winning on the road is the key to a high seeding in the MLS Cup Playoffs, and LAFC certainly look capable of it.
With Portuguese midfielder André Horta joining the club as a DP from Benfica in the summer and newly acquired Lee Nguyen from New England, LA’s newest team sure look like they’ll be challenging for a playoff spot come the end of the regular season, and they may even be a dark horse for MLS Cup.
Orlando have finally arrived
It took some time—four years in fact—but we are finally starting to see Orlando City hit their stride.
After only winning a single point in their opening four games, the Lions are currently on a five-game winning spree that sees Jason Kreis’ side sitting comfortably in third place in the strong Eastern Conference. And it’s not just the teams they beat and the record itself that’s impressive, it’s how they won their games that is the real eye-opener.
Against the New York Red Bulls, the game that kick-started this run, Orlando came from behind twice to seal a 4-3 win after Josué Colmán won the game for the Lions in the 86th minute. The second game of this run, against the Portland Timbers, the 2014 expansion side yet again clawed their way back from behind to gain the three points. This time starting the comeback 81 minutes in and at 2-0 down, which Orlando overturned to win 3-2.
This comeback mentality has been vital to Orlando’s success this season, and with the likes of Dom Dwyer, Justin Meram and Sacha Kljestan gelling well together already, the Lions could finally make the playoff on the fourth attempt of asking.
What we don't know
Can Seattle dig out of their hole?
So… who expected this? 10 match weeks in, and the 2016 and 17 MLS Cup finalists Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are both bottom of their respective conferences on four points each.
Now, sure, many elements have been in play since the start of the season that has impacted both teams massively in why they’re both in this position. Both teams were involved in deep runs in this years CONCACAF Champions League, with Toronto going the distance and making the final. Almost assuredly, Toronto will right the ship and be fine. But Seattle? They are bit more of a worry.
The Sounders have been hit hard with the injury bug this year. Jordan Morris’ season ended before it even began. His replacement, Will Bruin, has been hurt at times. Defenders Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, Waylon Francis, and Kim Kee-Hee have all battled injuries at various times throughout the year. Midfielders Victor Rodriguez, Ozzie Alonso, and Harry Shipp aren’t fully healthy. Even star player Nicolas Lodeiro hasn’t been 100% this season. If the Sounders want to challenge for a spot in the playoffs, they will need to make some noise when the summer window opens for business in June, and they need something big to shift the mentality of the squad.
A big name player has long been rumoured, with some fans clamoring for the likes of a player like Fernando Torres of Atlético Madrid, but if Seattle are to get back on their feet, they’ll need more than a 34-year-old striker that has only scored 22 league goals in his last three La Liga seasons. Hatem Ben Arfa anyone?
The Galaxy need more than Zlatan
Since signing for the Galaxy in April, Zlatan mania has been real in LA and for the rest of the U.S.
The Swedish legend announced his presence in MLS with his stunning 40-yard volley and 90th minute winner on his debut against LAFC, and the 36-year-old striker’s appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show was a fantastic advert for the Galaxy, for MLS, and for the Zlatan Ibrahimović brand. But, one thing he hasn’t done is solve all of the Galaxy’s problems.
Sure, Ibra has helped change the mentality of the club after their car crash of a season last year, but the same defensive problems are still there, and Sigi Schmid’s plan to sign Ola Kamara for a hefty transfer fee and then sign Zlatan has raised some serious eyebrows with Galaxy fans.
Just like the Sounders, the summer will be a big period for the Galaxy. They are no longer the best team in MLS, heck even based on this season they’re not even the best team in Los Angeles. But with some solid signings, Zlatan and Co. could have the tools they need to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Can the West really challenge the East?
For the longest time in MLS there wasn’t a whole lot that could the divide the Eastern and Western Conferences. Now, though, there’s a clear superior conference in the league.
In the past two years, the East has emerged as the more dominate conference in MLS. Last year, the top five teams in the overall table were sides from the Eastern Conference, whereas three of the bottom five franchises were teams from the Western conference.
This storyline could repeat itself again this season. NYCFC and Atlanta United are the two best sides in the league as of this writing, and Orlando City and the New England Revolution are both early candidates to finish high in overall league standing come the end of the season.
The West, though, have a reason to be optimistic. LAFC have lit the league on fire since making their debut at the start of the season, and Sporting Kansas City have been one of the surprises of the season, thanks to their goal scoring ways led by winter signing Johnny ‘Scottish Messi’ Russell, who’s making an early case for Newcomer of the Year.
MLS has been wild this year, and it’s shaping up to be even more wilder as the games continue through into the summer.