The 14th Major League Soccer season has had something of a messy start. Of 74 matches played at the time of writing, 27 have resulted in draws. Matches are frequently turning on defensive errors and the officiating is once again prone to horrific incompetence. But for the past few weeks a few sides have begun to hit some form and rise to the top.
The biggest story in the first few weeks of the season was the superb start made by the league’s 2009 expansion club, Seattle Sounders FC. Sigi Schmid’s team kicked off with a 3-0 win over New York Red Bulls and thanks to impressive input from Nate Jaqua, Steve Zakuani and Fredy Montero would sit third in a single table after Week 10.
Beating Seattle to the top of the Western Standings, and topping the MLS with 24 points, Chivas USA have surprised supporters with a strong start. Four goals and one assist from Mexican striker and MLS debutant Eduardo Lillingston have gone a long way to putting Chivas where they are in the table. Head coach Preki will be desperate for Lillingston to continue his hot streak and ensure the team’s playoff spot as early as possible.
Challenge from the East
While Chivas head off over the horizon with only Seattle and Houston Dynamo in immediate pursuit, there is a little more needle to proceedings at the top of the Eastern Standings. Toronto FC started excellently and initially responded well to the departure of John Carver from the dugout, but slipped slightly in the following weeks. However, a resurgent Dwayne De Rosario has helped them get back on track and TFC are now level on points with DC United, a side with only one 2009 MLS defeat to its name but developing a knack of drawing matches they should have won, and matches they should have lost.
But perched atop the Eastern Standings as Week 11 gets underway are Chicago Fire. For large parts of the season opening, Fire went about their business quietly and went unnoticed, but they are now the league’s only unbeaten side and are six points behind Chivas with a game in hand.
Chicago Fire joined Major League Soccer as an expansion club in 1998 and won MLS Cup and the US Open Cup in its first season. Since then, three more Open Cups have been added to the Fire’s honours list, as well as a Supporters Shield in 2003. The team plays at Toyota Park, a soccer-specific stadium in Bridgeview, and is coached by former Colorado Rapids defender Denis Hamlett.
The Fire started 2009 in winning fashion on the road. Despite the early shock of seeing Jon Busch beaten by Kenny Cooper from his own half, Chicago went on to secure an assured 3-1 victory at Pizza Hut Park against what we now know is a dismal FC Dallas side. A deserved away point at DC United followed, before Chicago defeated New York at home in the first weekend of April.
The rest of April and the first half of May were, inevitably, dominated by draws. The Fire tied with San Jose, Kansas City, Columbus, Seattle and New England, but were soon back in the winning habit. Away wins at Toronto and New York in the last two weekends have cemented Chicago’s spot at the top of the Eastern Standings and given them a superb platform from which to launch an assault on the playoffs.
On top of the industry of Justin Mapp, Fire’s success so far this season has been built upon defensive solidity as a team. At the back, Wilman Conde, Gonzalo Segares and Bakary Soumare have helped the backline form the foundations of that solidity – not to mention two goals and three assists between the trio so far.
But it’s skipper Brian McBride who is rightly winning all the accolades this term. The former Fulham striker has appeared in all ten Chicago games and joins Landon Donovan, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Conor Casey and Josh Wolff on top of the scoring charts with six goals.
Premier League supporters would recognise McBride’s excellence from his days at Craven Cottage, and little has changed. The 36-year-old hitman still operates as a top-class target man, shows the same eye for goal and remains a real handful for defenders throughout MLS. He netted from the spot against Dallas and scored twice to win a point when Fire hosted the Wizards, but the best of McBride’s goals this season came at Buck Shaw Stadium against San Jose Earthquakes.
With Chicago 2-1 down after half time, McBride levelled in the 57th minute with a goal that would grace any game in any league. Cuauhtemoc Blanco headed a high ball first time, finding McBride on the edge of the area, with his back to goal. In one move, McBride flicked the ball inside himself and his marker, turned and fired in the equaliser. Make no mistake, he’s still got it.
Prospects for 2009
It’s early days, of course, but Chicago Fire look very strong indeed. As I submit this post, Fire are preparing to face Chivas. The outcome – in terms of both performance and result – will tell us a lot about where the short term futures of both clubs lie. The beauty of parity, like it or not, is that we don’t yet really know.
What’s certain is that people are now sitting up and taking notice of Chicago, and their ability to deal with that weight of expectation will be crucial. The likes of Brian McBride are not chokers, and I think the Fire will ease into the playoffs without too much trouble. And if they can get end-of-season momentum on their side, I think they’d be a great bet for MLS Cup.