MLS Thoughts: Are Houston, Chicago back?

The Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire finished at the bottom of the table last season with little hope of a turnaround.

But through two matches this season, both teams have flipped the script. Houston sits atop the Western Conference while Chicago earned a draw and a win in it’s two matches so far. And, while there’s a long ways to go this season, supporters of both teams have reasons to be optimistic.

And thanks their strong starts, those two teams lead off my thoughts from the second week of MLS action below.

Are the Houston Dynamo a serious contender?

Houston struggled the past couple of seasons under Owen Coyle. The Dynamo finished last in the Western Conference last year and looked dead in the water

But the team looks to have turned a corner so far this season with Wilmer Cabrera at the helm.

Houston backed up the 2–1 win over Seattle last week with a 3–1 beating of Columbus on Saturday. Once again Romell Quioto and Cubo Torres found the back of the net, including another great curler from Torres. Torres now has two goals in two games after not scoring in the league since 2014. If he can continue to score consistently, no one’s going to want to play this team.

I still think it’s two early to tell if Houston is going to be a serious contender in the west. Two data points aren’t nearly enough to go on early this season. But there’s a lot to be excited about with the Dynamo.

Also, mark your calendars for May 28 when the Dynamo face FC Dallas for the first Texas Derby meeting of the season.

Is Chicago back from the bottom

Like Houston, the Chicago Fire also struggled for the past several years. In fact, they took the “Wooden Spoon” — a fun name for the worst team in the league — each of the past two seasons.

But the Fire won this offseason, acquiring Juninho from Los Angeles and trading for Dax McCarthy from the New York Red Bulls. And now they’re winning on the pitch. Chicago clawed back from an early deficit last week at Columbus to get a draw. And Saturday, the team dominated from start to finish in a 2–0 win at home against Real Salt Lake.

Also like Houston, I still think it’s too early to tell if Chicago will be a playoff threat. There’s a long way between now and October. But the Fire no doubt improved this offseason and it’s showing on the pitch. Don’t be surprised to see them in playoff contention eight months from now.

Weather woes in the north

Bitterly cold weather swamped the northern half of the country this weekend and it showed during the matches. Stands in Chicago and New York looked half empty thanks to the elements. And the New England Revolution had to cancel their home contest against Orlando City because of the threat of heavy snow and bitter cold weather.

But the worst of the winter weather came Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis for Minnesota United’s home opener. Temperatures in the Low 20s and snowfall greeted the two teams as they came out of the tunnel and it didn’t get any better. By the time the 23rd minute came around, a zamboni and a puck seemed more appropriate than a soccer ball.

But a crowd of 35,000 created a fun atmosphere for the contest and we got to see the rare orange ball appearance. And somehow, the warm-weather Atlanta United came out the victors. More on that later.

But yeah, this weekend served as another reminder why MLS does not follow the schedule of the rest of the world.

Atlanta United’s attack looks good

Most people figured that Atlanta United would have a hard time playing in the cold and snow on Sunday. Of course, what most people expect of Atlanta United has been different than reality.

The same was true in United’s 6–1 win over Minnesota, where the team from Georgia looked more acclimated to the conditions than the home side.

Atlanta opened the scoring in the second minute when Josef Martinez finished off the break with a nice goal and continued when Miguel Almirón did the same ten minutes later. Martinez finished the match with a hat trick — just the third time that’s happened in the first year of an expansion team.

Most of Atlanta’s goals on Sunday came off the break, and even in the snow, the team’s speed was very apparent. In normal conditions, it’s going to be very deadly.

At this point, most people, including myself, believe Atlanta is a playoff team. The only question now is where in that upper tier of the Eastern Conference will they fit. Their match at Seattle at the end of the month will give us a better idea on that end.

FC Dallas youth movement

FC Dallas served up a big batch of youth in it’s road contest against Sporting Kansas City. The Hoops started four regular starters while giving its younger players a chance to shine. Homegrown Paxton Pomykal made his first start at the age of 17 while first-round draft pick Jacori Hayes also made his debut amongst the other youngsters.

The result turned out to be a 0–0 draw, which FC Dallas will be happy to take. The Hoops haven’t won a match in Kansas City since 2011, and getting the road point is massive. Plus, the younger players earned massive experience, which will only help grow the depth of the team.

But the biggest benefit from playing the youngsters is the rest it gave the regular starters. FC Dallas faces Mexican side Pachuca in the first leg of the CCL semifinals on Friday, and Pachuca got the weekend off thanks to a referee strike. Players like Maxi Urruti, Walker Zimmerman and Hernan Grana will be well rested for that important match.

I also want to note the number Pomykal wore Saturday night — 19. That number was worn by the late FC Dallas legend Bobby Rhine. Rhine played 10 seasons with the Hoops and then became the team’s broadcaster. He passed away in 2011 after a heart attack and his number was retired by the club until Pomykal was awarded the number this offseason. FCDallas.com has a great story on how that came to be and it’s special to see that number back on the pitch again.

Tim Howard makes a case

Keeper Tim Howard returned to the Colorado Rapids lineup with authority on Saturday. He also made a great case for starting the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifying match against Honduras on March 24.

The 38-year-old made seven saves in his first match since suffering an upper groin injury, including three point-blank saves against Bradley Wright-Phillips. The only goal Howard allowed came on an own goal which he had no chance of saving.

There’s a lot of competition for the starting keeper spot for the national team, including Brad Guzan and Bill Hamid, but Howard’s great match on Saturday might have forced Bruce Arena’s hand, especially with the importance of picking up three points against Honduras.

Los Angeles is in trouble

The Los Angeles Galaxy are in trouble.

They lost 2–1 last week to FC Dallas at home and dropped their second-straigh home contest against Portland 1–0 on Sunday. It marks the first time since 2001 that the Galaxy have lost their matches of the season.

And the problem is how they’ve lost those matches. Each of the three goals given up so far have come off of the counter. And really, that total should be higher if opposing strikers could play the ball better. Jelle Van Damme is the only solid part of that back line, but he’ll be out after seeing red Sunday. And worse, I don’t know if there’s anything they can do to sure that up soon.

On the offensive end, the Galaxy lack a target with Gyasi Zardes out. There’s no one up there that can really finish. They’ve gotten a lot of good looks but struggled to convert. In fact, their only goal came on a penalty kick and even that call was questionable.

It’s strange to see the Galaxy struggle, but with a new head coach, two-straight losses at home and glaring deficiencies, I think there’s a real shot that they’ll be on the bubble for playoffs come October.

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