Empires rise and fall. Call it a reality of civilization, and also one in sports, where even the most accomplished dynasties end, making way for new ones to take their place.
MLS Week 28 offered a snapshot to one dynasty's journey to rock bottom, while another dynasty in the making reached a significant milestone. The LA Galaxy's embarrassing 4-0 loss to a shorthanded Toronto FC saw them suffer their 10th defeat in 13 matches, the worst current run in the league. It's a stretch that has allowed the once-mighty Galaxy to drop to 21st out of 22 MLS teams, just one point ahead of the lowly Colorado Rapids.
On the other side of the country, Atlanta United enjoyed a banner day at its new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where an MLS record crowd of 70,425 watched a wild and entertaining 3-3 draw against Orlando City in a match that saw the home team rally from deficits on three different occasions. The record crowd left thoroughly entertained and emboldened by a team that has all the makings of an MLS empire, and one that could be a real problem for opponents come playoff time.
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Another league powerhouse falling on hard times is FC Dallas, which began the season entertaining thoughts of a treble, including the elusive MLS Cup. Now, FCD is worried about even making the playoffs, with Saturday's home draw extending the Hoops' winless slide to an unfathomable nine matches. That collapse has led to a slide down the Western Conference standings, with wins by the San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake on Saturday leading to FC Dallas dropping all the way to eighth place.
Though other results grabbed headlines, there weren't two matches bigger than RSL's win against Portland and San Jose's triumph over Houston. The Earthquakes jumped up to fifth place in the West with their 1-0 win over the Dynamo, while RSL kept its playoff hopes alive with an impressive 2-1 win against the previously streaking Timbers.
Portland's loss has helped make things even tighter at the top of the West standings. How tight? The top four teams are separated by a single point. As things stand, Vancouver leads the West, but the Whitecaps face each of the other three teams in the regular season's final weeks.
Here is a closer look at the key storylines from MLS Week 28:
GALAXY HIT NEW LOW
Losing to Toronto FC isn't exactly something to be ashamed of in 2017, with the East leaders running away with the MLS Supporters' Shield, but it was the way the LA Galaxy lost Saturday's match at StubHub Center that had to leave coach Sigi Schmid exasperated and their fans dreading what feels like the new normal for the longtime MLS powerhouse.
TFC rested stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore and still came away with a 4-0 win against a Galaxy side missing several players but also still fielding the Dos Santos brothers, Gyasi Zardes, Ashley Cole and newly signed defender Michael Ciani.
The defeat, which dropped the Galaxy's league-worst home record to an abysmal 2-9-3, led Schmid to tear into his team after the match and say, "We all need to look in the mirror because that wasn't good enough."
The Galaxy were missing a laundry list of players to injury, but Schmid wasn't about to use that as an excuse for how badly his team played against a TFC playing without Giovinco and Altidore.
"We can point to all those things, but all these guys are on professional contracts, so when your number is called you've got to play like a pro," Schmid said.
The blowout loss came after a pair of encouraging results — a 3-0 win against Colorado and 1-1 draw with Seattle — but it served as a brutal reminder of how bad things have gone this season.
Things aren't likely to get much better, even when players like Romain Alessandrini and Jermaine Jones return from injury. The Galaxy's next three games are against teams with some of the league's best home records, including a red-hot Atlanta United and a Sporting Kansas City side that hasn't lost at home all season. In other words, as much as Saturday felt very much like rock bottom for the Galaxy, things could get even worse.
The Galaxy are now 1-5-2 since firing Curt Onalfo as coach back in July, a record that suggests he wasn't the problem causing the team's terrible first half of the season, or at least certainly not the only person responsible. It is looking more and more likely that a front office shakeup will take place this winter, because Onalfo can't be the only head to roll after a disastrous season at the worst possible time, with Los Angeles FC set to begin play in 2018.
LAFC has already begun making a big splash in the market, with the hiring of Bob Bradley as coach, signing of Mexican star Carlos Vela and construction of a new downtown stadium. That is exactly why 2017 was so important for the Galaxy, and why this was the worst possible year to have the team collapse.
Galaxy fans who have grown accustomed to their team being one of the league's best are suddenly faced with the sobering reality that it may not be long before the Galaxy aren't even the best team in LA.
ATLANTA UNITED'S SPECIAL WEEK
The scene of a sold-out Mercedes Benz Stadium is one MLS fans aren't likely soon to forget. More than 70,000 packed the $1.5 billion stadium to help the team set a new league record for single-game attendance, and that raucous crowd was treated to an action-packed and goal-filled thriller by a team that is built to entertain.
That is perhaps the most important aspect of this special expansion season for Atlanta United. Catching the attention of a city that is clearly in love with soccer is one thing, but delivering a product that a fan base can actually enjoy watching is another.
The decision to spend big bucks to not only hire coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino but also attacking stars like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron is paying off big time, with attendance figures blowing away any predictions for the club's first season. In fact, Atlanta is on pace to set a league record for average attendance, despite having started the season playing at a temporary home in Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Wednesday's 7-0 win over New England served as the ultimate high for the club, but Saturday's 3-3 draw, which saw the team claw back from deficits on three different occasions, showed us a team capable of fighting in tough matches. The three goals allowed to Orlando City is a concern, with Atlanta's defense having shown a level of vulnerability that could cost the Five Stripes come playoff time.
That defensive frailty cost Atlanta two points Saturday, but the coming weeks should give Martino's men ample opportunity to work out the kinks. Atlanta's next five matches are against teams currently outside of the league's 12 playoff places, and four of those five are at home. A strong run during that stretch could help the first-year team make a push toward New York City FC for second place in the East — and the first-round playoff bye that comes with it. At the very least, it could help Atlanta secure a home match for the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
FC DALLAS SPIRAL CONTINUES
Remember when the season began and FC Dallas was looking like a team capable of winning every trophy on its wish list? A nine-match unbeaten streak to start the season had FCD as the league's lone unbeaten team almost a month after the league's other 21 teams had suffered losses.
That start seems a world away now for a team now mired in the exact opposite sort of streak. The same Dallas team that began the year 5-0-4 is now riding an 0-5-4 slide after Saturday's draw with Seattle. The draw, coupled with other results around the league, left Dallas at a season-low eighth place in the West, leaving the onetime MLS Cup contender's playoff hopes suddenly in jeopardy.
Normally recording a draw against a strong Sounders side is respectable in its own right, but for a team that hasn't won since June, a home victory was vital to help turn things around.
"You have to be realistic with the players. They know the moment. They know what is going on and what we are going through," coach Oscar Pareja told reporters after Saturday's draw. "I would like them to achieve what they achieved last year. I want them to get the points each week and we all walk out of here with a smile on our face, but at this time we are just trying to get through this rough spell. We have to keep fighting. It’s what we are."
As disappointing as the draw may have been, it was probably Dallas' best performance in some time, which offers some consolation heading into a stretch of matches that are winnable, even if four of five will be on the road. The good news is FCD is only one point out of fifth place and holds a game in hand on the current fifth-place and sixth-place teams.
There is still time for Dallas to wake up and climb back up the standings, but next week is crucial. A road trip to Minnesota United is followed by a visit from last-place Colorado. A pair of wins would almost certainly catapult FCD back into the playoff picture, but a stumble could prove fatal to Dallas' playoff hopes.
Diego Valeri set an MLS record for consecutive matches with a goal by scoring in eight straight, but his goal against RSL wasn't enough to keep the Portland Timbers from suffering a tough loss. The loss of Diego Chara to suspension proved costly as his absence made it that much tougher for Portland to deal with the RSL attacking midfield trio of Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savaria and Joao Plata. The good news for Caleb Porter's side was Liam Ridgewell made his return from injury. He's a player the Timbers will need as they make a push for first place in the West.
As we learned last year with Brian Schmetzer replacing Sigi Schmid, sometimes a new coach can step in and push the right buttons and turn a team around. This year, Mike Petke and Chris Leitch stepped into tough situations, and while neither has had smooth sailing throughout their current tenures, they both moved their teams into playoff position with big wins this past weekend.
Leitch's San Jose defeated fellow playoff contender Houston to jump into fifth place in the West, while Petke's RSL downed Portland to slide into sixth place in the West. Petke has already done enough with a young team to justify his return in 2017, while Leitch has delivered better results than most would have expected from someone who took the job with no head coaching experience. If Leitch leads the Earthquakes to the playoffs, then general manager Jesse Fioranelli will have no choice but to keep him in charge for 2018.
Speaking of coaching changes, you have to wonder whether Montreal coach Mauro Biello is feeling the heat as his Impact slide further away from the playoff picture. Saturday's loss to Minnesota was a low point, coming at home and coming despite the Impact fielding all of their top players. The latest loss reportedly led the team's vice president of international relations, Nick De Sanctis, to go off on the Impact players, and basically put the blame on them for the team's poor run of results.
It might seem like an odd move for someone in De Sanctis' role to do, but the long-held belief in MLS circles is that De Sanctis is the Impact's de factor general manager instead of official GM Adam Braz. The Impact have lost four straight and have suddenly fallen out of the Eastern Conference's playoff spots. If Montreal fails to make the playoffs it is tough to imagine Biello surviving, especially with an owner like Joey Saputo, who doesn't have a reputation for being a patient person.
BEST OF MLS WEEK 28
Player of the Week: Josef Martinez. Two matches, two hat tricks for the Atlanta United striker, who has been virtually unstoppable this season when healthy.
Team of the Week: Real Salt Lake. Posted a vital 2-1 home win against the Portland Timbers that knocked that knocked the Timbers out of first place and pushed RSL into playoff position.
Rookie of the Week: Abu Danladi. Scored his second game-winner of the season to help lift Minnesota United over Montreal.
Goal of the Week: In a week that saw several long-range goals, Thomas McNamara's beautiful turn, dribble and finish for NYCFC takes the prize: