Are we seeing a transition of power in Major League Soccer? It is something to think about after eight weeks of the 2017 season. The West has been the power conference for the better part of the past decade, thanks in part to the dominance of the Bruce Arena-era LA Galaxy, the rise of Cascadia and the inconsistency of so many Eastern Conference teams. Only one East side has lifted an MLS Cup in the past eight years, and that club — Sporting Kansas City — now resides in the West.
Times are changing, though, in part because of undeniable turnarounds of some consistent strugglers. Orlando City and the Chicago Fire have looked markedly better in 2017, the Columbus Crew appear over their 2016 struggles and expansion arrival Atlanta United just might be one of the best teams in the league. Sure, the Philadelphia Union are looking destined for a nightmare season, but it's tough to argue the fact the East has more tough teams now than at any point in recent memory.
Of course, Week 8 reminded us that the very best teams in the league probably still reside out West. FC Dallas won the battle of the league's remaining unbeatens, topping Sporting Kansas City to maintain the unofficial "league's best team" label, while the Portland Timbers bounced back from last week's loss to Vancouver to remind us — as Darlington Nagbe personified with his wonder-goal — that they are capable of special things.
To be clear, the West might just have the best team (Dallas), best attack (Portland) and best defense (Sporting KC), but we can't forget about the reigning champion Seattle Sounders, who walked into StubHub Center and smacked around the LA Galaxy.
The West also has some woeful underachievers to start the season. The Colorado Rapids' dream 2016 season has quickly become a distant memory amid a terrible start to 2017, with Pablo Mastroeni's team looking nowhere near as tough defensively as it did last season — and looking even more impotent offensively. Then you have the Galaxy, who are learning quickly how tough life can be without Bruce Arena steering the ship. Curt Onalfo waited years for another crack at being an MLS head coach, but his latest stint may not last much longer than his brief spells in charge of Kansas City and D.C. United.
Here is a look back at the top storylines from MLS Week 8:
Leaner Larin leading Lions
Cyle Larin has been scoring against New York City FC since he arrived in MLS — nine goals in seven matches, to be exact — so his two-goal performance against NYCFC in Orlando City's 2-1 victory Sunday probably didn't come as much of a surprise.
This isn't the same old Cyle Larin, though. As subtle as the change might seem to the outside world, the shift is unmistakable the closer you look.
Larin is in the best shape of his career, which might not sound like much given this is just his third year as a pro, but the difference in the Canadian striker becomes glaring when you see him in the locker room sporting a washboard stomach and chiseled physique he didn't have when he first arrived in MLS from the University of Connecticut.
"I worked hard this offseason to get in better shape so I can be a 90-minute player," Larin told Goal. "We talked in the offseason about how I can do more to help the team and you see it with everyone on the team — we're working harder for the team and that's why we're winning."
Larin has admitted in the past to not taking care of himself physically from a fitness and nutrition standpoint prior to turning pro. As a standout at Connecticut, Larin lived the life of a typical college student more than that of an elite athlete. Junk food was the norm, and he also didn't push himself from a fitness standpoint because his natural gifts still allowed him to dominate on the college level.
Larin learned as soon as he turned pro that he would need to do more to be a top player, but even the early changes he made weren't enough to truly transform him before Kreis took charge of Orlando last summer.
"I was surprised when I got here to learn what Cyle's body (composition) was, what Cyle's weight was, to see what his fitness level was," Kreis told Goal. "From my point of view, none of that was good enough, and to see the success he was having in spite of that was pretty amazing. Even more so than his body composition, and his professionalism, and what he's putting into his body, is his willingness to do more than just try to score goals.
"What he does when we don't have the ball, what kind of runs he makes for the team to relieve pressure and open up spaces — those are the things I think that we're seeing some real improvement on."
Will Johnson has seen the change firsthand. Larin's teammate on the Canadian national team before joining Orlando this winter, Johnson has seen a much more committed and maturing Larin.
"He's starting to really get it in terms of being a professional," Johnson said. "His weight's down, his fitness is up, his stamina's up. He's a real handful for 90 minutes now — not just for the first 45 to 50 minutes of a game. He's a handful all game, and he's manhandling guys, holding the ball up and using his size."
Larin is second in MLS with six goals, but his overall involvement is up on both sides of the ball. His touches per game are up by nearly 35 percent from last season, and his duels won are up by 25 percent. Though eight matches isn't a huge sample size, it is clear Larin is more active this year, and looks to be a step quicker.
As impressive as Larin's start to 2017 is already, he just might become even more dominant once the summer months arrive and teams start having to brave the heat in Orlando. That is something Larin may not have been as well equipped to deal with in years past, but he looks more than ready now.
Galaxy hit new low
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the LA Galaxy might be going through some growing pains as they cope with life after Bruce Arena, Robbie Keane and the rest of the big names that left this winter. But the funk the Galaxy are in now goes well beyond growing pains and into the category of a disaster in the making.
Sunday's 3-0 loss to Seattle was embarrassing, the kind of lifeless performance LA fans are certainly not used to seeing at StubHub Center, a venue that was once a fortress for the home team. The Galaxy managed just four regular season losses in Carson over the previous three seasons, but Sunday's debacle is already the Galaxy's third home loss of 2017 — and we haven't even reached April.
What makes the loss worrisome is the nature of it. The Galaxy looked lifeless and uninspired despite having a lineup featuring the likes of Giovani dos Santos, Gyasi Zardes, Jermaine Jones and Romain Alessandrini. Going up against a Sounders side fielding a patchwork defense — minus regular center backs Chad Marshall and Roman Torres — the Galaxy would have been expected to knock off the reigning MLS Cup champions, or at the very least make it a contest, but instead they were thoroughly dominated in a match that was essentially over at halftime.
"Dismal, terrible first half," Onalfo said after the loss. "Better second half, but not good enough."
The Galaxy now sit one spot out of last place in the West, mired in the club's worst start since 2007. Their five losses are the most through the first seven matches of a season since 1997, and their six total points are tied for the second-fewest earned by a Galaxy team through the first seven matches of a season.
The Galaxy aren't used to slow starts. Under Arena, the Galaxy never recorded more losses than wins through the first seven matches of a season. It is that very track record Onalfo is up against, and it's the reason why he may be facing even more heat than, say, Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin, who is still searching for his team's first win of 2017.
Will the Galaxy make a move? It might seem like a panic decision to dump Onalfo considering the amount of time he has spent with the organization before being chosen to replace Arena, but there is surely pressure mounting on team president Chris Klein and general manager Peter Vagenas. I things don't turn around soon, we might just see more than one head roll in Galaxy land.
If the Galaxy are interested in a change, there happens to be a capable candidate available in the LA area in former Galaxy and Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. Currently out of work after being let go by the Sounders last summer, Schmid has close ties to Vagenas, and has been eager to get back into the league.
If the Galaxy do bring in Schmid, it would be ironic that the move came after an ugly 3-0 loss to the Sounders. It was Seattle, under Schmid, that suffered a 3-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City that led to his dismissal. If the Galaxy feel like things are out of control, they could do much worse than bringing in a coach with two MLS Cup titles under his belt, with the first — in 2002 — coming with the Galaxy.
Has the East surpassed the West?
I asked Luis Robles about the improving Eastern Conference when he voiced an opinion I hadn't given much thought to before he brought it up. The New York Red Bulls goalkeeper stated that he believes the Eastern Conference is now stronger than the West, which has been widely regarded as the stronger conference for several years now. Of course, Robles plays in the East, so there's a little bias there. But it isn't the craziest notion.
Atlanta United's arrival as an expansion team has made the East significantly tougher. While Minnesota United has shown signs of life in recent weeks, you won't find many arguing against the idea that Atlanta is significantly better. When you factor in the sizable improvements of teams like Orlando, Chicago and Columbus, you can see where Robles is coming from.
Through eight weeks of the season, the East holds a 10-8-9 edge over the West in head-to-head meetings, and while that difference isn't really enough to proclaim the East the stronger conference, it is enough to suggest it has closed the gap.
The West might still have bragging rights when considering the league's very best teams, though. FC Dallas, the Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City are three strong candidates for the title, and while Orlando's start to the season is very impressive, you probably won't have many outside of Florida picking the Lions to beat any of the three top West teams. Toronto FC has the firepower to be considered one of the league's best, but then so do the MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders.
Time will tell just which conference is tougher, but MLS fans should be happy to see more balance in the league. The West was considerably stronger than the East for several years, but the days of calling the East a cakewalk appear over for now.
FC Dallas wins battle of unbeatens
If proponents of the Western Conference want to continue proclaiming their superiority to the East, they could do worse than point to the FC Dallas-Sporting KC clash Saturday, which FCD edged by a 1-0 margin. The two lone unbeatens in MLS put on a hard-fought battle that was far from flashy and aesthetically pleasing, but was played at an extremely high level and showed why both teams are a good bet to remain in the MLS Cup contender conversation all season.
Oscar Pareja should take some satisfaction in watching his team create the bulk of the chances, a month after Peter Vermes complained about Dallas playing negative soccer when the teams met in Kansas City. On Saturday, with a full-strength squad, Pareja showed us that FCD is in fact the more balanced side, as Sporting KC's attacking woes were brought back to the forefront.
The scary thing about Dallas: As much as you can make a very strong argument for the Hoops being the best team in the league, the reigning Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup champions should get even stronger this summer when Argentine playmaker Mauro Diaz returns from the torn Achilles that cost him the 2016 playoffs. With a healthy Diaz pulling the strings, Dallas will become an even bigger MLS Cup favorite.
As for Sporting KC, its defense and goalkeeper Tim Melia will keep the club in contention all year, but there is a persistent feeling that Vermes' team needs more attacking punch. New additions Ilie Sanchez and Gerso Fernandes have looked good since arriving, but the overall attack is still missing something.
It was a rough Saturday for the Columbus Crew, who lost midfielder Artur to a broken wrist and rookie defender Alex Crognale to a high ankle sprain in a loss to the Red Bulls. Artur's loss is a particularly big blow because the Brazilian had been one of the team's most influential players. The impact of his absence was clear to see in Saturday's loss.
"It's going to be tough," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter told Goal. "We'll have to evaluate who plays, but it will be difficult because he's been good."
One player who the Crew should see in action soon is Kekuta Manneh. The winger has yet to make his debut for the Crew since being acquired from Vancouver, and it may have taken some by surprise to see him not included in the squad that faced the Red Bulls.
Berhalter made it clear Manneh's debut is on the horizon.
"He's a little bit behind fitness-wise so we went with Adam Jahn," Berhalter said. "But (Manneh) is a guy whose going to contribute. We're going to get him fit and ready to go."
Wilmer Cabrera knew he had to do something about how his Houston Dynamo team was fading in the second half of matches. A formation change and some tactical adjustments later, Cabrera watched his team put on its most complete performance of the season in a 2-0 win over San Jose.
Cabrera switched from the 4-3-3 that was terrorizing defenses in the first half but fading out in the second half of matches to a 4-4-2, and the shift yielded a better all-around performance.
"I wanted to help the back four to be more protected," Cabrera said of the formation chance. "It wasn't a decision to talk with them and to be telling them that, 'We have to be better. We have to do better,' but it was also important to be a little bit more protected."
The result was the first shutout of the season for the Dynamo, and a home win that could lead to a more complete Houston team — which should worry teams in the Western Conference.
The Portland Timbers figured to slow down a notch without the services of suspended star striker Fanendo Adi, as well as Sebastian Blanco, but Caleb Porter turned to his bench and Darren Mattocks and Dairon Asprilla stepped in to help the Timbers beat Vancouver on Saturday.
"It makes a real statement to the squad that we have. I like to build my squads with a lot of depth," Porter said. "I thought in 2015, when we won it, one of the main reasons was because we had depth. You need it in this league and it was tested this game."
As impressive as the replacements were, the Timbers still leaned on one of their familiar stars to win the match, and that was a motivated Darlington Nagbe, who turned in one of his best matches of the season. The U.S. national team midfielder provided a stunning goal and an assist to help break down a Whitecaps setup that tried its best to neutralize Portland's attack by flooding the middle of the field with bodies.
Sebastian Giovinco grabbed the headlines in Toronto FC's 3-1 win against Chicago on Friday, but the efforts of Victor Vazquez and Marky Delgado in the TFC midfield shouldn't go unnoticed. The pair were key in helping TFC move the ball around well and find space to operate against a tough Chicago midfield.
"Part of the reason the ball moved faster was because Marky was on the field," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. "Marky is an efficient player. He doesn't try to always look for the final pass. He usually plays in the fewest amount of touches possible, which means he gets rid of the ball and moves it quickly."
Delgado's work rate was key in helping Michael Bradley and the rest of TFC's midfield win the battle against a Fire midfield that boasted Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty. What made the performance even more impressive is the fact it was Delgado's first appearance for TFC since a 10-minute cameo in the season opener against Real Salt Lake.
Best of MLS Week 8
Player of the Week: Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian sensation enjoyed his best match of the season, scoring two quality goals to help TFC earn its first home win of the year.
Team of the Week: Orlando City. There are several worthy candidates this week, including the Seattle Sounders, but the Lions get the edge for handing NYCFC its first home loss.
Rookie of the Week: Nick Lima. Double-game weeks are never easy for rookies, but Lima helped San Jose post a shutout in New England on Wednesday.
Coach of the Week: Wilmer Cabrera. The Houston coach was determined to figure out his team's second-half woes, and a formation switch and personnel adjustments later, the Dynamo posted their first shutout of the season.
Goal of the Week: There were some beauties this week, including Giovinco's free kick stunner, but Darlington Nagbe's finish and celebration in Portland's derby victory against Vancouver were outstanding:
— Portland Timbers (@TimbersFC) April 22, 2017