The good, the bad and the ugly of the 2017 Major League Soccer season
Toronto FC capped off a 2017 season in which it set an MLS record for most points in a single season, won the Canadian Championship and secured the Supporters' Shield by lifting the MLS Cup on home soil Saturday night. With the campaign now in the rearview mirror, Graham Parker picks out the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2017 Major League Soccer season.
Saturday night's 2-0 win over Seattle in the final was the kind of dominant display we'd been waiting for from Toronto during these playoffs, restoring that feel of inevitability about its rise. Tactically astute, technically superior and showing an overwhelming force of will, Toronto put a final emphatic spin on its claim as the best MLS team ever.
Toronto's 2017 was extraordinary. Even as the likes of the Chicago Fire pulled together a campaign that briefly flattered themselves as Shield contenders, Toronto was assembling a campaign that would gather remorseless momentum over the summer. And if it faded a little toward the end of the year, that was explicable in part by the fact that a record-breaking team was already so far out of reach in the standings that a dip in focus was understandable. Balanced, powerful, skillful and pushed over the top as an attacking force in 2017 by Victor Vazquez, Toronto set a new technical benchmark for the league.
For nearly every other new benchmark, there was Atlanta United. Given every context to thrive by an organization that placed them in an excellent stadium, and a fan base that turned out in droves, Atlanta more than stood up on the field. Tata Martino's lightning-fast team electrified the league in its debut season, and if it fell short in the playoffs thanks to a goalkeeper performance for the ages from Columbus' Zack Steffen, the future looks bright in Georgia.
Speaking of the Crew, fans around the league rallied in support of their peers for the #SaveTheCrew campaign, and it showed the best aspects of supporter culture in the U.S. and Canada. The future remains uncertain, but on the field at least, they'll always have the memory of Steffen and, of course, Harrison Afful's mesmerizing dribble to put the New York City FC series beyond reach.
NYCFC will have a tough offseason reflecting on the Alexander Callens red card that upended its playoff hopes, but the team continues to settle into the most challenging of markets and deserves to have its most ambitious community initiative marked. The first 10 of a planned 50 futsal courts for underserved New York communities were unveiled just before the playoffs started -- a critical mass that demonstrates an admirable commitment to the team's home.
Going into the summer, FC Dallas appeared to be in familiar fashion in the West, as it sought to build on 2016's U.S. Open Cup and Supporters' Shield by adding an elusive MLS Cup in 2017. But by the run-in, Dallas fans were left counting down the weeks hoping that somehow the regular season would run out before their team fell out of the playoff picture. FCD were still technically in contention going into the final day, but a last-minute San Jose goal would push them out of playoff contention for good; and after a season of injuries, strange selections and the awkward integration of Cristian Colman into the team, Dallas could hardly claim it had been robbed. This was a bad year.
The LA Galaxy, too, must enter 2018 with a sense of foreboding. The post-Bruce Arena era looked worryingly similar to the pre-Bruce Arena era. Big names were effective only in fits and starts, the StubHub Center's reputation as a fortress was left in tatters by serial home losses, and ultimately Sigi Schmid was drafted in midway through the season to try to stabilize the season at "underwhelming" rather than "abject." Romain Alessandrini was perhaps the lone bright spot. But with the spotlight shifting to LAFC, the Galaxy face a battle for local relevance in 2018, something that was unthinkable a couple of years ago.
Other teams were left with similar challenges in looking for any consolation to take from 2017. For D.C. United, another season of uninspiring drift on the field ended with a loss to a second-string New York Red Bulls team in the final ever game at RFK Stadium. In fairness to Ben Olsen, the financial focus on the new stadium has left him with a really difficult task in trying to build competitive teams, and he deserves his chance to showcase the side in its new home, but D.C.'s ongoing irrelevance as a sustained competitive force has been tough to witness.
If the #SaveTheCrew campaign was heartening, the very need for it in the first place was not. Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt had long hinted that the organization needed a downtown stadium to be competitive and viable, but on the eve of the playoffs it emerged that that belief was now an ultimatum to the city, with a move to Austin, Texas, looking more like a fait accompli than just an option on the table. Precourt, et al, never got in front of the story, and it was hard to feel sympathy as the unfolding PR disaster engulfed them.
And finally, there was the infamous tunnel spat at BMO Field that saw Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan sent off, and introduced the wider MLS viewership to Toronto's red tunnel -- which gave us the unfortunate impression of a fight taking place in a submarine. Kljestan had previously spoken of his team "going down swinging," but this was not exactly what he had in mind. It could have ended up as the defining image of Toronto's postseason; there was little exuberance about the way they battled through the 2017 playoffs compared to the momentum of 2016, but there was plenty of grit. In the end though, if Toronto was made to win ugly at times, it would not be denied.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.