Posted: Monday June 25, 2012 1:17PM ; Updated: Monday June 25, 2012 3:29PM
Avi Creditor

MLS Week 16 Power Rankings: Rivalries roll, Galaxy battles back

Story Highlights

The rivalry matches that took place this week supported MLS' unbalanced schedule

After an underwhelming start, L.A. Galaxy bounced back with three critical wins

San Jose Earthquakes moved to No. 1 after a sweep of Colorado, Real Salt Lake

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The Galaxy earned nine points this week and improved to 5-0-0 in games in which Landon Donovan has a goal or an assist.
The Galaxy earned nine points this week and improved to 5-0-0 in games in which Landon Donovan has a goal or an assist.
George Frey/Getty Images

Five thoughts from MLS Week 16, when a pair of heated rivalries stole the show, the Los Angeles Galaxy rediscovered their swagger and a new team climbed to No. 1 in the Power Rankings:

1. A win for the unbalanced schedule. There is plenty that has been -- and could be -- said about MLS' unbalanced schedule, with some cases to be made for it and some against it. But Sunday's pair of rivalry matches provided a compelling argument supporting the lack of overall balance and emphasis on regional bouts. They defended the viewpoint that this schedule is great for the league.

Without overstating anything, the Portland-Seattle and New York-D.C. matches on Sunday evening were everything that rivalry games should be. The way they played out is exactly what the league is counting on: using these rivalries to further cultivate fan bases, generate sellouts at the box office and spark more widespread attention and higher television ratings in the entertainment sphere. Between the passion pouring from the Timbers Army and South Ward at both Jeld-Wen Field and Red Bull Arena, the non-stop, intense action on the field and the palpable sense of dislike between the teams (one that even spilled over into an on-field altercation in Portland), the notion that these clubs will meet three times this year with the new schedule -- instead of the usual home-and-home two meetings -- is a boon for the league and its fans. The added contest won't water down these matches in the least.

At a time when Euro 2012 is dominating the soccer headlines across the U.S., MLS needed a response of its own. And it got one in a major way. The trash talk off the field -- Brad Evans called the Sounders' organization "a cut above" Portland before missing two great looks at goal -- created some genuine, non-manufactured buzz in the week leading up to Sunday. The heroes created by these games, including the unheralded duo of Portland's David Horst and New York's Brandon Barklage (more on him below), ensured that Sunday's matches will be entrenched as "Remember When" moments for years to come. With the strides MLS has made over the years, it is easy to forget that the league is still relatively young, and that these burgeoning rivalries (no matter how far back the Seattle-Portland rivalry dates) are the foundations on which the league has rightfully chosen to build.

The league's unbalanced schedule is far from flawless, and the fact that a rivalry like the Texas showdown between Houston and Dallas has only has one match this season (something that could potentially change in the future if Houston moves back to the West when NY2 or another franchise steps up to become the league's 20th team) is an unfortunate byproduct of the competition shift. But with the most recent Cascadia Cup and Atlantic Cup matches fostering an atmosphere that fans want to be a part of, it's hard to fault the league for enhancing the importance and increasing the number of conference games on the schedule.

2. Brandon Barklage strikes back. Whether prompted by pure revenge or simply the motivation of playing against the team that cut him after last year, Brandon Barklage -- he of the zero career MLS goals entering the weekend -- turned into a world-class finisher for the New York Red Bulls on Sunday night. He etched his name in Atlantic Cup lore among the likes of Juan Pablo Angel, Luciano Emilio, Alecko Eskandarian, Ben Olsen and a host of others.

D.C. players will obviously rue Barklage's performance in the aftermath of the Red Bulls' win, but, despite the result, most D.C. players must be at least partially happy for their former teammate. Barklage's story goes as follows: A hard-working player with a bulldog mentality coming off a collegiate career at New Mexico University and St. Louis University, Barklage tore his ACL twice in three years with United and was deemed expendable as a result (let's be honest, it's a decision that most teams going through a roster overhaul would make). He was a popular figure in the D.C. locker room, and now, given the chance to play after New York picked him off the scrap heap, he is finally enjoying good health and on-field success.

Although Barklage's two goals against D.C. made for his most pronounced outing of the season, he has quietly been a revelation at right back for the Red Bulls since the tail end of April. That's when he earned the first of his nine (and counting) consecutive starts and was part of the unheralded back line unit that turned the club's season around. New York's rash of injuries forced manager Hans Backe to deploy Barklage, a midfielder for the duration of his career, as a defender. It has proven to be quite the serendipitous development.

3. Here comes the Galaxy. In the words of the immortal Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly!"

In the span of just seven days, the Los Angeles Galaxy went from old, uninspired has-beens into legitimate playoff contenders. Not to be overshadowed by the rivalry hoopla and the San Jose Earthquakes' rise to the top of the Western Conference standings, the Galaxy's nine-point week has elevated the defending MLS Cup champions back into postseason contention after all but being left for dead. In victories over Portland, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver, the Galaxy got back to doing what they do best: playing with heart and confidence -- as evidenced by their tremendous comeback in Salt Lake -- and putting opponents on their heels and defending with a lead.

Not surprisingly, the Galaxy's resurgence is due in large part to the improved play of captain Landon Donovan. The Galaxy are undefeated this season (5-0-0) in games which Donovan has a goal or an assist, and Bruce Arena's lineup tweak against Salt Lake that had Donovan playing essentially as a lone striker worked wonders. The move forced Donovan to become more involved, to apply more pressure to RSL's back line and to be more inventive off the ball, the latter an area of the game in which Donovan thrives. Donovan told the media upon his return from the U.S. national team that the responsibility was on him to be a better leader and kick-start the Galaxy's season. To his credit, he is delivering on that promise.

Looking ahead, David Beckham's pending departure to the Olympics next month will certainly take away from the club's on-field performance, and the CONCACAF Champions League games that begin in August will clutter the schedule going forward. For the first time in weeks, however, there is reason to believe that the Galaxy will be able to overcome all that and forge on -- something that could not be said prior to their nine-point, seven-day assault on the conference standings.

4. Will Bruin's emergence keys the Dynamo attack. The striker in the spotlight for the Houston Dynamo's matchup against the Montreal Impact was Brian Ching, and understandably so given the saga that involved Montreal and Houston's tug-of-war over the veteran forward during the preseason. Despite his professionalism during his brief weeks as a member of the Impact, Ching was booed mercilessly every time he touched the ball, and the Impact even marketed the game with video clip of Ching -- while with the Impact -- admitting his desire to finish his career in Houston. That's all good and well, but he wasn't the Dynamo striker that was at the center of attention once the action started. Will Bruin is quickly becoming the centerpiece of Houston's attack.

The Dancing Bear has proven to be a nightmare for opposing defenses in his second season, tallying four goals in his last three games to up his 2012 total to nine. Ching has played a big role in Bruin's development, both on and off the field, and Bruin is thriving as a result. That must be music to the ears of coach Dominic Kinnear, whose strike force was looking a bit underwhelming earlier in the season. He can now count on Bruin, who has two three-game scoring streaks this season, to carry the load after an inconsistent rookie year.

Anyone clamoring for Bruin to be a part of the U.S. men's national team's friendly against Mexico at Estadio Azteca in August, or the following World Cup qualifiers in the fall, probably needs to pump the brakes a bit. But Bruin is certainly playing himself into All-Star discussion and consideration for January's national team camp, one typically reserved for MLS players on the fringes of the international picture.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Matt Pickens (Colorado Rapids)

Defenders: Brandon Barklage (New York Red Bulls), Jason Hernandez (San Jose Earthquakes), David Horst (Portland Timbers)

Midfielders: Mike Magee (Los Angeles Galaxy), Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Felipe (Montreal Impact)

Forwards: Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Danny Koevermans (Toronto FC)

Week 16 MLS Power Rankings
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 4 San Jose Earthquakes (W/L/T: 10-3-3)
After a Rocky Mountain sweep of Colorado and Real Salt Lake, the Earthquakes have left no doubt that they belong on top. Forget the individual seasons being turned in by Golden Boot leader Chris Wondolowski and late-game hero Alan Gordon. As a team, San Jose is an astounding 6-2-1 on the road and has already claimed two wins over Real Salt Lake. Think Saturday's California Clasico match against the hard-charging Los Angeles Galaxy carries any wide-ranging appeal?
2 1 Real Salt Lake (10-5-2)
Rio Tinto Stadium just isn't the fortress that it used to be. According to stats outfit Opta, RSL managed to drop consecutive home losses for the first time in 76 matches, missing out on an opportunity to put distance between it and San Jose and Los Angeles. Fortunately for RSL, chief table competitors Seattle and Vancouver lost as well, so the dropped points don't hurt as much as they could have.
3 5 New York Red Bulls (9-4-3)
It's hard to argue with Hans Backe's assessment that the Red Bulls' first 55 minutes against D.C. were the most complete performance that they've turned in this season. Even with Thierry Henry on the bench, New York managed to bounce back from an opening-minute lapse to overrun D.C. and respond to the 4-1 shellacking it suffered at RFK Stadium in April. Scoring as many as three goals in a game is nothing new for the Red Bulls, but how about Brandon Barklage and Jan Gunnar Solli supplying all of the offense when they had combined for zero career MLS goals before Sunday?
4 2 D.C. United (9-5-3)
Despite Chris Pontius scoring the fastest goal in team history, United's four-game winning streak came to an end after a riveting 3-2 loss against the rival Red Bulls. D.C.'s defense was stretched entirely too thin by New York's relentless midfield. Like RSL, D.C. missed a chance to stay atop the conference table while putting distance between it and the rest of the field. Instead, United are tied for first with the Red Bulls, who have a game in hand, and sit a point ahead of Sporting Kansas City, who have two games in hand.
5 3 Sporting Kansas City (9-4-2)
Earning a draw in Seattle demonstrated the club's heart, battling back on the road with a reserve-laden lineup. But there is no excuse for the egg that a nearly full-strength SKC laid in Philadelphia, a 4-0 loss to a team it may very well face in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. Even after conceding four goals, SKC is still tied with Seattle for the league's best goals-against average, yielding just a single goal per game.
6 6 Vancouver Whitecaps (7-4-5)
This week showed that even though the Whitecaps are vastly improved, they still have plenty of work to do before they can be considered among the league's elite. The inability to close out the Red Bulls at home followed by their total demolition by Los Angeles on the road (did Martin Rennie really say his side was star struck?) displays the amount of progress that Vancouver truly needs.
7 9 Chicago Fire (7-5-3)
The Fire came out hot against Columbus, with Marco Pappa, Sebastian Grazzini and Dominic Oduro leading the charge. Grazzini showcased once again why the club needs to come to an agreement with him for at least the rest of the season, as his contract is almost up. Even better news for Chicago: The club sealed its result with just 10 men and welcomed back Arne Friedrich from injury in the process. Playing against Kansas City without the suspended Gonzalo Segares will likely be a challenge, however.
8 7 Houston Dynamo (5-5-5)
What in the world is going on with Houston's defense? The Dynamo allowed seven goals in two games against Toronto and Montreal, something that a massive disappointment for a finals-caliber unit. On the other end of the field, Will Bruin is blossoming in his second season. But Houston should be earning points from his goals, not using them to play catch-up.
9 8 Seattle Sounders (7-5-4)
The Sounders' mid-week draw with Sporting Kansas City and loss at Portland extended their winless streak to a club-record seven matches. But those results overshadowed two of the best goals of the week: Patrick Ianni's superb volley, reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's flying side volley against France at Euro 2012, and Eddie Johnson's finish at Jeld-Wen Field. The Sounders won't enter the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against surging San Jose on Tuesday in the most ideal of mindsets, however, particularly given their short turnaround from an overall disappointing week.
10 12 Montreal Impact (5-8-3)
Empty seats at Stade Saputo aside, the Impact are evolving into a well-oiled attacking machine behind do-it-all central midfielder Felipe, who is making a case as MLS Newcomer of the Year. Losing veteran Italian forward Bernardo Corradi for the rest of the year to an ACL tear is certainly a setback, but DP striker Marco Di Vaio's insertion into the lineup should mitigate the effect of the injury.
11 10 Columbus Crew (5-5-4)
The Crew's six-game unbeaten streak is a thing of the past after Columbus was unable to overcome a Chicago team that was down to 10 men for more than an hour. At the very least, Tony Tchani showed signs of fulfilling his potential with his best game in a Crew jersey. Columbus will face an angry, motivated Real Salt Lake side next, but there's reason for optimism. RSL will be without suspended captain Kyle Beckerman.
12 15 Los Angeles Galaxy (6-8-2)
With nine points in their last three games -- wins over Portland, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver -- the Galaxy are back on track after a terrible start. After being written off, Los Angeles may not be finished yet. Also, a hat tip goes to Robbie Keane for his classy goal celebration in honor of the late James Nolan, an Irish fan who died in Poland at Euro 2012.
13 13 Chivas USA (5-7-4)
With a win and a draw, Chivas had a successful week. But with only 11 goals in 16 games and the third-worst goal differential in the league, Robin Fraser's club still needs more production from its attacking unit. Chivas doesn't have another league game until July 7, providing ample time for Juan Agudelo to become more comfortable in his new surroundings.
14 11 Colorado Rapids (6-8-1)
Wednesday's loss was just the latest letdown for the Rapids, another result that left the club wondering how it let points slip away. Matt Pickens was heroic in goal, and he was done an injustice by getting whistled for a questionable penalty after Alan Gordon appeared to embellish on marginal contact. Nevertheless, in a league in which playoff positions are decided by the slimmest of margins, Colorado has squandered too many points that it probably should have picked up.
15 14 New England Revolution (5-7-3)
The Revs fought back from a horrendous half in Toronto with relentless pressure in the final 45 minutes against TFC, and they were rewarded with a hard-earned draw. Benny Feilhaber did not score any goals, but he was influential in orchestrating the comeback, and his strong run of form, creativity and vision was on full display. The draw could have come at a major cost, though. Starting right back Kevin Alston limped off the field with an apparent hamstring injury.
16 16 Portland Timbers (4-6-4)
Where has the energy, confidence and precision that the Timbers displayed over the first hour against the Sounders been all season? Portland fed of its raucous crowd for a much-needed result, a victory that served as the club's first as an MLS franchise over Seattle and one that could provide a springboard for bigger things to come. The club is still winless on the road, but will have a chance to capitalize on its momentum against Colorado this weekend.
17 18 Philadelphia Union (3-8-2)
Jack McInerney is getting a chance to play under John Hackworth, and he is making the club's interim coach look brilliant, especially after a poacher's dream of a brace to spearhead a win over Sporting Kansas City. The club continues to show signs of turning things around, but a challenging week lies ahead. A U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal and a trip to Houston -- where opposing teams are currently winless -- is on the docket.
18 17 FC Dallas (3-9-5)
For a team in need of some positives, here it goes: Brek Shea returned after missing the last four matches and the club earned its first clean sheet in 12 contests, snapping a three-game losing streak with a scoreless draw against Chivas. The bad news: With Portland's win, FC Dallas sits in dead last in the West and has a quite a hill to climb. It has played more games than any teams ahead of it in this week's rankings.
19 19 Toronto FC (1-10-2)
Two collapses not only cost the club four points, but they also planted even more late-game seeds of doubt for a team that already has the most fragile collective psyche in the league. Even when Toronto FC finds a way to manage draws, it still feels like a worst-case scenario. At the very least, DP forward Danny Koevermans is showing signs of breaking out with his three-goal week.
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