1. New England Revolution is currently MLS's hottest team
The New York Red Bulls are the only unbeaten side remaining in MLS 2015. The Vancouver Whitecaps have the most points after Week 8. The Chicago Fire has the longest active winning streak. Those are the teams to beat at this moment in the season.
Except, the 'Caps just lost their second match in their last four games, and have won only once in that stretch. The Fire won its third match in a row this week, but it was a 1-0 win over a team that gifted the only goal of the game; also, Chicago lost three in a row to start the year, and its three wins have come against three teams (Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC, NYC FC) which might fairly be described as "troubled" in recent weeks.
So the jury is still out on Chicago, and the 'Caps seems to be fading just a tad. RBNY is motoring along nicely, but the league's only undefeated team (typing that does not get old) has gathered 12 points in its last six games; New England has 14.
That is not bad at all, especially for a side that had one point and zero goals after three matches. The Revs are top of the Eastern Conference and there isn't a team in MLS that has gathered more points over its last six games.
RBNY is in the midst of a tough run of three games in a week, and Colorado will get the chance to break the Red Bulls' unbeaten run on April 29 (nope, still not tired of writing it). But, regardless of what the Rapids offer on Wednesday, the big match up of Week 9 looks a lot like it will be on May 2, when the Revs host RBNY. If that game has a winner, the Eastern Conference will have an(other) early favorite.
2. D.C. United vs Columbus Crew will help identify the third-best team in the East at the moment
The top four teams in the Eastern Conference after Week 8 are New England, DC, RBNY and Columbus. In Week 9, as it happens, they will pair off to play each other.
As suggested above, the Revs and the Red Bulls will effectively play-off for the right to consider themselves the best team in the East (at least until Week 10). This is because the Revs are red hot, and the Red Bulls could lose to Colorado on April 29 and will still be able to note they have beaten Columbus and DC already this season. Indeed, from two games against DCU and one against the Crew, RBNY has claimed seven out of nine points.
So Columbus and DCU may need to wait a while to assert themselves as better than either New England or RBNY. What they will settle in Week 9 is which of them is third-best in the East, because what both teams confirmed in Week 8 is that they are justly among the best in their Conference.
The Crew hammered Philly, 4-1 this week: its second consecutive win by a three-goal margin. All three of its wins so far this season have been by multiple goals, and both its losses were narrow (0-1 to Houston and 1-2 to RBNY). The Crew is good, and when its attacking unit is in form - as it is at the moment - it is the sort of team that can humiliate an opponent.
DC's early-season form has been less expansive, but no less impressive. This week, it picked up its fourth win of the MLS season to date (2-1 over Vancouver). In common with all its wins this year, three points were gained in the face of some adversity. DCU's victories to date have all been by a single goal, testament perhaps to the fact the team has been short of forwards for most of the season so far.
Against the 'Caps, DC was at least able to welcome Fabian Espindola back from his lengthy suspension, and he was indeed a significant contributor on the field. But the team traded problems up front for a goalkeeping crisis: it traveled without starter Bill Hamid, and lost back-up 'keeper Andrew Dykstra to injury in the second half. Rookie Travis Worra had to close out a road game against the early front-runner in the Supporters' Shield race. And, as has been the case for all but one league match in 2015 (the 2-0 loss to RBNY), DC found a way to get something out the game - in this instance, three points.
DCU is not at its best, but is still finding ways to be better than most of its opponents. The Crew has scored seven goals in its last two games and is currently the highest scoring team in MLS. At the end of Week 8, they are both clearly top-tier teams in the East. By the end of Week 9, we'll know if one is a little closer to the very top of the Conference than the other.
3. The Western Conference transplants are homesick
MLS's expansion to accommodate Orlando City and NYC FC required the league to reorganize, punting Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City from the East to the West. Early results suggest they miss their old Conference.
The two teams are familiar with each other and their Week 8 meeting brought them four goals apiece - the most either side has managed in a single game so far this season.
The result may have been slightly skewed by a refereeing blunder that saw Houston's Jermaine Taylor sent off (and a penalty awarded to KC) for blocking a shot with his chest, but overall the free-scoring game reinforced the suspicion these teams are just more comfortable playing the opponents they have got accustomed to playing during their years in the Eastern Conference (Houston moved to the East in 2011; KC was bumped from West to East in 2005).
In eight games so far this season, KC has played three Eastern Conference teams, and is unbeaten: two wins and a draw against Philly (3-2), NYC FC (1-0) and RBNY (1-1). And, of course, Houston is an old foe from the East, so this week's 4-4 draw can perhaps be counted as part of Sporting's undefeated run against opponents from its former Conference. Four games, eight points, nine goals scored, seven conceded: two points per game is a Conference-winning pace.
The draw against Houston also counts, however, toward KC's run of five games against Western Conference teams without a win: FC Dallas (3-1 loss), Portland Timbers (0-0), Real Salt Lake (0-0), LA Galaxy (2-1 loss) and now Houston (4-4) have been faced to date. In the West, Sporting's record is five games, three points, six goals scored, nine conceded: 0.60 points per game is disastrous form.
The Dynamo's experience isn't quite as clear cut: five games against Eastern Conference teams (if we're including KC, which we are) include a loss.
But despite dropping a match 1-0 to Orlando City, Houston still has a respectable eight points from those five encounters with teams from the East (and KC). All told, that five-match, eight-point record includes both of the Dynamo's wins in the season to date (1-0 over Columbus and 3-0 against Montreal), a draw against D.C. United (1-1), and that loss to Orlando (plus this week's 4-4 with KC). Nine goals scored, six conceded, and a very encouraging 1.6 points per game.
Against opponents from the West, however, Houston is winless so far: three draws (1-1 with LA and 0-0 with Colorado, plus the KC match) and one loss (1-0 to the Sounders). Three points from four games, five goals scored, six conceded, and a desultory 0.75 points per game average.
Neither Houston nor Sporting KC is enjoying its return to the Western Conference at the moment. The Dynamo will get the first chance to turn this record around: it plays four of its next five games against teams from the West. KC, however, may have greater hope of building some positive momentum, since the schedule will deliver it three Eastern Conference opponents in its next four matches.
Both teams appear to be pining for the East. We'll find out in the next month or so whether it is better to cure this bout of homesickness with extended immersion in the Western Conference, or a return to the comforts afforded by old rivals.
4. TFC is back on track
Just last week, this column mentioned that Toronto FC's four-game losing streak might not be quite as bad as it appeared. The team is on the road until May 10, and losing games on the road is a time-honored MLS tradition: only Seattle and Portland won more games away than they lost in 2014. Averaging about a point a game on the road is quite alright in MLS.
Still, TFC was averaging 0.6 points per game after five games of 2015, and that is not alright. This week, the Reds walloped Orlando, 2-0 (their first clean sheet of the new season). And the result gives Toronto six points from its opening six (road) games. A point per game average: back on track.
5. RSL really misses Javier Morales
Just a couple of weeks ago, RSL was easing comfortably into the season: five games played, no losses, and a sense the team was perhaps not going to suffer too greatly from the decision to change its favored tactics.
This week, Salt Lake traveled to New England and got comprehensively dismantled, 4-0. It is suddenly teetering on the brink of a troubling collapse in form: the team hasn't scored in its last three matches, and has lost two in a row.
There are plenty of excuses for this week's performance. RSL sent a threadbare squad to New England, reflecting a roster ravaged by injury and suspension: Chris Schuler, Joao Plata, Jamison Olave, Nick Rimando, and Sebastien Jaime were all missing from what might reasonably be considered a full strength 18.
Most importantly, perhaps, the team was missing Javier Morales. The recent scoring drought would appear to be explained largely by the absence of RSL's playmaker-in-chief: Real Salt Lake has scored six times so far this season, and Morales has been involved in five of those goals (three assists and two he scored himself). He has missed his team's last two games, and those have been RSL's first losses of the season.
Salt Lake won't play many matches this year as dramatically weakened as it was against the Revs (unless it is extraordinarily unfortunate). And the team can now look forward to back-to-back home games to try to revive confidence and form. But mostly it will look forward to the return of Morales.