When Matt Besler returned from Brazil at the beginning of the month, Sporting Kansas City president Rob Heinemann was forced to come to grips with the prospect of losing his star. Amid interest from England and Germany, Heineman's 3 July confession revealed a "strong" possibility his best defender would jump to Europe, "possibly within the next 10 days”.
Fast forward two and a half weeks, and Besler is not only staying in Kansas City. He and fellow 2009 draftee Graham Zusi have signed new deals. With both hinting at a career as one-club men, the USA internationals signed Designated Player contracts that will keep them with the MLS Cup holders through the next World Cup.
Besler described the deal as a "dream come true", with Zusi saying Kansas City was "where I have always wanted to be". But the new contracts are arguably more important for the organization than its players, both practically and symbolically.
Though Sporting have one of the most talented rosters in the league, the role each plays in Peter Vermes' setup makes Besler and Zusi indispensible. Besler's commanding presence has allowed a talented by volatile Aurélien Collin to be as aggressive as he likes, while Zusi's evolution into a true attacking focal point has added a poise and versatility that has kept Sporting among the league's elite.
In the bigger picture, the new deals represent the culmination of a process that started eight years ago when Vermes and Heineman came on board. Along the way, the Wiz franchise that had become a relic of MLS's childhood gave way to Sporting KC, with a new venue and a fervent fanbase to match. After one of the more remarkable reclamation projects in American sport, Kansas City can now afford to commit major resources to players like Besler and Zusi – before the team became a destination franchise, it couldn't compete with Europe.
Against the backdrop of the new deals, it was only right Kansas City showed their quality on the field. Against a Los Angeles Galaxy team that carried an eight-game unbeaten streak into Sporting Park, the East leaders gave one of their most convincing performances of the season, using goals from Benny Feilhaber and Lawrence Olum to carry a 2-0 lead into the match's final half-hour.
A late goal from Robbie Keane seeded doubts, but LA's threat never came to fruition. With the 2-1 win, Sporting carried their elation on to the pitch, though it was a bigger day of the field than on.
Valeri shines brightest
If Liam Ridgewell is the answer, what could possibly be the question?
Unfortunately for Portland, it's one that has undermined the first half of their season. After 19 games and a slide to eighth in the Western Conference, what is wrong with the defense?
Despite scoring 30 goals in 19 games before Friday's visit by Colorado, the Timbers had conceded 32 times, the highest total in the West. After starting the season with Argentinian import Norberto Paparatto and 2013 remedy Pa Modou Kah in central defense, Caleb Porter has recently been forced to rely on castoffs from the Columbus Crew (Danny O'Rourke) and Chivas USA (Raushawn McKenzie). Though injuries have been part of the problem, the poor play of Paparatto, Kah and the departed Futty Danso forced general manager Gavin Wilkinson into the market.
Hence the appeal of Ridgewell, who went from out-of-contract at a relegation battler in the Premier League to a Designated Player in Major League Soccer. And although he had spent much of his time playing wide in his final years in England, the 29-year-old was moving back to the middle in Portland. Giving a multi-year deal to solid if unspectacular defender, Porter and Wilkinson turned the team's last DP spot into a hail mary with hopes of salvaging their season.
Debuting against the Rapids, Ridgewell showed how much of an improvement mere solidity could provide. Though he couldn't help as Fanendo Adi's poor marking helped Colorado convert an early corner, a mistake-free night helped Portland hold the Rapids to that single score. Perhaps it wasn't Designated Player dominance, but it was enough to suggest the newest Timber can provide a dramatic upgrade.
The DP dominance came from the same man who has sparked Portland over the last two seasons, though with the Timbers' struggles, Diego Valeri has become overlooked amid the league's other midfield talents. In the 77th minute, however, the Argentinian stepped into the spotlight, breaking a 1-1 deadlock with one of the summer's best goals:
The math said otherwise, but with Ridgewell debuting against one of the teams Portland may have to track down, Friday's game felt like a must-win occasion, particularly with after Deshorn Brown's early injury meant Colorado were without five of their regular starters. Thanks to Valeri, the Timbers have reason to believe their Designated Players, old and new, can keep them afloat.
Porter and Garber finalize All-Star squad
Portland's plight may leave Valeri overshadowed by some, but Don Garber is not one of them. By the time Porter was choosing the final players who will dress against Bayern Munich on 6 August, the commissioner had already put the Timbers' maestro in the All-Star squad.
Valeri's was one of two places MLS's head honcho gets in the 23-man squad, with the game's coach filling the 10 spots not otherwise claimed by fan voting, so when Porter's choices were announced on Saturday, fans began an American tradition as old as All-Star games themselves: disagreeing with the choices.
There were no issues in goal, where Bill Hamid was chosen to join Nick Rimando, but after adding three central defenders to the squad, Porter's team was without a natural left-back. Columbus Crew center-back Micheal Parkhurst is expected to move wide, but the Seth Sinovics of the world would be right to think their position undervalued.
The opposite was true up top, where the selections of imports Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Bradley Wright-Phillips left Porter with six through-the-middle forwards (Garber had added Erick Torres to the squad). Despite that depth, Sporting's Dom Dwyer was somehow left out, prompting some to ask what one of the league's best two-way forwards would had to do to complement his 14 goals.
The biggest curiosity came in midfield, though in naming Timbers' captain Will Johnson, Porter surely knew criticism would come. While Johnson was one of the league's best players last season, his 2014 downturn helps explains Portland's regression. When Porter hinted on Friday that a number of Timbers would be in his squad, some thought of goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts or midfielder Diego Chara. Johnson's selection was the squad's biggest shock.
The choice also highlighted the difficulties of Porter's task. If you go by 2014 alone, most wouldn't think of Johnson, but the little things a coach loves may have led to a biased choice. Or, perhaps the Porter chose to look beyond a mere four month's results.
For an exhibition, being played in Portland, is it really the worst thing that preference was given to the home crowd's captain? Somebody like Javi Morales may be enjoying a better season, but nobody has ever said that's the only consideration.
Regardless, with all the signs of maturity MLS has shown, the All-Star "snub" may be the most logical. As people care more about the league's summer showcase, there will be more debate about the omissions.
Full All-Star squad:
Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (DC United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Aurélien Collin (SKC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle)
Midfielders: Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle), Kyle Beckerman (RSL), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls), Clint Dempsey (Seattle), Will Johnson (Portland Timbers), Diego Valeri (Portland), Graham Zusi (SKC)
Forwards: Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC), Landon Donovan (LA), Thierry Henry (New York), Robbie Keane (LA), Obafemi Martins (Seattle), Erick Torres (Chivas USA), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York)
Torres scores but DC solve 'Cubo' problem
Garber isn't the only person who's taken up Torres's cause. Tied for second on the league's scoring chart, with 14, "Cubo" has already set a record for most career goals by a Mexican-born player (21), but his impact on the standings has been even more dramatic. With goals in his last five games (four of the match-winners), the 21-year-old has pushed Chivas USA to within four points of a playoff spot, unexpected heights for a team that was supposed to play out the season in the Western Conference cellar.
DC United represented a similar if more successful Cinderella story in the East, but ahead of Sunday's meeting at RFK Stadium Ben Olsen's team were presented with a strategic problem. Where an attack averaging the second-fewest shots-per-game in the league has left the Black and Red thriving off opponents' errors, Chivas's ability to avoid mistakes was keeping them close enough for Cubo to matches. DC had home field and the better record in their favour, but the two teams' approaches hinted Torres would have another chance to play hero.
United, however, found a way around that: blow Chivas out, a solution that Goats' midfielder Oswaldo Minda enabled when his foul on Chris Rolfe led to Eddie Johnson's spot kick in the 25th minute. When the United striker headed a second-half restart down to for a neglected Perry Kitchen, DC had a two-goal lead, one that grew when Luis Silva exploited a deflated Chivas defense late on. Torres would get on the scoresheet, beating fellow All-Star Bill Hamid from the spot, but his sixth goal in as many games was mere consolation. With the loss, Chivas fell back to eighth, the 3-1 defeat ending their five-match unbeaten run.
Even before it was snapped, however, the team's run had become secondary to the player's. While nobody has downplayed the goal streak's role in Chivas's rise, "Cubo" has enjoyed far more affection than the club. Between an invitation to Portland and his emerging cult-figure status with a neglected club, Torres's exploits are crafting an early legend for the Guadalajara loanee. If he doesn't eventually make MLS his permanent home, the trail of broken hearts will extend far beyond the parking lot at StubHub Center.
With the franchise still in limbo, few seem to care if Chivas USA can compete for the playoffs this season. What they do care about is Cubo.
Whistles loom large in Chicago, Salt Lake
With baseball recently adopting video review, MLS is the only one of North America's top five sports leagues without a form of instant replay. In that way it falls in line with the rest of the soccer world, but after a World Cup where goalline technology was seamlessly implemented, a public that watched in record numbers may ask: why can't soccer league keep up with the rest of the rest of the world?
"Flow of the game" is the most prominent argument, but two weekend incidents that led to penalty kicks offered scenarios where the game was already stopped. If a few extra moments were added to the predictable post-penalty maelstrom, an official would have had time to review the call. The match-changing calls that cost Chicago and Real Salt Lake could have been overturned.
The night's first incident happened in Bridgeview, Illinois, where the Fire were working to kill off a 1-0 lead in stoppage time against the Union. Then, with what Fire head coach Frank Yallop called "one of the worst calls I've ever seen”, referee Geoff Gamble gave Sébastien le Toux a chance to equalize from the spot, with Gonzalo Segares left to rue this call:
With the conversion, Philadelphia moved even with New England for the East's last playoff spot. Chicago was left with a new way to experience late-match failure.
The timing was different in Sandy, Utah, but the story was similar, even if Edwin Jurisevic's decision seemed slightly more complicated. Yet as Real Salt Lake analyst Brian Dunseth explained on air, if you draw a line from Nat Borchers' tackle through the ball, it wouldn't go through Vancouver attacker Darren Mattocks. Instead, Mattocks' path takes him into Borchers as the defender wins the ball:
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In fairness to Jurisevic, the situation is not cut-and-dry. In fact, the TSN broadcast (above) made a mistake in the other direction, erroneously employing the clichéd "ball first" trope. Still, after having his mid-week red card to Aurélien Collin rescinded, it was Jursevic's the second point of controversy in four days. When Mattocks buried the ensuing kick, Vancouver had enought to take a 1-1 out of Rio Tinto.
In both cases, prolonged periods of protest disrupted the game's flow, allowing audiences at home to see replays before spot kicks took place. While nobody's arguing for video to have a part in every controversy, there are instances where "flow of the game" is already irrelevant.