Goats make excellent pets (for now)
Last year, in a story we ran on Chivas USA, blogger Alicia Ratterree described what it was like to be a Chivas fan:
What is it like to be a Chivas fan? To me, Chivas USA don't like jumping on the bandwagon. They like an underdog, and have a bit of a contrarian streak. They have to put up with a lot of abuse from opposing fans, so they are tough. How many fans in MLS are told their team is a "failure" and that the club needs to fold? Only Chivas.
And in the most recent offseason, as a new ownership installed José Luis Sánchez Solá as coach and a drastic re-ordering of the team got underway with the emphasis on the parent team's Mexican roots, the experiment drew criticism before a ball had been kicked.
Yet in our weekend previews on Friday, Alicia was quoted again, and was pleasantly surprised to note the phenomenon of fans around the league actually saying nice things about her team, following their spirited 10-man comeback against LA Galaxy.
… after seeing the fight the team has brought to the field in all three matches, and after hearing the always-entertaining comments of coach Chelís, people actually have begun applauding the direction of the team …
Let's leave aside for a moment the nature of that fight (the new-look Chivas midfield hunt in packs to retrieve the ball, sometimes with borderline legality), and perhaps even the ever more entertaining comments from coach "Chelís" (who set the benchmark high with his "barrel of feces" quote). What's been remarkable has been the fact that the overhauled team so quickly look like a unit. They've outscored everyone in the league – though they did binge with three second-half goals at home to Dallas, and now, four second-half goals against Chicago at the weekend – and while they've conceded as many as any team except the free-falling Chicago, they've already made a habit of coming back strong late in games and not letting setbacks (falling behind, unjust red cards) phase them.
Lest we get too romantic, Chivas do look horrible to play against, in every sense of the word. Chelís has his team fighting for him and at times that involves some eye-watering tackles. But for their long-suffering fans, the sight of a Chivas team showing fight – and one that's even got Juan Agudelo (remember him) smiling again – is a welcome relief from a long bleak run in the neighboring Galaxy's shadow.
A lot of neutrals were won over by the Chivas performance against the Galaxy and as many will have smiled at the exuberant way they overwhelmed the Fire. For now the Goats and their quotable coach are an enjoyable novelty. As they start adding teams around the league to their conquests, the tone may well change. It'll be no less of a compliment. GP
Seattle's center isn't holding up
Heading into the season, Seattle knew goalscoring was an issue, but the problem was supposed to be goalscorers, not the players supplying them. But with Steve Zakuani healthy and Obafemi Martins mail-ordered from Spain, helping Eddie Johnson is no longer a concern. Instead, the worry is getting the ball to the finishers.
That concern was center-stage Saturday at San Jose, with the possession-hogging Sounders left impotent in the face of a patchwork Earthquakes defense. Unable to convert 62% possession into a meaningful threat, Seattle let Chris Wondolowski's late first-half stunner relegate them to a 1-0 loss.
Seattle's possession produced 16 shots, but only four tested Jon Busch. Just as in week one against Montreal (when they lost despite 59% possession), their play left little hope of getting on the scoresheet. With their only score of the MLS season coming after a gift from Portland's Diego Chará, we've yet to see evidence that Seattle can create their own goals.
Seattle's problem lies in a growing chasm between their two forwards and destroyer Osvaldo Alonso. Last year, Fredy Montero would drop in and imitate a trequartista. Now he's in Colombia and the man tabbed with replicating that creativity, Mauro Rosales, has looked terrible. The former Kaiserslautern midfielder Christian Tiffert was let go, Brad Evans has been hurt and Alonso hasn't produced enough going forward.
Unless Alonso suddenly finds some playmaking prowess, slow ball movement could be a season-long issue. Currently the plan is to work the former New England Revolution star Shalrie Joseph into shape and pair him with Alonso in the middle, but while Joseph was once the league's premier midfielder, he is no longer a plus distributor.
Montero's departure may have been inevitable, but with Seattle sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, giving Tiffert's designated player spot to Joseph has caused an early setback. RF
Bernier calculates the odds for Montreal's 100 percenters
Just before the season started, I got the chance to spend a couple of hours talking with Montreal's Patrice Bernier. Among other thoughts on the game, this most thoughtful of players described the journey the expansion Montreal Impact have taken, from the most basic of 4-4-2 formations to the 4-2-3-1 that began to bring them some joy last summer, to folding in the experience of Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio and adjusting the balance accordingly.
When I asked what new coach Marco Schallibaum was changing about the formula, Bernier suggested that the process was more one of building on what was already working and "working on the percentages", so that the team understood their options better and made better choices. In part, Bernier suggested, this was due to the way teams had figured out the Impact later in the season, after their summer form saw them flirt with the playoffs. As teams got smart to the influence of Bernier himself and the Impact's play through the center, the team became too predictable and some of their effectiveness fell away. Hence the need for inventive moves at the right time to counter that predictability, while keeping the team's core strengths intact.
Nobody was predicting that the Impact would be top of the East and Supporters Shield standings after 4 games in 2013 – with four wins in four and with Bernier a leading contender for player of the month, yet that is what has happened. New York were the latest side to be beaten in the Impact's perfect start – one whose hallmark has been seemingly modest ambition allied with smart, efficient counter-attacks, as the team picked their moments (or "made better choices"). At the Olympic Stadium, the Red Bulls were undone by an inch-perfect first-time pass from Bernier that was clinically finished by Di Vaio.
In some ways some of the criticism of the Impact from the end of last season holds – you know how they're going to line up and play, and in some ways it doesn't vary greatly home or away. For long stretches against New York yesterday, Montreal looked like a road team – playing deep and daring the Red Bulls to pass through them, while looking to pick their moments to get forward on the counter, and maybe spring Di Vaio. At times they wobbled – perhaps grateful that New York debutante Peguy Liyundula does not have his eye in yet, as he passed up a couple of very decent chances.
On six of the occasions when they did attack, the attack foundered on a Di Vaio offside – but, then again, the seventh occasion proved decisive and as Bernier might insist, that's a very rewarding result for playing the percentages, by the team with the only 100% record in the league. GP
The international break doesn't hold everybody back
The Dynamo have two Best XI-caliber players: Brad Davis and Boniek Garcia. Both were on international duty (Davis with the US, Garcia with Honduras), presenting Vancouver with a unique opportunity. Undefeated heading into Saturday's game, the Whitecaps may have actually been the favorites at BBVA Compass Stadium, where no MLS team has won in the venue's opening year. Only missing Scottish international Kenny Miller, Martin Rennie's team were primed to make history.
But we should have known better, even after this Darren Mattocks rocket gave Vancouver a halftime lead:
Houston came out in the second half, found two goals and overcame their absences to win 2-1.
The victory summed up why head coach Dominic Kinnear is considered one of the league' elite. While he has had his share of stars (the likes of Dwayne DeRosario and Landon Donovan), the marvel of Kinnear's success is getting all-star caliber performances from less renowned players like Brian Ching, Bobby Boswell, and Ricardo Clark. All decent players who've seen time in the US national team, Kinnear used them as cornerstones of MLS champions. That's a far cry from the superstar-heavy roster that's won the league's last two titles.
On Saturday, Kinnear's resourcefulness was on display, albeit on a smaller scale. Giles Barnes, pressed into service as a supporting striker, headed home the equalizer. Warren Creavalle, a second-year pro playing in place of Garcia, found the winner. Hearts loanee Andrew Driver played well in his first start, while Eric Brunner filled in for Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor at the back. If they hadn't won, Houston would have been labeled "depleted", but Kinnear saw those players as contributors, not second choices, and the Dynamo had no problem cruising over their speed bump.
Not every team coped so well with international absences. A team like Real Salt Lake, who lost five starters, saw players running into each other in a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas, while a Seattle XI that only lost two players (Johnson and the yet to start Martins) couldn't take advantage of an Earthquakes side with one first-choice defender, none of their top three No9s (Steven Lenhart, Alan Gordon, Mike Fucito, all injured), and their leading assist man (Marvin Chávez) missing on the right.
But just as so many things about MLS can be seen through the lens that is Chris Wondolowski, the San Jose focal point proved an exemplar of the competition's strange relationship with national-team recalls. Good enough to be the Most Valuable Player yet of no use for his national team, "Wondo" is almost the perfect MLS star. He's not going to be pulled away by qualifiers and at this point, he's not going to jump to Europe. All he's going to do is score big goals. RF
Gruenebaum eclipses Hamid as Crew end DC's home run
At the end of last season DC United overturned a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2 and book their place in the play offs, and also end the slim hopes of their opponents, Columbus Crew. The turnaround also preserved an unbeaten home record that had lasted since a loss to Sporting KC in the first home game of the season.
On Saturday the Crew were back at RFK, and this time they held on to a 2-1 lead to become the first team to win there in 18 matches. In doing so they relied heavily on their goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, who eclipsed his counterpart in the DC goal, Bill Hamid, the reigning player of the week.
Hamid was in eye-catching form again this week, making some spectacular stops, including an acrobatic leap to deny Dominic Oduro late on. But his goal didn't lead the charmed life it had led against New York the week before, and having been beaten to the ball for Josh Williams' headed opener early in the first half, Hamid also spilled a Federico Higuaín free-kick in the sequence that led to the Crew's second; Ben Speas rifled the loose ball home from the edge of the box.
That still left plenty of time for a DC comeback and the home side threw everything at Columbus, only to find Gruenebaum in inspirational form. With a little under 20 minutes to go, the Columbus keeper gave DC the firmest suggestion yet that this would not be their day, with a sequence of reflex saves, including a point blank block from Dwayne De Rosario, that left the DC captain shaking his head.
After that, the best chances went to Columbus, who were good value for their win in an entertaining game, that also featured a controversial offside goal for DC that would have given them the lead. As it was, DC's home run has been ended – though they did have one bright spot in the afternoon, as their young DP loan player Rafael gave a hint of his quality with the one legitimate goal to beat Gruenebaum – and a beauty it was too.
But this was the Crew's day, as they won on the road for the second time this season, to move up to second in the East. Higuaín was menacing as always, without getting on the scoresheet, and the new players added in the offseason have looked like well-balanced additions for a side being built round his string-pulling abilities (particularly on a day when Jairo Arrieta was still thawing out from Costa Rica's Denver misadventures).
But the day belonged to Gruenebaum, picking up where he left off in his breakout season last year and looking every inch the foundation for a very legitimate-looking Crew team. Gruenebaum was overlooked for last season's All Star and keeper of the year votes, but was in no mood to be overshadowed by Hamid. His Crew team host Philadelphia next, and already the trip to Montreal on 13 April is looking like an intriguing one. GP