Galaxy get their all-stars back, but Seattle miss their unsung one

Seattle Sounders top the MLS standings and have also contributed most players to next week’s all-star line-up, but it was perhaps the least heralded of those players who was most decisive in their encounter with LA Galaxy on Monday night — and he wasn’t even on the field.

Chad Marshall was involved in a car accident on Saturday and was ruled out of the game with back spasms. In his absence, the Sounders defense, which Marshall has anchored all season in something of a renaissance year, suffered greatly — particularly in a torrid first half that yielded three unanswered goals for the Galaxy.

With Omar Gonzalez back on the team, and Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan contributing to the attack, the Galaxy had their own trio of all-stars available together for the first time in three months, while the Sounders' Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey barely figured in the first half. And with Ossie Alonso being bypassed in midfield and DeAndre Yedlin still showing the defensive weakness that undermines his undoubted prowess going forward, Marshall, arguably, wasn’t the only Sounders all-star missing on the night.

But while his absence didn’t wholly explain the Sounders capitulation, it certainly didn’t help. The back line continually looked ragged — sliced open on the counter for Gyassi Zardes’s tapped-in opener, caught out by a ball over the top in the build up to Donovan following in for the second, and equally flat-footed as Stefan Ishizaki overlapped to smash home the third before 35 minutes had elapsed. And had both Zardes and Donovan not missed clear chances it could have been five at half-time.

The Sounders’ season has been popularly characterized by the Dempsey-Martins partnership — and the MVP-worthy form of the latter in particular. Yet it’s also been down to Marshall quietly recreating some of the form that saw him win back-to-back defensive player of the year awards in 2008-2009. The Sounders have been one of the better MLS defensive teams this year with Marshall’s presence, and until Monday he’d only missed one game this year.

LA, of course, know what it’s like to be missing key players and will be hoping this win truly marks their traditional late-season surge kicking in. This was a remarkable result not only for halting the Sounders’ dominant home form, but for the number of goals the Galaxy scored. They hadn’t scored more than one on the road since April and could have expected a tougher night. Instead their hosts had no answer to not only the sharpness of the Galaxy interplay up front, but their continued pressing of the Sounders when the hosts were in possession.

The win moved the Galaxy into a three way tie for second in the West, though the Sounders still have an eight-point buffer at the top. But on Monday’s evidence, if they want to keep it they’ll need their fifth All-Star back soon. GP

Sporting KC looking ominously resilient (again)

Sporting Kansas City should probably start games with just 10 players. For the third time in their last five road games, the MLS champions claimed three points despite being a man down. It’s the kind of spirit that won them the MLS Cup last year, and such continuation is somewhat foreboding for the rest of the league.

“We’re just going to play 4-4-1,” Peter Vermes quipped after the game without even a hint of a Sal Zizzo joke. Indeed, there’s something about a red card that seems to focus KC. Going a man down is the new going a goal down at Sporting Park.

Sporting came from behind to win on all but two of their playoff games in 2013. It was a character trait that came to define their championship-winning season and their identity under Vermes. The core of last year’s winning team hasn’t just been retained, but its personality as well.

Vermes’ methods have drawn criticism from some, with Real Salt Lake general manager Gareth Lagerway once protesting: ”Kansas City want to kick people.”

And kick people is what newly DP’d defender Matt Besler did at BMO Field Saturday, picking up two yellow cards to leave his side with just Aurelien Collin leading the backline. Collin without Besler is like Garfunkel without Simon, and nobody likes Garfunkel on his own.

Even still, Sporting KC embrace the grind and ground their way to a winner through second half substitute Jacob Peterson, scoring at the home of his old team. “It’s the mentality,” Vermes surmised after the game. “Not only do the guys understand it tactically, but they also have the right mentality.”

That mentality will be further tested against the Philadelphia Union on Friday, with Besler suspended and Seth Sinovic questionable after leaving the field against TFC just before the hour mark with a right groin strain.

Sporting have now won their last four league games, tying the Sounders at the top of the standings on 38 points (although Seattle hold three games in hand) and making them MLS’s in-form side at the moment.

On the other hand, things have gone a bit Toronto FC at Toronto FC, with Ryan Nelsen’s side having just won just one of its past six league fixtures. The former New Zealand international took the opportunity in the mixed zone to go full Nelsen at the treatment being meted out to top scorer Jermain Defoe – who missed the game through suspension – in MLS, intimating that the former Spurs striker plays with a target on his back.

Gilberto also vented his frustration following the loss, bemoaning the lack of decisions being made in his favor by MLS referees. “Right from the get-go, I was having some bad luck with referees, getting some calls” he grumbled. “Maybe it’s because they want me to learn how to play in the MLS and how the style of the league is. I want them to know that I’m not going to just roll over.” GR

Jay DeMerit’s retirement marks end of a very particular era

A lot has been made of what may become a dominant theme in MLS over the next couple of years — the return of top American players to MLS, or even the retention of talent (such as Besler signing his improved contract at Kansas City).

But in Vancouver this weekend, the emphasis was on an earlier version of a very American soccer career, as Jay DeMerit, the Whitecaps first signing when they entered the league, and a man whose unlikely trajectory had taken him from the ninth tier of English football to playing in a World Cup, announced his retirement.

DeMerit’s story is one of extreme tenacity. As a young man he missed out on being drafted to an MLS team despite having played on Chicago Fire’s PDL developmental side. He then worked briefly as a bartender before a friend advised him to try Europe because of his EU work status through a Danish grandfather. DeMerit originally played for £40 a week at Southall, before a pre-season friendly against Watford earned him a two-week trial, and then a contract. A memorable goal in the playoff win that got Watford to the Premier League followed, and eventually a World Cup with USA.

DeMerit completed his circuitous route to MLS when he was announced as the Whitecaps' first signing prior to their league debut in 2011. An all-star appearance followed in 2012, and a film was even made about DeMerit’s extraordinary journey, but injuries had been catching up with the central defender before this week’s emotional announcement that the player was calling time on a career that had almost been over before it began.

He’ll be missed in Vancouver. Carlyle Mitchell, one of Vancouver’s remaining center backs had a night to forget in the first game of the post-DeMerit era, conceding an unnecessary penalty in the first half of Sunday evening’s 2-2 draw with FC Dallas, and getting very lucky when his keeper David Ousted managed to get a hand to a skewed clearance that was heading towards goal. Having led early through a Darren Mattocks goal, Vancouver ended up having to come back for the draw and ultimately regretting yet more points dropped from winning positions in a season that’s been something of a mixed bag.

And while DeMerit has probably chosen the right time to call it a day, Carl Robinson would have loved at least another year of peak production from his captains as he tries to build some solidity into a talented but sometimes flaky Vancouver team.

But DeMerit has gone (though he remains in an ambassadorial role for the Whitecaps, at least for this season). With him goes another connection to the pre-early MLS era of “lost generation” US players, who parlayed often modest talents into European careers whose obscure starts would be unrecognizable to, say, DeAndre Yedlin. It’s the nature of the existing systems in the US and Canada, and the scale of the countries, that possible talents have a confounding habit of falling through the many cracks, though slowly, slowly, things are improving. DeMerit did it his way though, and deserves his moment of acknowledgement. GP

No such thing as a quiet weekend

There weren’t many games scheduled in MLS this weekend, but that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of games around the country. No sooner had the World Cup ended than an influx of European teams began, as MLS began its annual dance with the realities of the market — drawing fans into its stadiums, often for the first time, to watch top global club opposition, and then suggesting they return for MLS action in subsequent weeks.

On Saturday, the Red Bulls sold out Red Bull Arena for a friendly against Arsenal that coach Mike Petke described as “almost like a road game” given the sheer numbers of Arsenal shirts massed around the stadium. How many of those fans will return to Red Bull Arena for MLS action is debatable, though the home team did themselves no harm by beating the visitors 1-0. Petke did rue the fact that had his team lost the game it would have been seen as a game they were expected to lose, while winning it would always be contextualized by it being a friendly against a side in very early pre-season. He’s right, of course, as he also was when he said that if his side doesn’t do the same against RSL on Wednesday, Saturday’s victory would be irrelevant.

Given that the Red Bulls also have a home game this weekend, the amount of travel for tired legs this week might raise an eyebrow or two among the team’s players and technical staff for whom nebulous ideas of “raising profile” are a little further down their list of priorities. And similar mutterings might be heard in DC and Chicago, where DC’s preparation for Wednesday night’s home game against Toronto consisted of a journey to the humidity of Jacksonville, Florida and a 3-0 defeat to Fulham, while Chicago at least got to stay at home for a 2-0 loss to Tottenham. They’ll stay there to face Vancouver on Wednesday.

While World Cups are, in the words of Jürgen Klinsmann, “a benchmark” for how the game is developing at a national level, the value of these summer friendlies involving MLS sides is more difficult to assess. While a continually expanding MLS compresses the schedule further each year, the revenue and promotional attraction of these games inevitably appears to be offset by the headache it causes for the domestic campaigns of the teams involved. In the coming weeks we’ll have Champions League group stages to further congest the schedule. Given the squad restrictions in MLS and an increasingly congested calendar, even on a “quiet” weekend, you have to believe that at some point something has to give. GP

Rapids find a defense in time to frustrate Erick Torres

The moment of comprehension came in the 3-3 draw against the Philadelphia Union two weeks ago, when Pablo Mastroeni’s task became clear. The Colorado Rapids’ frontline finally found its groove at PPL Park, with Dillon Serna, Dillon Powers and Deshorn Brown all finding the net. It’s a shame then that their wreck of a backline undermined all this.

But against Chivas USA the Colorado defence clicked, perhaps for the first time this season. Just four shots in total were allowed on the Rapids goal, with just one actually making it on target.

Colorado’s newfound defensive solidarity was best portrayed in the way they handled Erick Torres, who up until Friday has netted in all of his last six MLS games. Yet against the Rapids he was hardly afforded a sniff of goal, hassling the number nine out of possession any time the ball even went near him.

Mastroeni’s methods are finally starting to take root in the Rapids. His first year at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has largely been spent trying to impose some kind of defensive resolution on an otherwise erratic side. Whereas set piece defending was once a strength for Colorado, it has now become something of a glaring flaw. That weakness was gone against Chivas USA.

“I’ve been saying all year, if you’re good defensively, you’re going to get good attacking opportunities,” Mastroeni commented after the Chivas USA win. “The defensive effort, the mentality – it was spot on tonight.”

Drew Moor has been Colorado’s standout performer this season, and he turned in his most complete display of the campaign on Friday, finding the net with his side’s second goal. Even Chris Klute, a naturally attacking full-back, was something of a defensive cornerstone, making more clearances than anyone else as Colorado snuffed out Torres.

The other Torres, Gabriel, enjoyed a much more fruitful evening. The Panamanian made his last start on May 9 but inspired the Rapids’ attack to stick three past Chivas USA.

On the other hand, Chivas USA is back to being Chivas USA after a brief break for being a team that wasn’t Chivas USA during the four-game winning streak that lifted the Goats off the foot of the Western standings.

Head coach Wilmer Cabrera seemed to blame the loss on his players’ choice of footwear. “Some players went on the field with cleats that were not good for this weather and these conditions,” the Colombian protested.

Of course, injuries to key players like Carlos Bocanegra, Bobby Burling and Marvin Chavez, handicapped Chivas USA, but Cabrera’s decision to give his older players - Mauro Rosales, Tony Lochhead and Oswaldo Minda – a rest after a taxing stretch of road games backfired, with his side short of structure. GR