Santos the enigma comes good for Chicago (for now)
Maicon Santos is one of those players who is often tactfully described as "enigmatic". He's capable of scoring spectacular goals that change games, and equally capable of falling through games, indeed whole sequences of games, without leaving a ripple on their surface. At first, Sunday afternoon looked to be one of the latter non-appearances. With the Fire tied 1-1 with the Red Bulls, Santos came on around the hour for the industrious Sherjill Macdonald, who yet again did not score (thus again failing to solve the big meta-question of just where the Fire's goals were going to come from this year), but whose all-round play had stretched the New York defense throughout the first half and brought others into play around him. It had been a hardworking performance in service of the team.
Santos came on for Chicago at virtually the same time as Thierry Henry did for the Red Bulls, and at first they looked like a study in opposites. For much of the next 20 minutes Henry looked to test the makeshift and inexperienced center-back pairing of Jalil Anibaba and Austin Berry, who were caught playing too high repeatedly. He hit a shot off the inside of the post, dropped deeper to prompt attacks from the attacking midfield position and generally kept the road team on the front foot as they pushed for their first win at Toyota Park as the Red Bulls. Santos meanwhile, seemed to do very little – certainly he provided little outlet for his beleaguered team-mates, with the result that the Fire came into the home stretch looking every inch the confidence-shorn side their single-point-single-goal stats before kick-off suggested.
So it was a complete surprise in the 83rd minute when Santos seemed to snap out of a reverie and notice that his team needed a goal. Springing headlong onto a through ball down the left channel, he fooled the chasing Jamison Olave with the sweetest of cut backs before poking a first time ball past Luis Robles with the outside of his boot, before bundling another one home from close range at the back post with a minute left of regular time. Santos's late brace doubled the Fire's goal total for the season and gave them their first win of the year.
So have the Fire solved their goalscoring problem? Not exactly – though the collective pressure on the squad will have been lifted by the win. Chris Rolfe missed a first-half penalty, Macdonald still needs a goal, and Santos … Santos may now go on a run of five games where he looks unstoppable (and then just stop) – he's the kind of player who settles into streaks that snap just as abruptly, and one quickfire brace doesn't dispel the impression that the general indolence that preceded it gives a truer picture of his average contribution. He's 28 and should be at the peak of his career but he's at his fifth MLS club for a reason and at times moments of skill such as his first goal against New York this weekend, or the rocket he scored for DC against Dallas last season, have turned out to be false dawns, or just too infrequent to justify building an attack around him. Fire fans would love to believe that finally Santos has found the club where he fulfills his potential, but it's perhaps rather more likely that in the best-case scenario he now takes his turn in a patchwork of opportunist goalscorers for Chicago, until they can figure out a consistent and coherent attacking style and perhaps crucially bring in another goalscoring designated player in the summer. For now Frank Klopas won't care – his team has finally jump-started their season. But both they and their visitors this weekend still look, well, "enigmatic". GP
Diego Chara is capable of designated player performances
It was a night of firsts at Jeld-Wen. Ryan Johnson's 55th-minute goal gave Portland their first lead of the season. When his second put Houston down 2-0 18 minutes later, the Timbers were on their way to their first win of the campaign – and the club's first victory of the Caleb Porter era.
Neither of those firsts may proves as remarkable as the performance of Diego Chara, the stalwart midfielder who, since arriving in 2011, has failed to live up to the oft-deceiving designated player label. On Saturday, Chara was the game's best player, single-handedly creating the team's breakthrough goal during a half where his caffeinated presence helped turn the match.
Surging from deep after Portland shifted to a 4-4-2 (from a 4-2-3-1), Chara ignited the opening goal with a defense-snapping dash behind left back Corey Ashe. His curling cross bent inside defender Bobby Boswell while staying out of reach of goalkeeper Tally Hall, giving Johnson no choice but to put Portland in front:
Keying a number of second-half counters, Chara neutralized any advantage Houston may have had with Ricardo Clark – the ranging midfielder who normally tips the scales when there's a two-on-two in middle. Clark had his least effective night of the season, with Chara allowed to complete 49 of 51 his passes. They're the type of numbers we may see again if Chara fits Porter's system is as well as Saturday suggests.
During his first two MLS seasons, Chara was often miscast as a game-defining midfielder. Instead, Portland found their industrious box-to-boxer was a limited player. Lacking decisiveness in the final third and the stature to influence in defense, Chara's lots-of-little-things talents were stretched. Instead of being allowed to be what he was, Chara was asked to exhibit what he wasn't, as evidenced by the league-leading 138 fouls he's committed since arriving in Portland.
Porter's system is all about the little things. Instead of creating second balls, Chara is winning them. Rather than craft changes, he's supporting Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe. In system that relies on industry and intensity, Chara's strongest traits can finally be leveraged. And yes, sometimes he can snap a defense.
He is a designated player, but maybe that was the problem. That label implied more than Chara was capable of giving. Instead of running a midfield, maybe Chara should just be a part of one. Maybe then he can start having the impact many expected when he arrived two years ago. RF
Pareja's second-choice players have bought time for the first choices
Before this weekend began Colorado Rapids were going into a game against their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals, RSL, on the back of one of the worst season starts of their history and perhaps fearing the first home loss to their opponents since 2007. After five games, the Rapids had no wins and two points.
Perhaps you'd expect second-year coach Oscar Pareja to be under a lot of pressure right now, particularly since the off-season departures of the symbolic Gary Smith-era stalwarts Jeff Larentowicz, Conor Casey and Omar Cummings mean that this is now very much his team. Yet Rapids fans have been pretty accepting about the start, noting that on paper at least the squad Pareja has assembled is younger and more talented than the one that preceded it. And the fact that the core of what is now the presumed first team currently features more on paper than on grass, also partly explains the indulgence extended to Pareja even in his second year – right now up to six players in and around the spine of that best team are out with injuries (and Drew Moor's suspension hardly helped). The fans know this for the most part and have been admirably patient.
That said, this weekend's game against Real Salt Lake was always likely to be something of a referendum on the direction of the team, not least because the 1-1 result in the first game of this series during Rivalry Week, and the format of the Rocky Mountain Cup, means that an RSL tie this weekend would have seen the cup remaining at the Rio Tinto for a seventh consecutive year. And early in the season as it might be for the Cup's destiny to be decided, it's fair to say that the patience of the Rapids' fans might have been severely tested by a seventh-straight capitulation to an RSL team who, finally, looked to be in transition themselves. Some sign of progress was highly desirable.
Indeed from the whistle the Rapids seemed in the mood to take the game to Salt Lake, and in particular to contend the midfield and be first to second balls. They took the lead very early on a move initiated by the impressive Hendry Thomas, and finished by Attiba Harris after Edson Buddle had held up the ball in the box strongly. On a squad carrying a collective sicknote, Buddle and Thomas were welcome physical presences in their roles, with the latter a much more visible midfield presence than say Kyle Beckerman for RSL – a player who's been on the winning team for all eight Rocky Mountain Cups (the first two with Colorado). RSL have been in the ascendancy for some time now in this rivalry and came into this game off an important win against Seattle, but from the moment the second-choice Rapids goalkeeper, Clinton Irwin, palmed away Alvaro Saborio's ninth-minute penalty it didn't look like their night — and as it turned out they were grateful to Nick Rimando for keeping the margin as narrow as it was,.
The Rapids fans did have their by now customary injury scare during the 90 minutes, as Clint Irwin went down clutching his side after a routine throw out (first-choice goalkeeper Matt Pickens is also out injured) halfway through the second half, but he got up to finish the game and give his coach a chance to dwell on what his team had achieved for once, instead of reflecting again on his side's poor luck. It's still a work in progress for the Rapids, but the key word this week was "progress". The mini-local referendum having been negotiated by the second choices, a truly critical assessment of the first choice team can now be moved down the road. GP
Imports are providing stability for Toronto
Toronto FC started 2012 with nine loses, an MLS record. They fired Aron Winter, brought in Paul Mariner, and after a brief summer surge finished the season winless in 14 games. Having become a joke, TFC was seeing a once loyal fanbase turn into empty seats at the previously packed BMO Field.
With credibility as embattled as attendance, Toronto needed to establish some minimal on-field respectability. In stepped Kevin Payne, overseer of championship teams in DC, who lured Ryan Nelsen (a former DC defender) from the back line at Queens Park Rangers to be his first head coach.
Given Nelsen's playing days at RFK Stadium, you would have expected new management to lean on DC United's blueprint. Instead, the duo seems to be using Nelsen's experience in England, with seven of the TFC players that started Saturday's draw with FC Dallas drawn from British leagues. Richard Eckersley, Reggie Lambe and Darren O'Dea were already in tow when Nelsen arrived in Toronto. Since, the Reds have added loanees John Bostock (Tottenham) and Hogan Ephraim (QPR), former Stoke/Norwich midfielder Darel Russell at right-back and Cardiff City icon Robert Earnshaw to the attack.
None of the players were stars in Britain – a caliber of player Major League Soccer's salary cap precludes teams from stockpiling. Instead, Nelsen is leveraging players on the outskirts of Premier League football, talents who can still come in and pay immediate dividends. The difference was evident on Saturday. Whereas the Reds of Winter and Mariner invented ways to concede points, Toronto fought back from two down against the Western Conference leaders to earn a result. Granted, "earned" is open to interpretation given the team was down two with six minutes left, but with some front-of-goal cleanup from Justin Braun before this "where did that come from" moment from Russell, TFC "scrounged" their fifth point in as many games:
Five in five isn't playoff pace, but remember where this franchise was. Last season they didn't get their fifth point until 23 June. While much of their early "success" may be do to aberrational backpasses (setting up two Earnshaw goals), goalkeeper miscalculations or a journeyman's goal of the week, at least Toronto is now in position to take advantage of opportunities.
It's the type of team you'd expect when you assemble talent from just outside the Premier League – one that has stabilized more than impressed. While Toronto may need another trick to become a playoff contender, for now, they're no longer a joke. RF
Don't go down to nine men voluntarily …
Perhaps it was the excitement of getting the Bash Brothers back. With Alan Gordon starting and Steven Lenhart set to come off the bench, somehow the San Jose Earthquakes couldn't quite bear to miss out on a dramatic finale.
For most of the game against the Vancouver Whitecaps they had dominated proceedings, with Gordon throwing himself around the box with his usual abandon and Chris Wondolowski looking liberated and thriving on the space this gave him. When the Quakes took the lead on the 18th minute it looked like a 2012 vintage goal – Gordon drawing defensive attention then showing the deftest of soft touches for Wondolowski to crash past Joe Cannon at his near post.
Vancouver didn't have much answer for most of the game. With Kenny Miller out and Darren Mattocks on the bench their front line, featuring debutant Corey Hertzog (not-quite-fresh from the bench in New York), looked lightweight and never likely to impose itself enough, or have quite enough dangerous speed over the top to force the Quakes line back. So the pressure remained mostly one way for the first hour of the game. Then, inexplicably, San Jose voluntarily went down to nine men as Victor Bernardez and Alan Gordon left the field at the same time to change their boots to cope with the slick turf (their coach, Frank Yallop, likes the field well watered before games). Vancouver duly passed the ball around the remaining San Jose men and Corey Hertzog poked the ball home for an equalizer that never otherwise looked likely.
Enter the subs Lenhart and Cordell Cato (the former completing the Bash Brothers reunion) and the customary last minute siege on the Vancouver goal, but if the sight of Wondolowski, Gordon and Lenhart jostling in an opponent's penalty area in injury time looked familiar, the last minute heroics were missing. Wondo failed to poke home a rebound from a Sam Cronin shot off the post as the clock ticked down, and that was that.
Yallop will be furious at the way in which his side threw away their lead, but delighted to see his two big front men back (Gordon went 76 minutes), and his side, for the most part, looked a lot more like the 2012 Earthquakes than they have done in a muted start to the season. And he'll be happy too by the way the additions to the squad, Cato, Mike Fucito, and Dan Gargan played when called upon. But Yallop might want to remind his squad that one of the principles of the league is "forced parity" not "gifted parity". GP