As the MLS teams crashed out of the Champions League, it wasn’t long before the inquests, as they do annually, touched on the fact that the quarter finals are played so early in the MLS season. With roster turnover being the forced parity reality that it is, this has a number of knock on effects — not only are the competing MLS squads some 16 months (at least) removed from the teams that got them into the competition in the first place, but they are barely out of pre-season mode and in some cases visibly learning each other’s habits, if not names (cf exhibit one, LA Galaxy’s defense, of which more later).
Leaving aside the other issues of just how much Mexican and US league squads cost to assemble and maintain, the conversation generally drifts into wondering what improvement we might see if MLS sides were facing these games say 10 games into their season, rather than one. For that to happen, assuming Concacaf didn’t move their schedule, we’d be talking again about MLS moving to something more like a winter schedule.
This weekend’s MLS fare didn’t do a lot to recommend such a move. If it wasn’t Montreal vs Seattle being put back a day because of the weather, it was Donovan Ricketts looking frozen stiff as he dropped balls in the wind and the snow of Colorado, before picking up an injury, a straight red card and a penalty concession, on a miserable personal afternoon. Not that Andrew Webber, replacing him, fared much better — giving a penalty away with his second significant touch (the first being picking the ball out of the net after the first penalty).
Elsewhere Toronto’s BMO field looked horribly churned up for the visit of DC – rather offsetting the spectacle of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley et al making their home debuts. When a lone fan invaded the field late in that one, you could have forgiven them for believing they were in Hereford in 1972, watching Ronnie Radford spank a shot past Willie McFaul.
And at Rio Tinto stadium, where RSL hosted LA, the tarpaulins were taken off the field a few days ago to reveal a field that looked as worn, if not more so, as it did before the end of last season. It didn’t help either side’s technical game on Saturday, and didn’t help the Galaxy defense’s delicate confidence early on, as Omar Gonzalez swung and missed at a cruel bounce (the Galaxy must be sick of the sight of those this week) and almost allowed an early opener for Joao Plata.
The abiding impression of the weekend was of a domestic schedule just about playing to completion, at the expense of the quality of the games. Imagining the likely chaos of moving the same set of games two months earlier, say, did nothing to recommend a winter schedule. The abiding impression of the week however, may have done a lot to recommend an easing of the salary caps, if MLS is serious about regional competition. GP
Designated players get Toronto out of the mire
The 2011 MLS Cup was a tight affair, as Houston sought to defend against an LA side they challenged to break them down. When the Galaxy eventually did so, it was with a goal made by their three designated players, with Landon Donovan finishing a build up started by David Beckham and Robbie Keane. It was the first time an MLS side had won the cup with a designated player in their team — a watershed moment.
Now every MLS side has at least one designated player, and on Saturday Toronto’s three celebrated DPs were the difference in quality on that horribly choppy BMO Field — Michael Bradley’s perfectly weighted and placed ball over the top picking out Gilberto, whose shot was only saved as far as Defoe, who pivoted and stroked the ball low into the corner to delight the home fans.
Other than Defoe’s goal, they weren’t treated to a lot to cheer about, as both sides struggled to put passes together on the cut up surface. That said Toronto’s demonstrated qualities of doggedness to dig out the win were at least as much of a novelty, and as likely to win them as many points this season, as the DPs combination for the Defoe goal that was always in the script.
Both qualities were necessary to take the points though. Defoe’s guile was a constant threat, while Bradley took his midfield enforcer role to almost cartoonish excess, as he barreled through the referee at one point, in pursuit of the ball, while also playing out the last few moments of the game with a flesh colored bandage on his, er, flesh colored head, after picking up a cut in a nasty looking clash of heads with Davy Arnaud.
This was the first time in their eight seasons that Toronto have started the season with back to back victories, as the off-season gamble on big-spending has got off to the best possible start. And Toronto senior management will have been relieved to see a full-looking BMO Field, despite the cold. “Loyal we began, loyal we remain” said one banner in the crowd. Maybe so, but that loyalty was dangerously stretched by the end of last season. Toronto’s DPs didn’t put on a show against DC, but thus far in the current experiment, they’ve showed up when it matters. GP
Once again, the spotlight is on the Galaxy defense
Having mentioned that 2011 MLS Cup win for the Galaxy, it might be worth a refresher on what happened next. The Galaxy went on a tour that seemed to extend their off-season right up to and into an embarrassing Champions League exit to Toronto, Omar Gonzalez got injured on loan at Wolfsburg, and it wasn’t until mid-season that they rallied and went on to retain their Cup — with the Omar Gonzalez-shaped hole at the center of defense one of the chief concerns during their slump.
With Sean Franklin gone in the off-season, and Todd Dunivant easing his way back from injury, the LA defense for the opening games has looked very vulnerable. Joe Corona et al seemed to find their range in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final as they found space behind left back James Riley (who arrived in the off-season for D.C.) — space they promptly exploited within a minute of the second leg, as a shellshocked Galaxy were dismantled within the opening half hour. Inside Riley, Leonardo misjudged the bounce of the ball for another goal, and did not start against RSL on Saturday. Instead AJ DeLaGarza came in, Riley moved over to the right and Dunivant started in his customary left back position, where he’d done a lot to steady the ship after subbing in at half time in Tijuana. Behind this broadly familiar back line Brian Perk got a start, as Jaime Penedo was in Panama dealing with visa issues.
Yet the defense went totally missing on Alvaro Saborio’s opener. The Costa Rican forward had way too much space to control and stab the ball home at the back post, after Joao Plata had floated the ball over a polite crowd of Galaxy ball watchers. To add injury to insult, Bruce Arena was forced into more changes. First Riley limped off and had to be replaced by fellow off-season arrival Dan Gargan, then Leonardo was forced out of quality time on the bench with his demons from midweek, to replace another injured defender, DeLaGarza.
The Galaxy got away with it in Salt Lake, thanks to Robbie Keane’s merciless run at Chris Schuler and fierce shot past Nick Rimando, towards the end of the first half. Any side with Keane and Donovan in it will have quality going forward, and since being bullied out of the game in the second leg of last year’s playoffs by the big RSL defenders (Salt Lake fans unveiled a “Remember, remember, the 7th of November" tifo before the game), the Galaxy have added the unsubtle but effective physical presence of 6’5” Rob Friend to buy their small men a little more time and space up front.
Yet Keane’s third goal of the week could not conceal the fact that the Galaxy, as they periodically do under Bruce Arena, look very shaky at the back. With the CCL campaign over, they need to turn their attention not just to league play, but to getting on the same page defensively, before they face another year of digging out of a hole they’ve dug themselves.
One final quick note on this game: just as the Galaxy’s start has been underwhelming, Jeff Cassar’s start as RSL coach has been very solid. The start to the schedule, with its Galaxy doubleheader sandwiching a road trip to San Jose, could easily have seen Cassar urging fans not to panic after three straight losses, while frantically juggling a squad depleted by injuries. To that injury list add Joao Plata, who limped out of Saturday’s game with what looked like a hamstring injury. As it is, RSL have a creditable five points, that should have been seven had they held on in stoppage time last week in San Jose. The transition from Jason Kreis at the helm has so far gone smoothly. The Galaxy’s own transition into a new defensive era has so far been a little more bumpy... GP
The Crew defy moaners to end the Union's bright start
Much like Toronto, the Columbus Crew can now claim two consecutive wins to start a season for the first time in the club’s history – after a 2-1 victory at home over the Philadelphia Union. With both teams boasting bolstered rosters – the Crew with a redesigned defense and the Union with a redesigned midfield – this match was a test in style for both sides. New Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said earlier in the week he did not expect an easy match against the Union, and in the last 30 minutes of play, the Union made an effort to prove why many believe they will be a contender come playoff time.
After seeing off Union attacks in the opening 20 minutes, the Crew went up a goal in the 24th minute, when Bernardo Añor made his way through the Union defense to score a powerful header from a Federico Higuain (Higauin to the kitman...) corner kick. With his first touch of the match resulting in a goal, Añor took another chance 23 minutes later in first half stoppage time to score his second – a beauty and ultimately the match-winner – from 35 yards out, to give the Crew a 2-0 lead at the half.
In his second season back following a devastating season-ending injury in 2012, Añor’s two goals in this match far outpaced the four he scored in 19 appearances in 2013. Añor’s brace impressed – as did his active 80 minutes of play.
The Union pulled a goal back just after the hour when a Crew clearance went straight to an unmarked Sebastian LeToux who made an easy, clean pass to substitute Leonardo Fernandes for his first goal of the season. Not two minutes later, Fernandes and LeToux teamed up again for a near-goal, only for LeToux's shot to be deflected by goalkeeper Steve Clark, as the in form Frenchman pressed for a tying goal.
Fernandes too was pressing – making a battling attempt to bring his team back into the match in the 69th minute when his persistence around the box earned him repeat chances to convert.
Lessons? Aside from the obvious – that Añor and Fernandes are players to watch this season, Time Warner Sports Channel, which broadcast the match, learned the valuable lesson of guarding microphones from fans following a female fan’s suggestive moaning performance in the 75th minute of the live broadcast. The network apologised on Sunday.
Swiftly onwards, and the Crew and the Union travel next week, to Seattle and Montreal respectively. For the Union it will be interesting to see if Fernandes' lively performance has earned him a start as Philadelphia reconsider their options after this result. While for Columbus the focus now becomes just how long Berhalter's side can remain undefeated. MB
Two long trips home – only one Mexican hangover cured
Turns out, Goonies do die. On Saturday, Sporting KC claimed its first league win of 2014 with a 1-0 result at home against the San Jose Earthquakes. Forward Dom Dwyer scored the lone goal from the spot in the 57th minute, following a Steven Lenhart handball in the box, thus ending the Sporting KC forward's goal drought since the second leg of the 2013 Eastern Conference final.
Both Sporting KC and San Jose came off devastating losses to Liga MX sides in Concacaf Champions League performances three days before their meeting at Sporting Park. Those three days were agonizing for the MLS supporters who spent them in a deep self-hating stupor questioning the league's value and place in the world, the time and financial commitment they have made to their teams, and probably their lives as a whole. Sporting KC and San Jose spent those days recovering from five matches in 15 days and four matches in 12 days, respectively. We welcome conspiracy theories as to why SKC didn’t get a bye like San Jose and LA Galaxy did.
Sporting KC started five of the same players against San Jose that it started against Cruz Azul on Wednesday, while San Jose started six of the same players it started against Toluca, including midfielder Cordell Cato out of position at right back for the third consecutive match. Cato was not his best, as expected, yet Kevin Ellis had similar stats at right back for Sporting KC.
The match was a physical one, where the teams combined for 37 fouls and six yellow cards. However, Sporting KC clearly won the possession contest (at nearly 59%) and made more than three times the attempts at goal (17 shots to the Quakes’ five).
After the penalty, Chris Wondolowski had an opportunity to equalize after being left unmarked in the 71st minute, but his effort went wide. By the 75th minute, San Jose had three center forwards in play, yet it did not make a difference as tiredness caught up with them. Wondolowski missed another opportunity at equalizing in the 82nd minute when he sent the ball over the bar on a free kick and San Jose were unlucky and unable to make up for the penalty call in stoppage time. Sporting KC, meanwhile, were thankful for their first three points of the season and perhaps for the lifting of the stress on their roster depth as a brutal run of game ends. MB