Cascadia discovers hard way that Impact can now win on the road
Last season, Montreal opened their inaugural MLS campaign with a trip to Vancouver. Looking every inch the expansion side, the Impact played a rudimentary 4-4-2, that said more about a group of strangers being brought back to basics, than a team organized according to its individual strengths. The Whitecaps duly dispatched the Impact 2-0 and the MLS newcomers would leave the Pacific North West chastened, and go on to win only two games on the road all season.
The Impact returned to Cascadia for the first time in the opening game of their 2013 campaign last week and duly stunned the Sounders with a disciplined win behind a deft Davy Arnaud finish. And by the time the final whistle blew in Portland yesterday, Montreal had matched their 2012 road win total in their first two games. Both games were characterized by the defensive organization of the men in blue, coupled with a ruthlessness in front of goal in converting the few, but very well-fashioned, chances.
Hassoun Camara had an eye-catching performance in Portland - the full back popped up with a wonderfully placed bicycle kick to open the scoring and stun the raucous home crowd, before popping up again at the end of the game to poke the ball off Ryan Johnson's toes to preserve the win, as the Timbers striker raced clear. Felipe had added a second for Montreal with a lethally simple near post finish from a perfectly-timed run into the box, before Johnson had got on the end of a wonderful first-time cross from Ben Zemanski to set up a frantic last ten minutes.
Just as in last week's game though, the Impact bucked the trend of last year's later stages of games, by holding out instead of conceding late, to give credence to assistant coach Mauro Biello's claim that the team had learned how to win on the road. Certainly this was a very well-organized Impact backline - while the midfield, which had begun to evolve around Patrice Bernier last summer to threaten through the middle, demonstrated in both games that they'd learned how to shield their defense when necessary. The Timbers, who had dug themselves out of a two-goal deficit for the first time in MLS last week, were not able to repeat the trick, as the Impact center backs and a deep-lying Bernier charged down balls, closed down space, and stepped up cleanly when necessary.
Montreal will start their home game against Toronto next Saturday on maximum points and untroubled by their Canadian rivals own discovery of a winning touch (this weekend's results also meant the Western and Eastern Conferences were both topped by Canadian sides for the first time in MLS history). Meanwhile Portland are left playing glass half empty (1 point from two home games; 5 goals conceded) or glass half full (a new-found resilience that at least sees them fight back; sparkling cameo moments from Nagbe and Valeri; 4 goals scored in two games). They look better already this year, but the Impact look like a team. Let's see how they do on the front foot at home next week. GP
Toronto are organized, Sporting KC are flailing
It took Ryan Nelsen 90 minutes to undo nearly a year of frustration. The QPR defender-turned-Toronto FC coach led the Canadian club to its first Major League Soccer victory since July 18, 2012, a span of 15 matches and almost eight months. And plenty got to witness the turnaround - over 25,000 turned up at the Rogers Centre to watch a team whose falling attendances at BMO Field had become a cause for concern.
Forward Robert Earnshaw netted both goals in the 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City, but the improved backline was the real story. In 2012, TFC conceded a league-high 62 goals as it limped to a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference. A year later, the club has given up just two in two matches, and the center back tandem of Darren O'Dea and veteran Danny Califf, who started his 201 MLS match on Saturday, is keeping the lines tight. Credit those two or Nelsen or magic, but give credit somewhere.
The execution further up field was better as well thanks to some new blood. Wales international Earnshaw tallied the goals, but Tottenham loanee John Bostock proved to be TFC's most dangerous attacker in his debut for the club. The 21-year-old right midfielder showed an impressive ability to be dangerous despite virtually refusing to use his right foot. But that left! He torched SKC's defense on a number of occasions, keeping the ball close and inviting dangerous challenges. One such foray resulted in a penalty as the youngster danced between Paulo Nagamura and Seth Sinovic, who brought him down in the box. It was only one game, but Bostock – who's never seen a tackle he won't embellish – looked impressive.
Bostock's wide play also provided a counterpoint to SKC's strategy, which revolves around the pinpoint crossing ability of Graham Zusi. The United States national teamer, he of a league-leading 15 assists in 2012 and two in the first match of 2013, provided a constant threat on the wings and on free kicks. That said, C.J. Sapong really should be starting. He came on after the break, injecting life into the listless attack with his athletic ability to get on the end of Zusi's good work. The 2011 Rookie of the Year nearly scored on a corner kick and earned an assist on SKC's goal, flicking on Jimmy Nielsen's long ball to designated player Claudio Bieler.
But in the end, a strong second half wasn't enough as a second-straight slow start doomed SKC. Look a little deeper, however, and there's a larger concern. The backline, which allowed the fewest goals in 2012, looks disorganized. Matt Besler and dapper Frenchman Aurélien Collin miscommunicated on a few occasions and Sinovic seemed lost. SKC will need to sort that out if it wants to return to the top of the Eastern Conference. ND
A couple of "impact" DP's have the desired effect
At Commissioner Don Garber's pre-season pronouncement he chose to address the departure of the player who ushered in the designated player rule, by referring to the broader cultural change the rule has come to represent in the league. Garber referred to several clubs' use of the designated player rule to include players who may not be globally recognized names, but players who can make an "impact" at lower salaries (though still high enough to be beyond the usual salary cap budget). Along with the young DP's such as D.C. United's Rafael, who have their own rule provision from MLS, the likes of Higuain at Columbus, and Bengtson at New England are typical of the new modest "impact" archetype. While the likes of New York, LA Galaxy and to an extent Seattle Sounders, continue to pursue the marquee names, many other smaller-market teams have been exploiting the rule to give themselves strategic improvements to the squad, while not necessarily going for players who will instantly launch a parallel aggressive marketing campaign.
A couple of those players had good weekends. Jerry Bengtson, whose confidence has grown exponentially as the Honduras side he spearheads seemingly goes from strength to strength, got the winner against Chicago Fire — ghosting in behind the last defender to head home from an exquisite first time chipped cross from Kelyn Rowe. Meanwhile in Vancouver, Kenny Miller, who'd rather suffered by association with fellow Scots (and Cascadian DP flops) Kris Boyd and Barry Robson last season, got the winner for the Whitecaps with a neat piece of opportunism and cool finishing against a decent looking Columbus Crew side. The Crew themselves had demonstrated the impact a strategically introduced DP can have when they brought in Federico Higuain halfway through last season, along with the non-DP but equally impactful Arrieta (who got the Crew's consolation goal).
An impact isn't guaranteed - Chicago, goalless this season, probably expected more from forward and designated player Sherjill MacDonald by this point (and more from last year's DP flop Alvaro Fernandez, now bundled off on loan), while Philadelphia are dying to be shot of malcontent Freddy Adu, despite some flashes of what he's capable of last year. But Sporting KC's Claudio Bieler and Portland's Valeri have already started repaying the investment for their sides, with eye-catching goals and link-up play.
Not that top down investment is the only answer. Jay Heaps will have been delighted by the cross for Bengtson's winner on Saturday, coming as it did from sophomore draft find Rowe, alongside an assured debut from this year's number one draft pick Andrew Farrell at right back. If the DP years have taught us anything, it's generally that designated players are as successful as the team built around them - they're not magic bullets in their own right. But the best examples can and often do represent an extra dimension for modestly assembled teams - and while that may have not been the modest ambition when a certain number 23 arrived, it may be his most immediate widespread legacy. GP
Problems continue for victorious Chivas USA, reeling Dallas
The good news for Major League Soccer's black sheep: It emerged from the sunshine in Carson, California's Home Depot Center with a 3-1 victory over FC Dallas after scoring three goals in the final 22 minutes. The bad news: pretty much everything else. For the second straight week, attendance looked significantly lower than the pitiful announced figure, checking in at 6,801 on Sunday. On the field, Jose Luis Sánchez Sola's side spent most of the match looking confused and overmatched, nearly folding after FCD's David Ferreira opened the scoring before the hour mark. The backline was all over the place but rarely in the right spot, and Dan Kennedy had a frustrating off-afternoon. Two semi-bright spots: Giovani Casillas, whose 64th minutes insertion for the ineffective Miller Bolaños altered the game and a brilliant goal from Juan Agudelo, who deftly took a long ball off his hip, cut back beautifully, and scored the Goats first goal of the season. Chivas USA got the victory – the first time since 2009 that it's gotten a point in either of the first two games of the season – but it was not exactly earned.
Which leads to FCD. After beating the Colorado Rapids thanks to a terrible goalkeeping mistake last week, the club imploded in the second half. Center backs George John and Matt Hedges struggled and couldn't manage to get in-sync with new netminder Raúl Fernández. Further upfield, Kenny Cooper is still not a target man despite his height. He needs the ball at his feet and players running off him, which didn't happen for the Hoops attack. Ferreira, though a bit lucky with his dribbling on the goal, created that luck with skill and showed flashes of his past MVP form. But Dallas needs more than glimpses from him. The new-look attack and the center back/goalkeeper pairing deserve more time to gel, but that was an ugly last 30 minutes. ND
March's jet lag and snow should be long forgotten in October
Philadelphia Union did not need weatherman Chris Pontius to tell them that there may be a slight delay in kick off when they got to Colorado to be greeted by over a foot of snow. Their game at the Rapids was duly postponed for a day. On the rescheduled game on Sunday, the Union duly scored first, as they had done last week at home to Sporting KC unlike last week though, they did not fall apart in the final half hour of the game, even when Smith levelled the scores with a wonderful finish. In fact, instead of igniting a Rapids charge, such pressure as there was was too diffuse to cause serious problems, and it was the Union who took all three points after Jack McInerney's 79th minute counter-attack goal killed off the game.
Another Eastern team also found themselves dealing with air miles and snow, as the New York Red Bulls traveled to the opposite coast for the second successive week, and for the second successive week found themselves delayed for a day by adverse weather. Just as it had done against Portland Timbers last week, the travel delay did not stop the Red Bulls starting sharply against San Jose Earthquakes, as they took the lead against the Supporters Shield holders through an Alexander goal. Just as they did last week though, the Red Bulls sat back/grew tired as the second half wore on and the tying goal duly arrived at almost exactly the same time as the Timbers had pulled level the week before, and there was still time for a late twice-taken penalty by Chris Wondolowski to give the hosts a familiar late victory.
Obviously the unbalanced schedule means that there is only one inter-conference game for each combination of teams, meaning New York, Columbus and Montreal have all ended up front-loading their travel by playing their first two games on the road at Western opposition. Columbus and New York had mixed fortunes, but with both teams playing in the East until July 4th when Columbus visit LA for the first of three remaining west coast games, and New York visit Colorado for the first of their three, we should be hearing a little less talk of fatigue and last minute charter planes from the latter. Aside from the dubious wisdom of New York's decision to return home between games rather than staying out West though, there's an argument that such early season opposite coast games are ones played with house money - any points gained are a bonus (Montreal could scarcely have anticipated six...). On balance, the playoff system means it's more important to finish the season strongly, so less travel at that later stage would appear to be a definite advantage. When five teams qualify, a few points to make up from a poor road start is hardly the end of the world, and as LA (last year) and Houston (repeatedly) can testify, it's all about timing your run (ideally without too much jet lag). GP