• MLS Rivalry week slow to ignite but worth repeating
• LA Galaxy and Chivas USA ringing changes at HDC
• DC United's Bill Hamid makes case to be USMNT No1
MLS have somewhat conditioned long term fans for the advent of innovations, format changes and scheduling experiments. A particular restlessness (they prefer the term "nimble") is behind the best and worst of what the league does — so when "Rivalry Week" was announced in conjunction with an NBC Sports marathon on Saturday, some fans' knees jerked reflexively, while others welcomed the attempt to show many of the contests in the league at their most emphatic and within a single, elongated, window.
MLS has always been keen to promote the concept of marketable rivalries. At times it has gone out of its way to instigate them — stopping just short of shouting "FIGHT! FIGHT!" at two bewildered sets of players who happen to share a time zone. The logic tends to be a hybrid one - in some cases grafting rivalries from other sporting franchises and encouraging soccer fans to transfer them wholesale. It occasionally leads to approximate rivalries that read like results of a Google translation. The Mets and the Phillies becomes New York Red Bulls vs Philadelphia Union? — not really, or perhaps just one way... Canadiens/Maple Leafs = Impact/Toronto — sort of... Results are mixed — while some fans do dutifully draw on an enmity forged in other sports, others go out of their way to affect studied indifference against teams they're "told" to dislike.
The truth is there's no substitute for organic rivalries that may have their roots in geography, but which grow around incidents and history. LA played Chivas on Sunday afternoon, but you could make a fair case for saying San Jose would have made a more exact opponent, given their shared history and enmity. And New England and Philadelphia played out a tight game, without there being much of a sense of bragging rights being decided, knowing that up the I-95, New York Red Bulls and D.C. United were tearing into each other for 90 minutes, with all the irrational exuberance of shared history propelling them.
That said, matching up nine exact replicas of derby games was never on the cards for this weekend and there's another argument that says that maybe that's no bad thing. The NBC coverage lent an air of expectation to the weekend as a whole, but Saturday's games in particular quite rightly showed rivalry games doing what they often do - namely being hype-defying, tight midfield battles, where the desire not to make a mistake trumps expansive soccer. Not exactly the stuff of free-flowing spectacle, and for the first few hours of the scheduled ten hours of NBC's live broadcasting, the specter of a mass of 0-0s loomed. In the event NBC's Breakaway show featured one goal they didn't cutaway to, though there were some positive results on the day, and as it turned out one of the "plastic" rivalries produced one of the best games, as the Impact held off Toronto, to disappoint 5000 visiting fans at the Olympic Stadium (the Impact also preserved their 100% record, and also demonstrated a stylish Bernier penalty).
In the main though the abiding sensation was relief. The NBC coverage was good in parts, especially when it accepted that the soccer was always going to forget its lines. The broadcast experiment justified a repeat. Likewise the sequence of games, if not the exact composition, did enough to suggest that it's possible to take a meaningful cross-section of the league on any given game day — and in a country this size and with disparate teams that have themselves arrived on the league in a rapidly staggered sequence, that's no mean feat.
When Tim Howard's injury forced him out of the upcoming USA World Cup qualifier in Denver, Brad Guzan seemed to go from being the popular default choice to the automatic heir to the goalkeeper's jersey, without much discussion.
Yet a small but vocal minority felt that perhaps the time had come for D.C. United's Bill Hamid to be given more serious consideration, or at least included in a selection line up that might also include the more senior Nick Rimando — and that minority got louder and grew in numbers after Saturday's rearguard heroics against the Red Bulls in New York.
Hamid was everywhere, and needed to be, as his team sat uncharacteristically deep for most of the game. In some ways D.C. needed to sit so deep to hold off a New York team who coach Mike Petke had amped up to compete — the memory of November's painful playoff defeat to the same opponents was clearly at the forefront of the host teams' minds, even if their defense might have made an inviting target had D.C. showed more ambition. As it was, the Red Bulls hit the woodwork twice through the solid Espindola, and Hamid had to make a point blank save from Cahill and an even more spectacular one from Barklage in injury time when he reached behind himself to scoop the ball out as it threatened to cross the line. It was the latest and most spectacular of several stops the keeper made on his way to a third successive solid game.
New York came off the field unable to believe they hadn't won, but Hamid looked thoroughly unsurprised in the locker room afterwards. And when MLS's Jonah Freedman asked him about the chatter around Guzan and whether the lack of his name being mentioned in the same selection conversation "lit a fire" under him, he looked at him stonily and said, "Of course." An awkward pause ensued as we waited for Hamid to expand (in fairness he had something of a history of being expansive in that very visitors' locker room), but evidently the D.C. keeper felt he'd done all he needed to to make his case eloquently in the preceding 90 minutes.
Timing is everything in goalkeeper development, particularly in pushing a player into serious international contention — it's an unforgiving position and a player pushed too soon into the spotlight can lose confidence far more quickly than they gain experience. One can fairly say Hamid still has a lot to learn. But right now he's making a fair case to at least be in the conversation.
There's a real changing of the guard going on in Carson, on both sides of the corridor at the Home Depot Center (and that's before mentioning the imminent changing of the name of that venue...). Sunday's SuperClasico game between LA Galaxy and Chivas USA gave us a chance to witness the onfield changes first hand, and reflect on those off the field.
On the field, Chelis's Chivas put up a spirited fight against the Galaxy despite going down to ten men at the end of a first half marked by aggressive fouls from both teams. It's fair to say that the red card for Velazquez was very soft, though it's also fair to say that the game looked like one where a red card was waiting to happen, as Chivas made every attempt to break up the Galaxy's attacking play, and the Galaxy allowed themselves to be drawn into the trading of fouls, all in front of the intervention-prone referee Ricardo Salazar. On the same sliding scale that saw Velazquez sent off for a foul on Colin Clark, Sean Franklin could have gone for a follow through on a clearance that caught his opponent near throat height.
Controversy aside, this was a changed Chivas team from the dispirited crew that saw out Robin Fraser's days, and while they had few chances, they did a fair job of limiting the Galaxy's. Robbie Keane was frustrated up front, and the chances and eventual goal that the Galaxy did make came from their new wave of young players finding their feet in the team. Jose Villareal almost picked up where he left off in the midweek Champions League win, by crashing a first half header off the bar, while Jack McBean, who'd also scored in that game, looked to have won the game for the Galaxy when he looped a header back across Kennedy in the 83rd minute. Chivas weren't done though, and in the 89th minute Carlos Alvarez took advantage of a rare chance near goal to slot home a goal from close range to share the spoils.
Chelis can look to his side coming back yet again from a goal down and feel happy about the character of the side he's building, if not the loss of Velazquez. Arena can look back on a safe negotiation of the Champions League quarter final last week, and the sense that his promising young players are stepping up in his new-look side.
The head coach and general manager at LA may be a little more alarmed though, by the sudden departure of the man who along with VP of business development, Chris Klein, had formed the crucial third part of the Galaxy management team - AEG's Tim Leiweke. Leiweke it was who'd spearheaded the move for David Beckham and when I spoke to Arena in the off-season he compared his role to an active English chairman's role - especially when it came to the acquisition of senior players. He had also been the man who gave Arena his uniquely powerful remit at the Galaxy.
Leiweke's departure also saw Galaxy parent group AEG being removed from the market, and overall owner Phil Anschutz resume day to day control. What this means for the Galaxy is unclear - the biggest AEG project in the city is the attempt to lure NFL football back to the city via the building of a 60,000 seat stadium in downtown, as part of the LA Live complex. Where a bid for, say, Kaka, or Lampard, for the soccer team, fits in these priorities we'll have to wait and see. Speaking to the press at half time in the New York Red Bulls game, MLS Commissioner Don Garber suggested Anschutz was raring to go and pointed out that he'd attended every MLS board meeting for the last 13 years, so there was no doubting his commitment. Interesting times for the defending champions.
Until Rodney Wallace's last minute leveller for Portland, it had been a great week for Seattle Sounders. First there was the stirring comeback against Tigres that saw Seattle become the first MLS side to eliminate a Mexican team from the Concacaf Champions League - a game that featured a spectacular goal from Djimi Traore that promptly went viral worldwide.
Then on the eve of the Sounders Rivalry Week game against Portland Timbers, the team triggered the release clause for Obafemi Martins' contract with Levante to bring a much-anticipated new Designated Player to this corner of the Pacific North West, and finally replace Fredy Montero with a very different type of threat. Despite only arriving on Friday evening, Martins was thrown straight into the game day squad to face the Timbers, and duly saw action on the field — almost feeding his new strike mate Eddie Johnson with a goal, and generally looking like he was immediately enjoying his new home.
Yet perhaps the most heartening sight of the week for Sounders fans, and a consolation as the immediate fortunes took a late twist against them, was the sight of Steve Zakuani looking back to his exhilarating best. The stages of Zakuani's recovery after the horror tackle by Brian Mullan against him, have been well-documented: the setbacks; the slow re-introduction via the reserves; the first goal back; the heartwarming post-game reconciliation with Mullan. Yet underlying the positivity had been a certain anxiety as to whether Zakuani would ever again look like the player who'd once burst onto the scene as a rookie with his speedy wing play. Even the more optimistic assessments seemed to say that perhaps he would find other dimensions to his game and become a more all round player.
But the Zakuani who tormented Tigres and, for 80 minutes on Saturday night, Portland, looked like a familiar figure. Repeatedly he raced clear down the left to send dangerous crosses in, and one such run and cross ended in the ball curling perfectly in front of Eddie Johnson for the Sounders' goal. It wasn't the winner on the day, but in the event maybe Seattle fans can look beyond that and consider that it wasn't just Martins who landed this week. Zakuani is back.
After a wave of tight games on day one of Rivalry Week, you could have forgiven the NBC team from looking a little enviously at the game ESPN were covering the next day. Dallas burst onto a 2-0 lead with two goals just past the half hour, only to give up the lead with two similarly clustered goals as the game headed into the last ten minutes.
But there was another twist to come, as in the 90th minute Kenny Cooper, who up till that point had been a little over-fussy with his chances (echoing of "why take one touch when you can take seventeen?"), headed/handled a hopeful punt into the box, then poked home a winner.
It put a positive gloss on a game that looked to be illustrating what has become a worrisome trend of late game frailties for Dallas, who came into this game on the back of a woeful collapse against Chivas last week. Hyndman had got the better of the first tactical changes in this game as he pushed Jackson up to counter the threat of Sarkodie, and Dallas opened the scoring, then doubled their lead, while Houston were still adjusting, and conceding deep set piece chances. But Houston's first goal in the comeback would come via persistent work from Sarkodie in the right of the box, to set up Driver, and Houston's second came from a move down the same side, as the visitors played out the second half strongly.
Enter Cooper though, and a little bit of luck. Dallas had been poor against Colorado but still won, and now find themselves on 6 points from 9, and somewhat bizarrely given their form, top of the West, after a positive result on a weekend of draws. They are also of course now in possession of El Capitan, the cannon trophy held by the current holder of bragging rights between the two teams. One aside on that — had Dallas held the 2-0 lead it may have been even more remarkable than Cooper's dramatic winner — Dallas had never even held a multi-goal lead over Houston in MLS play. Dallas won't be dwelling on history though — they will look at their points total, look at the fact that Cooper is off the mark, and hope that the international break ends with the rest of their strike force ready to join in (their other goals in the game came from defender George John and defensive midfielder Andrew Jacobson). They'll look at all this and maybe decide that the season starts here. There's a lot of work to be done though, if they're to be anywhere near the same place in the standings when it ends.
We will have live coverage of the USA's World Cup qualifying game in Denver on Friday night