It’s been 25 years since most here at the Guardian US sports desk reluctantly conceded that their international careers were over, shortly before they also acknowledged more in sorrow than anger, that their domestic bosses “just didn’t fancy them” and called it a day on their domestic careers too. Not much changed.
It’s also been 25 years since Arsenal last sent their first team to play a game in the United States — a game that according to the Arsenal-loving media types in our corner of the world, singlehandedly inspired the USA to host a World Cup, found a domestic league, give a home to Lothar Mattheus, and now put on a complete round of MLS week four games this weekend. Noblesse oblige and all that, and after all this abundance the Gunners have reluctantly coughed up another friendly in return — in July at Red Bull Arena.
But before we even think about that, it's on with this weekend’s MLS action, now with TINKERED FORMAT™ (just to annoy Arsene).
Funny old start for DC United. If by "funny" you mean "it's not funny any more". United had a decent off-season on paper, adding a lot of experience to their team, and addressing their need for goals with the acquisition of Eddie Johnson as a designated player. However, last week's loss in Toronto and the home loss to Columbus before that showed that for Johnson to score goals, it helps if he's given some supply, which was somewhat lacking.
Chicago meanwhile got a draw against New York last week, and counter to Frank Yallop's reputation actually blooded some young talent in that game. What does it all mean? We asked Kim Kolb of DC's Screaming Eagles, and Scott Fenwick of Man on the Fire blog, to give us their take on these matters. Take it away Kim:
"Fan moods tend to swing between cautious optimism and cautious pessimism. There's the camp that understands that we're only two weeks into the season and that so many new bodies will mean additional time for the team to come together, especially considering the veteran look of the new players such as Espindola, as they adjust to new surroundings. There is also the opposite camp which brings 2013's ineptness into the equation and considers 2014 to be new faces performing the same old, and ineffective, tricks.
Adding to these issues are the region's weather woes where the team can't get into a training rhythm due to changing cold and snow conditions, as the team seemingly scrambles from day to day to find adequate training grounds to suit the conditions at hand. It's only two games in, and United seemed to bring its defense into line a bit in Toronto, but must continue to improve and the offense must find chemistry and goals, or the cautious pessimists could turn into reckless pessimists."
And here's Scott Fenwick on what's going on in Chicago:
"After two gritty, hard fought draws against 2013 MLS Western and Eastern Conference winners Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls, respectively, Fire Nation’s mood is one of cautious optimism, with an eye on the future. The play of youngsters Harry Shipp and Benji Joya, along with recent additions Matt Watson and Greg Cochrane, has been a breath of fresh air.
Following a disastrous opening day at Chivas USA, one that harkened back to last season’s defensive foibles, it appears new head coach Frank Yallop and first assistant C.J. Brown have successfully shored up the Chicago back line. Most encouraging has been center back Bakary Soumare’s turnaround after his embarrassing week one performance, one that cost the Fire a road result and questioned his toughness. Baky’s last two weeks have been exemplary though, and he now leads MLS defenders in blocks (9), clearances (35), and interceptions (19). Moreover, his new mate in the middle, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, did well to snuff out New York’s attacks last Sunday during a chilly, yet well-attended Fire home opener at Toyota Park.
Perhaps unnoticed by many outside Chicago fandom, homegrown player and former USMNT U-20er Victor Pineda saw his first MLS minutes after years of toiling with the reserves. Pineda’s Fire debut brings the word ‘confidence’ to mind. After waiting patiently, the young player now knows his manager has the confidence to play him. And so far this season, we the fans have confidence Frank Yallop isn’t afraid to “play the kids” and sit underperforming, overpaid, and conceivably washed up, veterans."
So a setback for the Union last week, after an eye-catching start to the season. They were undone by a very attacking minded Columbus Crew side on the road, but now can get back to PPL Park and get their overhauled midfield running at an Impact side who've perhaps not quite got the results their build-up play has deserved, but who may possibly have got the results their defensive play has deserved. Nesta is still missed in Montreal...
Longstanding Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens ended his long goodbye to the Denver team this week, with a move to NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies. Possible that Pablo Mastroeni didn't notice. He's all about attack, see? Even 2-0 up over a Portland team one might reasonably consider as dangerous last week, Mastroeni made attacking substitutions. Will he be similarly gung-ho against Sporting KC, who have a track record of being singularly unimpressed by enthusiastic attackers. Sporting managed their first three points of the season against San Jose last week, to somewhat ease the pain of their CCL quarter final loss to Cruz Azul.
Vancouver may have enjoyed a breakout of goals in their opening game against New York, but since then they have only a late Kekuta Manneh goal against a 10-man Chivas, and a scoreless outing against New England, who in fairness looked to have made a "scoreless outing" a priority, to show for their efforts.
They'll be up against Houston Dynamo, who are the Eastern Conference half of some early season Texas dominance, along with Dallas in the West. The Dynamo had a rest last week, but along with the Crew and Toronto, enter the weekend as one of three Eastern teams on six points from two games and looking to steal an early march on their divisional rivals.
Dallas didn't have it all their own way against Chivas last week, though in the end they were able to see out a fairly comfortable win to keep up their strong start to the season. They're facing a Portland who've just looked a little underwhelming so far this year, and who are looking for the goals to give their campaign some conviction. At the other end, the Timbers will have to try to keep out a lively Dallas attack without Donovan Ricketts, who was red-carded/flattened in last week's 2-0 loss in Colorado.
Despite letting a couple of leads slip (so far, so RSL) in their opening few games, Real Salt Lake have thus far emerged from a very tough start to the season, on paper, to remain unbeaten. This one looks fascinating though, as Salt Lake's intricate approach play comes up against the barricaded passing lanes of Michael Bradley's Toronto, and of course Defoe's guile up front for the Canadians. Toronto got the job done on a horrendous looking home field last week. RSL's didn't look much better in their tie with the Galaxy. Let's hope conditions don't define this one.
If it's Seattle, it must mean "good in parts...". It's been a mixed start to the season for the Sounders, with the chief stain on the record being that home loss to Toronto. They got back to winning form last week in Montreal and recorded another shutout, but it's still a work in progress. That said, we asked Samuel Chesneau of Gorilla FC, if we're any clearer on Sigi Schmid's best line-up and just who is lily to start against Columbus. Here's what he said:
"What we've come to learn these past few years is one can never expect Sigi Schmid to rock the same lineup. Each game is like Baskin Robbins, with multiple reasons — from suspensions, call ups, injuries, or poor form — that mean I don't think we'll ever get a full idea of what our starting XI will be until playoff time, and even then who knows (Hi Shalrie...).
I think most supporters should be pleased with 6 points from the first 3 games, probably expecting a reversal of results from the Toronto & Montreal games respectively, but both seem like fair results. What we don't know leading into this Columbus game is how they will fare without Evans (injury) and Dempsey (suspension), though they seemed to manage without them just fine at Olympic Stadium. Columbus have looked great so far, however, and are sure to be a problem, regardless of whatever homefield advantage the CLink might pose.
Curious how Marshall will handle playing against his long time team, but Sigi and company have historically had a lot of success in general against Columbus — the key to this match will be the creation from the mids and whether or not the Sounders will let the Crew blast off like they did Montreal and rely on Frei and their back four to make magic happen for counter attacks. Pineda has looked wonderful these past couple matches as has "Obaflip", and the preseason hype about the great chemistry between players off the field that wasn't necessarily there in the past seemed readily apparent more than ever this past away match. 1-0 Sounders."
There you have it. Meanwhile, the Crew, under Gregg Berhalter, have got off to a flying start — breezing past DC United on the road in the opening week, then coming off a bye week to win their home opener against a promising Philadelphia Union last week. Berhalter has promised to commit to an attacking style this season. We asked Ben Hoelzel of the Crew Union just how far that's likely to take his team, especially against Seattle's counters this weekend:
"New coach Gregg Berhalter has the Boys in Yellow playing an aggressive, possession based game. The result has been an attractive offensive style of play that has the Crew leading the league in passes and passing percentage. The hash-tag “#Crewcelona” will be trending world-wide by season's end.
The aggressive play starts by sending both outside backs forward. I mean really forward and often too. The Crew end up dropping DM Will Trapp so far back that it actually looks like there are only three in the back with Trapp along CBs Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez. As great as this is at creating chances and goals (5 in the first two games), this does open up the Crew for counter-attacks. Last week against Philadelphia, outside backs Josh Williams and Waylon Francis looked gassed with a good 25 minutes to go in the match. Philly had several dangerous counters and left the Crew just barely hanging on for the win.
And Columbus fans know that if anyone in MLS is a master coaching to absorb pressure and counter attack, its Sigi Schmid. Schmid's Sounders pulled off some great countering in a win last week. With Clint Demsey and possibly Brad Evans still out, I'd expect Seattle to have a similar game plan this week. It should give us the first look at well Berhalter can make adjustments. Either way, I'd expect some goals from both sides."
Out of the Champions League, then beaten in a tight game by fellow also-rans Sporting KC last week, the Earthquakes were moderately cheered by the news that their new stadium will have a steeper seating rake than most of their rivals. All the better for sweaty San Jose Ultras to spill over themselves on late goals, we guess.
The Quakes will be up against a New England side, who stopped a little bit of early season rot with a goalless draw last week, but have yet to truly impress — not that a long trip to San Jose may be the moment they kickstart their season. Other teams seem to have figured out their midfield for the moment and the Quakes won't be show of giving the Revs a physical welcome on Saturday night.
Sun 3pm, Red Bull Arena (Unimas)
Speaking of kickstarting seasons, Sunday's only game sees New York Red Bulls looking for their first win of the campaign, after a decent enough road trip to Chicago last week ended in a 1-1 draw, and saw various Chicago Fire attacking midfielders faced with the pleasant prospect of a chat with a very deep-lying Thierry Henry. New York's approach play has been pretty, but they've not scored many goals. Is this a worry for them? We asked a pensive looking Dan Dickinson of Gothamist:
I think there's always concern about where the goals will come from for the Red Bulls, but perhaps more reasonably so this season. Gone are the years of rotating strike partners like Luke Rodgers, Kenny Cooper, and Fabian Espindola. This year, the thought has been to either pair Thierry Henry with Tim Cahill or Bradley Wright-Phillips. But last weekend's match in Chicago saw Henry drop back so he can collect the ball and bring it forward. This was a regular occurrence for years out of frustration, but Chicago marks the first time it was done intentionally, based on Petke's comments. It's sounds good until you realize that neither Cahill nor Wright-Phillips have hit their stride this year, and many people were sold on Peguy Luyindula as the creative spark after the end of last season. Henry playing deep deprives the Red Bulls of one of their best goal scorers, and that leaves many uneasy.
Optimally, Petke will try Henry and Cahill up top with Luyindula behind them, with Sam and Steele on the wings. That's about as attack-optimized as this lineup can get. Sunday's Chivas USA Farewell Tour stop is not a must-win, but so far the consistency and continuity preached during the offseason hasn't lead to results consistent with the end of last season. Getting that first W will lift spirits and quell the notorious Metro panic before it becomes unbearable.
Meanwhile Chivas have started a slight slide in recent results, which run W-D-L in their opening three games. But they've been showing a lot of fight so far this season, and their Argentinian trio of Mauro Rosales, Leandro Barrera and Agustin Pelletieri can cause problems — Rosales in particular has been in excellent form on both sides of the ball. We asked Alicia Ratterree of The Goat Parade and MLSsoccer.com if last week's loss to Dallas was a slip or reversion to type for the Goats:
"Chivas USA lost at FC Dallas last week 3-1. If I was an expert in spin, I'd tell you that outcome was good, you see, because Chivas USA played really well the first two weeks, and expectations were rising so high that they were becoming the MLS equivalent of a dot-com bubble.
Of course, losing is never a positive experience, but I do think seeing a setback can be a net positive for the Goats, provided that they can rebound and not go into a tailspin like they've done so many times the last several years. This team should be better than they have been the last couple seasons, and they showed promising signs in the earlygoing, but any real expectations that they will be in the playoff mix are very premature. So the loss to Dallas should hopefully recalibrate expectations and give the team and coach Wilmer Cabrera a chance to adjust what didn't work last week.
On the positive side, Chivas head into the game against the New York Red Bulls with optimism, something that has been in short supply in the past. The Goats haven't lost to the Red Bulls since 2010, and have shown a penchant for playing the spoilers. Additionally, the attack has been very good to start the season, with Mauro Rosales pulling the strings from midfield, and players like Leandro Barrera, Thomas McNamara, and even Bofo Bautista linking up well with Erick Torres, who has scored in each game this season. This particular unbeaten streak will end at some point, but there's no reason to believe 2014 has to be the year it does."
That's that then. A festival fit to fill Wenger's big coat. Have your say on your team's prospects in the comments section, and be sure to check back in with us on Monday when we work out just what we learned this weekend (and maybe in the quarter century before it).