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Tuesday 10 May 2011

MLS Weekly Review - Round 8 - Of Draws, Coaches Derbies, a Big Little Man, Real Obstacles, a Clash of Headliners & the Rebirth of Henry

     The eighth week of MLS action was concluded with a rash of draws, half of the ten matches, the last five scheduled actually, ended with the sides even.  No goals for DC-Dallas, New England-Colorado, and Chicago-Vancouver, while Columbus-Seattle and Los Angeles-New York each scored a lone goal. Whether the heavy schedule of matches and travel has caught up to the teams and the first plateau of the season has been reached or it was just an anomaly is difficult to say, but last season saw a similar smattering of level affairs at several points in the season, perhaps it is just that high-falutin’ parity rearing its ugly head.

     Two week eight matches were notable for their managerial relations. Robin Fraser returned to Salt Lake City to face the team he helped Jason Kreis mould into the most complete squad in the league. Having spent three seasons as assistant manager, Fraser branched out on his own this season to take his first managerial position at Chivas USA. Though early season struggles led some to question his appointment, recent results, namely, 3 draws follow by 2 wins in their last 5 matches, point to his strong defensive system taking a hold in the squad and bodes well for their future together.

     Sigi Schmid, Head Coach of the Seattle Sounders, also had a return to his former haunt when his team headed into Columbus to do battle with the Crew. Sigi led the Crew from 2006 to 2008, winning the Supporters’ Shield and Cup in 2008, before leaving for the packed stands of Seattle. The bitterness left behind after his departure can be felt in these irregular derbies, which tend to be physical affairs; this encounter led to 36 fouls and 6 bookings, and was decided by a debatable penalty awarded to Columbus when Chad Marshall was ushered to the ground from a corner by Seattle’s Patrick Ianni, prompting accusations of diving. Emilio Renteria stepped to the spot and beat Keller, leveling the score at 1-1, to erasing the Fredy Montero header that had put the Sounders ahead. Renteria has scored the last 4 goals for the Crew, in the last 3 matches, to preserve their 7 game unbeaten streak and end the hoodoo Sigi’s new team had over his old; the Crew having been outscored 0-5 in the last two home matches against their former boss.

     A huge performance by a little man in Toronto; Joao Plata, listed as 5’3”, scored his first MLS goal from the penalty spot, assisted on a second goal and should have earned his side another penalty, if not for an odd reversal of a referee’s decision, earning Man of the Match and Player of the Week honours. This Pearl of the Pacific sparked life into a Toronto side that had looked sluggish most of the season earning only their second win and ending a winless streak of 6 matches. The sheer energy of the little firecracker seemed to lift a performance out of the struggling Toronto and the affection felt for the wee-man was apparent as the entire team celebrated his goal, could this be the start of a better Toronto, time will tell. The 2-1 TFC win over the Houston Dynamo, who fell by a similar score midweek to Colorado, continued their poor form at BMO Field, having never won a match in Toronto (1 loss, 2 draws).

     A devastating loss in Salt Lake; having restocked their squad to full strength, after resting several key players in last week’s hangover loss to the Timbers in Portland, Salt Lake was hoping to put the disappointment of their failed CONCACAF Champions League aspirations to bed. A visit by their former assistant manager, Robin Fraser, now in charge at Chivas USA was tainted by a shocking injury to their playmaker Javier Morales. Goats forward, Marcos Mondiani, committed an unadvised tackle from behind, which trapped Morales’ ankle, causing it to dislocate and fracture. Surgery was successful, and a speedy recovery is hoped for, the possibility of a return before the season closes is being considered. The rash of horrific, long-term injuries suffered by star players is a disturbing trend, debate about the physicality of the league is undecided as to whether this is a symptom of a larger issue, or just a string of freak occurrences. A suspension for Mondiani is expected later in the week. Salt Lake went on to win the match, 1-0, on a late goal by Canadian Will Johnson, who snuck the ball in at the far post, but it was difficult to feel victorious, having lost such a key part of their squad.

     The East meets West top of the table clash late Saturday night was the highlight of the weekend’s fixtures. The Red Bulls of New York versus the Galaxy of Stars in Los Angeles, the MLS Cup final the league had hoped to see in the blustery frost of Toronto last November, lived up to the billing of a great match, if not the classic some had wanted. New York has been rolling with 3 straight wins, outscoring their opponents 8-0, and not allowing a goal in 292 minutes. Los Angeles, were coming off a discouraging last minute loss to Dallas, having lost the match following a long storm delay, on a brilliant fluke of a shot-cum-cross by Brek Shea. The first half was most likely the most entertaining played this season; the Galaxy missed an early chance, a pinpoint Beckham pass to Chad Barrett, who meekly stung the palms of Bouna Coundoul, only for Thierry Henry to score a contested opener on a flowing move. Luke Rodgers won the header, fed Dane Richards, who teased the ball across the box to Henry. LA players complained of a blown offside call, but the goal stood. LA had a goal of their own chalked off for offside when Beckham stroked a cross onto the head of Juan Pablo Angel, who was making his first appearance against his old club. Landon Donovan drew his side level with a header from a Beckham corner kick delivery minutes before the close of the half, prompting some jawing between himself and Henry. Donovan had a slow rolling chance cleared off the line by Tim Ream; having rounded the keeper, Donovan could only poke the ball goal-wards, Ream’s hustle allowed him to just reach the ball in time and nab it with a sliding clearance. 

     The second half was much more controlled as the two coaches, Hans Backe and Bruce Arena, were no doubt fuming at the openness of the first. This attacking display was prompted by the injury to New York’s defensive midfield general, Teemu Tainio, last week. Medhi Ballouchy started in his place, giving each side a very forward looking front six, who took turns running at each other. A fitting match for Hollywood, this match featured 5 of the top 6 earners in MLS; Beckham, Donovan and Angel, for LA, versus Henry and Rafa Marquez for New York, as well as a further two, Chad Barrett and Dwayne De Rosario in the top 50. Adding further spice to the return meeting, August 28th, at Red Bull Arena in New York, was the war of words between Donovan and the Red Bull pit bull, Luke Rodgers. Rodgers compared playing against Donovan to playing a game with two referee’s, while Donovan responded with “Who’s Luke Rodgers?”

     Red Bulls French Star, Thierry Henry, had been criticized this season for a lackluster beginning to his MLS career. Struggling with injury for most of last and the start of this season, fans and pundits alike questioned whether Thierry’s heart was engrossed in this new venture. But with fitness came the goals, 4 to be exact, along with 3 assists, all in his last 4 matches, matching his offensive production over this stretch has been the intangibles of desire, heart, and a touch of bite to his game. His jawing with Donovan was followed by some late snapping challenges on both Donovan and Beckham, as well as a marvelous juggling dribble as he ran 15 yards with the ball bouncing majestically on his foot; some showmanship to match his production, a player hungry to prove critics wrong and lead his team to glory. A good sign for MLS, an ageing star eager to continue his success in his new challenge, unlike some who have come before him; could this attacking squad, led by Henry be the first team with a designated player to hoist the Cup?

The Fine Print

     DC’s Honduran youngster, Andy Najar’s return to form and the lineup – linked up well with Davies and Wolff in their midweek 2-1 victory over Seattle ending DC’s slide, Seattle’s undefeated streak (6 matches) and their dominance over DC at RFK (3 wins, 2 in the league, 1 in the USOC).

     Houston’s Tally Hall howler - flapping at a long free kick as his side fell to Colorado, 1-2 in the other midweek fixture. The ball delivered by Colorado’s Jamie Smith, hung in the air as Hall rushed out to collect it and seemed to float over the outstretched arms of the keeper into the net, a dreadful misjudgment that cost his team momentum and ultimately the game.

     The Farfán twins made the start for a decimated Philadelphia Union back line at full back, while Portland maintained their perfect home league record, Futty Danso scoring a header off a set piece, their weapon of choice to earn a 1-0 victory in the rain. 

     Hartman’s big save of a pointblank header in the final minutes on DC United’s Fred to preserve the scoreless draw as Dallas visited the American capital. DC has lost their DP, Branko Boskovic to a torn ACL following a bad challenge in last week’s USOC match against New England.

     New England’s scoring woes continue, though they did keep their first clean sheet of the season, in the market for more attack to work with Benny Feilhaber who struck the crossbar in the best chance of the match. Colorado’s strikers continue to drop like flies, Omar Cummings lost to an ankle sprain, and Caleb Folan, who limped off in the 30th minute, leaving the Rapids with their top three forwards out with injury.

     Hassli, Vancouver’s French striker, managed to stay on the field for the duration of his side’s 0-0 draw, without acquiring a card, for the first time in his MLS career.

DC v Seattle 2-1; Houston v Colorado 1-2; Portland v Philadelphia 1-0; Salt Lake v Chivas 1-0; Toronto v Houston 2-1; DC v Dallas 0-0; Columbus v Seattle 1-1, New England v Colorado 0-0; Chicago v Vancouver 0-0; Los Angeles v New York 1-1.

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