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Tuesday 13 March 2012

MLS Weekly Review - Weekend Round 1 – Of Getting Off the Mark, Rookies on the Pitch, Last-Minute Heroics, Cross-Conference Bragging Rights, and Two Very Different Three-Goal Swings.

    Eight matches spread over the weekend kicked off the 2012 MLS season; eighteen goals scored, three away-wins, no matches without a goal, and two very different three-goal flurries.

    First Kick proved a good weekend for proven goal-scorers. Across the schedule players who are expected to lead their clubs in scoring got off to an early start on the race for the golden boot.

    Sebastien Le Toux took just four minutes to open his account for his new club, running onto a flicked Eric Hassli header after Alain Rochat had picked out the big Frenchman from his their own half. Le Toux calmly strode in on Donovan Ricketts, waiting for the keeper to commit, before stroking the ball across him for the fastest-ever opening goal in an MLS season. Having struggled last season to find the back of the net from open play it was a portentous start to a new life on the west coast.

    His teammate Camilo, Vancouver’s leading scorer last season, joined Le Toux on the score-sheet early in the second half. Some clever passing on a quick break shredded the Montreal back-line, Hassli drew Wahl out of position with a clever dummy of a Le Toux pass, opening up a gap in the defense which Davide Chiumiento used to play in the tricky Brazilian. Camilo cut back across the covering Matteo Ferrari and outmuscled Josh Gardner to calmly finish across the keeper to seal the 2-0 opening day victory.

    Montreal had their chances – Justin Mapp collected a ball at the top of the box that wouldn’t settle, causing his shot to rise over the bar; while Davy Arnaud had a powerful header cleared off the line by YP Lee, that could have dragged the Impact back into the match – but it was not to be. Another two-goal first kick win over a Canadian rival for Martin Rennie’s much improved second-year Whitecaps.

    It wasn’t just Vancouver’s danger-men who got off on the right foot (or left for that matter) as last season’s joint winner of the golden boot, Chris Wondolowski, opened his account as well.

    A mistake, one of several on the night, by the usually sure-footed Shalrie Joseph turned over the ball in transition in the centre circle. A weak, errant pass by the big man was intercepted by Shea Salinas who charged down field and slipped a through-ball to Wondo streaking down the right. The Revolution shouted offside, but the flag stayed down as the Earthquakes main threat put a right-footed shot across the keeper into the bottom corner.

    That lone goal proved enough as San Jose went on to win their first home-opener since rejoining the league back in 2008 by a 1-0 score line over New England.

    All round it was a good start for goal-scorers – CJ Sapong, Edson Buddle, Javier Morales, Fabian Espindola, Kenny Cooper, Andre Hainault, and Kris Boyd all began their campaigns brightly. More on those results later.

    It wasn’t just the goal-scorers getting out of the gates quickly.

    Kosuke Kimura put on a fine display as Colorado defeated Columbus 2-0; assisting on both of the Rapids goals to earn his new coach, Oscar Pareja his first win.

    An inviting right-side cross from the right-back, in the second phase of a corner kick picked out Drew Moor at the edge of the six-yard box for a powerful header to opening the scoring at the death of the first half.

    Kimura tormented Columbus’ left-flank all evening and it was his strong running late in the match that found Quincy Amarikwa with space to cut across the middle of the pitch unchallenged and unleash a rasping, right-footed drive into the top left corner of the goal - one of the goals of the weekend without doubt.

    There were some doubt as to how a side built to play Gary Smith’s English-style would translate to a more Latin game, but the inclusions of Jaime Castrillon and Luis Zapata proved enough to overcome the Crew and with time should prove a good fit in the thin mountain air, helping to maintain possession and force their visitors to chase the ball, thus maximizing the advantage.

    In Dallas, Blas Perez, expected to be a goal-scorer, found himself playing provider.

    Though inadvertently at first – a poor Red Bull clearance fell at his feet, but his poor touch bounded into the path of Zach Loyd who struck a low, left-footed shot into the net – and with several chances to score himself.

    His second assist of the evening, one he intended, was a sign of the dangerous counterattacking interplay Dallas with exhibit this season. Perez intercepted a poor Roy Miller pass, ran infield, dragging his defender with him before laying off to Ricardo Villar who was cutting in from the right-flank.

    Villar sumptuously chipped the ball over the on-rushing keeper to double his side’s advantage.

    Kenny Cooper, a second half substitute, came back to haunt his former stomping grounds and open his account - running onto a lofted Thierry Henry ball over the defense, beating Kevin Hartman to the ball and touching a lob over him into the unguarded cage.

    To jump start a nervy final ten minutes that saw the Red Bulls pressure, but not break the Dallas defense, who held on to a 2-1 final score.

    Henry, perhaps out of frustration, found himself collecting the ball deep in the midfield and attempting to act as playmaker, with Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio playing so deep in the midfield, to limited results.

    Graham Zusi and Jack Jewsbury, two of last season’s top providers also contributed assists in their opening matches.

    First Kick is an important time for the most recent draft class. The first few months as a professional can be a daunting, but exciting time for a young player. Often that precious beginning is spent scraping for the odd minute or two, but for a handful of this year’s selections, this weekend was so much more.

    Luis Silva of Toronto FC started things out well in the midweek Champions League match – his first start as a professional brought his first goal, a well-placed header across Josh Saunders in the Los Angeles goal. And no less than six of his fellow draftees were awarded with starts in their first professional matches.

    Tony Cascio in Colorado, Kelyn Rowe for New England, Tommy Meyer in LA, Sebastian Velasquez for Salt Lake, Ryan Meara for New York and perhaps the man who enjoyed the most dramatic debut – Andrew Jean-Baptiste in Portland.

    Several other freshmen were introduced into matches: ranging from Ethan Finlay coming on for the injured Dilly Duka just twelve minutes in; to cameo appearances for Casey Townsend, Tyler Polak, and top two picks – Andrew Wenger and Darren Mattocks.

    There is little more dramatic than a last-minute winner and two results this weekend were earned in the dying seconds of matches.

    DC and Kansas City were seconds away from a goal-less draw, as were Chivas and Houston, before big game players stepped up to decide who would take full points.

    It was CJ Sapong at RFK, who latched onto a ninety-third minute Graham Zusi corner kick to earn his side a 0-1 victory. The delivery from the right-side fell to last season’s rookie of the year who met it with a downward header that nestled in at the far post. Sapong had fought his way in front of his marker Daniel Woolard in a packed DC penalty box to win the touch that settled the encounter.

    DC was forced to rely heavily on the solid goalkeeping of Bill Hamid to keep the tie knotted at zeros throughout the match. The young American keeper pulling off several - seven to be exact - saves including an exhibition of some stunning reflexes to get down on a low, curling Zusi effort from the top of the box for which Hamid was unsighted until the ball was nearly upon him.

    Kansas City look poised to continue their good form of last season with a very attacking 4-3-3 that seizes on the counter and overpowers their opponents with pace and strength.

    In Los Angeles it was goal-poacher extraordinaire Andre Hainault who stole the points for his side in the ninety-second minute of play.

    It’s not often one considers a right-back to be a goal-scoring threat, but given his two important goals in the playoffs last season and this game-winner, Hainault should be.

    An in-swinging Brad Davis corner kick from the right was half-cleared to the foot of Adam Moffat lurking outside the box. His low drive back into the mixer struck the boot of Hainault, stopping it. The Canadian turned and smashed a shot across Dan Kennedy in the Chivas goal, who was unlucky to not get a firm hand on it.

    Kennedy has kept his side in the match from the off, making some eight saves- including a fine double-save on a Moffat shot from distance that Will Bruin followed up and should have converted.

    Each side exchanged shots that caromed off the woodwork – Juan Pablo Angel hitting the near-post from a corner kick with a deft touch goal-wards; while Brian Ching volleyed a pinpoint Davis cross off the inside of the far-post.

    Another 0-1 result, both sides stealing points at the death on the other’s patch - a dramatic start to the season and three points well-snatched for two of the Eastern Conference’s stronger clubs.

    Speaking of conferences, it was a weekend of domination for the West over the East. Of the six cross-conference battles only Houston was able to take points from a western rival.

    It is worth noting that all six matches were however played on western soil, rendering that stat slightly less-meaningful, and that given the unbalanced schedule this season and the strict conference guidelines for playoff entry, these cross-conference battles can be viewed as bonus points for the sides involved.

    The two headline matches of the weekend were undoubtedly the heavy-weight clash in Los Angeles on Saturday night and the Portland-Philadelphia meeting on Monday evening.

    In both matches it was the team who scored first that ultimately lost to three unanswered goals by their opponents, but they were very different matches.

    In LA, an Edson Buddle goal, his first since returning from Europe, put the Galaxy in front with twenty minutes remaining – some nice passing down the left between Landon Donovan and Todd Dunivant worked the ball across the pitch to David Beckham waiting on the right touchline.

    A clever run by Sean Franklin dragged Chris Wingert – who tracked Franklin - out of position, allowing Beckham time to size up and delivery one of his trademark cross to the penalty spot. Buddle, sneaking between the Real centre-backs rose unchallenged for a downward header across his body, low to the far post.

    A one-goal lead was often enough to see LA victorious last season, but fatigue and misfortune saw Salt Lake claw back into the match, before taking it as their own.

    Sebastian Velasquez, of horrible rat-tail fame, created the first, collecting the ball on the right flank before unleashing a harmless cross into the heart of the box. It bounced right in front of the stricken Franklin whose clearing effort sliced off his boot and across his keeper, Josh Saunders, handcuffing him and drawing the two sides level.

    A quirk in scheduling saw LA as the only MLS Champions League participant to have a match scheduled this weekend between legs of the quarterfinals and those extra miles weighted heavy on them at the end of the match.

    Exhaustion and frustration led to Real taking the lead. Beckham, incensed at the non-call of two potential fouls left space on the left vacant, allowing space for some interplay between Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy. They overpowered the outnumbered Franklin,
Morales playing Grabavoy around the right-back beating him to the end-line and cutting a dangerous ball back into the centre of the box.

    Morales had followed up on the play and pounced on the loose ball, poking it past Saunders who got a weak hand to it and into the net at the near post.

    Five minutes later it was the tenacious play of Fabian Espindola that led to a third Salt Lake tally. A Nick Rimando goal kick was won by Alvaro Saborio with a headed flick out to the left flank. Espindola beat De La Garza to the free ball, touching it down the line and skipping around the man the other way – a grande pont in the French football vernacular – collecting the ball and powering in on goal unchallenged.

    Rather than cutting back and opening up the fullness of the goal in front of him, the Argentine unleashed a left-footed rocket that was too powerful for Saunders to handle, skipping under or through the Galaxy keeper and rippling the netting.

    The unassailable one-nil Los Angeles crumbled under the pressure and weight of heavy preseason legs in a dramatic final fifteen minutes, allowing three-unanswered goals, as Salt Lake took the points with a 1-3 win in the previously impenetrable fortress of the HDC, handing LA their first home loss since November of 2010.

    The weekend’s nightcap in Portland also witnessed a side come storming back with three from a single-goal deficit, this time though it was the home side that emerged victorious.

    Following a rousing rendition of the national anthem, and a somewhat dour first half, Philadelphia took the lead six minutes into the second stanza.

    Panamanian Gabriel Gomez’s free kick from well outside the area eluded several players and skipped off the head of rookie centre-back Andrew Jean-Baptiste for an unaccredited own goal. An unlucky start for one debutant was another fortune.

    Baptiste quickly made amends, with perhaps the fastest turn of fortune ever witnessed on a soccer pitch. Three minutes later it was the big unit who got his head on Jack Jewsbury’s free kick knocking it across Zac MacMath, who will be disappointed to have not held the slippery ball that skipped through his clutches and into the goal to level the score.

    The Portland faithful reveled in the quick redemption of their young surprise inclusion.

    Twelve minutes on they were on their feet again, as Kris Boyd of Scottish fame rewarded his gaffer’s faith with a deft header on a cross from Kalif Alhassan across the keeper into the far netting. The first of what Timbers fans hope will be many goals for the burly striker.

    It was then Alhassan who ended the night with a marvel strike of his own. Whether it was a cross or shot matters not; his right-sided attempt looped over the crowd assembled in the box and tucked into the far netting much to the astonishment of the crowd and player himself to set the score as it would finish 3-1 to the Timbers.

    The Union looked troubled after a tumultuous offseason that witnessed coach Piotr Nowak fix what wasn’t broke and struggled to get involved in the match.

    Such a display of pageantry and passion was an excellent culmination to a fine weekend of MLS action; one round is in the books, what will the next one bring? It’s early in a long season, should be a good one.

Colorado v Columbus 2-1; Vancouver v Montreal 2-0; DC v Kansas City 0-1; San Jose v New England 1-0; Los Angeles v Salt Lake 1-3; Dallas v New York 2-1; Chivas v Houston 0-1; Portland v Philadelphia 3-1.

Random Observations:

    San Jose’s Steven Lenhart is back and he is a pain to the opposition’s defense.

    It was interesting to hear the Soccer Don interviewed during a match and pausing the Q&A session whenever there was some action on the pitch. A small nod of respect to the game he has devoted the past decade to; he is learning and he appreciates these things; well done.

    Moment of the weekend was when Frank Yallop was being interviewed in one of the needless mid-action coach-bytes that some broadcasters love. Yallop with both eyes – and most of his attention – focused on the game, instinctively shouts, “Offside! Offside!!!” mid-discussion - a good chuckle was had by all.

    NBC began their partnership with MLS, broadcasting Saturday’s Dallas-New York match.

    Kasey Keller made his post-playing career television debut with ESPN and fit right in, snazzy scarf and all.

Note: I’ve omitted the proper accents on players names as a means of saving some time; apologies for the slackness.

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