Three weeks into the MLS season, and no clear favorite has emerged. Last year's top teams have been inconsistent and while clubs like the Montreal Impact and Sporting Kansas City have done some good things, nobody has really stepped up and established themselves as the top team.
And that's completely normal. The same will probably be said in August. It's just how it goes in this crazy league of ours.
Controversial calls at forefront of Whitecaps-Sounders
Both the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders entered their game at Century Link Field Saturday night without a point through two games. Only one came away with a result, and it was the visitors who got the points.
2-1 was the final score, with both Vancouver goals coming by way of the penalty spot. Mark Geiger–the referee who managed to singlehandedly ruin the Gold Cup last summer–gave two questionable spot kicks to the visitors, one in the 10th-minute and the other in the 74th-minute. The first came when Joevin Jones supposedly tripped Christian Bolaños (more likely, Bolaños tripped himself); and the second was called when Sounders' center-back Chad Marshall tackled Blas Perez in the box with the score knotted at one. There's an argument to be made that Perez–a member of the Panama national team that Geiger eliminated in the Gold Cup–initiated the contact and made Marshall's tackle seem worse than it was, but we'll leave that for PRO to decide.
Every Sounders fan out there will complain that they lost due to Geiger's officiating, and yes, I'll admit, the American ref made some interesting calls in front of the large Seattle crowd, but only in extreme circumstances can you blame a loss solely on a referee.
You have to remember that the Rave Green had chances offensively to offset those Pedro Morales PK finishes. They fired 19 shots toward David Ousted's goal, but only challenged the Danish keeper five times, and not once was Ousted forced into a tough save. Clint Dempsey had a golden opportunity to tie the game at two when he found himself wide open in the box, but pulled it wide; Jordan Morris had a similar opportunity, but lofted it into the waiting arms of the Vancouver goalie; and there were numerous set piece chances where players like Nelson Valdez and Cristian Roldan could have put the ball in the net, but nothing ever materialized.
Except, of course, for Andreas Ivanschitz's spot-on free kick on a night where spot-on free kicks were common. The Austrian's magnificent finish was a lone bright spot for the Sounders, who will have two weeks to fix things before the Impact come to town on April 2nd.
Vancouver, unlike Seattle, made a significant change to their lineup after two straight losses to begin the season. Carl Robinson sent his team out in a 4-4-2 formation, unlike their usual 4-2-3-1. This put Perez, acquired from Dallas during the offseason, up top along with Octavio Rivero. The striking partnership worked well, and the sacrifice that had to be made in this formation–one less central midfielder–turned out to be a non-factor, as Matias Laba patrolled the area in front of the defense admirably. Chance creation, often a negative in 4-4-2 formations, wasn't a problem as Morales was given room to work in front of Laba.
It was a smart change from Robinson and appeared to work well in Seattle, but it remains to be seen how it will do against clubs that aren't as injury-rattled as the Sounders, and when they don't have the generous refereeing of Mark Geiger on their side.
RSL survive after two red cards, draw with Timbers
The Portland Timbers started the season with a good victory over the Crew and followed that up with a rainy loss in San Jose, and going into their match at home against Real Salt Lake, they were looking to get back near the top of the table in the Western Conference. But despite RSL's two red cards, they only managed a 2-2 draw at Providence Park.
Joao Plata scored the first goal when Timbers' goalkeeper Adam Kwarsey leaned the wrong way on a free kick in the 16th-minute, and, after 15 minutes of sparse action, Kyle Beckerman was sent off for a studs-up tackle. For once, it was a good call by the official, and with their defensive midfielder sent off, RSL was forced to sit back and bunker. They piled everyone back in what looked like a 4-4-1 formation and waited for an opportunity to counter.
Despite numerous attempts on goal by Portland and a large difference in possession (the Timbers ended up with an average of 77.5% possession in the second half) Real Salt Lake survived the first wave of the onslaught and got on the counter in the 52nd-minute, as Yura Movsisyan intercepted an ill-advised Nat Borchers pass and calmly slotted the ball past Kwarsey on a breakaway, putting the Timbers in a 2-0 hole. But the hosts would avoid disaster and storm back, lead by Fanendo Adi.
The number-nine was an important figure in the Portland attack throughout the game; as usual, his hold-up play was crucial. But when he got on the end of a rebound and blasted it through a crowd in the 79th-minute, he breathed hope into a team that was becoming more and more desperate as time went on. Shortly after that goal, Adi was causing trouble again, drawing a penalty kick when he lured Jamison Olave into elbowing him in the face. After Olave was given a red card, the Nigerian forward coolly finished the ensuing PK, tying the game up.
Although it would end as a two-goal comeback for the Timbers, they have to be disappointed that they weren't able to get something more out of this game. One positive they can take, however, is their possession numbers. Yes, they were up a man for two-thirds of the game, but the amount of passes they made was very impressive:
That's a lot of passes. 420, to be exact.
Two weeks from now, when they face Sporting KC, they have to finish their chances early and often. They can't be falling into these holes. For now, though, it was a good comeback and overall a good point against a feisty RSL side.
Rapids blow late lead against DCU
The Colorado Rapids were the worst team in MLS last year, easily. They not only scored just 33 goals, worst in MLS by a mile, they won just eight games and drew 10; the Rapids were the only team to earn a double-digit amount of draws. Too often, they failed to get that one more goal, or made one crucial mistake near the end that gave away a couple points. There was a similar storyline at RFK Stadium on Sunday, when D.C. United and Colorado played to a 1-1 draw.
The visiting side, entering with the newly reported news that Tim Howard would be coming to Commerce City in July, played well defensively in the first half and came out with a rejuvenated, pacey attack that produced the first goal of the game in the 69th-minute. They were impressive overall and looked different than they did last year, even without the suspended Shkelzen Gashi in the lineup. But similar to last year, a late mistake gave away the win.
With a 1-0 lead in hand, a DCU cross in the 80th-minute was curled in towards the six-yard box, where Rapids keeper Zac MacMath was stationed. The former Union loanee came out to try and grab it, and seemed likely to catch it with ease, but somehow let it bounce off his hands and into the throng of attackers crowded in the box. The initial attempt by Patrick Nyarko to stuff it in was blocked off the line by a desperate Axel Sjoberg, but the rebound caromed to Fabian Espindola, who blasted it into the open net. MacMath knew his mistake immediately–he was visibly upset with himself after the ball went in.
He had a right to be. It was a howler, and it ripped two points away from Colorado. Whatever chance he had to compete with Howard when he arrives from Everton has gone away.
It was a result that will disappoint Rapids fans, but there are positives to this team. Marco Pappa adds a unique element of chance creation on the wing–something that had been missing last year–and Gashi should be able to find his stride when he returns from a one-game suspension, at least judging from his previous exploits in the Swiss Super League.
The defense looks solid, with Meikel Williams handling the added pressure of Taylor Kemp well at right back, and despite his recent error, MacMath is a capable holdover until Howard arrives. There are problems, sure–Dillon Powers is not a number-ten and Michael Azira doesn't fit in central midfield–but the Rapids are not as bad as they were last year.
D.C. United, on the other hand, may be the opposite.
MLS referees: There were a lot of controversial decisions from the officials this weekend. From the Cascadia Clash's penalties to Simon Dawkins' red card, not many were happy with the refs' decisions. Verdict: Bad, as usual
Cyle Larin: He scored yet again for Orlando City, this time against NYCFC on Friday night. He's been one of the best players in MLS over the past three weeks, and although his most recent score wasn't his most skillful, it shows his ability to be in the right place at the right time. For fans of the Canadian national team, Larin has provided a new hope. Verdict: Growing
Philadelphia Union: The Union handily defeated ten-man New England at home on Sunday by a score of 3-0. C.J. Sapong continued to impress at striker, scoring twice, and Andre Blake appears to be one of the better young keepers in MLS. A lot more for Philly fans to be happy about this season. Verdict: Rising
Sebastian Giovinco: Toronto FC lost to Sporting KC on Sunday by a score of 1-0. They were unable to get much going offensively, as Sporting kept their defensive shape throughout and never really let Michael Bradley distribute from deep in central midfield. Giovinco was consistently double-teamed and triple-teamed by the swarming Kansas City defense, and even when he located space, he never found his touch. As a result, TFC failed to challenge Tim Melia and ended up losing out despite Roger Espinoza's late red card. Verdict: Falling
Bobby Shuttleworth: His New England Revolution lost to the Union, but he needs to be given credit for saving two penalty kicks in a single game. How often do you see that? Verdict: Impressive
Final points of emphasis
—Toronto FC play defense, but lose to SKC: It was a hard fought, emotionally charged game at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, with neither team able to do much on the attack. It was fairly uneventful for a lot of the contest; even prompting Fox Sports color commentator Alexi Lalas–a former defender in MLS–to express his wish for more action on FS1's broadcast. A lot of this can be attributed to TFC's solid defense.
They were compact and kept a good shape throughout despite the absence of center-back Drew Moor, but when Brad Davis scored the decisive goal in the second half, the game opened up on both sides, with chances flowing around the field. Both teams would finish without another goal, however, and SKC would come away with the win.
Toronto's defense was very encouraging. Bradley has looked like a world-class player at the holding midfield position, the backline has proven it can handle diverse and multi-faceted attacks like KC's, and Clint Irwin is a much better goalkeeper than Joe Bendik was last season. Once the offense gets going, TFC will start winning games when playing this kind of defense.
—NYRB outlast Houston in offensive shootout: Boy, the Houston Dynamo have a knack for goals.
They have scored 11 this season and given up seven, making their games very, very entertaining. Their most recent performance was a 4-3 loss to the New York Red Bulls. Defense was scarce in New Jersey on Saturday night, with both NYRB center-backs exiting injured, and neither keeper had much of a chance on any of the goals scored.
Nonetheless, the Red Bulls earned their first points of the year and the Dynamo saw the momentum from their victory over FC Dallas a week ago fade away. Their fans can only hope the inconsistency from last year does not return.
—Chicago Fire still missing chance creation: The Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire played to a dull 0-0 draw Saturday afternoon; the Fire tried out their three at the back formation again, and while it yielded some encouraging defensive results–mainly their ability to shut down Kei Kamara–it revealed a problem that was expected out of them from the time they traded Harrison Shipp a month ago: chance creation.
There basically wasn't an attack coming out of Veljko Paunovic's side. MLSsoccer.com's Matthew Doyle explains it well:
Chicago's attack was non-existent. They attempted just 93 passes in the attacking third, and completed 57 percent of them (Crew SC: 193 passes, 75 percent completed). They took four shots total, and put just one on goal – it came off a turnover rather than any sort of sustained build-up.
That's a problem.
Paunovic needs to figure out how to solve this issue, or the Fire will turn into the 2015 Rapids. Nobody wants that.
No Post-Mortem next week. I'll be too busy finding Easter eggs with my eight-year old cousins. Happy Easter.