Weighty expectations exacerbating Sounders' sophomore slump
Seattle's season feels like failure, Philly's like success despite similar marks
In big week, MLS increased star power by adding Thierry Henry, Nery Castillo
If Landon Donovan wants to leave, MLS has no choice but to let him go
Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 16:
1. The heavy weight of expectations: Expectations are a funny thing. Benign by nature, they can nonetheless destabilize an otherwise stable environment, filling the air with dangerous, flammable vapors. They make people and organizations react in strange ways, paving the way for unpredictable results.
The Seattle Sounders know a bit about this poisonous effect. A sophomore side would typically be satisfied with a 5-8-4 mark -- not completely sated, but not reaching for the reset button, either -- but last year's blazing-fast start robbed the Sounders of the chance to grow slowly into their own skin. Any club's paying customers want to see yearly improvement, and last year's eye-opening start and eventual playoff appearance recalibrated how Seattle fans measure success. Now, there are an awful lot of yellers and screamers adding pressure and multiplying the burden of expectations.
As it is, Sigi Schmid's men are juggling one crisis after another. A mid-week road win over hapless D.C. United will grant a reprieve -- but only temporarily, especially if Kasey Keller can't respond quickly to injury treatment. Keller was fantastic against United, but he hasn't been for much of the year. In stand-up fashion, he's been self-critical and painfully self-aware, ensuring the faithful that if he can't do the job, he'll at least do the right thing and walk away.
The Freddie Ljungberg situation has been another real distraction. The former Swedish international hasn't seemed like the happiest of campers this year, and now he's practically disappeared with little explanation. Schmid's claims of a mysterious ankle injury don't wash when follow-up questions about Ljungberg's whereabouts and status elicit a "no comment."
And while the Ljungberg drama plays out, management must answer for another choice that now looks awful: leaving Sebastien Le Toux exposed in last November's expansion draft.
2. The content of low expectations: That brings us to the other side of the expectation equation.
Le Toux is having a phenomenal year. He has seven goals and seven assists, putting the unheralded Frenchman among the league leaders in both categories. He's a huge part of the reason Philadelphia is well positioned at this point -- relatively speaking, of course.
Yes, Peter Nowak's team is in seventh place in the East. But don't toss the first year for expansion Philly into the Delaware River just yet.
The Union hve at least one game in hand on most Eastern opponents. And because of the June completion date of the Union's awesome new PPL Park, league officials back-loaded the Philly schedule with home matches. So while that 4-8-2 record may not overwhelm, consider it was built while playing twice as many road matches as home.
"I say that this is still a work in progress, and it really is," Nowak said after Saturday's late win over Toronto. But he also noted his players are getting better, and smarter.
Considering all that, and considering how little was expected of Nowak's young team, Philadelphia doesn't look too shabby at all. Young talents like Roger Torres and Danny Mwanga tip to a great future. Young goalkeeper Chris Seitz seems to have gotten past some early-season foibles without many lasting scars. Meanwhile, veteran midfielder Fred has found his feet as a left-sided playmaker with license to drift inside liberally. And then there's Le Toux.
Few MLS players are more valuable to their team right now. Le Toux drives the attack with a fearless audacity and tremendous store of energy. He hits great restarts, including Saturday's perfectly placed corner kick to the near post that led to Michael Orozco's first MLS goal. And Le Toux stepped up in the 94th minute to supply a game-winning penalty kick, which snapped Toronto's eight-game unbeaten streak.
3. SuperLiga R.I.P.?: SuperLiga seemed like a pretty good idea when it was conceived back in 2006. But the world spins pretty fast, and much has changed since its 2007 launch. (Just ask anyone who purchased a house at the top of the market back then.)
SuperLiga's time may have already come and gone.
In 2007, the league had a hot, fresh property in David Beckham and needed more rodeos to work its show horse. Plus, the opportunity to cash out on the domestic popularity of Mexican teams was simply too tempting to pass up. SuperLiga seemed like a swell plan.
Beckham, of course, isn't even the league's most high-profile man anymore. That'd be Thierry Henry, who should debut in a Red Bulls jersey this week in a friendly against EPL middleweight Tottenham.
MLS more or less made up a reason to put the Galaxy in SuperLiga in '07, but it won't have as easy a time shoehorning Henry and the Red Bulls into the money-making fray.
More importantly, we now have the CONCACAF Champions League. In terms of brand equity and market recognition, the so-called CCL remains a small order of fries. Still, it's a legitimate regional tournament with a real reward: admittance into the FIFA World Club Championship.
SuperLiga? The trophy does look pretty nice. But that's about it.
It's also difficult to look past SuperLiga's redundancies. New England played Chicago over the weekend -- not as part of MLS action, but in SuperLiga. Same with Houston-Chivas USA.
What's more, truly name-brand clubs are lining up to take part in the North American money grab. Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenman, Club America, Celtic, Real Madrid and European champion Inter Milan are among the teams currently here or set for arrival for training and exhibitions. After seeing that list, it's difficult to get fired up over the Pachuca-Puebla we had Sunday in Houston. At the very least, it's hard to see how an afternoon against Morelia of Mexico will do as much for MLS (and for the economic bottom line) as a friendly against one of these other power clubs.
4. DP delight around MLS: It really was a landmark week for MLS, and one in which the star power got a lot brighter. Somewhat obscured in the ongoing Henry p.r. ripple (and by the odd timing of a weekend announcement) was Nery Castillo's signing in Chicago. It's a nice get for MLS.
This is how the DP dance in MLS really should work. And this is how it will continue to work; anybody sitting around waiting for Diego Forlan or Sergio Ramos to wash up fortuitously on MLS shores is delusional. These are the models, famous and/or talented types whose value is dented by age or one flaw. Henry is 32, but still has a tiger in his tank competitively; Castillo is 26, a terrific young talent who probably didn't make the best choice when his value skyrocketed previously (he basically fell off the face of the earth by signing with Ukraine's FC Shakhtar Donetsk).
Now Castillo joins Chicago on loan. The club has an option to buy, but the price may climb beyond reach if the Mexican international does well. Still, it's a shoe that fits for MLS -- an attacker in the sweet spot age-wise, but one who needs his career shocked back to life. For now, everybody wins. Castillo gets back to a place where global soccer deciders will see him and Chicago supersizes an attack that already has the dynamic Marco Pappa and the underrated Patrick Nyarko.
Of course, all the positive DP vibes could go the other way if Landon Donovan departs. MLS commissioner Don Garber insists the U.S. World Cup hero isn't for sale, which is a nice thing to say. But there's a reality to face here: If Donovan truly wants to go, Garber really has no choice but to consider any reasonable offer (just guessing -- somewhere in the $15 million neighborhood). The Galaxy star has earned that right, and the commish knows it.
5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Jimmy Nielsen (Kansas City); Defenders: Chad Marshall (Columbus), George John (FC Dallas), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy); Midfielders: Sean Franklin (L.A. Galaxy), Stephane Auvray (Kansas City), Brian Carroll (Columbus), Daniel Hernandez (FC Dallas); Forwards: Teal Bunbury (Kansas City), Emilio Renteria (Columbus), Fredy Montero (Seattle).
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