Five things learned in MLS Week 24
Despite a daunting stretch, life is good right now for Seattle Sounders, Sigi Schmid
The East stinks and it looks like the four wild cards could all come from the West
Also: Center-back woes; Mother Nature's wrath; and the best MLS bargains
Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things we learned from Week 24:
1. Memorable weeks for Seattle and Dallas: There's so much to say about these two clubs and the week that was, so let's get started.
For Sigi Schmid's side, it really is difficult to imagine life being any more swell. It started last weekend with a huge win in Dallas. From there, the soaring Sounders became the second MLS club (after Dallas a week before) to conquer Mexican soil, defeating Monterrey to take command of CONCACAF Champions League Group D. And to put the cherry on this brilliant parfait, Seattle absolutely crushed Columbus on Saturday at CenturyLink Field, 6-2. Local product Lamar Neagle owned the left side and notched a hat trick as a result, the seventh threesome in MLS this year.
Three weeks ago, the Sounders were lamenting a daunting stretch of six games in 18 days. They have obliterated those concerns with a 4-0-1 mark (and a handsome 14 goals scored) so far. Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal against FC Dallas at the nearby Starfire Sports Complex completes the busy run.
Speaking of busy: Dallas was forced to deal with the oh-so-rare match on one day's rest Saturday. Schellas Hyndman's team was ahead at halftime in Wednesday's Champion League contest in Toronto when heavy weather forced postponement. So that match required replaying (from the start) on Thursday. Dallas prevailed in that one, 1-0.
So Hyndman dragged his weary men back to Dallas, then made a quick turn to fly back into Kansas City for Saturday's MLS match. They carried the extra baggage of knowing that rock-solid center back George John was already at Blackburn in England, taking medicals and such as final transfer details were sorted out. Soon enough, disheveled Dallas was down by two goals at Livestrong Sporting Park. But how fast things do turn.
Aided by Sporting KC going a man down, the gutsy visitors stunned Kansas City with three late goals and a 3-2 win. A few hours later, word landed that John's transfer fell through at the last kick, so to speak, and suddenly a week looking like a major bummer had evolved into a celebrated time. They sit on top of the table in their Champions League group -- now with a stronger roster -- and remain right on Seattle's heels for second in the West.
Speaking of Seattle and Dallas, in tandem: Are Mauro Rosales and Brek Shea now escaping dark horse-candidate status in the league MVP chase? We certainly must sprinkle them more liberally into the conversation, along with the usual suspect types, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry. Rosales was tight and right Saturday on the wing opposite Neagle, recording a goal and two assists. Two of Shea's crisp crosses provided Dallas goals in the 89th and 91st minutes in Saturday's big comeback.
The sides, as mentioned, are about to clash in Tuesday's Open Cup semifinal. Seattle would host the final with a victory. If Dallas prevails, Hyndman's side would go to Chicago or host Richmond in the final.
And finally this: Go ahead and cue the next round of playoff format consternation. That's because the field is starting to shake out, and prevailing chatter lists Seattle and Dallas as the second and third best MLS sides after Los Angeles. So in this new system, guess which two teams would meet early, right after the play-in games? Yep. Seattle and Dallas.
2. Mother nature rules, as always: Major League Soccer officials don't keep a postponement log, per se, but long-timers at league HQ believe the three matches postponed by Hurricane Irene are unprecedented. The only thing close in terms of interrupting competition, of course, was the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which canceled the final week and a half of matches that year.
In Week 24, officials made the decision by Thursday to postpone home matches for New York and Philadelphia. Both of those were set for Sunday, including the high-profile Galaxy-Red Bulls contest, but will be made up in the coming weeks. League officials also originally rearranged the kickoff time for D.C. United's contest against Portland, hoping to get in front of the worst stuff. But after moving Saturday's match forward five and a half hours, they later wisely scratched it altogether.
Nasty weather has certainly been a bugger for a handful of matches through MLS history. Three years ago, D.C. United and Houston got nailed with a double whammy: inclement weather first forced postponement of a meeting at RFK, then a power outage scratched the replay.
Even this year, matches have been held up by rain and lightning, including a memorable hour delay in a Galaxy-Dallas contest in May. Other matches here and there were nicked by downpours, lightning, power outages, etc.
So did this latest, unprecedented round of reschedules benefit anyone?
It probably helped Los Angeles a bit. With advance knowledge of the postponement, Arena inserted David Beckham and Omar Gonzalez into the Champions League match after originally planning to rest them, and the choice paid dividends.
The immediate timing for Philadelphia and the Red Bulls wasn't so fortuitous; they now must sit around and continue contemplating winless streaks. Combined, these sides haven't won in 12 league matches.
3. Eastern Conference blues: In case anyone had any lingering doubts -- But how could you, really? -- about the comparative conference strengths, Week 24 has erased them. The East stinks. And apparently, nobody wants to win it.
Columbus' 6-2 loss exposes a weakness in a roster overhaul that has gone swimmingly, otherwise. Julius James has been more than anyone could have hoped for as Chad Marshall's center-back partner. But the choice to let Andy Iro go -- the fourth-year man was quite unhappy, in all fairness, and Crew management was probably smart to jettison the former first-round draft selection -- has left the side from Ohio with precious little defensive cover. James was out Saturday due to yellow card accumulation. Promising rookie Rich Balchan, effective this year at left back and holding midfielder, was less on top of things at center back, and Columbus' defense was in shambles from the start.
Houston couldn't turn possession into goals in Vancouver and a 1-0 loss left the Dynamo's playoff chances on the dangle. That wasn't even the worst of the Dynamo's week, perhaps. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear railed against impatient fans on a local radio show, adding further strain to an already stressful situation in South Texas.
Elsewhere, Toronto could only draw at home with hapless San Jose. And Kansas City, once again, failed to hold a late lead. This damaging inability to see out a lead is a recurring and frustrating theme.
"It was a wake-up call the first few times it happened," breakout midfielder Graham Zusi said. "If we want to get anything out of this season, we've got to be able to hold on to a lead. That's the bottom line."
The bottom line on the East in Week 24: one win, one tie and three losses. Don't be shocked if all four wild-card berths come from the West.
4. Tales of center-back woe: Columbus' issue at center back mentioned above? The Crew is hardly alone in this one.
Chivas USA is dining on meager rations now, with two bad losses last week: one at expansion Portland and one at home against 10-man Real Salt Lake. Heaping on the misery, center back Heath Pearce, the heart of Robin Fraser's rebuilt defense, is out for now with a hamstring pull suffered Saturday.
Up the coast, Jay DeMerit is holding on, back in Vancouver's lineup for now. But conversations in Whitecaps country keep returning to these thoughts of resignation: Should the U.S. international just shut it down for the year and mend that variety of injuries?
Just as Real Salt Lake got Jamison Olave back from injury, Nat Borchers, the other half of Major League Soccer's best central tandem, unwisely got himself red-carded Saturday. (That one turned out OK, as RSL prevailed over Chivas USA.)
Who knows what Red Bulls manager Hans Backe will do with Rafa Marquez, who has looked ineffective and less than interested lately. Carlos Valdes, praised earlier this year in Philadelphia, cost his team points recently with a blunder. Dallas' Ugo Ihemelu, desperately needing a rest, hasn't been at his best lately.
There's ongoing consternation in Houston over Geoff Cameron and whether he should man the center back spot once again. (Although Houston's defense doesn't seem to be the problem.)
All news of MLS center backs isn't rotten, however. John took a flight Sunday to rejoin his Dallas teammates in Seattle for Tuesday's match.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Eric Brunner (Portland), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Cory Gibbs (Chicago), Ashtone Morgan (Toronto).
Midfielders: Mauro Rosales (Seattle), Sebastian Grazzini (Chicago), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Lamar Neagle (Seattle), Brek Shea (Dallas).
Forward: Shea Salinas (Vancouver)*.
*Yes, we know Salinas was a midfielder Saturday; it won't kill him to help us out and forward here.
Massive money doesn't always equal major impact in MLS; several quality performers have somehow slipped through the process without a big payday -- although it's surely coming for most of these guys. Here are the top-ranked bargains in the league, using their 2011 base salary.
1. Mauro Rosales, Seattle Sounders FC, $42,000 -- How someone who has played for Ajax and River Plate, and earned 10 Argentina national team caps, could sign for league minimum, well, only the man's agent could say. He's just 30 years old, so age wasn't the primary issue. Regardless, he's having a fabulous time in Seattle as a right-sided attacker. And as a new contract is certainly being worked up, could he become the first man in MLS history to go from minimum scrapper to DP dandy with one stroke of the pen?
2. Tim Ream, New York Red Bulls, $55,000 -- Anyone making periodic starts on the U.S. national team as a second-year pro probably deserves a raise, especially considering that he's the worst paid defensive starter at Red Bull Arena by a long way.
3. George John, FC Dallas, $42,000 -- We almost had to pull the FC Dallas center back off the list, as a transfer to Blackburn seemed imminent. But something went sideways at the 11th hour and now, alongside Ugo Ihemelu, John remains essential in one of Major League Soccer's best central pairings. FC Dallas had attempted to re-sign the guy at an improved rate, but last week's transfer try demonstrates why the third-year defender had chosen to retain his bargain basement rate. After all this, we'll see if he has reassessed his position on a signing a new MLS deal.
4. Joao Plata, Toronto FC, $42,000 -- If not for the diminutive winger (who can also play striker or even attacking midfielder), Toronto would have had even less offense than they've had in this year of Dutch-style reconstruction. Plata has a bit more help around him now with recent reinforcements, so his best may yet be ahead.
5. Joel Lindpere, New York Red Bulls, $90,000 -- The Red Bull's versatile, workhorse midfielder is the highest earner on this list. He may well have been the most valuable Red Bull in 2010 and he's having another outstanding campaign. The Red Bulls own three DPs, all making several times what Lindpere earns; they really should close that gap just a bit.
6. Sheanon Williams, Philadelphia Union, $42,000 -- Veteran center back Carlos Valdes and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón get most of the credit for Philadelphia's defensive turnaround. But Williams, 21, a product of the U.S. under-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla., is quietly having a great season at right back, having started every match for Peter Nowak.
7. Juan Agudelo, New York Red Bulls, $55,000 -- Everyone around U.S. Soccer and, lately, the Red Bulls keep asking media members to hold off on the accolades and the anointments. The MLS club certainly is doing its part by keeping that salary at a relative pittance.
8. Kosuke Kimura, Colorado Rapids, $63,000 -- The Rapids fixture at right back has been a starter since 2008. Dependable as they come defensively and not bad going forward, he played his part in the Rapids' 2010 MLS Cup championship.
9. C.J. Sapong, Sporting Kansas City, $42,000 -- Remember where Teal Bunbury was last year, a rookie at Kansas City making his case for U.S. national team attention? Well, that's where Sapong, the No. 10 overall draft pick, is this year, with three goals and four assists. He kept Bunbury off the field much of this season.
10. Dan Kennedy, Chivas USA, $62,000 -- Goalkeepers don't often make bank in MLS, but this is particularly low for a starting 'keeper who has kept his team in more than one game this year.