Sporting Kansas City jumps out to impressive start; more MLS Snaps
Sporting Kansas City toppled the New England Revolution for a strong 2-0 start
Two games into the young season, the Montreal Impact have some work to do
Plus: San Jose's rookies, the depth of FC Dallas, and many more MLS notes
From Sporting Kansas City's St. Patrick's Day massacre to the continued rise of soccer in Canada, here are five thoughts from Saturday's early MLS matches:
1. March Madness hits Kansas City
Wild things seem to happen when Sporting Kansas City and the New England Revolution do battle. Last year it was a 10-card, 3-2 goalfest in New England followed by a tamer 1-1 result featuring a last-gasp Teal Bunbury equalizer in Kansas City. What transpired at Livestrong Sporting Park Saturday night topped those both outings with relative ease.
Between Roger Espinoza's 35-yard chip toward a vacated net that hit the post, followed by an early red card to a second-year player starting at center back for the first time in his career, a never-ending onslaught from the team in baby blue and a goal celebration dance for the ages, fans got a nice entertainment return on their purchase in Kansas City.
It all started with the Revs and a bit of an injury crisis in the back. First-year coach Jay Heaps turned to untested Stephen McCarthy at center back, a player who was shifted there from defensive midfield during the preseason. With his 6-foot-4 frame, he has the size for the position, but continuing to learn it against one of the league's premiere attacks made for a messy lesson.
"At that size, I think center back is an opportunity, and I wanted to see him there," Revs coach Jay Heaps said during a preseason conversation. "It's been almost like a spiked curve. There's a lot of subtleties to pick up, but in terms of straight tools for the position, he's got them."
That may be the case, but the subtlety of not putting himself in a position to be whistled for a foul as the last defender going back toward his own goal was lost on the 2011 first-round draft pick, as he got caught jostling with C.J. Sapong while heading toward his own area about 20 yards from goal and was shown straight red in the 14th minute for doing so. At first, McCarthy's challenge looked innocent enough, with two players grabbing at each other while both had an eye on the ball, and it was far enough from goal that the Denying an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity rule wouldn't come into play, but that's how referee Silviu Petrescu saw it, and in the end, McCarthy has to use better judgment to take the decision out of the referee's hands.
According to statistics provider Opta, McCarthy's red card was the seventh in the last nine matches between the Revs and Sporting KC, and it set the tone for the madness that ensued.
Former Revs castaway and SKC left back Seth Sinovic had a hand in setting up all three goals in the 3-0 rout, including Kei Kamara's sixth goal in 11 career games against the Revs. And after that goal, Kamara and Sapong set the bar for goal celebrations in 2012, grabbing a pair of well-placed leprechaun hats and doing a synchronized, festive Irish Riverdance jig that had to be choreographed.
For Sporting KC, the club is loving life, playing as advertised and is off and running to a 2-0 start. As for the Revs, where do they go from this? Obviously their game plan had to be abandoned early on, but for such a fragile team coming off such a rough year, an 0-2 start with 0 goals scored is far from what Heaps had in mind. It does not get any easier with the improved Portland Timbers coming to town next weekend, either. If injured center back options John Lozano and Darrius Barnes cannot recover in time, then either new signing Florian Lechner will be thrown into the fire, or Shalrie Joseph might have to be forced back into central defense, where he spent the bulk of Saturday night. Far from ideal circumstances for a team already on the ropes.
2. Montreal's personnel does not fit its formation
After two games in MLS, this much can be said about the Montreal Impact: The expansion side is a hardworking, physical team that has yet to settle into its ideal formation.
Captain and MLS veteran Davy Arnaud is no right-winger. Nor is he a left-winger. Yet for the majority of the Impact's 1-1 draw with the Fire, he was stationed on both flanks. In fact, Arnaud, in his 11th MLS season, played at every spot in the midfield, acting as the consummate team player like any captain should; however, it is a disservice to him and to the Impact to play him anywhere but in a central role.
Starting on the right for the second straight match, Arnaud frequently pinched centrally, collapsing Montreal's balance. Right back Jeb Brovsky hasn't offered enough going forward to get away with stationing Arnaud out wide, and as a result, the Impact's attack appears lopsided and predictable when the two are responsible for that side.
First-year coach Jesse Marsch took notice and made the adjustment against Chicago at halftime. He pulled should-be-winger Sanna Nyassi from his forward role alongside Justin Braun and moved him out wide, leaving Braun by himself up top with Arnaud in his more natural attacking midfield/withdrawn striker role. The shift paid dividends almost immediately. About 10 minutes into the second half, Nyassi did everything a coach could want from a winger -- use pace, create havoc, provide width, send in crosses -- and he supplied a pinpoint ball that a cutting Arnaud finished off for the first goal in Impact history. Credit Marsch for making the adjustment. What remains to be seen is if he'll stick to his guns or revert back to his initial plan.
Ironically enough, the Impact's ideal formation takes the shape of one of the symbols of Quebec, the-Fleur-de-Lis. Braun is capable of being a target striker, but he needs to be given ample service, and that's not going to happen from both sides with Arnaud pushed out wide. With Nyassi providing the attack from the right, Mapp doing so from the left and the Arnaud-Felipe-Patrice Bernier trio set single file between them -- with Arnaud in a withdrawn forward role, the industrious Felipe in an attacking role and Bernier acting as the ball-winning destroyer -- Montreal's attack maximizes its strengths. An expansion season is often a trial by fire, and the Impact have been learning on the fly what works and what does not.
3. San Jose's newcomers need a chance
The San Jose Earthquakes went to great lengths to acquire attacking talent that would not just take the onus and pressure off Chris Wondolowski to supply all the offense but would also change the team's style and brand of play. It raises an eyebrow or two, then, that all of those new parts were either reduced to reserve roles or not used at all in the club's mostly lifeless 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo.
With Houston speedster Corey Ashe out of the lineup with a hamstring injury, the Dynamo were forced to play Jermaine Taylor at left back, a center back by trade and a player who was tortured throughout the MLS Cup final by the combined speed of Landon Donovan and Sean Franklin overlapping on his side.
In the offseason, San Jose acquired one of the speedier right wingers in the league in Honduran Marvin Chavez, a player who showed very well in his debut against the New England Revolution and would have been an ideal foil for Taylor had San Jose elected to deploy him from the start. Instead, Chavez started on the bench, and the Earthquakes offered little width going forward and played right into Houston's strength -- going right at their tall, stable central defenders.
When Chavez came on at halftime -- and when new Colombian playmaker Tressor Moreno followed suit less than 20 minutes later -- the Earthquakes completely changed their style from a direct, aerial approach to a more ground-oriented, creative, pressure-packed style that yielded more chances and forced Houston to frantically hold on for the result.
Fitness for new arrivals is certainly a factor this early into the season, so perhaps that explains Moreno's role as a substitute and on-loan Tottenham midfielder Simon Dawkins' role as an unused option, but Chavez absolutely should have seen the field from the start. Decisions like that can make all the difference between going for the win and keeping it safe while playing not to lose, and manager Frank Yallop did his team no favors by opting for the latter.
4. FC Dallas misses its wingers
FC Dallas's depth is about to be put to the test over the next few weeks.
All things considered, a 1-1 home result against the Portland Timbers was not a bad result for FCD, which was without starting wingers Brek Shea (Olympic qualifying) and Fabian Castillo (injured). But the club was a bit fortunate to hold on against a Timbers side that looked much more comfortable on the road than it did last year, and it is going to be relying on a number of its interchangeable parts while it wades through the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying period. The versatile Carlos Rodriguez is the latest player to depart for international duty, as he joins the Panamanian Under-23 national team through qualifying.
With the lineup vacancies, the club trotted out Homegrown Player Bryan Leyva on the right wing for his first-career start, and while he fired the saved shot that led to Blas Perez' goal, the 20-year-old midfielder was also subbed off for what appeared to be tactical reasons before the first half came to a close.
As a result, there's going to be a game of positional musical chairs for Schellas Hyndman's club in the coming weeks. It would appear that the best solution is to advance one of the fullbacks, Zach Loyd or Jair Benitez, to the midfield; move Colombian center back Hernan Pertuz, who showed so well on opening day against the New York Red Bulls, to left back; and bring George John back into the starting lineup. Can FCD stem the tide until qualifying ends? Road matches at Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United could have FCD in for a rough ending to the month.
5. Soccer is alive and well north of the border
The proof is in the numbers: A Montreal-record crowd of 58,912 at Olympic Stadium for the Impact's home opener; A crowd of 47,658 showing up for a CONCACAF Champions League match in Toronto; An MLS-season-opening sellout of 21,000 in Vancouver. Not to mention that Toronto FC is the last remaining MLS team in the CCL, as it prepares for a daunting task against Mexican power Santos Laguna in the tournament semifinals.
Hockey may rule in Canada, but it is safe to say that soccer is making its own push, and 2012 has all the makings of being a landmark year for the beautiful game in the Great White North.