By Kyle McCarthy
For all of its quirks and problems, the reserve division provided one benefit MLS teams could use heading into a busy and congested July and August.
Four extra players.
MLS cut the reserve division heading into the 2009 season and altered the number of players allowed on each roster in kind. Without the reserve division around to justify carrying 28 players on each roster, MLS decided to slice four developmental players from each roster and reduce the overall number of rostered players to 24. One key addition accompanied the reduction as the number of senior roster spots increased from 18 to 20.
The theory behind the move, at least from an outside perspective, relies on the notion that teams should be spending more money on the quality at the top end while reducing the expenditure on players who face considerably long odds of substantially contributing at the MLS level. The salary budget may not have gone up to help buttress the theory, but that appears to be the working premise.
The empirical evidence suggests the reduced rosters could struggle to cope with the increased strain placed on them by the hefty fixture burden carried by MLS teams. Injury outbreaks at Chivas USA and New England this season stretched those reduced rosters to the maximum earlier this year, while other teams have had to cope with international callups and suspension issues. Those localized problems could spread to more teams over the next few weeks as the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League kick off and the U.S. Open Cup and Superliga continue.
The conundrum lies not particularly in the loss of sheer numbers, but the loss of the ability to substantially rotate the lineup for midweek matches.
Teams who would normally make changes for non-MLS matches to keep first-team regulars fresh are now forced to field them if the numbers are too low. With a roster size of 28 players, there's still plenty of room for changes with nine or ten players sidelined. The margin for alteration is reduced substantially with four fewer bodies, leaving coaches helpless to make the necessary changes.
Such situations can lead to farcical situations where teams name 16 or fewer players in the matchday squad.
In a timely example, New England named just 15 players in its squad for Sunday's SuperLiga match against Atlas. Revs boss Steve Nicol made just one enforced change from Wednesday's 1-1 draw against Kansas City as his side played its third game in eight days in order to maximize his side's chances of a semifinal berth. With a Tuesday date with Harrisburg in the U.S. Open Cup, the Revs will be able to make just four changes – including a goalkeeper among them – to a starting XI playing its fourth match in ten days.
“It's more difficult for us,” Revs midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “We're playing in three different competitions right now, so we're going to have four or five games in two weeks. With half the roster we used to have, it's tough.”
New England isn't the only team with possible selection issues over the next month. Houston will lose three players to the Gold Cup and has three other players already sidelined. Chivas USA, FC Dallas and Seattle are already injury-riddled and will also lose one or more players on international duty. Other teams aren't immune if they pick up a couple of injuries here and there, either.
MLS has done its part by almost entirely eliminating mid-week games during the month of July, but other competitions have filled the void and will cause significant headaches.
Eight MLS teams play this Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup in the first of a possible three midweek fixtures during July. Those clubs face another midweek game on July 7 – just three or four days after a full weekend slate of games – if they advance past a lower-league side on Tuesday night, while the semifinals would further cause problems for as many as four MLS teams on July 21 or 22.
The Open Cup isn't the only competition to add matches to the summer calendar. The SuperLiga semifinals add another game for Chicago and New England on July 15, while the CONCACAF Champions League creates two more fixtures D.C. United, New York and Toronto FC on July 28-30 and August 4-6. MLS teams face six more games – primarily scheduled for August and September with one round in October – in the Champions League group stages should they get through. That is quite the congested fixture list, and we haven't even discussed the possible travel headaches that accompany all of those matches.
This isn't a debate about whether the reserve system should exist or not. Given the considerable travel costs involved, the sporadic scheduling of reserve matches and the questionable development potential of those players on the end of the roster, it isn't ridiculous to suggest that MLS made the right call to eliminate it.
Although the reserve system may not be missed, the extra bodies could have proved useful during the fixture-heavy summer. Time will tell whether the lack of available options and the lack of rotation within the smaller remaining squads will impact MLS teams in those outside competitions and in their quest to succeed in the playoffs.
Contract guarantee date sparks transaction flurry
Speaking of players on and off MLS rosters, those players sitting on the end of an MLS roster have considerable reason to worry as June winds to a close. The transaction wire activity substantially increased over the past week as clubs prepare for the second half of the season.
The ritualistic increase in bloodletting at the end of June is actually a function of the MLS system. Contracts become semi-guaranteed on July 1, meaning that teams carry the weight of those contracts on their salary budget for the rest of the season except in rare circumstances.
Teams have started to ditch players they perceived to be dead weight ahead of the deadline. San Jose released former starting left back Eric Denton and Kelly Gray last week. New York worked out a way to finally dump Juan Pietravallo recently and TFC released Rohan Ricketts earlier this month, though both of those foreign players had guaranteed deals that don't neatly fit with the timeline.
Others will almost certainly make way before June turns into July. The lesson: wait until after July 1 to sign that long-term lease.
Week Fifteen – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Fredy Montero, FW, Seattle
Montero made one final statement in his case for the June Player of the Month gong with a goal and two assists in Sunday's 3-0 home win over Colorado. The deftness of his alert header for the first reflected his considerable skill, while the two assists showed that his deftness can also provide for others. The Colombian striker now has eight MLS goals on the season. On this sort of form, Sounders FC supporters should treasure Montero now because chances are he won't be in the Pacific Northwest come 2010.
What was he thinking? Amado Guevara, MF, Toronto
Guevara opted to remain with TFC instead of joining Honduras for the Gold Cup. After his needless and careless back pass to thin air in TFC's 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake on Saturday, TFC interim head coach Chris Cummins might be wondering whether he should have urged him to link up with his country. Guevara looked disinterested for most of his belated stint on the field and Cummins hauled him off at the break to insert Danny Dichio. A rare clunker of an effort from the former MLS MVP, especially considering his influence for the Reds this season.
Eleven observations to start the week
1. New York may not have won in 22 consecutive road contests (0-16-6), but that doesn't mean the Red Bulls aren't doing their best to eradicate that streak. Many teams would have packed it in by now, but the Red Bulls keep plugging away. While New York didn't have the attacking quality with Juan Pablo Angel, Albert Celades and Mac Kandji all ruled out through injury, they had plenty of determination. Perhaps a nil-nil draw would have provided a more accurate representation of the Saturday night tussle in Columbus instead of a 1-0 Crew victory.
2. At one point during the second half, FSC play-by-play man Max Bretos chastised Khano Smith for “giving the ball away liberally.” Smith struggled mightily for most of the night, though it's almost tough to blame him for his poor performance considering he hadn't started a game since April 26 and hasn't seen much action this season. Considering Smith's hefty salary ($120,000), the meager return he has provided on it and the occasionally frosty relationship between coach and player, New York has to at least ponder whether it should cut bait on Smith over the next day or two before his contract becomes harder to dump.
3. As for the Crew, I thought the performance lacked a bit of offensive panache, but the high pressure paid off when applied on the New York back line. Speaking of pressure, Danny O'Rourke deserves praise for his yeoman-like work over the past month. He was everywhere on Saturday night in a midfield role alongside Brian Carroll. Carroll, too, did more than his fair share.
4. Someone asked me this weekend about Yura Movsisyan and a potential role with the U.S. national team in the future after RSL's 3-0 win over Toronto FC on Saturday night. My response: not yet, but perhaps one day. Movsisyan, at least to my knowledge, isn't eligible for the American national side yet, but he could become an interesting member of the pool if he decides to play for the States. In order for him to reach that level, he's going to have to be more consistent. But when he gets on one of his hot streaks (as he is right now), Movsisyan sure is a handful for MLS defenses. He works well as a point man in that 4-3-3 RSL has employed recently because he holds up the ball well and has the pace to run at players. Movsisyan will be even more dangerous when Robbie Findley returns to the lineup and replaces the ineffective Fabian Espindola as one of the wide attacking prongs.
5. RSL midfielder Ned Grabavoy isn't a natural fit for quasi-defensive midfield role he assumed when Will Johnson when he left to join the Canadian national team for the Gold Cup. Grabavoy is more of an attack-minded player who makes his mark through his passing in the attacking third, but he showed an impressive level of application in a more withdrawn role on Saturday. With his passing ability – evidenced by the perfectly-weighted feed to set up Clint Mathis' well-struck third goal – and deft control, Grabavoy can fill that defensive role if his application and work rate remain at a similar level.
6. Toronto FC just can't give up such a sloppy goal to open the match. Why? They don't respond well when conceding first. The Reds are 1-6-3 on the campaign after allowing the first goal. To concede one in such a slipshod fashion made the task far more difficult than it should have been, particularly after a pretty decent start.
7. Colorado joined Toronto in throwing away a decent start on the road. The Rapids had a golden chance to go ahead after just three minutes, but Colin Clark spurned his gilt-edged opportunity. Momentum is critically important in a difficult road venue and Clark wasted a golden chance to give it to visitors in the third minute. That being said, Clark has come up spades for the Rapids time and again this season, so a let-off for that miss might be warranted. The same tenet also applies to Omar Cummings and the first-half penalty kick he rattled off the right post. Cummings (four goals in four games) has done it time and again for the Rapids this season. With the number of fixtures ahead at Dick's Sporting Goods Park (seven of the Rapids' next nine are in Commerce City) over the next few months, the Rapids may not miss these three points if they take care of business at home.
8. Influential Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso picked up an abductor injury and went off after just 39 minutes against the Rapids. Alonso recently returned from a quad strain, so seeing him go off injured again has to be a blow for Sounders FC. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid didn't have much on Alonso's injury in the post-game melee, but did say he'd miss the trip to Portland for Wednesday night's U.S. Open Cup tie with the Timbers.
9. Uncharacteristically sloppy defending from Houston led to the only goal in Los Angeles' 1-0 victory at the Home Depot Center on Sunday night. Eddie Lewis and Mike Magee saw a two-versus-one opportunity on a short corner and exploited the extra space, albeit with Magee doing well to collect a Lewis pass that was a touch too heavy and then elude Brian Mullan's jumping challenge before providing a dangerous cross. Todd Dunivant's far post redirection proved to be more than enough to end the Dynamo's 11-match unbeaten streak.
10. Los Angeles looked far more incisive than in recent weeks and threatened occasionally on the counterattack. This is the type of performance Bruce Arena can build upon, particularly with Landon Donovan's imminent return. As we saw once again on Sunday afternoon, Donovan sure knows how to fuel a counterattack.
11. Houston carved out one particularly glorious second-half chance that displayed the gulf between MLS and international level finishing. Kei Kamara broke through down the right in a two-versus-one situation much like the one Donovan and Charlie Davies exploited against Brazil. Unlike Davies, Kamara scuffed his pass and scuttled the opportunity in the process. Kamara's mishit should serve as a timely reminder of how difficult it is to actually hit a well-weighted pass on the break, one that Davies did ever so well on Donovan's goal. One positive out of the mistake: Kamara's response. After being substituted soon afterwards, Kamara appeared visibly disappointed in himself after blowing the play. Give him credit for being emotionally involved and bearing responsibility for his error.
BONUS: Speaking of responsibility, kudos also go to the United States for taking its fair share after a 3-2 loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. Donovan, in particular, made it clear that the U.S. wasn't satisfied with showing well after a stellar first-half performance staked them to a two-goal lead heading into the second half. “We're at the point where we don't want respect, we want to win,” Donovan said. There are many good (and a few poor) things to take from the unexpected Confederations Cup run, but the mentality Donovan displayed post-match may prove the most useful ahead of next summer's World Cup.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/kylejmccarthy
For more on Major League Soccer, visit Goal.com's MLS page!