Although some teams impressed during the first weekend of the 2012 season, many clubs are still trying to sort things out as the campaign gets underway.SANTA CLARA, Calif. – San Jose coach Frank Yallop captured the essence of opening weekend in the wake of his side's 1-0 victory over New England.
“The first half was decent and the second half was not good,” Yallop told reporters after the match. “We had a bit of an emotional letdown it seemed in the second half, but we battled through it. New England pushed their line higher in the second half and made it difficult on us, so give them credit, but we found a way to get a win.”
On this opening weekend of the season (and, as some pragmatic sorts would argue, all weekends), results mattered far more than performances. Some teams – FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, for example – reinforced their current place among the elite. For most other clubs located outside of the league's upper crust, this weekend merely offered the first glimpse at an ongoing project still in need of fine tuning and polish.
Notable examples cropped up on both sides of the ledger. Colorado will take its 2-0 home victory over a battered Columbus outfit, but Oscar Pareja's 4-3-3 isn't operating at top form quite yet. D.C. United showed it still needed time to develop the chemistry within its attacking group in its impotent 1-0 home defeat to Sporting . New England reverted to its old ways to match San Jose's direct style for much of the Earthquakes' 1-0 victory. New York stumbled for much of its 2-1 defeat at FC Dallas, though a late surge offered some hope. Vancouver easily picked off Montréal in a 2-0 victory, but the Whitecaps didn't face much of a test in their first match under Martin Rennie.
It all goes to show that the extended preseason work remains the mere foundation for developing a coherent group capable of consistent performances. Simply put, there are things to learn about a side in that setting and there are many more details to understand once the real work commences in earnest. Pressure, after all, tends to influence sides in different ways.
If there is one thing to take from this weekend on a global scale, it is that every club could stand to increase its sharpness in the coming matches. This assessment isn't a new one – MLS teams aren't known for making a running start to the season and this opening weekend did not contradict that theme – but one that remains relevant in the grand scheme of things. Matches will improve and the standards will increase as clubs find that common ground and start to reveal their identities on a weekly basis.
The temptation to render a permanent verdict on the first shred of evidence remains an enticing one. It just doesn't seem prudent given the general state of flux afflicting many clubs at this point in time. In this time of uncertainty, statements like the one Yallop made just about sum up matters. Points and progress may or may not go hand in hand, but the presence of the former sure makes the wait for the latter much more tolerable indeed.
Five Points – Week 1
1. Tentative first steps for Montréal: It could be a long, hard season in Québec if the opening day defeat at Vancouver provides a reasonable indicator of future performance. There is plenty of time for Jesse Marsch to sort matters out and there were some positive moves in the attacking third (Davy Arnaud, in particular, would have scored on a 61st minute header if not for Lee Young-Pyo's position on the line) to take forward into the coming matches.
With those positives in mind, it's fairly evident that the preseason worries about the Impact's defensive shape were well founded. Vancouver will trouble many, many teams this season with its attacking brigade, but the Impact simply can't give away goals like it did at B.C. Place and expect to compete in matches. Credit the anticipation of Sébastien Le Toux on the first and the deft foot work of Camilo Sanvezzo on the second, but poor defending from the Impact – particularly in that troublesome central defensive department – aided their tidy work considerably. It's hard enough to win in this league without helping the other team along. Montréal will have to learn that lesson quickly in order to sort out its rearguard.
2. Forget about the result – Ben Olsen should worry about this one potentially painful point in certain matches: Sporting Kansas City provided good value for its 1-0 victory at R.F.K. Stadium, but C.J. Sapong's winner highlights one cause for concern for the home side: United simply doesn't match up well against opposing teams with multiple threats in dead ball situations.
Olsen can reliably count on three, maybe four players – his two central defenders and maybe a half each for Perry Kitchen and Robbie Russell – to mark on set pieces. The rest of his players? Well, they're built for connecting with each other in deft attacking sequences, not stopping someone else from rising highest to head home.
The dearth of available markers in dead ball situations poses a significant problem against physically imposing teams like Sporting. Peter Vermes can throw at least four or five viable threats into the mix on any given set piece. Few teams can muster up enough bodies to mark all of them adequately, but most sides can probably find a way to make sure that a fullback like Daniel Woolard isn't trying to futilely stop Sapong's path to goal.
It isn't Woolard's fault that he's asked to stop a player he probably shouldn't have to thwart. That matchup really isn't a fair one to him. But the scenario supplies a rather illustrative example of the problems a skillful team like United will face when confronted with a more robust opponent.
3. New England adjusts slowly to its new passing game: The first sign of adversity usually provides a somewhat reliable indicator of how well a team has adopted a new approach or style. Based on the Revolution's 1-0 defeat at San Jose, Jay Heaps' side still has plenty of work to do.
Chris Wondolowski's opener after a quarter of an hour – courtesy of a dreadful giveaway by captain Shalrie Joseph at midfield – and the congestion in the middle of the park basically prompted the Revs to revert to their more direct tendencies in the first half.
It took some halftime nudging from Heaps and the introduction of Ryan Guy and Lee Nguyen during the second half to finally keep the ball on the floor a bit more and use the skills of Benny Feilhaber and Kelyn Rowe somewhat frequently. The work after the break didn't appear all that much better than the first, but it represented more of what the Revs wanted to do from the outset.
The underlying problem at the moment comes from the basic inefficiency in possession. Preaching a short passing style is one thing, but pulling it off while attempting 11 fewer passes than the unreservedly direct Earthquakes (365 to 354, according to statistics compiled by Opta – for reference, Sporting Kansas City hit 450 and Real Salt Lake hit 453 in their wins) and completing 68.6 percent of those attempts is another matter entirely. If the Revs want to persist in their new approach, they must start their improvement by taking better care of the ball when they have it.
4. Los Angeles receives some sympathy from an unexpected quarter: Galaxy coach Bruce Arena faced a difficult quandary as he prepared for Saturday's 3-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake: play his starters to preserve the best chance to snatch a season-opening result or rest up for Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League date with Toronto FC at the Home Depot Center.
Arena ultimately decided to rest just one expected starter in that affair (Marcelo Sarvas replaced Juninho) and watched as RSL scored three times in the final 17 minutes to claim all three points. The veteran Los Angeles boss shouldered much of the blame for the defeat when he spoke to reporters after the match.
“We had a tired team tonight, (but) we still could have won this game,” Arena said. “I think this game is on me, it’s my fault. I think I should have used fresher bodies.”
RSL coach Jason Kreis agreed with Arena's assessment on his lineup choices, but it came with a caveat to soften the blow. Los Angeles' Champions League commitments should have earned them the weekend off, particularly with Seattle and Toronto FC already resting up for their midweek exertions, according to Kreis
“If it had been me, I would have played a completely different team and just protected everybody for the Champions League game,” Kreis told reporters after the game. “I don’t understand or know the different pressures that come with being an LA Galaxy coach. It doesn’t make any sense why Toronto doesn’t have a game this weekend but the Galaxy does. Seattle has got the weekend off and that is how it should be. They should have the weekend off.”
5. The missing man in the New York midfield: Rafa Márquez received a steady stream of harsh criticism for his poor play and his poorer deportment last season. Despite those persistent undercurrents, Red Bulls boss Hans Backe and the club stood by their man and insisted he would return this season. Sunday's 2-1 defeat at FC Dallas showed why Backe has defended him and why he could prove vitally important for the Red Bulls if he returns to form.
New York spent much of the first half trying to wring some semblance of forward play out of its central midfield department. Most of the responsibility fell on Dax McCarty because Teemu Tainio earns his wages by keeping the trains moving. McCarty offered plenty of industry, but supplied little in terms of link play between the midfield and the front line. The dearth of service and the paucity of quality in the wide areas left Juan Agudelo (a surprising and, as the match showed, probably incorrect choice up front instead of Kenny Cooper) and Thierry Henry.
Henry – likely at Backe's urging – dropped deep into midfield to locate more of the ball. Márquez-deep, in fact. As the second half progressed and as Cooper made his appearance, the Red Bulls found more of the game. His sublime pass over the top for Cooper's goal in the late stages made most of the toil worthwhile, though it's still a bit wasteful to have such a craftsman shunted into a makeshift role to plug the gap.
Oddly enough, it's exactly the type of hole Márquez can fill when his suspension concludes after this weekend's visit to Real Salt Lake. Márquez's ability to hit diagonal balls opens up the wide areas (a section of the field poorly exploited against FCD for a variety of reasons) and provides an avenue to more direct service over the top. It is by no means a fool-proof plan (and locating a number ten in the summer window probably makes a great deal of sense), but if Márquez can find some semblance of form, he could allow Henry to return to what he does best: float into dangerous spaces, slice through opposing defenses with timely runs and take advantage of opportunities.
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 MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.