New York and San Jose adhered to the typical hallmarks of a MLS game, while Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City offered a more European-style approach.
The fixture list doesn't always cooperate with the desire to evaluate sides in the upper reaches of the table, but this particular weekend offered two opportunities to gauge the relative merits of the league's current top four teams.
In this particular academic exercise, the contrast in approach and tempo provided the most intriguing talking points when comparing New York, Real Salt Lake, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City.
MLS diehards should identify with the engaging 2-2 draw between New York and San Jose. This encounter possessed most of the hallmarks closely associated with the league on the whole: back-and-forth, energetic and incisive endeavor without any apparent willingness to calm the match down or tend to simple defensive responsibilities.
Four goals inside the first 35 minutes displayed the very best both sides could muster in terms of enterprising football. The usual suspects (Kenny Cooper, Thierry Henry and Chris Wondolowski) all played their parts, but this particular display needed more than just three heavy hitters to carry it. Contributions arrived from all across the park with fullbacks flying forward and midfielders pushing into the right spots at the right times. Neat combination work created the goals, though defensive imprecision and inattentiveness played their parts as well.
All of those factors combined to create an enticing affair right up until the point where the actions of a few ruined it. Rafa Márquez, as usual, will bear much of the burden for his disgraceful pairing of a rugby tackle with a petulant kick on Shea Salinas. Referee Ricardo Salazar and his crew should share it for missing the warning signs prior to that foul (Henry's tackle on Wondolowski raised the temperature without any formal rebuke, while Salinas irritated several Red Bulls along the way) and shirking the responsibility of dismissing Márquez and sending Marvin Chávez off in the second half for his shocking lunge on Roy Miller.
By that point in the game and with the referee failing to keep hold of matters, expansiveness petered into pragmatism. San Jose returned to its previously formidable defensive shape after losing Salinas and Victor Bernárdez to injury (in the same sequence, by the way) and watching Chávez place their ample first half efforts in significant peril. The visitors certainly deserved their road point on the day, but the timid second half guaranteed the talking points will unfortunately focus on the ugly incidents instead of the match itself.
In the wake of that entertaining and recognizable fare, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City offered up a match that wouldn't look out of place in the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. The common traits of MLS games yielded here to an astute tactical battle forged out of the inherent dissimilarities between the two sides.
RSL and Sporting, in some ways, operate as inverse properties. Jason Kreis' side enters every match with the expressed intent of acquiring possession in that 4-4-2 diamond formation and working with it until the proper opening emerges. Peter Vermes asks his players to assume control of the match by pressuring the opposition in difficult areas with their 4-3-3 setup and punishing those teams unable to cope with it. Both sides accomplish their overall objective more often than not within their divergent setups, but the natural tension between the two operating principles set the stage for the type of genuine chess match not often seen on these shores.
This battle between patience and pressure unfolded as one might expect it would: a tenuous balance struck with neither side gaining much of an advantage. RSL adjusted to the high pressure by asking its fullbacks to refrain from pushing into advanced areas and kept the ball well enough to repel the force Sporting employs to crack less composed opposition. Sporting ceded more possession than usual to its opponent, but it snuffed out every attacking foray by the visitors before it entered the defensive third.
With the tactical battle effectively rendered a stalemate, the match hinged on the arrival of a critical mistake or a moment of brilliance. One such event usually proves enough to determine a match of this quality and Alvaro Saborio provided it when he dropped his mark on Aurélien Collin after 63 minutes. Collin grasped the rare lapse with both hands, headed Graham Zusi's corner kick into the back of the net to decide the match and twirled into the corner to dance a celebratory jig.
Collin's winner – and the somewhat associated display that unfolded in Harrison – left Sporting as the unquestioned leader of the pack at this early stage in the season. Sporting's combination of defensive defiance (335 minutes without conceding a shot on goal until Nat Borchers' late effort), relentless pressure and ruthless proficiency in front of goal could keep the club there for some time. RSL's display at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (and its overall body of work) keeps that team ahead of New York and San Jose for the moment, but, as this weekend suggested, the circumstances can change quickly as all four sides adapt to and prepare for the challenges ahead of them.
Five Points – Week 6
1. Compare and contrast: jostling for space on service into the penalty area: Two fairly similar incidents yielded two significantly different decisions from the man in the middle. Judge for yourself about the merits of those two verdicts. A penalty kick for Zach Loyd's rather faint touch on Davy Arnaud in FC Dallas' 2-1 victory over Montréal, versus no call as Rafael Marquez tackles Shea Salinas to the ground and then kicks him on the way down.
2. Scott's second chance sends Seattle past Colorado: Sounders FC defender Zach Scott entered Saturday's 1-0 victory over Colorado with zero career goals. He probably should have left the affair with the Rapids with two tallies to his name after spurning a glorious first-half chance, but he will likely settle for the game-winner after shrugging off his marker to tuck his near-post header inside the back stick to give Seattle all three points. His overall performance ensured another home victory and provided cover on a day when Fredy Montero – try as as he might – simply couldn't find a way past Matt Pickens.
(Note: And what of Brian Mullan upon his first visit to Seattle after that infamous tackle on Steve Zakuani? One goal correctly chalked off for offside, one dubious yellow card awarded to diffuse tensions late in the match and one 90-minute shift marked by a significant number of jeers from a CenturyLink Field crowd more than willing to express its feelings toward him.)
3. Consider this particular away goal as an introduction for the rest of the league: Chivas USA midfielder Oswaldo Minda has settled nicely into MLS after joining the Red-and-White from Ecuadorean side Deportivo Quito during the close season. The energetic and robust midfielder dictates terms in the center of the park with his physical presence, but his attacking contribution – a tidy near-post header to decide the contest – in Saturday's narrow and somewhat fortuitous 1-0 victory at Toronto FC may do more to capture attention and increase his stature within league circles.
4. Experience overcomes energy as Los Angeles vanquishes Portland: All of the early signs favored the Timbers in the Galaxy's 3-1 victory at the Home Depot Center. Kris Boyd slotted home the early opener (courtesy of a typically unkempt Galaxy defensive line) and watched a highly suspect flag from the assistant referee rule out a brilliant second minutes later. John Spencer's side used its fresher, younger legs to stamp its intent on the game for much of the first half.
And then, as usual as of late, it all sort of fell apart for the visitors. Los Angeles received an equalizer against the run of play from Landon Donovan right before halftime (with ample help from Robbie Keane's willingness to drift out to the left and expose the Timbers' weakness at right back) and used the momentum from that tally to push onwards in the second half. Better performances from Juninho and David Beckham in central midfield helped as the Galaxy pressed for a winner, but both players ultimately exerted their most significant influence on the score sheet with less than 10 minutes to play.
Both sides can take some encouraging signs from the affair, but neither team – not Los Angeles (an anemic first half performance and sometimes suspect work at the back) and certainly not Portland (another incomplete performance over 90 minutes and another defeat) – can rest easy. Plenty of work still remains for both sides as they seek to climb up the Western Conference table.
5. Blame it on the rain (and the lightning): Chicago and Houston traded goals and waited through two separate stoppages for weather (including a 70-minute break during the first half) before calling time on Sunday night's 1-1 draw at Toyota Park with 25 minutes still to play.
The result stands as is after the inclement weather forced the game to a screeching halt. Given the circumstances, the point suits Houston (playing on the road without Colin Clark, Brad Davis and Adam Moffat in the fourth game of a seven-match road trip) than it does Chicago (one point isn't enough at home, but Arne Friedrich did make his debut).
“I felt if the game would’ve gone on, we could’ve pulled three points out of the night, but such was the night,” Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “We’re disappointed we didn’t get the game in in its entirety, but we can’t control the Lord above.”
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.
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