For better or for worse, the top side in the Eastern Conference over the past two seasons remains something of a work in progress in the early stages of this campaign.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Broad, sweeping declarations about how the project might turn out felt out of place in the wake of a 0-0 draw at New England on Saturday.
This game quickly emerged as a one-off rather than a clarifying part of a larger trend. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi skipped the encounter to tend to their U.S. duties. Windy conditions forced both teams to eschew any semblance of soccer and revert to rudimentary approaches to protect a point.
And yet this affair – even with the awful and peculiar way it played out – supplied yet another building block for a Sporting side trying to discern its identity in the wake of a handful of critical offseason departures and learn how to churn out results on three fronts this year.
“You have to get a few of these, I think,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said. “You have to go into some games, battle and get a result. It's not a bad thing to do early in the season. And on the road for us.”
Those fundamental qualities escaped Sporting for portions of their first two matches away from home. Zusi claimed an undeserved equalizer late in the first half and inspired a second-half revival to dispatch Philadelphia on opening day. A similar comeback after a poor opening stanza against Toronto FC fell short to incur a somewhat unanticipated defeat at the Rogers Centre a week later.
Vermes cited the common thread between the two matches as the reason why the past two displays offer encouragement for later in the campaign. Sporting bossed most of the game against a reluctant Chicago side on home soil last weekend before settling for a 0-0 stalemate. This match against New England maintained the same level of commitment without producing the end product (even with the best two chances in the game) or a different conclusion.
“The great thing about the past two games: we've put together a 90-minute game in both games where we competed,” Vermes said. “That's what you need first in MLS. If you have that, you always give yourself a chance. If you don't compete and you think that you're going to play through the other team, that's not happening.”
Playing through teams and polishing off those moves clinically represent the next steps in Sporting's evolution. Vermes' side keeps the ball well and passes it accurately (at a clip exceeding 80 percent in the first three games, according to Opta statistics), but it often flounders in its attempts to pick the final pass or punish teams appropriately in front of goal. Zusi bears most of the creative burden from his perch on the right, while Claudio Bieler shoulders the load inside the penalty area. Their supporting cast – a group that now includes the creative Benny Feilhaber and misses the energetic Roger Espinoza and the physical Kei Kamara – must contribute more frequently and more precisely to accept some of the responsibility and ensure the territorial advantage translates into the full complement of points.
Similarly amended operating principles – perhaps exhibiting more patience on the ball instead of always performing at the high tempo fostered by the significant defensive pressure exerted to win possession – indicate a modest shift from the previous group. Consider the tweak a nod to the CONCACAF Champions League fixtures ahead later in the year (Vermes noted the importance of introducing depth players along the way this season ahead of those ties) and a recognition of the next step ahead for a club with lofty ambitions to satisfy.
Even on days when base requirements take precedence, the overall picture remains important. Sporting won't achieve its objectives by lumping the ball out of danger on windy days, but it can take the commitment and the consistency shown through the duration of this affair forward in a bid to produce the desired results as the season progresses and the tasks increase in difficulty.
“I think, today, the guys who jumped in were locked into the game,” Vermes said. “We all know it wasn't pretty soccer by anyone's imagination, but it was good because they were into the game. If you can battle like that, I know we have soccer. That will come out as time goes on.”
Five Points – Week 4
1. No Nesta, no problem for Montréal: Marco di Vaio pounced inside the opening quarter of an hour to spur the Impact to a 1-0 victory over New York at Olympic Stadium. Di Vaio's trademark goal – judging the Red Bulls' ragged defensive line, racing off the shoulder of Markus Holgersson to meet Patrice Bernier's inviting through ball and slotting past the stranded Luis Robles – ultimately separated the sides on an afternoon when both teams could have nicked another goal or two. Chalk it up as the latest example of the Impact's ability to prevent opposing teams from scoring (even with Alessandro Nesta unavailable with an adductor complaint) and procure the one or two goals required to claim the points.
2. Columbus continues its quietly effective start to the campaign: The Crew followed their 1-1 draw with San Jose by snatching all three points at RFK Stadium on Saturday. The triumph in Washington – influenced on both sides of the ledger by Andy Gruenebaum (out of position on Rafael's ambitious equalizer and in the perfect spot to conjure up a stunning double save to preserve the lead in the second half) – marks the second significant win away from Crew Stadium for Robert Warzycha's side this season. Other teams will inevitably draw more notoriety, but this outfit could continue to cause problems for the opposition with its alliance of skill and steel.
3. Sharpness separates San Jose from Seattle: Sounders FC continues to search for its range in the final third in the early stages of this season. The service from the wide areas lacks the necessary quality more often than not, while the forwards squander the chances they do receive far too frequently. Chris Wondolowski highlighted the difference a bit of class makes in that part of the field by neatly corralling a flick and and curling his effort off the far post to hand the Earthquakes all three points in a 1-0 victory at Buck Shaw Stadium on Saturday night. Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins cannot return soon enough.
4. Galaxy receive a glimpse into life without Robbie Keane: It involves less ruthlessness in front of goal, according to the early returns. Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena named talented youngsters Jack McBean and Jose Villarreal up front for the 1-0 victory over Colorado and watched them spurn several promising opportunities. Mike Magee eventually rescued the profligate prospects by notching the winner from the penalty spot (an award given after Drew Moor lashed out at Marcelo Sarvas) to secure the points. Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin deserves credit for keeping his overwhelmed side in the match, but the Galaxy must take its chances more reliably to thrive if Ireland captain Keane – ruled out of Tuesday's critical World Cup qualifier against Austria after picking up a calf injury during the scoreless draw in Sweden on Friday – misses any length of time upon his return.
5. Chivas USA continues to surprise: A triumph over out-of-sorts Chicago doesn't shock the conscience right now. But a four-goal outburst in the second half to brush aside the Fire 4-1 at Toyota Park? That sort of display underscores the progress made by the Red-and-White under the direction of José Luis Sánchez Solá. Admittedly, this relatively bright start includes worrisome signs – the dangerous defensive practices and the frequent reliance on Dan Kennedy's excellence, for example – for the future. For this club in this situation though, the focus should remain on the positives generated by an ample dose of quality (Juan Agudelo's work up front in Bridgeview and the league-leading eight goals through four matches) and a far brighter start to the season than anyone could have rightfully expected.