Their contributions – plus the work of joint top scorer Chris Wondolowski, among others – to the American cause justify their absences over the past few weeks (or past few days, in truth, for Besler and late substitute Omar Gonzalez). It is no small feat for MLS to manage without its stars, but the FIFA-mandated sacrifice provided ample benefit for the league on the whole.
As peculiar as it may appear given the increasing standard of the league over the past few years (though subsequent expansion might imperil those strides), MLS still faces a significant task to persuade a skeptic public of its merits given the variety of available alternatives. MLS isn't one of the world's best leagues, nor will it join those ranks any time in the near future. But it offers its fair share of entertainment (more on the compelling late drama of this weekend later in the column) and quality and warrants considerably more respect than it generally garners.
For better or worse, the primary gains on that front are often made through the events on the international stage. It is not necessarily a correlative relationship (a Gold Cup triumph does not result in X amount of benefits), but it is one that burnishes the league's reputation nonetheless. The same people who won't bother to examine why Colorado is in the midst of a six-match unbeaten streak may take notice when Gold Cup standout Gabriel Torres opts to sign for the Rapids. Others may reassesses their thoughts on the value of MLS when the Americans run rampant through the competition with a clutch of domestic players within the ranks.
At this stage of its development, MLS gains credibility through its external associations. It is why the All-Star Game – and the corresponding opportunity to emerge triumphant against a major European club, even if the opponent is mired in the middle of preseason – always holds significance for the league. It is why the successes of several players for their native countries both in the Gold Cup and in World Cup qualifying receive lavish praise. It is why the title gained by Klinsmann and his players warrants such significant weight.
MLS may not always rely on the prosperity of its players in other events to bolster its image or reinforce its credentials. It does for the moment, however. And even if those gains are marginal at best, they still constitute a worthwhile exchange for the temporal setback of losing those players for a handful of league matches.
Five Points – Week 22
1. Late drama permeates the weekend: The faint of heart did not relish the way this weekend unfolded. Toronto FC – yes, the same Reds side best known for shipping late goals – offered a glimpse of the intrigue to come by scoring twice after the 87th minute to stun Columbus at BMO Field. New York somehow improved upon that feat by commencing its revival efforts two minutes later and snatching the points with a wonderful diving header by Dax McCarty in stoppage time. Montreal rookie Blake Smith struck in the 96th minute to hand the Impact a 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City. And Philadelphia supersub Antoine Hoppenot completed the quartet of stunning winners by pouncing five minutes from time to give the Union all three points at 10-man Vancouver.
2. Davidson's indiscipline costs the Whitecaps dearly: Hoppenot's winner meted out a rather harsh punishment to the home side after a dogged effort to hold out after Jun Marques Davidson's eighth-minute dismissal. Davidson correctly felt aggrieved by Keon Daniel's robust treatment at midfield, but his impetuous decision to respond with a headbutt mere feet from referee Baldomero Toledo lacked any semblance of sense. The rash response cost Vancouver at least one point. It could also prompt Whitecaps boss Martin Rennie to wonder whether he could adopt a different approach in central midfield with Gershon Koffie and Nigel Reo-Coker more than capable of providing cover.
3. Kevin Alston makes his heartwarming return...: Alston stepped onto the field for the first time since learning he had a rare form of leukemia in April and undergoing treatment to address the issues presented by it. His efforts over the final six minutes of New England's 2-1 victory at D.C. United helped the Revs emerge with their first victory over United in two years. And the emotional response from his friends, family members and teammates at the final whistle offered the perfect conclusion to his comeback.
“It was unbelievable,” Alston, a native of the area, said after the game. “My parents were there, my brother was there, my grandfather was there, all my family and friends, so it made it special to be able to do it in front of them.”
4. ...while the renewed presence of other key figures made a difference as well: Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio marked his return from Gold Cup duty with a hat trick in the 4-3 defeat at New York. Steven Lenhart claimed the winner in San Jose's 2-1 victory over Portland upon his return from a head laceration. Houston midfielder Brad Davis wrapped up the quartet of meaningful returns by climbing off the bench to provide the assist on Cam Weaver's opener (the first goal scored by a Dynamo forward since May 8) in the 1-1 draw with Chicago.
5. Seattle leans on width to overcome Chivas USA: Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid correctly assessed the Red-and-White's weakness at fullback and implored his players to exploit those avenues in the 2-1 victory on Sunday night. Seattle enjoyed success on both flanks and used the width created to stretch out the resolute opposition. The buildup to the opener – a long diagonal out to the right flank and the subsequent use of the space created to facilitate Brad Evans' darting run through the line – underscored the effectiveness of those tactics against a side that struggles to cope when faced with pressure in wider areas.