For the first time in more than eight years, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey battled as opponents. The match supplied evidence that both will be just fine in MLS.
You had to go back more than eight years, to 2005, when Dempsey had long hair and Bradley actually had hair, to find the two facing off. On Saturday in Seattle we saw the two longtime U.S. teammates going at it over and over. Bradley wasn’t about to take it easy on his fellow member of the High-Priced Americans Club, and both players benefited.
The level of competitiveness in the Sounders-TFC match brought out the best in Bradley and Dempsey. Over the weekend, concerns about the two American stars maintaining a high level of play in MLS seemed silly to consider.
Perhaps it is easy to forget that, despite the big-money contracts both Bradley and Dempsey signed, they both remain fierce competitors. The duo reached their impressive heights in the game because of that tenacity, desire to win, along with considerable skill.
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Bradley and Dempsey won’t meet again this season, barring an MLS Cup clash, but Saturday’s match provided an example of the kind of benefits that bringing so many top American players back to MLS can have.
Dempsey will face another U.S. national team player in two weeks when he takes on Michael Parkhurst and the Columbus Crew, and he will square off against Maurice Edu and the Philadelphia Union in May. All three could be teammates in the USA's pre-World Cup camp.
Bradley will also face similar challenges in the coming weeks. He and Kyle Beckerman will square off in two weeks when TFC faces Real Salt Lake. The former Roma man will also get to take on three of the better young central midfielders in the league in the coming weeks as well, in the likes of Perry Kitchen, Luis Gil and Dillon Powers.
With two months to go before leaving their MLS teams for pre-World Cup camp, Bradley and Dempsey are off to good starts to their respective seasons. Seeing the way they went after each other, competed and brought the best out of each other makes it easy to believe that both U.S. national team stars will be just fine as they head toward this summer’s World Cup.
LEAGUE POWERS OFF TO SLOW STARTS
The teams with the top three records in MLS in 2013 were expected to be right back at the top of the league in 2014. Two weeks into the new season, though, Sporting Kansas City, Portland and the New York Red Bulls are a combined 0-2-4.
Is there cause for concern that those three teams have as many combined points as Chivas USA? For Sporting Kansas City, the fact the team is dealing with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series makes it easy to give the defending champion a pass on an 0-1-1 start.
Portland’s pair of draws are slightly more difficult to figure out considering how many of the team’s pieces are back, plus the addition of some key players. The attack hasn’t quite found its form in the final third, and you could argue that the team misses Rodney Wallace’s dynamism in the attack. The Timbers dominated possession in both draws, but they need to start putting more shots on goal if they are going to get back to their winning ways.
The Red Bulls will point to a highly questionable penalty given to Colorado as cause for their home-opening tie against the Rapids. The reality is Colorado created more dangerous chances and was right there with the Supporters' Shield winners after shaking off a poor first 15 minutes. Mike Petke is still trying to figure out his first-choice starting lineup at the moment, but he’ll need more production from his midfield if the Red Bulls are going to have any chance of coming close to last year’s success.
POWERS COMES BACK FROM LONG CONCUSSION LAYOFF
Dillon Powers enjoyed what was, for the most part, a dream first season as a pro. He became a regular starter and standout on the Colorado Rapids in his first season after leaving Notre Dame, and his exploits were rewarded with an MLS Rookie of the Year award.
What kept 2013 from being truly a dream season for Powers was the way it ended, with him being forced to miss the final three matches of the regular season, and Colorado's playoff loss to Seattle, with concussion-related symptoms that not only forced him to miss those matches, but left him unable to play or really train during most of the winter.
"I don't wish it on anybody because you don't really know what's going on," Powers said. "Even the best doctors don't really know what the brain does. It was frustrating not knowing what was going on, or what to do about it. You can feel helpless, and that's the difference between that and a normal injury."
Powers' concussion issues halted what had been a stellar season that saw him record five goals and five assists, and play in all but one match before missing the final four matches of the season (Colorado went 1-3 in those four matches). Powers could only watch from the sidelines as he battled with the urge to return to action before he was physically ready.
"I had more anxiety watching the games than actually playing," Powers said. "It was really rough, I really wanted to be out there, and that's at the point where as a player you wonder, 'Do I risk it, should I play?' but that's when the voices of reason step in and told me to be patient."
The lingering headaches and concussion symptoms carried over into the offseason, leaving Powers to wait for things to improve. It was a grueling wait for a player eager to prepare for his second season as a pro, and a player who could have been included in the U.S. national team January training camp if he had been healthy. He received advice from former MLS standout and concussion education advocate Taylor Twellman and Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni. Both men had seen their careers hampered by repeated concussions and both had similar advice for Powers.
"After a month or two I was getting worried, frustrated, nothing's getting better," Powers said. "These guys gave me the perspective of reminding me that it's a long career. The biggest thing for me was being told that it's going to get better, but I have to be willing to let it get better."
Powers' condition eventually improved, along with the help of a mouth guard which has helped cut down on the headaches that were plaguing him, and Powers was able to make it back in time to start in Colorado's season-opening 1-1 tie against the New York Red Bulls.
GONCALVES A NO-SHOW FOR REVS
The New England Revolution faced the Philadelphia Union without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Jose Goncalves, and the Revs offered little explanation for the absence of such an important player in what wound up being a 1-0 loss to the Union.
Sources tell Goal USA that Goncalves' absence took place after New England head coach Jay Heaps issued an ultimatum to the disgruntled defender to either start taking training seriously and stop sulking over his contract situation, or not play. Goncalves apparently took the second option, leaving the Revs to make plans to play without their best defender.
The Revs adjusted by moving Andrew Farrell to central defense. While Farrell had 16 clearances in the match (more than any defender in MLS in Week 2), he also got caught out of position on Philadelphia's lone goal (though you could make the argument he was fouled on the play).
As for Goncalves? He expressed his unhappiness with his contract before the start of the season, suggesting that promises made to him before he signed last year were not kept after his outstanding 2013 season. If, as sources suggest, Goncalves and Heaps have reached the point where Goncalves is ready to hold out for a new deal, New England's 0-2 start could be the start of a very rough season for the Revs.
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Jermain Defoe. While there were other candidates, such as Victor Bernardez, Mauro Rosales and Matt Hedges to name a few, Defoe’s clinical finishing helped Toronto FC kick off the 2014 season in style.
Team of the Week: Philadelphia Union. Toronto FC was definitely a team to consider for this one, but we’ll give the Union the edge after posting a shutout victory without the services of captain Brian Carroll (illness) and starting right back Sheanon Williams (quad).
Goal of the Week: Kyle Beckerman. The RSL and U.S. national team midfielder helped his team overcome an early deficit with a long-range blast.
Love Tap of the Week: Clint Dempsey's one-hand slap of Mark Bloom’s family jewels left the TFC defender with some soreness and a high-pitched voice, and just might lead to a suspension for Dempsey, who stated after the match he was trying to slap away a hand he felt on his back.
Dive of the Week: David Texeira. The FC Dallas striker was one of his team's big off-season acquisitions, and while he hasn't scored a goal yet, he did contribute to a result by pulling off a pretty clear dive in Saturday's match against Sporting Kansas City. The 90th minute dive on a Oriol Rosell challenge earned FC Dallas a dangerous free kick that Michel used to set up Matt Hedges' equalizing header.