The brutal winter weather that blanketed the northern half of the United States this weekend threatened to put a serious damper on MLS Week 2. But despite one match being postponed and others rendered ugly as players struggled to deal with frigid conditions, some good soccer did manage to poke through the snowflakes and chilly gusts of wind.
In New York, it was a cast of newcomers impressing at a chilly Yankee Stadium. In Minnesota, it was an Atlanta United team led by some skilled South Americans who had no trouble putting on a dazzling performance in the snow. The goalkeepers at the Red Bulls-Rapids clash in New Jersey gave fans in attendance plenty to cheer about, and the cold and gusty conditions in Chicago provided a fitting backdrop toward the Fire's latest step in their return to contender status.
There was warm weather in some parts of the country, and it certainly didn't guarantee good soccer. Sporting KC's struggle with a feisty but organized FC Dallas left their supporters frustrated and Peter Vermes fuming, but Oscar Pareja had to enjoy seeing a reserve-laden side grab a precious road point before Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Pachuca. The LA Galaxy nearly joined FC Dallas on the list of improbable draws, but Jake Gleeson's last-minute save helped Portland secure its second win in a row.
Weather aside, it was a good week for the league's crop of newcomers, specifically the higher-priced talents brought in this winter using targeted allocation money and designated player funds. From Miguel Almiron to Maxi Moralez, Romell Quioto to Nemanja Nikolic, the new blood gave MLS fans plenty of reason to keep believing 2017 will be a fun year to follow the league.
Here is a look back at the top storylines from MLS Week 2:
CONCACAF STARS SHINE
Some 15 years ago, during Bruce Arena's first go-round as U.S. national team coach, he offered a concerned thought on what was at the time a modest influx of CONCACAF players coming to MLS. He believed that, while the trend would certainly help CONCACAF teams improve, it could also eventually make things tougher for the United States.
This weekend was a good example of what probably had Arena worried so many years ago. All five nations currently competing with the U.S. in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying were represented in MLS play, and several players from those countries turned in some of the best performances of the weekend. In fact, players from five of the six Hex teams scored goals in Week 2, with Gio dos Santos' first-half injury potentially keeping him from getting Mexico included in that group.
What should have Arena worried is how well some players the U.S. will face later this month are doing. The Honduran tandem of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis have been outstanding since joining the Houston Dynamo, and they could be a handful for the U.S. to deal with, especially considering the team's issues at fullback.
Panama isn't as well represented in MLS as in some years past, but Anibal Godoy is flying the Canalero flag well, having scored a pair of stunning goals to kick off an impressive start to the season. He and Seattle Sounders defender and MLS Cup hero Roman Torres will be key figures for Panama against the U.S. when the teams meet in Panama City on March 28.
Trinidad and Tobago also made the Week 2 scoreboard with Kevin Molino drawing and converting a penalty in Minnesota United's 6-1 loss to Atlanta United. Molino's countryman, Kenwyne Jones, made a second-half cameo for Atlanta United, but it was Molino who provided a silver lining for Loons fans on an otherwise miserable day. Of course, it remains unclear when Molino will return to playing for Trinidad and Tobago after announcing his intention of taking a year off from national team duty after being kicked off the team for allegedly partying while with the national team.
Costa Rica had two national team players on display in New York City FC's 4-0 win over D.C. United, with Rodney Wallace registering a goal and an assist, and Ronald Matarrita playing well at left back. Regular Costa Rican starter Roy Miller jumped right into the starting lineup for the Portland Timbers and did well in his debut, helping the Timbers post a 1-0 win against the LA Galaxy. Fellow Ticos Francisco Calvo and David Guzman had less memorable days, with Calvo's Minnesota United surrendering six goals to Atlanta United and Guzman managing to injure his shoulder on a play when he appeared to stumble after trying to draw contact from Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme.
Guzman wasn't the only CONCACAF player injured in the Galaxy-Timbers clash, with Dos Santos forced to leave the match at halftime with a right hamstring strain. The injury could leave Dos Santos in doubt for Mexico's upcoming qualifiers against Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago.
Arena doesn't have to worry about Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago until June. For now, he will want to keep an eye on Quioto, Elis and Godoy, who are playing some of the best soccer in MLS.
ROBLES REACHES MILESTONE
Five years ago, Luis Robles wasn't thinking about things like U.S. national team call-ups, Goalkeeper of the Year awards or a place in the MLS record books. He was instead contemplating life after soccer, having reached a lull in what was at that point a modest but respectable career he thought might be ending at the age of 28.
Recently released by German club Karlsruher, Robles figured it was time to get serious about life after soccer and a new career that involved trading in his goalie gloves for a suit and briefcase. His wife Cara didn't let him give up his playing career that easily though. She pushed him to give playing one more serious push, and that nudge helped Robles resurrect his career, which five years later has reached an all-time high.
"She's the catalyst behind all of this, because when I was sitting in Arizona in July of 2012, in my mind I was ready to just move on." Robles told Goal. "I thought it was a good little run, I could say that I was a professional soccer player, and it was time for life to really start. My parents supported whatever decision I made, but my wife told me to keep trying and trying, and if it wasn't for her motivating me, there's no way I could see this out."
"No, I couldn't have imagined it," Robles said. "And to be honest it hasn't completely set in. It's hard to really understand the full measure of what it is because I'm really focused, more than anything, on this team doing well. I've been very fortunate, not only to have Hans Backe believe in me and give me my first start, but Mike (Petke), even when things weren't going well to keep sticking with me. And then of course when Jesse (Marsch) came, he just said, 'Hey, you're going to be a big part of this.' It seems like the responsibility keeps getting bigger and bigger, and I know I have to keep improving, as a goalkeeper, and as a leader."
"I thought Tim had a great game," Robles said. "It's obviously important for him to come home to New Jersey and play well in front of friends and family and of course in front of a fan base that idolizes him. He's an icon here at this organization, and even when things are going well for me, I know I have big shoes to fill. Tim, Tony (Meola), just to name a few.
"When you go up against a guy like Tim, not only do you want to show well, you want the team to do well."
Though Robles didn't have as much to do as Howard during Saturday's 1-0 win, he still showed his quality when called upon. It was just a week ago that Robles provided a reminder of how good he can be, making a handful of vital saves to help keep the Red Bulls in a game they eventually won against Atlanta United.
His start to the 2017 season should help his chances of earning a call from U.S. coach Bruce Arena, and Marsch for one believes Robles is worthy.
“I think Luis is emerging as a guy that they can call on," Marsch said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Luis is called into the next camp, I think he's had a really good start to the year, and had a really good camp. That part of the battle was really fun to watch; even though Tim made some great saves, Luis came away with the win and the shutout.”
With the goalkeeper position currently up in the air a bit due to Brad Guzan's lack of playing time and Howard's time on the sideline, Robles is very much a candidate for a call, but his focus remains on helping keep the Red Bulls' strong start to the 2017 season going.
"I would be lying to you if I said (the national team) wasn't on my mind, but not to the point where it's a distraction," Robles said. "That's so out of my control. The only thing I can control is my performance each and every day. So if they decide to call me in, it'll be an honor and I'm really going to do anything I can to help this team, whether it's an ancillary role or a primary role. It doesn't matter, I'll do whatever it takes to help the team."
NOBODY SHOULD BLAME FCD FOR UGLY DRAW IN KC
When FC Dallas reached the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, its schedule suddenly left coach Oscar Pareja with a quandary. His team had a road trip to face Sporting Kansas City on the schedule just four days before the CCL semifinal first leg against Pachuca, and Pareja knew he needed to rest some starters against Sporting KC to help his team's chances on Wednesday. As good as FC Dallas' bench may be, getting a result at Children's Mercy Park — where FC Dallas hasn't won since 2011 — was always going to be extremely difficult.
Pareja did the pragmatic thing and deployed his team in a defensive-minded system that would look for opportunistic counters, but that would focus more on staying compact and frustrating Sporting KC's attack by disrupting the team's rhythm with physical play and tactical fouls. It was a recipe for an ugly game, and sure enough that's what Sporting KC fans were subjected to in Saturday's 0-0 draw.
Peter Vermes couldn't hide his contempt for FC Dallas' tactics, and took issue with everything from the time wasting to the tactical fouls Oscar Pareja's men committed. Vermes made it clear as diplomatically as he could that he felt the blame for Saturday's match being so disjointed fell squarely on referee Sorin Stoica.
"I think there's no doubt in this game, much different than the game in D.C., where the big difference was, it was in the management of the game," Vermes said. "And not by our team, by any means. The rhythm of the game was broken many, many times, by different things. Whether it was a foul, or when the foul occurred the ball was kicked away. Or the ball went out of bounds and the game was delayed that way, that part wasn't managed. When you're asking the goalkeeper within the first two or three minutes of the game, to hurry the game up and you're already having a talk with him, at what point are you going to realize that that's going to be a tactic in the game and you're going to manage that?"
"A bunch of their guys went down with injuries that were suspect," Vermes added. "That part is something, for us, we will continue to try and manage ourselves, but there is only so much you can do in those situations, and I think that broke a lot of the rhythm of the game."
Ultimately, the blame for Sporting KC failing to grab three points against a shorthanded FC Dallas side falls squarely on the team's attack, which managed just two shots on goal and offered little in the way of a tough test of FC Dallas backup goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. As much as Vermes has a point about what Stoica let FC Dallas get away with, the reality is opportunities were there for Sporting KC and the home team simply didn't take those chances well.
Pareja made no apologies for his tactics, or decision to rest starters and give starting nods to young players such as academy product Paxton Pomykal and rookie Jacori Hayes.
“We had a strategy to rest a majority of the players, not because of lack of respect for (Sporting Kansas City),” Pareja told reporters after Saturday's match. “We wanted to play all the regular team, but obviously for us there's a big game coming up on Wednesday.
“It's great for the whole club, for the homegrowns, for the youngsters," Pareja said. "For the people who come to this club and believe that they can come and develop well. So coaches and the whole club, we're proud. They sent a big message today."
The draw gives FC Dallas an impressive four points from two road matches to start the MLS season. For Sporting Kansas City, the goal-less draw means a second shutout, but also means Vermes' team is still searching for its first goal of the season, and first win.
As frustrated as Vermes was on Saturday, he still has full faith in his team, and a system he believes will have a good season.
"I've been here now for going on 11 years, we're not changing who we are," Vermes said. "We've had a lot of success with who we are. That's not the issue. At the end of the day everybody wants to score goals. If you had told me that, starting off the season, we'd have two clean sheets and we're moving ahead the way that we are, with the kind of talent that we have, I think we're in a great position."
It was a good week for homegrown players, with San Jose's Nick Lima, Portland's Marco Farfan, Philadelphia's Derrick Jones and FC Dallas' Paxton Pomykal all stepping up in important results for their teams. Lima notched his first professional goal to keep his hot start of the season going, and keep the building rookie of the year talk going. In the cases of Farfan and Jones, experience gained playing in USL can't be overlooked when considering how poised they have looked.
The narrow field at Yankee Stadium takes some getting used to, as we saw last year when NYCFC needed half a season before becoming a real force at home. Rodney Wallace should thrive on the small field, where his tireless two-way work can be even more effective. "It definitely works in your favor because you don't get as tired," Wallace told Goal. "It will take some getting used to, but you can tell the guys are already used to it."
Brian Schmetzer continues to be the king of the halftime adjustments. Last season, the Sounders earned a reputation for being a better team in the second half of matches, with Schmetzer's measured, but useful instructions and smart substitutions often providing the right boost. That was on display again in Montreal, where the Sounders erased a two-goal deficit to earn a road point.
Should we make a big deal out of the Alejandro Bedoya-Jozy Altidore post-game exchanging of barbs? Not really. Altidore didn't take too kindly to Bedoya implying he was a diver, and delivered a harsh tweet response (since deleted), but once video of Bedoya's comments made the rounds, and it was clear Bedoya had a big smile on his face when he jabbed his close friend, things calmed down. Bedoya offered up a tweet to clarify he meant no ill will, and Altidore responded by deleting his tweet.
The Dynamo's forward line is grabbing the headlines after an impressive pair of wins, but Brazilian midfielder Alex Lima looks poised to be the beneficiary of Wilmer Cabrera's revamped attack. Playing his sixth season in MLS, Alex managed just four total assists in his previous five campaigns, but already has three assists. They weren't simple lay-offs either. If he continues to provide service like he has through two weeks, Houston's forwards could put up some staggering goal totals this season.
Beware the MLS Cup hangover. A year after we watched both MLS Cup finalists fail to make the playoffs, last year's finalists are off to an 0-1-3 start to the season. No, it doesn't mean the Sounders and Toronto FC are going to miss the playoffs, but there's definitely something to be said for the long playoff runs and shortened offseason having an effect on the start of the next campaign.
BEST OF MLS WEEK 2
Player of the Week: Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan playmaker beat out a strong cast of candidates, including teammate Josef Martinez, for this week's honors after his virtuoso display against Minnesota United.
Team of the Week: New York City FC. Put together the most complete performance of the week, stifling D.C. United defensively and running wild in the attack.
Rookie of the Week: Julian Gressel. The Providence College product looked right at home in central midfield, making some impressive passes in the snowy conditions in Minnesota.
Coach of the Week: Oscar Pareja. With a CONCACAF Champions League semifinal looming, Pareja trotted out a young team to face Sporting Kansas City and his squad managed a road draw.
Goal of the Week: Anibal Godoy delivers another beauty, this time a long-range game-winner: