MLS bounced back this past weekend after several weeks of the type of uninspiring action that would prompt critics of the league’s quality to claim the US first division is no better than League One or Two in England (The 3rd and 4th divisions in England.) While MLS has more quality in the attack than any second division in Europe (including the English Championship and Bundesliga 2 which I consider the two best second divisions on the planet) I would argue that the lack of quality defending which is an unintended bi-product of the salary cap makes sometimes even the most high scoring MLS matches totally unwatchable from a critical standpoint.
A great deal of this weekend’s MLS excitement and quality were created by the two biggest signings the league had made this decade, two signings that are unlikely to be replicated by the league in the near future. It’s not that MLS is not making good signings any longer: but to get two players, possibly the only two players on the planet that can be used to target the most skeptical potential fans of the league in one calendar year was beyond anything those of us who have followed this league since year one could have expected.
Since his arrival stateside ten months ago David Beckham has never played a ninety minute match like he did on Saturday night versus Kansas City. It was the Beckham many of us expected to see from day one, but the learning curve of a new league as well as injuries and England call ups prevented Beckham from truly blossoming with the Galaxy. Beckham’s game was familiar to many US based fans but inspite of playing for Manchester United and Real Madrid his true assets as a footballer were less known stateside than those of the other great MLS signing a year ago. But Beckham appealed to the casual fan and to the sports media who typically pays MLS little or no attention.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco had no learning curve necessary with regards to MLS. Blanco’s exploits familiar to the majority of soccer fans in the US thanks to his Club Americá and Mexican National Team days, continued the moment he touched down in Chicago. He was the single best player in Chicago’s 1-1 draw with Celtic in Blanco’s first match. His fantastic play has continued with consistency and it has had a profound impact ironically enough on the development of the US National Team: With the US MNT in my opinion at its weakest point from an attacking talent standpoint in fifteen years (just as Bob Bradley has transitioned the US from a pure counter attacking side to a more aggressive team), three attacking players have emerged as viable player pool options: Chad Barrett, Chris Rolfe and John Thorrington. Blanco’s signing has also registered MLS as being a more credible force among the largest base of soccer fans in the US: Mexican-Americans and more specifically among Club Americá supporters which along with Guadalajara fans provide the backbone of US based Mexican fans. One survey I have been made privy too noted that 32% of all Latino soccer fans in the US listed Club Americá as their favorite club. Chivas was favored by 31%, Real Madrid by only 7% and Manchester United did not even register.
Beckham and Blanco have not only brought MLS to new levels among fans and the media, but they have also as I noted above greatly improved the play on the pitch. Landon Donovan seems ready to explode into the player US fans have long expected him to become (even though I would argue even a half interested Donovan was clearly the best US player: That is both an indictment of the overall footballing talent produced in the US and a statement as to how special Donovan can be when he is really focused.) and even previously marginal players such as Alan Gordon and Edson Buddle are beginning to really benefit from Beckham’s work and Rudd Gullit’s tactical savvy.
As MLS moves forward continuing to get solid play from Beckham and Blanco are as big a key to the league’s success and perception as any other factor.
Other Weekend Thoughts:
- FC Dallas’ comeback against RSL at Pizza Hut Park owed itself as much to RSL’s ineptitude as it did to FCD. Dominic Oduro did have two well taken goals and for the second straight season he hit a stoppage time winner versus RSL.
- Jason Kreis was one of my favorite MLS players but as a coach he is either still on a steep learning curve or simply doesn’t have it. RSL has far too much skill in its squad to be performing as poorly as they are week in and week out.
- Toronto and DC United split the two head to head matchups this week, but TFC demonstrated that they are miles ahead of the Red and Black right now. Danny Dichio physical prowess was too much for DCU to handle and United’s midfield save the surprising Santino Quaranta looks totally dysfunctional.
- Speaking of Quaranta, Bob Bradley needs to give him another look. Quaranta, who seemed to be a favorite of Bruce Arena’s peter principle late in his tenure has not been capped under Bradley.
- Columbus is now beginning to remind us why Sigi Schmid was ultimately fired in LA. The Crew seem content to knock the ball around and not go forward. In fairness though Matt Reis won the game for New England with the save of the year in MLS with a one handed punch against the momentum of his body.
- New England always finds a way to be a factor. That’s why they will once again be ranked #1 in this weeks power rankings.
- I know Dave Denholm is going to rip me on the American Soccer Show for this, but it seems once again a Los Angeles game has been decided by poor officiating. First it was LA probably beating San Jose because of a frivolous offsides called against the Quakes early in a match where the Galaxy looked shell shocked. Then it was LA losing two points against Houston when the Galaxy scored a winning goal that was not credited since it was cleared by the Dynamo after crossing the line. Then LA picked up a point on a terrible call against RSL where Kenny Deuchar was ruled offsides. Now the Galaxy has won in my opinion firmly because of two blown calls. First the PK call where Landon Donovan hardly drew contact and secondly on the goal where I believe Edson Buddle was offsides. David Beckham’s bomb against an empty net was fun to watch but never should have happened but did because of poor officiating.
- Which brings me to another point. Commissioner Don Garber was quick to jump on TFC Manager John Carver this week about his on field working of the officials. But Commissioner, the officiating in MLS is really bad by any objective standard. To someone like Carver who comes from a more passionate football background than many involved with MLS, this league must to him have some of “mickey mouse” elements critics allege simply because of the inability of officials to not only make correct calls but to control the emotions of players during the match.
- It is a very damning indictment indeed that the best official that occasionally does MLS matches is Mauricio Navarro, a Canadian who also does an outstanding job in CONCACAF internationals. That means that the USSF officiating program and MLS are failing year and year out to produce the types of officials a top flight first division should have. It is not necessarily the fault of the referees. I believe they are not given the type of training and interaction they are abroad and thus don’t fill the role as well as they should.
- San Jose’s victory over Houston was no doubt very sweet for the Buck Shaw Stadium crowd and very convincing in that the Quakes dominated the match and could have scored many more goals.
- Chivas USA used two outstanding individual goals: the first from the wily Jesse Marsch the second from the emerging Jorge Flores to win. However the moment of the match had to be the goal scored by Tam McManus who as Martin Rennie predicted a few weeks back on the show is having a major impact in MLS.
- The Chicago-Red Bull game was a whitewash of epic proportions and if anything the Fire should have scored far more than five goals. Dennis Hamlett has thrown out Juan Carlos Osorio’s conservatism with regards to tactics on the road and is using the superior pace of his attackers, the superior skill of Blanco and superior athleticism of his defenders to sink the opposition without a trace. Right now the Fire are scary good.