Here are the 10 things we learned from week ten of the Major League Soccer season.
1. The first New York derby lives up to the hype
MLS has had its fair share of contrived, manufactured, entirely disappointing rivalries. This New York Red Bulls – New York City FC thing isn’t going to be one of them.
The first contest had pretty much everything – it was a seesaw affair that saw an early goal, late drama, seven yellows, one red, an extraordinarily high tempo, a sold-out and loud Red Bull Arena, and intrigue at every turn.
The Matt Miziga sending off in the 35th minute saved the game, in many respects, because the Red Bulls were running riot against an NYCFC team that was playing their worst soccer since March. But 11 v. 10, it was a fair fight, and we got one of the best spectacles in this young MLS season.
This rivalry has huge potential. Before the year is out, it should take its place behind Seattle – Portland as MLS’ second best derby. The next edition will be in front of 43,000 strong at Yankee Stadium on June 28th. I can’t wait.
2. NYCFC’s stars fall flat
NYCFC didn’t go down with a whimper after conceding a second goal up a man in the second half, and it was down to Jason Kreis’ slightly desperate, slightly admirable move to yank both Mix Diskerud and David Villa consecutively with about twenty-five minutes to go in the game.
Villa’s replacement, Patrick Mullins, scored within seconds of coming on off of a buildup that involved Diskerud’s replacement, Kwadwo Poku. The messages that Kreis sent with his starting lineup – like benching Jed Brovsky and Mehdi Ballouchy – were more subtle, but signs that Kreis has realized he is in a real dog-fight. The pressure is beginning to tell.
This NYCFC team needs its big players to play like their capable of playing because when they don’t, we get what we saw on Sunday night: Ned Gravaboy running around trying to be Wayne Rooney. The role players on this NYCFC team can’t carry Villa and Diskerud. They have to carry the role players.
Sacha Kljestan and Bradley Wright-Phillips were both absolutely magnificent, and while Felipe, Dax McCarty, and Lloyd Sam were all solid, it was Jesse Marsch’s leading men that won him the game. That’s how it goes in rivalries. The stars are often decisive.
Of course, one of NYCFC’s stars wasn’t there on Sunday night. Frank Lampard would have been terrific at running the type of power-play offense that comes when you’re down a man and chasing a goal, but he was back in England, and New York City’s ragged attack failed to find an equalizer late.
3. A shining moment for the Red Bulls
The post-Petke, post-Henry, post-Cahill Red Bulls are closer and more motivated game-by-game, and it’s showing.
This team has less ego, far more bite, and a much, much better understanding of how to play with each other than the Red Bulls teams of the last few years, which, it should be said, were very good in their own right.
The dirty, unasked, unanswered question here is whether firing Mike Petke and hiring Marsch was a good, even necessary call. The questions go even deeper than that – could Henry, for instance, have played in this up-tempo offense? My guess is no, at least not without losing the shtick that made him so entertaining and frequently so difficult to work with.
Certainly there’s no place for a Tim Cahill in this team. New York’s offseason looks inspired right now – from signing Kljestan, who has been one of the best acquisitions in the league, to turning Eric Alexander into Felipe, and even banking on Wright-Phillips, who pretty much everyone said couldn’t score without Henry in the shadows.
Good for the Red Bulls, and good for their fans. They’ve had a rough run over these twenty years, but tonight, and for the next month, they get to savor a resounding, historic victory over their new nemesis.
4. Alexi Lalas struggles on commentary
I like Alexi Lalas. I find him entertaining, and that, I think, is the greatest compliment you can pay Lalas the analyst. I think he’s smart, and he’s a voice I want around MLS and American soccer.
Problem is, he’s just not a good color commentator. It’s a unique skill, but it’s one that Lalas doesn’t possess. His insights in the New York derby on Sunday night ranged from jarring to bizarre.
It’s no mistake that the best stretch of commentary during the game was when the Red Bulls were up two goals and the broadcast turned to an in-depth discussion about Jason Kreis and his mindset in taking over NYCFC, and late on, when Lalas got out of the way as the action heated up.
Lalas’ role on ESPN broadcasts – a sort of roving third man who did the halftime show and had terrific chemistry with Taylor Twellman – was perfect. How FOX is using him is not. Lalas isn’t going anywhere, but color commentating just isn’t his best look. My guess is that he knows that too.
5. Typical Toronto
If the New York Derby was the feel-good story of the weekend for its verve and entertainment value, Toronto FC’s grand reopening of BMO Field was the sad, familiar dud.
TFC lost to a sorely mediocre Houston Dynamo team. 2-1. They looked terrible in the process, and this after winning their last two road games to come into a long home stand with momentum.
It was just too perfect. In front of a raucous crowd of over 30,000 at a sparkling stadium believing that this might be the year that things finally go right, TFC TFC’d again.
The good news is, BMO rocks. When this renovation is fully complete next year, it’s going to be the best stadium in MLS. The bad news is, Toronto FC – no matter who is playing or when or where – can’t help but twist the knife in the back of its fans who have been suffering now for nine years.
6. Giles Barnes show
Giles Barnes might be the player of the week – and there were plenty of candidates – with a sensational game that included a full-field run and assist for Will Bruin, and a shot from 20 yards with the outside of his foot that spun off the bar.
Barnes was the key man in the marquee win of the Owen Coyle era in Houston thus far, and it’s interesting that the triumph came with Brad Davis out injured. The Dynamo looked slightly more dynamic with Alex Lopez in Davis’ place.
Meanwhile Bruin, always a favorite son of the departed Dominic Kinnear, is staking his claim for playing time even in the upcoming Cubo Torres era. Coyle seems to have found his formation for the moment – a 4-4-2 – and DeMarcus Beasley, who won the penalty that resulted in the first goal of the match, has unsurprisingly developed into a valuable team leader.
This year’s Houston team appears to be coming together. Whether they’ll have enough to make to make the playoffs is a different question altogether.
7. Philadelphia gets worse
Didn’t think it was possible, did you? The Union had their doors blown off in a 3-0 drubbing at the Vancouver Whitecaps, and there was a new goalkeeper involved in the rout to boot.
Brian Sylvestre took the gloves for Philly with Rais M’Bholi officially done with the Union and John McCarthy out injured. Sylvestre wasn’t bad – but the rest of the team certainly took care of that, getting carved apart time and time again by Vancouver’s counter-attacking speed and skill.
I don’t know how this season ends for the Union, or if manager Jim Curtin is around for the end, but there is so much bad blood and so little hope that things are bound to get ugly. The Union are, somehow, back on national TV again next week when they host DC United.
8. Dwayne De Rosario retires
De Rosario announced his retirement and move into an ambassador role with Toronto FC Sunday on Instagram, ending one of the most impactful and distinguished careers in MLS.
De Rosario was a bonafide legend. He won four MLS Cups, was named to seven All-Star games, and six Best XIs. He was clutch, and he had style.
Signature celebrations, big moments spanning franchises and iterations of MLS, the face of Toronto FC, the key to Houston’s back-to-back titles in the middle of the last decade, and a remarkable renaissance year and MVP award win with DC United in 2011 made up DeRo’s club legacy.
One more thing: He is Canadian, and if he were American and a US national team player, he would have gotten something just short of Landon Donovan farewell.
9. Charlie Davies for the USMNT
Davies scored again on Friday night at the Citrus Bowl – his fourth in just six starts this season. He’s cemented his place in a New England Revolution team that wasn’t sure he was going to fit in at the beginning of the season, and it slowly working his way back into the national team conversation.
Forget that it’s an awesome story that Davies, after five long years, is finally showing his best self after his awful car accident in 2009. This is a player who is as good as true #9 in the pool at running off the ball, attacking in the box, and finishing instinctually.
This is a guy Jurgen Klinsmann would do well to look at for the upcoming Gold Cup. Too bad he’s not playing in the German fourth division.
10. This, my friends, was a good week
With the exception of just San Jose against Colorado on Friday night, and really, who didn’t see that coming, this was the best weekend of MLS of the year.
The games were played with pace and noticeably increased precision, there was plenty of drama, plenty of goals, and plenty of great storylines that are just getting started.
MLS is capable of big weekends like these, one, notably, where the Soccer Sunday idea worked perfectly, as did Univision’s Friday night double-header. Here’s to the season finally heating up.