Ben Zemanski

More MLS You Make the Call: Toronto, Portland done wrong on Friday? Let’s all disagree.

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That goal, above, should have been Toronto’s game winner, a late header from defender Steven Caldwell that would have given TFC a surprise 2-1 win over the playoff-challenging Revolution. Watch it as many times as you want and please, in the comments, try and tell me where you see the foul. Because I would feel a lot better about what I saw last night if the Reds weren’t actually deprived of two points.

As Caldwell leaps to meet the ball, his left hand is on Jose Gonçalves’s shoulder, but the play isn’t so bang-bang to obscure the fact he’s gaining no advantage. The contact seems incidental. Yes, a generous reading of the play would give Fotis Bazakos the benefit of the doubt, but that’s a reading that would concede any incidental contact as a potential foul. Bazakos got this one wrong in a way that defies the range of a mere judgment call. Unless there’s something about this play that the replay’s failed to capture, this one isn’t a matter of interpretation.

But that wasn’t the only controversy Friday in MLS. In fact, just before halftime of Real Salt Lake’s match against Portland, Toronto’s misfortune was temporarily forgotten when Ben Zemanski was dismissed by Baldomero Toledo:

The debates around this one were predictable to the point of cliché, which isn’t to say that there wasn’t plenty of room for interpretation. It’s just that we’ve heard it all before, be it legitimate arguments regarding the danger the play presented or the increasingly pungent “got ball”-based explanations that are often more appropriate for a basketball court than a soccer field.

Given the speed of the play, there was some question as to whether Zemanski “innocently” went through his man or there was something more to the play. In real-time, given the way we saw Ned Grabavoy go over, red didn’t seem to rash, but maybe a closer look, one more akin to what Toledo saw on the field, would absolve Zemanski.

The opposite turned out to be true. As you can see in this still that was circulating online after the incident (which I believe was produced by the staff as the league’s website), Zemanski’s studs are up, over the ball, making contract with Grabavoy as the RSL midfielder tried to elevate over his man:

Caleb Porter labeled this a bad call post match, and he wasn’t the only one. In real-time, a number of prominent people debated whether Zemanski should have been sent off:

The images leave little doubt as to the tackle’s potential. At a minimum, Toledo deserves the benefit of the doubt. If Zemanski would have stayed on, Real Salt Lake would have been right to complain about the referee’s leniency. If Toledo didn’t get this one right, he at least didn’t get it wrong.

As obliged by the hypothetical Laws of Sports Social Media, Toledo’s performance was derided online, with some asking for consistency between this tackle and some unpunished plays we saw last week in Seattle. If Osvaldo Alonso didn’t get a yellow for X, when was Zemanski given a red of Y?

It’s an interesting argument, though it’s also one that makes it far too easy to affirm whatever your bias might be. Think Zemanski should have been dismissed? Simply think of any similar decision in the history of soccer that confirms your opinion. Given how much soccer’s been played, it’s not hard to find one to support your argument. If you can fit your case into 140 characters, even better: “What about [PLAYER] seeing red in [GAME]. It happens all the time!”

And if you think the opposite, that Zemanski should have stayed on? Simply point to last week’s game in Seattle. The same absurd means of making a case work for both sides, which may be one of the reasons why these debates get nowhere.

Everybody wants more consistency in refereeing, but notice how difficult it is for those of us at home — with access to instant replays, expert analysis, Google, and (perhaps most importantly) time to consider — to agree on anything. If people with those resources can’t agree whether Zemanski should be sent off, is it reasonable to expect officials making separate calls, in separate games, under different circumstances that feature different players, to always come up with identically accurate decisions?

Somehow, I don’t think we’ll agree on this one, either.

MLS Preview: LA Galaxy at Portland Timbers

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  • Teams tied for third in Western Conference
  • Portland’s 15-match unbeaten run snapped last week
  • Donovan out, Johnson unlikely to play

Caleb Porter and the Portland Timbers appear to have taken their streak-snapping result in stride, their 1-0 defeat in Columbus putting an end to their 15-game unbeaten run. Though they were four games short of history, Portland had yet to become preoccupied with their streak, all of coach and players insisting the run wasn’t a point of conversation within the team.

That they played last Saturday’s game down a man for nearly 80 minutes made the loss that much easier to take.

“It’s not a bad thing to taste defeat,” Porter explained, “we haven’t in 15 games. We’ve had a great run of results, and now that it’s midseason, it’s not all that bad to get bloodied and taste defeat. This team will respond positively from defeat, like good teams do, and I’m looking forward to seeing their response [this] week.”

There is no better test than the defending champs, with the teams meeting Saturday night (11:00 p.m. Eastern) at JELD-WEN Field. Even with Landon Donovan away at the Gold Cup, LA serves as a type of de facto standard. They’re still the team you’d least want to see when they’re in big game mode, as FC Dallas found out on Sunday. If Bruce Arena asks his team to hit fifth gear, the Timbers will face their stiffest test of the season.

Last month, Porter got his first glimpse of the defending champs, Portland getting a 0-0 draw in Carson on June 19. Omar Gonzalez was still away with the U.S. national team, though it didn’t matter. The teams played to a relative stalemate, the Galaxy able to offset the Timbers’ possession game while creating the match’s best chances.

You’d think things would improve for Portland in the snug surroundings of JELD-WEN’s field, but without Will Johnson, the Timbers will be missing their best player. The Timbers captain was back in Portland on Friday, no longer with Canada at the Gold Cup, but he along with Frédéric Piquionne, back from duty with Martinique, look unlikely to play (Rodney Wallace remains with Costa Rica). That means another start for Ben Zemanski beside Diego Chará in midfield, the duo tasked with protecting a central defense that will be without the suspended Pa-Modou Kah.

It’s more opportunity than Robbie Keane, our mid-season MVP, needs to be effective. He and Gyasi Zardes could be more than Futty Danso and Andrew Jean Baptiste can handle, if Portland loses the midfield battle. And with Marcelo Sarvas (who missed the teams’ first meeting) and Robbie Rogers seemingly getting better as their summers progress, LA should be even more formidable through the middle than they were at StubHub Center.

If that midfield holds up and LA gets their second straight win in Portland, the Timbers will have their first major setback of the season – a result that will be a clear indicator of where Porter’s project sits in the Western Conference’s pecking order. A Timbers win, however, will provide validation for the streak they lost, giving them a valuable three points against the standard-bearers in Major League Soccer.

More: LA and Portland each have 30 points, four points behind Real Salt Lake for first in the Western Conference … The Timbers have played one fewer game … Of LA’s seven losses this season, six have come on the road.

MLS Week in Review

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Abbreviated schedule: Most MLS weeks will come and go with nine matches, but league officials shaved Round 15 to just five contests. That was the compromise for playing over the dates officially designated by FIFA for World Cup qualifiers. This week will be another one, with just five MLS games set for kickoff. Which brings us to …

Missing men: It’s not a bad choice like New Coke or a third Hangover movie, but playing through World Cup fixture dates continues to be a bad idea. Several teams were missing important pieces. For instance, it’s impossible to think that Los Angeles isn’t missing center back Omar Gonzalez, having given up eight goals in two matches. The latest was Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake in Utah.

Portland had to do without its starting goalkeeper, Jamaican international Donovan Ricketts, and a communications issue was in play on Chicago’s opening goal at Toyota Park.

Real Salt Lake and Seattle were missing significant pieces, as well. But both of them won, both at home. So perhaps those absences don’t smart as much in the long run.

First coaching dismissal of 2013: Frank Yallop had the second longest tenure going among MLS managers, in place at San Jose since the club’s 2.0 version began passing and trapping in 2008. But he’s no longer manager around Buck Shaw Stadium today; the club fired him Friday. And in all honesty, the move doesn’t make much sense.

The streaks to talk about: Portland keeps rolling. Saturday’s 2-2 tie in Chicago extended the team’s unbeaten streak to 12 games. It’s not as showy, but New England is unbeaten in in five matches. They weren’t stretched much defense, so Bobby Shuttleworth (pictured) needed to make just one save to extend the team’s impressive shutout streak to 395 minutes. All that happened in a 0-0 draw at home with D.C. United.

Ben Olsen’s United is now winless in 12. Yuk.

Worst refereeing decision:  We have a tie!

In Seattle, referee Hilario Grajeda got it wrong, refusing to point to the 12-yard spot when Whitecaps midfielder Jun Marques Davidson lunged and brought down Sounders striker Obafemi Martins a half yard inside the 18. Would a quick word with the linesman have helped?

In Utah, Drew Fischer, working just his 14th MLS match, thought he saw the Galaxy’s Marcelo Sarvas trip RSL’s Ned Grabavoy along the left wing. Thought he saw it. Sure looked like Grabavoy managed to avoid the flung-out foot. If it was just a foul, it wouldn’t matter. But it was a yellow card. And it put the Galaxy midfielder over the limit, which means he’ll miss the next match.

Craziest six minutes this year: Philadelphia was scoring barely over a goal a game at home this year (7 in 6 matches before Wednesday). So scoring three over a six-minute period … are you kidding me? Perhaps craziest of all is that league leading scorer Jack McInerney didn’t get in on the quick-fire sequence, which happened early in the home team’s 3-0 win over Columbus.

Best Match: The field may not have been in the best shape (yes, we are going to keep talking about that), but it sure didn’t hurt the match, a real cracker jack as Seattle went up early, fell behind and then rallied for a 3-2 win over Vancouver in front of an NFL-size crowd. Both sides were missing some important players, so perhaps the quality wasn’t what it could have been. But for entertainment value, this one was cranked up to 11!

Best goal:Watch the wonderful placement on Ben Zemanski’s shot for the Timbers, a ball that curls perfectly around Chicago Fire goalie Sean Johnson. (And Johnson is long and athletic, so it took some perfection in the placement.

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Most athletic goal: Philly’s Sheanon Williams once looked like a future U.S. international at right back. If he can sort out some of the defending, maybe the 23-year-old Union defender can get there, because he sure has the attacking audacity. And the athleticism. Watch this goal:

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Major League Soccer team previews: PORTLAND TIMBERS

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 5 in the West are the Portland Timbers:

Significant additions and subtractions: It starts with the new head coach, former University of Akron boss Caleb Porter. Some know him for building a collegiate powerhouse in Ohio. Others will remember him from the U.S.’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Regardless, the 38-year-old has already made over the club. The team’s play is completely transformed from last season.

Part of that makeover is a slew of significant additions, moves that have brought in the likes of Will Johnson, Ryan Johnson, Ryan Miller, Micheal Harrington, and Ben Zemanski. Attacking midfielder Diego Valeri has lured from Argentina to be the focal point of the attack. Former Manchester United and Arsenal defender Mikael Silvestre now tops the Timbers’ center back depth chart. In all likelihood, only three players who started against Philadelphia to open the 2012 campaign will be in Porter’s starting XI on March 3.

Encouragingly for Portland, there aren’t many significant losses. The most newsworthy: Kris Boyd had his seven-figure deal were bought out in January. The rest of the losses (Frank Songo’o, Eric Alexander) were players who’d have trouble making Porter’s bench.

Strengths: Here’s the rub with Portland: When you go position-by-position, it’s difficult to see anywhere on the field where they have significantly above average talent. It’s up to Porter to take fuse talent with style and create a sum that’s greater than its parts.

So Portland’s advantages will have to be philosophical. They’ll have to be tactical, and they’ll have to be ideological. The team has to transcend their talent.

The players are being tasked with mastering an approach their coach believes will win games. If they respond, the team’s strengths will be their passing, the resulting possessing game, and the movement that enables it.

With Ryan Johnson and Darlington Nagbe, that could lead to goals, but until the games count, it’s just a big, entertaining hypothesis.

Pressure points: Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league last season. This year, it could be worse. David Horst and Hayner Mosquera, last year’s starters in central defense, are injured to start the season. Mikael Silvestre is a 35-year-old dice roll, while Donovan Ricketts has fallen off sharply from the form that led the LA Galaxy to an MLS Cup in 2011.

More concerning than the talent is the style. Porter’s approach is leaving his center halves isolated, exposing his team to counterattacks. In their final preseason game, Portland saw Sweden’s AIK have success playing quick and long directly at the Timbers’ defenders, an approach that led to a number of chances.

For Portland, it was a worrying scouting report to give the opposition eight days before their opener.

source: Getty ImagesDifference maker: As owner Merritt Paulson noted, Portland essentially chose Valeri (right) over Mix Diskerud. So far this preseason, you can see why. The former Lanus attacker has the talent to be one of the better creative presences in the league. If that talent shines through in the regular season, Valeri will not only have justified his Designated Player price but vindicated his club’s decision to pass on Diskerud.

Potential breakout player: Again, it’s Darlington Nagbe. He has elite talent, but he’s yet to produce elite numbers. With the acquisition of Valeri, Nagbe’s free to pursue more goals. If Porter’s team clicks, his assist numbers should see a drastic increase, too.

Bottom line: The players they’ve brought in represent a drastic improvement over last year’s squad, and thus far in preseason, Portland’s attack has reflected this. If their defense comes around, the Timbers could challenge the West’s big four. Otherwise, they’ll fight for fifth and could finish as low as seventh. It all comes down to whether Portland’s center halves can keep up.

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Major League Soccer team previews: CHIVAS USA

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Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.

No. 9 in the West is Chivas USA:

(MORE: the entire roster of ProSoccerTalk’s Major League Soccer previews and predictions)

Significant additions and subtractions: There’s the impression Chivas USA have undergone wholesale changes, but five of the club’s top seven in 2012 minutes played are still on the team. Right back James Riley, however, was number two on that list, and he was given away to D.C. United. Nick LaBrocca is also gone (Colorado), as are a number of significant contributors further down the list: Danny Califf (Toronto), Ben Zemanski (Portland), and Alejandro Moreno (Philadelphia’s TV booth).

Sharlie Joseph, who had become an albatross on the club’s payroll, was pawned off on Seattle yesterday. If that’s any indication, there are still more changes coming. And unfortunately for Chivas fans, the acquisitions of Eric Avila and Steve Purdy don’t quite make up for the losses. Carlos Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick out of UConn, may end up being the team’s biggest player acquisition.

The biggest overall addition: El Chelís – new head coach José Luís Sánchez Solá. The former Puebla boss has injected personality into an organization that had gone catatonic during Robin Fraser’s last months.

source: Getty ImagesStrengths: There’s only one relative strength, and that’s in goal. Dan Kennedy is an All-Star caliber player, but as we saw last year, even the best keepers can be worn down  when over-exposed. Can Kennedy extend his excellence farther into this season? If he does, he’ll be doing it with less talent in front of him.

Pressure points: Unfortunately, they’re everywhere, leaving Chivas with a bunch of ifs, all of which need to come good for the Goats to be even average at their trouble spots:

  • [FORWARDS] IF Juan Agudelo plays to his potential and can produce like a league average striker, Chivas’s attack will be much improved. But for the attack as a whole to produce like a typical MLS offensive, they’ll need more production from Miller Bolaños, Jose Correa, and Tristan Bowan. All of them.
  • [MIDFIELDERS] Even IF Alvarez and Avila play to their potentials and Oswaldo Minda can stay on the field a bit more, the midfield looks weak. At best, it’s thin, though Sueño Villafaña could always help.
  • [DEFENDERS] IF the defense gels — and defenses can always gel with good coaching — Kennedy will avoid some of last year’s exposure. But Chelís has his work cut out of him crafting a viable back four from Purdy, Villafaña, Bobby Burling, and the returning Carlos Borja. Thankfully, Rauwshan MacKenzie and Ante Jazic are still around. For now.

Difference maker: Chivas only scored 24 goals in 34 games last season. That has to improve, and nobody is as capable of lifting that total as Juan Agudelo. Unfortunately, that means Chivas is relying on a player who has only scored 10 league goals in 3142 career minutes. That’s a goal every 3.5 games.

Potential breakout player: Eric Avila has all the skills to be an above-average MLS player, but in 107 career appearances, the former Dallas and Toronto midfielder has only made 37 starts. This year the 25-year-old will get all the time he needs to show he can be a part of a team’s core. If he breaks out, you could see corresponding improvement from Agudelo and Correa.

Bottom line: It all comes down to Chelís. If he finds the right formula, of course Chivas can improve. We’ve seen good coaches make meals of leftovers.

Unfortunately for Chivas fans, there just aren’t enough quality ingredients for this team to be competitive. It’s a transition year. Hopefully.