MLS Rewind

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MLS Rewind: Bruce’s big dilemma, refs (again) + TotW & PotW

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“BETTER” WITHOUT KEANE?

“Better” in sports is an unbelievably misleading word. The LA Galaxy aren’t “better” without 2013 MLS MVP and scorer of 75 goals (to go along with 43 assists) in 111 career MLS games. Of course they’re not. (Same goes for Nigel de Jong as well, probably.)

But there’s no denying that over the last four games — and the last two in particular — in which Keane hasn’t played a single minute due to knee surgery, have seen Bruce Arena’s side strike a much healthier balance between their attack and their defense, resulting in two of the best overall performances we’ve seen in MLS 2016 thus far.

[ MORE: Check out previous editions in the MLS Rewind archive ]

Three tactical adjustments have been made in Keane’s absence. In no particular order, they are: 1) Giovani dos Santos has taken up Keane’s free-roaming, play-making role which suits him much more than being shunted out wide as a winger; 2) Mike Magee’s place in the starting lineup offers the kind of defensive cover that Dos Santos isn’t capable of providing, whether on the left or right; 3) Gyasi Zardes’s deployment through the center has shown that he’s more productive as a striker than as a winger. As a result, the Galaxy are humming right along with near-perfect, best evidenced in Saturday’s 5-2 dismantling of previously-unbeaten Real Salt Lake.

On point no. 2, below is the combined passing-and-defensive-actions diagrams for Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez and Demar Phillips (left), and that of left back Chris Wingert (right), who combined to play all 90 minutes up and down RSL’s left wing, where Magee was ever-present in assisting right back A.J. DeLaGarza. You’ll notice that they 1) are all three pushed extremely wide, and 2) combine to complete all of one pass into the Galaxy’s penalty area. The left wing is a total non-starter for RSL in this one, though the absence of Joao Plata and his ability to operate in the space between the full back and center back on either side was undoubtedly a big miss.

RSL

Keane’s return from injury is approaching (he was originally pegged with an early-to-mid-May return date), at which point the Galaxy will undoubtedly be a more talented side on paper, but not necessarily one that fits together and functions at its very best.

Someone from the above list of attackers is headed to the bench upon Keane’s return — not even Arena could get away with sitting a player with more goals and assists combined than games played in his MLS career. It’s easiest to say, “well, Magee is the ‘worst’ player of the bunch, so it should obviously be him,” but it should be one of Zardes or Dos Santos instead.


REFEREEING GAFFES AT CRITICAL MASS

Let’s talk about MLS’s gigantic, growing refereeing problem, because that seems to be what MLS and the Professional Referee Organization want us to do at the end of every MLS weekend.

MLS’s mandate for its referees to officiate games in a stricter manner in an attempt to rid the game of dangerous challenges, thus seeing the number of red cards handed out increase a fair bit over the first month of the season, has been met with plenty of opposition and disdain thus far in 2016. In defense of the league and PRO, though, whether you believe it to be a necessary venture, at least it indicates the two organizations, which work together hand in hand, have considered a course of action to improve the league’s standard of play and protect its players.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Being proactive is typically a good thing, and this instance is no different. What’s not so great, however, were a pair of blown calls on Sunday that saw the league’s two nationally televised games decided (to varying degrees) by something out of the hands of the 22 players on the field.

Major League Soccer – Week 7

Result Recap & Highlights
Impact 0-2 Toronto Recap, watch here
Union 2-0 NYCFC Recap, watch here
DCU 3-0 NE Revs Recap, watch here
Rapids 3-1 Sounders Recap, watch here
Crew SC 1-0 Dynamo Recap, watch here
Whitecaps 3-0 FCD Recap, watch here
Galaxy 5-2 RSL Recap, watch here
Quakes 1-0 SKC Recap, watch here
Red Bulls 3-2 Orlando Recap, watch here

Referee Jair Marrufo failed to simultaneously award Sporting Kansas City a penalty and show San Jose Earthquakes defender Andres Imperiale a red card when he quite clearly slid through the legs of Dom Dwyer, coming nowhere near the ball in his last-ditch challenge (WATCH HERE). Less than five minutes later, Marrufo (correctly) awarded the Earthquakes a penalty when Tim Melia brought Simon Dawkins down with with contact that was no greater and no less than occurred on the other end of the field. Chris Wondolowski converted the spot kick, and the ‘Quakes won the game 1-0.

Not even four hours later, Hilario Grajeda failed to show Karl Ouimette a red card of his own after the New York Red Bulls defender swiped the legs of Orlando City SC striker Cyle Larin right out from under him with the two racing into the Red Bulls’ penalty area, and an obvious goal-scoring opportunity upon them (WATCH HERE). Orlando City held a 1-0 lead at the time and would have enjoyed a man advantage for the game’s final 27 minutes. Instead, Ouimette stayed on the field (he later scored an inconsequential own goal), the Red Bulls equalized two minutes later, scored again four minutes after that, and went on to win the game 3-2.

After each game’s final whistle, neither referee had any desire to explain their calls — or, non-calls, as it were — that drastically changed the course of two otherwise enjoyable games of soccer (UPDATE).

No accountability for their shortcomings, which is perhaps MLS’s greatest shortcoming with regard to its referees: Marrufo and Grajeda, along with every other ref who erred in costly fashion this weekend and last weekend and the weekend before that and so on, will be right back out there (mis-)managing MLS game next weekend and the weekend after that and so on. PRO general manager Peter Walton will do a controlled interview with some online or television outlet in the coming days or weeks, insist the organization is committed to raising its standard, and we’ll all go back to living our everyday lives.

Expect to see the exact same mistakes in the coming weeks and months, though, and to find yourself wondering yet again, “why did I commit that much of my afternoon/evening/weekend to watching MLS when the guys with the whistles are always the stars of the show?” For a league that’s incredibly brand- and market-conscious, you’d think MLS would move quickly to fix something that’s bound to cost it viewers — and ultimately dollars — if unchanged.

If it’s a solution to the problem that you’re looking for, Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath offered up a pretty good one last week: instead of signing aging foreign players at the end of their playing careers, commit some of that money to recruiting quality refs who have called games at the highest level in order to increase the standard of refereeing, because the quality of play has improved leaps and bounds while the men in the middle of the field seem to have stagnated and/or regressed badly.


TEAM OF THE WEEK

Goalkeeper: David Ousted (Vancouver Whitecaps)

MLS GK

Defenders: Ashley Cole (LA Galaxy), Drew Moor (Toronto FC), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps)

MLS DF

Midfielders: Emmanuel Boateng (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC) Will Johnson (Toronto FC)

MLS MF

Forwards: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

MLS FW


PLAYER OF THE WEEK

No single player in MLS can take over a game the way that Sebastian Giovinco can do, and so regularly does. With his 22-goal, 16-assist 2015 season still fresh in everyone’s memory, Giovinco is the focal point of every opposition’s defensive gameplan (this was the case last year as well, to little avail), which limits the number of touches, space and chances that come the Atomic Ant’s way during a given game.

So what, the 29-year-old Italian said this week, as he carved up the Montreal Impact for two goals, three massive road points and a bit of revenge for last season’s playoff elimination and embarrassment. A sign of a truly great player is the ability to do a lot with very little, and Giovinco continues to do that week in and week out. His 81st-minute insurance goal was as ruthless as it was comforting for TFC fans.

MLS Rewind: Vieira the tinkerer + Team & Player(s) of the Week

Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook
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VIEIRA IS THE IDEAL COACH, IN THEORY

If you’re a soccer fan — or a fan of any sport, really — what’s the no. 1 trait you want the head coach of your favorite team to possess? Beyond a genius-level IQ, it’s adaptability. As a fan, there’s nothing more frustrating than a thick-headed, inflexible coach who trots out the same tired gameplan week after week after week, despite a wealth of evidence that screams out, “It doesn’t work, dummy, try something else,” but of course, he’s too stubborn to do so.

[ MORE: Check out previous editions in the MLS Rewind archive ]

Major League Soccer – Week 2

Result Recap & Highlights
Orlando 1-1 Chicago Recap, watch here
NE Revs 0-0 DCU Recap, watch here
Impact 3-0 Red Bulls Recap, watch here
RSL 2-1 Sounders Recap, watch here
Rapids 1-0 Galaxy Recap, watch here
Crew SC 1-2 Union Recap, watch here
Dynamo 5-0 FCD Recap, watch here
SKC 2-1 Whitecaps Recap, watch here
NYCFC 2-2 TFC Recap, watch here
Quakes 2-1 Timbers Recap, watch here

Two games into his first gig as a first-team boss, New York City FC head coach Patrick Vieira is anything but stubborn. In fact, he’s proven to be a fairly resourceful, clever tactical tinkerer. A quick look at NYCFC’s roster indicates a wealth of quality in central midfield (Andrea Pirlo, Tommy McNamara, Federico Bravo, Mix Diskerud, Frank Lampard and Kwadwo Poku), which is great in any league in the world not named Major League Soccer, but given MLS’s strict roster and salary rules, possessing that kind of depth in one area of the field can mean but one thing: you’re going to come up wildly short in another area, and true to form, NYCFC are totally devoid of any kind of quality wide players.

So what did Vieira do during Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Toronto FC to get the most out of what he has? He started two-thirds of the above listed six players (Lampard is currently out injured, while Poku was a healthy scratch) in a four-man central midfield (call it a 3-6-1, or an old-school W-M) on the teeny-tiny, narrow field at Yankee Stadium. Who needs wide players when the field might or might not meet FIFA and MLS’s mandatory minimum width of 70 yards? Dummies, that’s who.

With Bravo playing the role of destroyer next to Pirlo, the Italian maestro had by far his best game since signing for the Bronx outfit last summer (106 touches, 84 passes attempted at an 81 percent completion rate, three key passes and a should-have-been assist on an absolute peach of an over-the-top ball); Diskerud and McNamara were clever in their interplay (they also pressed incredibly well, far up the field) underneath David Villa, who led the line just as you’d expect a World Cup and two-time European Championship winner to do.

In short, it was functional; it was effective; and more than anything, it was a joy to watch. TFC were genuinely caught off guard by such an unexpected tactical wrinkle, and it took them more than an hour to crack the code an produce anything of merit from open play. Sure, Vieira won’t catch anyone by surprise the next time he throws out the four-man central midfield, but Sunday’s tactical deviation served a valuable lesson for all: let us not be afraid of new coaches with new ideas coming to MLS, for it’s those ideas that might just set them apart and on the pathway to success. In theory, Vieira’s everything you want your coach to be — adaptable, idealistic, and far from afraid to buck any trend.

David Villa, New York City FC (Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook)
(Photo credit: New York City FC / Facebook)

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Goalkeeper: Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Victor Cabrera (Montreal Impact), Jose Goncalves (New England Revolution)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Marcelo Sarvas (D.C. United), Calum Mallace (Montreal Impact)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Andrew Wenger (Houston Dynamo)

MLS Forwards


(CO-)PLAYER(S) OF THE WEEK

Dom Dwyer and Chris Pontius are my choices for co-Players of the Week, for two very different reasons — their two-goal performances in 2-1 victories for their respective teams aside.

Dwyer bagged 22 goals in league play in 2014 before falling back to earth in 2015, when he scored just 12. This year, Dwyer intends to break the all-time league record by scoring 30 goals. Nos. 1 and 2 came Saturday night as Sporting KC knocked off the Vancouver Whitecaps, last year’s Western Conference regular season runners-up, thanks to Dwyer’s first-half brace. If nothing else, I needed an excuse to post his opening golazo one more time.

Pontius’ last brace in league play was nearly four years ago — June 24, 2012 — thanks in large part to a rash of injuries that limited him to just 51 appearances over his final three seasons with D.C. United (6 goals, 4 assists combined). The season prior, 2012, he bagged 12 goals and four assists en route to his first (and only) MLS Best XI selection. It’s been a long road back to relevance for Pontius, but he looked healthy as ever in Saturday’s 2-1 away win over Columbus Crew SC. Here’s to Pontius’ name appearing in many more MLS Rewind columns this season.

MLS Rewind: Goals galore, Magic Mike, irreplaceable Espinoza + TotW & PotW

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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DEFENDING OPTIONAL AS OFFENSES RUN WILD

Over the last few years, MLS has been trending in this direction — as the financial investment in players has increased year by year, most of the league’s teams have chosen to spend that additional cash on quality attacking talent, which means the amount of money spent on defenders has either remained unchanged or gone backwards in some cases. Why? Well, in short, scoring sells, and MLS needs to sell itself, both on TV and at the box office.

Major League Soccer – Week 1

Result Recap & Highlights
RBNY 0-2 Toronto FC Recap, watch here
Chicago 3-4 NYCFC Recap, watch here
Orlando 2-2 RSL Recap, watch here
Houston 3-3 NE Revs Recap, watch here
FC Dallas 2-0 Philly Recap, watch here
Quakes 1-0 Rapids Recap, watch here
Timbers 2-1 Crew SC Recap, watch here
Whitecaps 2-3 Impact Recap, watch here
Sounders 0-1 SKC Recap, watch here
Galaxy 4-1 DCU Recap, watch here

It’s undoubtedly made the league abundantly more entertaining year over year, even if you could construct a really strong argument that the overall quality of soccer remains largely unchanged (I would help you build this case). The likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz, Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Magee, Cristian Maidana Pedro Morales have entered the league and each taken it by storm within their first six months in North America.

Sunday’s 2016 season-opening onslaught was a culmination of that trend, as 36 goals were poured in across 10 games — in part due to the immense quality the league now possesses in the final third, but also due in part to the severe lack of quality (see: Chicago 3-4 NYCFC) many of the league’s teams now possess in defense. From an entertainment perspective, it’s brilliant, and as a full-time MLS viewer, that’s just fine by me.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


IT’S LIKE YOU NEVER LEFT LA, MAGIC MIKE

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Mike Magee, center, kicks the ball past D.C. United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, right, for a goal as defender Sean Franklin defends during the second half of an Major League Soccer match, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Carson, Calif. The Galaxy won 4-1. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mike Magee’s final partial season in LA saw him score six goals in the Galaxy’s first 10 games of 2013 before being traded to the Chicago Fire in late May as part of the deal that landed Robbie Rogers in his hometown upon returning to action as the first openly gay athlete in top-tier American team sports. Magee went on to score 15 goals in 22 games for his hometown Fire and was named the 2013 MLS MVP in a landslide voting process.

Long-term injuries reduced Magee to just 29 games and seven goals in his final two seasons with the Fire, thus his still-fresh pay raise ($400,000 against the salary cap) became too heavy a burden to bear and he was allowed to walk away as a free agent this winter. So it only made sense that Magee headed back to LA, where he won back-to-back MLS Cups (2011, 2012) and back-to-back Supporters’ Shields (2010, 2011). Sure, he’d be coming off the bench and without a true positional home again, but he’d have an important part to play at some point in 2016, given Robbie Keane’s advanced age and participation in the European Championship, and potential U.S. and Mexican national team call-ups for Gyasi Zardes and Giovani dos Santos this summer.

No one thought he’d be the star and savior for the Galaxy on opening night, dragging them back from a thoroughly despondent first-half performance against D.C. United and engineering a four-goal second-half rampage, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Dos Santos was forced off through injury at halftime, at which point Magee made in 45 minutes the kind of impact GdS has been unable to make in his first six months with the Galaxy — not only was he a constant threat in the final third (two goals, one assist in 45 minutes) because of the dangerous areas he occupied and his quick circulation of the ball, but his work rate defensively gave the Galaxy midfield and defense the kind of stability they lacked down the stretch in 2015 and in the first half against D.C.

It’s still too early to definitively say, “Magee should be starting over GdS,” but I will be keeping a watchful eye on the two of them and mentally pitting them against one another in their every appearance for the next month.

[ MORE: MLS roundup — A few late-night thoughts after First Kick 2016 ]


ESPINOZA PROVEN SKC’S IRREPLACEABLE FIGURE

Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza (27) breaks away from Real Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland, back, during the first half of an MLS soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, April 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

When Roger Espinoza went down for the remainder of the 2015 season with a broken foot in August, it was the beginning of the end of Sporting Kansas City’s season. Sure, they would go on to win the U.S. Open two months later, but they were never close to the same team without the Honduran patrolling the midfield and wreaking havoc on some of the league’s top attacking talent (see: a handful of names from the above list). With Espinoza in the lineup: 18 goals conceded in 17 games (1.06 per game) last year; without Espinoza in the lineup: 26 goals conceded in 17 games (1.53 per game). They also scored fewer without him (22) than they did with him (25).

Those are the numbers. This is an observation based on the eye test: the lives of every one else in the Sporting KC lineup is easier with Espinoza on the field. Through an immense work rate, through intelligent and controlled pressing that’s criminally underrated, through a directness on the ball that puts opponents on their back foot… the Sporting machine hums along with Espinoza roaming box to box.

Espinoza’s numbers remain unspectacular throughout his career (3 goals, 15 assists in nearly 10,000 minutes). Even some of the more finite numbers (2 tackles, 1 interception, 0 clearances) don’t tell the story of how he’s the irreplaceable figure in one of MLS’s top midfield trios (Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Soni Mustivar), but Espinoza’s impact was on display in Sunday’s 1-0 away win over the Seattle Sounders, evident as ever through the marked improvement of everyone around him in comparison to those final three months of 2015.


TEAM OF THE WEEK

Goalkeeper: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes)

MLS Goalkeeper

Defenders: Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Daniel Steres (LA Galaxy)

MLS Defenders

Midfielders: Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas), Mike Magee (LA Galaxy)

MLS Midfielders

Forwards: Joao Plata (Real Salt Lake), Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)

MLS Forwards


PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Ignacio Piatti was the only MLS player to receive a match rating of 10.0 on soccer stats website WhoScored.com, which is great, because this is one of the increasingly rare instances where the stats match up perfectly with the eye test.

In short, Piatti was unplayable against on Sunday, and it was clear for all to see. His opening goal — the one where he skated past four defenders and curled his eventual striker inside the far post — was pure class. On his day, when healthy, when fully engaged mentally — yes, that’s a lot of qualifiers — Piatti’s one of the top-five most terrifying players in MLS. Sunday was his day, he was fit and he was up for it. In part because of Piatti, Montreal are MLS Cup contenders with or without Didier Drogba.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)