AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

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

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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)

MLS roundup: 36 goals across 10 games make for lively First Kick 2016

AP Photo/Adam Hunger
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The opening day of the 2016 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and though it left us breathless and befuddled at times, today was a good day.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

A handful of thoughts (and links) looking back at First Kick 2016…

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Toronto FC FULL RECAP

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Toronto FC scored twice, and Sebastian Giovinco scored one of them and set up the other. 2016, same as 2015. Here’s the kicker: TFC were quite good defensively against the Red Bulls, which is why I’m happy to have picked them to finish top of the Eastern Conference this year.

Portland Timbers 2-1 Columbus Crew SCFULL RECAP

MLS Cup 2015 rematch, MLS Cup 2015 deja vu — just like December’s final, Sunday’s season opener finished 2-1 to the Timbers. Dare I say, Portland might actually be (way?) better in 2016 than they were last year. That Diego Chara-Darlington Nagbe-Diego Valeri midfield trio is, in theory, perfect.

LA Galaxy 4-1 D.C. United FULL RECAP

The LA Galaxy are going to run away with the Supporters’ Shield in 2016. The LA Galaxy are going to totally fall apart and miss the playoffs in 2016. Here’s the thing: I don’t know which of those two statements to hang my hat on just yet. One thing’s indisputable tonight: they were a million times better after Mike Magee replace Giovani dos Santos, with or without Magee’s two goals.

Vancouver Whitecaps 2-3 Montreal ImpactFULL RECAP

With or without Didier Drogba (they were without him on Sunday), the Impact are really good. The midfield is oh so solid, both defensively and going forward; Ignacio Piatti (two goals, one assist) is, when healthy, one of the best in the league; the defense, anchored by Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera, is imposing and terrifying. Drogba makes them MLS Cup contenders (favorites?), though they might get there without him anyway.

Seattle Sounders 0-1 Sporting Kansas CityFULL RECAP

Aided in part by a first-half red card, a shorthanded Sporting KC side (no Benny Feilhaber, Ike Opara, Brad Davis or Seth Sinovic) stole a pair of additional points from the Sounders who, it must be said, looked extremely flat in their first league game of the post-Obafemi Martins era. Also, it’s official: Roger Espinoza makes a world of difference in the SKC midfield. Hugely influential and irreplaceable player.

Orlando City SC 2-2 Real Salt LakeFULL RECAP

Typically, dueling red cards is the storyline of any game. Indeed, it was headed that direction, until Orlando City scored in the 94th minute and again in the 95th to grab a point at home against RSL. Lost in all the late-game drama: Joao Plata is tied for top spot in the 2016 Golden Boot race (two goals).

Houston Dynamo 3-3 New England RevolutionFULL RECAP

The Dynamo aren’t half-bad, you know — offensively, at least. Will Bruin, Giles Barnes, Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger, with Erick “Cubo” Torres off the bench… that’s totally fine. Unfortunately for them, they’re still kind of a mess defensively (it cost them two points on Sunday), in part because they get very little help from the midfield.

Chicago Fire 3-4 New York City FCFULL RECAP

Seriously. Click that link and watch the goals these teams conceded.

FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia UnionFULL RECAP

Mauro Diaz’s 2016 so far: one game played, two assists. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Speaking of things staying the same, Fabian Castillo got himself on the scoresheet before being stretchered off the field. Thankfully, the injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 Colorado RapidsFULL RECAP

Jermaine Jones is suspended for five more games. Tim Howard is stuck at Everton for another three months. At least there’s something to look forward to, but it’s going to be a long year in Denver (again). There will be very few goals scored (again).

MLS Snapshot: Colorado Rapids 2-1 Sporting Kansas City (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Not to sound any alarm bells or anything too quickly, but we need to have a talk about Sporting Kansas City. For a little over a month now, they’ve not exactly been great, and they’ve certainly not been dominant at any point of that 10-game stretch, which includes Saturday night’s 2-1 defeat to the Colorado Rapids. Sure, they’ve racked up a decent enough record over that timeframe (5W-1D-3L in all competitions), but a team can only overcome early deficits and win in spectacular fashion so often. It’s not a sustainable strategy over the course of a 34-game season. Roger Espinoza is a huge miss in the midfield, but the central unit is far from the only bunch worthy of blame. Set-piece defending has been borderline atrocious for some time now, and the full backs have been constant turnstiles as opposing wingers race bace unabated again and again. Peter Vermes navigated an injury crisis for a few months, but it’s safe to say it’s catching up to Sporting KC now. With Saturday’s loss, they could sit as low as fifth at the end of the weekend (40 points).

[ MORE: Previewing the rest of Week 26 | Steven Gerrard is a big Taylor Swift fan ]

Three moments that mattered

47′ — Dwyer hammers home after Nemeth weaves his way in — Krisztian Nemeth went on a dizzying, weaving run through the Rapids midfield, split three defenders and poked the ball into the path of Dom Dwyer, whose left-footed blast found the back of the net just inside Clint Irwin’s near post.

53′ — Figueroa benefits from a deflection, ties it back up — Someone forgot to pay attention to Maynor Figueroa, a two-time World Cup veteran, making the late, late, late-arriving run at the back post. When the ball arrived, Figueroa had a go, took the deflection off Graham Zusi in stride and used it to sneak under the crossbar at the far post.

76′ — Doyle rises up, heads home from close range — Step 1 to being a good defensive team: Mark the tall men inside the penalty area when a cross comes into the box. Sporting forgot to do this as Vicente Sanchez hit a floating ball to Kevin Doyle at the back post. Doyle, all 6-foot-nothing of him, headed the ball home with ease.

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Man of the match: Vicente Sanchez

Goalscorers: Dwyer (47′), Figueroa (53′), Doyle (76′)

WATCH LIVE: Open Cup semifinals – Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia vs. Chicago

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Ahead of the two U.S. Open Cup semifinals on Wednesday, let’s take a look at both matchups.

[ MORE: All of PST’s latest MLS news ]

Four teams from Major League Soccer have made it this far, as the Philadelphia Union host Chicago Fire at PPL Park and Sporting Kansas City welcome old foes Real Salt Lake to Sporting Park.

Below is a brief primer on each match, plus links to stream both matches online via U.S. Soccer’s YouTube channel.

Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire – 7:30 p.m. ET, live online via U.S. Soccer

The Union love a good Open Cup run, don’t they? All might not be well for Jim Curtin’s side in MLS play but they were runners up last year to the Seattle Sounders (courtesy of a crushing extratime defeat at their own stadium) and host Chicago at PPL Park on Wednesday. Their route to this semifinal has been a complicated one, as they’ve rallied to win twice when down to 10-men and have also come through two penalty shootouts unscathed. Captain Maurice Edu is likely to return for the Union as they aim to make the final for the second-straight year.

As for Chicago, their MLS form leaves a lot to be desired too as the two bottom teams in the Eastern Conference square off. What’s all that about? Anyway, the winner of this match knows that they will host the U.S. Open Cup final, and Chicago’s boss Frank Yallop is adamant his side can rise to the occasion and bring the Open Cup back to Chicago for the fifth-time in club history to equal the competition’s record number of titles.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake – 8:30 p.m. ET, live online via U.S. Soccer

These two familiar foes will lock horns at a packed out Sporting Park on Wednesday with plenty stored in the memory bank. Remember the 2013 MLS Cup final which went to an epic 10-round penalty shootout in KC where Sporting prevailed? This could be very feisty as RSL have already beaten SKC twice this season and drew on the other occasion against Peter Vermes’ team.

RSL rested several starters at the weekend and were demolished 4-0 by the Vancouver Whitecaps, but head coach Jess Cassar has defended that decision. For Sporting KC, they will definitely be without Roger Espinoza and Amobi Okugo and Graham Zusi could join them on the sidelines. A lively home crowd and a rested Dom Dwyer could give SKC the advantage they need to reach the final.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-3 Sporting Kansas City (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): This is what they call a “Toronto FC special,” kids. Not only have TFC — who have still never qualified for the Major League Soccer playoffs, mind — looked one of the league’s better sides in recent weeks and months, but on Saturday they found themselves facing a shorthanded Sporting Kansas City side (without Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza) at BMO Field. And yet, the Reds found a way — somehow, as they always do — to kill all positive momentum and the spirit of their ardent, tortured supporters. Goals scored by Benny Feilhaber, Krisztian Nemeth and Jacob Peterson (a former Red) were more than enough for Sporting KC to seal all three points following what has to be praised as an extremely professional, dogged performance by the visitors. SKC climb to fourth in the Western Conference, while TFC remain stuck in third in the East.

[ MORE: MLS transfer deadline day roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

21′ — Ellis taken down in the box, PK to SKC — Why Jackson feels the need to grab and pull Kevin Ellis to the ground, I do not know. The floated ball into the box is either going to completely evade Ellis’s head, or carom off the top of his head and go straight up into the air. That’s not how Jackson saw it, though. Fair penalty call. Feilhaber converted.

22′ — Bradley equalizes less than a minute later — From the time Feilhaber’s penalty hit the back of the TFC net, to the time Michael Bradley’s equalizer hit the back of the SKC net, 55 seconds of real time elapsed. Six passes in 17 seconds from the center circle to the back of the net. Jonathan Osorio -> Bradley -> Sebastian Giovinco -> Bradley -> net.

29′ — Nemeth’s looping header evades Bendik, 2-1 to SKC — Everything Feilhaber touches turns to gold right now, doesn’t it? His free kick was, in all honesty, quite poor, but Nemeth’s looping header gave Joe Bendik fits from the moment it left his head, to the time it sailed over his own and snuck just under the crossbar.

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

Man of the match: Benny Feilhaber — Another goal, another assist for the 2015 MVP candidate (eight and 12 on the season). In his only head to head matchup with the odds-on favorite for MVP this year, Giovinco, Feilhaber outshone the competition.

Goalscorers: Feilhaber (PK – 22′), Bradley (22′), Nemeth (29′), Peterson (87′)