MLS: Things we learned in Week 5
SKC is for real, Dallas needs David Ferreira and the CCL hangover is confirmed
In Week 5 of the 2012 Major League Soccer season, the Los Angeles Galaxy lost yet again -- this time to the league's only remaining perfect team, Sporting Kansas City -- thus sinking to last place in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the San Jose Earthquakes and Chivas USA claimed more coveted scalps by beating heretofore undefeated Vancouver 3-1 and the Portland Timbers 2-1, respectively.
Here's what we learned from the Easter weekend's action.
Sporting Kansas City is for real
(OK, allow me one obvious point.) If Saturday's faceoff between Sporting Kansas City and the Los Angeles Galaxy at a rocking arena in the heartland was supposed to be a revealing collision between challengers and incumbents, it was, in fact, more confirmation that a shift has already happened. For now, anyway. Sporting's 4-0 start had been dismissed because it hadn't played the strongest opponents thus far, but there was no denying its domination of the Galaxy in a 1-0 win.
For the Galaxy, David Beckham was absent for reasons not yet fully explained. Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle and Robbie Keane were there physically, but might as well not have been, ineffectual and anonymous as they were.
Very much present was SKC, which overcame the Galaxy's game plan of cluttering the center of the field by making ample use of the vacant space out wide. Sporting was dangerous on the flanks and able to commandeer the ball to such great effect that it had a whopping 68 percent of the possession against the defending champions in the first half -- 60 percent for the entire game. Having established its dominance, Sporting created chances by letting Bobby Convey and Kei Kamara run freely and directly at the Galaxy's embattled defense (oh, how it misses Omar Gonzalez). On one such play in the 40th minute, Convey switched wings with Kamara and curled a cross sharply to the far post, where Kamara, drifting in off the right wing, faked out his man, Sean Franklin, and cleanly headed in against the grain for the game's only goal.
Sporting was so tidy in the back and in its half that it really only surrendered one serious chance all game, though Chad Barrett made a bad decision in the 82nd minute and tried to cut back for Keane rather than shooting from a promising position.
Donovan, meanwhile, deserved a red card for a late stamp at Kamara, even if his team was outraged at the yellow he got instead, and while the Galaxy's maladies are still unclear, SKC's status as legitimate title chaser for 2012 is under no doubt whatsoever.
FC Dallas is suffering, distinctly David Ferreira-less
At home against the New England Revolution on Thursday, there was a gaping hole in the center of Dallas' midfield, one shaped like a 5-foot-5 Colombian playmaker who won the 2010 MVP award but has been out ever since with various injuries. Ferreira is much missed by FCD these days. He broke his right ankle -- or to be more accurate, had it broken -- six weeks into the 2011 season and has yet to return. The crack in his ankle was almost healed when he fractured another bone in his vaunted right foot, keeping him out an additional 6-8 weeks.
Ferreira's layoff is disappointing as Dallas is stacked with attacking talent. It has finally unearthed a capable striker in Blas Perez, and with beastly youngsters Brek Shea and Fabian Castillo out wide, together they form a fearsome threesome. Trouble is, without a capable playmaker behind them -- and Andrew Jacobsen, Ricardo Villar, Carlos Rodriguez and the defensive-minded Daniel Hernandez simply don't fit the bill -- Perez sits far too deep, reducing the attack to a one-dimensional game of the long ball.
Against New England on Thursday, this translated to several promising Dallas attacks coming undone by a lack of manpower in the final third. However, despite slogging through a bland, injury-laden game, FCD came away with the points when A.J. Soares elbowed Perez in the 95th minute. The resulting free kick at the Revs' end was lifted to the far post by Zach Loyd and headed home by the unmarked Ugo Ihemelu, giving Dallas the 1-0 win. Still, getting Ferreira back at some point is the priority, else expect FCD to struggle all season without its pivot.
Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper make for an unconventional -- but effective -- partnership
Though it can't be proven, Henry and Cooper were probably not intended to be deployed together. Ahead of the season, the Red Bulls anticipated having two strikers who could push the line and get others involved -- Luke Rodgers and Juan Agudelo -- and two forwards who could drop off and play around them -- Henry and Cooper. Presumably, the idea was to select one from each pairing to play together, only Agudelo is injured and Rodgers' visa was denied. Ergo, the Red Bulls were forced into using Titi with Kenny, and theirs is an odd pairing, mostly because the duo tends to thrive away from goal. Cooper is doing his best to act as a target man, but his urge is to drift wide and attack the goal diagonally, finding room between zonal defenses. Henry, meanwhile, likes to drop deep and help spark the play, often moving backward as an attack unfolds.
Yet it all seems to work astonishingly well. Since opening the season 0-2, the Red Bulls have won three in a row. In that span, the pair has scored 13 times -- Henry bagging seven and Cooper a meager five. Even if Henry looked none too enthused by his third consecutive brace -- one of which was a hat trick, in fact -- in a 4-1 destruction of the Columbus Crew on Saturday, somewhere the Red Bulls brass must be smiling about just how much offense this accidental partnership is producing.
Portland needs to learn to close out games
The Timbers, who have the potential to truly compete in the cutthroat Western Conference, failed to win for a fourth time in a row, lost for a third time in a row and gave up a lead and a late game winner for the second time in a row. The epitome of frustration. Last week, Portland managed to relinquish a 2-1 lead after the 89th minute, walking away with a 3-2 loss to RSL. And on Saturday, the Timbers again surrendered a late lead, letting Chivas USA back in the game from 1-0 down then allowing Nick LaBrocca to score the winner in the 82nd minute on a second assist from the outstanding Ryan Smith.
If these Timbers players are to truly evolve into a team with serious playoff aspirations in only their second MLS season together, they'll need to learn to nurture leads and protect them through to the final whistle.
The continental hangover is real
You probably won't be surprised to hear that playing in the CONCACAF Champions League exacts a heavy toll on a team, between the added game, pressure, fierce opponents and extra travel. Invariably, this early-season fixture congestion should have an effect on the teams' performances in MLS, and the numbers now bear it out, too.
Three MLS teams were still alive when the quarterfinals resumed in March. When the Galaxy played Real Salt Lake at home on March 10 just days after playing Toronto FC to a 2-2 away tie on in the CCL, L.A. lost 3-1. When the Seattle Sounders and Toronto faced off in MLS on March 17 after both sides featured in the CCL on March 14, Seattle won 3-1. And for Toronto, it lost 1-0 at home to Columbus and 2-1 to Montreal within days of its semifinal legs against Santos Laguna.
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All told, when MLS teams have had to play within three days of playing a CCL tie, they are a dismal 1-4, with the only win coming when the Sounders played another recent CCL competitor: Toronto.
MLS teams shouldn't be penalized for playing continentally -- after all, it's the one tournament Don Garber desperately wants to bring to the league -- so either give those sides the following weekend off or afford them an extra day of rest. Else expect more of the same results year after year for those intrepid teams trying to compete on multiple fronts.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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