Week 6: What we learned
In Week 6 of the 2012 MLS season, the hoopla surrounding Sporting Kansas City got more feverish than thought possible as it became the first club since 1998 to start a perfect 6-0-0. Their sustained perfect run came on the back of a 1-0 win in a much-anticipated game against Real Salt Lake. Meanwhile the rest of the league -- not to mention the referees -- very much remained imperfect.
Here's some other stuff we learned.
[Hoopla alert!] C.J. Sapong is the most complete striker in MLS
If Saturday's OMG-biggest-game-ever spectacular between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake didn't produce a vintage display from second-year SKC striker C.J. Sapong, it nevertheless confirmed that he is the most complete striker in the league.
When Sporting wrested control of the game after 20 or so minutes, it had much to do with the unheralded work Sapong was doing up front, putting immediate pressure on RSL after turnovers and leading his team in the hunt for the ball. It is this pressure that has allowed Sporting to start the season 6-0 and not allow a shot on goal -- yes, you read right, not goal but shot on goal -- for 335 consecutive minutes, a streak that stood until in the 91st minute on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Sapong held up play, moved well laterally to make himself available and demonstrated his freakish combination of speed, size, power and, crucially, touch -- that ability to be both a target man and a running striker at once.
And his 44th minute goal should have been counted. Unfortunately, referee Kevin Stott fell for Jamison Olave's peculiar reverse-flop -- he flailed his arms in the air after misreading a corner kick and going under it, implying that he'd been pushed by Sapong. But C.J. had done no such thing, minding his business behind Olave and coolly heading in over Nick Rimando. (Aurelien Collin's wide-open header at the second post in the 63rd minute did stand, thankfully, giving Sporting the 1-0 win.)
It helps that the erstwhile underrated Sapong is flanked by a strong crosser on the left (Bobby Convey), a lightning rod on the right (destructive dribbler Kei Kamara) and backed by an ace playmaker (Graham Zusi). But theirs is a symbiotic relationship, with Sapong distracting enough defenders to let his cohorts operate in peace.
The Red Bulls vs. San Jose game should provide ample fodder for the Disciplinary Committee
It seems that lately, the MLS Disciplinary Committee has been bored. How else to explain the spate of recent activity? The frequent "re-refereeing" and doling out of fines and suspensions for harsh tackles or simulation that went unpunished or underpunished by referees during the game. Happily, an otherwise entertaining New York -- San Jose game, which ended 2-2 on account of goals from Kenny Cooper and Dax McCarty for the former and Rafael Baca and Chris "Who Else?" Wondolowski for the latter on Saturday -- should fuel days of deliberations for this anonymous supreme court of soccer. Because referee Ricardo Salazar got it all wrong three times, if not five.
In the sixth minute, San Jose's Victor Bernardez (who would later get his comeuppance) planted an elbow to the sturdy Cooper's face, knocking him to the ground. In the 34th minute, Red Bull striker Thierry Henry flew into a rash tackle after losing the ball to Wondolowski -- the Frenchman's studs showing for all to see. He was called for the foul but not booked, even though a yellow card was in order and a red not out of the question.
A minute later, Red Bulls midfielder Rafa Marquez sacked Shea Salinas in the box on a corner, fell on him and kicked him in the head on his way down -- an act that can't conclusively be judged malignant, but didn't look wholly unintentional either and knocked Salinas out of the game. On the ensuing play Bernardez got injured, no less. In the 47th minute, NYRB's Dane Richards took a yellow card after Ramiro Corrales tripped over his own feet. And in the 52nd, Marvin Chavez chopped down Roy Miller from behind with a two-footed scissor tackle. If Chavez was incensed by the yellow card, he should perhaps count himself lucky it wasn't of a darker color.
The Union has yet to sort out its offense
Five games into the season, the Union has yet to score from the run of play. The Union's three goals, the last of which bagged it a hard-fought 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday, have come on two penalty kicks and a free kick headed in by Lionard Pajoy. Not surprisingly, the Union has a 1-3-1 record to show for it.
Not to pound on the long-since deceased why-in-the-world-did-they-trade-Sebastien-Le-Toux horse some more, but the Union simply isn't creating chances. Saturday's game was perhaps the Union's best yet this year, arguably dominating the tepid Crew. Yet it created just two-clear cut chances -- a header from Keon Daniel and a promising run from Pajoy, who coughed up the ball instead of shooting.
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Many have argued that Pajoy was the target man the Union so badly needed, but Le Toux's movement is badly missed. Whereas Pajoy is static, Le Toux facilitated the Union's offense by linking up with his slew of talented teammates, drifting wide and helping the attacks into the final third -- and collecting 20 assists in two seasons as a striker. Without him, most attacks strand before they can get to Pajoy, causing the dearth of real chances and rendering long spells of good possession void.
Don't read too much into the Galaxy's 3-1 win over the Timbers
No, that Galaxy is not back on track, even if it's now out of the Western Conference cellar. No, the Galaxy's dire defense is not repaired, even if it gave up just one goal. And, no, the corner has not necessarily been turned by the team thought to be the best ever assembled in MLS but that stumbled out of the gate with a 1-3 record in MLS and embarrassing CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals elimination to Toronto FC.
Although the 3-1 outcome on Saturday -- achieved by a 44th minute shot by a wide-open Landon Donovan from the edge of the box on good buildup play by Robbie Keane, an 83rd minute Juninho rip and a wondrous 91st minute strike from distance from David Beckham -- may suggest that the Galaxy has broken out of its slump, such a conclusion would be simplistic.
The Timbers went ahead in the 23rd minute when Kris Boyd was played through and finished simply. Three minutes later, the bulky Scot brought a waist-high ball down with his heel, swiveled and whipped a second past Josh Saunders. Only his goal was wrongly disallowed for offsides -- yet another blown call this weekend. Had his second goal stood, this would have been an entirely different game. The Galaxy stayed in the game and ran out easy winners, but they did it against a team that isn't very good at the moment and has now lost four games in a row.
The Houston Dynamo are suffering from the early-season layoff too
Between March 18 and 31, the Los Angeles Galaxy didn't play any games, despite being only two fixtures into the season. The team conceded it had ruined its rhythm. And in spite of coming off a good 3-1 win against D.C. United, it went on to lose its next two to New England 3-1 and Sporting Kansas City 1-0.
On Sunday, the Dynamo played their first game in 23 days, visiting the Chicago Fire. Coach Dominic Kinnear described the time off as "kinda boring," and it showed in the Dynamo's performance. Houston, who had won their first games of the season before falling to Seattle 2-0, looked flat in a game twice interrupted by rain storms and called off after the 66th minute -- though it will count as a whole, official game. A moment of brilliance from Brian Ching allowed Will Bruin to score the go-ahead goal in the 26th minute, but the Texans were undone by a deflection on a free kick by Logan Pause not three minutes later, sticking the final score at 1-1.
Which all begs the questions: Why the long layoffs? Why not spread the byes out more evenly? Because rather than a respite, they form an obstacle when they are this lengthy this early in the season.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a freelance soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.
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