By Neil W. Blackmon
Last week was one of the more eventful seven day periods in the history of MLS thanks o Real Salt Lake’s 2-2 draw at Monterrey, and with the return leg Wednesday night providing the Claret and Cobalt an opportunity to be the first MLS side to win the competition in its current format, that is clearly the headlining story this week. Putting aside RSL’s championship quest for the moment however reveals that there were plenty of other big stories in the league last week, and this piece of midweek musings will focus on what’s happening outside of the current center of the American soccer universe in Sandy, Utah.
Let’s begin where the footballing weekend began, with Charlie Davies and DC United, who were soundly beaten 4-0 at home by the suddenly surging New York Red Bulls Thursday evening.
There are three obvious stories from the match. First, Henry’s brace (now three goals in two games) was a signal of intent from the former Arsenal superstar that indeed, as he had suggested, there is plenty in the tank. That signal took a while to send, and the brace had to come as a welcome relief to Red Bulls supporters who watched their side struggle mightily to score until the last two weeks. In our MLS preview, we suggested the Red Bulls ultimately would go as far as their superstars could take them, meaning of course it is absolutely essential Henry produces. Both goals were vintage Henry- particularly the first, a clever late run that found him quarantined in space and finished mercilessly—but more important than the scoring is his active involvement in the other goals—a sign that he is ready to be the epicenter of the Red Bulls attack. Look- we all know New York can defend; their ability to score goals will dictate the direction the “challenge Real Salt Lake” plot takes.
The second obvious story is Agudelo’s goal. The belief around The Yanks Are Coming (and to be fair, a few other US-based soccer publications), was that Agudelo would benefit immensely from simply being around Thierry Henry. Henry is the perfect mentor for a young forward, and not just because of his obvious laurels and European success. The truth is Henry is personable, friendly and willing to help—and those things are equally important when it comes to a legend and a talented pupil. If they weren’t—any number of Miami Dolphins quarterbacks in the late 80’s or 90’s would have blossomed under Dan Marino. They didn’t—but say, Aaron Rodgers did under Brett Favre. Some of that is just about talent—but certainly not all of it. Combine those factors and Agudelo’s skill set, which is in many ways similar to Henry’s—and you have as good a developmental setting for young Agudelo as you would have anywhere. That’s one of the biggest reasons USMNT fans should hope Juan stays in New York at least through the summer—just being around Henry in training is a great opportunity and it is one that has made Juan a better player. As fans and observers, we saw some vindication of that suggestion Thursday evening, when Agudelo scored this stunning goal late in the game after entering as a second-half substitute.
The goal was positively “Henry-like”, and praise for the technical skill it took simply to score t set off a pretty fascinating Twitter debate between three TYAC favorites: Alexi Lalas, our friends at The Shin Guardian, and SI Editor Jen Chang. Chang- whose tweet that Agudelo’s goal was of “rare skill” for an American player- was clearly a compliment—but we Americans tend to be sensitive about our golden boys—hence the firestorm debate about whether Chang was being condescending that emerged on Twitter. In the end, Chang is right: American strikers, even English strikers currently, don’t often score goals with that level of skill—and Agudelo should be lauded. He should also stay in New York with Henry for another year.
Finally, there is the third, and at least in this writer’s view, the largest story from the NYRB-DC United match: Charlie Davies’ miserable performance. Without question, Davies’ five goal start is a great story, and there is no question he’s worked incredibly hard to get back to being an effective player. That said, this was a particularly concerning performance for Davies and one that is well-worth a healthy dose of criticism. This was, with all due respect to the previous DC United opponents, save possibly Los Angeles, the first match Davies had where he was matched up specifically against world-class, international level central defenders. That makes the match a particularly good barometer for measuring Davies’ progress- and the results weren’t good.
Davies was ineffective throughout the night. He was unable to use explosiveness to turn Marquez or Ream, and had opportunities to do both. On one early sequence, eerily reminiscent of his famous Azteca goal, Davies made a clever run into space and had a more than adequate through ball played that would have set him off to a one-on-one opportunity. Unlike in Mexico City, he wasn’t able to find a second gear of explosion, and Ream calmly played the ball out of bounds for a throw in after beating Davies to the ball. Davies was also unable to use skill on the ball to find openings, and didn’t do much to keep possession all night in a match where that skill was essential to DC United getting back in the game. Davies was visibly frustrated by the time he was taken off by Ben Olsen, and rightly so: it was a poor night for the young American forward. While some of this criticism might seem harsh given the small sample size—remember that the world of international soccer is unforgiving and as writers we should be too. Ream and Marquez are precisely the type of central defenders Davies will have to deal with to get back to being a solid national team contributor or starter, and in his first test against that level of competition, he failed. This isn’t to say that he will continue to fail, but it does suggest that USMNT fans clamoring for his Gold Cup inclusion might want to tap the brakes a bit. It is possible that Davies will continue to improve and his comeback will see him reach pre-accident levels. At the same time, it is possible that he will never again have the same “second-level” explosion and that he will never again be a starter-level international talent. That’s the harsh reality of the accident, especially when coupled with the cardiofitness limitations every striker faces when they reach 25 or so years old. For those that doubt that—just look at the drop off in Fernando Torres’ play. The baseline fact is that strikers tend to peak early and decline early—and Davies surrendered nearly two peak years in the wake of his horrific accident. There’s no guarantee he’ll ever be the same—and Thursday night serves as a grim reminder of that harsh truth.
On the bright side, it also serves as further validation of the class of Tim Ream, who, like Agudelo, is a guy benefitting from his time with a legend, and one who seems fully aware of the impact the training sessions and matches with Marquez are having on his game. Unlike Charlie Davies, it is no longer a question of whether or not Tim Ream will make the Gold Cup roster—it is simply a matter of whether he can beat out longtime starter Oguchi Onyewu, or the quiet but effective Clarence Goodson for a starting job. Depending on how Bob Bradley deploys the Captain this summer, Ream could play ninety minutes throughout the tournament, and maybe he should.
The Red Bulls-DC United match was certainly intriguing, but there are a couple of other subplots and stories in MLS worth noting. Notably, one could argue it is gut check time for a trio of clubs: Sporting KC, the San Jose Earthquakes, and surprisingly, MLS Cup finalists FC Dallas.
Granted, the MLS season isn’t even a third of the way finished, and given the MLS user-friendly playoff structure, the old baseball adage that “you don’t win anything in April” applies. Thing is, the flip side of that old baseball lesson applies equally: “you sure can lose it in April,” and the Sporting KC, the Earthquakes, and shockingly, FC Dallas, should all sense a bit of danger.
Let’s start with San Jose, who thanks to MLS’ forgiving playoff structure, were a bad bounce away from playing Cinderella in the MLS Cup final last year. Fast forward a few months to May, and with mostly the same group, they sit in last in the West and worse, have garnered only two points in four home matches. That’s reason to panic, especially if Chris Wondlowski can’t get the service he needs to thrive. He’s not going to beat you one-on-one, and even goals like his first touch strike against Chivas (a miserable 2-1 defeat) this weekend will be rare if his teammates don’t find ways to make the final pass in the opposing third. Part of what eased pressure on a rather pedestrian midfield group last year was solid play from former Reading and USMNT man Bobby Convey, who was so good on the left that a few folks suggested Bob Bradley at least give him a look on the national team. After all, Bob had no one but Bornstein there to begin with—it couldn’t hurt, right? This year Bob has looked smart for either not thinking about it or not doing it—as Convey has been miserable. This has meant less width for the Earthquakes in attack, more defenses collapsing on Wondolowski, and a San Jose side that can’t score. This weekend they visit the Union—who are very tough at PPL—and a result would really help right the ship, which is taking on a great deal of water currently.
Sporting KC’s problems, on some level, are less concerning simply because they are waiting on their new park to be ready and were forced to play ten away matches in succession to open the year. That’s a daunting task for any club, and a bit of a stumble out of the gate was to be expected. Still, the club is hemorrhaging goals in defense and after last weekend’s 3-2 loss to New England, you can’t help but feel the team needs to completely overhaul its defense if it wants to make anything of this campaign. Red cards, warranted or no, have been a problem too—and when you are as thin as Sporting KC is in the back, you simply can’t afford to not be able to field your first team central defense duo of Aurelien Collin and Julio Cesar. The bottom line is if KC had a sturdier defense, you’d really think highly of this team given its ability to score goals and the glut of home matches in the middle of the schedule. The key was always going to be not falling off the radar in the first two months, and with a visit to Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls on tap this weekend, things will likely get worse before they get better.
Finally, FC Dallas is a mid-table team right now and worse, one without a rudder after the injury suffered by David Ferreira last weekend on a crunching tackle from Vancouver’s Jonathan leathers. Ferreira went down immediately, clutching his ankle, and x-rays revealed two fractures in the reigning MLS MVP’s right ankle. It should be noted that no card or foul was called on the tackle, and both camps are denying that the tackle was malicious or even late—but the impact is the same: it leaves a Dallas side playing only “okay” to this point in the year without its creative engine and heartbeat in the midfield. Eric Avila is likely to take Ferriera’s place in the attacking midfielder’s spot, but he’s never been a starter and certainly can’t handle the demands of running the Dallas attack that Ferriera doubtlessly does for Schellas Hyndman’s side. What seems more likely, then, is that Dallas will switch to a 4-4-2 attack to utilize its reasonably sound depth so essential to last year’s Finals run, and either Milton Rodriguez or Ruben Luna will be inserted into the starting eleven. That will take some getting used to—and given Dallas’ stable but not sexy position in the table, Hoops supporters will certainly hope it gels quickly, given the lengthy amount of time the league MVP will be on the sideline.
That’s all for this week—but expect more on MLS injuries tomorrow from Andrew Villegas.