Monday, August 22, 2011

The MLS Grinder: Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Game of the Week
LA Galaxy 2, San Jose 0

Forget for a moment that this was the California Clasico. It was easy enough in the moment, anyway. Certainly by the 21st minute on Saturday night, the subtext had become the 31-year-old Irishman who'd flashed into MLS in the thick of the night. And then this happened and we all rethought how dominant we'd imagined the Galaxy to be. Things, to put it mildly, are different now.

This is a worst nightmare scenario for LA's opposition. David Beckham linking up with a competent, nay, a supremely competent forward has been more of an expectation than a reality since his introduction to the league. In a worrying sign for the rest of MLS, Beckham has a forward-seeking target now with whom he shares something of a bond. This is bad news for the West especially. It may have been San Jose's back four, but does Angel, Barrett or Cristman pull that off? Defense rests.

That Beckham and Keane should share some sort of preternatural bond is not entirely surprising. The two have formed such EPL muscle memory that a sort of shared relative soccer sense is only natural. It is not rocket science, this level of connective tissue. Keane and Beckham are two talented variables with a shared past inserted into an ordered system. It's almost elementary. But it works, which is what will excite Bruce Arena and, perhaps more than anybody, Landon Donovan. No longer does Donovan need to watch his elegant runs into the box end with failed, clunky touches from a Cristman or a Barrett. Nor will he feel an overriding sense to do too much. Much like he does with the Nats, Donovan can now complement the talent on the field instead of attempting to overpower it, which has never been his game. Donovan is a goal-scorer, but he's at his best when the danger is his unpredictability. With a target man making runs from the back of the box like Keane loves to do, Donovan is in winger heaven. So imagine how a sniper like Beckham feels. Christmas in August.

I've been critical of Adam Cristman in the past, a stance I share with no small number of Galaxy supporters and MLS fans alike. But a move like this, where he can pair with somebody like Keane, will allow the big 26-year old a level of freedom he's not yet experienced. He had a brief moment of clarity on Saturday when he stuttered on a run and then burst forward toward the corner of the six-yard box before uncorking a left-footed sidewinder that bruised the opposite post. With Keane's purchase, LA might have bought a new lease on not one, but two strikers.

I do not want to overstate Keane's role, but his calmness in the area (Jon Busch would like his dignity back) and clinical finishing ability up top is something that can very easily push the Galaxy into a stratosphere that will be notably hard even for the closest tier to reach. Arena's troop was quite comfortable playing through the midfield before, but with Keane providing a third strata to the game (imagine how dizzying this group would be if a fit Donovan Ricketts was between the wickets) there is little doubt that should LA rise beyond the Western powers in the playoffs, the East will provide little resistance. Until New York straightens out of its slow tailspin and provides the counterbalance we all figured they would, the Galaxy just became one of the heaviest MLS Cup favorites in league history.

And what an awesome goal celebration. Note to EA Sports: put this in FIFA 12.

Best of the Best

- We start our tour of impressive youngsters with a pair of tidy goals from 17-year old Luis Gil (two goals in seven starts now) and Houston's homegrown rookie Alex Dixon. A lot to talk about from this game as well. Amid the fanfare of Robbie Keane's transfer, Carlos Costly quietly slipped into Houston's XI this week. For the USMNT fans among us who've watched him with Honduras, Costly's immediate impact wasn't exactly a surprise. Very impressive pickup for the Giant Oranges (hoping that one sticks). And is there a more under appreciated player in the league than the Dynamo's Brad Davis? He added two more silky assists to his tally Saturday to plump up his total to a league-leading 13. With all apologies to David Beckham, nobody in MLS is better right now at unlocking defenses.

Gil's header to put RSL up 2-1 is at 5:50. Dixon's game-winning left-footed blast into the opposite corner in stoppage time is at 7:20.

- MLS opened the lid on new DP regulations this week. It was obvious to everyone involved that the DP system skewed toward older players in the twilight of their careers. That has been the case since the league's inception. At present, the league has 23 designated players. Only six are 25 or younger, and FC Dallas' Fabian Castillo, at 19, is the only player in the coveted developmental age range.

My take is that it is a step in the correct direction, but it is only a step. Incentivizing youth movement is a worthy aim, and lessening the financial blow is an easy way to do that, but ultimately the onus falls on coaching staffs to bear the majority of the burden. I'll point you toward Jason Kreis' wooing of Fabian Espindola in 2007. It was more a matter of Kreis' intensity of purpose during their meeting over dinner one night in Buenos Aires than Dave Checketts' ability to write a check. This will continue to be true as long as players take their cues from coaches. Removing roadblocks, however small, will continue to bring legitimacy to the system. But the league's most tangible gains will be made on the field, not in the boardroom.

- Maybe all JPA needed was a change of scenery after all. Even if that scenery was... well, the same exact home address.

- Special shout-out to the Fire, who broke the league record for draws in a season with 15 earlier this week. And then they snapped a 10-game winless streak with a 2-0 victory over TFC this weekend. Chicago is in such a unique position that they can honestly boast, based on head-to-head results, they are no better or worse than a large portion of the league. Unfortunately, that caveat still gets you seventh place in a weakened Eastern Conference.

- This was a beaut. Is second-place SKC suddenly loaded down with attacking talent or what?

Worst of the Worst

- Colorado's sudden and inexplicable upswing in recent weeks has come despite the mid-July season-ending injury to Connor Casey. But this will not satisfy the natives. Pablo Mastroeni likened Colorado's 2-2 home draw with Chivas USA to a "5-0 loss." We'll have to gauge the CCL impact on Colorado's league form in the coming weeks. After fighting back from two deficits to win their midweek Champions League match, Colorado suffered a late lapse and let a second-best Chivas team equalize for good in the 69th minute. It has happened before that inexperienced international sides suffer the weekend malaise after rollercoaster midweek matches. The Rapids will have to be on guard.

- Without George John, whose Blackburn saga threatens to rip the heart out of the Hoops' back line, FCD was already pulled taut in an eventual 1-0 loss to the Sounders. But then right back Zach Loyd went down with a hamstring injury, which forced on 22-year old Jeremy Hall, a former Maryland All-American. Hall, you'll note, joined FCD from the Timbers on Friday. Many saw the acquisition as Schellas Hyndman girding for John's impending move.

John will return from his red card, though for how long is anyone's guess. With Blackburn whipping out the promise of EPL cash and the very real possibility of playing time, John would be foolish to turn down the offer, and Klinsi would be equally as foolish to let John test the waters in Greece should it come to that. But should he be out for any length, losing Loyd is another blow to a back line that needs to remain at least somewhat stable for a run that looks to include both MLS Cup and CCL title aspirations. Surrendering second place to Seattle in one night wasn't an auspicious beginning to what could be the start of the post-John era in Dallas.

- Will Parchman


Matt said...

I think you mean Blackburn, re: John.

Will Parchman said...

Yes indeed, good catch.

Grant said...

Is Mike Bradley going to get to play this year?