The dawn of yet another FIFA match date leaves MLS clubs at a loss once more this week. Stars will head for the airport to jaunt off to destinations near and far to fulfill their international obligations. Their club managers and teammates must once again pick up the pieces.
It is a particularly difficult time to cope without key starters. The postseason race is winding to a close in the final month of the season. The absence or the omission of one key starter can mean the difference between a positive result and a setback capable of sidetracking those wider ambitions.
Increased stakes require more push and pull between the league, its clubs and the two host federations. USA coach Jürgen Klinsmann named just six MLS players — including the retiring Landon Donovan — to his 21-man squad for the friendly with Ecuador in East Hartford, Conn. on Friday. Most of the burden will fall on LA Galaxy (two players ahead of Sunday’s date with FC Dallas) and Real Salt Lake (two players ahead of Saturday’s visit by San Jose) to tweak accordingly. Canada manager Benito Floro spared Toronto FC and Vancouver from the possible loss of potential linchpins as he cobbled together his squad, too.
Klinsmann and Floro grasp the realities of the situation, though Klinsmann, in particular, has expressed displeasure with the frustrating and ultimately necessary penchant of playing domestic matches through these windows. The concessions made reflect the desire to aid the club sides without hindering their own efforts to build their squads for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Other managers do not necessarily adopt such lenient stances. Tim Cahill (more on him in a minute) needs to join up with his Australian teammates to help the Socceroos prepare for the Asian Cup in January. Robbie Keane must lend his services to the Republic of Ireland for their upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Germany. Several of their colleagues will join their countries for their own assignments regardless of the circumstances with their club teams.
This balancing act requires a deft touch at this point in the season. It is by no means ideal to add yet another factor into the equation as the margins narrow and the stakes increase. The additional strain of another game and another set of travel plans complicates life for the selected players and their affected teams.
It is incumbent on those MLS sides to find a way through nevertheless. This conundrum is neither new nor pleasant. It is a familiar issue with no readily apparent solution. The only difference at this stage: There is little time left to recover if it prompts a misstep along the way.
Five Points – Week 31
1. The curious case of Tim Cahill: New York coach Mike Petke left Cahill out of his starting XI for the 1-0 victory over Houston on Saturday. The decision came in the wake of a report suggesting Petke opted to omit Cahill from his side because the midfielder planned to link up with Australia this week. Petke firmly dismissed the report after the match and pointed to the rather evident notion that the circumstances did not allow for such shortsighted furor.
“The only think I’ll say is that the last 24 hours have been very interesting,” Petke said. “To suggest that a player was not in the lineup because of an international call up is both ridiculous and laughable.”
Cahill settled for a place on the bench with Petke preferring other options to suit his 4-2-3-1 setup. His late cameo ended with an awkward, crunching tackle on Boniek Garcia and a quick red card. The ejection means Cahill will miss the next two matches through international duty and suspension.
2. Jermaine Jones delivers again for New England: Jones popped up with his second winner in two weeks to propel the Revs to a 2-1 victory over Columbus at soggy Gillette Stadium. Jones’ second-half winner — a timely header at the back post from a Chris Tierney free kick – came straight off the training ground to separate the sides on a night when both teams muddled through the poor conditions earnestly in search of the points.
“I think that he’s a danger,” Revolution coach Jay Heaps said. “You need to mark him on free kicks. I thought he did a nice job of getting open.”
3. Jermain Defoe returns for Toronto FC: Defoe played the final half-hour in the Reds’ predictable 3-0 defeat at LA Galaxy on Saturday. His return to the fold after a tumultuous recovery from injury provides TFC with the ideal option to bolster their direct work on the break. It is an option the Reds cannot afford to ignore with a home date against Houston on Wednesday and a vital trip to New York at the weekend.
4. The gulf between the top two and the next two out West is evident: Real Salt Lake (a shocking 1-0 defeat at Chivas USA) and FC Dallas (a rather more predictable 2-0 defeat at Vancouver) spurned their opportunities to strengthen their bid for third place. RSL, in particular, will rue the chance squandered this weekend if it ends up hosting either Portland or Vancouver in the play-in match later this month.
5. Chivas USA escapes the doldrums and leaves two Western Conference foes behind: Wilmer Cabrera’s side ended a 12-match winless streak with the unexpected victory over RSL on Sunday night. Their organization – plus the sharpness to transform a turnover into the winner – lifted them out of a barren stretch. The prudent principles espoused by Chivas USA could prove useful to Colorado (leaky at the back once again in the 4-1 defeat to Seattle on Sunday) and San Jose (undermined by Rodney Wallace and some poor luck in the 2-1 loss to Portland on Saturday) as they attempt to halt their own 11-match barren runs next weekend.