Tip Sheet: MLS must fight for limelight as other leagues return

Thierry Henry played a part in one of MLS' most notable moments since the World Cup. MLS will need to conjure other noteworthy events on and off the field down the stretch to keep attention focused on the league.

Susan C. Ragan/Susan Ragan-USA TODAY Sports

The inviting and tempting window afforded to MLS in the wake of the World Cup is rapidly closing. The afterglow of the events in Brazil offered casual fans a chance to sample the league and test out whether the fare warranted their continued attention moving forward.

Several leagues — most notably Liga MX — played during the same period, but none of them boasted the benefit of high-profile American players taking the field for local club teams week after week.

MLS did what it could to seize upon the initiative and take advantage of the opening before the overwhelming onset of football season and start of the Premier League campaign. Houston reached a deal to bring DaMarcus Beasley back home. Seven of his U.S. national team colleagues traveled to Portland for a high-profile, talking-point-laden victory over Bayern Munich. Other prominent clubs visited these shores to prepare for their seasons. Landon Donovan declared his intention to step away from the game at the end of the season. Transfer winds swirled around the league with the fates of Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones and DeAndre Yedlin attracting particular attention. 

Those events created buzz and interest around the league at a critical time. There were reasons beyond the on-field fare to entice people to delve into league affairs. Those sidelines — like it or not — represent an important component of growth because they elicit reactions and spark discussions to create broader connections.

On that account, there were a few missed opportunities along the way. The transfer window yielded some prominent signings like Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa, but most of the work involved the 2015 expansion sides and temporary loan deals to other clubs over the next few months. Diskerud rejected a chance to join the league after nearly reaching a deal with Columbus, while Jones wrangled with MLS about contractual terms without reaching a satisfactory conclusion as of Friday. Yedlin’s deal with Tottenham Hotspur offered a notable riposte with the perfect blend of intrigue and end product leading to his continued presence with Seattle over the next few months, but there is still a nagging sense that more expansive work might have helped the cause even more.

Most of the focus now shifts away from those factors toward toward the practical concerns ahead with the denouement of the season rapidly approaching. The tense and tight battles for playoff positions rage onward with the added complications created by the CONCACAF Champions League bound to throw a wrench or two in the works. The storylines are more complex to grasp now, but they do present a hook worth tracking in the coming months.

It is down to the players and the proceedings on the field to pick up the burden and pique interest over the long haul. The competition is fierce with other sports returning and European leagues whirring back to life. MLS must fight its way through the crowd to ensure the groundwork laid over the past few months does not go to waste.

Five Points – Week 24

Javier Morales is uncertain to feature against Seattle on Saturday after missing Real Salt Lake training on Friday. 

1. Top-of-the-table clash out West presents opportunity for Real Salt Lake, Seattle: Seattle squandered its considerable advantage with a pair of defeats, but Sounders FC erased any overwrought concerns with a gritty win over Houston on Sunday and a comprehensive victory over Chicago in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals in midweek. The enticing visit to RSL provides a chance for Sounders FC to restore some of its cushion with a victory at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Seattle already boasts two points and two matches in hand over its adversaries. If the Western Conference leaders can secure maximum points, then they would restore the commanding position held only a few weeks ago. RSL — another side with Supporters’ Shield ambitions – could leapfrog Sounders FC by holding serve at home, though the uncertain status of Javier Morales creates some concern.

The onus for the home side lays in the center of the park. RSL must find a way to shunt Seattle into the wide areas and then work quickly to obtain and retain possession. If the home side can maintain its resolve with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins trying to bust straight through the center of the park, then it could procure a result.

2. Will Sporting Kansas City learn its lesson from B.C. Place against Toronto FC?: Sporting manager Peter Vermes warned about the counterattacking prowess of the Whitecaps prior to the 2-0 defeat in British Columbia last weekend, but his side lacked the energy and the cohesiveness in the first half to thwart Vancouver’s work on the break. The chastening defeat offers plenty of impetus for the MLS Cup holders to adjust accordingly against a Reds side more than willing to sit back and wait for the right time to push forward quickly.

Sporting must apply immediate pressure to Michael Bradley in central midfield to choke off the work in transition and track Gilberto and Luke Moore carefully as they work themselves into decent spaces. If Sporting can provide some protection for Jon Kempin (likely to make his first MLS start in goal after a substitute appearance against the Whitecaps) and reduce TFC’s threat over the top (a difficult task, especially if Jermain Defoe is fit enough to play some part as Ryan Nelsen suggested on Friday), then the home side can figure out a way to break through and secure the points.

3. Chicago faces a test of character in Montréal: Fire coach Frank Yallop apologized for the 6-0 demolition at Seattle in the Open Cup semifinal in midweek, but he and his players can offer the perfect reply with a victory over the struggling Impact at Stade Saputo. Yallop tweaked his squad and rested a couple of players accordingly to prepare for this test. His team must now deliver to keep their playoff chase in the congested Eastern Conference on track as the club waits for the recently signed Robert Earnshaw to join the ranks.

4. Vancouver must prove its credentials in Carson: This dynamic group always rises to the occasion against top-tier opponents, but the Whitecaps tend to drop too many points in fixtures they should win. Chivas USA presents awkward opposition given its organization, but the likely absence of Carlos Bocanegra and the utter lack of pace at the back fits supplies an invitation for Vancouver to rebut that particular line of criticism with a full complement of points at the StubHub Center.

5. Portland must vault New England hurdle before lengthy CCL journey: Timbers boss Caleb Porter sounded a note of caution ahead of his team’s date at Gillette Stadium. The home side has lost nine of its past 10 games, but Porter said his outfit must mind its defensive work seriously in order to mitigate the threat presented by a desperate opponent. It is a note worth heeding against a Revs side poised to break quickly when the Timbers concede possession. Portland must use its likely advantage in possession wisely to ensure the first leg of their Portland-Boston-Guyana trek ends with the desired result.