Sounders, Sporting KC raise MLS’s bar

After opening the MLS season with two dismal weeks, the Eastern Conference came together to serve notice that it just might not be the West’s punching bag after all.

Key wins by New York, New England and Sporting Kansas City against good Western Conference opponents helped provide some respectability after the entire Eastern Conference except for Houston had gone winless against the West in the first two weeks of the season.

New England’s victory against Portland was probably the most surprising. The Revs came in with a defense regarded as one of the weakest in the league, but their back-line and goalkeeper Matt Reis held the high-flying Timbers attack scoreless.

The Columbus Crew didn’t beat a West opponent, but their 2-0 victory against Montreal helped to re-instill some confidence after the club’s season-opening loss to Colorado two weeks ago. The fact that the team’s two most highly-regarded newcomers, Milovan Mirosevic and Olman Vargas, scored their goals bodes well for the team potentially improving an offense that needed upgrading in the off-season.

Here is a look back at five key developments from MLS Week 3:

COLIN CLARK PUTS FOOT SQUARELY IN MOUTH

Colin Clark might have simply been frustrated about his Houston Dynamo suffering their first loss of the season, but he threw himself into some serious hot water after hurling a homophobic slur at a ball boy during the Dynamo’s 2-0 loss to Seattle at CenturyLink Field on Friday.

Clark’s comment may have gone unnoticed in a raucous stadium if not for the presence of a high-powered broadcasting microphone nearby, but it was heard loudly and clearly on a national television broadcast. The Dynamo midfielder must have known the mess he made as he took to Twitter that same night and offered up a string of apologies.

The incident will and must draw a decision from MLS on how to punish Clark for such an embarrassing and unacceptable outburst. The NBA has wielded fines at players for similar incidents, but as a league still trying to establish itself in the national landscape, MLS cannot afford to look soft on the issues of prejudice and hate.

A one or two-game suspension and a sizable fine are warranted, and would send the right message to MLS fans and players that such behavior is simply unacceptable.

COLIN CLARK PUTS FOOT SQUARELY IN MOUTH

The most expensive team in MLS finally played up to its price tag on Sunday as Thierry Henry led the Red Bulls to a dominating 4-1 destruction of the Colorado Rapids. The victory was New York’s first of the season, and gave the Rapids their first loss of the 2012 campaign.

As impressive as Henry’s performance was, it was the solid games played by Wilman Conde, Kenny Cooper and Rafa Marquez that has to have Red Bulls fans feeling extremely optimistic. Conde looked like the defender who was once an MLS Best XI selection, dominating the back-line with athleticism and technical skill. Marquez played like a Designated Player, providing class in midfield and covering tons of ground, with only a late mistake after the match was already decided keeping him from a flawless effort.

Then there was Cooper, who flourished playing alongside Henry. New York head coach Hans Backe had chosen to keep Cooper out of the starting lineup in the team’s season-opening losses, but the big forward provided a very strong argument for staying in the lineup. That’s a relief for the Red Bulls because with Juan Agudelo sidelined for six weeks with a torn meniscus, and with Luke Rodgers still unavailable until he sorts out his visa issues, Backe will have no choice but to start Cooper.

 

Sunday’s victory could be the start of a strong stretch for the Red Bulls, who face a relatively easy stretch of games in the coming month. Match-ups against Montreal, Columbus, San Jose, D.C. United and New England should help the team recover from its 0-2 start and could help New York make a run at East leaders Sporting Kansas City and Houston.

CHIVAS USA PULLS A SHOCKER

It looked like an inevitable blowout. The league’s strongest team against what many considered to be the league’s weakest, playing in one of the better home environments in the league. Chivas USA didn’t stick to the script though, putting in a masterful defensive performance in shutting down RSL and handing them a 1-0 loss, RSL’s first loss of the season.

Chivas USA did a tremendous job of neutralizing Real Salt Lake’s high-tempo attack, and goalkeeper Dan Kennedy stepped up with a pair of world-class saves when called on. It was the kind of confidence-building performance the Goats desperately needed after suffering a pair of home shutout losses.

The defeat put a dent in RSL’s claims to being the best team in MLS, but the club should respond well. Some hiccups were to be expected as the team re-introduces some injured starters to the lineup, but it is safe to keep Real Salt Lake on the short list of true MLS title contenders.

UNION SLIDE CONTINUES

One team that is looking like anything but a title contender is the Philadelphia Union, which now stands as the lone 0-3 team in MLS and heads into a high-profile showdown against unbeaten Vancouver next week.

The Union figured to have some growing pains after parting with veteran standouts Sebastien LeToux and Faryd Mondragon, but the inability of the team’s many new faces to come together has put Philadelphia in a serious hole to start the season.

Chief among Philadelphia’s problems is an anemic offense that has created some chances, but simply hasn’t finished enough of them. The Union have two goals in three matches and have sorely lacked a reliable goal scorer. A development that is especially painful for Union fans considering the team dealt away a reliable scorer in LeToux, who will make his first trip to PPL Park since the trade when Vancouver comes to town on Saturday.

LeToux’s return will lead to an emotional day for Union fans who adored him, and who are growing more and more unhappy with Union head coach Peter Nowak. A Union loss to the Whitecaps, and one delivered with LeToux’s help, would put some serious heat on Nowak and the Union.

SOUNDERS, SPORTING KC LOOKING STRONG

Three weeks into the MLS season we have seen two teams establish themselves as the class of their respective conference. Sporting Kansas City was projected to be the top team in the East before the season began, so their 3-0 start is no real surprise, but the beautiful soccer the team is playing is starting to raise the question of whether they might be the best team in the league.

Seattle will make a good argument that they, and not Sporting KC, deserves that label. A pair of resounding home wins has the Sounders looking every bit as dangerous as they were expected to be when the year began, but the surprising emergence of David Estrada has made the Sounders even more dangerous. What might be the most impressive aspect of Seattle’s fast start is that it has come with star playmaker Mauro Rosales sidelined by injury.

The LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake will still have something to say about which MLS club deserves the label of “Best in the League”, but right now Seattle and Sporting KC are setting the bar very high.