NY, Toronto hope for high-risk rewards
The trade winds are blowing in MLS and last week provided truly stunning transactions that kicked off a busy, crazy summer in Major League Soccer.
The New York Red Bulls doubled down on this make-or-break season by trading for French striker Sebastien Le Toux. On the flip side, Toronto FC managed to convince FC Dallas to take high-priced Canadian midfielder Julian de Guzman off their hands in a move that paves the way for much needed defensive help for a desperate TFC side.
New York added Le Toux to complement Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper, which gives the Red Bulls the most formidable attacking trio in the league. With Dane Richards being rendered obsolete by the play of Brandon Barklage (which allowed Jan Gunnar Solli to slide into midfield), and with Richards in the final year of his contract, the Red Bulls shipped the Jamaica international to Vancouver for the chance to rent Le Toux for the remainder of the season.
It was a bold and masterful move by New York, which had hit a dead end in its quest to bring back English forward Luke Rodgers. Now, the addition of Le Toux allows New York to focus their remaining energies on signing an attacking midfielder as a Designated Player.
For some time, the club insisted that it would bring a young, promising prospect rather than an aging international player. This hasn’t stopped rumors linking New York to the likes of Argentine legend Juan Roman Riquelme.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Vancouver unloaded Le Toux, especially with rookie Darren Mattocks looking like a star in the making. With the team already featuring Eric Hassli and Camilo on the roster, Le Toux was virtually a surplus to Vancouver’s requirements. Even with these options, the Whitecaps are still reportedly after Scottish striker Kenny Miller. The former Rangers forward could become reunited with Scotland teammate Barry Robson, who made his Vancouver debut last week.
Meanwhile, Toronto FC discarded de Guzman’s contract by shipping him to Dallas, which frees up a Designate Player slot and needed cap room space the team plans to use to land a high-profile defender. Sources tell FOX Soccer that Swedish defender Olof Mellberg is one of those targets. Toronto is also trying to sign Canadian national team defender Kevin McKenna.
So why is Toronto trying to add two high-priced defenders in what appears to be a lost season? First, TFC is competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, where additions like Mellberg and McKenna could help the team make another deep run. Secondly, the team’s consecutive victories have the team sitting 12 points out of a playoff spot. That might seem insurmountable, but with 15 games to go nothing can be ruled out.
As for FC Dallas, it seemed strange to see one of the worst teams in the league taking on a player with such a huge contract. There might be some long-term thinking at play, with Dallas hoping de Guzman signs a non-DP contract after the season. De Guzman could definitely fill the defensive midfield option Dallas needs to replace Daniel Hernandez, who is winding down his career. The Canadian footballer could form a very formidable partnership with former MLS MVP David Ferreira and could serve as a relative bargain this season.
Every year, around this time, we find out which players are chosen for the MLS All-Star Game, which always means some players don’t make the cut who probably deserve it. Though there weren’t as many glaring snubs this year as in 2011, when Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe made a mockery of the selection process, there were still some head-scratching exclusions and inclusions.
Who are the worst snubs this year? Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum is having an outstanding season, and has single-handedly kept the Crew in playoff contention, but the fervent fan vote in Kansas City helped make Jimmy Nielsen an MLS All-Star pick even though the general consensus is that Gruenebaum and Chivas USA’s Dan Kennedy have been the class of the league at the position.
Jamison Olave was another surprising exclusion from the team. Yes, he probably had his worst game of the season on Saturday night in Real Salt Lake’s 5-0 humbling by San Jose, but RSL’s defense has been dominant when Olave has been in the lineup and you would be hard pressed to find many around the league who honestly believe All-Star selections Heath Pearce and Jay DeMerit (both voted in by fans) have had a better season than Olave.
At forward, All-Star coach Ben Olsen went with Seattle’s Eddie Johnson, who joined the red-hot Chris Wondolowski and Thierry Henry as the all-star forwards (Chris Pontius is listed as a forward, but is more of a wide player than a true forward these days). While you can’t argue against Johnson being in good form, you can question whether Johnson or Henry have really had a better first half of the season than New York forward Kenny Cooper.
Yes, Cooper has cooled off after a torrid run (he hasn’t scored in six matches) but he was instrumental in New York’s surprising winning streak earlier in the season while playing without Henry. Here is a good stat for you. Seattle is 3-2-2 when Johnson has scored this season, New York is 3-1-1 when Henry scores and 6-1-2 when Cooper scores.
Henry’s selection isn’t going to surprise anybody because the reality is he is the league’s second-biggest star behind David Beckham, but anyone who actually thinks he is having an all-star season isn’t really paying close attention. He is tied for fourth in MLS in goals with nine, but seven of those came in one three-game stretch against teams missing key defensive players.
Ultimately it came down to Olsen choosing Johnson over Cooper and from a hot-hand standpoint you can’t ignore that Johnson has scored five in eight matches while Cooper has gone scoreless in his past six, but it certainly does seem odd to see the second-leading scorer in the league, and a player who has been so vital to his team’s results this year, not getting an all-star nod.
In the end, you can certainly argue that since it is just an exhibition match, that the selection process that determines the team shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. That may be true, but what a closer look at snubs and surprise inclusions can do is help people see a clearer picture of which players truly are deserving of being honored for their play in the first half of the MLS season.
THIS WEEK'S BEST IN MLS
Player of the Week: Chris Wondolowski. The San Jose striker notched a hat-trick in the Earthquakes' 5-0 destruction of Real Salt Lake on Saturday, giving him an astonishing 17 goals on the season. He is on pace to break the MLS single-season record for goals, 27 by Roy Lassiter. That is a figure that was long considered untouchable, but with Wondolowski playing at his current level, it is certainly within reach.
Team of the Week: Sporting Kansas City. While Toronto FC certainly deserves consideration after posting a two-win week, including a victory at New England, Sporting KC is the MLS Team of the Week after posting two shutout victories on the road, including one that booked their place in the U.S. Open Cup Final. The KC defense was outstanding in wins against Philadelphia and Columbus, the second win helping Sporting KC grab sole possession of first place in the East.
Rookie of the Week: Luis Silva. The Toronto FC rookie scored goals in both TFC wins, including the game-winner in a 1-0 road win against New England. One of three Toronto players arrested in Houston earlier in the month, Silva has shaken off that distraction to show the skills that made him such a highly-regarded prospect in the 2012 MLS Draft.