RSL, Sporting KC setting the standard

BY foxsports • April 9, 2012

Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake have both established themselves as the top teams in Major League Soccer and their thoroughly impressive performances in victories this past weekend only served to cement their status as the teams playing the best soccer in MLS.

Sporting KC posted their fifth straight victory, with a comprehensive domination of the struggling LA Galaxy. The 1-0 victory doesn’t do justice to how thoroughly KC controlled a match against an LA side that couldn’t muster a single shot on goal on Saturday.

Real Salt Lake’s 2-0 victory against the Colorado Rapids was just as impressive. The Rapids came into the match with a 3-1 record, and there was some sense that they might be able to challenge an RSL side that hadn’t exactly looked unbeatable in their past two home matches.

Real Salt Lake responded with a masterful display of effective possession and defensive organization. The Rapids mustered just one shot on goal, though it should be noted Colorado came out playing a very defensive style that suggested Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja was hoping to play for a draw.

A blown handball call on RSL’s second goal led to some complaints from the Rapids, but shouldn’t take away from the fact the home side never really looked troubled in posting their fourth win in five matches.

It is just five matches into the season, but both Sporting KC and RSL look very much like teams capable of holding on to the top spots in their conferences. KC has won tough road games while looking unstoppable at Livestrong Sporting Park, while RSL have also looked like road warriors, with a heroic defensive performance by Chivas USA in a 1-0 win at Rio Tinto the only thing keeping RSL from boasting the same perfect record.

Saturday’s results set up an early potential MLS Cup Final preview, with RSL traveling to LiveStrong Park for a can’t-miss encounter next weekend. RSL’s tough backline will look to shut down KC’s dynamic attack, while the Sporting KC’s defense will try to hold yet another team without a shot by stifling RSL’s potent, possession-oriented offense.

Neither team would be considered glamorous in terms of big-ticket international names like Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane. But, Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake are setting the standard in MLS for quality soccer. Their showdown next week will be a testament to smart spending and intelligent drafting.

There are still six months left in the regular season, but next week’s Sporting KC-Real Salt Lake match should go a long way to telling us who the class of MLS really is. As things stand, both teams are leading the short list.

Here is a look back at five key developments from MLS’s Week 5:

GALAXY SLIDE CONTINUES

It was a tough assignment to begin with, but the most disappointing aspect of the LA Galaxy’s 1-0 loss to Sporting KC wasn’t the fact that they lost, but that they looked thoroughly uninspired and rarely threatened KC despite boasting one of the most high-priced attacks in MLS.

Sure, David Beckham was out, but the Galaxy still had Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle and Robbie Keane and still couldn’t manage a single shot on Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Plenty has been made about the Galaxy’s defensive struggles in the absence of Omar Gonzalez, but Saturday offered yet another match where the Galaxy were simply outworked in midfield.

Donovan was just returning from a leg injury, but still looked lethargic, while Buddle continued to struggle and hasn’t looked anywhere near like the player who was co-leader in MLS in goals scored in 2010. Keane showed flashes at times, but without a midfield to generate chances, the Irishman was a relative non-factor.

The Galaxy not only need Beckham back, and playing like 2011 Beckham, but they also need players like Juninho and Buddle to play like they’re expected to play. As long as those players keep playing poorly, the Galaxy will keep struggling to garner results and will only dig an even deeper hole for itself in the Western Conference basement (yes, the Galaxy are in sole possession of last place in the West).

TROUBLE IN TORONTO

When Toronto FC upset the LA Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals last month, there was a real feeling that this just might be a special year for the beleaguered Canadian club.

Four games and four MLS losses later, the good feelings from that Champions League triumph have been replaced by real worries that the team is in for another doomed season.

Toronto FC were simply outplayed by expansion side Montreal, raising some serious questions about where head coach Aron Winter has his team heading, and whether the squad is really capable of turning things around.

There are also rumblings in Toronto of a serious conflict between Winter and TFC Director of Player Development Paul Mariner, which some sources say has been festering for months. It remains unclear just which of the two is in the best position to survive a shake-up if things don’t turn around, but it is growing increasingly unlikely that both men will still be employed by Toronto by the time summer rolls around.

Can Toronto turn things around? A pair of reasonable matchups against Chivas USA and Chicago await. Yet, if Winter can’t get his team to start delivering the type of performances in MLS play that the team has managed in Champions League play, he may not be around to see TFC record their first win of the season.

Sadly for TFC fans, the good vibes generated from the CONCACAF Champions League are looking more like fools gold in a season that is quickly turning sour. The next two weeks will tell us plenty about just how bad things will get, or if the team can turn things around.

EARTHQUAKES KEEP ROLLING

The Vancouver Whitecaps set an MLS record for most minutes without allowing a goal to start the season. But just five minutes after setting that record, the Whitecaps watched the San Jose Earthquakes dismantle their previously impenetrable defense for three goals in a 3-1 Earthquakes win that pushed them into a tie for first place in the West.

The Earthquakes improved to 4-1 with the win, a start few outside northern California could have imagined for a club that struggled so badly in 2011. The team’s early-season success is a product of a defense that is playing miles better than it did last year. The addition of imposing Honduran center back Victory Bernardez has been pivotal, but Frank Yallop’s move to slide in converted fullback Justin Morrow has helped give San Jose a highly-effective center back tandem.

The San Jose midfield has also shown considerable improvement, with Sam Cronin playing some of the best soccer of his career, and Shea Salinas enjoying a bit of a career renaissance.

Saturday’s win against Vancouver, which handed the Whitecaps their first loss of the season, comes on the heels of an equally impressive win in Seattle. Those results should soften any doubts about whether this San Jose start is legitimate, but next week will provide an even better test for the Earthquakes. San Jose will travel cross country to take on the red-hot New York Red Bulls. A win would cement San Jose’s place as a serious playoff contender in the stacked Western Conference, and would prove that Yallop’s revamped squad is the real deal.

COOPER ENJOYING REVIVAL WITH RED BULLS

Kenny Cooper (right) celebrates his second goal against the Columbus Crew with Mehdi Ballouchy. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

When the New York Red Bulls ponied up major allocation money and a 2013 first-round draft pick for Kenny Cooper, the consensus among MLS general managers and coaches was that the Red Bulls had overpaid for a forward the Timbers were desperate to get rid of.

While the Red Bulls might have been able to land Cooper at a cheaper price with some better negotiating, it’s a safe bet general manager Erik Soler is not losing any sleep over that considering how well Cooper has played for the Red Bulls. The former FC Dallas and Portland striker scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season, in New York’s 4-1 thrashing of the Columbus Crew on Saturday.

Cooper has established himself as the perfect complement to Henry, and has capitalized on the void left by the departure of Luke Rodgers (who the Red Bulls were forced to dispose with after he failed to secure a work visa) and the torn meniscus suffered by Juan Agudelo.

Cooper is thriving playing Robin to Henry’s Batman, taking advantage of single coverage and flourishing in a way he never quite did for Portland, where he never did fit in as a target striker.

If Cooper keeps it rolling, the Red Bulls will be a clear-cut challenger to Sporting KC in the East, and it could help Cooper draw interest from abroad. He is in the final year of his MLS contract, and is playing like someone motivated to secure a big payday come 2013.

CHIVAS USA ON THE RISE

When Chivas USA began the 2012 season with a pair of thoroughly forgettable 1-0 home losses, it looked very much like the Goats were doomed for a horrendous year. A pair of improbable road wins in two of the toughest places to play in MLS, has suddenly given the ‘other’ team in Los Angeles some real hope.

Saturday’s 2-1 comeback victory against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field, served notice that this Chivas USA team isn’t just going to make up the numbers in the West. Ryan Smith delivered a pair of beautiful crosses that Portland simply didn’t deal with. Goals from Alejandro Moreno and Nick LaBrocca, gave the Goats their second win in three matches and helped them climb ahead the Western Conference standings.

Chivas USA’s recent surge is made even more impressive by the fact the team has been playing without top striker Juan Pablo Angel, who has been sidelined with a concussion. In Angel’s absence the club has benefited from some encouraging contributions from rookie Casey Townsend and Smith, who made a very good case for becoming a starter on a Chivas USA side that has depended largely on stingy defense and the stellar goalkeeping of Dan Kennedy.

Are the Goats capable of being a serious contender in the stacked West? Perhaps. If Angel returns and can play like the player who closed out 2011 so strongly and if Smith can develop into the dangerous wing threat the team has sorely lacked, Chivas USA just might be able to mount a challenge for a top five place in the West.

That might sound far-fetched, but then again not many people would have predicted that the Goats would be ahead of the Galaxy in the standings after five weeks either.

WEEK'S BEST IN MLS

Player of the Week: Chris Wondolowski. Both Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry could merit consideration, but Wondolowski’s two-goal effort against a previously-impenetrable Vancouver defense helped the Earthquakes improve to 4-1, and gives Wondolowski the nod.

Rookie of the Week: Andrew Wenger. The No. 1 pick in the MLS Draft flashed the skill that made Montreal take him first overall, beating veteran TFC defender Ty Harden with ease to finish off the eventual game-winning goal in Montreal’s 2-1 victory against Toronto FC on Saturday.

Team of the Week: Real Salt Lake. Playing two games in four days was no problem for RSL, which posted a pair of shutout victories against Montreal and Colorado to move into first place in the Western Conference.

Comeback of the week: Chivas USA. The Goats overcame a defensive miscue in the first half that put them in a 1-0 hole to knock off Portland, 2-1, at Jeld-Wen Field. Ryan Smith set up both goals for a Chivas USA side that has suddenly won two straight on the road.


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