RSL's win should put MLS on notice
If the opening weekend of the 2012 MLS season was supposed to be the kickoff to the LA Galaxy’s coronation as kings of Major League Soccer, nobody told Real Salt Lake.
Lost in the off-season buzz about the Galaxy’s construction of a juggernaut capable of winning every trophy being contested in North America this year was the fact that Real Salt Lake was still around. Still boasting a nucleus as strong as any in MLS, it was easy to cast RSL as a role player in the movie of LA’s inevitable domination: especially since the last time we saw Real Salt Lake, they were being eliminated from the playoffs by the Galaxy.
Just four months later, RSL returned to Home Depot Center and, despite having several key players out of the starting lineup due to injury, out-classed the Galaxy on their way to a 3-1 victory. As much as the opening RSL goal came courtesy of a fluky own goal, and as much as RSL’s final goal came as the Galaxy pressed for an equalizer, there was still no denying that RSL had played the better soccer and looked more like champions than the defending champions did.
To be fair, the Galaxy’s gripe after the match about scheduling and fatigue were legitimate. The Galaxy played a mid-week Champions League quarterfinal on artificial turf in Toronto. You’re talking considerable fatigue factors when you consider travel, playing in an intense match, and the added wear and tear of playing on turf. For an older team like the Galaxy, that was always going to be a recipe for a tired performance, and that’s just what LA delivered on Saturday.
Whether it was fatigue or something else, the Galaxy defense was a mess on Saturday, and the players who doomed LA weren’t the ones you would expect. Both Sean Franklin and A.J. DeLaGarza factored in RSL goals, one courtesy of an awful Franklin own goal, and the other when DeLaGarza was abused by Fabian Espindola on RSL’s third goal.
There was already concern about how LA would replace injured star Omar Gonzalez in central defense, and whether the likes of Andrew Boyens and Tommy Meyer could really be capable fill-ins. But if established veterans like DeLaGarza and Franklin can’t be called on to step up, then the Galaxy will be in even more trouble than anyone could have imagined.
All that said, Bruce Arena was ultimately right to blame himself for his team’s loss. As much as the schedule did LA no favors, it was Arena who chose to make only two changes to his squad from the lineup that faced Toronto FC at mid-week. He had other options on the bench to give some top players a rest, such as Michael Stephens, Chad Barrett and Paolo Cardozo.
Conversely, Jason Kreis was able to bring in a pair of his best players, Javier Morales and Alvaro Saborio, off the bench who had been nursing injuries. They helped spark the late rally that propelled RSL, while LA faded. Quite simply, Kreis showed faith in his bench, with the likes of Sebastian Velasquez and a reserve player, Paulo Jr, providing dividends to moves Arena could have made but didn’t.
Did Arena feel compelled to start with a close-to-full-strength team in his team’s MLS home opener? Ultimately that decision didn’t make much sense considering the CONCACAF Champions League is supposed to be such a high priority for the Galaxy this year. Now, not only did the Galaxy start their season with a home loss, the team’s first since the 2010 MLS playoffs, but now they will be fighting fatigue in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal series against a Toronto FC side that had the luxury of being off last weekend.
Don’t go pressing the panic button on the Galaxy just yet. They are still the most stacked team in MLS and still the favorites to lift the MLS Cup trophy come November. While that may be true, Saturday certainly served as a reminder that repeating as champions won’t come easy for the Galaxy. It also served as a reminder that Real Salt Lake belong in any conversation about championship contenders.
NEWCOMERS SHINE IN WEEK ONE
Opening weekend can often feel like Christmas for MLS fans, and several of them were treated to exciting presents in the form of new players for their clubs.
Kris Boyd made an impressive debut for Portland Timbers. (Photo by Don Ryan/Getty Images)
Several top newcomers impressed in their debuts around the league, including Portland striker Kris Boyd, FC Dallas striker Blas Perez and San Jose defender Victor Bernardez.
There may not have been a team that enjoyed a better pair of debuts by newcomers than Vancouver. The Whitecaps had one of the worst defenses in the league in 2011, but posted a shutout in their opener thanks to the work of newcomers Martin Bonjour and Lee Young-Pyo. While the shutout did come against an expansion Montreal Impact side, the Whitecaps’ overall defensive performance is a promising start.
Not all newcomers delivered inspiring performances in week one. Philadelphia’s new left back, Porfirio Lopez, was thoroughly abused in the Union’s loss to Portland. D.C. United striker and Designated Player Hamdi Salihi failed to deliver a single shot on goal in United’s loss to Sporting Kansas City.
MLS WEEK ONE OBSERVATIONS
Whitecaps 2, Impact 0
If Matteo Ferrari was supposed to be the answer at center back for Montreal, then Jesse Marsch might want to re-consider the question. To the surprise of no one, it looked evident that the Impact need a marquee forward. Davide Chiumiento is in for a big season, and Sebastien Le Toux looks like a player eager to prove something.
Rapids 2, Crew 0
Jaime Castrillon looked very smooth and should have a good year once he settles in with the Rapids. The Crew’s new playmaker, Milovan Mirosevic, wasn’t quite as impressive. Columbus looked much better when Olman Vargas came in to give the Crew two forwards, but that might have had something to do with the removal of Tony Tchani, who was invisible in midfield.
D.C. United 0, Sporting Kansas City 1
Bill Hamid was outstanding for D.C., but United’s defense looked as shaky as it did last year. It was surprising to see C.J. Sapong coming off the bench, but between his game-winning goal and Teal Bunbury’s departure for Olympic qualifying, Sapong should grab the starting job for good.
Earthquakes 1, Revolution 0
Victor Bernardez was a beast in central defense for the Earthquakes. Shea Salinas might be finally ready to break out and be a difference maker. The Revs need Jose Moreno to show up as soon as possible. They sorely need forward help.
Sebastian Velasquez (right) and Chris Wingert challenge Galaxy's Landon Donovan. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
LA Galaxy 1, Real Salt Lake 3
Sebastien Velasquez didn’t play like a rookie fresh out of junior college. He looks like he could be a real steal. Chris Schuler was steady playing in place of Nat Borchers and remains the best center back in MLS without a regular starting job. How did David Beckham not get a yellow card? He was practically begging Kevin Stott for one. Tommy Meyer probably won’t want to remember his pro debut, but he was actually not at fault for any of the RSL goals.
FC Dallas 2, Red Bulls 1
Blas Perez looked as good as you would have expected him to look, but Ricardo Villar was the real surprise for Dallas. Another newcomer who impressed was Hernan Pertuz, who may just keep George John on the bench for a while. Considering how disappointing the wide midfielders were for New York, how long before Hans Backe puts Juan Agudelo on the wing?
Chivas USA 0, Dynamo 1
The Goats don’t look any better than the team that missed last year’s playoffs. They look worse, and if not for Dan Kennedy, Chivas USA might have been blown out. Will Bruin put a good step forward in his quest to be Brian Ching’s scoring partner, but he’ll need to finish when he gets as many chances as he did Sunday. Geoff Cameron looks smooth as ever at center back, but Andre Hainault was impeccable even before he scored the game winner.
Timbers 3, Union 1
Kris Boyd is as good as advertised and Kalif Alhassan remains the best winger people in MLS never seem to talk about. That could start changing soon. Andrew Jean-Baptiste showed some promise in his pro debut. Porfirio Lopez had an awful MLS debut, but in fairness he isn't the first MLS defender Alhassan has made look foolish. Lionard Pajoy works hard, but neither he nor Josue Martinez is making anybody forget Sebastien Le Toux.