Can Union and Crew keep it together?
Before the 2011 MLS season began you probably would have your fair share of folks who would have pegged the Los Angeles Galaxy to be in first place in the Western Conference at the All-Star Break.
The list of people who would have had the Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew leading the East at the same point would have been much shorter.
Nevertheless, there the Union and Crew stand, tied for first place in the Eastern Conference ahead of the underachieving New York Red Bulls, who sit a point behind them despite having played four more games than Philadelphia and two more games than the Crew.
Both Philly and Columbus sit well behind the top powers in the Western Conference in terms of points, but their first-half success this season is no less impressive.
In the case of Philadelphia, the Union has made the smooth transition from struggling expansion side to cohesive second-year unit and Peter Nowak’s infusion of talented veterans has catapulted the Union to the top of the East.
It’s tough to find an addition that hasn’t panned out for the Union. Colombians Carlos Valdes and Faryd Mondragon have been among the best in MLS, Brian Carroll has provided a steady force in central midfield and striker Carlos Ruiz has shown several glimpses of the talented striker who led the Los Angeles Galaxy to the 2002 MLS Cup title.
Those additions, coupled with the improvement of Sheanon Williams and depth provided by the likes of brothers Gabriel and Michael Farfan, as well as Keon Daniel, has made the Union a deep team and an experienced team that is far tougher than the squad that meandered through its rookie season.
Philadelphia’s improvement could have been foreshadowed much more easily than the Crew’s could have. Columbus looked destined to fall apart after dispatching a handful of key veterans, including former MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto, former captain Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll and Gino Padula.
When the Crew made only a few additions in the offseason, most notably Jeff Cunningham and Sebastian Miranda, Columbus seemed destined to struggle with only a promising rookie class to lean on.
What Robert Warzycha has done since has been one of the best coaching jobs in MLS. He picked up Julius James to partner with Chad Marshall, giving the Crew a strong central defense unit. Marshall has looked as close to his previous MLS Defender of the Year as he has in two years.
Chad Marshall's impressive form has been the foundation for Columbus's surge in the East. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Almost as impressive as Marshall’s form has been the play of goalkeeper Will Hesmer. As much as the league’s elite’s goalkeepers, Mondragon, Kevin Hartman and Nick Rimando, grab most of the headlines, Hesmer has been as important to his team’s success as any netminder in the league.
While Marshall, Hesmer and midfielder Eddie Gaven have enjoyed some of the better seasons of their careers, and Peruvian striker Andres Mendoza the contributions of a deep and strong rookie class have helped provide the team with the depth lost by the mass exodus in the off-season. Rich Balchan has quietly been one of the better rookies in the league, while attacking players Justin Meram and Bernardo Anor have begun to play larger roles.
What the Union and Crew have done well is play consistent defense that keeps them in every game, even when their offenses have struggled to generate goals. The result has been two teams at the top of the East despite neither boasting attacks that could be regarded among the league’s most dangerous.
Can Philadelphia and Columbus keep this pace as we hit the final third of the season? For Columbus, the challenge will be greater because its offense isn’t likely to do much better than its 22 goals in 21 games rate unless the Crew adds some attacking personnel. That said, if the defense continues to stifle opponents, and the rookies keep improving, Columbus will stand a good chance of securing a top two finish in the East.
The Union look like the much better bet to wind up winning the East. What we saw in the team’s recent friendlies against Everton and Real Madrid is a squad that is both deep and disciplined enough to keep putting up results.
The New York Red Bulls came into the season expected to run away with the Eastern Conference, but with them looking like a vulnerable team due to a lack of depth and aging squad battling injuries, the Union heads into the final third of the 2011 regular season as the favorite to win the East and secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The MLS playoffs are still more than two months away though. There is still time for the Red Bulls to straighten themselves out, but if they don’t, we could see the surprising duo of Philadelphia and Columbus continue to top the East. Few could have seen that coming when the season began, but the surprise is quickly wearing off.
Spencer squashes Cooper rumors
Portland’s trade with Houston last week that sent Adam Moffat and an allocation to the Dynamo for Lovel Palmer and Mike Chabala didn’t register big headlines, but it was the player who was reportedly almost involved in that trade that drew the most interest.
Reports suggested that Timbers striker Kenny Cooper was almost dealt to Houston, and rumors have circulated for some time suggesting that Portland is shopping Cooper. Timbers head coach John Spencer shot down the notion that Cooper was being shopped, or that he was almost traded.
“If somebody makes an offer that blows you away and makes it that you can’t turn it down, most players in the world, let alone Major League Soccer, have a price,” Spencer said. “I spoke with Kenny for an hour in Columbus, just chatting about what we expect from him, and had a really good chat.
“We can’t control rumors that are out there,” Said Spencer, who denied that Cooper was nearly dealt to the Dynamo. “Kenny’s still part of our squad. We’ve brought him in to score goals, we’d like him to score, and he’s going to work hard in the second half of the season to do that for us.”
Spencer acknowledged there was serious interest in Cooper from multiple suitors, but that the Timbers weren’t the ones trying to unload Cooper.
“I could never fault Kenny Cooper’s work rate, his work ethic or his professionalism,” Spencer said. “If I wanted to trade Kenny Cooper then Kenny Cooper would be traded away right now.
“The bottom line is there were five teams that were desperate to get him, and we were like, “No, we’re not ready to do that”,” Spencer said. “There’s always teams making calls for quality players who maybe aren’t doing well, trying to get them on the cheap.”
Montreal’s leading head coach candidate emerges
The Montreal Impact will be Major League Soccer’s 19th team and while there has been little news about the team in recent months, details about the team’s coaching search have begun to surface.
Multiple sources have told me that Montreal has made Carolina RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie their top target to become the team’s first MLS head coach, with one source suggesting Rennie has already been offered the job.
Rennie is leading a Carolina team that is currently leading the NASL and the 36-year-old Scottish manager has developed a reputation as one of the most promising young coaching talents in American soccer.
I revealed the Montreal-Rennie link last Friday on Twitter, and when reporters in Carolina approached Rennie about that link, he didn’t confirm, but didn’t exactly deny it.
“I don’t make comments on things like that because it’s just really speculation,” Rennie told IndyWeek.com. “I’ve always thought about coaching at the highest level in the future, and at some point I want to do that.
“And, I’ve had people over the years that I’ve been here talk to me about other opportunities. But, I don’t think it’s ever fair to comment on anything like that because it’s not fair to the other team or our team.”
Rennie is in the final year of his contract with Carolina, and could be hard-pressed to pass on an expansion head coaching job, and the chance to build his own squad from scratch, but if he is weighing the Montreal offer you could see him struggling with a decision that would see him leave the RailHawks in the middle of an extremely successful season.
Montreal isn’t likely to wait too much longer. With the 2012 season looming, the Impact need a coach in place quickly so they can start scouting the American college scene and begin working the international transfer market. Waiting for Rennie to finish his season with the RailHawks doesn’t seem like something Montreal could really afford to do.
Sanna Nyassi's three goals against New York propelled him to Player of the Week honors. (Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Player of the Week
Colorado’s Sanna Nyassi earned the nod this week after destroying the New York Red Bulls defense for a shocking hat-trick in a 4-1 Rapids victory last Wednesday. He followed that surprising performance with another promising effort in Saturday’s 2-2 draw against New England, drawing a penalty for Colorado’s first goal.
Nyassi beat out Chivas USA’s Justin Braun, Sporting Kansas City’s Kei Kamara and New York’s Thierry Henry for the honors.
Rookie of the Week
New England midfielder Stephen McCarthy was the week’s top MLS rookie after making an impact in both of the Revs matches. He headed home the game-winning goal in New England’s 1-0 victory against D.C. United last Wednesday, then assisted on the Revs’ opening goal in their 2-2 vs. Colorado.
McCarthy beat out teammate A.J. Soares and Sporting Kansas City’s C.J. Sapong for this week’s honors. Philadelphia rookie Michael Farfan deserves mention for his excellent goal in the Union’s 2-1 exhibition loss to Real Madrid.
Team of the Week
The New England Revolution have endured a rough season, but to pull four points from two road games merits consideration as this week’s top MLS team.
The Revs played one of their better games of the season in beating D.C. United, 1-0, at RFK Stadium, then used a 90th-minute Shalrie Joseph penalty kick to escape Colorado with a 2-2 draw.
New England wasn’t the only impressive MLS team this week. FC Dallas also registered four points from two road games, while Chivas USA’s 3-0 thumping of Houston and Sporting Kansas City’s 4-2 win against Toronto FC were also worth efforts.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.