Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things to take away from Week 11:
1. The pause that refreshes: It seems increasingly clear that MLS made the right call to break for two weekends. It's a big step for a league with a conservative history on this matter.
(The break doesn't actually start until the weekend, as MLS will play a little mini-round with four midweek games Wednesday and Thursday. So, in labor terms, this would start as a "work slowdown" that evolves into an outright strike. Either way, just-completed Week 11 was the last full match week until the June 25-26 weekend.)
League officials were always reluctant to pull the trigger on this one, playing straight through World Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2006. And they probably suffered for it.
The worry was always about lengthening the window of play, currently at 31 weeks. Still hesitant to extend it at either end, MLS will sprinkle in a few more midweek matches. Really, that shouldn't be such a biggie for a league that is gradually (and prudently) shedding outdated, family-centric marketing models anyway -- strategies that avoided midweek matches because the kiddos were pressed to come out.
This will serve MLS better in the long run, because it's a real stretch to be relevant during a World Cup. Even now, in the giddy tournament run-up, the relentless World Cup news cycle is pressing MLS, squeezing space internet, newspaper and blog sites generally devoted to the league. And why wouldn't it?
This business with Sacha Kljestan is the perfect example. Ordinarily, the message boards would be alight over the Chivas USA man's seemingly imminent move overseas (to Anderlecht if reports are to be believed). But there's very little buzz over it. (Did you even know that he wasn't at Saturday's match for the Goats?)
And whether the league wants to believe it or not, it really is a drag to watch MLS after watching the game's most celebrated athletes in atmospheres of ultimate tension and delight. Most leagues around the world don't have the same issue, as most league calendars don't clash with World Cups. MLS has reduced its clash factor, and it will serve the league well in the long run.
2. Assessments at the break: As you bid adieu to MLS for a couple of weeks, riddle yourself this: who can challenge L.A.?
The Galaxy just keeps boxing the ears of hapless foes, never mind that Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle are half a world away. Since the two World Cuppers took off, the Galaxy have defeated Dallas and Columbus on the road and clobbered Houston at home over the weekend, 4-1. That result matched a league record with a 12-game unbeaten start.
So, who can derail the Galaxy Express? In the West, Real Salt Lake might have a chance, and we'll know a little more about that when the teams meet this week in Utah. Otherwise, Gary Smith has built a decent little team in Colorado. But given their up and down form and low-scoring ways, we're tempted to file them under "just better than average," until they prove they have the horses to pull away from the field.
Houston? The Dynamo has a real problem in defense right now, especially at the fullback position, where a lack of speed on the flanks is getting exposed. Houston allowed 29, 32 and 23 goals the last three seasons. This year they are on pace to allow almost 44. That won't get it done against a team as well-drilled as the Galaxy.
In the East, only cohesive Columbus seems to have enough juice to stand up to the Western giants. Then again, the Galaxy just raided Crew Stadium to the tune of a 2-0 victory. Plus, Columbus may look like the class of the East, but they've just squeaked by a few times and just don't seem to preside over matches as the Galaxy can.
When we all get back to MLS in a couple of weeks, Arena's team will be holding the high card. Someone else will have to form a hand that can beat them.
3. The yellow card brigade and why coaches pick them: Kansas City's Craig Rocastle is a red card waiting to happen. He's proven as much.
Ditto for Toronto's Nick Garcia (who is also a penalty kick waiting to happen). So the question is this: why do managers keep playing them? At some point, isn't it incumbent on them not to put these bone crunchers out there? Wins and losses aside, if Rocastle injures someone at this point, can anybody claim surprise with a straight face?
But these heavies of hurt do injure their teams competitively, as well. Saturday, both players were shown red. Garcia was first to go for a senseless, cleats-up challenge that left Kei Kamara with a nasty gash. Even if it wasn't outright malicious, showing such little regard for a fellow player's safety is appalling.
And Rocastle? I know he played at Chelsea back in the day, but so what? His last stop before K.C. was at Forest Green Rovers in England's fifth tier! Can he really add anything at all to an MLS match?
(On the other hand, when I turn professional, I want his agent. How Rocastle scored an MLS gig, only K.C. management could say.)
Saturday, Rocastle received an initial yellow that was probably undeserved -- so that was hard luck. Still, Wizards coach Peter Vermes surely recognized the danger. Sure enough, a challenge that could only be called "ridiculous" for someone carrying a card evened the match, thus finishing K.C's chances of picking up three huge points on the road -- and extending the side's winless streak to eight games.
4. First weekend of oppressive heat -- but surely not the last: The Euro snobs may complain that MLS can be a "slow" league. Yes, compared to EPL or some of the heavy weapons division of European soccer, the ball doesn't move as briskly and the players don't move off the ball as fluidly. But here's something else to consider: those other leagues don't normally decide matches in 90-degree weather. Nor do they have a hot summer full of two-and three-hour plane flights.
The year's first weekend of truly oppressive heat socked it to matches in Week 11. It was 87 degrees and fiercely humid at RFK, which surely had something to say about a match that finished scoreless. Conditions were similar in Chicago, where you could have cut the Toyota Park air. It was sunny and 68 in Toronto -- which qualifies as less-than-ideal around the Exhibition Place grounds. Conditions there zapped some zip from the match; TFC coach Preki corroborated afterward. In Dallas, a San Jose team that had played in midweek looked absolutely zonked in temperatures that climbed into the high 90s during the day.
5. The flaky ball: Huffing and puffing about the ball is a time-honored World Cup tradition. Acrimony over a sphere that allegedly darts and dances more than the average reached a crescendo last week, before injuries intervened and became the story du jour once again.
So it may interest everyone to know that MLS has been playing with the very same ball for 11 weeks now. (The same, minus the league-specific markings, that is.) That's not really unique, by the way. Four years back, Major League Soccer was the first professional league to use the World Cup 2006 match ball.
So how's that fancy flier working out for everyone in MLS?
At 2.51 goals per match so far, the rate of scoring is right in line with what MLS has produced over the last few years.
5. Team of the week: Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake); Defenders: Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), Drew Moor (Colorado), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Leo Gonzalez (Seattle).
Midfielders: Michael Stephens (Los Angeles), David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Steve Zakuani (Seattle), Brek Shea (Dallas).
Forwards: Marco Pappa (Chicago), Jovan Kirovski (Los Angeles).